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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 cultural humbug is made to start talking of literature to the women he meets! At the other extreme, is it conceivable that a man who disliked watching women eat should classify in his diary, with voluptuous relish, their various styles of farting? It would be amazing for anyone to idealize his schooldays after such traumatic sexual experiences at Harrow, yet the historical Byron was very happy at school. The conversations are uniformly excruciating. The participants growl, cackle, whimper, and grate, never saying anything either characteristic or intelligent, even when the dialogues are based on fact—indeed these are worse when they are not wholly invented.

The feline side of Byron comes up strongly; what is missing is any trace of the wit, the essential sardonic energy, that constantly authenticates Byron’s genuine prose: “The place is very well, and quiet, and the children only scream in a low voice….” Or “Lady Noel has, as you say, been dangerously ill; but it may console you to learn that she is dangerously well again….” Or that splendid execration on Lady Caroline Lamb, ending: “…if these were the last words I were to write upon earth I would not revoke one letter except to make it more legible.” This fundamental quality is beyond the range of The Missolonghi Manuscript.

The book’s only possible justification, as regards Byron, would lie either in its plausible solutions of biographical puzzles (as in novels written round unsolved crimes), or in its psychological enrichment of actual events. We do learn some things we didn’t know before; for instance, that it was Miss Milbanke who coined the famous remark about poetry’s being the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake (apparently innocent, as usual, of its medical or eliminatory implications). And that Byron was lying to the Masi tribunal when he swore he had not seen the dragoon sergeant stabbed. It is agreeable to learn that Byron knew Blake, and that his indifference to music and painting was a sham; here he is a connoisseur of Carpaccio and Giorgione, and responds with exquisite sensitivity to Mozart (not wholly improbable, this; despite his pretended philistinism Byron had the intellectual curiosity and digestion of an Egyptian goat). But what of the separation from Lady Byron? We have a right to a pretty fruity explanation for that. Harriet Beecher Stowe drew a picture suggesting incest with Augusta Leigh; Wilson Knight drew one of an “unnatural act” performed with his wife. What can Prokosch say to draw a third more opulent than his predecessors’? Incompatibility! No special Matrimonial Offense, only an Irretrievable Breakdown: a standard case for relief under the new British Divorce Act. And this in a book that contains (p. 296) ten bucketsful of the great poet’s reproductive fluid, and in which (pp. 263-4) a black, hairy arm reaches supernaturally out of the darkness to grasp that celebrated but slumbering penis! This unexpected failure of invention is a bitter disappointment.

The appeal of The Missolonghi Manuscript obviously arises from its success as a free fantasy on a legendary theme. In its vivid, distorting visual images, its tacky sex, its film-script dialogues (“…please don’t think that the Bride of Abydos is a serious effort. I am biding my time”), it exactly resembles a film-of-the-book. So, too, in the make-up of the poetic stars: “His face had the look of an over-ripe peach” (Tom Moore); “His face was as white as a parsnip and his eyes were as black as raisins” (Sam Rogers); “His head was shaped like an egg and his eyes looked like a rabbit’s” (Will Shakespeare). And in its heavy-handed underlining, whereby “I hit him! becomes “By God, I hit the bastard!”, and poor Mme. de Staël’s trouble with her busk, recorded by Lady Blessington, is enhanced into a photogenic menstrual misfortune.

It is for the locations, the tireless expensive costuming, the colorama, that the book must be read:

The blue-tiled façades stretched to the moss-bearded quays and the gulls from Capranica flew through a deep prismatic light—a light that soaked the city in a cool evening shimmer, so that even the faeces and the fleas took on a mediaeval aptness.

Who cares for Byron? This is vintage Prokosch. And this novel—his sixteenth—is highly entertaining reading for all who don’t know much about Byron, and are happy to stay that way.

PROFESSOR GLECKNER’S study is as different as possible, single-minded, scholarly, eschewing Byron’s prose almost completely, and insisting (rightly) that it is better to ask how far his poetry “structures the reality of the world” than how far it “expresses his own personality.” The book is a long expansion of its own title, or rather, of a learned article under the same title. “For an opposite view, see Professor X….” Nobody wants to see Professor X at such a moment; he wants to know how the author he is reading will dispose of the opposite view he very likely holds already. But what a relief to have the footnotes at his feet! Reading non-fiction nowadays is like trying to use two card-indexes in which all the cards have been helpfully glued together down one side.

Gleckner’s thesis is basically simple: he thinks that all Byron’s poetry, from schoolboy rhymes to the glories of Don Juan, has a single underlying theme, roughly that of despair. Man in all his desires and doings re-enacts the tragedy of the Fall (here Gleckner is developing a suggestion by Professor Ridenour):

[Man] invents a paradise in which he cannot believe, or if he believes, cannot attain; and he takes upon himself the guilt for having lost what never was.

Byronic guilt is thus “the heartfelt lament of man for what he is not.” Byron’s stock metaphor for the ruined paradise is sexual love, which, in a meaningless world, always ends in betraying him; against this betrayal the suffering heart arms itself with mockery, yet by doing so it denies the very yearnings whose disappointment has so outraged it. So the poet—man’s representative—is trapped in a hopeless cycle in which, to avoid madness, he must continually assert values that are predestined to continual defeat.

A great deal is got out of this reading (which incidentally reflects, and may in part have been conditioned by, the contemporary predicament of the critic’s own society). It is, however, a limiting one, and “self-expression” keeps slipping back, perhaps because Professor Gleckner is not very interested in “the world” that the poetry is said to “structure”—in the poetry’s social content, that is. He distinguishes two voices in Byron, the “public/private” voice of the letters, apparently self-revealing but in fact a disguise, and the “private/public” voice of the poems, apparently disguised by their formal utterance and their personae, but in fact self-revealing. The poems enable Byron

to speak out more sincerely and less vulnerably than he can in those straightforward single-voiced utterances which are ostensibly products of his private self. It is as if, by dissociating himself from the speaker of the poem, the living voice of his own deep feelings comes through all the more clearly. And in a letter, that dissociation is impossible.

But why? Dissociation of the self that experiences and the voice that speaks is just as likely in letters as in poems; Byron certainly was different men to different correspondents, even in describing the same event. Which is the “straightforward single-voiced utterance”? Moreover, the mixture of self-commitment and mockery, which enters the poetry late, was in the letters from the beginning: “The peasant girls have all very fine dark eyes, and many of them are beautiful. There are also two dead bodies in fine preservation….” The “two voices” surely make a distinction without a difference, as the author seems to admit by inadvertently switching them round in the course of the book (pp. xvi-xvii, 306).

Inevitably, Gleckner sees the long Haidée episode in Cantos II-III of Don Juan as “the fulcrum as well as the symbolic core of the entire poem.” Cast up on an island of the Greek Cyclades, Juan is met with coffee and eggs by the local potentate’s lovely seventeen-year-old daughter, who hides him in a cave until her piratical papa puts to sea. When the old man returns, it is to find his own death presumed and his beloved daughter living it up with her boyfriend out of the estate. A prototypical idyll of innocent young love shattered by a savage world? This is to sentimentalize it—as Byron emphatically doesn’t—by disregarding its social basis. The lovers’ luck runs out in the end, like all human things, but it was fabulous while it lasted. Eighteen sense-watering stanzas are lavished on enumerating the luxuries they help themselves to. And those luxuries were themselves ill-gotten, spoils of loot, murder, and forced prostitution. So this was a Paradise strictly on credit, and hot credit at that. Its collapse may be a parable of the frailty of human happiness, but it is equally a celebration of man’s irresponsible ingenuity in squeezing more juice out of life than he deserves to find there.

The same is true of the famous song “The Isle of Greece,” part of the entertainment laid on by Haidée. The singer, a kind of instant Poet Laureate, composes national anthems to order, yet what he improvises for his Greek audience (paid out of hijacked goods) is one of the most moving lyrics to the glory of the free human spirit ever written. It is ironized by its context; but simultaneously it contradicts and transfigures its context. Isn’t this the function, on a huge scale, of Byron’s wit and energy, which, in the very act of whipping the chair from under human dignity and ambition, indemnifies the merciless bump? The whole basis of his characteristic manner—its shameless digressions, its rhymes impudently extorted from the wrong syllable, its black laughter—is just as much “something for nothing” as it is the eternal wail of the heart under a comic mask. Gleckner stresses the line “I laugh that I may not weep” (also from the Haidée episode), and Byron meant it. But he wept, too, in order to forestall any risk of being interrupted in his laughter. His “despair,” in fact, is a protective device like his facetiousness.

Gleckner has isolated the strand of genuine gloom in Byron’s outlook, and by following it single-mindedly throughout the work, demonstrates a continuity and coherence that have generally been overlooked. He is especially helpful on the romantic tales. As he pursues his case, however, one’s actual experience of the poetry eventually ceases to correspond to the pattern hypothesized for it. I don’t believe any reader really feels that the comedy of Don Juan is only the despair of Childe Harold in a sophisticated disguise. What he feels, after reading both poems, is that Childe Harold has a dimension missing. And it is noticeable that Gleckner’s commentary gets steadily thinner and less rewarding; he has nothing much to say about that neglected masterpiece Beppo, and on The Vision of Judgement (Byron’s most satisfying work for many) he is silent altogether. The diagnosis was too simple; like all the other keys to the “real Byron”—the wound and the bow, “elimination,” homosexuality, and the rest—it turns hopefully in the wards for a moment and then snaps in one’s hand. “The comic vision beneath which the heart eternally wails”—that of the archetypal pathetic clown—gives, ultimately, only a static and sentimental account of a poetry that is in perpetual activity to subvert all such easy answers. The “overarching” impression left by Don Juan is surely neither “despair” nor “hope,” but exceedingly unpeaceful coexistence; Byron’s mature poetic manner is like that non-stop climbing technique in which the climber depends for success, and even survival, on never resting the full weight on any one hold. This literally endless poem, with its verve and resilience, with its materials bulging out of the bag, implies an unflagging engagement with life. If its formal qualities contradict its “message,” this too is part of its meaning and greatness.

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