The Misfortune of Poetry
Byron's dramatic life has become indissoluble from his work
In Jane Austen's Persuasion, Anne Elliot has a surprising discussion with a shy naval officer about the relative merits of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, and finds Captain Benwick to be "so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry; and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly."
It is notorious that the Napoleonic Wars seldom achieve even the level of offstage noise in Austen's work, but in Persuasion, which was finished not long after the Battle of Waterloo, there are repeated references to Byron—a figure who in his lifetime was often compared to Bonaparte himself, and who excited similar feelings of fear and loathing, as well as admiration, among his countrymen. Nobody would describe the virgin genius of Hampshire as a romantic, but when she considered the aspect of romance, she found it hard to keep Byron's unwholesome but fascinating visage out of her mind.
By a nice coincidence, when W. H. Auden came to write his "Letter to Lord Byron," he explained that he had originally thought of writing to Jane Austen instead.
There is one other author in my pack:
For some time I debated which to write to.
Which would least likely send my letter back?
But I decided that I'd give a fright to
Jane Austen if I wrote when I'd no right to,
And share in her contempt the dreadful fates
Of Crawford, Musgrave, and of Mr Yates ...
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of 'brass',
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
Written in 1936, as Auden was about to set off for the war in Spain, and cleverly imitating the rhyme of Byron's Don Juan, this poem offers a key with which to decode the relationship between the personal and the poetic in the Byron myth. Byron, as Auden was to say later, "was an egoist and, like all egoists, capable of falling in love with a succession of dream-figures, but incapable of genuine love or fidelity which accepts a person completely ... he was also acutely conscious of guilt and sin." However, "when Byron had ceased to identify his moral sense with himself and had discovered how to extract the Byronic Satanism from his lonely hero and to turn it into the Byronic Irony which illuminated the whole setting, when he realized that he was a little ridiculous, but also not as odd as he had imagined, he became a great poet."
In this way, and employing his gentle style of self-mockery, Auden was able to draw upon Byron in making his own great refreshment of English poetry. What might serve as an apt illustration of "the Byronic Irony"? I propose my favorite example. Byron's "The Isles of Greece" has for years been included in school anthologies, as a hymn to the lost glory of Hellas and an appeal for the noble revival of its epic period. The poet speaks of dying for liberty, and we all know of Byron's "romantic" end at Missolonghi. But if one looks up those celebrated lines in the third canto of Don Juan, one finds them set apart, in a different scheme and meter, as a kind of spoof or knockoff. Juan meets a poet at an Oriental court, a creator of vers d'occasion who is all things to all men and who works on the principle of "when in Rome."
In France, for instance, he would write a chanson;
In England a six canto quarto tale;
In Spain, he'd make a ballad or romance on
The last war—much the same in Portugal;
In Germany, the Pegasus he'd prance on
Would be old Goethe's (see what says De Staël);
In Italy, he'd ape the 'Trecentisti;'
In Greece, he'd sing some sort of hymn like this t'ye:
And off we gallop into the soaring notes of "The Isles of Greece," which can still start a patriotic tear on a manly cheek but which was originally composed and offered as a self-parody. This goes some way toward vindicating Auden's definition of the ironic.
However, Auden was startlingly mistaken when he opined that "Byron was not really odd like Wordsworth; his experiences were those of the ordinary man." And Lord Macaulay, in his famous defense of Byron against the moralists and the censors, was also wrong in believing that a moment would soon come when people would forget the scandals and dramas of the life and pay attention solely to the poetry. Byron's career is more like a comet than the meteor to which it is usually compared: it comes around again and again, to be reviewed and revisited. And his life has become indissoluble from his work.
This is partly because he was an actual aristocrat as well as a natural one. His example, and his leadership, met two of Max Weber's criteria for authority in being simultaneously traditional and charismatic. While he was still at Cambridge University, with a princely allowance and a servant and a horse, he wrote to his half-sister Augusta Leigh to say that he felt "as independent as a German Prince who coins his own Cash, or a Cherokee Chief who coins no Cash at all, but enjoys what is more precious, Liberty." This was having it both ways in a handsome style, and also stating a paradox that would continue to stamp his life. There can be no doubt that a large element in Byron's impact pertained to "the economic basis of society."
Another element has to do with matters that are not treated at all in the work of Jane Austen. John Murray, of Albemarle Street (who was also Austen's publisher), famously destroyed the manuscript of Byron's memoirs and strove, often successfully, to bowdlerize the more profane and obscene passages in the output of his most profitable author—a historical deficit for which Fiona MacCarthy's biography seeks to compensate. This book is awash not just in incest and sodomy but also in fairly graphic mentions of the ravages of the pox, of piles and rectal damage, and of male and female prostitution. She makes a persuasive case for considering Byron's heterosexual promiscuity as at least in part a losing struggle with homosexual pedophilia. And she delivers some strong whiffs of Swiftian disgust. Byron detested the sight of women eating, and was obsessed with what might politely be called bathroom arrangements. He was acutely aware of society's being balanced precariously over a brimming cloaca. His years of innocence were brief: at the age of nine he was subjected to much groping and fondling by his nurse, May Gray, who also used to whip him savagely and to terrorize him with hellfire religious rants. In other words, before he was ten, Byron had been made intimately aware of the relationship between sex and cruelty, and also the relationship between authority and superstition. I once proposed that a search be made for the gravesite of this sordid woman. It should be restored and preserved as a temple of the Romantic movement.
Invocation of the inevitable term "Romantic" engages us in another paradox. Byron may have compared himself to Bonaparte, and may have been so compared by, among others, Carlyle and Macaulay. (Bonaparte was a Corsican; Byron always felt Scottish in allegiance, and was at an angle to the prevailing "English" culture.) He may have thrown away his chance of a political career by making a deliberately incendiary speech on Irish freedom and Catholic emancipation in the House of Lords. He may have sought to lay bare the hypocrisy of the dominant social and sexual mores, tilting with spectacular success (and from some dearly bought experience) at the pretense that women were never the initiators in matters of the bedroom. But in poetic and literary matters he was rather conventional. Sir Walter Scott thought him sound, and Byron returned the compliment. In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers he stood up for Dryden and Pope and the great tradition, and reprobated what he viewed as mere novelty and rebellion. The conservative and anti-Jacobin critics were full of praise for his attachment to proper form. His supposedly fellow "Romantics," most especially Wordsworth and Southey (Byron was later partially reconciled to Shelley and Coleridge), were targets he never tired of ridiculing. Keats's writing he dismissed as "a sort of mental masturbation—he is always frigging his Imagination." Indeed, Don Juan opens with a laughing attack on the insipid nature-worshippers whom Byron called (after their attachment to certain scenery) "the Lakers."
You—Gentlemen! by dint of long seclusion
From better company, have kept your own
At Keswick, and, through still continued fusion
Of one another's minds, at last have grown
To deem as a most logical conclusion
That Poesy has wreaths for you alone:
There is a narrowness in such a notion,
Which makes me wish you'd change your lakes for ocean.
By deciding to live dangerously, however, Byron met some of the other, rather vague criteria of Romanticism. There were several moments in this fascinating book when I was put in mind of Nietzsche, and when the energetic dashes of Byron's punctuation drove home the point.
The great object of life is Sensation—to feel that we exist—even though in pain—it is this "craving void" which drives us to Gaming—to Battle—to Travel—to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description whose principal attraction is the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment.
To a critic, Francis Palgrave, who deplored the alternation between high and low in Don Juan, Byron riposted in effect that the man had water or milk in his veins.
Did he never spill a dish of tea over his testicles in handing the cup to his charmer to the great shame of his nankeen breeches?—did he never swim in the sea at Noonday with the Sun in his eyes and on his head—which all the foam of ocean could not cool? did he never draw his foot out of a tub of too hot water damning his eyes & his valet's? did he never inject for a Gonorrhea?—or make water through an ulcerated Urethra?—was he ever in a Turkish bath—that marble paradise of sherbet and sodomy?—was he ever in a cauldron of boiling oil like St. John?
Allowance made for the boiling oil, Byron could have claimed in every case to know what he was talking about (and we also have here an oblique reference to his seldom mentioned clubfoot and lifelong lameness). Indeed, not only did he swim the Hellespont in emulation of Leander's pursuit of Hero—and take time to notice that few lovers would have been in any condition for venery after such exertion—but he also swam three miles in blazing heat on the day of Shelley's funeral and lost swatches of skin as a consequence. Those who have seen the pure white marble of Shelley's exquisite corpse at his Oxford memorial will perhaps benefit from reading the description of his actual obsequies on that beach: the body putrid and bloated and blue, the skull crumbling in the fire while the heart would not "take the flame." For this reason only, and for no Romantic one, was it preserved as a ghastly, oozing relic.
By then Byron had also met his own condition of "changing his lakes for ocean," becoming not a mere local rebel but an internationalist one. The comparison with Bonaparte may seem absurd or disproportionate in many ways: for one (I was oddly struck when I realized the obviousness of this), Byron never actually engaged directly in any battle. But if modern celebrity has nineteenth-century roots, they are certainly in his combination of the role of poet with that of man of action, and on a Europe-wide scale. I say "Europe-wide" because he never crossed the Atlantic, even though his two other heroes were George Washington and Simón Bolívar, his fame in America was considerable during his lifetime, and he often expressed a desire to emigrate to the land from which the Hanoverian monarchs had been evicted.
It's difficult to picture Byron as an American. True, one of the very few "modern" things about him was a life-long obsession with his weight and his silhouette, both of which tended to fluctuate alarmingly. He once wrote that he had two fears, of getting fat and of going mad, and there were times when he was both. So he could in a pinch be a recruit to the future republic of diet and therapy. Most of his inclinations, however, lay toward those lands that had a connection to antiquity and embraced the possibility of excess. He was in some ways a premature Orientalist, very much taken with scenes of the voluptuous and the barbaric; the painting of Delacroix can be viewed as a sort of pictorial Byronism. But he was more than just a voyeur in these exotic latitudes. He took a serious interest in the religions and customs and traditions, and also the political convulsions, of the places he visited or studied. Re-reading Childe Harold's Pilgrimage recently, I came across this verse in the second canto, where the contest between the Muslim and Christian worlds, in Constantinople and in Athens, is evoked.
The city won for Allah from the Giaour,
The Giaour from Ottoman's race again may wrest;
And the Serai's impenetrable tower
Receive the fiery Frank, her former guest;
Or Wahab's rebel brood, who dared divest
The prophet's tomb of all its pious spoil,
May wind their path of blood along the West ...
The takeover and desecration of Mecca by the ultra-purist Wahhabi sect was then just a decade old. Byron's registering of this event—and his identification of a faction that now troubles us all—is the first literary mention that I know of.
Everybody understands that there was another reason why Byron liked to voyage in torrid zones. He put it pretty bluntly himself when he wrote that in England "Cant is so much stronger than Cunt." Defending Don Juan from the disapproving and the censorious, he wrote to his friend Douglas Kinnaird that it was "the sublime of that there sort of writing—it may be bawdy—but is it not good English?—it may be profligate—but is it not life, is it not the thing?" He continued, "Could any man have written it—who has not lived in the world?—and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a Gondola? Against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis-a-vis?—on a table?—and under it?" MacCarthy is surely correct in discerning a slight unease beneath this boasting. Byron must have been aware that his compulsive, exorbitant sex life was the enemy of his grander ambitions as a radical. Not only did his debauchery, alcoholic as well as carnal, consume an inordinate amount of his time, but it exacted a tremendous toll on his health. His years in England, and the ceaseless and costly confrontations with a wronged wife, a wronged mistress, and a deeply wronged half-sister, were truly an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. He evinced an unattractive contempt for the dowdier and more worthy democratic revolutionaries, notably Leigh Hunt, who seemed earthbound and respectable. He admired Milton as a poet and a dissident, but was frankly snobbish about his humble political descendants. And his post-Miltonic epic poem Cain, which is actually a very moving and despairing assault on biblical literalism and servile human credulity, was compromised by the stress he laid on Cain's love for his sister, and the inescapable analogy to his own dissipations with Augusta Leigh.
The two great and contrasting episodes when his life and work functioned in harmony, rather than in antagonism, were his experiences in Venice and Greece. Byron had a prejudice in favor of amphibious locations, perhaps because in the water his crippled leg was no disadvantage; but his feeling for the Serenissima went well beyond that, and so much did he help to rekindle aesthetic and poetic sympathy for the city that John Ruskin, decades later, viewed it almost entirely through his eyes. As for Greece, Fiona MacCarthy is again correct in stating that, at last, Byron found a cause that summoned from him a mature commitment. His flirtation with the Carbonari rebels in Italy had an operetta flavor of pseudo-daring and extravagant gesture; but once he had sailed past Ithaca to Missolonghi, leaving his mistress behind and living on rough rations, he took on the lineaments of an authentic hero. It's true that the theatrical did not desert him even there. As if achieving his youthful ambition to be both a German prince and a Cherokee chief, he shared risks and hardships with gaunt Suliote guerrillas while expending much of his fortune on personally designed (mainly tartan) uniforms and emblems for his private army. Had he lived, he might actually have been proclaimed King of Greece; Sir Harold Nicolson once wrote a marvelous essay on this "what if?" proposition. Still, Byron persisted and sacrificed like a democrat in the face of appalling discouragements and privations, and those hooked on the Romantic mythos should (as with Shelley's funeral) attend to the details, full of bleeding and excrement, of his last illness.
Of course, it was not to be expected that Byron would change utterly. At the last he appears to have become infatuated with a boy named Lukas Chalandritsanos. The beautiful closing poems "Last Words on Greece" and "On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year" are fairly obviously encoded with a hopeless man-boy love. Byron was acutely conscious of his own physical decline, and his last agonies of obsession made me think at once of Mann's Aschenbach and his death—in Venice.
The grace of early death is the seal on the Romantic pact; Byron did not live to become gross and farcical and reminiscent. Instead his gallant ending was the signal and the symbol for later European revolt. Mazzini was inspired by it, Victor Hugo and Heinrich Heine were consumed by it, Adam Mickiewicz fought and wrote for Poland in Byronic mode, and one of the young poets who led the Decembrist revolution against the Czar went to the scaffold with a volume of Byron in his hand. Men of somewhat different temper were still much affected: Matthew Arnold wrote of Byron as "that world-fam'd Son of Fire." Oscar Wilde, always fascinated by hubris, worshipped Byron and made a sly guess or two about his relationship with Shelley. There's no equivalent in our own time—though Byron's decision to name his ship the Bolivar does suggest a connection with the cult of Che Guevara. At any rate, if his life may illustrate Jane Austen's admonition that the intoxications of poetry are not conducive to proper stability and well-being, his work is the best-known refutation of Auden's judgment, on Yeats, that "poetry makes nothing happen."
When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.