Book Review

Lord Byron—Seven Takes


As to “Don Juan”—confess, confess—you dog—be candid—that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing—it may be bawdy—but is it not good English? . . . Could any man have written it—who has not lived in the world?

 

—Byron, in a letter to Douglas Kinnaird, 1819

 

1

 

The curse of comedy: we don’t take it seriously enough. The blessing of comedy: it subverts our seriousness.
 
We are accustomed to thinking of Lord Byron as a comic genius—author of Beppo, The Vision of Judgment, Don Juan, etc.—and perhaps we do this partly to whittle his prodigious output down to a manageable size. He wrote so much in his thirty-six hyperactive years that we just can’t squeeze the bulk of it into our distracted lives. Not all of the work is comic, not all of it meant to be read at high velocity. Some of it is as tortured and fragmented as other works we associate with Romanticism. Byron contained multitudes.
 
Two new books by major Byron scholars, Jerome McGann and Bernard Beatty, propose revisionist ways of reading the canon.[1] McGann puts the project succinctly:

 

Understandably, Don Juan has shaped the recovery of Byron the Poet over the past fifty and more years. But the poetic character of the rest of the work is regularly obscured by Don Juan’s celebrity. This is unfortunate, especially for the poetry that established his international influence—the verse from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: A Romaunt (1812) through the Oriental Tales to Manfred (1817). In key respects, those works are more impressive than the ottava rima masterpieces: for better and for worse, more driven, perhaps more dangerous, mostly less urbane.

 

Setting aside my suspicion of scholars who might want to make Byron our contemporary, I can see the point here: a renewed effort to locate Byron’s seriousness, his formal experimentation and philosophical depth. If at times these two brilliant scholars focus on Byron more as a thinker than as a poet, their challenge is important. In fact, poetry is a way of thinking in addition to everything else, just as comedy is a way of thinking, and in any context Byron deserves serious treatment.

 

2

 
While reading these scholarly books, I was also rereading Byron, aware that I could never in a few crowded months read enough to discourse upon it with expertise. These are the notes of an amateur who has always loved Byron and is willing to be corrected in his impressions.
 
I came to Byron partly through Auden—meaning I read and loved the comic poet—and through my own fascination with Greece, where Byron is a heroic figure. I loved him as a poet of travel and action, including this posthumously published lyric:

 

So, we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
 
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
 
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.

 

This is the Byron known at times to break into song—he had sent the poem in a letter to Thomas Moore after a night of Carnival excess in Venice. He also admired Robert Burns and wrote of Burns’s poems in his journal:

 

They are full of oaths and obscene songs. What an antithetical mind!—tenderness, roughness—delicacy, coarseness—sentiment, sensuality—soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity—all mixed up in that one compound of inspired clay!

 

I found this passage in the final chapter of McGann’s book, a chapter headed by epigraphs from Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Bukowski. McGann is the sort of scholar who can write popular criticism. He can be funny, writing at times with a poet’s playfulness. Even so, it takes some application to read his new book, and Beatty’s. If one has been out of the academic swim for a while, such devoted scholarship can seem chimeric. One admires it, yet one also wonders how much longer the world can produce books like these—works of such erudition and specialized engagement that only their fellow specialists are likely to seek them out. It should be otherwise. We hear so much these days about the faults of academics—their ideological battles—that we forget how honorable scholarship is still possible when critics focus on expanding knowledge rather than skirmishing over their private and public virtue.
 
Formerly the editor of The Byron Journal, Professor Beatty is highly regarded in his discipline, but his book with its rather strange cover image of a twenties flapper holding a copy of Byron’s poems is insanely expensive, marketed for academic libraries and out of reach for many readers like me. McGann is Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia and the editor of Byron’s Complete Poetical Works. His book is more reasonably priced, but I still wonder how many individual scholars will buy it. We inhabit a world where real scholarship is assumed to be the province of the few, all of them securely fenced in to their fields.

 

3

 
Byron is popular, perhaps less for his poetry than for the image of the Byronic hero, often half-Satanic. Our Heathcliffs and Darcys are Byronic, as are adventurous travelers, certain war heroes and vampires.[2] Byron is a protean figure, hard to catch. The moment you’ve formulated one sort of Byron, another pops up to take his place. Virginia Woolf admired the “galloping” pace of his verse, while T. S. Eliot declared “he added nothing to the language.” Among the major figures we associate with English Romanticism, he is still thought less important than more serious figures like Blake, Wordsworth (whom Byron called “Turdsworth”), Coleridge and Keats. His friend Shelley admired him with reservations, while Blake saw in him a kindred rebel. Byron could be an encourager of his elders. It was he who convinced John Murray to publish Coleridge’s Christabel and “Kubla Khan.” The man was a sophisticated reader. Yet criticism in the twentieth century valued the difficult and serious side of poetry, fit for close reading, and Byron’s reputation suffered. Hence these useful scholarly revisions.
 
Bernard Beatty’s book is a conglomerate of essays, each taking a different view on the life and work. The book concludes with an illuminating interview tying its many threads to a larger vision:

 

One of the most obvious and important things about Byron is that he is understandable—that you can read it. It’s much easier to read Byron. . . than it is to read Endymion, or to read Mallarmé or to read Prometheus Unbound. Byron preserves . . . the link with eighteenth-century literature, with Pope and Dryden, the relationship with conversation, the relationship with ordinary speech, the distrust of too strong a movement away from that. . . . Now that makes it very difficult for people brought up in the later nineteenth century who say: “But the whole point of poetry is that it isn’t understandable—it’s obscure—it’s full of concetti—it’s The Waste Land—it’s symbols—it’s the unconscious. . . .”

 

Beatty talks about why Byron “is a great poet and why he sort of vrm, vrrm, vrrrms—if you can transcribe that—in the early nineteenth century. . . .” Byron, Beatty says, “thrusts you into life.”
 
Of course, that’s what all good poetry does. Byron’s early heroes, from Childe Harold to Manfred, have the seriousness we associate with Romanticism, but for me that doesn’t necessarily make them more interesting.

 

4

 
So the desire of these scholars to focus on Childe Harold rather than Don Juan arises from a common need to place writers within categories—inevitable and damaging at the same time. They’re left discoursing on a poem’s content rather than its manner, and I know this is not entirely what such sensitive and learned readers intend. From my point of view as a reader of poetry, Childe Harold is too often static. I agree with Auden that the choice of the Spenserian stanza with its underlining hexameter line stops the action in its tracks, deadly for a great storyteller like Byron.
 
McGann admits that Don Juan, which races along in ottava rima, is an “aurora borealis of language,” but he’s attracted by the “dissonant music” in Childe Harold and what seems to me an insufferable stuffiness in Manfred, because they bring Byron into the fold of seriousness. We have a poetics of speed in the comedic masterpieces versus a poetics of deliberation in the earlier poems. For me, Childe Harold excels in its set pieces, like this stanza on the Elgin Marbles:

 

Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking Gods to northern climes abhorr’d!

 

It is worth repeating that Byron’s oeuvre contains multiple kinds of poetry—the lyric, the narrative, the satiric and the meditative. In his lifetime he was most popular as a serious poet, less so for his scandalous comedy, which got him into trouble with publishers.
 
Byron was liberal in his politics, one reason he found an increasingly conservative England unlivable. He admired Napoleon the liberator rather than the autocrat, and while he enjoyed a lifestyle of the rich and famous, particularly when he had come into his majority, he sympathized with the world’s downtrodden, from Irish Catholics to Greeks under Ottoman rule. We often forget how practical he could be as a man of action, how much real good he did for the Greek cause before he died of fever at Missolonghi.
 
Mark Mazower’s The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe, has this to say about Byron putting his life on the line in Greece:

 

Byron was not only a great poet; he was also no one’s fool. Don Juan, the satirical epic he was writing at this time, talks about bankers as “the true lords of Europe,” so he was hardly unaware of international finance as the new instrument of state-building or, by extension, of the implications of his own role. And unlike many of the philhellenes, he not only understood something about the region but also admired and felt sympathy for the Ottoman way of life as well as for the Greeks. Conscious of the responsibility he bore, the power of his name, and the resources at his disposal, Byron began to realize how little he knew of what was actually happening and how riven the Greek leadership was. This is why he sent James Hamilton Browne and Edward Trelawny to the Peloponnese to report back to him. “Let me hear from you often,” were Byron’s parting words—at least as told by Trelawny. “Come back soon. If things are farcical, they will do for Don Juan; if heroical, you have another canto of Childe Harold.”

 

Trelawny was hardly a trustworthy source, but the story gives an attractive account of Byron’s spontaneity, his ability to make his poems react to present circumstances. As he put it in another bit of light verse:

 

When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,
Let him combat for that of his neighbours;
Let him think of the glories of Greece and of Rome,
And get knock’d on the head for his labours.
 
To do good to mankind is the chivalrous plan,
And is always as nobly requited;
Then battle for freedom wherever you can,
And, if not shot or hang’d, you’ll get knighted.

 

5

 
If any poet’s biography is worth knowing, it’s Byron’s, simply because the life was so full of incident. This does not mean that a biography could explain him, any more than reading his wonderful letters and journals can explain him, but they comprise a superior form of entertainment. David Ellis, an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Kent, has now published a short biography, more a sketch of the life, in the Critical Lives series from Reaktion Books.[3] It touches on the major influences and events: how Byron’s mother, Catherine, was the second wife of “mad Jack” Byron, who used marriage mainly as a tool of wealth management; how Byron loved and probably had an affair with his half-sister, Augusta, who was sometimes his ally against the world; how his eccentricities emerged early. On the subject of Byron’s sexuality, Ellis is both circumspect and witty:

 

The usual assumption has been that Byron was certainly bisexual, but one fairly recent biographer has organized the story of his life around the idea that his nature was fundamentally homosexual and that all of his many heterosexual affairs were substitutes or compensations for instincts the law of his own country obliged him to suppress. If that was so, all one can say is that Byron did a remarkable amount of compensating.

 

The early loss of his father and sometime coldness of his mother left Byron “starved of affection,” and he spent a great deal of his life feeding that appetite.
 
His Grand Tour of Europe began in 1809, when he was twenty-one, and took him from Lisbon to Constantinople. A dashing figure, he had a club foot and occasionally ran to fat, flaws for which he compensated with feats of daring, like swimming the Hellespont in 1810. He was brave enough to visit Ali Pasha, the fierce Ottoman leader in Albania, ruler of northern Greece, who seems to have found the young Englishman a fascinating specimen. As Byron wrote home to his mother:

 

His first question was why at so early an age I left my country? (the Turks have no idea of travelling for amusement) he then said the English Minister, Capt. Leake, had told him I was of a great family, & desired his respects to my mother, which I now in the name of Ali Pacha present to you. He said he was certain I was a man of birth because I had small ears, curling hair, & little white hands, and expressed himself pleased with my appearance & garb.—He told me to consider him as a father whilst I was in Turkey, & said he looked on me as his son.—Indeed he treated me like a child, sending me almonds & sugared sherbet, fruit & sweetmeats 20 times a day. He begged me to visit him often, and at night when he was more at leisure—I then after coffee & pipes retired for the first time. I saw him thrice afterwards.—It is singular that the Turks who have no heriditary [sic] dignities & few great families except the Sultan’s pay, so much respect to birth, for I found my pedigree more regarded than even my title.—His Highness is 60 years old, very fat & not tall, but with a fine face, light blue eyes & a white beard, his manner is very kind & at the same time he possesses that dignity which I find universal amongst the Turks.—He has the appearance of any thing but his real character, for he is a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties, very brave & so good a general, that they call him the Mahometan Buonaparte.—Napoleon has twice offered to make him King of Epirus, but he prefers the English interest & abhors the French as he himself told me.

 

Ellis does not quote this long, wonderful letter, which offers the kind of detail missing from his biography. A pity. Byron’s letters are so full of life that it must have taken real effort to resist them.
 
Byron was not the first Englishman to romanticize Greece and the Ottomans—many travelers in the previous century had got there first—but he contributed to a new orientalism, especially in his early narratives like The Giaour and The Corsair. It might have been his private confessions of homosexual affairs that prompted his friend John Cam Hobhouse to convince him to burn his diaries and set Byron on the course of writing about a new literary hero, Childe Harold. The publication of the first two cantos in 1812, a year after his return to England, made him the Mick Jagger of his day, dizzyingly famous, a sort of rock star with a bad boy edge.
 
Ellis does not doubt Byron’s affair with Augusta and thinks the daughter she gave birth to and named Medora was probably fathered incestuously. Add to that his affair with Caroline Lamb, and you can see why his pursuit of marriage to Annabella Milbanke was troubled. He married her for money, and their year together turned quickly into public rancor and legal warfare. Their daughter, Ada Lovelace, was a mathematical genius, credited with conceiving an early prototype of the computer. Byron never really knew her.

 

6

 

Space closes in on me, and I can’t begin to detail his friendship with Shelley and presence at Shelley’s cremation, his contribution to the birth of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein, his cruel treatment of another lover, Claire Clairmont, and his affectionate neglect of their daughter, Allegra, his long affair with a married woman, Teresa Guiccioli, which may have influenced the feckless love life of his Don Juan. All of these things are covered by Ellis enough to make me want to search out a more detailed biography.
 
What I can say is that the comic mode had certainly, by 1817 when he wrote Beppo in Venice, come to the fore. A jaunty narrative of adultery, Beppo is also a sort of love letter to Italy and its language, “that soft bastard Latin, / Which melts like kisses from a female mouth, / And sounds as if it should be writ on satin. . . .” When the poet laureate Robert Southey composed his Vision of Judgment on the death of King George III in 1820, he wrote a preface accusing Byron and Shelley of being a “Satanic school” of poets. Southey’s moralism got Byron’s goat, and he responded with a Vision of Judgment of his own. It is simply wonderful, an assault not only on the monarchy, but also on poets like Southey who would extoll it:

 

He first sank to the bottom—like his works,
But soon rose to the surface—like himself;
For all corrupted things are buoy’d like corks,
By their own rottenness, light as an elf. . . .

 

In his hatred of cant, including moral piety, Byron prefigures D. H. Lawrence, who would set himself the formidable task of telling the truth about human hypocrisies. Byron’s Vision offers an argument between Satan, the archangel Michael and St. Peter concerning the fate of the dead king. George, meanwhile, sneaks undetected into Heaven, having got there due to no virtue of his own.
 
Then there is the marvel of Don Juan, which Byron began to publish in 1819. More cantos, a total of six finished and nine more semi-finished, were published until his death in 1824, while an unfinished 17th canto appeared posthumously. I’ve only had time to reread the first three cantos, which held my attention as tightly as just about any narrative poem I have ever read. In some ways, it’s a bit like reading Tom Jones, if Fielding had been a poet. The narrative voice takes precedence over the hero, who in most respects is far less interesting than any other character in the book. It’s picaresque, one damned thing after another but told with such inventiveness that one rarely feels bored. Byron’s literary asides and satirical comments are fun in their own right:

 

When people say, “I’ve told you fifty times,”
They mean to scold, and very often do;
When poets say, “I’ve written fifty rhymes,”
They make you dread that they’ll recite them too. . . .

 

The first Canto climaxes at a moment when Juan’s tryst with a married woman, Julia, is hardly mentioned at all. Instead you have a scene revealing the psychology of the husband and wife while the lover Juan is in hiding, followed by his discovery and banishment. Canto Two takes up his voyage, the shipwreck and the gruesome comedy of cannibalism, starting with Juan’s tutor:

 

The surgeon, as there was no other fee,
Had his first choice of morsels for his pains;
But being thirstiest at the moment, he
Preferr’d a draught from the fast-flowing veins:
Part was divided, part thrown in the sea,
And such things as the entrails and the brains
Regaled two sharks, who follow’d o’er the billow—
The sailors ate the rest of poor Pedrillo.

 

One sailor is spared this fate because he has the clap and does not look savory. Juan refuses to partake and witnesses the cannibals punished by madness. Byron must be remembering the ghoulishness of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner here. Eventually Juan is washed up, the sole survivor, on a Greek island. There he falls in love with Haidée, daughter of the pirate Lambro.
 
Don Juan is a masterpiece not only of narrative pacing, but also of comic tone, unsentimental even about love. It dazzles by invention.

 

7

 
Juan and Haidée enjoy an idyll in which Byron both indulges and gently mocks the popular association of Greece with nature: “And thus they form a group that’s quite antique, / Half naked, loving, natural, and Greek.” This is the Western reinvention of Greece as a paradise for the young, a phenomenon that has charged the country’s tourist trade since the 1960s, marketing a sunlit freedom unavailable to many Greeks at the time. Byron knows it’s a myth and the idyll cannot last, not only because of the temperamental pirate Lambro, but also because Greece is in chains. There’s a lovely moment in Canto Three, so much of which is given over to digression, when Byron inserts his song lyric, “The Isles of Greece”:

 

The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.

 

There it is in a nutshell: in all her imperfection, her division and violence, Greece still became a beacon of freedom to the other European nations, and Byron was part of that. He donated a fortune to keep the Greek navy afloat and journeyed to the country himself. He had suffered recurrent bouts of fever, possibly malaria, since his Grand Tour some fifteen years earlier, and at Missolonghi the fever returned. His doctors responded, as medical fashion dictated, by bleeding. The treatment killed him.
 
Ellis tells us that the Greeks insisted on keeping Byron’s lungs, source of the pneuma or breath of the soul. The rest of his body was pickled in spirits, a detail he would, if alive, have used in Don Juan. For his sins he was refused interment at Westminster Abbey but is buried in a churchyard near the Newstead Abbey of his youth.
 
 
 
 
[1] BYRON AND THE POETICS OF ADVERSITY, by Jerome McGann. Cambridge University Press. $25.99. READING BYRON: Poems—Life—Politics, by Bernard Beatty. Liverpool University Press. $130.00.
 
[2] My friend Gregory Dowling reminds me that “the first vampire novel in English was The Vampyre, by Byron’s doctor, John Polidori, in which the vampire of the title was clearly a portrait of Byron.”
 
[3] BYRON, by David Ellis. Reaktion Books. $22.00p.