The Missolonghi Manuscript

by Frederic Prokosch
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 338 pp., $5.95

Ever since reading in the Thirties a delicately printed poem which mentioned that whales in their gigantic bliss lie trembling two by two, I have had some affection for Prokosch’s writing, in which the juicily sensual and scatological are dispensed with literary sugar-tongs; and I found The Missolonghi Manuscript enjoyable in somewhat the same way as Danny Kaye’s Hans Andersen. What an entertaining film that would have been, under any other title! If only Prokosch’s book had been called Hans Andersen! A Preface validates the manuscript as having been stolen from the dying Byron, though it slyly concedes that the language often seems un-Byronic, the spelling modern, the “visual precision quite at odds with his earlier manner.” Nonetheless the Manuscript is claimed to be “in a subtle and secret and self-developing harmony” with the poet’s earlier style, and to display “the iridescent nature of a poet’s own past when resuscitated and reinterpreted in the clear sad glow of an autumn solitude.” How very like Prokosch all the actors in this enterprise are! The original (when re-traced) will go to Byron’s old college. So Trinity, Cambridge, may eventually get a bull to replace the bear which Byron kept there and hoped to enter for a Fellowship.

What possible reason can Prokosch have had to play it this way? It was not like inventing, say, the diaries of a rake or a soldier; the aim was to inhabit the very self and voice of a great poet and a superb prose-writer. This ambition was not so much bold as doomed. The failure of the professional forgers should have been deterrent enough: their misjudged allusions, their pitiable jokes, their hectic egads and dammes. Byron’s deathbed was well attended: why not simulate another “journal of the conversations,” perhaps translated from Greek or French to account for the inevitable solecisms? If Byron really dazzled Mary Chaworth with his kaleidoscope, why didn’t he dazzle the Royal Society with it, and so bring the “many-sided mirror” symbol into English Romantic poetry several years earlier than Sir David Brewster did? Trelawny never saw Byron naked, let alone inspected his lame foot at his express invitation. The poet swam with his pants on. (Did even his mistresses ever see him naked? I very much doubt it.) He seems to have lost his sunglasses as well as his pants. “I opened my flies and started to piss into the darkness,” he writes. His flies? Perhaps this was one of the words the transcriber had to guess, and Byron really wrote zip. Who were the “two young poets” alleged by Scrope Davies at the Cocoa-Tree to have more talent than Rogers and Campbell rolled into one? Shelley and Keats? If so, it was very avant-garde, not to say prophetic, taste. Toward the end (pp. 268-9) Byron mis-composes, and is therefore understandably baffled by, one of his own poems.

BUT IT IS POINTLESS to sample the errors of detail. There are lapses on a large scale. How relentlessly this hater of…

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