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Byron: The Making of a Comic Poet

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 were placed by way of dessert. Fed the two cats, the hawk, and the tame (but not tamed) crow. Read Mitford’s History of Greece—Xenophon’s Retreat of the Ten Thousand. Up to this present moment, writing, 6 minutes before 8 o’ the clock—French hours, not Italian.

Hear the carriage—order pistols and great coat—necessary articles. Weather cold—carriage open, and inhabitants rather savage—rather treacherous and highly inflamed by politics. Fine fellows though—good materials for a nation. Out of chaos God made a world, and out of high passions come a people.

Clock strikes—going out to make love. Somewhat perilous but not disagreeable. Memorandum—a new screen put up to-day. It is rather antique but will do with a little repair. [1821]

In the poems and plays, on the other hand, even the later ones, at any moment the voice may go off-key. It is instructive, and sad, to compare the journal of 1816, which he kept for Augusta while traveling through the Alps, with the alpine scenes in Manfred, written the following year in which he also wrote his first major poem, Beppo. The scenes are based upon the Journal—sometimes whole phrases are repeated word for word, but while the Journal is vital and exciting, the play is dead and a big bore.

IF A ROMANTIC POET is one who believes, and writes in accordance with the belief, that Imagination is a power of vision which enables man to perceive the sacred truth behind sensory phenomena and, therefore, the noblest of all the mental faculties, then Byron was, both by profession and in practice, one of the least romantic poets who ever lived.

Long before he was able to make his poetry conform to them, he had arrived at very definite convictions about the nature of poetry, and was well aware that they were at odds with those prevalent among his contemporaries. Nearly all of the poetry being written in his time, including his own, was, he felt, on the wrong track. The only poets on the right track were those still writing in the Augustan tradition, Crabbe and Rogers, and they, compared with their masters, Dryden and Pope, were but epigones.

Byron’s aesthetic theories, like those of any poet, were in part a set of working rules to help him write the kind of poetry it was in him to write, and in part an attempt to justify himself for not writing the kind of poetry for which he lacked the talent. When at last he found himself as a poet, one understands why he had always admired Dryden and Pope. Like him, they were “realists” who instead of creating imaginary characters and landscapes, described living people and existing things, and, like him, they were “worldly,” that is to say, their primary poetic concern was neither with non-human nature nor with their own personal emotions, but with man as a social-political animal, with how men and women behave to each other, with the motives behind and the rationalized excuses they give for their actions. At first Byron’s admiration for them led him astray because he imagined that their sort of poetry could only be written in the medium they employed, the heroic couplet. This, he was to discover, was not the case, but of that more later.

AS FOR HIS LIMITATIONS, no other English poet, probably, has been so utterly deficient in the power of invention, and therefore so incapable of appreciating it.

I hate all things fiction: and therefore the Merchant and Othello have no great associations to me.

I detest [painting] unless it reminds me of something I have seen, or think it possible to see, for which reason I spew upon and abhor all the Saints—subjects of one half of the impostures I see in the churches and palaces.

To be unable to invent is to be unable to dramatize, even to dramatize oneself. Byron’s poetry only sounds authentic when he speaks directly in the first person as Byron. When, as in Childe Harold or The Corsair or Manfred, he attempts to create a hero who is a projection of himself, he fails because, as in a bad portrait, the reader cannot help noticing both the resemblance and the failure to resemble.

With the exception of Don Juan, all the “byronic” heroes are melancholics. From his letters and journals, it is evident that Byron himself suffered deeply all his life from depressions. It would have been surprising if he had not. A strain of violence and erratic behavior in both the Byrons and the Gordons, a childhood of genteel poverty spent with a hysterical mother and no father, a deformed foot and, evidently, some kind of glandular dysfunction which made him prone to obesity—though short, at the age of eighteen he weighed 194 pounds—all must have been a burden difficult for any boy to bear. In addition he hints at extraordinary happenings, probably sexual, of which he dare not speak openly.

His letters and journals, however, also make it clear that, from the beginning, the riposte of his imagination, reason and moral courage to his depressions, was to make a joke of them. “A joke,” said Nietzsche, “is an epitaph on an emotion,” and it is probable that all great comedians suffer from melancholia; a poet who can successfully express tragic and sad emotions need not be sad himself: Indeed, he may quite possibly be temperamentally cheerful.

BYRON’S GENIUS WAS ESSENTIALLY a comic one, and his poetic history is a quest, finally successful, to discover the right verse vehicle for a comic poet in his time. His admiration of Dryden and Pope initially misled him into thinking that, like them, he was intended to be a satirist. Satire and comedy overlap—satirists are often funny and comedians satirical—but their goals are essentially different. The goal of satire is reform, the goal of comedy acceptance. Satire attempts to show that the behavior of an individual or a group within society violates the laws of ethics or common sense, on the assumption that, once the majority are aware of the facts, they will become morally indignant and either compel the violaters to mend their ways or render them socially and politically impotent. Comedy, on the other hand, is concerned with the illusions and selfdeceptions which all men indulge in as to what they and the world they live in are really like, and cannot, so long as they remain human, help being. The object of the comic exposure is not a special individual or a special social group, but everyman or human society as a whole. Satire is angry and optimistic—it believes that the evil it attacks can be abolished: Comedy is good-tempered and pessimistic—it believes that, however much we may wish we could, we cannot change human nature, and must make the best of a bad job.

Now and again, as in his attacks on Southey and the Duke of Wellington, Byron writes as a satirist.

You are “the best of cut-throats”:—do not start;
The phrase is Shakespeare’s, and not misapplied:
War’s a brain-spattering, windpipe- slitting art,
Unless her cause by right be sancti- field.
If you have acted once a generous part,
The world, not the world’s masters, will decide,
And I shall be delighted to learn who,
Save you and yours, have gain’d by Waterloo.

But his predominant and constant concern is, in his own words, “to giggle and make giggle.”

Poor Julia’s heart was in an awk- ward state,
She felt it going and resolved to make
The noblest effort for herself and make,
For honor’s, pride’s, religion’s, virtue’s sake;
Her resolutions were most truly great;
And almost might have made a Tarquin quake:
She prayed the Virgin Mary for her grace
As being the best judge in a lady’s case.
She vowed she never would see Juan more
And next day paid a visit to his mother;
And looked extremely at the open- ing door,
Which, by the Virgin’s grace, let in another;
Grateful she was, and yet a little sore—
Again it opens—it can be no other.
Tis surely Juan now—No! I’m a- fraid
That night the Virgin was no long- er prayed.

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