Byron’s Hebrew Melodies
Among the Victorian junk I inherited from a gaggle of great-aunts is a set of editions of Byron’s early poems, still in their original dirty-brown paper covers. Several of them are first editions, though their market value is inconsiderable. I must admit that I have not noticed any thumbmarks or marginal exclamations to indicate that any member of the family ever read any of the volumes. And why on earth should they? Before Beppo (a minor master-piece) and a few stanzas from Childe Harold, a still fewer lyrics perhaps, what was there really for Byron to awaken and find himself famous for?
But there is no doubt that Byron is one of the five great English Romantic poets. The moment of transition from the poet of the dressing rooms to the poet to whom even Goethe accorded a superiority therefore deserves a closer attention than it has received—and above all the reasons and causes underlying that transition. If Thomas L. Ashton’s elaborate—indeed, grotesquely overelaborate—edition of the Hebrew Melodies does not answer the central question that Byron’s poetry poses for the critic, it at least provides the material for such an answer.
The thirty separate poems are arranged here, not as Byron or his publisher arranged them, but in the chronological order of their composition. A minor consequence of this reshuffle is to liberate “She Walks in Beauty” from any Israelite or Jewish context. This is one of Byron’s most successful flirtations with Romanticism, but the young lady who is both “dark and bright” is not, it seems, an Oriental charmer but a certain Mrs. Wilmot, the wife of a second cousin of Byron’s, who was unknown to him until the previous evening. The “thou” of “I speak not—I trace not—I breathe not” (written a week or at most a month earlier) was also English, but there is no neoclassic detachment in this very remarkable poem. Its object was his half-sister Augusta Leigh—as the candid Augusta frankly admitted to Byron’s wife soon after their separation.
A special intensity derived from a special self-involvement characterizes the poem and makes it quite different from Byron’s earlier verse. The key lines in Byron’s own breathless punctuation are:
We repent—we abjure—we will break from our chain;
We must part—we must fly—to unite it again.
Oh! thine be the gladness and mine be the guilt.
In the autograph draft, “madness” takes the place of “gladness.” Psychologically this is the language of incest, a sexual perversion to which the Romantic poet was peculiarly liable. Shelley accused Wordsworth of it with his sister Dorothy; the Quarterly Review even accused Shelley of it with his sister. It was a favorite theme too of Continental Romanticism. But the degree to which a half-sister can commit incest with a half-brother, one not seen for several years, must clearly be a moot point.
It is difficult to take such a relationship very solemnly today. There were surely deadlier sins even in the “Gothic” calendar. It is in the human problems which the progeny of such relationships may create that tragedy lies. Simply considered aesthetically Byron’s poetry benefited enormously from the new responsibility and the new range of experience the liaison with Augusta forced upon him. “The Dream” (July, 1816) has recently been called his greatest poem. Even his disastrous marriage was not uninstructive. W. W. Robson, Byron’s most perceptive modern critic, has made just such a claim for the “Lines on Hearing that Lady Byron was Ill” of September, 1816. But supposing he had had a child by Augusta? What then? May not this be the real clue to the essential change?
The supposition is now shown by Catherine Turney in Byron’s Daughter to be something more than hypothetical. There have been rumors of such a daughter for many years; Miss Turney has now shown that they have a solid basis. How then did Byron—and Byron’s poetry—react to this deeper degree of “guilt”?
The sin of which the poem in Hebrew Melodies accuses its author is incest. Of that there has been no doubt since Mrs. Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a confidante of Lady Byron’s, let the tiger out of the bag. Byron had committed the deadliest Victorian sin—one beside which King David’s behavior in the Bathsheba affair was a peccadillo. I dare say the conscience of the laughter-loving Augusta was not unduly troubled. But Byron had been brought up in the stern Calvinism of Aberdeen and for him even technical incest with a half-sister could not be shrugged off so easily. Contemplating Augusta and their little daughter, the first child that he had brought into the world, the playboy becomes defiant and a new maturity comes into the verse. Professor Ashton again gives us a revealing phrase from the first draft of the poem: the poet (Byron) will not give up his beloved (Augusta), even though the price of their love be “eternity’s woe” for him.
The next stage in Byron’s subjective evolution is the melodramatic metaphysics of Manfred, though I find it difficult to reconcile the pretentious Phantom of Astarte and the real rather silly Augusta. Miss Turney wisely confines herself to biographical fact. She begins with an entry in Augusta Leigh’s Bible:
Elizabeth Medora Leigh born at Six Mile Bottom April 15th 1814. Christened there, May 20th 1814 by the Revd. C. Wedge. Sponsors—The Dss. of Rutland Mrs Wilmot and Lord Byron.
The date is that of “I speak not—I trace not—I breathe not.”
Six Mile Bottom was the Leighs’ long low house outside Newmarket. Colonel George Leigh, Augusta’s husband, a great racing man, was attending meetings in Yorkshire at the time. Nothing sinister need be attached to the presence of the Duchess of Rutland or of Mrs. Wilmot (of “She Walks in Beauty”), but that the baby was called Medora must be considered significant. The paramour of Conrad, the pirate chief in Byron’s best seller The Corsair (published only the preceding January), had also been called Medora. The fact that Elizabeth Medora was “christened” at home more than a month after she was born instead of being “baptized” in the parish church only points to the infant being delicate.
Miss Turney assembles a number of passages from Byron’s letters in support of her case that become cumulatively impressive. Thus it can hardly be an accident that the Leighs, who were chronically in debt, should receive £3,000 from Byron, not a rich man, specifically as a gift rather than a loan, at the time of Medora’s birth. In 1816 too a letter from Byron to Augusta has a postscript which includes a loving inquiry after “Do,” who ten days later has become “my little da.” On April 24, 1816, at the end of a business letter to John Hanson, his lawyer, Byron adds, “Send me some news of my child every now and then.” And a later letter to Thomas Moore (February 2, 1818) is more specific: “I am quite rappt up in my own children. Besides my little legitimate [Ada], I have made unto myself an il-legitimate Allegra, by Claire Clairmont.” The “one before” can only be Medora, though the vagueness of the reference may suggest that she had now been swallowed up among the Leighs.
As for Medora—whom the Leighs preferred to call Libby—she has had the last word. Medora Leigh: A History and An Autobiography (1869) looks like a Victorian novel, and the story it tells is as sensational as anything in Wilkie Collins. But Miss Turney, who tells us she has devoted twelve years to the verification of Medora’s story, is able to persuade us that most of it at any rate is true. The climax comes when Medora, having failed to extract her due from the Byron estate, calls on a London solicitor called Thomas Smith. By great good luck Byron was Smith’s hero, Smith having been secretary to the chief justice of Corfu in 1823 when he had had long talks with Byron, who clearly took to him. Smith seems to have lived on the memory of those talks, and so he did all he could to help Medora when she walked into his office in 1843. It was Smith who persuaded her to write her autobiography, and years later—long after Medora’s death in 1849—it was Smith who persuaded the poet Charles Mackay to subedit and arrange for the publication of Elizabeth Medora Leigh to spike Mrs. Stowe’s guns, then blazing away. Byron with his hatred of cant would have been proud of his young legal friend’s pertinacity.
I think he might also have been proud of his daughter. He had certainly intended a part of his considerable fortune to go to Medora, and she fought hard for it on behalf of her own illegitimate daughter Marie, with some help from Thomas Smith but with a defiance of the odds properly Byronic. However, in the end, of course, the lawyers and an ambiguous alliance between the rich Lady Byron and the terrified Augusta had to win. Medora retired with Marie to a French pension where when the money ran out she became a domestic servant.
With the help of a French scholar Miss Turney has been able to take Medora’s story to its curious end. One day a French colonel arrived at the pension, bringing with him his orderly, and Medora and the orderly soon fell in love and married. She also became the only possessor of a piano in the village! But this peasant idyll was interrupted by Medora dying of smallpox after only one year’s happy marriage. She was only thirty-four years old. (Byron was thirty-six at Missolonghi.)
Miss Turney is an amateur scholar. She provides some references in her footnotes, but many of the crucial ones are missing. Where, for example, is Medora Leigh’s Bible now, which makes such an effective entrée on page three of the work? Nevertheless I am convinced by her story. There are a few embarrassingly sentimental passages, but on the whole it rings true.
John D. Jump’s Byron inaugurates a new literary series, though the formula it follows goes back in all its essentials to Morley’s English Men of Letters series. The formula, it will be remembered, is a simple one. A scholar who is also a reputable literary man—Morley was lucky enough to catch Henry James for Hawthorne and Trollope for Thackeray—is hired and is instructed to give the academic public some two hundred pages that combine biography and criticism. And by their subsequent multiplication it is to be presumed such series perform some function. They have not changed much in the course of the last hundred years, except perhaps in the disappearance of metaphors in their prose style. Here, for example, is the opening sentence of Morley’s Byron man, Professor John Nichol of Glasgow (the author of a “judicious and interesting” book, according to Matthew Arnold): “Byron’s life was passed under the fierce light that beats upon an intellectual throne.” Professor Jump of Manchester begins more soberly: “Byron belongs not merely to English but to world literature.” But in almost every critical respect the two professors are equally sensible, reliable—and unoriginal.
A short preface by B. C. Southam, the general editor of the Routledge series and the author of an excellent book on Jane Austen, justifies the series by its “historical emphasis.” Elaborated, this becomes “the treatment of the great literary writers” in “the social and historical context of the writer’s life and times, and the cultural and intellectual tradition in which he stands….” As the editor of a somewhat similar series (Longman’s Annotated English Poets), I know how hard it is to devise a logic-tight formula of this nature, but Southam might surely have done better than this.
A title such as Byron (or Tolstoy or Browning, the other titles already announced for the series) commits its author to individualism; the center of interest is assumed to be in what differentiates the particular writer from other comparable writers. Such an expectation was an implicit promise made—and on the whole fulfilled—by Morley’s Victorian team. But the one-author-per-volume formula has now more or less exhausted its superficial potentialities for all but specialists and expert biographers. If it is retained we must dig deeper into the psyche of the person under scrutiny. And in Byron’s case that will certainly mean—at least it may mean—a closer and bolder analysis of both the actual poems and the demonstrable incest.
Pure Incest October 18, 1973