The Craving Void

Lord Byron's Cain: Twelve Essays and a Text with Variants and Annotations

by Truman Guy Steffan
University of Texas, 510 pp., $15.00

The Uninhibited Byron

by Bernard Grebanier
Crown, 354 pp., $7.50

Lord Byron
Lord Byron; drawing by David Levine

“The great object of life,” Byron wrote, “is sensation—to feel that we exist, even though in pain. It is this ‘craving void’ which drives us to gaming—to battle, to travel—to intemperate, but keenly felt, pursuits of any description, whose principal attraction is to the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment.” And Stendhal confirmed him when he said that an age of revolutions and wars gives a “continual thirst for strong emotions. When they subside for a while, boredom follows until they rise again.” We are enough in the same situation today to make an interest in Byron revive.

The parallels are striking whether they are exact or transformed: when, say, the Byronic sense of doom becomes the contemporary concern with sickness; when atheism becomes nihilism; when private or public liberation turns into violence; when the Byronic cynicism turns into our fascination with the aberrant and dubious; when Byron’s sexual opportunism is matched by our sentimentality or our permissiveness. Such rebellions need a showman—and Byron certainly was that—who collects all contradictions with a genius which is half journalistic, half conversational. Hazlitt thought it intolerable that a nobleman should be a poet, on general republican grounds; but it was awkward for Hazlitt that Byron had caught some of his own Napoleonic fever and was an apostle of liberty.

It is also suspected that part of the fame of Byron springs from the fact that he provided the prudent middle classes with a gaudy devil and aristocrat whom they secretly envied. Taste was not their strong point, nor was it his. It adds to these ironies that Byron was brought up in pinched circumstances and as a Scottish Calvinist, and became a peer by chance. His masks of snobbery and pride were assumed because he was never at ease in aristocratic society; although a scoffer, he was in naïve awe of genuinely religious minds. A final revolutionary sign is in his writing; it is impudently talkative in style, careless of prepositions, to the point of brilliant anger, good-natured anticlimax.

Some interest in the echoes of Byron’s age in our own may have prompted Mr. Steffan’s new and scholarly edition of Byron’s Cain, said to be the first correct edition since 1821. It is one of Byron’s hurried pieces of work, with the usual autobiographical overtones, and very wooden. Spontaneity easily becomes cliché. The writing has been properly described as tuneless. A final despair in keeping wickedness going has entered the mind of the poet who was in the doldrums of his long and only domestic attachment to the Guiccioli: even the gods are seen to be unhappy, as Mr. Marchand notes. But—the world’s first murder! What a subject for today! It draws upon Byron’s early Calvinist drilling in the Old Testament, but is not a dramatization of the Bible story so much as a speculation about predestination, fate, free will, and the problem of evil.…

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