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 out to be a rather special, selective, and privileged business. Like art itself it leaves much out while claiming to present the whole. Life, however, has to be lived by us all at every second, while even Byron’s art only represents a few of them. Wordsworth was as much alive as Byron, who patronized and affected to despise him, but it would never have occurred to Wordsworth to inquire whether anyone could have written the Prelude who had not actually lived.
Nonetheless Byron’s technique and example have had a profound effect upon imaginative writing, an effect still with us today. Just how profound is shown by how widely the premise—the living as the writing—has been taken for granted. Without Byron’s inspiration we can hardly imagine the outburst of life and freedom—the degree of felt experience—in the nineteenth-century novel, in Stendhal and Balzac, Thackeray and Dickens (Steerforth in David Copperfield is a brilliant adaptation of the Byronic hero to the requirements of fiction), even in Russia, for Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Their phrase zhivaya zhizn—“lively life”—expresses the Byronic project, and so in another sense does that trembling halo of consciousness which Virginia Woolf sought to turn into subject and style. In technical terms she is as much a legatee of the poet as is Hemingway or Norman Mailer.
The influence of Byron on the way other writers lived, thought, and wrote was in the long run far more pervasive than his impact on the mind and spirit of the age. Electrifying the European consciousness was an extraordinary but still a comparatively facile achievement compared with the lasting contribution Byron has made to our assumptions about writing. Many of these are bad, in the sense that they have produced a very great deal of poor stuff. Not only are the enormous, clumsy heresies of realism and naturalism linked with the expansion of the Byronic spirit, but so is the illusion of every would-be writer that his sensations and reflections, poured out in a lava flow, must ipso facto seduce the reader. And, as the stanza on the back of Don Juan shows, Byron helped to inaugurate the school of style that purports to be imitative of consciousness, whether expressing itself as terse and clipped, as with Hemingway, or breathless and wavering, as in Virginia Woolf.
Of course the poet himself cannot be praised or blamed for everything of this nature that has taken place since, but his example was as inspiring in range and scale as it was often workmanlike in detail. In his lively biography—the most “Byronic” to date in some ways—Frederic Raphael refers to Byron’s one meeting, in Milan, with his great admirer Stendhal. Both revered Napoleon and felt themselves heirs of his myth and message; but though the Frenchman possessed the greater intelligence, or rather the more subtle power of self-analysis, he revered Byron to the point of idolatry. Their brief encounter filled him with “timidity and tenderness,” and he declared that “had I dared, I should have wept and kissed Lord Byron’s hand.”
So might Stendhal’s hero of La Chartreuse de Parme, Fabrice del Dongo, but the significant thing is that, without the example of Byron, Stendhal could never have written the famous account in that novel of the battle of Waterloo. Byron’s art introduced his contemporaries to what the German Tieck was later to categorize as “romantic irony,” the juxtaposition of romantic feeling with the actual situation, the momentary fact. Fabrice’s experiences at the battle bear no relation to his idea of what a battle is or should be; they lack all sense and coherence; only afterward can the battle be assembled as a sensible and historical phenomenon. Yet in artistic terms the contrast between reality and romance enhances both, gives a keener edge to fact and a greater scope to aspiration. The Russians took the point with especial energy: it is immanent in Pushkin and examined in the structure of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Tolstoy exploits it in his account of the Sevastopol fighting, his working up of material for The Cossacks, and for the experiences of Pierre and Rostov in War and Peace. Dostoevsky was a great Byronist.
One of the greatest assets of Byron’s genius was his good-humored sense of incongruity. The Pilgrim of Eternity turned every pratfall to account, most moving and heartfelt when most inclined to push those emotions to the point of parody. It would not have bothered him that his voyage to Missolonghi to help the Greeks in their war against the Turks was a fiasco and an anticlimax, that the martial impulse and the glorious call to liberation found their expression in his ordering from a Genoa emporium a custom-made hoplite-style helmet; that his prestige and practical gifts were lost among the petty squabbles and intrigues of the Greeks, his last days spent in frustrated longings for a Greek boy and in meaningless feats of endurance—with no enemy in sight or fighting in prospect—which helped to bring on the terminal uremic fever. It was all part of “one life, one writing,” as a latter-day poet in the tradition put it, though Byron, unlike Robert Lowell, dismissed his writing as merely for the sport and profit of a gentleman. “One hates an author that’s all author, fellows / In foolscap uniforms turn’d up with ink” is, as usual, Byron’s way of being himself in all he wrote, from minute to minute and day to day.
Being all author, like Wordsworth and Bob Southey, was for him to erect a huge monument factory for producing nature in the image of himself. His image and convention, as he saw them, were to shrug off what he wrote as the product of the moment and return to being himself. “For the night cometh”—in two senses. After a high-sounding stanza
the sofa and lady
Are both of them ready
And so, here’s “Good Night to you dammee!”
Everything written, whether lyric line or perfect stanza, a scribble to his publisher John Murray or to his friends John Hobhouse and Douglas Kinnaird, was done on the brink of the next experience.
Now, I’ll put out my taper
(I’ve finished my paper
For these stanzas you see on the brink stand)
There’s a whore on my right
For I rhyme best at Night
When a C-t is tied close to my
A good recipe for writing both well and badly, and for affecting not to bother which was which. Byron could not even bear to make fair copies of his poems, and after Shelley’s death sent them to Mary Shelley to copy out, an occupation for her and one which he paid for with his usual generosity.
In his poetry incongruity works both ways: He puts on a Byronic act, and then finds himself, as we are, moved by it, and believing in it. The early reviewers such as Francis Jeffrey, the editor of the Edinburgh Review, who were seduced by all the Sturm und Drang, the dark suffering and defiant remorse, were not really being taken in. Byron’s spell included the act, and the charm of the act was that at its most outrageous it seemed to reveal a friendly intimacy, as if the whole demonstration of the Byronic had been put on for the benefit of the poet and the private reader alone. The tone of the letters and journals is present in the background of the poems, and something else too, because the poetry has the power of rapid change from display to discovery. “Freedom” is a slogan of the age which the poet exploits at the vulgar level, and then suddenly makes poignantly his own.
Yet, freedom, yet, thy banner, torn but flying,
Streams, like the thunderstorm,
against the wind.
His next to last poem, “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year,” is a remarkable instance of his sort of originality, which is his way of revealing himself. It opens with a barrage of romantic commonplace—the heart that should be unmoved since it can no longer move others, the echo from Shakespeare—“My days are in the yellow leaf”—the fire that consumes the bosom like some volcanic isle, the chain of love still worn after its power is felt no more. Then with a start the poem pulls itself together.