Byron: The Making of a Comic Poet

Lord Byron
Lord Byron; drawing by David Levine

Of the poets whom histories of English literature indiscriminately lump together as the Romantics, the three who enjoyed great and immediate success in their own lifetime were Scott, Byron, and, some way behind, Tom Moore. Between 1812 and 1817, for example, Byron’s poems brought him in about two thousand pounds a year, a formidable sum for those days.

The extent to which taste has changed can be roughly gauged from looking at the courses devoted to this period by the average College English Department. Today, the poet most lectured upon is, I should guess, the one who was virtually unknown in his own time, William Blake, followed by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley, in that order. Scott the novelist is still widely read, Scott the poet by few. Moore, aside from a few songs in anthologies, is hardly read at all. And Byron? I wonder. I have no idea how many readers he still has, but, as one of them, I find the poems which made his reputation among his contemporaries, Childe Harold and the Tales, unreadable. Had he died in the first half of 1817, I should now be seconding his own verdict on his work up till that date, when he wrote to Moore:

If I live ten years longer, you will see, however, that all is not over with me—I don’t mean in literature, for that is nothing: and it may seem odd enough to say I do not think it is my vocation.

IF I HAD TO INTRODUCE BYRON to a student who knew nothing of his work, I would tell him: “Before you attempt to read any of the poetry, read all of the prose, his letters, and journals. Once you have read these, you will be able, when you come to the poems, to recognize immediately which are authentic and which are bogus. You will find, I think, that only three are of major importance, Beppo, The Vision of Judgement, and Don Juan, all of them written, incidentally, in the same metre.”

It does not matter where one opens the prose; from the earliest years till the end, the tone of voice rings true and utterly unlike anybody else’s.

This place is wretched enough—a villainous chaos of din and drunkenness, nothing but hazard and burgundy, hunting, mathematics, and Newmarket, riot and racing. Yet it is a paradise compared with the eternal dulness of Southwell. Oh! the misery of doing nothing but make love, enemies, and verses. [1807]

Dined versus six o’ the clock. Forgot that there was a plum-pudding (I have added, lately, eating to my “family of vices”) and had dined before I knew it. Drank half a bottle of some sort of spirits—probably spirits of wine; for what they call brandy, rum, etc., etc., here is nothing but spirits of wine, coloured accordingly. Did not eat two apples, which…

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