In the fragmentary last canto of Don Juan, abandoned in 1823 when Byron left Italy to sacrifice his life (as it turned out) in the Greek War of Independence, he reflected mockingly upon what he recognized as the instability and contradictions of his own nature:
Temperate I am, yet never had a temper;
Modest I am, yet with some slight assurance;
Changeable too, yet somehow idem semper;
Patient, but not enamoured of endurance;
Cheerful, but sometimes rather apt to whimper;
Mild, but at times a sort of Hercules furens;
So that I almost think that the same skin
For one without has two or three within.
[Canto XVII, stanza 11]
This volatility, remarked upon by virtually everyone who knew him, was part of what made Byron so fascinating to his contemporaries. Earlier in Don Juan, when bestowing the descriptive noun “mobility” upon Lady Adeline, one of the poem’s heroines, he defined it in a note as “an extreme susceptibility of immediate impressions—at the same time without losing the past.” However brilliant in its manifestations, “mobility,” he went on ruefully to say, was for its possessor “a most painful and unhappy attribute.”
Yet there were important permanencies in Byron’s character. Although Lady Blessington, who encountered him in Genoa early in 1823, pronounced him, in her Con-versations of Lord Byron (1834), “a perfect chameleon, possessing the fabulous qualities attributed to that animal, of taking the colour of whatever touches him,” she also recorded the poet’s insistence that there were “two sentiments to which I am constant—a strong love of liberty, and a detestation of cant, and neither is calculated to gain me friends.” This statement was one that the Countess Guiccioli, the mistress who loved and knew him best during the final years in Italy, underlined approvingly in her copy of Blessington’s book. Byron’s old friend, the Irish poet Thomas Moore, author of the first important biography, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron with Notices of his Life (1830), said much the same thing. Despite a natural tendency to yield to every chance impression, “on certain great subjects” Byron preserved a general line of consistency throughout his life.
It was more than could be said for many of his English contemporaries when confronted with the posthumous phenomenon of Byron. A period of reaction, after the immediate respects have been paid, often follows the deaths of writers celebrated in their lifetime—to be replaced some years later by a more judicious and positive assessment. Byron’s case, however, was and remains unique. The news that he had died, aged thirty-six, on April 19, 1824, at Missolonghi, initially sent shock waves through England and across the continent. For Carlyle, at the time, it was “the noblest spirit in Europe” who had perished, to be mourned “as if I had lost a Brother.” The fifteen-year-old Tennyson ran grief-stricken into the woods near Somersby Rectory, where he scrawled on a stone the terrible words, “Byron is dead.” “The whole world,” he said later, “seemed to be darkened for me.”
Yet by 1833, Carlyle had repudiated both Byron and his work, dismissing him as “a sham strong man.” In Sartor Resartus, he exhorted the reader to “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe.” Tennyson followed suit, as did Browning (also an early admirer) in 1872, while Swinburne, who in 1866 had written an impassioned and perceptive defense of Byron and his poetry, in 1884 negotiated a complete U-turn and virulently attacked them both. (Ruskin, meanwhile, entertained for years a singular inability to make up his mind.)
This is by no means the usual pattern of mourning, temporary disparagement, then rehabilitation. Here, exactly the same writers—each very distinguished in his way—shift abruptly in the course of their lives from admiration to a hostility embracing poet and poetry alike. Byron had a few native defenders, but for many foreign observers he came increasingly to look like the archetypal prophet without honor in his own country. Mazzini, an Italian revolutionary and man of letters who spent some time in England, was reminded in 1839 of the eleventh-century travelers’ tale about a gigantic tree at Tenerife. Its branches, when shaken, always released a shower of pure and refreshing water. “Genius,” he opined, referring specifically to Byron, “is like this tree, and the mission of criticism should be to shake the branches. At the present day it more resembles a savage striving to hew down the noble tree to the roots.” But Democracy, Mazzini prophesied, would one day remember all that it owed to Byron—and England come to recognize the importance of “the European role given by him to English literature.”
The spirit of revolution, both artistic and political, was of course still very much alive in Mazzini’s Europe: not only in Italy, but in Germany, France, Greece, and in Russia, where Pushkin and Lermontov both read Byron avidly, and Ryleyev, a poet and leader of the Decembrist rising of 1825, carried a volume of the poems with him to his execution. In England revolution had effectively been contained. It was only the working and lower middle classes who continued to grumble, ineffectually—and, as William St. Clair has shown, to demand more and more cheap, pirated editions of Don Juan, a work which even Byron’s scatter of apologists among the better-off middle classes found difficult to like. Quotations from Byron figured on Chartist banners in sporadic political demonstrations throughout much of the century—as some lines (in Polish translation) from his poem The Giaour were still doing outside the Gdansk shipyard in 1980. Friedrich Engels knew what he was talking about when he asserted, in 1845, that it was mainly the workers in England who now valued Byron, attracted by “his sensuous fire and by the virulence of his satire against the existing social order,” not that hypocritical bourgeoisie which had formerly been the mainstay of his reading public.
Byron was also the victim, as had already become apparent during the last years of his existence, of what was to become the full-fledged Victorian moral recoil from the permissive Regency society he knew, and with which he remained associated. He was unlucky, too, in that the circumstances of his life—both verifiable and darkly rumored—were famous, had come to be regarded in the main as reprehensible, and were virtually impossible to disentangle from his poetry. Whatever Barthes and Foucault may say about “the death of the author,” readers with no respect or sympathy for Byron as a man, an overpowering historical presence, are unlikely to relish either his letters or his verse. That is as true today as it was a century and a half ago. Unfortunately, this disability has never deterred his literary biographers—who were, and continue to be, legion.
It has been estimated that some two hundred biographies of Byron—not to mention novels and films in which he features—have been produced since his death in 1824. In a way, he unwittingly initiated the flood, not only because of the quasi-autobiographical nature of Childe Harold and Don Juan, his two long poems, but by writing his own prose memoirs. This last work, entrusted with characteristic generosity to the impecunious Moore, vanished forever three days after news of Byron’s death reached England. A small circle of people, essentially Byron’s longtime friend John Cam Hobhouse, his estranged wife, Annabella, and his half-sister Augusta Leigh, were responsible for consigning the manuscript to the flames in the front room of his publisher Murray’s London premises. Motivated respectively by jealousy of Moore, vindictiveness, and fear, they would almost certainly have incinerated Don Juan as well, if only they could have. Meanwhile, Moore (who had been made to feel not quite an English “gentleman”) was compensated for his considerable financial loss by being authorized to produce the first full biography of his deceased friend—something different from all the reminiscences, printed conversations, and scissors-and-paste compilations that flooded in after 1824.
Neither Hobhouse nor the Countess Guiccioli (for different reasons) much liked Moore’s Life when it finally appeared in 1830, but at least it assembled and made publicly available a substantial number of Byron’s wonderful letters—even if, in some cases, they had been sadly and irretrievably expurgated. Documents of this kind make up the bulk of Moore’s two volumes. Subsequent biographies (including those of the late twentieth century) would not allow Byron anything like so great an opportunity to speak for himself. Hard on the heels, however, of Moore’s sympathetic account came the novelist John Galt’s Life of Lord Byron (1830). Galt, who had met Byron briefly during the poet’s travels to Spain, Greece, Turkey, and Albania between 1809 and 1811, was sufficiently critical of his subject to arouse the wrath of Hobhouse, who protested—in an acrimonious correspondence that Galt subsequently published—that his late friend had certainly not been “the mean tricky creature you have represented him.” (Among other allegations, Galt suggested that, really, Byron devoted himself and his fortune to the cause of Greek liberty in 1823 because he needed to do something to revitalize his diminishing fame, and because he was tired of Teresa Guiccioli.)
In Galt’s favor, it has at least to be said that his Life concentrated more on what he conceived to be Byron’s intellectual character than on the sensational details of his private life. It was a biographical balance about to be sharply—and lastingly—reversed. In 1856, Lady Byron (who had already devoted a large part of her long widowhood to self-justification) finally took the plunge and told Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that crowning all the other reasons for her insistence in 1816 upon a legal separation from her husband of only one year was her discovery of Byron’s incest with his half-sister Augusta.
This was not entirely unexpected. Apart from telltale hints in his letters and poems, Byron himself had confessed the relationship to his friend Lady Melbourne, and also—very rashly, under a pledge of secrecy that she later dishonored—to his extremely unstable lover Lady Caroline Lamb. Rumor, however, was different from published accusation. In 1869, with both Augusta and Lady Byron dead, and spurred on by what seemed to her the iniquitous reissue of Byron’s poems, together with the Countess Guiccioli’s loving memoir, Lord Byron jugé par les témoins de sa vie (1868), Stowe burst into print, initially in a magazine article, then (in 1870) at greater length in her book, Lady Byron Vindicated.
Rather surprisingly, although Stowe certainly created a stir, for a long time few people believed her—not even J.C. Jeaffreson in his defamatory The Real Lord Byron of 1883, a work dismissed by Froude (who also disliked Byron) as “a description of Vesuvius written by some one who did not know that Vesuvius was a volcano.” Incredulity on the incest question, together with an inability to leave it alone, persisted well into the twentieth century, even after the publication in 1905 of the suggestive biography Astarte, by Byron’s grandson the second Earl of Lovelace (“Astarte” being the name under which Byron concealed Augusta in his play Manfred). This was almost certainly because the idea tended to strike people then as altogether too shocking and, with the enormous cache of papers amassed by the second earl dosed to readers, there was no concrete evidence.