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Byron: The Poetry of It All

1.

Although Delia Bacon is said surreptitiously one night to have approached the vault beneath Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church armed with a crowbar and shovel before losing her nerve, no one has yet succeeded in disinterring William Shakespeare. Byron, who had wanted to be buried without fuss in Greece, where he died in 1824, and who lacked Shakespeare’s foresight in composing an epitaph cursing anyone who disturbed his grave, has been less fortunate. On June 15, 1938, a small, oddly assorted group of people broke open the Byron family vault in the church at Hucknall Torkard, near Nottingham, for reasons that ranged from a spurious need to establish the existence of a medieval crypt to the voyeuristic and fanciful. (The then Lord Byron had visions of hidden treasure, while the vicar, Canon Barber, claimed improbably to have been told many times that the remains of the sixth Lord Byron were no longer there, but had been mysteriously spirited away, and it was necessary to ascertain the truth.) After opening the last of the three coffins in which the embalmed body had been placed, they were able to look upon the well-preserved corpse of Shelley’s “pilgrim of eternity,” lying defenseless in his shroud, and to take excited notes, one churchwarden being particularly struck by what seemed to him the “abnormal” size of the dead poet’s “sexual organ.” After saying a brief prayer, they restored the status quo.

In the following year, Barber produced a small pamphlet, Byron and Where He Is Buried, including an account of his somewhat tasteless investigation. Although Leslie Marchand must certainly have read it, it was scrupulously ignored by him, both in 1957 when he published his magnificent three-volume Byron: A Biography, and again in 1970 when he brought out Byron: A Portrait, a one-volume condensation of the earlier work which, significantly, also incorporated new material about its subject’s bisexuality that had been too risky to present thirteen years before. Even Doris Langley Moore, in The Late Lord Byron (1961), although she listed Barber’s pamphlet in her bibliography, avoided any reference to it in her book, as more recently have both Phyllis Grosskurth and Benita Eisler in their biographies Byron: The Flawed Angel (1997) and Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (1999). It is striking then that Fiona MacCarthy should choose to end her important new life of Byron—the only one since Marchand’s to be authorized by Byron’s own publishers, John Murray—with just this episode.

It is, in 2002, an understandable decision. The deluge of works attempting in one way or another, and with varying degrees of success, to exhume Byron and assess his life, his personality, and the impact he had on others continues unabated. If anything, it has increased during the almost half-century since Marchand published his initial three volumes, spilling over into books about people who on the whole would scarcely be remembered at all were it not for their connection with Byron: his mother Catherine Gordon, his early Southwell friend Elizabeth Pigot, his half-sister Augusta, his wife Annabella, his confidante Lady Melbourne, his lovers Lady Caroline Lamb and Claire Clairmont, and his daughter Ada. Not all of these investigations belong, strictly speaking, to the category of biography. It is often observed that Byron liked to fictionalize himself in his poetry and even his letters, but his own, often wryly self-deprecating, personal myth-making has for long been dwarfed by that indulged in by others on his behalf.

It was a process that began during his own lifetime, with Caroline Lamb’s roman à clef, Glenarvon (1816), and Thomas Love Peacock’s witty caricature of Byron as the gloomy Mr. Cypress in his novel Nightmare Abbey (1818):

Sir, I have quarreled with my wife; and a man who has quarreled with his wife is absolved from all duty to his country. I have written an ode to tell the people as much, and they may take it as they list.

Byron himself was amused by Peacock’s satire, and sent its author a single rose, less amused by Lady Caroline’s vicious portrait of him, but still capable of being funny about it: “I read Glenarvon too, by Caro. Lamb/ God damn!” He did not live to read the celebrated courtesan Harriette Wilson’s ecstatic and patently imaginary description in her Memoirs (1825) of their encounter at a London masquerade in 1814, and he was mercifully spared all the other “recollections” and reported “conversations” with which the reading public was inundated in succeeding years.

When Mary Shelley introduced Byron, thinly disguised under the name Count Raymond, as a leading character in her novel The Last Man (1826), she could at least claim to have known the original. Time gradually reduced, and at last swept away, the people of whom that had been true, without greatly diminishing the impulse to resurrect Lord Byron—usually the one Caroline Lamb had caricatured as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” He was even to find an infamous role in vampire literature. The nature, however, of these posthumous resuscitations has altered over the years, and not just because of their extension into a series of “Byron” films. (All of them, to a greater or less degree, dreadful.)

It has been a long time now since anyone attempted to complete Byron’s great unfinished poem Don Juan, although such continuations—a few pretending to be Byron’s own, discovered among someone’s papers after his death—appeared sporadically throughout most of the nineteenth century. For this, the effort and skill required to master Don Juan‘s metrical form must be held partly responsible. The poet Edwin Morgan did attempt ottava rima in his dramatic monologue “Lord Byron at Sixty-Five” (1985), but the results were less than happy. Even W.H. Auden, consummate poetic craftsman though he was, avoided it in his verse “Letter to Lord Byron” (1937), confessing that “I should come a cropper,” and settling for rhyme royal instead as being quite “difficult enough to play.”

Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron” is one of the most distinguished and successful attempts to communicate with the long-dead poet, and to imitate his voice. That is so partly because of Auden’s own poetic gifts, but also because of his genuine understanding and admiration of Byron’s genius as a writer. Significantly, most other twentieth-century ventriloquists have focused, not on Don Juan, but on the less demanding task of trying to re-create the poet’s lost prose Memoirs: the manuscript burned in John Murray’s Albemarle Street premises on May 17, 1824, through the agency of friends and family variously motivated by jealousy, prudishness, and fear. These contributions have fluctuated between relatively straightforward imaginings of what that irretrievably destroyed work may have been like (such as Robert Nye’s 1989 The Memoirs of Lord Byron: A Novel) to Amanda Prantera’s extraordinary Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years after His Lordship’s Death (1987), in which a computer functions as the medium through which the poet’s voice becomes audible from beyond the grave. Although the notion of dictation from Byron’s ghost was one already exploited in the nineteenth century, the enabling services of a computer are new. So, on the whole, is what has now become the grossly disproportionate interest in Byron’s life, physical appearance, and personality at the expense of his poetry.

During the century just ended, biography in general has come to merge more and more with the novel—a phenomenon astutely explored by several contributors to a recent collection of essays, Mapping Lives: The Uses of Biography.1 Biographers, arguably, have always been prone to this kind of distortion. It springs from their need to shape something explicable and coherent from existences which, as actually lived, were seldom either of these things. Some, however, of the recently published lives of Byron seem, in particular, so contaminated by novelistic invention as to call their very status as biography into question. At the lower end of the scale, this tendency may involve little more than the elevation of some cherished authorial hypothesis to the condition of fact, usually by ignoring or misrepresenting historical evidence—as with Benita Eisler’s conviction that Byron was a ruthless pedophile, or Phyllis Grosskurth’s simplistic and condescending overview: “a basically decent man who was destroyed by the expectations and projections of an incomprehensible world into which fate had thrust him.” In more extreme cases, distinction between biography and the novel dissolves, to the point of creating a composite and dubiously legitimate form, neither one thing nor the other. Such drastic blurring of the boundaries between fiction and fact in attempts to portray Byron is a new phenomenon, certainly not at all the same as what Peacock was doing when he invented Mr. Cypress in Nightmare Abbey, Mary Shelley in The Last Man, or Caroline Lamb in Glenarvon.

Both Sigrid Combüchen’s Byron: A Novel, translated from the original Swedish in 1988,2 and David Crane’s The Kindness of Sisters: Annabella Milbanke and the Destruction of the Byrons begin (significantly) with a fascinated account of the exhumation of Byron at Hucknall Torkard in 1938. Combüchen then enters into the imagination of various enthusiasts (one of them supposedly present at that event) as they eagerly prepare papers on various important episodes in Byron’s life—and afterlife—for delivery to their local Byron Society during the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth. In the process, historical fact—some of it is accurate, some skewed—becomes dizzyingly entwined with fabrication. (Mary Shelley, for instance, is made to talk with her stepsister Claire Clairmont at Byron’s funeral, although the latter was in Russia at the time.) Combüchen calls her book a novel. Crane describes his as a new kind of Byron biography: his life and character illuminated by way of his half-sister Augusta and Annabella, his wife. It is alarmingly difficult, however, to detect much generic difference between them.

At the heart of Crane’s book lies his detailed reconstruction of the last meeting between Lady Byron and Augusta at the White Hart in Reigate on April 8, 1851. That this encounter actually occurred, in that place, and on that date, is incontrovertibly true. It is also true that Annabella’s brief, scribbled memorandum of what she meant to discuss then survives, and has been pondered by Crane—who has steeped himself as well in what other documentary evidence there is about Byron’s disastrous marriage and the troubled relations of the two women who were still obsessed with him a quarter-century and more after his death. Yet the sixty-odd pages of dialogue he has put into their mouths, interspersed with stage directions of almost Shavian particularity—“She pauses for a moment in front of the bird in the cage, looking at it with a remote detachment,” “Her voice a cry of pain as she collapses back into the chair,” or “She breaks off and turns suddenly to face Augusta, looking at her intently, as if seeing her for the first time”—come across as irritatingly phony. (So do Crane’s notions that Annabella was attracted sexually to Augusta, or that Byron himself was a perennial and tragic outsider.) Less than fascinating if considered purely as a fiction, the conversation pretends to another kind of validity, one that it does not and cannot have. And Crane’s grandiose asservations in his “Prologue” about dissolving “the barriers between past and present,” or how “the most compelling truths of this narrative lie in regions for which the traditional tools of history or biography are simply not enough,” fail to improve matters. How is his account of the Reigate meeting to be distinguished from that of Combüchen’s fictional character? When is a biography not a biography but a work of fiction?

2.

Fiona MacCarthy’s Byron: Life and Legend is unmistakably a biography, and on the whole a good one. Balanced, fair, thoroughly researched, and beautifully written, with a certain amount of new material to offer (including two new Byron letters, and further light on his relations with his publisher Murray), this is a worthy, updated successor to Marchand: the most nearly complete and satisfactory life we have. Many readers will take issue with some of MacCarthy’s particular emphases—upon Byron, for instance, as fundamentally homoerotic in his sexual orientation, rather than evenly ambidextrous, or with her view of Claire Clairmont as an entirely sympathetic and victimized figure—but a biographer can be allowed this degree of personal response.

The strength of the book lies in its scrupulous amassing of detail about Byron’s life and times, and in its ability to order and clarify a wealth of diverse material—seeing the wood as well as the trees—without calling undue attention to the biographer rather than to the life under review. MacCarthy returns again and again to what she calls Byron’s “particular gift for empathy,” something, she feels, that accounted in part for his attractiveness to women. She traces it too in his lifelong obsession with Napoleon, with which her book begins, and in the ease with which he could understand and communicate with Italians, Greeks, and Albanians, countesses and bakers’ wives, soldiers and poets, adults and children, aristocrats and gondoliers. It was one of the reasons why so many people—including William Fletcher, his personal servant for twenty years—were devoted to him. Her own empathy with Byron as a troubled, complicated, but essentially honest man is evident throughout, and makes a welcome change from recent biographies which have attempted to psychoanalyze or mother him, or have gradually revealed an antipathy so deep-rooted as to make some wonder why they were undertaken at all.

There are inevitably some errors in MacCarthy’s book. By not reading the manuscript diary of Byron’s friend and traveling companion John Cam Hobhouse (large sections are still unpublished in book form, but gradually emerging now on the Internet)3 with sufficient care, she perpetuates Marchand’s mistake in supposing that the two men visited the Cyanean Sym-plegades—Jason’s mythical “clashing rocks”—together on May 31, 1810. In fact, they did not. The young Byron, affronted by what seemed to him the lack of proper respect for his rank shown by the British ambassador in Pera, had been sulking and withdrawn for several days, which is why he missed the opportunity to accompany Hobhouse on his expedition. It would be a fortnight before he arranged to be taken there alone, scrambled perilously up the rocks, and composed his parody of the opening lines of Euripides’ Medea. Meanwhile, he had quarreled with Hobhouse, abjured his friendship—and then made it up. The details may be small, but they are for a number of reasons telling, and they deserve inclusion in a biography conceived on this scale.

Again, Hobhouse was never in the “army,” only the militia, nor was he ever, as stated on page 377, “aligned” as a radical with William Cobbett and Henry Hunt—both of them men whose company he shunned. Teresa Guiccioli, Byron’s last mistress, did not marry Count Guiccioli again in 1826. They separated but were never divorced. Byron began his last play, The Deformed Transformed, not in “Genoa,” but, as Jerome McGann has established, in Pisa, before Shelley’s death. Canto IV of Childe Harold, not Canto III, contains the famous passage beginning, “I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs”; the wild horse that bears Mazeppa away in Byron’s poem of that name is not an “Arabian steed” but, as Byron explicitly says, “a Tartar of the Ukraine breed” (which is why it is frenziedly trying to return to its homeland there); the exhortation to the reader in Canto II of Childe Harold to contemplate the ruin of “Ambition’s airy hall,/The dome of Thought, the palace of the Soul” is provoked by a human skull, and had nothing whatever to do with the state of the buildings on the Acropolis. Sir Giles Overreach is not the “beleaguered hero” of Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts but its repulsive villain, and Tasso would be amazed to discover that his Gerusalemme Liberata was a “great erotic poem.”

Most of these and other similarly small factual slips can be rectified in a second edition. It is only the “literary” ones toward the end of this list that cause real disquiet, not so much in themselves as because they are symptomatic of the central weakness of this book: MacCarthy’s seeming lack of interest in poetry generally, and Byron’s in particular. With her earlier, splendid biographies of Eric Gill (1989) and William Morris (1994), this had not mattered, nor had her apparent complete lack of a sense of humor. Neither’s creativity was primarily verbal or allied in any significant way with the comic. Byron’s, however, was. A man who may have hankered after political action, and sometimes pretended to a dislike of literary men, he nonetheless declared categorically in Canto IV of Childe Harold that “I twine/My hopes of being remember’d in my line/With my land’s language,” and that prophecy is (or ought to be) true. His laughter, often directed at himself, sometimes a defense (in order that “I may not weep”) is a crucial component of Don Juan, his greatest poem.

It has to be said that Marchand’s biography also underplayed the poetry. (Although he did try to compensate later with a book specifically addressed to it and, of course, between 1973 and 1982 produced the indispensable twelve-volume edition of Byron’s letters and journals.) That has also been true of almost all his successors, including Grosskurth, Eisler, and Crane—Crane’s casual assertion that a lack of any sense of “place” is “a glaring weakness of [Byron’s] descriptive verse” being a particularly grotesque example of ignoring things that leap out from the page: Juan’s first sight of London from Shooter’s Hill, in Canto X, Byron’s wonderful evocations of Rome or Venice, or a storm over Lake Leman, in Childe Harold. It seems a paradoxical fate for someone whose life and poetry were so intimately bound up with each other, and whose fame among his contemporaries was inseparable from his verse. There were, after all, other Englishmen of his time who traveled even more adventurously than Byron (his friend William Bankes, for instance, who managed to smuggle himself into Mecca disguised as a half-witted pilgrim, or Robert Wilson, who followed Napoleon with the Russian army on the retreat from Moscow), and some (like Michael Bruce) whose amatory exploits were notorious. But they were none of them great poets, and that, now as then, is what makes all the difference.

Because MacCarthy pays only perfunctory attention to Byron’s verse, she finds it difficult really to account for the “Legend” of her subtitle: the continuing fame and influence outlined rather too sketchily in her final chapters, “The European Byronists” and “The Byronic Englishman.” When she does venture on the poetry, she tends to be inadequate or wrong. No one who had not read The Corsair, for instance, would guess from her account that Gulnare actually murders the Pacha, and that this is the pivotal event of the poem. Sardanapalus, in Byron’s play about that Assyrian king, is most certainly not “an amiable villain, a self-consciously evil character with the daredevil charm and charisma of Shakespeare’s Richard III.”

It is, difficult, moreover, to detect either what she describes as the “macabre eroticism” or the “uncertain balance between tragedy and farce” in Mazeppa, or the “virulent satire against Southey” in The Vision of Judgement. The latter poem is as effective as it is partly because of its unruffled good humor. No one is punished: even poor old George III slips into Heaven at the end, while the turncoat Southey merely gets dumped into his Cumberland lake where, we are carefully assured, “he did not drown.” “Darkness” does not imagine our planet “laid waste by war,” but by the kind of cosmic disaster—here, the sudden death of the sun and extinction of light in the entire solar system—that seems all too plausible now. For a savage and genuinely angry indictment of wars of conquest, it is necessary to go to the siege of Ismail cantos in Don Juan, where again the conflict and misunderstanding between Christian and Islamic worlds comes uncomfortably close at present to home.

McCarthy’s minimizing of Don Juan itself is probably the most disappointing feature of Byron: Life and Legend. That is not only because it is, after all, with Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Wordsworth’s The Prelude, one of the very greatest long poems in the English language. The things most frequently said about it—that it is the epic of modern life, the most original, funniest, but saddest of poems, one that never relinquishes its faith in what Helen Gardner once called “the salutariness of being undeceived”—are all true. If no one can write about Don Juan without writing about Byron himself as an overwhelming narrative presence, it is also limiting to write about Byron’s life without writing about Don Juan: that “versified Aurora Borealis,” as Byron himself described it in Canto VII, “which flashes o’er a waste and icy clime,” a restless, “ever varying rhyme.” This, even more than Childe Harold, and certainly more than the vault at Hucknall Torkard, is the place where the person who so mesmerized contemporaries not only in England but across Europe remains tangible and undimmed.

No one has explored the complex relationship between Byron’s life and work—with both of which most of Napoleonic Europe was entangled—better than Jerome McGann, editor of the Oxford Complete Poetical Works, in his brilliant essay “The Book of Byron and the Book of a World.”4 Biographers, on the other hand, given how much there is (despite Byron’s early death at thirty-six) of both life and work to assimilate, have tended to make a Yeatsian choice between them—usually in favor of “perfection” of the former. (Caroline Franklin’s Byron: A Literary Life (2000) is an honorable exception.) The bias is understandable. But it is also true, to invoke Yeats again, that with Byron at his best and most characteristic, it is nearly impossible to distinguish the dancer from the dance.

  1. 1

    Edited by Peter France and William St Clair (Oxford University Press, 2002).

  2. 2

    Translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate (London: Heinemann, 1988).

  3. 3

    Edited by Peter Cochran; see www.hobby-o.com.

  4. 4

    In The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1985).

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