In 1937, T. S. Eliot described Byron as the Romantic poet “most nearly remote from the sympathies of every living critic,” and called for “half a dozen essays” in order “to see what agreement could be reached.” Eliot’s own contribution to this putative critical consensus makes curious reading now. After some brilliant if glancing appreciations and aperçus—Byron as a Scottish poet, the narrative gifts exemplified in a verse tale like The Giaour, the precision of the satire on English society in the last cantos of Don Juan—Eliot insists that he has addressed only “the qualities and defects visible in his work, and important in estimating [Byron’s] work,” not “the private life, with which I am not concerned.”
Yet he proved no more capable than anyone else of disentangling the two. Not only does the essay continually pass judgment on Byron the man, in slippery conjunction with what he wrote, it reveals an oddly personal animosity. “Were one a person who liked to have busts about,” Eliot declares, “a bust of Scott would be something one could live with.” Even a marble Byron, however, must be an insufferable presence: “that weakly sensual mouth, that restless triviality of expression, and worst of all that blind look of the self-conscious beauty.”
Eliot is particularly severe when he refers, in disingenuously general terms, to those juvenile enthusiasms calculated to embarrass any adult return to Byron’s poetry. These might include, painfully, “the recollection of some verses in the manner of Don Juan, tinged with that disillusion and cynicism only possible at the age of sixteen, which appeared in a school periodical.” “A Fable for Feasters,” Eliot’s own excursion to Don Juan’s Norman Abbey, had indeed appeared in the Smith Academy Record of February 1905, when its author was sixteen. Yet this exuberant imitation betrays none of the adolescent “disillusion and cynicism” Eliot was attributing in 1937 not only to such prep-school exercises but to the Byron of Canto XV’s concluding stanza (“Between two worlds life hovers like a star…”): verses “not too good for the school magazine,” whose author never managed to outgrow them. The youthful Eliot’s delighted experiments with Don Juan’s comic rhymes, moreover, sit uneasily with his assertion now that Byron, imperceptive to the English language, “discovered nothing in the sounds, and developed nothing in the meaning, of individual words.”
Like Eliot, the New Critics tried to ignore the biographical context of Byron’s poetry. Finding this next to impossible, they tended to denigrate the verse as not only careless and diffuse, but aesthetically “impure.” Meanwhile, the life—in particular Lady Byron’s real reason for leaving her husband—continued to fascinate. The year 1957 saw the publication of both Leslie Marchand’s magnificent biography* and G. Wilson Knight’s Lord Byron’s Marriage, the latter book momentarily swamping the longterm argument about whether Byron did in fact commit incest with Augusta, his half sister, by its even more sensational claim that buggery—of Lady Byron, as well as boys—was the carefully hushed-up cause of the separation. Although Marchand and Knight admired Byron’s work, and wrote perceptively about it elsewhere, his life, not the poetry, was the center of both these books: books devoured, outside the universities, by a great many people considerably more interested in what Byron may (for instance) have indiscreetly revealed to Lady Caroline Lamb about his bisexuality than they were in Childe Harold or Don Juan.
Obsession with Byron’s life goes back a long way. No one who saw the great Byron exhibition of 1974 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is likely to forget, among the usual portraits, early editions, letters, and holograph poems, its extraordinary clutter of personal possessions. Many were of the ephemeral kind that normally are not preserved at all: sweat-stained shirts, shoes, dressing cases, a pillow, tradesmen’s bills, a screen Byron had pasted over with pictures of contemporary pugilists and actors, razors, toothpicks—even a fragment of the red damask hangings from the bed at Halnaby in which he and his new wife, in January 1815, spent the first night of what he was to call their “treacle-moon.” There was hair, too, in alarming quantities, presented by female (and a few male) lovers, most locks neatly labeled, others apparently unidentifiable even by Byron himself (“Whose this is I don’t recollect but it is of 1812—“). He tended to accumulate—and scatter—such mementoes as he moved restlessly about the world. The real revelation, however, was that so many other people had kept trivial and inconsequential objects simply because of their association with him.
Almost twenty years after the 1974 exhibition, this obsession with the life and personality shows no sign of abating. (In 1992, a lock of Byron’s hair changed hands in a London auction room for the equivalent of $8,500.) Attitudes to the verse, on the other hand, have undergone a sea change. When Donald Reiman reviewed the first three volumes of Jerome McGann’s Clarendon Press edition of the poetical works—the edition which Volume VII now, over a decade later, completes—he was able to describe Byron as “the greatest of the English Romantic poets” without seeming eccentric. Byron’s verse, of course, had never ceased to attract discriminating, if isolated, admirers. In 1936 W. H. Auden read Don Juan for the first time during his Iceland journey. The poem spurred him immediately into his appreciative Letter to Lord Byron and continued to haunt Auden for the rest of his life.
The wider reevaluation, however, had to wait for the ebb of the New Criticism, with its disdain for the social and political setting of works of art. It also has a more specific genesis in the so-called Variorum edition of Don Juan (1957) produced by T.G. Steffan and Willis Pratt. Here at last, the myth (carefully fostered by Byron himself) of the undisciplined, aristocratic writer who valued his art so little that he never bothered to revise, was exploded once and for all. The Don Juan manuscripts, when actually examined, told a different tale. Thanks to the seven volumes of Byron facsimiles published in Reiman’s Garland series, Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics, that story, one of virtuosity combined with painstaking reworking and second thoughts, can now be followed through the drafts, fair copies, and authorially corrected proofs of a great many other poems as well.
The Garland Byron volumes are intended for use in conjunction with both the Variorum Don Juan and McGann’s Clarendon Press edition. They produce (especially in Volume V, Andrew Nicholson’s edition of Byron’s first draft manuscript of Don Juan, Cantos VI and VII) a scattering of corrections to McGann’s text and notes, some supplied by McGann himself, who had been partly responsible for four of the Garland Byrons. The real value, however, of these facsimiles resides in what Alice Levine calls “the drama of the poet revising and refining his text.” Although the Clarendon Press apparatus incorporates most of the same information, only “the spatial image of the manuscript,” as Levine points out, “allows us to see the influence of earlier lines upon later, later lines upon earlier, in short, to see not only the effect of the poet upon his words but of the words upon the poet.” Bristling with added stanzas, overwritten crosswise, with false starts, impatient deletions, emendations, and adjustments of rhymes, this photographed material—much of it in a diabolically difficult hand—renders Byron even more arrestingly immediate than the Victoria and Albert’s toothpicks and shirts. For anyone seriously interested in his poetry and methods of composition, the Garland facsimiles are indispensable. They also underline the staggering nature of the task McGann undertook in preparing the Clarendon edition, and the magnitude of his achievement.
Despite a life crammed with incident, and premature death at the age of thirty-seven, Byron produced an enormous amount of poetry. Much of it, as it progressed through a series of early editions, elicited authorial additions and corrections never (for various reasons) incorporated in the printed texts. He also attracted forgers. For E.H. Coleridge, whose seven-volume Poetical Works, produced between 1898 and 1904, laid the groundwork for all subsequent editors, the amount of paper to sift through, evaluate, and collate was already daunting. McGann, confronting a vast amount of manuscript and proof material either not known or ignored by Coleridge and other earlier editors, undertook an even more herculean task. But he has been amply rewarded. Byron has forced upon him not only a radical reconsideration of modern editorial theory (expounded in his Critique of Modern Textual Criticism, 1983) but an original critical view of Byron and of Romanticism generally.
Both as editor and as critic—activities he believes have been falsely polarized—McGann now insists that poems are not time-transcending objects but socio-historical products (The Romantic Ideology, 1983). Editorially, this has meant downplaying the idea of “definitive texts” and “final intentions,” attempting rather to reconstitute for readers, in the apparatus surrounding a single text, the historical development of the work as it emerged through a series of agreements between the author and others. As a critic, meanwhile, he has been increasingly concerned to uncover the social and historical realities “occluded” or “disguised” within Romantic works of art. With some writers, this approach can seem misplaced. Byron, however, is not one of them. Thanks to McGann, Byron’s tendency to regard the condition of contemporary Europe as a mirror of his own personal state has been transformed from an embarrassment into a source of strength. By discovering in the inseparability of the life and the verse, not Eliot’s narcissism, but “the perpetual dialectic of the individual mind in its social world” (The Beauty of Inflections, 1985), McGann has done Byron an invaluable service, restoring to his work the complexity and significance for so long stripped from it by formalist readings.
Now that the final volume is in place, it is possible to look back over the entire Clarendon edition and be grateful for more than its many corrections of fact and discoveries about the circumstances of composition, important though they are, or its restorations of corrupt or omitted lines of text. McGann’s attention to Byron’s politics, his emphasis on the subtlety and daring of his bawdy, richness of allusion, and the range and essential cohesion of his work, have made it much easier to understand the poet’s colossal European reputation, and the impact Don Juan had for some decades in England among the literate working and lower middle classes. (Many of the banners carried in the big Chartist demonstration of June 27, 1838, in Newcastle, bore quotations from the poem.) It becomes apparent too why Byron, significantly the most difficult to anthologize of the major English poets, has so often been read (and judged) in the wrong way.
Eliot, for instance, was able to sneer at Don Juan’s “Between two worlds…” as mere adolescent “imposture,” one of many “sonorous affirmations of the commonplace with no depth of significance,” because his focus was far too narrow. Once artificially separated from the self-mocking jocularity of stanza 98 (“And therefore, though ’tis by no means my way / To rhyme at noon—when I have other things / To think of, if I ever think,—I say….”), stanza 99 can no longer shock readers by its lightning change of mood:
Between two worlds life hovers like a star,
‘Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge:
How little do we know that which we are!
How less what we may be! The eternal surge
Of time and tide rolls on, and bears afar
Our bubbles; as the old burst, new emerge,
Lash’d from the foam of ages; while the graves
Of Empires heave but like some passing waves.
The chilling hiatus between the impersonality of this (Byron had rapidly expunged an “I” in the first line) and the chatty ease of its immediate predecessor is lost in Eliot’s account. In context, however, precisely because the narrator declines to articulate, as Wordsworth, for instance, would have done, what has conducted him from one state of mind to the other, the reader—as though present on the night of March 25, 1823, in the Casa Saluzzo outside Genoa—must grapple with an authorial personality at once arrestingly immediate and opaque.
McGann’s edition documents at the bottom of the page Byron’s febrile revisions to stanza 99 in the act of writing it. His commentary at the back points (as had Coleridge and the Variorum) to its dark twisting of Ophelia’s “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” McGann, however, goes on to direct attention to the way 99 circles back to stanza 2 of the canto, and to links with the ending of Childe Harold. Cross-references of this kind complicate and extend the passage, reminding readers that although Byron may have refused to plan very far ahead, he was always meticulously aware in Don Juan of what he had already written. Hamlet, for instance, is on the narrator’s mind here not only because he is about to introduce a ghost, but as part of a tense dialogue with Shakespeare’s play that has run through much of the poem. “The graves of Empires,” too, need only be restored to their overall context—Juan’s experiences during 1790 in Constantinople and Catherine the Great’s Russia, poised against those of Byron as narrator, in post-Napoleonic Europe—for them to stop looking like a “commonplace” recycled from Pope and Gray. Like Don Juan as a whole, stanza 99 asks where fiction can be said to leave off, and history, whether of nations or one compelling individual, to begin.
The final volume of the Clarendon edition, covering the last two years of Byron’s life, contains more editorial matter than poetry. The only substantial works are The Age of Bronze, his last completed satire, and The Island, the final verse tale. Both deserve to be better known. Both are illuminated by McGann’s characteristically shrewd observation in the commentary that, whatever their surface dissimilarity, the satire and the romance are alike in their disabused view of European imperialism. Of the twelve additional short poems, most were occasioned by the war in Greece or (in excruciating conjunction with it) Byron’s unrequited passion for the boy Loukas Chalandritsanos. The rueful verses marking what was to be his last birthday (“January 22nd 1824. Messalonghi,” as McGann now teaches us to title the poem) are well known. But “Aristomenes,” that exquisite fragment written in Cephalonia while Byron was waiting to embark for the Greek mainland, and tantalizingly headed “Canto First,” is equally arresting. Its long-gone numinous world sifts into oblivion before the reader’s eyes, along the poem’s enjambments:
false or true, the dream
Was beautiful which peopled every stream
With more than finny tenants, and adorned
The woods and waters with coy nymphs that scorned
Pursuing Deities, or in the embrace
Of gods brought forth the high heroic race
Whose names are on the hills and o’er the seas.
Was Byron contemplating, with Don Juan still incomplete, a classical epic? “Aristomenes” helps to explain his admiration of Keats’s Hyperion—and his animosity toward the Wordsworth who, in Book IV of The Excursion, could stolidly invoke “the unenlightened swains of pagan Greece” to account for the phenomenon of myth.
McGann’s commentary on “Aristomenes” informs the reader about the date of Byron’s original manuscript and where it can now be found, and about the authenticating comment from Byron’s friend Hobhouse on the back, while pointing to Plutarch’s De Defectu Oraculorum on the death of Pan. Aristomenes himself is briefly identified. To find out where Byron had originally read about him, and why he might be impelled to remember such reading now, it is necessary to return to Coleridge’s edition. Reviewers of the earlier Clarendon volumes have sometimes castigated McGann for not transferring more explanatory material of this kind to his own notes. Such criticisms have a point. On the other hand, in view of the bulk of the Clarendon commentary as it stands—not to mention the prohibitive price of an edition whose previous volumes are going out of print even as Volume VII appears in the bookshops—it is difficult to see how McGann could have been expected to pack in much more. He has, after all, insisted that no edition of Byron, whether Coleridge’s, the Variorum, or his own, can be definitive or stand alone.
Apart from The Age of Bronze, The Island, and these twelve short poems, Volume VII consists of corrections and amplifications, appendices dealing in the main with Byron attributions, and three indexes to the edition as a whole, the last of them monumental. Where Coleridge’s General Index had covered a mere hundred pages, McGann’s(compiled by Carol Pearson) spreads across two hundred and forty. McGann’s decision to index themes as well as proper names, mapping Byron’s factual and poetic relationship with an entire contemporary world, is primarily responsible for this explosion in size. It is possible, as a result, to see how uncharacteristically slender for a Romantic poet his interest was in “imagination,” how enormous by contrast his concern (for instance) with warfare, or with animals, from apes and asses down to whales, wolves, and worms. Truly a Book of Byron and Book of a World (to borrow one of McGann’s own essay titles), this General Index is far more than a handy reference guide to individual poems. It makes fascinating (and often very funny) consecutive reading.
As might be expected, the General Index entry under “women” is copious. McGann has decided upon a breakdown by nationality—Albanian, Circassian, Greek, Georgian, Italian, and (the overwhelming majority) British—plus a series of heterogeneous subheadings: among others, women as gladiators, rulers, slaves, writers, and whores. “Heroines” do not, as it happens, figure among his categories, an omission for which Caroline Franklin might well take him to task. Central to her excellent book Byron’s Heroines is the contention that critics have allowed an obsession with the Byronic hero to blind them to his distinctive treatment of female characters. She points out that in The Island, Byron’s account of the mutiny on the Bounty and its aftermath, even Neuha, one of the most active and autonomous women in the tales, was reduced in McGann’s interpretation (in Fiery Dust, 1968) to a mere “emanation” of her lover Torquil’s soul. Byron, however, had carefully altered his source material in order to make Neuha, not Torquil or Christian, the chief and most arresting character in the poem. Her attractiveness, moreover, contravenes all the conventional ideals of European femininity. Besides being resourceful, intelligent, and physically strong, Neuha is sexually avid.
Franklin demonstrates, interestingly, that Byron went out of his way to purchase in translation both Alexandre Ségur’s Women: Their Condition and Influence in Society (1803) and Christoph Meiners’s History of the Female Sex (1808). Although inclined, like Ségur and Meiners, to distrust female participation in public affairs—both had seen the erosion of sexual differences, including the allegedly pernicious influence of women in the salons of the ancien régime, as a cause of the French Revolution—he dissociated himself sharply from their conclusion that a stable and healthy modern state must depend upon angels in the house: devoted daughters, wives, and mothers, not only chaste but devoid of sexual feeling, who would dedicate themselves to the moral regeneration of society by way of their influence within the family.
Even before his unhappy experience with the virtues of his wife, Annabella Milbanke, his own “moral Clytemnestra,” Byron had regarded all such idealizations of Christian marriage with deep suspicion. His early tales may be located in countries far removed from England and its mores. Their heroines (as Franklin observes) tend to be passive victims of male oppression as Byron’s later women—not only Neuha, but Gulnare, Kaled, Don Juan’s Julia, Haidee, Gulbeyaz, Adeline, or the heroines of the tragedies—are not. Yet Byron is already endorsing female sexuality here in ways that set him off not only from Meiners and Ségur but from most of his British contemporaries. Even in The Giaour (where the heroine, Leila, appears primarily as a body in a weighted sack, drifting down to the sea floor), or The Bride of Abydos, whose gentle female victim shocked liberal and conservative reviewers alike by taking the sexual initiative, he was enlisting sympathy not for the proper father/daughter/ approved son-in-law configuration favored by Southey and Walter Scott, or by female Regency novelists extolling woman’s role in monogamous marriage, but for riskier, family-disrupting loves. It is clear from the start that Byron’s East, where women are denied souls, enslaved in harems, and “Wedlock and a Padlock mean the same” (Don Juan, V, 158), merely carries to an extreme their plight in the “civilized” West.
As an avowed feminist, Franklin sometimes seems a little nervous at finding Byron, often cited as “an archetypal male predator: exploiter of his sister, wife, and countless other, often lower-class, women,” so unexpectedly on her side. Shying away as much as possible from the troubled life, she concentrates on the Regency debate about the nature and role of women, and his contribution to it. The result suggests yet again why Byron has so often seemed different from the other Romantics. (This apartness, indeed, was what initially drew McGann to him.) It is difficult, certainly, to think of any other male writer of the period so intelligently aware not only of “the real sufferings of their she condition” but of the bad faith (including his own) of masculine expressions of compassion: “Man’s very sympathy with their estate / Has much of selfishness and more suspicion” (Don Juan, XIV, 24).
Feminists outraged by the notorious joke earlier in that poem about the “widows of forty” who inquire during the sack of Ismail “Wherefore the ravishing did not begin?” (a passage Franklin quickly slides over) also need to consider her conclusion that Byron’s “subtle and complex representation of women in Don Juan is unrivalled in male-authored art of the period.” As for the rape joke (an ancient one, as it happens), it was meant to annoy, and not simply because Byron knew, as he did when mischievously denigrating Shakespeare, that it teases. “Political correctness” would be just as likely to provoke him into it today as the cant about female chastity did in 1823.
Byron’s Heroines is a significant addition to Byron studies, and to our understanding of the ideologies of sexual difference in his time. Original and informed, it brings large social and political issues to bear upon the poems and plays without distorting them. Indeed the balance, quite as much as the freshness of the readings Franklin offers of the tales, Don Juan, and the Venetian and Biblical dramas, substantiates her claim that Byron’s thinking about women is genuinely central to his work, not something artificially thrust into the foreground by the critic. She cares about the poems themselves as well as the issues, and writes perceptively about both. That is more than can be said for Jerome Christensen’s far more pretentious Lord Byron’s Strength: Romantic Writing and Commercial Society.
While obviously the work of an intelligent and certainly inventive man, Lord Byron’s Strength seems, on a number of counts, perplexing. Readers led, from its subtitle, to expect a book along the lines of John Sutherland’s Victorian Novelists and Publishers (1976) will be disappointed. Christensen devotes a considerable amount of space to Byron’s relations with John Murray, suggesting that between them (and with the concurrence of readers, reviewers, and friends) publisher and author carefully engineered the phenomenon of “Byronism”: a contrivance designed (as the dust jacket puts it) “for the greater glory of a United Kingdom triumphant in the war with Napoleon.” This idea, improbable in itself, seems extraordinary in the light of Byron’s detestation of Wellington, not to mention his disgust with British alliances and politics in the wake of Waterloo. It entirely ignores, moreover, Byron’s break with Murray after 1821.
“From Childe Harold III on,” Christensen declares, “it becomes important to distinguish between Byronism, the name for the speculative machine owned and operated by John Murray, and Lord Byron.” Neither here nor in a long last chapter on the English Cantos of Don Juan, does Christensen indicate that Byron’s later work, not only The Vision of Judgement and other poems, but all of Don Juan from Canto VI onward, was published by the radical John Hunt—a man whose name features neither in Christensen’s text nor in his index.
Thanks to William St. Clair’s revelatory statistical analysis of the print runs of Don Juan, we now know that Hunt’s cheap editions, augmented by a flood of piracies, penetrated (as St. Clair says) “far deeper into the reading of the nation than any other modern book, with the possible exception of Tom Paine’s Rights of Man,” finding their way to people who, in many cases, had read no book other than the Bible. It is not clear whether St. Clair’s essay “The Impact of Byron’s Writings,” unveiled at the Byron bicentenary conference of 1988 and published in 1990, appeared too late for Christensen to use. Even if it did, he might have interested himself in some of the studies that prefigured it. Philip Collins on Byron’s popularity within the Chartist movement, for instance, or David Erdman’s work, or Hugh Luke on the publishing history of Don Juan.
Lord Byron’s Strength is performance criticism. Packed with allusions to gurus of this and yesteryear—Adorno, Althusser, Baudrillard, Bakhtin, Derrida, Eagleton, Kristeva, Lyotard, etc.—it seems to be interested in almost everything except Byron’s verse. Significantly, although Christensen’s own prose has been immaculately proofread, most of his quotations from Byron are inaccurate—sometimes ludicrously so. Nor has he respected, in passages from Childe Harold, the visual layout of Spenserian stanzas or, on occasion, that of the tales. There is something deeply dispiriting about such cavalier disregard for the particularities of poetic texts, especially after all the labors of the Clarendon and Garland editors. McGann seems unlikely to be gratified by Christensen’s indication that it is from Volumes I–V of the Clarendon edition that he is quoting.
Although a concern with Byron and “commercial society” would appear to make discussion of The Age of Bronze mandatory, in view of its mordant satire on the Rothschilds and European political economy, this poem is never mentioned. Christensen restricts himself, for the most part, to Childe Harold, a handful of the tales, Marino Faliero, Sardanapalus, and Don Juan. He writes with considerable brio: “Sardanapalus is The Wealth of Nations in drag”; “Kaled may be defined as that character who cannot not be Napoleon”; or, of the crucifix that Juan’s tutor Pedrillo kisses before he allows himself to be killed and eaten by his shipmates, “its naked solicitation of a fit of mimesis professes that one can have one’s body and be eaten too.” Unfortunately, Christensen is so taken up with his own wit as to have little time for Byron’s. It would be hard to guess from this book that Don Juan was, among other things, a work of comic genius. Nor does he seem to care about the tone or content of Byron’s verse, as opposed to what he can ingeniously force it to say.
In a letter of 1819 written to his banker Kinnaird, Byron defended Don Juan on the grounds that “it may be profligate—but is it not life, is it not the thing?—Could any man have written it—who has not lived in the world?” Readers have usually recognized, if sometimes uncomfortably, the truth of that claim. Christensen’s talk about the Lacanian “Myrrha-stage” in Sardanapalus or his explanations that Pedrillo dies “of empiricism” (alternatively, on page 249, “from an intolerable redundancy”), and Tom the highwayman “from something very like novelization” are wearisome enough. To believe also that Julia, in bed with Juan, should have known when her husband unexpectedly burst into the room that “it is not important [sic] that a male body be kept out of sight but that a signifier [i.e., Juan’s shoes] be plainly hidden,” it is necessary to abandon not just common sense but the human aspect—in Byron’s terms the life—of such a situtation.
It was perceptive of G. Wilson Knight to recognize, in Lord Byron: Christian Virtues, that Byron was a man perpetually trying to exact from life the qualities of great poetry. Less persuasively, he then went on to insist that during his brief existence Byron had actually managed to become most of Shakespeare’s protagonists, not to mention Nietzsche, Prometheus, and Christ. Christensen also fantasticates Byron’s life, but by different means: he unleashes upon it the same interpretative strategies he visits on the poems. Some of his inventiveness here is in questionable taste—as when the grieving Hobhouse’s appalled description of the “parchment” skin of his friend’s embalmed corpse when it returned to England, the “forehead marked with hack marks,” becomes an excuse for puns on a textualized body that registers “the incurable itch of scribbling.”
Like his readings of the verse, Christensen’s “readings” of the biography tend to be clever but unconvincing. Lady Byron, certainly, would be startled to hear that there was no fundamental difference between Byron’s “thesis that all behavior is subject to convention and her recourse to a standard that, however single and immutable,…is based only in her belief.” Given that bisexuality, as Christensen suggests, is likely to have been the issue at stake in this argument between husband and wife, she might well retort that her “belief” was grounded, not only in “something imperiously transcendent like the Bible,” but in the laws of England, which still demanded the death penalty for homosexual acts.
No more responsive to irony and tone in Byron’s prose than in his verse, Christensen makes very heavy weather indeed of passages like this one from the letters:
The next morning I found the dear soul up on horseback clothed very sprucely in Greek Garments, with those ambrosial curls hanging down his amiable back, and to my utter astonishment and the great abomination of Fletcher, a parasol in his hand to save his complexion from the heat.—However in spite of the Parasol on we travelled very much enamoured…
This, according to Christensen, indicates that the “sexual and political appeal of the boy is produced as the effect of what covers him and degrades him from masculinity. Byron desires the Greek boy…as degraded from kind to nuance; he desires ‘him’ as a creature lapsed from body into sign.” It is tempting to imagine possible reactions to this from the lethally funny Byron of “Dear Doctor—I have read your play…,” and to remember too his succinct reaction to a contemporary novel in which he was featured as protagonist: “I read ‘Glenarvon’ too, by Caro. Lamb, / God damn!”
Glenarvon (1816) is by no means irrelevant. It is written in a very different style, but Christensen’s “Byron” really belongs to the same fictional tradition as Caroline Lamb’s, a tradition that continued through Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) or Disraeli’s Vivian Grey (1826). Within the last five years alone, novels by Sigrid Combuchen, Amanda Prantera, and Robert Nye have extended it into the present. Meanwhile, supposedly non-fictional accounts of Byron’s marriage go on being written. In 1992, Joan Pierson’s The Real Lady Byron attempted to defend Annabella at the expense of her peccant lord, contesting the scholarly but less favorable judgments arrived at by Malcolm Elwin in Lord Byron’s Wife (1962) and Doris Langley Moore in her biography of Byron’s unhappy daughter, Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1977).
Pierson’s book was not especially feminist. It registered simply as another link in the long chain initiated by Lady Byron’s own irate riposte, in 1830, to Thomas Moore’s account of the separation—a chain subsequently lengthened by works such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Lady Byron Vindicated (1870) or J.C. Jeaffreson’s The Real Lord Byron (1883). The advice offered has changed. Where Jeaffreson thought that Lady Byron ought to have defused her husband’s more “extravagant utterances” with “cheerily ringing laughter,” Ms. Pierson feels that if only Annabella, on similar occasions, had “given Byron’s face a resounding slap…it might have helped to concentrate his mind a little.” The dialogue is basically the same. Nor is it confined by any means to the issue of the marriage. Despite Eliot’s hopes in 1937, Byron’s life and art remain entangled, and the subject of passionate enquiry and dispute.
Byron conferences for some years now have been enlivened by the furious disagreement between Michael Foot, former leader of the British Labour Party and author of The Politics of Paradise: A Vindication of Byron (1988), and Professor Malcolm Kelsall, author of Byron’s Politics (1987), over the question of whether Byron, as Foot believes, was the great English poet of revolution or (Kelsall’s view) might well have ended up with political convictions as conservative as those of Don Juan’s Lord Henry Amundeville—a Tory. In 1989, a visiting professor of law at Harvard found himself in serious trouble with the Harvard Women’s Law Association for illustrating the legal concept of the “battle of the forms” with two lines from Don Juan: “A little still she strove, and much repented, / And whispering, ‘I will ne’er consent’—consented.” He was fortunate not to have mentioned the eager widows of Ismail. Meanwhile, Camille Paglia (Sexual Personae, 1990) was joyously likening Byron to Elvis Presley, and celebrating not only his “burning, godlike, destructive” energy and beauty, but supposed relish (in Manfred) for “sexual criminality.”
In an essay called “Writing For One’s Age,” Sartre once suggested that the artist experiences two deaths. The first is purely physical, when his body dies. The second occurs at some indeterminate later period, when he becomes what Sartre calls “a prey to history.” That happens when his personality and the attitudes he adopted during his lifetime no longer matter for people reading his work. He can then be regarded dispassionately, talked about with an objectivity and detachment impossible before. Sartre illustrates his point with the story of the Marathon runner:
It was said that the courier of Marathon had died an hour before reaching Athens. He had died and was still running; he was running dead, announced the Greek victory dead. This is a fine myth; it shows that the dead still act for a little while as though they were living. For a little while, a year, ten years, perhaps fifty years; at any rate a finite period; and then they are buried a second time. This is the measure we propose to the writer: as long as his books arouse anger, discomfort, shame, hatred, love, even if he is no more than a shade, he will live. Afterwards, the deluge.
Well into the middle of the twentieth century, the inhabitants of Missolonghi were reported to greet one another on Easter morning not with the salutation (“Christ is risen”) customary throughout the rest of Greece, but with “Byron is dead.” If some of them still do, it would not be particularly surprising. Even now, almost one hundred and seventy years after that thundery Easter morning in 1824, Byron has yet to encounter his second death.
June 10, 1993