Byron: The Last Journey, April 1823-April 1824

by Harold Nicolson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1924. xiii+288 pp. $4.00.
FEW and gifted are the biographers whose works vindicate their belief that the best good turn they can do a great man is to be sincere about him. Mr. Nicolson’s place in this small class is high. His Tennyson was a beautifully sincere essay in salvage. So is his Byron. He sees Byron’s life not as ‘ a series of wasted opportunities’ but as ‘a catalogue of false positions,’ none falser than the last, at Missolonghi, where Byron went, foreseeing that he should be detected, exposed, as soon as events forced him to act like a man of action—the most ill-fitting of the many parts for which he had cast himself. Mr. Nicolson is of opinion that “Byron accomplished nothing at Missolonghi except his own suicide,’ and also, that ‘by that single act of heroism he secured the liberation of Greece.’ By sticking to his false position he achieved after his death more than his most extravagant wellwishers had expected of his journey.
It was neither unadulterated enthusiasm for the Greek cause nor a mere desire for power that called Byron away from Genoa in July 1823. His motives were mixed in the most lifelike proportions. By getting into his last false position he got out of several others, each a burden or a nuisance. His real unpopularity with the authorities in more than one Italian city, a mistaken notion that his literary vogue was passing, persecution mania, the terribly irritating presence of the Leigh Hunts, neurasthenia, the need of a decent, if possible of a better than decent, reason for leaving the Countess Guiccioli—Mr. Nicolson enables us to share in his ‘amused understanding’ of this mixture.
‘Amused understanding’ of Byron is Mr. Nicolson’s name for one of the stages Lady Blessington traversed in the course of a month’s stay at Genoa early in 1823. By the end of the month she had arrived at a ‘profound and poignant sympathy.’ It would be misleading to say that Mr. Nicholson’s book traverses these stages. It does not. These qualities pervade it. He is sympathetic when most amused, often amused when most sympathetic, humor being to him a natural mode of understanding an odd and imperfect world, just as wit is to him a natural way of telling the truth about it. He attempts nothing that he does not bring off, whether urbanely damaging characters of Byron’s parasitic and other companions, explanations of the Greek political and military muddle, or superb little Greek landscapes. The only change I wish for is one chapter more, a chapter describing the impression left on English opinion by Byron’s death, and putting together the evidence for this sentence in the preface: ‘Had Byron, as he was urged, deserted the Hellenic cause in February 1824, there would, I feel convinced, have been no Navarino.’ I must admit, however, that such a chapter would not have been biography, nor have bettered our understanding of Byron. And it was in order to make us understand that Mr. Nicolson wrote this solid, light-handed, witty, and profoundly moving book.