Byron's career is more like a comet than the meteor to which it is usually compared," writes Christopher Hitchens in "The Misfortune of Poetry," his review in the October Atlantic of Fiona MacCarthy's new biography of Lord Byron. "It comes around again and again to be reviewed and revisited, and it has become indissoluble from his work."
Byron was the Romantic movement's most flamboyant figure, a revolutionary spirit who fell into writing because he did not have the temperament for politics, and who gave critics plenty to discuss outside of his poetry. His own epic story included a broken marriage, an alleged affair with his half-sister, a flight to the Mediterranean and the Near East, bisexual promiscuity, an involvement in the Greek revolution, and a gruesome and untimely death. "If modern celebrity has a nineteenth-century ancestor," Hitchens observes, "it is certainly [Byron's] combination of the role of poet with that of man of action." Atlantic articles stretching back over a century chart the efforts of a series of critics to condemn, redeem, or simply understand the legend that was George Gordon Byron.
The dramatic breakup of Byron's marriage to Annabella Milbanke was the scandal that drove him out of England—perhaps a blessing as far as his career was concerned, but an indelible black mark upon his reputation. In 1869, nearly half a century after Byron's passing, the story was dredged up in the pages of The Atlantic, by no less reputable a figure than Harriet Beecher Stowe. "The True Story of Lady Byron" was Stowe's response to a memoir released that year by Byron's mistress, the Countess Guiccioli. In the Countess's version, as Stowe summed it up,
Lord Byron, the hero of the story, is represented as a human being endowed with every natural charm, gift, and grace, who by the one false step of an unsuitable marriage wrecked his whole life. A narrow-minded, cold-hearted precisian, without sufficient intellect to comprehend his genius or heart to feel for his temptations, formed with him one of those mere worldly marriages common in high life, and finding that she could not reduce him to the mathematical proprieties and conventional rules of her own mode of life, suddenly and without warning abandoned him in the most cruel and inexplicable manner.
This depiction of Milbanke was familiar already from several thinly veiled accounts of the marriage in Byron's own verses. In Don Juan he represented himself and his wife as Don Juan's parents, Don Jose and Donna Inez. With a withering description of Donna Inez, Byron justified his own infidelity.
O, she was perfect, past all parallel
Of any modern female saint's comparison;
So far above the cunning powers of hell
Her guardian angel had given up his garrison;
Even her minutest motions went as well
As those of the best time-piece made by Harrison,
In virtues nothing earthly could surpass her
Save thine 'incomparable oil,' Macassar.
Perfect she was, but as perfection is
Insipid in this naughty world of ours,—
Don Jose like a lineal son of Eve
Went plucking various fruits without her leave.
Stowe would have none of it. Lady Byron had been a friend of hers, and when the lady lay on her deathbed in 1856, she had invited Stowe to hear her hitherto unpublicized side of the story—a story that Stowe now felt it her duty to make known. By Milbanke's account, Byron was a vicious, alcoholic madman who tried in every way possible to break his wife's spirit, to destroy her Christian faith, to pressure her to condone his sexual infidelity, and, when he found her to be incorruptible, to drive her away from him.
Lady Byron, the embodiment of patience and grace in Stowe's eyes, excused her husband on the grounds that he was
one of those unfortunately constituted persons in whom the balance of nature is so critically hung that it is always in danger of dipping towards insanity, and that in certain periods of his life he was so far under the influence of mental disorder as not to be fully responsible for his actions.
It was no Uncle Tom's Cabin, but Stowe's article on Lady Byron certainly made waves in the literary community. In 1922, in an article titled "Men, Women and the Byron-Complex," the novelist and critic Katharine Fullerton Gerould blamed Stowe for stirring up a frenzy of Byron-bashing that was still ongoing, more than half a century later. Gerould described Stowe as "your official Byron-hater," contemptible above all for her intention, "in blasting his personal reputation, to destroy his poetical popularity as well." But as Gerould saw it, Stowe's show of moral indignation and of solidarity with her friend was merely a camouflage for an all-too-common affliction: "the Byron-complex." Gerould explained,
The simple fact is this: no woman has ever been able to keep her head about Byron; and now that he is dead, the men seem to be as bad as the women. What other private personality, in our Anglo-Saxon world, has ever been so persistent as this?
Byron's celebrity, or notoriety, had come to overshadow his literary achievements in popular memory and to cloud critical faculties. "In the nonacademic world of letters no one, apparently, either knows or cares whether Byron was a great poet," Gerould wrote. "After a hundred years, the sole question that impassions people is: 'Just how much of a cad was he?'" What was it about him that made his sins so much more inflammatory than those of other, equally dastardly literary figures? It was, quite simply, his personality, Gerould decided. "Byron is so real, so vivid, so persistent, as a human being, that you cannot down him . Byron is not dead . He evokes the same kind of adoration, of contempt, of loyalty, that he would evoke if he walked down Piccadilly to-day." The scandal-mongerers certainly would not succeed in bringing him down, she argued; on the contrary,
Somewhere, the ghost of Byron is mightily amusedand not a little pleased. Byron cared more for the House of Lords than for any Pantheon, one judges; and he would rather be responsible for a Byron-complex a hundred years after his death than to be prescribed reading in every British schoolroom.
One of Byron's chief defenders in the late nineteenth century was Paul Elmer More, an eminent scholar and a founder of the school of literary criticism known as New Humanism. In 1898, encouraged by the appearance of two new editions of Byron's works, More wrote a piece hopefully titled, "The Wholesome Revival of Byron." He complained that while Wordsworth and Shelley had enjoyed much attention in recent years, little was being written about Byron apart from occasional attacks on his character. More regarded the preference among his contemporaries for the other two Romantics as evidence of "an effeminate and oversubtilized taste."
Byron's genius, in More's view, consisted of an extraordinary mixture of "revolutionary spirit and classical art." By "classical" he meant "a certain predominance of intellect over the emotions, and a reliance on broad effects rather than on subtle impressions." Byron was intellectual, not in the manner of a philosopher—More admitted that he was deficient in that regard—but in the impulsive way of a child. This approach gave his poetry the "simplicity and tangibility" that made it timeless.
In his discussion of Byron's flaws, More proved himself a true loyalist. The poet's vices were minor at worst, essential components of his genius at best. For example, Byron's notorious egocentrism, More argued, was inextricable from his humanism.
It is said that Byron could never get outside of himself; and this, to a certain extent, is true. He lacked the dramatic art; but on the other hand, his own human passions were so strong, his life was so vigorous, that from personal experience he was able to accomplish more than most others whose sympathies might be wider.
As for the "immoral" nature of Byron's poetry, More held that "the evil of his work has been much exaggerated," and that, in any case, the "aggressive free-thinking" and sensuality that so shocked the poet's contemporaries would "scarcely do more than elicit a smile" in More's time. Nor did the hit-and-miss quality of Byron's writing diminish him in More's eyes.
He wrote, to use his own words, as the tiger leaps; and if he missed his aim, there was no retrieving the failure. We call this lack of artistic conscience, and so it is; but in these days of pedantic aesthetes, it is refreshing now and again to surrender ourselves to the impulse of untrammeled genius.
Despite More's high hopes for the future of Byron's reputation, an article written nine years later by J.A.F. Pyre expressed disappointment that the Byron "revival" that was supposed to have followed the new editions of 1898 had failed to materialize. In "Byron in Our Day" (April 1907), Pyre pointed out that the majority of critics and scholars in the English-speaking world still looked down their noses at the poet.
Many a literary specialist still smiles, charitably, at the critic who ventures to discuss, au grand sérieux, the claims of so faded a superstition to rational analysis and valuation. He may explain Byron's contemporary power in England and America as an accident of the "Zeitgeist," his continued reign on the continent of Europe as founded on an obsession, not so soon shaken off abroad as at home.
Like More, Pyre combined championship of Byron with an attack on the literary fashion of his own day.
Poetry—contemporary poetry—has ceased to have any sufficient relation to life Rather, we adopt an elegiac tone; we set the seal upon the usefulness of poetry, regretfully owning that the world has changed and that the divinest of the arts has become the trivial pursuit of the esoteric and the delicate voluptuary; the poet is a meaningless ornament of society, "the idle singer of an empty day."
A proper appreciation of Byron in English society would require, therefore, "nothing less than a readjustment of the principles upon which poetry is produced and estimated." For Byron represented above all the connection between poetry and its social context—a connection without which the art of poetry was "doomed to perish." Noting the irony of the fact that Byron had discovered his literary gift largely by accident—he would have preferred a career in politics, but was too "impatient"—Pyre prized him above all for his virility and his passion. He cited a line from one of Byron's letters that seemed to sum up the poet's personal doctrine: "The great object of life is sensation—to feel that we exist—even though in pain."
With regard to Byron's flaws, Pyre was even more forgiving than More. His infidelities and quarrels were a symptom of his fiery temperament: "He was for fanning the coal of life into a blaze." He may have been a weak philosopher and dramatist, but "he would have scorned the proposition that philosophy and scholarship, and art are the most important things in life." Though he lacked wisdom in the conventional sense, "he thought shrewdly, clearly, and with great freedom." Beneath his theatrical manner lay genuine "strength and gallantry." And though he might never be forgiven his treatment of Lady Byron, the separation was crucial to his success: "It shook him to the last fibre, and stimulated, if it did not awaken, his genius."
The popular obsession with Byron's private life clearly influenced readers' perceptions of his literature, and many tended to confuse the poet with his invented heroes. In "Byron and the Byronic" (August 1953), the literary critic Jacques Barzun set out to define the two distinct but overlapping elements of his title, the Byronic "literary attitude" and the life and mind of its creator. Barzun's tone was more dispassionate than that of the earlier Byron defenders, but he, too, believed that common prejudices impeded proper appreciation of the poet.
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, the epic poem that resulted from Byron's two-year tour of the Mediterranean and the Levant, introduced the prototype of the Byronic hero. Arriving during the Napoleonic Wars, when England was suffering from anxiety and claustrophobia in anticipation of an attack, the poem and its adventurous protagonist "came in like a breeze from the open sea," and made Byron famous overnight. As Barzun explained, Byron's heroes from Childe Harold onwards provided literary fulfillment of the longings of repressed young men.
Ennui, as bored and languid youth discovered, is the product of enforced inaction or curbed desire, Byronic heroism is its antidote or vicarious satisfaction. In the eastern tales that follow Childe Harold the hero is no longer a pensive but an active wanderer, a corsair or chieftain, still crime-laden, but redeemed by some daring act of revenge that condemns the corrupt society he has abjured—in a word, the Byronic hero in action is a noble outlaw.
The Byronic hero was not, however, a representation of Byron himself. "I would not be such a fellow as I have made my hero for all the world," the poet insisted. Nor was this heroic type entirely a work of Byron's imagination, Barzun pointed out. Byron was simply the first to dramatize the revolutionary attitudes of his era. In doing so, he created an archetype whose influence transcended time and geography. Among those who claimed to have been affected by the Byronic idea, Barzun listed Goethe, Pushkin, Stendhal, Balzac, Nietzsche, Strindberg, and several others. (And as Hitchens points out in "The Misfortune of Poetry," a number of real-life revolutionaries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Giusseppe Mazzini to Adam Mickiewicz, were likewise inspired by Byron's works.)
As for Byron the man, there was far more to him than can be gleaned from his poetry. The reader seeking to understand him, Barzun counseled, would do best to read his letters.
[They] bring us within his magnetic field of force, which was not, as the Byronic stereotype might suggest, mere agitation and recklessness. It was concentrated mind, and high spirits, wit, daylight good sense, and a passion for truth—in short a unique discharge of intellectual vitality.
In Barzun's view, the real Byron was less "Byronic" than he was aristocratic. In his belief in noblesse oblige, his conviction that deeds were nobler than words, and his fighting spirit, Barzun found a natural chivalry. "He wanted above all to be what his title implied, a lord among men," and was one of "those few influential men of rank who have taken the aristocratic ideal seriously."
The myth that Barzun was most determined to dispel was that of Byron as a tragic figure. On the contrary, Barzun wrote, seen in the light of the honesty, vitality, and nobility that came to light as he matured,
the spectacle of Byron's life is the reverse of a tragedy. Tragedy shows original flaws bringing an acknowledged hero to his downfall. In Byron the original flaws combine to build up a character whom we acknowledge as great in the last act. The flaws are not in the end obliterated, they are transcended.
It seems unlikely, however, that the spectacle of Byron's life will ever transcend the opinions and attentions of his critics.