Byron’s Letters and Journals
Byron: A Poet Before His Public
In Aldous Huxley’s first novel, Crome Yellow, an elderly man, Denis Stone, describes how in his hot youth he made hazardous preparations in Madrid to rescue from confinement in a convent a young lady he thought he adored. How very romantic, say the others, and how excited he must have been. Not at all, he answers: he felt nothing; he was too busy. He felt excited in prospect and pleased with himself afterward, but the actual business was a blank. And through the man’s character the author comments on the significance of this for literature, which either keeps the reader in suspense or recounts in retrospect what it pretends is happening at the time.
It also has a special significance for Byron’s attitude toward art. Everything he wrote—poems, letters, journals—coincides, or aspires to coincide, with actual experience, as the twelve volumes of Leslie Marchand’s brilliantly edited edition of the letters and journals shows us. The technique, not only of Don Juan itself, but of all his poetry after the juvenilia, is to suggest that the writing takes place at the same moment as what it is about. And there were moments no doubt when it really did.
I would to heaven that I were so much clay,
As I am blood, bone, marrow,
Because at least the past were pass’d away—
And for the future—(but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly today,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say—the future is a serious matter—
And so—for God’s sake—hock and soda-water!
That stanza scribbled on the back of the manuscript of the first canto of Don Juan stands, and with deliberate bravura, for the method of the whole poem. Byron may of course have written it after several refreshing glasses of hock and soda water and a swim in the Grand Canal, sitting down in a clean shirt and with his headache partly gone. But it may also have been written just as he says, with the room going around, and other acute discomforts of the flesh. The point is that the truth for his art, and still more what is authentic in it, is the impression of momentary experience, the taste of the ephemeral fixed into words.
And to do this one must live. “Tool” in a post chaise or up against a wall, have women (and boys) “under a table or on it,” get drunk, swim the Hellespont, be familiar with firearms—
It has a strange quick jar upon the ear,
That cocking of a pistol, when you know
A moment more will bring the sight to bear
Upon your person, twelve yards off, or so…
—and be a lord if possible, or at least one of nature’s aristocrats. “Could any man have written it who had not lived?”—but living for Byron, as for writers like Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence who also invoke the notion, turns …