THE great men of the past whose names have given an adjective to the language are by that very fact most vulnerable to the reductive treatment. Everybody knows what "Machiavellian" means, and "Rabelaisian"; everybody uses the terms "Platonic" and "Byronic" and relies on them to express certain commonplace notions in frequent use. Unfortunately, this common application of proper names yields but a detached fragment of the truth, and sometimes less than a fragment—a mere shadow of it. With regard to "Byronic," the reduction is truly ad absurdum, for the adjective refers to the man exclusively and to a single mood only—one of the poet's fictional types has engrossed his name. But Byron's thoughts, works, and character as a whole cannot be adequately summed up in the figure of a headlong lover in an open collar, whose fits of melancholy are a pose.
Byron and the Byronic are two distinct things, though in part overlapping. The Byronic is found in Byron's early works and in those of his large literary progeny. Byron himself is to be found in the usual first-hand sources of biography, and especially in his letters. For unlike the popular narratives—whether novel or biography—the letters enable us to feel directly the "fascination" the books speak of, the power that Byron exerted over his contemporaries, men as well as women. 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.
The Byronic itself, in its narrowest meaning, begins to look different when it is removed from the neighborhood of other textbook clichés and replaced in its historical setting. As everybody knows, after bringing out in early youth two volumes of imitative verse, Byron spent two years touring the Mediterranean and the Levant, returned with the first cantos of Childe Harold, published them, and "awoke to find himself famous." The date was 1812. During the next four years, that is to say before his twenty-eighth year, when he left England forever, he poured forth half a dozen more verse narratives of kindred strain, and thereby established a reputation that has varied in strength but never died.
We may like to think of that epoch as done with, its mood irrecoverable; and yet in certain ways we are today well equipped to understand it. By 1812 England and the Continent had been deadlocked in warfare, both "hot" and "cold," for thirty years. The French Revolution seemed as ever-present a threat to the countries surrounding its birthplace as the Russian Revolution does to us, for then as now revolution united fanatic faith to imperialism: in the very year of Childe Harold Napoleon would invade Russia in order to master all Europe: it was the fifth time the French had assaulted their neighbors in twenty years. Every country, moreover, had to cope with those of its subjects who secretly or openly sided with the enemy, convinced as many were by the revolutionary program of popular liberties. From his schooldays at Harrow, Byron himself had been a liberal and a Bonapartist, and he was not the first among Englishmen: for three decades the struggle of democrat and reactionary had infected every branch of literature and public life.
Into the supersaturated atmosphere of factional strife, Childe Harold came like a breeze from the open sea. The poem, as the preface told the reader, had been written "amidst the scenes which it attempts to describe," and these scenes began with departure from the beleaguered British Isles. The reader was taken through Gibraltar to the Near East and shown its picturesque ambiguity, now classic Greek, now oriental Turk. Forgetting its claustrophobia the European imagination could slacken the tension and enlarge its sympathies without breach of patriotism or principle, could recuperate on novelty that was both safe and real.
Only a young poet who was his own hero and pilgrim could have supplied this relief from war news and politics, for the new feelings required fresh and appropriate scenery; and the verse, while recalling familiar objects of reverence, must purge the long guilt and anxiety of hate. For this reason, the prevailing tone must be that of melancholy self-accusation and erotic self-pity:—
Worse than Adversity the Childe befell;
He felt the fullness of Satiety:
Then loathed he in his native land to dwell,
Which seemed to him more lone than Eremite's sad cell.
For he through Sin's long labyrinth had run,
Nor made atonement when he did amiss,
Had sighed to many though he loved but one,
And that loved one, alas! could ne'er be his.
Once he had exorcised these blue devils by writing of them, Byron could truthfully say: "I would not be such a fellow as I have made my hero for all the world." But in the longing for freedom there was a second element which still wanted outlet, the impulse to action. Byronic melancholy, which is to say almost all nineteenth-century melancholy, had its roots in energy repressed. Ennui, as bored and languid youth itself 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.
By the beginning of our century, when Shaw satirized it in the brigand of Man and Superman, this figure had undoubtedly become stagey and ridiculous, but what it first symbolized is valid enough to survive its successive embodiments in diverse costumes. Long before Byron's corsair with his turban and cutlass, the same popular hero-worship and the same connotations of social justice inspired the tales of Robin Hood. After the corsair (who, incidentally, was actual, not fanciful, in nineteenth-century waters), we have the actual Garibaldi and the legend of his invincible thousand; and still later, in spite of Shaw's ineffectual bandit, we have in modern dress the existentialist hero of novels about the maqis. As long as situations occur, private or historical, in which deliberately antisocial behavior proves worthier of regard than conventional behavior, so long will the bold brigand aspect of Byronism find justification in art.
Had fact and reason not supported the Byronic idea, it would be impossible to understand its lasting influence on the strongest, ablest minds of Byron's time. From Goethe, Pushkin, Stendhal, Heine, Balzac, Scott, Carlyle, Mazzini, Leopardi, Berlioz, George Sand, and Delacroix down to Flaubert, Tennyson, Ruskin, the Brontës, Baudelaire, Becque, Nietzsche, Wilde, and Strindberg, one can scarcely name a writer who did not come under the spell of Byronism and turn it to some use in his own life or work. Goethe may be said to have been obsessed by the power of Byronism to the end. Balzac, whether in exalting his willful young men or in fashioning his Vautrin, the hero-criminal whose deeds form a calculated critique of bourgeois society, owes and acknowledges much to Byron. And Stendhal invents the career of Julien Sorel to show that a man who dies on the scaffold may represent genius and willpower defeated by mediocrity.
In all these fictions, as in Byron's own, one readily discerns the shadow of Napoleon and the revolutionary ideal of genius paramount. Byron was simply the first, or the most successful among the first, to dramatize the attitudes of the new man, the unknown who risks life for glory. Encouraged by success he went on to analyze within himself the sensations of this representative temperament, but the traits he singled out were not inventions of his own; they were part of the human nature of his time.
THE nineteenth century's passion for liberty called into being many models of the free spirit. The Byronic model, early and crude as it was, owed its long career to a persistent need in the hearts of men and the structure of society. To say that the Byronic was a crude model of the free spirit is to point out that the plot, the motivation, and especially the verse of Byron's oriental tales lack finish and solidity. The Giaour, Lara, The Corsair were hastily composed.
But in saying this one means also that, like Childe Harold, these narratives do not disclose Byron's full mind—merely his sharp eye and quick sensibility. The author was telling the truth when he wrote to his publisher: "I don't care one lump of sugar for my poetry; but for my costume and my correctness I will combat lustily." He was improvising instead of working, storing up experience, with possibly no particular purpose in view, but at any rate reserving his powers for a later day and a more exacting genre. We know that he had powers to reserve because, once again, we have the letters. When they deal, as many of them do, with high matters, they show even in that early period none of the weaknesses we find in the tales. The firm, rather stiff prose forecasts the master observer of life and of himself who will later write Don Juan. The purely Byronic is thus—in spite of its hold upon contemporaries—a mere outline sketch for the truly Byronian.
This early maturing was no doubt due to the circumstance of Byron's deplorable parentage and childhood. Born in the year before the French Revolution, George Gordon Byron was the offspring of a rake-hell father and a harassed, tempestuous, and selfish mother. The Byrons were proud of their Norman descent, and the poet on occasion would also lay claim to the tough fibre of his Scottish ancestors on his mother's side. He grew up at any rate in Aberdeen, and was there equipped with a Calvinist sense of sin, no doubt against the day when he would be old enough to do something requiring its exercise.
Being both an ill-loved, fatherless child and a poor lordling of uncertain prospects, Byron came early in touch with the most scarifying ills of life: lack of steady affection and shabby gentility. As if this were not enough he suffered a deformity of the lower leg—not a club foot—which is now thought to have been due to infantile paralysis. This kept him from taking part in most outdoor sports except riding and swimming, and made him especially self-conscious in society. Entering a room where he was not known was a torture. Fortunately, he was handsome of face and of good figure, though inclined to stoutness; and in 1798 he inherited from his great-uncle the title and estates of the Byrons. A peerage was protection for tender pride; Newstead Abbey, though a partial ruin, was a home to cling to; and the magnetism of a title would help people his life.
At Harrow and Cambridge, which were his next stopping places, Byron's intellectual education followed the pattern of his time, but he read a good deal more than was required and scribbled much English and Latin verse, without being thought academically brilliant. He made friends, fell in love, quarreled with his mother, his solicitor, and his guardian, and wasted time and money in the usual dissipations of youth at college. Although his good fortune had not overcome his genuine modesty, he persuaded himself that some of his verses should see the light of day, at least in a private edition. This soon became a public one under the title Hours of Idleness—and with a note of apology to say that the author was only nineteen.
The reviewers were for the most part kind, but Lord Brougham in the Edinburgh Review seized the chance for elaborate mockery. The sensitive author at once set about revenging himself by satire. He worked for a year at English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, a witty excoriation in the style of Pope's Dunciad, directed at nearly all the eminent poets and critics then living. This sequence of events is characteristic. The title Hours of Idleness had hinted at the tradition of the noble Lord who merely plays at the arts: Byron never for a moment conceded that he might be a professional writer, and true to his resolve he did find a way to infuse genuine nobility into aristocratic pride.
This same pride next impelled him to challenge the entire forces of the British Parnassus, and earned him the appropriate reward of enmity—fear, and a certain degree of admiration. He had moreover found his satirical vein and learned to work it in patience like a good craftsman. The satirist, to be sure, was to regret many of his harsh judgments, but the main thing was that he had survived the first of his duels with the public. His zest for action had been satisfied and he had lived up to the idea of himself which as a boy he had confided to his mother—that of a man who could not rest under an affront and never calculated the chances of success in following the dictates of honor.
This Quixotic strain often goes with genius and sometimes with great physical or sexual power, all of which Byron possessed; but he also had what rarely goes with the Quixotic, a passion for facts, itself accompanied by a singularly cool judgment. He wanted above all to be what his title implied, a lord among men. This required the gift of action and made poetry secondary, a by-product of action hence inclined to be political and autobiographic, though not invariably or literally so.
What Byron increasingly asked of life was not subjects for poems but opportunities to act. This is what makes it a cruel misrepresentation to find in him the source of a mere literary attitude. Nothing was farther from him at any time than pretense to virtues (or sins) that he was not ready to act out. Nor did he ever let the discharge of obligations go by default. When some lines in English Bards offended the Irish poet and musician Thomas Moore, Byron showed himself eager to give him "satisfaction," though the journey to the Near East intervened. Home again two years later, Byron sought out his opponent and renewed his offers of "service," which happily turned the projected duel into a lifelong friendship. Proud of his blood, he was always willing to spill it—noblesse oblige.
Yet Byron was not a swashbuckler from vanity or bad temper. All the evidence goes to show that on the contrary his disposition was cheerful, even gay, and that in the daily business of life he was neither touchy nor vain. He was, according to Shelley, who knew him well, gentle and unassuming. Byron's promptness in attack was quite simply courage, but courage cultivated by habit. A highspirited nature that had undergone such trials as Byron's in childhood would be very likely to fall into the habit of constantly testing itself and would do so in a series of a parent aggressions against the world. The small boy who wants to make friends does not approach a strange playmate affectionately: he kicks him in the shins and sees what happens. It is in fact an accepted knightly tradition that great friendships begin in great fights, and so it happened in Byron's life. Having left boyishness behind, he achieves a manliness unusual among authors and even among fighters. Chivalry sits on him naturally—as witness his singlehanded polemic on behalf of Pope, or the instant suppression of the passage in it about Keats on hearing of his death.
he unity of Byron's life thus comes out of his character. Convinced that deeds were nobler than words, he had in his own black moods a further incentive to brush aside verbal anodynes and react with increasing wisdom and age, the objects of his challenges and sorties become more and more significant and disinterested. By 1815, when to Byron's regret Napoleon lost Waterloo, and when the poet too was on the verge of exile—cast off by his wife, by English society, and by a part of his reading public—he had run through the cycle of his formative experiences. He had seen both sides of life, the smooth and the seamy, twice over; and he had become—as nearly as anyone can be who still lives and feels—proof against surprises. He knew what he might expect, and what he must do, which was: to counterattack, with all his wits about him and with less and less animus—a lord among men because dispassionate in the face of facts.
Byron's politics also embody the results of experience, generalized so as to apply indifferently to himself and others: he hates injustice and tyranny regardless of party. At twenty-four he rises in the House of Lords to make his maiden speech, the first of three, in defense of the Nottingham weavers who were rioting against the new machinery:—
I have traversed the seat of war in the Peninsula, I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never under the most despotic of infidel governments did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return in the very heart of a Christian country. And what are your remedies? After months of inaction, and months of action worse than inactivity, at length comes forth the grand specific, the never-failing nostrum of all state physicians: ... these convulsions must terminate in death.... Setting aside the palpable injustice and the certain inefficiency of the Bill, are there not capital punishments sufficient in your statutes? ... Will the famished wretch who has braved your bayonets be appalled by your gibbets? When death is a relief, and the only relief it appears that you will afford him, will he be dragooned into tranquillity?
His counterproposal is financial aid to those displaced by machinery and amnesty for the rioters. Again, Byron speaks in favor of removing disabilities against Catholics and Jews. In Italy later, he carries on singlehanded a war of invective against British and foreign reactionaries—Wellington, Castlereagh, the two Georges, and the Holy Alliance. The Austrian police who open his letters and trace his connections with liberal groups can scarcely understand why he joins secret societies "whose objects seem foreign to his own purposes." For all the while Byron continues to live and act like a ruler of men, not like an agitator. He hates demagogy and has no illusions about underdogs, whether in Nottingham or in Italy. He is an egalitarian in liberty but no farther, at one with Milton in despising overprotection and a cloistered virtue. We find him in his last fight in Greece writing clear-eyed reports of the Greeks' corrupt mismanagement and making the shrewdest use of his own "barrels of dollars," but also treating the Turkish enemy as if the times had been those of Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted.
In short, Byron must be classed with those few influential men of rank who have taken the aristocratic ideal seriously. In obedience to it they have defied their own class and all other majorities, and braved scandal and obloquy for a cause that they also knew how to blazon forth. Such men give the words "independence" and "example" the fullest meaning they are capable of, and this is so rare that the world can never forget it.
n Byron's life, of course, scandal applied to him on other grounds than politics, and it is usual to say that the final Greek adventure redeems by its noble selflessness the ignoble self-indulgence of earlier years. Byron's reputation is so familiar to those who ignore his poetry and have never read his letters that he can be made to appear as a tragicomic Don Giovanni who reforms in the last act. Chronology itself discountenances this interpretation. For what we find between his burst into fame as the creator of Childe Harold and his departure for Greece is not a downhill course arrested at the last minute, but four distinct periods, twice alternating between dissipation and concentration. From 1812 until his engagement late in 1814, Byron yielded himself to friendship and fashionable life, easy love affairs and easy riming. This is the time of his Byronizing in verse tales and of his capture of the continental imagination. The two years of courtship and marriage that followed mark the first return to self-discipline. It produced only lyrics, but they include his finest, chiefly in the collection of Hebrew Melodies. Byron becomes a father and seems altogether settled.
Then comes the disastrous break with Lady Byron, grounded on a rumor which alienated all but a handful of his friends. Byron goes into exile, fleeing popular wrath. Fifteen years later, the poet being dead, Macaulay could call the British public's fit of moral indignation ridiculous, but at the time it was a hurricane not to be withstood.
On the Continent, and chiefly at Venice, Byron gave himself once again to the pursuit of sensual pleasure. Solace or pastime, a succession of mistresses and casual companions occupied his days and nights; but clearly not his heart and mind, since even at this time his actions and words show no relaxation of his grip on personal, political, or artistic reality. He took up Childe Harold and added two more cantos superior to the first, began writing verse plays, studied Italian and Dante in particular, read copiously in science and history, and wrote incessantly both verse and prose.
Within less than two years, he has emerged still stronger and wiser, the ultimate Byron of history. His new liaison, with the Countess Teresa Giuccioli, coincides with a new period of domestic regularity, abundant and marvelous poetic output, increasing political commitments, and serious, indeed philosophical, friendships—notably with Leigh Hunt, Shelley, Trelawny, Medwin, and his future companion in the Greek war, Teresa's brother Pietro.
As regards Byron's public self, the mere amount of his lustful devastation has of course been exaggerated, so that the French, who like sobriety in these matters, have been put to the trouble of producing a work of scholarship entitled Les Maîtresses AUTHIENTIQUES de Lord Byron. The fact is plain that other great figures have led far more disordered lives and received far less censure. One reason for this is that Byron's career came at a time of stiffening moral standards and increasing hypocrisy. What we call Victorian morality antedates Victoria's accession by at least two decades, and although Byron's social circle did not in fact obey the rigid middle-class code of sexual behavior, they paid it the respect of concealment. His impatience with every kind of fraud made him on the contrary ostentatious, communicative, defiant; implying what other men before and since Dante have seriously believed, that incontinence is not among the gravest sins. When he looked upon the new moralism from afar, he told the British quite justly:—
The truth is, that in these days the grand primum Mobile of England is cant; cant political, cant poetical, cant religious, cant moral; but always cant multiplied through all the varieties of life ... I say cant because it is a thing of words, without the smallest influence upon human actions; the English being no wiser, no better, and much poorer, and more divided among themselves, as well as far less moral, than they were before the prevalence of this verbal decorum.
For thus preaching what he practiced Byron again suffered the penalty meted out to minds complex and courageous. The paradox is that he was a faithful husband and devoted father and that he has been pilloried as a sinner without regard to time and circumstance. To this day he is "the bad Lord Byron" because people prefer him so; or else he is condemned, like Admiral Byng, pour encourager les autres —all on the ground of his presumed affair with his half-sister Augusta.
What signifies, because it takes us back into Byron's inner self, is that late in his life, without shuffling for a moment about his past errors, he made it a claim to consideration that he had never been a seducer; and no evidence has ever turned up to contradict him. His statement must be taken together with what he feared might happen during the Greek campaign, namely, that a woman would be thrown at his head to influence his decisions. He says in so many words that he is "easy to govern" ("by a woman" is here understood), and he had every reason in past experience to be apprehensive once again. This fear and this governance unmistakably suggest that his career of love means something more complicated than promiscuous appetite—just the opposite in fact, as Byron doubtless meant to show in the story of his own Don Juan.
n any case he knew that a disorder of the feelings was at the root of most of his troubles. As early as his twenty-third year, he writes to a friend: "The latter part of my life has been a perpetual struggle against the affections which embittered the earliest portion." Whether this refers to his mother or to his unhappy first love for Mary Chaworth, an older girl who made fun of him, Byron felt the need to overcome attachment. He "flatters himself that he has conquered," but now and again he has a relapse, characterized by depression of spirits and savage temper. This certainly describes the sort of relation in which he stood to his mother: he could not help loving and hating her and resenting the ambiguity of his feelings. He tried to conquer his affection and fell into gloom, despair, and savagery at the inevitable promptings of guilt.
And yet Byron was wise enough to feel no shame when the full tide of a genuine emotion mastered him. He wept on taking leave of England, and Lady Blessington thinking it tactful, suggested that she, too, often broke down from nervousness. Byron angrily shouted the excuse: "Nerves!" But in acknowledging true feeling on another occasion, he cautions the witness: "Don't imagine that because I feel I am to faint."
To these cross-currents of passion and repression another force must be added. As the cripple George Byron became a handsome young nobleman, he was subjected not alone to the temptations of his age and station, but more regrettably to the almost automatic aggression of women. Lady Caroline Lamb was only the wildest of those who captured (rather than captivated) the poet. His letters include a good many replies to the unknown authors of provocative messages, and in the accounts of other love-exchanges the reader will note how an English icicle, such as Lady Frances Webster, proved essentially as predatory as the Italian volcanoes of his Venetian period. It could make little difference to Byron that his eyes were open and his judgment unclouded, for it is the characteristic of damaged emotions that they are liable to the same hope and hurt endlessly. Every new proffer of love meant to him the possibility of recouping the loss felt in childhood, and when he himself sought love (or bought it), what we call his immoral act was undoubtedly part of an attempt to shut out the memory of rejection and stave off despair.
Perhaps the most striking feature of this not unusual involvement is the attraction Byron felt for Miss Milbanke, about the same time as he found a kind of substitute mother in Lady Melbourne. Annabella Milbanke was to become Lady Byron and Lady Melbourne was her aunt, besides being the mother-in-law of Byron's former love, Caroline Lamb. But the older woman's judgment and affection were not deflected by these relationships, and she gave Byron a taste of the solid and intelligent love that he wanted. He addresses her, one notes, in a different voice from all his other correspondents.
The woman Byron married should have been like her aunt. Annabella was unfortunately "mathematical" rather than passionate, and he seems to have chosen her chiefly because she stood out from the giddy, flirtatious crowd and did not pursue him. In marriage her tranquillity proved to be more conventional and sanctimonious than consoling and affectionate, and somehow, perhaps because Byron was still in search of elusive love, he goaded her into thinking of him as a godless reprobate. This belief justified to her, first her separation from him, and then his total exclusion from her life. Byron was denied all access to their daughter Ada as well as direct communication with herself by letter. His self-exile is thus in part the repetition of her act by his will, in part the symbol of his original situation in relation to his mother: baffled love, hate, and resentful guilt.
It follows from all this that the "cynical" Byron who wrote Don Juan, who affected coldness now and again, and judged la Guiccioli as if she had been somebody else's mistress, is not a new man, disillusioned at long last. He is the same man, showing his armored side. Nor is he a cynic in the sense of being meanly hardened. He is, if anything, too full of affection to be able to consume or convert it for his own use; he finds his warmth of feeling difficult to share because he thinks it unwanted or sees it undervalued. True, he lavished much of it on Lady Melbourne until her death, and again on Allegra, his little daughter by another Amazon, Jane Clairmont. But to his great grief the child died in her sixth year.
His friends, of course, could count on his good will to an uncommon degree, as the elaborate financial rescue of Thomas Moore proves. But the misfortune of such an education of the feelings as Byron had is that it develops the observer at the expense of the enjoyer. Byron mentions with a kind of shudder the "microscopic eye" one is endowed with at the end of a liaison. He might have added that with each accrual of insight the affections become more demanding. In childhood, he would have been content with any reasonable mother, and he could repose trust and affection in his "dearest sister Augusta." But as Augusta turned into a thoughtless and incoherent matron, he found it harder to feel anything for her but lost love's loyalty. Similarly, his friends could command his devotion but they requited it according to their lights and not his, which he could not help regretting, given the pain and trouble this entailed.
Harassed on all sides by worry, grief, lawsuits, ill-fame, literary squabbles, stupid or malicious friends, Byron keeps his head and his good temper. In the biography of an artist, judgment is as notable as Genius. With Byron at the last, the two are in equilibrium. Every successive crisis finds him as understanding of others as he is lucid about himself, and his impulse is truly magnanimous. This is what Carlyle—almost alone in England, and despite his dislike for Byronism—understood when he praised the poet for making light of "happiness" and preferring to be, in the honorific sense, "a man."
Seen in this light, 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; precisely as the purely Byronic, which was brooding self-pity, is not obliterated but transcended in the satiric poetry and the moral poise of Byron's later life.
Byron would certainly be the last to resent our full scrutiny. He invited it in many forms; he was uncommonly self-critical, and if he entrusted his memoirs to his survivors instead of braving the public with his disclosures, it was only because he believed that an autobiography published in midcareer persuades everybody the author must be dead. Neither as author nor as hero is Byron dead yet. He had much more than the accepted attributes of fame—genius, wit, resourcefulness—more even than the characteristics of heroism, courage, superior mind, forgetfulness of self. He was a being in whom virtues and powers fused with vices and weaknesses in so imposing a fashion that we are tempted to ascribe to the grosser earths the strength of the alloy, and to feel that it was he whom the Prince of Denmark apostrophized as the archetype of Man, wonder and paradox of Nature.
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