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 in Love: A Short Daring Life by the admirable novelist and short-story master Edna O’Brien. Her daring is to treat Lord Byron as an Edna O’Brien protagonist, handled with gentle sympathy and a detachment that yields to his prevenient self-irony. She gives us a kind of novella, told with the rapid, fervent pace of the noble lord narrating Don Juan.
In 1807, the nineteen-year-old Byron published Hours of Idleness, a lyric volume heavily demolished in the Edinburgh Review. Though he fought back in his English Bards and Scotch Reviews (1809), a verse satire in the mode of Alexander Pope, the wound lasted. A grand tour of two years’ duration took him to Portugal, Spain, Albania, Greece, Constantinople, and then Athens again. The final nine months of his life—from July 1823 to April 1824—when he helped lead the Greeks in their war for independence against the Turks, transformed him from a noble versifier into a major and wildly popular poet. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II, published in March 1812, made him the literary and social craze of Regency London.
Rereading Cantos I and II after a half-century away from them is a pleasant surprise, and helps account for their instant contemporary success. This is confessional poetry, self-obsessed, brutally nihilistic, frequently slapdash, yet always refreshingly materialistic in the mode of Lucretius’ De rerum natura. Byron’s Lucretianism later allied him to Shelley, but that difficult friendship with an intellectual and imaginative equal (the only one both poets ever enjoyed, and suffered) began during a three-month summer in Geneva in 1816.
Edna O’Brien places Byron at fame’s peak from 1812 to 1814, commencing with his inaugural speech in the House of Lords in February 1812, a month before Childe Harold’s publication. As an aristocratic Whig, the poet aptly chose to speak against the Tory government’s Framework Bill, which envisioned death by hanging for the Nottingham Luddite weavers who had destroyed the machines replacing them. I have just read what appears to be the speech, which lacks rhetorical confidence, but it made a considerable impression upon both Whigs and Tories. Like Shelley, Byron was a poet of the left, and revolution kindled his enthusiasm, but his concern for the people is suspect. He grimly exploited the angry workers in the Lancashire coal pits he owned, and expressed no guilt, since his rage for expense invariably exceeded his high revenues. Karl Marx, whose daughter translated Shelley, looked back at the self-destructive careers of both Promethean rebels and shrewdly concluded that Shelley the aristocrat always would have stood with the revolutionary left but that Byron, had he been able to bear survival into middle age (he proclaimed the best of life to be over at twenty-three), would have sided with his hereditary nobility against the lower orders.
It needs a storyteller with the skills and experience of Edna O’Brien to intimate something of Byron’s sexual, literary, and social dazzle in Whiggish London between 1812 and 1819. Literally scores of noblewomen, married and not, offered themselves openly or in clandestine letters to the hero of Childe Harold. Leslie A. Marchand’s Byron: A Biography,* credited by O’Brien as one of her prime sources, details these glittering years of fame, love, and Whig society, in chapters 9–12. Marchand is particularly vivid on Byron’s erotic Waterloo, his encounter with the superbly wild Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of William Lamb, later as Lord Melbourne to be one of Queen Victoria’s prime ministers (1834, 1835–1841). After one glance at Byron, Lady Caroline fled home to describe him memorably in her journal: “mad—bad—and dangerous to know,” a precise self-characterization. For not quite five months, their furiously public love affair entertained and scandalized even uninhibited Whig society, until Byron, after many vacillations, escaped for solace to the amiable and vastly experienced Lady Oxford, aged thirty-eight to his twenty-four. This was socially acceptable but yielded soon to the start of his incestuous intimacy with his half-sister Lady Augusta Leigh, well described by Marchand: “amoral as a rabbit and silly as a goose.”
Because of this predicament and his financial disasters, Byron understandably but crazily made his blindest mistake. He earlier had proposed marriage to the wealthy Annabella Milbanke, who now finally accepted him. They married in January 1815, by which time Augusta Leigh had given birth to Byron’s daughter Medora. The marriage lasted exactly a year, ending when Annabella left him, after the birth of their daughter, Augusta Ada. Magnificent also as a letter-writer, Byron permanently limned his prospective wife’s character:
She seems to have been spoiled—not as children usually are—but systematically Clarissa Harlowed into an awkward kind of cor-rectness, with a dependence upon her own infallibility which will or may lead her into some egregious blunder.
Lovelace to her Clarissa Harlowe, Byron was Annabella’s egregious blunder. Both of them deserved better than this amazing mismatch of the endlessly mobile poet and the morally staunch puritan. She undoubtedly was the most intelligent young woman he ever met, and almost the poorest in judgment. Byron immortalized her as the “Princess of Parallelograms,” since mathematics was her passion. Their absurd marriage Marchand categorized as “tragicomedy of the most exquisite sort,” while O’Brien is stirred to a fine gusto:
Their arrival has the suspense and thrall of gothic fiction—a sprawling mansion, a fall of snow, servants holding lit tapers, noting that the bride looked listless and frightened and that her husband did not help her down from the carriage. And so began the most public marriage of any poet, so infamous in its time that it was lampooned in John Bull magazine and the subject of endless scrutiny, helped by the confessions of Byron himself in his Memoirs, as Tom Moore recalled it, and by Lady Byron’s numerous and increasingly incriminating testaments to her lawyers and afterwards for her own “Histoire.” Though professing to Moore a reluctance to “profane the chaste mysteries of the Hymen,” Byron, according to Moore, “had Lady Byron on the sofa before dinner.”
His tenets regarding the sleeping arrangements were categoric. Enquiring if she meant to sleep with him, he claimed to have an aversion to sleeping with any woman, but that she could, if she wished, one animal being the same as the next, provided it was young. She who in her charter for a suitable husband had recoiled from insanity was to have her fill of it. Their wedding night has its literary correlation in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, a crimson curtain catching fire, a hallucinating bridegroom believing he was in hell, then pacing the long ghostly gallery with his loaded pistols.
By the morning after, the bride had deduced the incestuous secret, and soon enough endured fifteen days of cohabitation with both her husband and his sister. A later visit by Augusta extended into two months, with Byron’s behavior becoming maniacal, suggesting aspects of Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff, who was to be based upon him. Abandoning Byron, Annabella sued him for a separation, citing his “brutally indecent conduct and language,” and Regency London turned savagely upon the bisexual, incestuous, sodomistic poet it had celebrated. Legal separation between Lord and Lady Byron was formalized in April, and the poet left England, never to return, on April 24, 1816.
Byron’s greatest poetry, from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos III and IV, through Manfred and Cain, Beppo and The Vision of Judgment, on to Don Juan, all has an antithetical relation to that of his closest friend in Italy, Percy Bysshe Shelley, perhaps the most advanced lyric poet in one Western tradition, precursor of a strangely varied visionary company of literary followers: Thomas Lovell Beddoes and Robert Browning, Herman Melville and Algernon Charles Swinburne, Thomas Hardy and William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. Shelley, to Byron and those who came after, essentially was one towering image: the poet’s poet (like Edmund Spenser before him), an emblem of solitary integrity, the last incarnate defense of poetry.
Friendships between great contemporary writers always are difficult and ambivalent: one thinks of Ben Jonson’s dedicatory poem to Shakespeare’s First Folio, and of the young John Milton’s tribute to the Second Folio, as well as Andrew Marvell’s to Milton’s Paradise Lost. There also are the long tragedies of Melville’s love for Hawthorne, and Coleridge’s for Wordsworth. Walt Whitman frequently denied his indebtedness to Emerson, while Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot were hopelessly evasive about Whitman while endlessly revising him in their own major poems. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are a major repetition of the Shelley–Byron mutual contamination, and similar relationships abound in the early twenty-first century. I venture that the Byron–Shelley connection is the richest and hardest to disentangle of all imaginative rivalries between what might be termed enemy brothers, or, alternatively, benignly fraternal spirits.
A good book on the subject, Charles Robinson’s Shelley and Byron: The Snake and Eagle Wreathed in Fight (1976), is a helpful starting point in its chronicle of the mutual influences exchanged between the two poets throughout their six years of friendship, from the summer of 1816 in Geneva until Shelley’s death by drowning on July 8, 1822, at the age of twenty-nine, in circumstances that have never been fully clarified. In Adonais, his sublime elegy for John Keats, Shelley classically categorized Lord Byron as the Pilgrim of Eternity:
…and the mountain shepherds came,
Their garlands sere, their magic mantles rent;
The Pilgrim of Eternity, whose fame
Over his living head like Heaven is bent,
An early but enduring monument,
Came, veiling all the lightnings of his song
As Shelley well knew, Keats and Byron disliked both one another and each other’s poetry, but since Shelley by 1821 exalted the author of Don Juan as the greatest poet since Milton, the sorrow of the Pilgrim of Eternity is apposite. Shelley’s sorrow for Keats was real enough, though Keats had kept Shelley from being too close, perhaps to avoid excessive influence. Shelley’s first major poem, Alastor, orthe Spirit of Solitude (1816), had stimulated Keats’s Endymion, which is a critique of Alastor as much as it is a visionary romance. Alastor (the title is Greek for an avenging daemon) itself was a contest with Wordsworth’s The Excursion.
If struggle for supremacy is to be judged by a poem’s success in engendering progeny, then Shelley won the contest. Few poems in the language have been as influential as Alastor. Its clear traces can be mapped not just in Endymion but in George Darley’s Nepenthe, Byron’s Lament of Tasso and Manfred: A Dramatic Poem, Browning’s Pauline and Paracelsus, Yeats’s The Wandering of Oisin and The Shadowy Waters. In Eliot’s The Waste Land and Stevens’s The Comedian as the Letter C, Shelley’s internalized quest romance is defensively parodied, but appears again positively in Hart Crane’s Voyages. Shelley voyages his idealistic young Poet on a mission to recover a veiled maiden who is his double, the soul within his soul or epipsyche. As he sails on to the Caucasus, he is shadowed by the Alastor or avenging daemon of his elected solitude. At last he wastes away and dies, reflecting Shelley’s mistaken belief that he himself was dying of tuberculosis, which in fact he did not have. His close friend the satirical novelist Thomas Love Peacock recorded that he revived the vegetarian poet from this imaginary malady by feeding him a momentary but intense diet of well-peppered mutton chops.
Byron, a perpetual dieter to check a tendency to corpulence, empathized with Shelley’s Poet, and gladly adopted the epipsyche myth to represent his incestuous love for his sister Augusta. Manfred, much admired by Goethe, follows Shelley in pragmatically believing that incest is the most poetical of circumstances, a thematic emphasis acquired by Edgar Allan Poe from Byron and Shelley. It is a mixed pleasure to reread Manfred in 2009; its high Gothic seems both silly and guiltily delicious. The Faustian magician Manfred is tormented by guilt over the suicide of his sister-lover Astarte, and wants only self-forgetfulness. He calls on the spirits to conjure up Astarte and she vanishes when he speaks to her. Certainly the English public read this as Byron’s own remorse, not so much for his incest with Augusta but for having to do without her in his European exile.
From 1817 until Shelley’s death in 1822, the two Promethean poets, attacked by the poet laureate Robert Southey as “the Satanic School,” were frequently together, first in Venice and later in Pisa. Out of his enormous debaucheries in Venice, Byron rescued a wonderful comic poem, Beppo, the prelude to his Don Juan. His own final erotic fate came to him on April 2, 1819, with the entrance into a Venetian salon of Countess Teresa Guiccioli of Ravenna, married to a ferocious husband forty years older than herself. Teresa, unique in Byron’s life story, was the only woman who ever tamed him, at least partially and for three years. In only a week, Byron at thirty-two took on the role of cavalier servente to a noblewoman of twenty-one, but who was far more emotionally mature than the poet already composing his epic Don Juan.
O’Brien amusingly describes the raucous early weeks of their courtship. Byron was allotted only two visits a day, and Teresa was alternately effusive and coy. Spying her at the opera politely greeting other men, Byron wrote to her:
My thoughts cannot find rest in me…I have noticed that every time I turned my head towards the stage you turned your eyes to look at that man…but do not fear, tomorrow evening I shall leave the field clear to him. I have no strength to bear a fresh torment every day.
“Teresa,” O’Brien writes, “loved these declarations, wrote on the margins ‘magnifique, passione, sublime,’ and kept them for her Vie, that histrionic and glorified record of their relationship.”
Teresa’s relative mastery of Byron seems a puzzle but clearly hers was a tenacious personality. She even secured a marital separation from the Pope, and absorbed Byron into her family, the Gambas, who were much involved in their revolutionary schemes against the Pope and the Austrians, in which Byron participated. When Teresa and the Gambas were exiled to Pisa, Byron rather grumpily followed them, but devoted most of his time there to the company of Shelley and his circle.
After Shelley’s death, Byron made Genoa his final Italian abode, accompanied by Teresa and the Gambas. At thirty-five he realistically anticipated only erotic and imaginative decline, and became determined to end gloriously as the hero bringing Greece freedom from the Turks. Teresa was the obstacle, but the resurgent strength of Byron’s will overcame hers, refusing her impossible request that she accompany him to warfare in wild Greece. In mid-July, Byron set sail with a motley crew indeed, choosing as his military aides Count Gamba and Edward John Trelawny, the Cornish adventurer and disciple of Shelley, whose 1858 Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron remains superbly readable, though Byron justly observed of Trelawny that even to save his life he could not tell the truth. Since Trelawny loved Shelley and came to hate Byron, readers need to be wary even as they enjoy the Cornish swaggerer’s tales.
Edna O’Brien narrates Byron’s Greek debacle with particular zest, conveying her own sense of release as the poet accomplishes a final transmutation from Pilgrim of Eros to Shelley’s Pilgrim of Eternity. For Byron, O’Brien writes, the decision to go fight in Greece was
the elixir. It signalled escape from the demands and tedium of everyday life and was a metamorphosing from poet to soldier…. He ordered scarlet uniforms with buttons, epaulettes and sashes and fearsome helmets with waving plumes, for his corps of three, Count Gamba, Edward Trelawny and himself. The helmets were modelled on those in Book VI of the Iliad.
Besides Count Gamba and Trelawny, who was to abandon Byron and join the mountain warrior Odysseus, lord of eastern Greece, Byron had his hireling army of Albanians. They were based at Missolonghi, where he assumed nominal control of western Greece, and perhaps entertained the delusion that he yet would be crowned king. Sent by Odysseus on a mission to Byron, Trelawny arrived too late, the poet having died of malaria, or rather of the ministrations of his incompetent physicians. Though the death was lingering and painful, it saved Byron’s legend, since his own mercenaries and all the Greek factions were interested only in devouring both his wealth and his fame. As king of Greece, every second thought would have been his wish for a speedy death.
Shelley and Byron were politically and personally allied but so different intellectually and emotionally that their close friendship, with all its competitive strains, seems a kind of miracle or literary myth. O’Brien writes of how their relationship ultimately soured:
Shelley’s anger and jealousy would have been magnified had he known that in a letter to Tom Moore Byron had nicknamed him “Serpeant—a siren voice of forbidden truth.”
No scholar or writer of fiction has achieved a plausible account of their six-year friendship, during which they shared over 250 days, frequently alone together, corresponded extensively, and seem to have read and discussed nearly all of one another’s poetry. Only the Goethe–Schiller relationship is comparable, but those great poets led conventional existences compared to the revolutionary and erotic firebrands Byron and Shelley, who unlike Verlaine and Rimbaud were not lovers.
Byron, except for a few allusions, carefully kept any portrait of Shelley out of his poetry. Shelley did the reverse, particularly in the remarkable conversation-poem “Julian and Maddalo” (1819), where Shelley is the idealist Julian and Byron is Count Maddalo, who had weathered much of his own Prometheanism. Goethe, who admired Byron, condescendingly observed that when Byron thought, he became a child. Shelley knew better, and I doubt that criticism has caught up to Shelley in apprehending the brilliance, range, and power of Byron’s intellect.
“Julian and Maddalo” is a beautiful exemplification of Shelley’s middle style: urbane, conversational, somewhat understated. Partly written as an answer to Manfred ‘s quasi-Calvinistic sense of fatalism, it depicts an evening horseback ride the poets took near Venice in August 1818:
I rode one evening with Count Maddalo
Upon the bank of land which breaks the flow
Of Adria towards Venice. A bare strand
Of hillocks, heaped from ever-shifting sand,
Matted with thistles and amphibious weeds,
Such as from earth’s embrace the salt ooze breeds,
Is this; an uninhabited sea-side,
Which the lone fisher, when his nets are dried,
Abandons; and no other object breaks
The waste but one dwarf tree and some few stakes
Broken and unrepaired, and the tide makes
A narrow space of level sand thereon,
Where ‘t was our wont to ride while day went down.
This ride was my delight. I love all waste
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.
As they ride, they debate the distinctions between Julian’s apocalyptic hopes for humankind and Maddalo’s savage pessimism, a dissonance repeated the next day when Julian protests:
…’It is our will
That thus enchains us to permitted ill.
We might be otherwise; we might be all
We dream of happy, high, majestical.
Where is the love, beauty and truth we seek,
But in our mind? and if we were not weak,
Should we be less in deed than desire?’
‘Ay, if we were not weak—and we aspire
How vainly to be strong!’ said Maddalo;
‘You talk Utopia.’…
As Shelley and Byron knew, this was not an argument to be won or lost by either. A few years after, both were dead. On the basis of Shelley’s death-poem, the unfinished “The Triumph of Life,” at the close there was little pragmatic difference between them. In the battle they waged with life, life remained conqueror.
September 24, 2009