Lord Byron’s Strength: Romantic Writing and Commercial Society. By Jerome Christensen. Johns Hopkins.$34.95.
In the history of fame, of what has been called the “frenzy of renown,” Lord Byron occupies a singular position as the most famous poet of his age. Now almost taken for granted, this fame has never been fully explored nor comprehensively analyzed. It is, therefore, with intense interest that we greet Professor Christensen’s new book on Byron, which he professes to be the first extensive study of the poet’s persona. Unfortunately, since the prose of this volume owes more than a little to the jargon of Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Lyotard, and Baudrillard, among other academic idols, it is not a work that makes itself accessible to the uninitiated, to the now uncommon “common reader.”
It does, however, raise a variety of interesting questions, conveying the complexities of the poet’s legendary persona, of his lordly image. How did the Byronic icon come to be? Byronism, we are told, was engineered by the poet in collaboration with his publishers, friends, reviewers, and readers, to the benefit of British commercial society, which profited from the success of his work. Byron’s procedures are not unprecedented. A century earlier, Alexander Pope had his own letters published, as if unprecedented, for the same reason—self promotion. Aristocrat, dandy, rebel, libertine, freedom fighter, and voluptuary, Byron is the complex product of the various political forces of his age, whose persona was itself a generative force in the cultural life of his century. To define both the totality of factors involved in the shaping of a hero’s image and the role of this mask is an heroic endeavor, and Professor Christensen’s study is a brave, ambitious effort indeed. His book is part of a series of recent, related attempts to understand the ways in which artists have packaged themselves, for example, the recent analysis of Rembrandt’s “enterprise,” which boldly attempts to define the means by which the painter commodified himself through the products of his pictorial labors.
The use of the word “strength” in the book’s title owes more than a little to the now widely held literary theory, of psychoanalytic ancestry, which speaks of the “strong poet” who enters into battle with his great precursors, undermining these antecedent figures, making their strength his own. The history of English literature, written according to this theory, extends from Spenser and Milton through Blake and the Romantics to the Modernists. It is the story of literature as the battle of giants who, vanquishing their predecessors, struggle to do nothing less than originate themselves. It is the story to which Byron, himself a rebellious poet of prodigious strength, belongs.
This history of poetic influence owes more than a little to Nietezsche, whose teacher, Jacob Burckhardt, gave particular definition to it in his masterpiece of romantic history, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Burckhardt glorified the very country which played no small role in the shaping of Byron’s persona. Writing in the middle of the 19th century, Burckhardt wrote about the Renaissance as the origins of the modern world. He traced the “development of man” in the Renaissance, analyzing man’s pursuit of glory, effectively mapping out the early history of Europe’s “strong poets.” He began with Dante, who should be seen as the first modern poet to cultivate his persona with a high degree of self-consciousness of the kind we later associate with Byron and the Romantics. Like Byron after him, Dante made himself the subject of his own epic poetry. He was, indeed, the first modern autobiographical poet, and it is no accident that the poetry of Byron’s day and of Romanticism in general is read in his shadow. Just as Dante grappled with the powerful example of Virgil, aspiring to vanquish the great classical author in the new Italian language, the Romantics, including Byron, struggled mightily with the authoritative figure of the Tuscan poet.
Burckhardt’s history of the early development of the modern poetic persona, beginning with Dante, culminates in the 16th century with the notorious, combative figure of Pietro Aretino, an individual of seemingly Rabelaisian proportions, and it is with the large, agonistic Aretino that we approach one of the fundamental antecedents of Byron’s persona. The Aretinesque mask is itself one of the great works of art in the early modern period. In the portrait of Aretino painted by his friend Titian and now in the Frick Collection, we perceive something of this magnificent presence. Gigantic in scale, Aretino gazes outward with commanding intensity, a figure of enormous strength.
Although born of a humble shoemaker, Aretino was cultivated by the aristocratic benefactor of his mother and rose to a position of high station, living like an aristocrat among the patriciate of Venice. Playwright and poet, like Byron, Aretino was both a great satirist and erotic writer, who was forced into exile from Rome after writing a series of pornographic sonnets, which were accompanied by the banned engravings of Giulio Romano. His notoriety was further magnified by his Ragionamenti, satirical dialogues concerned with affairs of the brothel and related matters. Aretino emerged in Venice as a sort of Don Juan, bragging in one of his letters that several of the women who issued from his household (his concubines?) wished to be called Aretines, adding that a canal in Venice was named after him as were a type of Venetian glassware and a breed of horses. Aretino was a legend in his own lifetime, and when a later Renaissance writer spoke of the Englishman who emulated the Italians as a diavolo incarnato, one senses that he had Aretino, as well as Machiavelli, in mind. Aretino promoted himself as a “scourge of princes,” publishing his letters to Charles V, Francis I, Pope Clement VII, Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, and countless lords of his day, asserting in these self-aggrandizing epistolary writings his own lordly persona, his own strength as poet or maker.
Self-promoter, libertine, rebel, satirist, voluptuary, and exile in Venice, Aretino was the Lord Byron of his day, and the shrewd publication of his letters in several volumes, in the major publishing center of Venice, is a stunning precedent to Byron’s subsequent, similar self-promotion through the publication of his letters, which played an important role in the magnification of his own persona. Is the relation of Byron’s persona in Venice to that of the Don Juanesque Aretino merely coincidental or did Byron consciously assimilate Aretino’s mask to his own? Writing from Venice in 1818, Byron bragged famously that his Don Juan was the “sublime” in “bawdy” writing. He fails to observe that the greatest, most famous bawdy writer before him, also in Venice, was the libertine Aretino. Byron goes on to say that his writing is life, adding that he had “tooled” in a post-chaise, in a hackney coach, in a gondola, against a wall, in a carriage, on a table, and under it. Surely it is more than a coincidence that three hundred years before, writing in the same city, in his Ragionamenti, Aretino had a character of these dialogues discuss the way women might enjoy lewdness to stimulate a man to ride on them on a chest, on a ladder, on a chair, on a table, and on the floor. It is as if Byron, who insists that Don Juan is life, also followed the prodigious literary example of Aretino.
What can we say about the Don Juanesque bond between Aretino and Byron, about Byron’s assimilation of Aretino’s erotic persona? Byron adapted Aretino’s mask so thoroughly, subtly, and artfully, that he left scarcely a trace of his source. He left clues, but such traces have been ignored by virtually all of Byron’s scholars, including Professor Christensen, an otherwise fine connoisseur of the poet’s persona, because, like scholars of Romanticism in general, they treat their subject insularly, without penetrating adequately to the Italian taproots of English Romanticism. Like Aretino, Byron understood the dynamics of publishing; like Aretino, Byron had an acute sense of social and political forces, of commercial society, and of how to manipulate them; like Aretino, Byron understood the dynamics of selfpromotion; like Aretino’s erotic and satiric persona, Byron’s flowered in Venice. The future study of Byron’s persona as of that of all Romantics, will be enriched by a closer scrutiny of how Byron and his contemporaries found their “strength” and very origins in the Italian Renaissance poets, who, Burckhardt recognized, were the first moderns, the very ancestors of the Romantics.