In Aldous Huxley’s first novel, Crome Yellow, an elderly man, Denis Stone, describes how in his hot youth he made hazardous preparations in Madrid to rescue from confinement in a convent a young lady he thought he adored. How very romantic, say the others, and how excited he must have been. Not at all, he answers: he felt nothing; he was too busy. He felt excited in prospect and pleased with himself afterward, but the actual business was a blank. And through the man’s character the author comments on the significance of this for literature, which either keeps the reader in suspense or recounts in retrospect what it pretends is happening at the time.
It also has a special significance for Byron’s attitude toward art. Everything he wrote—poems, letters, journals—coincides, or aspires to coincide, with actual experience, as the twelve volumes of Leslie Marchand’s brilliantly edited edition of the letters and journals shows us. The technique, not only of Don Juan itself, but of all his poetry after the juvenilia, is to suggest that the writing takes place at the same moment as what it is about. And there were moments no doubt when it really did.
I would to heaven that I were so much clay,
As I am blood, bone, marrow,
Because at least the past were pass’d away—
And for the future—(but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly today,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say—the future is a serious matter—
And so—for God’s sake—hock and soda-water!
That stanza scribbled on the back of the manuscript of the first canto of Don Juan stands, and with deliberate bravura, for the method of the whole poem. Byron may of course have written it after several refreshing glasses of hock and soda water and a swim in the Grand Canal, sitting down in a clean shirt and with his headache partly gone. But it may also have been written just as he says, with the room going around, and other acute discomforts of the flesh. The point is that the truth for his art, and still more what is authentic in it, is the impression of momentary experience, the taste of the ephemeral fixed into words.
And to do this one must live. “Tool” in a post chaise or up against a wall, have women (and boys) “under a table or on it,” get drunk, swim the Hellespont, be familiar with firearms—
It has a strange quick jar upon the ear,
That cocking of a pistol, when you know
A moment more will bring the sight to bear
Upon your person, twelve yards off, or so…
—and be a lord if possible, or at least one of nature’s aristocrats. “Could any man have written it who had not lived?”—but living for Byron, as for writers like Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence who also invoke the notion, turns out to be a rather special, selective, and privileged business. Like art itself it leaves much out while claiming to present the whole. Life, however, has to be lived by us all at every second, while even Byron’s art only represents a few of them. Wordsworth was as much alive as Byron, who patronized and affected to despise him, but it would never have occurred to Wordsworth to inquire whether anyone could have written the Prelude who had not actually lived.
Nonetheless Byron’s technique and example have had a profound effect upon imaginative writing, an effect still with us today. Just how profound is shown by how widely the premise—the living as the writing—has been taken for granted. Without Byron’s inspiration we can hardly imagine the outburst of life and freedom—the degree of felt experience—in the nineteenth-century novel, in Stendhal and Balzac, Thackeray and Dickens (Steerforth in David Copperfield is a brilliant adaptation of the Byronic hero to the requirements of fiction), even in Russia, for Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Their phrase zhivaya zhizn—“lively life”—expresses the Byronic project, and so in another sense does that trembling halo of consciousness which Virginia Woolf sought to turn into subject and style. In technical terms she is as much a legatee of the poet as is Hemingway or Norman Mailer.
The influence of Byron on the way other writers lived, thought, and wrote was in the long run far more pervasive than his impact on the mind and spirit of the age. Electrifying the European consciousness was an extraordinary but still a comparatively facile achievement compared with the lasting contribution Byron has made to our assumptions about writing. Many of these are bad, in the sense that they have produced a very great deal of poor stuff. Not only are the enormous, clumsy heresies of realism and naturalism linked with the expansion of the Byronic spirit, but so is the illusion of every would-be writer that his sensations and reflections, poured out in a lava flow, must ipso facto seduce the reader. And, as the stanza on the back of Don Juan shows, Byron helped to inaugurate the school of style that purports to be imitative of consciousness, whether expressing itself as terse and clipped, as with Hemingway, or breathless and wavering, as in Virginia Woolf.
Of course the poet himself cannot be praised or blamed for everything of this nature that has taken place since, but his example was as inspiring in range and scale as it was often workmanlike in detail. In his lively biography—the most “Byronic” to date in some ways—Frederic Raphael refers to Byron’s one meeting, in Milan, with his great admirer Stendhal. Both revered Napoleon and felt themselves heirs of his myth and message; but though the Frenchman possessed the greater intelligence, or rather the more subtle power of self-analysis, he revered Byron to the point of idolatry. Their brief encounter filled him with “timidity and tenderness,” and he declared that “had I dared, I should have wept and kissed Lord Byron’s hand.”
So might Stendhal’s hero of La Chartreuse de Parme, Fabrice del Dongo, but the significant thing is that, without the example of Byron, Stendhal could never have written the famous account in that novel of the battle of Waterloo. Byron’s art introduced his contemporaries to what the German Tieck was later to categorize as “romantic irony,” the juxtaposition of romantic feeling with the actual situation, the momentary fact. Fabrice’s experiences at the battle bear no relation to his idea of what a battle is or should be; they lack all sense and coherence; only afterward can the battle be assembled as a sensible and historical phenomenon. Yet in artistic terms the contrast between reality and romance enhances both, gives a keener edge to fact and a greater scope to aspiration. The Russians took the point with especial energy: it is immanent in Pushkin and examined in the structure of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Tolstoy exploits it in his account of the Sevastopol fighting, his working up of material for The Cossacks, and for the experiences of Pierre and Rostov in War and Peace. Dostoevsky was a great Byronist.
One of the greatest assets of Byron’s genius was his good-humored sense of incongruity. The Pilgrim of Eternity turned every pratfall to account, most moving and heartfelt when most inclined to push those emotions to the point of parody. It would not have bothered him that his voyage to Missolonghi to help the Greeks in their war against the Turks was a fiasco and an anticlimax, that the martial impulse and the glorious call to liberation found their expression in his ordering from a Genoa emporium a custom-made hoplite-style helmet; that his prestige and practical gifts were lost among the petty squabbles and intrigues of the Greeks, his last days spent in frustrated longings for a Greek boy and in meaningless feats of endurance—with no enemy in sight or fighting in prospect—which helped to bring on the terminal uremic fever. It was all part of “one life, one writing,” as a latter-day poet in the tradition put it, though Byron, unlike Robert Lowell, dismissed his writing as merely for the sport and profit of a gentleman. “One hates an author that’s all author, fellows / In foolscap uniforms turn’d up with ink” is, as usual, Byron’s way of being himself in all he wrote, from minute to minute and day to day.
Being all author, like Wordsworth and Bob Southey, was for him to erect a huge monument factory for producing nature in the image of himself. His image and convention, as he saw them, were to shrug off what he wrote as the product of the moment and return to being himself. “For the night cometh”—in two senses. After a high-sounding stanza
the sofa and lady
Are both of them ready
And so, here’s “Good Night to you dammee!“
Everything written, whether lyric line or perfect stanza, a scribble to his publisher John Murray or to his friends John Hobhouse and Douglas Kinnaird, was done on the brink of the next experience.
Now, I’ll put out my taper
(I’ve finished my paper
For these stanzas you see on the brink stand)
There’s a whore on my right
For I rhyme best at Night
When a C-t is tied close to my
A good recipe for writing both well and badly, and for affecting not to bother which was which. Byron could not even bear to make fair copies of his poems, and after Shelley’s death sent them to Mary Shelley to copy out, an occupation for her and one which he paid for with his usual generosity.
In his poetry incongruity works both ways: He puts on a Byronic act, and then finds himself, as we are, moved by it, and believing in it. The early reviewers such as Francis Jeffrey, the editor of the Edinburgh Review, who were seduced by all the Sturm und Drang, the dark suffering and defiant remorse, were not really being taken in. Byron’s spell included the act, and the charm of the act was that at its most outrageous it seemed to reveal a friendly intimacy, as if the whole demonstration of the Byronic had been put on for the benefit of the poet and the private reader alone. The tone of the letters and journals is present in the background of the poems, and something else too, because the poetry has the power of rapid change from display to discovery. “Freedom” is a slogan of the age which the poet exploits at the vulgar level, and then suddenly makes poignantly his own.
Yet, freedom, yet, thy banner, torn but flying,
Streams, like the thunderstorm,
against the wind.
His next to last poem, “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year,” is a remarkable instance of his sort of originality, which is his way of revealing himself. It opens with a barrage of romantic commonplace—the heart that should be unmoved since it can no longer move others, the echo from Shakespeare—“My days are in the yellow leaf”—the fire that consumes the bosom like some volcanic isle, the chain of love still worn after its power is felt no more. Then with a start the poem pulls itself together.
But ’tis not thus—and ’tis not here
Such thoughts should shake my soul, nor now,
when action and Greek liberation are called for. The deliberate clumsiness of the emphases (“Awake! (not Greece—she is awake!) / Awake, my spirit!”) is the poem’s way of refining its impulses and coming closer to what it wants to say. It continues to exclaim and to use martial cliché. “And then strike home!” is a flagrant borrowing from the popular song “Britons! Strike home!” dating from his country’s war against Napoleon from which Byron had disassociated himself. But the last stanza both gives a point to all this, and redeems it.
Seek out—less often sought than found—
A soldier’s grave, for thee the best;
Then look around, and choose thy ground,
And take thy rest.
Typical of Byron to yearn to be something other than he was, in this case the stern and self-effacing military man. He had resented the great war against the French tyrant, because its heroes were rivals for the fame that had come to him so abundantly with the publication of Childe Harold, a poem that deliberately played upon the European conflict and celebrated the joys of the East, the romantic ego, and romantic travels. Indeed it was this escapism that made it so popular. But Byron himself was sensitive about the absence for him of a warlike role, as sensitive as he was about his deformed foot. At Cambridge in 1807, among all the sports and indulgences which his title and talents could command, he was writing to a friend of his late adolescence, Elizabeth Pigot, about his hopes of joining his cousin, captain of the Tartar—“the smartest frigate in the service”—for campaigning in the Baltic or the Mediterranean.
Nothing came of it; Byron was congenitally incapable of subordinating himself in such a disciplined activity; but the last stanza of his next to last poem has a humility about it that sums up something that underlay all his willful behavior. As with Yeats there was envy in his thought when he contemplated natural men of action. He admired the disreputable Trelawny, who had an exemplary naval record, and called his fine yacht the Simon Bolívar, after the “Byronic” South American liberator whose career, as Raphael dryly remarks, “mocked the inertia of his model.”
All this is in a sense drawn together and made into a moving whole in the final stanza of what turned out to be his farewell poem. Byron had an instinct for such seemingly involuntary compression. The unexpectedness of “less often sought than found” recognizes that most of those who die in war have no choice, and certainly no urge to immolate themselves in a glorious gesture. “Then look around and choose thy ground” comes close to parodying the perverse workings of the self-destructive will, and the stanza reverses what would be a more conventionally elegiac pattern, with the tolling rhymes coming at the end of the restive first and third lines, the light ones in the second and last. The poem is moving because it has something in it of that wry reasonableness, even humbleness, which attended Byron’s last days.
Wholly disillusioned with the Greeks and their war, he recognized that practical skills and unspectacular effort were what was needed, and what he had in him to produce. They all wanted his money, even the boy Loukas Chalandritsanos, who did not return his affection, but to whom his last few lines of poetry were addressed (“Yielding my couch and stretched me on the ground”) after he had caught a chill and been tended by Byron. The poet’s resilience and good nature would have surmounted these setbacks, like so many previous ones, and he might well have shown new qualities of diplomacy and leadership; but a dead demigod was in the end more important to Greek renaissance than a live paymaster.
“Because at least the past were pass’d away.” That stanza has the same insouciant kind of accuracy and brisk ungainliness as “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year.” What appealed to Byron was the closeness with which he could grasp the moment and its conflicting sensations. In the same moment one could wish to obliterate the past by death, and adroitly sidestep the future by concentrating on present sensations of intoxication. The future was not a serious matter, even though it might hold more fame, for legend and fame could best be served by concentrating on the instants of present experience, just as one dashed them off in journal jottings and spirited letters to one’s friends. In the “Lines on Hearing that Lady Byron Was Ill,” written in September 1816, four months after he had separated from his wife, he clearly set out to commemorate the news with a suitable outburst of rhetoric against “the moral Clytemnestra of thy lord.” Once he has worked himself up into the appropriate frame of mind he does this with relish, invoking what might have been:
all the better life
Which, but for this cold treason of thy heart,
Might still have risen from out the grave of strife,
And found a nobler duty than to part.
Yet all this rhetoric of recrimination does not diminish the effect of the opening lines:
And thou wert sad—yet I was not with thee;
And thou wert sick, and yet I was not near;
The irony which has been planned comes out at the moment of utterance with a kind of sad wonderment, and turns into Byron’s usual interest in the discovery of what he is feeling at such a moment.
It is not in the storm nor in the strife We feel benumb’d, and wish to be no more,
But in the after-silence on the shore,
When all is lost, except a little life.
Lines which might have inspired Meredith’s Modern Love, or been used as an epigraph for that poem.
The surprises in Byron’s performance, which seem like surprises for the poet himself, indicate the nature of sensation, never the same from moment to moment, so that the man who feels is not the same man either. “How little do we know that which we are! / How less what we may be!” he exclaims in Don Juan, borrowing from Shakespeare’s Ophelia. This is Byron’s own version of the cult of romantic feeling, developing out of the late eighteenth-century cult of sentiment and the sublime, and it came all the more naturally to him because it spurned the Coleridgean and Wordsworthian longing for system, order, and security, the “repose that ever is the same,” “The life where hope and memory are as one.” The poet who lives in the present, alternately joyful and despairing, affectionate and cruelly unfeeling, goes back to an earlier and dramatic tradition. Falstaff and Hamlet also live from moment to moment, and Byron/Don Juan is at once a roly-poly Hamlet and a Falstaff emancipated from the flesh.
Byron had some of the temperament as well as the physique of a plump man: he reduced his embonpoint by savage dieting and banished genial inertia by perpetual restlessness—more sensations, more emotions and experiences—“one should see or do all things once.” Wilson Knight is right to see in him a composite Falstaff/Hamlet figure, and in his behavior and attitude toward his wife an embodiment of a dramatic character whose impulses are at war with each other, a Timon yearning for love and friendship, a madman with a vision of sanity, a conqueror giving way to tears, a criminal to remorse.
The contradictions of the moment, however bewildering, become potent truths when transformed and fixed by literary talent, but they are truths to which Byronism in its many latter-day versions have made almost too familiar; so that we take for granted, as I have said, both its share in shaping modern sensibility and its technique for displaying it. The fact is that Byron is a modern man and writer, while Wordsworth and Coleridge increasingly seem men of their time. Byron, not they, would instantly see the point of two “modern instances,” which he might almost himself have noted or written about in his letters. In Thomas Mann’s diaries, at the time of the Nazi takeover in 1933, there occurs a reference to the brutal killing by the Nazis of a writer called Theodor Lessing. Mann was appalled, but nonetheless wrote that such an end “may be suitable for a man like Lessing, but not for me.” There is a shameless truth in that, and in Mann’s need to record it, which Byron would at once have understood. In Julian Barnes’s novel Before She Met Me, a wife simultaneously imagines that her husband has been killed in an accident, or has come safely home from the office, and realizes that for the moment either possibility seems equally attractive to her. A common, indeed almost a conventional, reaction in a contemporary literary character, but Byron again would have been quite at home with it.
It is this that gives remarkable and continuing authenticity to such episodes in Don Juan as that of the love of Juan and Haidée on their romantic isle. Byron was no doubt thinking of Odysseus and Nausicaa in the Odyssey, and also of the kind of tale suited to his admirers who had lapped up Lara and The Corsair. But in spite of its romantic trappings the tale is as “true” as anything by Maupassant or Chekhov or Somerset Maugham, and the reason is Byron’s infallible sense, as his style matured, for the immediacy of a situation and of those taking part in it. In the midst of Eastern local color, which could be as vapid as Lalla Rookh, the oriental tales in verse by his friend Thomas Moore, he has a Shakespearean sureness for the touch that makes all live—Haidée’s father Lambro, the picturesque pirate with his “keen worn look,” and the resemblance at the moment of crisis between him and his daughter:
He gazed on her, and she on him; ’twas strange How like they look’d! the expres–
sion was the same;
Wherever Juan goes, even into the kitchen where he sees “cooks in motion with their clean arms bare,” his creator seizes on the vital impression. Though Byron in fact corrected lavishly, and had second or third thoughts like any other writer, it remains true of him, as he said, that when composing he was like a tiger, which if it misses its first spring goes growling back to the jungle.
Such methods do not work well for sustained argument or meditation, or for sustained invective—as a political satirist Byron is decidedly overrated. The picture of Castlereagh “dabbling his sleek young hands in Erin’s gore” is neither worse nor better than the routine denunciations familiar in our own age, and like a modern equivalent Byron is always ready, where principles are concerned, to wash his clean linen in public and show his heart is in the right place. With “nature,” or with works of art, even his eyes can fail him, and he falls back upon the stock response, as when he shows us in Childe Harold a bust of Venus in the Uffizi:
We gaze and turn away, and know not where,
Dazzled and drunk with beauty, till the heart
Reels with its fulness; 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–
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.
June 2, 1983