Why Poets Rebel

BYRON allures the biographer. A shy exhibitionist, a licentious puritan, a sentimental sadist, a convivial misanthrope, a superstitious skeptic, creature and creator of a legend which both reveals and obscures him — he challenges analysis.
Peter Quennell, in Byron: The Years of Fame (Viking, $3.50), attempts to simplify the problem by considering only the period from July 1811 to April 1816, — from the return of the shy, unknown traveler to the dramatic departure into exile of the gloomy and glamorous Childe Harold, — the years that brought him fame and disgrace, his deepest love and deepest hate. Years, moreover, that have a certain symbolic significance, circumscribing as they do ‘the movement from isolation to isolation that seems, in the last resort, to be the course pursued by every human life.’
This viewing of a character through a short but important part of his life has a considerable dramatic effectiveness, though it involves the awkward necessity of continually harking back to past circumstances. And in this instance it has the particular disadvantage of compelling the author to be occupied with Childe Harold to the exclusion of Juan, who is, really, nearer the actual Byron than the gloomy wanderer.
The background of the high society of the Regency is well done. There are some amusing glimpses of the dandies, for whom Byron had the greatest respect, such as that of Lord Petersham remarking of a light-blue snuffbox that it was ‘a nice summer box, but would not do for winter wear.’
Byron, bored and cynical, is the central figure, surrounded by an endless merry-go-round of women, who, fired by ‘the potent aphrodisiacs of rumor and legend,’ fling themselves at his head. The extracts from his fan mail, wherein the biographer sees the first dawn of modern mass hero-worship, constitute one of the best parts of the book. If his admirers could not offer themselves, they offered someone else: one mother proposed that he should buy her daughter for a hundred pounds, assuring him in a postscript that ‘with dilicaci everything may be made asy.’
That he is more concerned with the man than the poet is due to Mr. Quennell’s conviction that Byronism ‘ was a personal presentation — to some extent a vulgarization — of a movement that Byron himself scarce understood,’ a movement which ran counter to most of his tastes and which embodied itself in his personality very largely against his will.
Frances Win war has also succumbed to the lure of Byron as a subject for biography, though he is presented in The Romantic Rebels (Atlantic MonthlyPress and Little, Brown, $3.50) at full length in a picture which also includes his two great poetic contemporaries, Shelley and Keats. They do not lend themselves, however, as readily to grouping as did the Pre-Raphaelites in Poor Splendid Wings, for, aside from being rebels, they had little in common. True, Byron knew Shelley, Shelley had met Keats, all three were acquainted with Leigh Hunt, and the line of their lives crossed several times. But they were in no sense members of a group.
None the less, Miss Winwar’s weaving of their stories together is not incongruous. The strands do harmonize. And the fabric is strengthened by side sketches of a dozen minor characters — Clare giving herself to Byron ‘in the brazen rashness of innocence,’ Godwin with ‘his old leathern heart’ kissing the rod that lashed others, and young Joseph Severn winning the immortality through friendship that he failed to gain through his art, to mention but three.
Supported by effective selections from the writings of her subjects and some notes from hitherto unpublished sources, Miss Winwar advances several fresh interpretations. She is inclined to believe that Byron’s marriage was what he declared it to be, an act of revenge. She feels that Shelley’s love for Mary was pretty well over at the time of his death. She defends Fanny Brawne from the charge of being indifferent to Keats.
Her knowledge is extensive, but she assumes still more. How does she know, for example, that Eliza Westbrook was cognizant of Harriet’s intended elopement? And how does she know that Mary Shelley’s letter to Hoppner, found among Byron’s papers at his death, had been delivered and returned? Yet she allows her suppositions in both instances to affect her ultimate judgment of the characters involved.
The general excellence of the work, however, is so high — it combines scholarship and literary ability so delightfully — that one can offer only such minor objections, and those apologetically. The Romantic Rebels is informative and amusing, witty and sophisticated.
Miss Winwar is especially to be congratulated on her treatment of Shelley. M. Maurois, in his Aspects de la Biographie, has apologized for Ariel, but his clever misrepresentation has strongly colored the popular conception. Miss Win war’s portrait may redress the balance a little, for she never allows the reader to forget that Shelley was a great poet even if occasionally an absurd human being.