Ian Gilmour’s deft and learned book is concerned with the lives of Byron and Shelley up to the morning on which Byron woke up and found himself famous. The poets weren’t to meet for another four years, so Gilmour isn’t telling the history of their acquaintance but its prehistory; and not the least of his book’s many virtues is the way it makes you realise what an odd combination they made. The obvious comparison is with Coleridge and Wordsworth, who quickly recognised in one another a kindred spirit, even though differences later emerged; but Shelley and Byron were always opposites. One was a devout evangelist for atheism; a passionate metaphysician, who, Polidori records, once talked about idealism ‘till the ladies’ brains whizzed with giddiness’; perhaps the most intuitively abstract poet in the language (‘You might as well go to a ginshop for a leg of mutton, as expect anything human or earthly from me’); and a fervent eulogist of imagination and the ‘unacknowledged legislature’ of poets. The other, plagued by a childhood Calvinism into irrationalist fantasies of doom, was also a natural debunker who, in Gilmour’s words, ‘prided himself on his cynical realism’, who spoke with cheerful contempt of ‘the mazes of Metaphysics’, and with equally cheerful contempt of poetry: ‘Who would write, who had anything better to do?’ Byron exemplifies Barbara Everett’s compelling thesis that English poets thrive on a stubbornly philistine mistrust of the pretensions of art: Shelley reminds us that the thesis does not hold good for all great English poets. Even in their politics, while they are obviously both on the side of progress, the differences are important. Shelley was a Godwin-intoxicated optimist: Byron, a disheartened Foxite Whig.
Extremes meet, as Coleridge would say. But it is striking that Byron and Shelley’s poetic voices never did meet much – certainly not in the way that Coleridge and Wordsworth found themselves speaking the same language. A strong dose of metaphysics temporarily moved Byron to the heady stuff of Childe Harold III, and Shelley took the hint of Byron’s Horatian manner to write the urbane Julian and Maddalo. But, much more important, each brought to fruition in the other a pre-existing style of genius quite opposite to his own. It was Byron’s company, of all things, that seems to have spurred Shelley to write Prometheus Unbound; and it was renewed acquaintance with Shelley, of all people, that moved Byron to set out on Don Juan. (And it was chiefly Shelley’s large-minded conviction of the nobility of the enterprise that persuaded Byron to persist with the poem when everyone else thought it a dreadful mistake.)
As Gilmour makes clear, what enabled this strange chemistry to get going was a mixture of uneasiness and self-assurance about class that the poets recognised and warmed to in each another. Shelley, according to Byron, was ‘as perfect a Gentleman as ever crossed a drawing room’, but his background was only precariously genteel. Grandfather Bysshe twice eloped with heiresses: he grew to be very rich, but so miserly that he refused to occupy Field Place, the big house, where his dismal son Timothy was installed instead. Timothy was dull and self-important, regularly humiliated by his domineering father, and uncomfortably aware of the weakness of his claim to gentility. All this evidently left its mark on Percy, Timothy’s oldest son, who habitually regarded himself as a victim of patriarchal oppression (‘he had a need to feel persecuted,’ Gilmour says), while at the same time being convinced of his own superiority. His outrage at injustice was ardent and noble, but his passion for reform never had much to do with fellow-feeling with the lower orders. The good folk of Keswick struck him as a terrible blot on the scenery, he was appalled by the ‘Irish mob’; and while noisy in his scorn for the ‘imbecility of aristocracy’, he was disdainful of commerce and manufacturing. (Compare the radical poets of the 1790s, many of whose patrons were in enlightened ‘trade’.) Many people found Shelley charming, but the class-sensitive Keats thought him more than a touch patronising.
The Byron family came out of a far higher drawer than the Shelleys, who were inescapably new money, but Byron himself was an aristocrat only by the skin of his teeth, with little money of any kind, and he appears to have been as socially insecure as Shelley’s father. Byron’s family was farcically dreadful. Top horror is his father, ‘Mad Jack’, who married the sizeable fortune of Catherine Gordon and then squandered it with extraordinary zeal. After his death, in greatly reduced circumstances, Catherine brought her boy up in Aberdeen, devotedly in her way, though violently fond and furious by turns. Everything – except her temperament – changed when Byron found himself heir to the barony: the transformation in their status was wonderful, and the child picked up his mother’s unbalanced visions of grandeur. Newstead, the seat, was scarcely inhabitable; but, as Gilmour nicely says, it isn’t hard to imagine how astonishing a reversal of fortune it must have seemed to ‘a clever, imaginative little boy, accustomed to living frugally in a small flat in Aberdeen’. He had known for some time that the peerage would be his, but when his new name appeared on the school list and the boys hooted with excitement, he burst into tears at his translation. He knew that he had become important when a master gave him tea and cake.
Byron entertained ‘high notions of his rank’, Thomas Moore said, and he wasn’t alone in thinking that ennoblement did nothing to help Byron’s character; but he could hardly have been Byron without it. Scott astutely thought him ‘a patrician on principle’: the business of being important was crucially important to the business of being Byron. His snobbery was mostly venial. He liked the idea of his mother’s family more than his father’s because of its connections with royalty (she was remotely descended from King James I of Scotland); at school, he boasted so much about the (alleged) venerability of his title that he was facetiously nicknamed ‘the Old English Baron’. Occasionally the pretension turned more prickly: invited to join a formal procession, he sulked for three days on learning that his peerage did not earn him precedence. ‘His Lordship affected more aristocracy than befitted his years or the occasion,’ John Galt thought, and Hazlitt agreed: ‘He may affect the principles of equality, but he resumes his privilege of peerage, upon occasion.’ Gilmour is nearer the mark to see in Byron’s touchiness and bumptiousness not the toff reverting to type, but rather a flickering unease about his fitness for the part. You can guess the sensitivities stirring in his lofty remarks to Lady Blessington about authors of modest background making their ‘awkward efforts’ to ‘act the fine gentleman’.
Gilmour chooses some telling anecdotes. At Cambridge, for example, Byron was evidently eager to play the lord and wore magnificent robes; but he subsequently reproached himself for spoiling his appearance in hall by ‘diffidence’. The episode gives a good clue to what is going on in his most exuberantly ‘Byronic’ poems, which, at their most characteristic, make you wonder just how committed to their extravagant gestures they are. It has always been recognised that Byronic heroes are superhuman versions of the author, but for Byron this involves self-consciousness about the intrinsically ludicrous business of turning oneself into so flamboyant a spectacle. He is always discovering a hunger in himself to be less serious. Take these lines from Lara:
His silence formed a theme for others’ prate –
They guessed – they gazed – they fain would
know his fate.
The only sensible response would be ‘Come off it,’ were it not for the suspicion that Byron is already sending up his heroic self-portrait, even while revelling in its vicarious magnificence. He condescended to the humble public on a heroic scale in his preface to Hours of Idleness; but more or less simultaneously, as Gilmour notes, he was privately writing clear-headed squibs about the farcicalness of his station. As with his edgy assumption of the forms of gentility, his impersonations are both marvellous and burdensome, wholly compelling and more than a little ridiculous: Byronic heroes are at once proud masters of their fate and hapless victims of circumstance.
Byron set himself against cant in all its varieties, including his own. In nothing does he seem so modern as in this nervous concern not to be taken in – and especially so in his conviction that the cant most likely to take in a poet is the poetical. The lines from Lara acquire their curl of the lip when they reach the poeticism ‘fain’. Moore told a story about visiting Byron in Venice which he thought indicative of ‘otherwise indescribable traits of manner and character’. Gazing at a sunset over the Grand Canal, Moore made a harmless remark about its beauty, calling the light ‘rosy’ and so on. Byron clapped a hand over Moore’s mouth and barked: ‘Come, d-n it, Tom, don’t be poetical.’ A normal anxiety not to be bored, sure; but a mistrust of literariness has a more pervasive presence in Byron’s lordly imagination: Don Juan contains an unflagging Byronic joke about the business of being important – meaning, in this case, the entertainment of ‘epical pretensions’ (‘Hail, Muse! et cetera – ’). One of the very best things said about Byron, and the connection between his diffidence and his art is buried in a letter of George Santayana’s, quoted in a lecture by W.W. Robson. Santayana admired Byron, but felt that ‘he did not respect himself or his art as much as they deserved.’ Robson agrees that this prevents even the best of the poems from being ‘great art’. Byron would have agreed, too, but Don Juan isn’t conceivable without a very lofty idea of ‘great art’ for it to evade, and it owes much of its life to the creative agency of self-disrespect.
Byron boisterously cited the ‘world’ as his alternative to poetical cant: ‘is it not life, is it not the thing? – Could any man have written it – who had not lived in the world?’ Given that, it’s difficult not to detect a faint reservation in his praise of Shelley, offered in conversation to Lady Blessington, as the ‘least worldly-minded person I ever met . . . a most brilliant imagination, but a total want of worldly wisdom’. A related ambiguity lurks in his admiring remark to Thomas Medwin: ‘There’s Shelley has more poetry in him than any man living.’ Shelley’s unworldliness appears in Gilmour’s biography chiefly as an inability to see things as they are, an aptitude acquired in childhood. Shelley’s father apparently ignored him, and his mother’s attention dwindled as soon as the boy showed himself indifferent to the charm of blood sports: Field Place consequently became, Shelley said, a ‘temple of solitude’. That he withdrew into a rapt world of dreaminess, wizardry and spirits is hardly surprising, and Gilmour is not the first to suggest that this self-absorbed universe remained Shelley’s principal home in later years. A ‘frequent inability to grasp reality’ is given as an explanation for his more bizarre behaviour at several points in the book, Gilmour apparently agreeing with Hogg that Shelley was ‘the creature . . . of his irresistible imagination’. It isn’t clear how someone with such a weak grasp of the actual could have said anything remotely germane about politics, let alone proved himself a great radical poet, although it is true that political change in Shelley – the chains shaken to earth like dew in The Mask of Anarchy, for example – always seems more magical than it does political. Byron gently mocks the tendency in Don Juan: ‘For I will teach, if possible, the stones/To rise against Earth’s tyrants.’ If possible. Shelley dramatised their differences in Julian and Maddalo: ‘You talk Utopia,’ Maddalo says to Julian, who replies pluckily: ‘It remains to know.’
‘You know I always seek in what I see the manifestation of something beyond the present & tangible object,’ Shelley once wrote; and the effect on his verse is distinctive. (Nothing is more important to Byron than tangible things: shoes, cupboards, beds, dogs, the body.) Any metaphysically minded poet might compare a strong river to the idea of Power, a piece of stylish hyperbole. But Shelley goes much further, so that a river becomes, with an eerie, self-absorbed magic, a shadowy reflection of the idea of itself:
Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down
From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne
No wonder the ladies’ heads whizzed: the lines are giddy with not knowing how much is the mind’s creation and how much outside the head. Coleridge, poet of ‘fleeting things’, would have understood such abstracted enchantment, but he was away when Shelley called. Shelley had to make do instead with the more solid Southey, whom he quickly saw had been ‘corrupted by the world’.
Shelley doesn’t feature much in Jerome McGann’s Byron and Romanticism, but he could have done: the Romanticism to which McGann opposes Byron might be exemplified by Shelley as well as by Wordsworth and Coleridge, the usual suspects. (Shelley’s politics seem to have saved him from normally filling so disreputable a role in recent polemic.) Seeing things upside down, as in a camera obscura, mistaking ideas and material realities, is the Marxist understanding of ‘ideology’ that prompted McGann’s The Romantic Ideology (1983). Byron and Romanticism, a collection of essays and critical dialogues, is a pendant to that book, and to Don Juan in Context (1976) and McGann’s other historicising studies. Byron has always mattered to McGann because of the worldliness of his poetry, its sociability and engagement, and its refusal of the lonely Romantic creativity described in Shelley’s Defence of Poetry (‘A Poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness, and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds’). McGann’s Byron is an artist of the ‘anti-aesthetic’, practitioner of a ‘spoiler’s art’, author of ‘poetry that is not poetical’.
That gets at something important about Byron and Byronic self-consciousness. Whether it makes sense as an argument about Romanticism is another thing. In a discussion reprinted here, McGann says: ‘Keats, Wordsworth, and especially Coleridge, who is the main ideologue and cultural guru of Romantic theory, promulgate a series of aesthetic positions that Byron eventually will come to just vomit on.’ McGann normally proceeds less recklessly than that, but I suspect that the serious argument emerging from these essays is not substantially different from the impromptu précis, however much refinement and historical detail it might otherwise enjoy. Take Wordsworth. ‘To be Byronic is precisely not to be laid asleep in body to become a living soul’: no, but then that’s hardly all there is to Wordsworth either. Indeed, if Byron has a precursor in his art-distrusting art, it is Wordsworth. When, in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth laments that no poetry can hope to match ‘the freedom and power of real and substantial action and suffering’, he strikes an almost Byronic note (though ‘suffering’ always drew him more profoundly than it did Byron).
McGann’s argument is not only about literary history: it is also about contemporary theory. We need to learn that a poem is ‘not simply a thing of beauty, an aesthetic object spinning in the disinterested space of a Kantian (or Coleridgean) theoretical world’. No poem is, but Romantic poems pretend to be and Byron’s do not – or they let you know they are pretending and so debunk pretence. Did critics ever treat poems in this way? How could they find anything to say about so serenely disinterested a world – and why would they want to? Perhaps that doesn’t matter; but involving such theoretical concerns does have one unfortunate effect, which is to implicate Byron in ways of thinking that misrepresent his intelligence. Something is astray in a sentence such as ‘Byron’s interesting new theory of the truth of art is obviously a critique of the Romantic theory of artistic truth.’ However Byron’s mind worked, it was not like that. McGann is emulating his subject and trying it on, of course, but the references to Byron’s ‘Brechtian theatricality’ are no less off the mark. Nothing could be less like Byron than Brecht, brimming with theoretical formulations and moved throughout (even the jokes) by an unyielding seriousness of purpose.
Byron was always saying he had given poetry up, and poets have been giving it up ever since, though they keep on writing poems all the same: what could be more promisingly literary than an anxiety about being literary? (Don Juan, Hazlitt disapprovingly noted, is ‘a poem written about itself’.) The old anxieties are still alive and fruitful, in criticism as in art, as McGann’s essays winningly exemplify. ‘Byron sets his poetical house in a place of excrement,’ he says, in a colourful flash, ‘the foul rag-and-bone shop of his cruel and ridiculous heart.’ Gilmour promises us a further instalment of his history of the shop, and I’m looking forward to it, but I don’t think a single volume will be enough. He ends this one with almost all the incidents of Byron’s celebrity still to happen, including the friendship with Shelley, who ends the book yet to write a major poem. Waiting to elope with the luckless Harriet Westbrook, Shelley muttered to a companion: ‘Grove, this is a Shelley business.’ There is a great deal of Shelley business still to come.