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Dat Ol’ Debbil Byron

ISSUE:  Autumn 1977
Byron: A Survey, By Bernard Blackstone. Longman. $18.50 cloth, $11.50 paper.
Byron’s Letters and Journals. Edited by Leslie A. Marchand. Prices vary for the six volumes so far published (1798—1819). Harvard.
Lord Byron: Accounts Rendered. By Doris Langley Moore. Harper & Row. $17.50.

THERE are no absolute standards in literature—reputations rise and fall like cartesian devils in response to the changing pressures of our cultural atmospheres; but no one has bobbed about more capriciously than dat ol’ debbil George Gordon, 6th Lord Byron in the English peerage. He started off with a bang, of course, but even then his fellow poets were not delighted. Seven years younger but already a lover of high-minded calm, Keats called him Polyphemus and complained that

  strength alone though of the Muses born
Is like a fallen angel: trees uptorn,
Darkness, and worms, and shrouds, and sepulchres
Delight it; for it feeds upon the burrs
And thorns of life; forgetting the great end
Of poesy, that it should be a friend
To soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man.

(In a flippant mood Byron called him “pissabed Johnny Keats.”) The young Victorians, however, praised precisely Byron’s strength: Matthew Arnold wrote that

He taught us little; but our soul
Had felt him like the thunder’s roll.
With shivering heart the strife we saw
Of passion with eternal law;

And yet with reverential awe
We watched the fount of fiery life
Which served for that Titanic strife.

But then Swinburne came down on Byron’s technical weaknesses like a wolf on the fold, and Victorian morality raised her shocked hands and covered her eyes at his coarseness (except for Poe, across the big water, who cheapened and exploited the incest theme), and Byron faded away for a while, despite Stephen Dedalus’s admiration for him. In our own time, W. H. Auden modeled his Letters from Iceland on Don Juan and wrote an excellent essay on him, but Byron attracted little scholarly attention; even in 1955 a leading textbook scholar could repeat the Victorian cliches: “Byron is the extreme example of unremitting egotism, exhibiting his ego in all its varied forms of self-pity, self-culture, and self-esteem. . . . He is the Satan of the romantic crew, the arch-rebel.”

But now Bernard Blackstone has written the first comprehensive study of Byron’s works, with an emphasis on the Mediterranean rather than the English influences. (Blackstone has taught in Rhodesia, Turkey, Libya, and Greece; he is now at the American University of Beirut.) His treatment of Byron is startling, to say the least: not only do we hear much of Mohammedanism and the Vedanta, but Byron’s works are associated with those of Dante, Blake, Shakespeare, Joyce, Sartre, Heidegger, Rabelais, and T. S. Eliot. Eliot haunts the book, in fact, because in 1936 Blackstone and Eliot traveled from Byron’s Cambridge college to Little Gidding, discussing Byron on the way.”For me . . .the moment was a seminal one, and I believe it was on this pilgrimage that the lines of my subsequent thinking about Byron were laid down,” The experience resulted in an immense inflation of Byron’s intellectual importance, expressed in many a passage like this one:

The Byronic “world” has continents which could be discovered and explored by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Arnold, Eliot, Freud, and Jung. Not all these later discoverers acknowledged their debt (Nietzsche was an honourable exception), but it is not difficult to trace Byron’s tracks in their snow.

The image (did Kierkegaard et al. snow before Byron hobbled through them?) suggests one of the difficulties of Blackstone’s presentation, which is also larded with such terms as elemental, gestalt, field, vortex, ideogram, and eikon. There is also the continual inflation: quoting a quatrain from the Hebrew Melodies in which Byron observes, “So gleams the past . . .distinct, but distant—clear—but, oh how cold!”, Blackstone begins his comment with this: “The coldness is that of interstellar space; the sorrow is that of Dante’s “Nessun maggior dolore . . .” “If all time is eternally present,” says Eliot, “all time is unredeemable.” “This is finding the universe in a grain of sand, a trick at which Blackstone excels. But even more startling is his revisionism, in which Childe Harold becomes the opus magnum, Byron’s separation from his wife and his return to the Mediterranean the great mistake, and Don Juan (the discussion of which is littered with passages from Blake and the Four Quartets) Byron’s Dejection Ode, “a masterpiece of despair,” “a Childe Harold in reverse.” Well, all this is whimsical enough, and yet the book is valuable: Blackstone reminds us of the extent of Byron’s work, looks at everything—he is especially interesting on the seldom-read plays—, and reminds us that the poems are thematically relevant to Byron’s development and connected with his mental life. If few of his conclusions are persuasive, so much the better; he urges us on without standing in our way; he points out the track without snowing us.

His vivid, vagabond life made Byron the only constant term in his existence, the picaresque hero of his action-crammed career and art. Nowadays most scholars—and readers, one fears—prefer to concentrate simply on the life. Of those who do, the best scholar is Doris Langley Moore, whose first book was The Late Lord Byron and who has just published Ada, Lady Lovelace. Those titles (Ada was Byron’s legitimate daughter) and the accounts of the present work, which are those kept by Byron’s housekeepers, lawyers, and publishers, may suggest that Ms. Moore’s interest in Byron is peripheral. Not at all, She is anxious to get to the heart of her subject and willing to do the dogwork of reading reams and trunks of material, much of it in crabbed MSS, in order to base her sensible speculations on fact rather than on rumor, conjecture, and traditional notions. She is an admirable and intelligent detective, and everyone interested in Byron should read her works. In the present one she reports in detail on the last years of Byron’s father; she vindicates his mother from the contemptuous disparagement usually displayed toward her; she demonstrates Shelley’s forked tongue in his comments on Byron; she proves Byron (whose family motto was crede Byron) to be an admirably honest man; she analyzes the causes of Annabella’s leaving him, step by step (they were not always the same causes); she speaks at length and sensibly of Byron’s sexuality while exploding many of the currently fashionable notions about that vexed subject; and she gives us frequent and chilling firsthand glimpses of that neurotic prig Annabella, at first unhappy and at last malicious, who was fond of praising herself at length and in terms such as these: “when my own interpretation of the natural law was clouded by my feelings, I referred to the Revealed Will— in this sense J. Christ may indeed be said to have been my Saviour! I found in his precepts the “immutable morality” which the reason of man is often incapable of discerning.”

Perhaps most interesting is Ms. Moore’s development of the behavior of Byron’s lawyer and business agent John Hanson. She details his unprofessional and exasperatingly indolent handling of Byron’s business matters, concluding that “he had done Byron much pecuniary injury,” and she adds a detailed account of Hanson’s marrying his daughter to the insane sadist Lord Portsmouth. She doesn’t point out what seems extremely probable, that Hanson was indirectly but inescapably the cause of Byron’s failure at marriage. She notes that Hanson delayed the marriage settlement so long that Byron had thoroughly cooled down (his friend Hobhouse noted, as the two of them traveled toward the ceremony, that “never was lover less in haste,” and added later, “the bride-groom more and more less impatient”). We know also that Byron was uncharacteristically excitable, depressed, and drunken during much of the year that his marriage lasted. One cause was his fluctuating attitude toward Annabella, and one his alternate arrogance and guilt about his relationship with his half-sister Augusta. But the third reason, the one he himself repeatedly mentioned in later years, was financial. Hanson was still botching Byron’s attempts to sell property, and during part of the marriage year a bailiff was actually living in Byron’s London house. The embarrassment of this absurd state, in which Byron owned more than a million dollars worth of property and yet was on the verge of arrest for debt—this was the last straw for his emotional stability. Drunk and exasperated, Byron repeatedly frightened the conventional and unsophisticated Annabella, bullied and neglected her, and generally made her miserable (though there were also many times when they were genuinely happy together). No one can believe that the marriage was made in heaven—there was only one woman Byron might have stayed married to—but it might have lasted many years if Byron’s affairs had been in good order.

The one woman was Augusta, of course, as Byron pointed out to her:

What a fool I was to marry—and you not very wise—my dear—we might have lived so single and so happy—as old maids and bachelors; I shall never find any one like you—nor you (vain as it may seem) like me. We are just formed to pass our lives together, and therefore—we—at least—I—am by a crowd of circumstances removed from the only being who could ever have loved me, or whom I can unmixedly feel attached to.

Biographer Leslie Marchand reminds us that “there was in his manner a subtle, almost womanly gentleness, of which his cynical letters to his English friends gave no inkling”; the passage above suggests that gentle tone. As for the cynicism more characteristic of his letters, to be sure, Byron’s attitude toward others and often toward himself takes the form of cynicism, or at least skepticism, among its many comic forms; but there is the little lower layer: a sensible and well-bred person does not impose himself upon his friends, especially in the grimmer moments of his confrontations with whatever ghouls haunt him; yet it would be churlish to withhold oneself from one’s friends, and the solution is detachment, that stepping-back from oneself to a point of view from which truth consists in the comic features of one’s painful predicament. This is a truth that Byron repeatedly sees and describes with unflagging energy, inventiveness, and attention to detail. In the poems, which are detached from him in different ways, Byron bore through Europe the pageant of his bleeding heart, as Arnold put it; but in his letters he makes himself, to a remarkable extent and with great humor and courage, the absurd hero of his own comedy. This is no small achievement, and an age fathered by Ulysses is well equipped not only to enjoy the performance but to admire and understand the skill of the exuberant improvisatore who could respond to Moore’s praise of Childe Harold III by writing,

I am glad you like it; it is a fine indistinct piece of poetical desolation, and my favourite. I was half mad during the time of its composition, between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love unextinguishable, thoughts unutterable, and the nightmare of my own delinquencies. I should, many a good day, have blown my brains out, but for the recollection that it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law; and, even then, if I could have been certain to haunt her—but I won’t dwell upon these trifling family matters.

“I’ve half a mind to tumble down to prose,” Byron remarked in Beppo, “ but verse is more in fashion . . .” After Tristram Shandy, Byron’s informal prose is among our earliest examples of those flexible, vigorous, elliptical, and multi-toned styles of which our century is so fond, and we might almost regret that he was a poet if it were not for the vast inheritance of letters he has left us. Until recently, these letters were available primarily in the six-volume edition of R. E. Prothero, published at the turn of the century. Now Leslie Marchand is compiling a new edition extending to seven or eight volumes, an edition praised by the Modern Language Association as “an outstanding achievement in humane editing. . . . Marchand’s editorial principles are admirable, his commentaries and annotations informative, graceful, and judicious.”

It’s a regrettable job. Marchand admits the value of Prothero’s heavily annotated work, but asserts that the number of letters now available makes such annotation impossible. He claims, though, that “when I have failed to identify either a quotation or a name, I have frankly said so.” Certainly he explains much—sometimes repeatedly; but he soon weakens in identifying quotations, he seldom explains the context of events alluded to in the texts, he consistently identifies people only after the third or fourth reference to them, and his comments are sometimes puzzling, like his omissions. Small errors sprinkle the text (one of Byron’s abbreviated signatures is printed sideways throughout one volume); and the worst of it is that no one will now publish a thorough edition. The earnest reviewer can only recommend that his readers seek out a set of Prothero as well as the Marchand edition. As for buying neither, it is not to be thought of. No poet and few humans have had more interesting lives than Byron; perhaps no one has acted out, described, and analyzed his life so vividly, wittily, and truthfully as he; we owe it to ourselves to enhance our lives with his.

Besides, think of the training! Reduced to following English life through his friends’ letters, Byron wrote this to his publisher:

Remember that I prefer the most disagreeable certainties to hints & inuendoes—the devil take every body—I never can get any person to be explicit about any thing—or any body— & my whole life is (sic) past in conjectures of what people mean—you all talk in the style of Caroline Lamb’s novels.

Even the letters of sister Augusta were not exempt from his criticism:

Whatever be the subject—there is so much paraphrase— parenthesis—initials—dashes—hints—& what Lord Ogilby calls “Mr. Sterling’s damned crinkum crankum” that—Sunburn me! if I know what the meaning or no meaning is—and am obliged to study Armenian as a relief.

Most people do write damned bad letters, but no reader trained on Byron’s specific and concrete style will ever write bad letters again. Read Ms. Moore, then, to know about Byron, and read the letters to hear his very self and voice.


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