The ultimate contrast in English poetry is between Byron and Shakespeare. Of Byron the passional man, we know nearly everything, while of Shakespeare’s inwardness we know nothing. Shelley, a superb literary critic, considered Byron’s Don Juan to be the great poem of the age, surpassing even Goethe and Wordsworth. Once I would not have agreed with Shelley, but moving toward the age of seventy-nine and having just reread Don Juan, I am persuaded. Unfinished and unfinishable, Byron’s masterwork ought to be his monument. It is almost as large-minded and various as its outrageous creator, but will continue to be overshadowed by his legend. Byron is the eternal archetype of the celebrity, the Napoleon of the realms of rhyme. Only Shakespeare, who recreated Plutarch’s Cleopatra as the matchless celebrity of the ancient world, would be capable of representing Lord Byron in a tragicomedy worthy of the still unique celebrity of the modern world, dwarfing all latecomer rock superstars.
In the two centuries since Byron died in Greece (April 19, 1824, aged thirty-six), leading a messy rebellion against the Turks, only Shakespeare has been translated and read more, first on the Continent and then worldwide. High Romantic in his life but not in his art, which carried on from Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Laurence Sterne, the endlessly digressive Byron incarnated countless contradictions of thought and feeling. He bewildered and fascinated his contemporaries with a vitality overtly erotic, compounded of narcissism, snobbery, sadomasochism, incest, heterosexual sodomy, homosexuality, what you will. Of the two authentic English vices, humbuggery and bumbuggery, Byron scourged the first and expanded the horizons of the second.
The first matter to bear in mind concerning Byron is his royal lineage, descended on his mother’s side, the Gordons, from Annabella Stuart, daughter of James I of Britain (James VI of Scotland, son of Mary, Queen of Scots). His father was “Mad Jack” Byron, gambler and heroic womanizer, who had been guilty of incest with his sister Frances. The daughter of his first marriage to Lady Amelia D’Arcy, Lady Augusta Leigh, the poet’s half-sister, became his true beloved, thus repeating the pattern. Mad Jack died in France, poor and abandoned, when his poetical son was three. Born with a lame left foot, George Gordon, Lord Byron, became a superb swimmer and marksman, and at ten secured the family title.
At Harrow the thirteen-year-old Lord Byron became a fierce boxer, while being inaugurated into that temple of “fagging, and flogging and homoerotic initiation” (the description by John Cam Hobhouse, the poet’s lifetime friend). This bisexual orientation continued at Trinity College, Cambridge, where Byron cherished a grand passion for a choirboy, John Edleston.
Living the expected debauchery of a young lord in alternation between Cambridge and London, Byron exceeded all expectations even for Regency rakes. His invariable motive was self- dramatization, and since his lust was for lasting fame above all, he demands and rightly obtains (and rewards) appreciation. That is the enterprise of Byron …