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Byron and the ‘Lively Life’

We gaze and turn away, and know not where,
Dazzled and drunk with beauty, till the heart
Reels with its fulness; there
   forever there
Chain’d to the chariot of triumphal Art,
We stand as captives, and would not depart.
The paltry jargon of the marble mart,
Where Pedantry gulls Folly—we have eyes.

But that, as Sir Kenneth Clark observed, is precisely what Byron does not have at this moment—he is not looking at the statue at all. Precise words, of the kind he so infallibly finds for everyday objects, are just what is needed here, not the conventional rhapsody and the even more conventional sneer at the expert who learns and studies art closely. Byronic insincerity is not just rhetoric for its own sake but the kind of acting that plays up to the expectations of the beau monde.

I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; and to me
High mountains are a feeling, but the hum
Of human cities torture.

That sounds like the grande dame (“are a feeling”) for whom nature has just become all the rage, and the imitation is involuntary. But even here Byron is generous. What he detested about the Lake poets was the “self-love” that separated their visions of nature from social experience. Nature to him was a fashion, and to be shared as such, just as he shared his own modes and subjects with those who followed him: a great poet like Pushkin entered naturally into the Byronic fellowship and profited from it as he could never have done from Wordsworth (though he tried).

Byron can be a showoff in poetry, though never in prose, and in Childe Harold he is trapped in the fashion and convention of his own creating. But even there he knows what he wants to do and will do.

Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy, gaining as we give
The life we image, even as I do now.

Even in the travelogue he keeps pulling himself up. “But this is not my theme; and I return / To that which is immediate….” In fact he returns to the kind of thing that fills Don Juan as well as his letters and journals, the faculty of instant, but curiously passive response to whatever is going on. The most passive hero in literature, Juan adds a psychological dimension to the normally put-upon nature of the young man in a picaresque narrative. And Byron himself in the poem is like the brother or alter ego of his hero: compare the much more sophisticated relation of Pushkin to Eugene Onegin in his verse novel.

One wonders whether if he had lived Byron would have brought even more closely together the conventions he had developed for rhyming and for writing prose. Writing to Murray in December 1820 he gives an account of a terrorist killing outside his house in Ravenna, the local military commandant shot in the back by a Carbonari assassin, one of “the Liberty boys of the country” as he commented in a letter to his wife, describing for her the same affair.

In fact, as we see from Marchand’s edition of the letters, he wrote about this episode to three people—the third was Thomas Moore—in letters thrown off as usual in the excitement of the moment. They supply a remarkable instance of Byron’s use of such material for his writing and of the sense of immediacy that goes today into books like In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song—but they also show how he instinctively adapted manner and style to different correspondents: Keats or D.H. Lawrence, letter writers almost as vivid, are the same to everyone. Byron had been writing the same day to Thomas Moore, who had chronic financial problems, authorizing him to sell the future rights—or “reversion”—in Byron’s memoirs to Murray for posthumous publication (“that is, after my death”). Moore got 2,000 guineas for the sale, but after Byron’s death the memoirs were burned—a major loss to English literature—and Moore refunded the money to Murray. It was bad luck for both of them, but there were many powerful people in Byron’s background who would have feared revelations, though there were others, like Lady Caroline Lamb, who might have welcomed them.

Even before Byron added a separate note to include the account of the commandant’s death in his letter to Moore, it was one of his most economically genial ones. He points out the advantage of the reversion scheme to Moore, “and if you (as is most likely) survive me, add what you please from your own knowledge; and, above all, contradict any thing, if I have mis-stated; for my first object is the truth, even at my own expense.” He goes on to comment on an Irish friend of Moore’s, who was lecturing on English literature in Paris, and who held that Byron was the only writer among the moderns to have a proper notion of religion. “He wrote to me several letters upon Christianity, to convert me; and, if I had not been a Christian already, I should probably have been now, in consequence.” He refers to a humorous piece in Blackwood’s which represented him and Moore laughing behind their hands at the solemn assemblage of their fellow writers: its author had taken the point, sooner than anyone else, that Byron’s literary attitude had become one of deriding the pretensions and lies of literature itself. The letter ends with an easy reference to royal scandals in England—“Let us talk of the Queen, and her bath, and her bottle—that’s the only motley nowadays.” Then comes the enclosure.

I open my letter to tell you a fact, which will show the state of this country better than I can. The commandant of the troops is now lying dead in my house. He was shot at a little past eight o’clock, about two hundred paces from my door. I was putting on my greatcoat to visit Madama la Contessa G. when I heard the shot. On coming into the hall, I found all my servants on the balcony, exclaiming that a man was murdered. I immediately ran down…and found him lying on his back, almost, if not quite, dead, with five wounds, one in the heart, two in the stomach, one in the finger, and the other in the arm….

As nobody could, or would, do any thing but howl and pray, and as no one would stir a finger to move him, for fear of consequences, I lost my patience—made my servant and a couple of the mob take up the body—sent off two soldiers to the guard—…and had the commandant carried upstairs into my own quarter. But it was too late, he was gone—not at all disfigured—bled inwardly—not above an ounce or two came out.

I had him partly stripped—made the surgeon examine him, and examined him myself. He had been shot by cut balls or slugs. I felt one of the slugs, which had gone through him, all but the skin. Everybody conjectures why he was killed, but no one knows how. The gun was found close by him—an old gun, half filed down.

That last touch has the note of modern prose, the cold detail unemphasized. The letter to John Murray gives a more terse and telegraphic version, a little in the manner of Dickens’s Mr. Jingle—“he seems asleep—but is growing livid.—The Assassin has not been taken—but the gun was found—a gun filed down to half the barrel.” For Lady Byron he renders the incident in more domestic terms. Typical of Byron is the way in which he draws attention to his own conduct—the Italians wanted to see and know nothing, as with a victim of the Mafia, but “as for consequences, I care for none in a duty.” He ran down at once into the street, followed by “the bravest” of the servants—and we note how this very natural vanity increases rather than detracts from the factual truth of what he tells. For that truth shows Byron as brave indeed, and conscious of duty, but also as the passive voyeur, the man at the scene of the accident, the author making notes on what can be worked up later. The paradox of Byron’s style is that in asserting “life” and seeing “men and things as they are,” it also emphasizes its place as à côté de la vie.

Yet that goes precisely with his feeling for “les actualités“—the latest thing, the news of the moment: the truth about himself is simultaneous with the truth of what he sees. This may strike us particularly in contrast with that other lover of Italy, Robert Browning, who in his poem De Gustibus produces a version of assassination suited only to guidebooks and romances.

A girl bare-footed brings, and tumbles
Down on the pavement, green-flesh melons,
And says there’s news today—the king
Was shot at, touched in the liver-
   wing,
Goes with his Bourbon arm in a sling:
—She hopes they have not caught the felons.

The absence of the real fact of trying to kill a man with a gun coincides with the absence of Browning himself; he loses himself in the ignorantly romantic incomprehension of the girl. The lack of the poet here is a lack of responsibility. And that is exactly what Byron achieves when he imports the same incident as it happened to him into the poem he is writing, where it blends naturally with Juan’s story.

The other evening (‘twas on Friday last)
   This is a fact and no poetic fable
Just as my greatcoat was about me cast,
   My hat and gloves still lying on the table,
I heard a shot—’twas eight o’clock scarce past
   And running out as fast as I was able,
I found the military commandant
Stretched in the street and able scarce to pant.

The striking thing about the transmigration from the letters is that the verse is able to combine the facetiousness needed for rhymes (“able scarce to pant”) with the same absolute responsibility to the occasion, and the writer’s reaction to it. Even euphemism and rhetoric are compatible with it, as the later stanzas show:

you could scarcely tell (As he bled inwardly, no hideous river
Of gore divulged the cause) that he was dead;
So as I gazed on him, I thought or said,

“Can this be death? Then what is life or death?
Speak!” but he spoke not.
   “Wake!” but still he slept.

The rhetoric here seems (as in Hamlet or Macbeth) an intensity of concentration too immediate to care for verbal effect, and summed up in the word “wrench” two stanzas later, and the jerk in the preceding line.

   But let me quit the theme; as such things claim
Perhaps even more attention than is due From me. I gazed (as oft I have gazed the same)
To try if I could wrench aught out of death
Which should confirm or shake or make a faith.

Query even intensifies itself by resort to the popular colloquial (“Here we are, / And there we go, but where?”), culminating in the shrug of dismissal (“No more; / But let us to the story as before”) which shows that “story,” and anything Byron chooses to say in the course of it are one and the same; whereas in an early poem like The Giaour (“He who hath bent him o’er the dead / Ere the first day of death is fled”) such reflections acquire an extra portentousness from being interruptions in a romantic tale.

Pace the contemporary structuralist, a writer may be true in what he writes, yet in writing there can be no such thing as reality, only an attitude to the material, which for Byron is that of the factual reporter for his friends. Many of the letters received were read at once at parties in Murray’s town house. As Philip Martin observes in his excellent study Byron: A Poet Before His Public, the authenticity of his writing “inheres not in the accuracy of the facts described, but in Byron’s establishment of his relation to them.” Insistently inquisitive as he is, “curiosity is nevertheless not simply a matter of wanting to see or examine, but also a controlled performance,” in which he “publicly declares” the nature of his response. The formula has become almost the most conventional one possible for a writer of our time, and yet it is not—and certainly was not in the case of Byron—as simple as it looks. One reason is that he so frequently and so effectively gives the impression of surprising himself in what he says, revealing another aspect of himself from the one he is seeking to emphasize in performance. This is connected to the difficulty of the relation of what is “bad” in his art to what is “good”: the two frequently enhance the other as they do in Keats, who is a more Byronic poet than is usually recognized, or he himself would have wished to admit.

All this explains why good Byron criticism is so rare, and why there has been so little close and illuminating analysis of the ways in which his poetry works. Dr. Martin’s study joins the few others—Jerome McGann’s Fiery Dust, Paul West’s Byron and the Spoiler’s Art, and above all W.W. Robson’s seminal essay “Byron as Poet”1—that have successfully mediated between the uncritical enthusiasm and the equally uncritical distaste which his poetry aroused in its own time and for more than a century afterward. Almost equally rare have been good biographies which instead of itemizing gossip and sensationalism have inquired sympathetically into the reason for Byron’s behavior. The great exception, of course, is Marchand’s own magisterial and scholarly three-volume biography.2 It is like trying to psychoanalyze Hamlet or Falstaff, but Wilson Knight (who invoked that pair) was surely right in regarding Byron’s marriage, and his attitude toward it, as of crucial importance.

Marriage was an intimacy that frustrated Byron’s compulsion to present all the time, in what he wrote and was, an immediate public image. And yet there is evidence that Byron needed that intimacy, in which he could become a private man, and longed for it. That did not mean that he had any means of getting it, or keeping it. Annabella Milbanke appealed to him, as Donna Ana did to Pushkin’s Don Juan, because she seemed quiet, calm, and disinterested; she did not throw herself at him as Caroline Lamb had done. (The unstable wife of William Lamb, having proclaimed that Byron was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” lost no time in trying to make a lapdog out of him.) Byron’s letters to his wife are notable for a kind of intimacy, of the simple spousal sort, full of nicknames, not found elsewhere in his correspondence, certainly not in the letters to Countess Teresa Guiccioli, “the last attachment,” the woman with whom he seems superficially to have been most contented.

As an heiress Annabella had prospects which at the time were important to him, but he seems to have married her for her innocence, a quality that, as rakes often do, he valued in a very special way. It took him out of himself, whereas the quasi-motherly attentions of his half-sister Augusta and so many other experienced ladies (an Italian aristocrat in mid-century is said to have habitually introduced his wife as “ancienne maîtresse de Lord Byron“) merely ministered to his status as the spoiled child of fortune and fame. Innocence is not so much a lost paradise (“No more, no more! Oh never more on me / The freshness of the heart can fall like dew”) but the promise of an escape from a self growing always more importunately claustrophobic.

But one of the engaging things about Byron is that for a writer who so consciously cultivated the incongruities of living he seems to have been surprised nonetheless by the unexpected. Scholars, among whom Leslie Marchand is by far the most eminent and knowledgeable, are more or less agreed that Byron had to leave England for good in 1816 because he had forced anal sex upon his wife—a capital charge at the time. There were of course other factors—his debts, the rumor of incest with his half-sister Augusta, more minor scandals, and above all his own inclination to be on the road again, away from it all. Frederic Raphael speculates, both humorously and humanely, that this was one droll instance where Byron’s innocence and that of his wife coincided—neither was in the least prepared for the view the world would take.

Newly married Annabella, willing and happy on her honeymoon, may well have thought this just one of the things men did (Raphael points out that Charlie Chaplin’s brides were persuaded to a similar view of another practice) and was only disabused later by Caroline Lamb. She was shocked and hurt; Byron was shocked and hurt by her outrage: the simple mutuality of the pair was destroyed by the publicity and social knowingness that the poet had always so assiduously courted. Henry James was later to shake his head in fascination over the evidence and find it too unspeakable, of course, but of “inexpressible” significance. Betrayal was his specialty, and this involuntary mutual betrayal was far odder than anything he dreamed up for Isabel Archer and Milly Theale.

Byron is not in the true sense an original poet. His words do not take over the world: indeed he came to make a virtue of their not doing so, and persistently sneered at Wordsworth and the other romantics because of the mental and metaphysical structures their poetry set up. His hero was Pope, another pouncer upon the instant. “Byronic” had and has a perfectly good meaning, one that delighted the wide and worldly audience; but though it was a part of him and not a pose Byron could easily escape from everything it implied, just as he scorned appearing “all author,” and laughed at Shelley’s vision of the “poet participating in the eternal, the infinite, and the one.” When, as in his plays, he develops theories about himself, or becomes constructive, responsible, and historically minded, the writing is perfectly suitable—mostly competent Shakespearean pastiche—but quite inert. Philip Martin writes perceptively about these texts but cannot do more than make them “interesting,” a word of praise for all arts in modern times, and one whose implications Byron would have rejected even more violently than he did Wordsworth’s or Shelley’s view of poetry.

Impeccably edited, the twelve volumes of the correspondence and journals complement Marchand’s admirable biography, as do his single-volume selections from them. In giving us the whole of Byron, they also record his success at catching the passing moment. They should be read “on the run,” as one reviewer remarked, for even their charms pall if taken in too large doses. They were made of the moment and should be read for it; “to be a moment merry” was Byron’s recipe for author and reader alike. In one sense Byron is the chief patron of our modern poetic genius—poets like Lowell and Berryman who live and write “day by day.” But the goal of their poetic contingency is definitive self-creation: the achievement of writing will change them into what they really are, as Mallarmé said of Poe, and the disorder of life will become the immortal order of art. For them “the future is a serious matter.” For Byron it never was, and he wrote as if he never thought it would be.

  1. 1

    Fiery Dust: Byron’s Poetic Development (University of Chicago Press, 1968); Byron and the Spoiler’s Art (St. Martin’s, 1960); Byron as Poet (Folcroft, 1957).

  2. 2

    Knopf, 1957.

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