Byron is one of the first international successes of the literature industry. From the Renaissance on, sculptors and painters could get into the big money in any of the richer economies of Europe; throughout the 18th century, musicians poured out of Germany, Austria and Italy. But writers, because of the language barrier, had to wait for a large leisured readership, as well as for the late 18th-century boom in the printed word, which included among its manifestations the rise of the literary review.
By the 1800s opportunity called, and Byron was there to answer. Part of his extraordinary success can be put down to luck: he was good-looking, and a lord, and he wrote in English, a language which was already, for non-literary reasons, on the way up. But Byron also had the right gifts, a quick, strong intellect and a forceful turn of phrase. He had an unprecedented flair for getting his sexual presence into his writing. And he had a curious rootlessness that simplified his image for the international audience. He wasn’t from Edinburgh or Ayr, Grasmere or Olney; instead of writing about such provincial places, he could set his poems all over Europe. Byron had no family, no estate, no tenants, no predetermined niche and thus no followers to lead to anywhere in particular. This was an admirably unencumbered inheritance for a media hero.
The trouble about Byron’s prodigious success is that posterity has found it synthetic. His reputation plummeted in England shortly after his death and has remained relatively low since. One reason the Victorians had for disliking him – the flagrant sexual impropriety of both his life and his writings – now, if anything, works in his favour; another characteristic, worldliness, remains a liability. We have taken to demanding idealism, especially from poets, and nothing fails like success. Byron lived at a time when literature was not merely booming as an industry: it was also developing a rhetoric to obscure the fact that it was an industry. Money-making was what the vulgar nine-tenths of the population got up to, that silent majority which Matthew Arnold dubbed the philistines; Arnold’s articulate minority, the intellectuals, were supposed to live for culture and high seriousness. Byron’s approach to literature is as embarrassing in the 20th century as it was in the 19th because it is cynical. Even if his career didn’t give the game away, his words about what should have been his vocation would do it: ‘I do think ... the mighty stir made about scribbling and scribes, by themselves and others – a sign of effeminacy, degeneracy, and weakness. Who would write, who had anything better to do?’
Leslie Marchand’s great edition of Byron’s Letters and Journals, now complete with the publication of an index, brings Byron the man and Byron’s story to the fore. Byron has certainly not emerged from Marchand’s labours as a vulgar careerist: on the contrary, the letters have been acclaimed as letters, the prose as prose, and Byron’s personal charm and intelligence seem harder than they once did to resist. Admirably, Marchand also makes them available to what ought to be a wide readership, in a new one-volume selection. Both the Selected Letters and the index volume include Marchand’s 36-page anthology of snippets from the 11-volume edition, a testimonial to the poet’s wit and, if not wisdom, at least cleverness and variety. Among these quips, however, are enough demystifying observations on the arts, painting as well as literature, to remind us that Byron’s favourite form of his favourite sport was swimming against the tide. Marchand has immensely enlarged our knowledge of Byron the man, but some of the elucidations may be plunging critics of Byron the poet into further disarray.
In a clutch of new studies of Byron, it is bound to be the biography that has it easiest. It is a story set glamorously among rich and famous people, and spiced with sex, scandal and more sex. Even if Byron had written no best-sellers, he would have lived one. Frederic Raphael’s re-telling in Byron makes, predictably, a good read, but not by taking the easy course, which would have relied on Byron’s own racy descriptions of his life and loves. On the contrary, Raphael rises to his task and tells the story in a witty, epigrammatic style which ambitiously invites comparison with Byron’s prose. Byron for example has: ‘From that moment I began to grow old in my own esteem – and in my esteem age is not estimable.’ Raphael writes of ‘a smart touch of heterodoxy, the most consistent of all Byron’s doxies’. He quotes Byron’s own reminiscence of his cousin, Margaret Parker, ‘one of the most beautiful of evanescent beings’, only to round off the paragraph by observing that Margaret Parker ‘took evanescence to the limit by dying’. Biographer and subject could hardly be closer in step than they seem while Byron is pursuing his fashionable conquests in England, and debonairly describing them to his Cambridge men friends and to his favourite woman confidante, Lady Melbourne.
Raphael writes best about this first half of Byron’s career. He gets very close to his hero, not sentimentalising him or obscuring his weaknesses. Hobbled with a withered foot, a ridiculous mother, and an encumbered estate, Byron fought tenaciously while at Harrow for status. Inheriting a title without a suitable income at the age of ten could have been mortifying, but Byron spent his puberty acting the part of a peer for all it was worth. His respect for his own rank earned him the school nickname of ‘the Old English Baron’.
Raphael is good on Byron’s affectations, and shows how his career as a lover must have been partly shaped by his early vulnerability. After one youthful snub, from another cousin, Mary Chaworth, he avoided putting himself again into a position where he needed to trust a woman’s sincerity. (The women in his poems do not establish any hold over the heroes – who are haunted figures, but driven by some internal demon, never by the power of anyone else.) Women of course loved this show of strength, and came to him in droves. Byron was very willing to pay for their services, and at times preferred to, but they came without inducements. ‘I should like to know who has been carried off,’ he complained in 1819, ‘except poor dear me – I have been more ravished myself than anybody since the Trojan war.’
Byron used the same tactics towards society at large as he used with women. There is a curious mixture of apparent indifference and real avidity in his attitude to social success, which Raphael understands and describes very well. ‘The more society hounded him, the more elusive he became: he glowered, they cooed; he sneered, they cheered; he limped, they ran after him.’ Raphael obviously likes Byron and shares many of his interests, especially gossip, intrigue, successful competing and the comedy of social life. He alludes to ‘Byron’s taste for memorabilia, which makes the quotidian jigsaw of his life so easy and so enjoyable to reassemble’. Not the least merit of this book is that it reads as though it has been fun to write.
Yet sometimes the parade of personalities becomes almost dizzy, and the reader wishes that the stories of the supporting cast did not have to be told so speedily. One of the most intriguing affairs to emerge from the Letters and Journals is Byron’s flirtation in 1813 with Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, who was beautiful, new-married, and virtuous. While she and Byron played billiards under the nose of her husband, and passed increasingly passionate notes to one another in books, Byron was keeping Lady Melbourne posted on how his intended seduction was progressing. They kept an assignation at 2 a.m., and by this time Lady Frances seems to have been fully willing, but Byron uncharacteristically backed off. Three more sentences are all that Raphael can spare for the subsequent career of this English Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina: ‘The now bold lady’s determination to acquire a famous lover was finally satisfied by a rendezvous with the Duke of Wellington in the corner of a foreign field, near Brussels, in June 1815. Lady Frances’ hectic alternations of lust and shame continued to make her an alarming mistress, as Scrope Davies’s trunk, full of memorabilia, has recently disclosed. Scrope’s failure to take Byron’s advice to “marry and beget some scrooples” made him an available, and evidently willing, lover of Byron’s abandoned or rejected mistresses, including La Webster, Caroline Lamb and Lady Oxford.’ Raphael’s summary manner of treating characters other than his hero comes across as an extreme form of egotism, which inevitably we begin to suspect Byron of sharing. Yet Byron made a loyal friend, to men at least. The self-absorption conveyed by Byron has been exaggerated by the insistent style of Raphael’s narration and by the one-sidedness of his interests.
On Byron’s short-lived and disastrous marriage to Annabella Milbanke, Raphael is in his element, as a sharp-eyed, sympathetic and worldly eavesdropper on a series of bedroom scenes. When he takes the story on to Switzerland, where Byron reluctantly resumed his affair with Claire Clairmont, and first met Shelley, he still seems to get the people and the personal relations right. But at this half-way point the limitations of gossip are also beginning to show. Byron didn’t live all his life in bed, and was in fact entering on his maturity as a poet. The poetry enlarged its scope with the third and fourth cantos of Childe Harold – which are about the intellectual and his political role, though to read Frederic Raphael you wouldn’t know it. Having shown Byron becoming a star, he doesn’t know what to do with him as a mere writer. The second half of the book, which takes Byron from his flight from England in 1816 to his death in Greece in 1824, suffers because this is a story to which the Venetian love affairs seem very marginal. Byron’s letter on the subject of his exile to Tom Moore in 1822 contains some self-flattery, but also indicates those areas of his character and achievement to which Raphael has not done justice:
The truth is, my dear Moore, you live near the stove of society, where you are unavoidably influenced by its heat and its vapours. I did so once – and too much – and enough to give a colour to my whole future existence. As my success in society was not inconsiderable, I am surely not a prejudiced judge upon the subject unless in its favour; but I think it, as now constituted, fatal to all original undertakings of every kind. I never courted it then, when I was young and in high blood, and one of its ‘curled darlings’; and do you think I would do so now, when I am living in a clearer atmosphere?
In assembling his symposium on Byron’s Political and Cultural Influence, Paul True-blood contributes to an intermediate subject: not the poetry, not the man, but ‘Byronism’, the myth made out of the two put together. Byron quickly got the 19th-century Continental public to admire him, first by the gift for self-publicity he demonstrated in Childe Harold, The Corsair and Manfred, later by having the foresight to die for liberty in Greece. After a good summary by William Ruddick of his posthumous fortunes at home, Trueblood’s other contributors report (mostly rather woodenly) from various European countries on the progress of the legend. Robert Escarpit feels that Byron has not mattered much to Frenchmen, except to Jules Verne and himself. But in Poland he has meant a great deal, as a model Romantic nationalist: indeed, you catch the 19th-century poet Adam Mickiewicz and the 20th-century scholar Professor Windakiewicz wondering if in some sense he was a Pole. In Greece, of course, he is also a patriot: it seems, though E.G. Protopsaltis does not allude to the subject, that Greeks have agreed to forget Byron’s less than flattering descriptions of them in Childe Harold, Canto II, and in the letters he wrote from Missolonghi in his last months. The Portuguese have been unable to make the same allowances for Childe Harold, Canto I, which does indeed include one of the most memorable assaults on a national character in English literature, unmitigated by the humour and grudging respect that breaks out in Johnson on the Scots.
Among the small would-be nations Byron also tried to help was Armenia, not mentioned in this book. After arriving in Venice in 1816, he provided money for an Armenian dictionary, and did some work on it himself. Is there a statue to him, or does some underground cell still toast him, in the Soviet Union or in Turkey? That would make a poignant contrast to the fate of Byron in un-Romantic Switzerland, where neither politics nor literature appears to have benefited from Byron’s passing through, but the tourist trade has. Around Chillon business is brisk, and an enterprising hotelier has put up a plaque in Byron’s honour – near one of the spots where, according to Raphael, English tourists in 1816 were prepared to go to almost any lengths to get close enough to Byron to cut him dead.
The oddest story emerges from Germany. If there was ever any doubt that German 19th-century intellectuals had a genius for obfuscation, the more confident and more perverse as the prestige of their theorising rose, Cedric Hentschel’s chapter contains a salutary lesson. The best qualities of Byron’s best writing, its terseness, energy, wit and good sense, went unrecognised since, Hentschel says regretfully, Germans from Goethe on admired Manfred and looked down on Don Juan. Most of Byron’s readers have taken him for a liberal Whig or a Romantic revolutionary or a compromised version of one of those positions, but Germans have hardly known how to take him politically. Among practising politicians, 19th-century liberals and socialists showed little interest. Marx preferred Shelley, on the grounds that poems like ‘Queen Mab’ and ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ had more appeal to workers. Byron’s most eminent German fans, according to Hentschel, are Metternich (who found time, while running Europe, to learn the hundred or so stanzas of Childe Harold, Canto IV in English), Bismarck, Nietzsche, and mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, who may even have taken Byron’s epicene hero Sardanapalus as a model of regal behaviour.
The books by Hermione de Almeida and Philip Martin are much more direct attempts to meet the challenge Byron makes to the literary critic. If he is a major poet, as not merely his reputation but the size and scope of his oeuvre insistently suggest, which are the great works? How far should we forgive his low view of poetry and his negligence as a craftsman? For Anglophone critics of Byron, led in our generation by Andrew Rutherford and Jerome McGann, reassurance comes with Don Juan. Here is a poem of the right length and range to be called major, written in a complex stanza and in a fascinating, difficult diversity of tones. For the American Hermione de Almeida, epic is a world form and to have written one is a saving grace. For the English Philip Martin, the poetry is more in the writing, the verbal texture. Though different in approach, the two critics agree that great literature has a limited canon, and that Don Juan properly belongs in it. The conclusion is predictable, in that you do not write an academic literary book to prove that your subject is not literature as you define it. What is interesting is the difficulty both critics encounter in fitting Byron to their literary definitions, and the real element of unease they leave behind.
Hermione de Almeida’s Byron and Joyce through Homer gives an enthusiastic account of Don Juan and of Joyce’s Ulysses in their relations with the Odyssey. Though nominally a study of three books, narrowness is not its vice, for there are well over a thousand proper names in the index, and the real subject turns out to be Western culture, from Gilgamesh on. Authorities cited on any page might include, say, Flaubert, Pater, Montaigne and Schiller. The effect is sometimes a little daunting, but there is method in it, since Hermione de Almeida sees Western literature as a continuum, with great modern mythic works a logical adaptation of primitive myth:
[In the Odyssey] the Greek’s journey home includes all themes of passage: through life, the pilgrim’s progress to eternity ... and the westward journey of the sun ... In the world of Don Juan and Ulysses such a single myth, composed of like elements and a common history ... cannot be. Scores of ancillary myths, disparate in theme, origin, and story, are required to complement the primary myth of Odysseus and, together, symbolise the modern condition. Myths of the fall of Satan and of man layer the myths of Phaeton and Icarus (and the legends of Faust and Don Juan) to symbolise the ascending and falling fortunes of Juan, Stephen and Bloom.
This notion of the comprehensiveness of art derives from idealists like F.H. Bradley, and Hermione de Almeida’s aesthetic principles have much in common with those of Pound and Eliot. They belong in an intellectual ambience appropriate for discussing Joyce, whose Ulysses does indeed relate elaborately to Homer’s epic, and whose own conception of culture was similarly rich and inclusive. But Byron’s Don Juan? Here there is no question of the author himself conforming to this exalted and characteristically late 19th-century view of art. Byron’s own descriptions of Don Juan abjure aestheticism and idealism, indeed are realist to the point of coarseness:
As to Don Juan – confess – confess – you dog – and be candid – that is the sublime of that there sort of writing – it may be bawdy – but is it not good English? – 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? – and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a Gondola? Against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis a vis? – on a table? – and under it?
So assured is Hermione de Almeida’s rhetoric that it is some while before the reader wonders just what the resemblances are supposed to be between Don Juan and the Odyssey. Clearly a quest is a quest, even if Juan is not heading for home, and there are Greeks, islands and seductresses in both. But are we really meant to pin episodes in Byron’s poem onto episodes in Homer, or match character with character? Hermione de Almeida links Byron’s Catherine the Great with Calypso and with Circe, Gulbayez with Circe and Penelope, Lambro with Odysseus and the Cyclops, and Pedrillo with Nestor. It’s not much more persuasive to be reminded that Byron’s Don Juan and Joyce’s Bloom are gentle and intelligent, like Odysseus, and that all three authors seem to look more favourably upon their heroes than upon society at large. On style, Hermione de Almeida has to admit a degree of defeat, and to concede that Byron is less of a conscious experimentalist than, according to her theory, the modern epic-writer should be.
The trouble with her effort to show the world’s writers collaborating in their grand and harmonious activity is that it obliterates important distinctions. Individual writers can differ greatly from one another; literary theories and objectives differ too. Byron, when writing relatively seriously about Don Juan, called it ‘a satire on abuses of the present states of society’, and the word ‘states’ is a pun which reminds us that his uninhibited hero was to have exercised his libido in all the main nations of modern, repressive Europe. To construct a hermetically-sealed timeless mythic world was by no means his goal, even if from Hermione de Almeida’s angle it should have been. He became irritated with his own period’s portentous way of discussing his poem, perhaps because he was frivolous, perhaps because caring for the ideal can mean not caring about the real. ‘You are too earnest and eager about a work never intended to be serious; – do you suppose that I could have any intention but to giggle and make giggle? – a playful satire with as little poetry as could be helped – was what I meant.’
Philip Martin’s Byron: A Poet Before His Public has little in common with Byron and Joyce through Homer except a preference for Don Juan. Martin is a far cooller customer, and his view of the general level of Byron’s poetic achievement is actually chilly. This was a career cynically fashioned to appeal to the new middle-class public. Byron must have despised his readers, thinks Martin, who despises them too. The dossier against the poet thickens alarmingly as Martin works chronologically through his playboy, play-acting career. The Oriental Tales are soon dismissed – ‘the general quality of the poetry ... is so self-evidently poor that there is no longer any need to demonstrate this fact.’ He thinks Childe Harold, Canto III demonstrates that Byron failed to grasp what was significant about ‘Tintern Abbey’, and ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’ what was significant about the rest of the Lyrical Ballads. With Childe Harold, Canto IV Byron is ‘in a rut’ and ‘critically impotent’. Manfred shows him out of his depth, more bored than ever with having nothing to say. For a while it looks as if Martin means to retrieve some of the other dramas – Marino Faliero, The Two Foscari, Sardanapalus – but no: the ‘dramas are the last of his exercises in complete self-deception’.
In spite of himself, it seems, Martin manages several times in his later chapters to find some rays of light in the gloom. Cain appeared in 1821 with the obnoxious subtitle ‘A Mystery’, which must have challenged the orthodoxies of the reading public and led them to connect Byron with polemic freethinkers of the day. The drama itself also conveys a provocative whiff of devil-worship – which does not stop Martin from returning to form and declaring it ‘as potent an affirmation of Byron’s bankruptcy as a philosophical poet as we are likely to find’. His tactics with Don Juan are somewhat similar: a genuinely interesting discussion of the serious and topical implications of Cantos II and VII leads up to an only grudging defence of the poem as a whole. Byron, with his tell-tale aristocratic ‘irresponsibility’, remains to Martin an essentially unattractive figure, whose personality intrudes upon his masterpiece. ‘He struts somewhere behind the poem, parading his misdeeds and his blasphemies.’
Here are two cases, not uncommon with systematised literary criticism, when much might have been achieved by a partnership: Hermione de Almeida could do with some of Martin’s reluctance to be taken in, while he could do with her generosity. Of the two, he is the more off-putting, because it is harder to see what sensible theory of literature lies behind his value-judgments. What if Byron did write for the market? Don’t most writers, in one sense or another, write for a market? Should it be a matter of reproach, rather than of observation, to say that the persona he projected was aristocratic? What if he was an actor and a fantasist? In the post-Freudian world, we surely believe that creative writers commonly are actors and fantasists. One of the facets of Byron’s character which attracts Frederic Raphael (who writes better than Martin on motivation) is the openness of his fantasising – above all, the fact that Byron himself recognised it.
Really, when all is said, it proves just as distracting to develop a dislike of Byron the man as to fall under the sway of his charm. Martin no more notices when the oeuvre grows serious than Raphael does. Indeed, when he has to give an account of the interaction with Shelley in 1816, he seems less sensitive and knowledgeable about Shelley’s poetry than Raphael is about his personality. He half-acknowledges that in the dramas and the two later cantos of Childe Harold, as well as in Don Juan, Byron takes to dramatising the plight of a series of intellectuals at odds with their societies, and that, unlike the early romances, these works generally sound topical. So how appropriate is it to keep up the accusations of self-dramatising and irresponsibility? Byron may never sound wholly impersonal, yet, if we had only the works written after 1816, we wouldn’t know what the word ‘Byronic’ signified. Perhaps it will take a close season on the withered leg and on Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster before the later work comes to seem as much about history as histrionics.
When his publisher John Murray tried to clean up Don Juan in the interests of religion and propriety, Byron roared from Italy: ‘You sha’n’t make Canticles of my Cantos.’ But it was not just religious scruples at work: it was a growing cult of the dignity of Art. Byron knew, none better, that art is also a commodity, and that among the fortunes made by it are those of publishers and critics. Already Murray and the Italian poet in exile, Ugo Foscolo, were urging him – in advance of posterity, of Hermione de Almeida and Philip Martin – to play the literature game more seriously. The pressure was on, and it was not so much to give the public vulgar entertainment, as to give the intellectual élite imposing, perhaps abstruse art. Byron’s resistance is partly a protest that he has a life to live, partly a murmur that there is no humbug so practised as the humbug of a communicator:
So you and Mr Foscolo etc want me to undertake what you call a ‘great work’ an Epic poem I suppose or some such pyramid. – I’ll try no such thing – I hate tasks – and then ‘seven or eight years!’ God send us all well this day three months – let alone years – if one’s years can’t be better employed than in sweating poesy – a man had better be a ditcher. – And works too! – is Childe Harold nothing? you have so many ‘divine’ poems, is it nothing to have written a Human one?
Depending on your point of view, that is either the incomprehension of the last of the gentlemen-amateurs, or the correct foreboding of the first of the professionals.