Byron looked at his own tumultuous life with an Enlightenment gaze: empirical, sceptical, agnostic, hedonistic. He was an ironic rationalist, who, like all rationalists, had an irrational personal history. He was interested in what, if anything, the two things – the tumultuous life and the Enlightenment gaze – might say about each other, but he never assumed that one could be used to explain the other, or that explanation could ever be sufficient; as he has Cain say, ‘I look/Around a world where I seem nothing, with/Thoughts which arise within me, as if they/Could master all things.’ All this has a bearing on the before and after story that David Ellis wants us to take more seriously as the real story of Byron’s life.
In Ellis’s view the summer of 1816, which he spent in Geneva, marked a turning point in Byron’s life. He was, Ellis tells us, acutely unhappy there, though the unhappiness had a long history, to do with his famously deformed foot, his abandonment virtually at birth by his profligate father, ‘Mad Jack’, his temperamental mother and the sexual attentions of a Calvinist nursemaid. When he wrote in the preface to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage that he wanted to ‘show that early perversion of mind and morals leads to satiety of past pleasures and disappointment in new ones’, he was both pointing up a (modern) moral, and more than hinting at a personal experience. He moved a lot as a child between friends and members of his extended family, never able to settle anywhere for long, which left him with a moody restlessness that he found a way of making himself known for: ‘My restlessness tells me,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘I have something within that “passeth show”.’ As an adolescent at Harrow, and then at Cambridge, he was actively bisexual at a time when homosexuality was a greater crime in England than incest. What he was to refer to many years later as ‘a propensity to be governed’ (‘set a pretty woman or a clever woman about me – with a turn for political or any other sort of intrigue – why – they would make a fool of me’) meant that getting himself governed and seeing if he could get away without being made a fool of became one of the stories of his life.
In a biography published in 1830, six years after Byron’s death, Thomas Moore reported a conversation between the schoolboy Byron and his tutor ‘Dummer’ Rogers. Witnessing the terrible treatment the boy was given for his club foot, Rogers remarked, ‘It makes me uncomfortable, my Lord, to see you sitting there in such pain as I know you must be suffering,’ to which Byron replied: ‘Never mind, you shall not see any signs of it in me.’ He couldn’t conceal his lameness, but he could conceal his feelings about it. If you have a physical disability, secrecy becomes a kind of freedom: a way of making what people think they know about you not matter so much (‘never mind’). Byron dealt with his propensity to be governed by never showing any sign of being governed, by not giving anything away, not letting on. Guardedness became his theme, and for this you need a talent for display, which Byron had from a very young age. He had the theatricality, and the love of theatricality, of the extremely shy; people were surprised and touched by just how awkward and tentative he could be on first meeting (he is a great poet of first meetings and first impressions). He was unusually determined, all his biographers agree, to perform himself as he would prefer to be seen, despite and because of his lameness.
By the time he left England for Europe in the spring of 1816, he had become famously famous overnight as the author of Childe Harold, and notorious for his many affairs with servants, actresses and duchesses, culminating in the debacle with the unstable Lady Caroline Lamb and his ‘incestuous’ relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. He was well known as a ‘regency rake’ and a virulent anti-Tory in the House of Lords, a combination barely imaginable now. He was an admirer of the French Revolution and of Napoleon when this was an unpatriotic thing to be.
Early in 1816, his cover had been blown. His determinedly debauched life had become a scandal and he was suffering a catastrophic disillusionment with himself and with the corrupt hypocrisy of the English ruling class – reflected, he believed, in the fashionable disgust with which his private affairs were treated. ‘I have been more ravished,’ he would write in a letter in 1819, ‘than anybody since the Trojan war.’ That he needed to get away was not a surprise. He was, he wrote, ‘like the stag at bay who betakes him to the waters’, but he wasn’t sure, when he set out for Geneva, whether he was going to a spa to recover, or to his death from the ‘envy, jealousy and all the uncharitableness’ of the English he had grown to hate. The Byron Ellis describes wanted to see the sights rather than to be one.
Unlike all the other great Romantic poets, Byron was keen on debauchery and made no secret of what he called his ‘gallivanting’, his pleasure in being disreputable, and in making women expose themselves in their desire for him. They would show all the signs and he mostly would not (in writing about women Byron is writing about himself and his fears about himself). In the account he gives in his journals and letters of the period, it is never clear to him whether he is resisting the many women who want him or is disillusioned with women and the pleasure they might bring. ‘It is true from early habit,’ he wrote in 1812 to his close friend Lady Melbourne, ‘one must make love mechanically as one swims, I was once very fond of both, but now as I never swim unless I tumble into the water, I don’t make love till almost obliged.’ The early habits, the mechanics and the obligations, were beginning to torment him, and he fled to Geneva to escape them.
He had married the respectable Annabella Milbanke in 1814, partly as a pragmatic solution to what in a letter he called ‘literally too much love’. Two years later, after the birth of their child, she left him because of his ill-treatment of her and his growing public reputation as a ‘sodomist’ and an incestuous adulterer. The scandal made him infamous almost as quickly as he’d become famous. He feared ‘assassination’, and was wary of going to the theatre for fear that the audience might turn on him. He was also grossly in debt: within minutes of his departure from London, bailiffs seized all the contents of his residence at Piccadilly Terrace in lieu of unpaid rent. Above all, he needed to recover his ‘name’, a word his poems obsess over, and which for Byron included everything from his family history to his personal reputation and whatever might be either unnamed or unnameable in himself.
The story Ellis tells is of Byron on the run, in shock, and having, as they say, to turn his life round, but without wanting to explain himself, or to feign regrets he didn’t feel or a wish for forgiveness he didn’t want. He didn’t leave England with the intention of writing more, but that is what he found himself doing with more time to himself, especially at night. ‘Who would write?’ he wrote with aristocratic hauteur in 1813, ‘who had anything better to do?’ By October 1816, after the summer in Switzerland in which he had written and published the third canto of Childe Harold as well as ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’and Other Poems and begun Manfred and ‘Darkness’ (the period, that is to say, in which he had written some of his most remarkable poems, and that had seen the prelude to the writing of Don Juan), poetry had begun to matter more to him, though there were still the necessary reservations. ‘Poetry is – I fear – incurable,’ he wrote to John Murray in October 1816. ‘God help me – if I proceed in this scribbling – I shall have frittered away my mind before I am thirty, – but it is at times a relief to me.’ To fritter is to waste time, but it also means to break into fragments, a connection that would appeal to Byron, given that he thought too much time spent putting the pieces together might be futile and ‘egotistic’, that the mind was fragmented, that this was the point that had been turned into the problem; and that too much coherence was being sought in the furious egotism of his contemporaries.
For Ellis, Byron’s meeting and brief companionship with Shelley and his entourage marks the summer of 1816 as a transition in his life. Yet Byron in Geneva makes us wonder whether there really are turning points in people’s lives, or rather obscure evolutions punctured and punctuated by crises. Leslie Marchand, in the abbreviated version of his three-volume Byron: A Portrait, gives the summer in Geneva only 20 pages out of nearly 500, and Fiona MacCarthy’s more bracing recent biography, Byron: Life and Legend, gives it just over 30 pages in her slightly longer book.Perhaps Byron is always ill-served by biography because his ‘tempestuous’ life seems to explain the poems in a way that the poems are always inviting us to be sceptical of: by shedding so much light on his poems, his life obscures just how cunning and clever and subtle they are. Ellis is more interested in describing what Byron did in Geneva – the boating, the mountain walks, the visits to literary and historical monuments – than in what he was supposedly thinking.
By concentrating on these few months Ellis allows us to see how much Byron was changing, thanks largely to his irresolution, the narrowing of his social life and, indeed, his shrewd unwillingness to change. What was changing was his writing. Though he was to write rather caustically about Shelley and his circle after they all left Geneva, he was clearly impressed at least at first by his conversations with the rather more idealistic, more atheistic (and younger) Shelley. ‘Through Shelley’, Ellis writes, Byron was ‘introduced to that closer relationship with landscape so often evoked in the poetry of Wordsworth’. It was the landscape that was the important thing, not Wordsworth’s poetry; the poets of his generation, Byron wrote, were ‘on a wrong revolutionary poetical system’. Shelley and he greatly enjoyed each other’s company in these months, and Ellis shows how companionable it all was. What they gained from each other was a clear and instructive sense of the difference between them. ‘Lord Byron,’ Ellis quotes Shelley writing to Peacock that July, ‘is an exceedingly interesting person, and as such, is it not to be regretted that he is the slave to the vilest and most vulgar prejudices, and as mad as the winds?’ Shelley clearly hadn’t had quite the effect he’d hoped. And Byron had a rather different sense of what he needed to be liberated from.
Though Shelley had long been an admirer of Byron’s poetry, their meeting that summer was a consequence of Byron’s previous, rather half-hearted liaison in England with Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of Shelley’s wife, Mary. It was because of Claire’s desire to see Byron – she was pregnant with Byron’s child, the unfortunate Allegra – that Shelley had come to Geneva with her and his wife. Known to be libertines, atheists and political radicals, the Shelley ménage was ‘an object of scandal’ – it was rumoured that Shelley had ‘relations’ with both his wife and her sister. Their association with Byron added to their notoriety. Yet for all Claire’s determination to see Byron, Byron, as it turned out, virtually refused to see her, and most of the socialising was done by the two men on their own. Byron had come to know how he wanted to spend his time.
Under Shelley’s influence, as Ellis puts it, Byron tried for a short while ‘to transform himself into a nature poet of the Wordsworthian variety’ and failed. Soon realising he couldn’t ‘find solace for his acute unhappiness in landscape’, he began to see what kind of poet he wanted to be by realising what kind of poetry he distrusted. Shelley, it seems, had radically misunderstood the kind of poet Byron was. He was neither transformable nor in any way Wordsworthian. It is, of course, difficult to track the power of personal influence, and Ellis is more convincing when he describes Byron and Shelley’s keen interest in each other during these months – celebrated in Shelley’s great poem Julian and Maddalo – than when he reads the poems for influences and affinities.
It was in Geneva, according to Ellis, that Byron began to see ‘that he was not a Romantic poet after all, and that the Romantic movement as a whole, especially as it was represented by the Lake Poets, was a mistake.’ Byron always spent a lot of time distancing himself from contemporary poets and poetry, and particularly from their self-importance as bringers of news that was not news. He was interested in whether there was a good way of taking oneself seriously; and what, if anything, this had to do with the writing of poetry. The Lake Poets’ mistake, in Byron’s view, was to use nature for self-promotion and spurious reassurance: as early as 1809 he wrote of Wordsworth’s ‘The Idiot Boy’ in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers: ‘All who view “the idiot in his glory”/Conceive the Bard the hero of the story.’ But their other mistake was to do with what might be called their knowledge claims: about nature, about God, about poetry and politics, and about themselves and other people. Byron saw the link between what he considered their specious nature-worship and their trimming Toryism. They wrote about Mystery, but with great authority. Their morality was sexually timid and self-aggrandising (the two tending to go together). They were never amusing, and they believed they were telling the truth. Their pleasures were not the pleasures of disguise.
In Switzerland, Byron found that nature didn’t have what he was encouraged to believe was its desired effect. ‘Neither the music of the Shepherd,’ he wrote to Augusta Leigh, ‘not the Torrent – the Mountain – the Glacier – the Forest – nor the Cloud – have for one moment lightened the weight upon my heart – nor enabled me to lose my own wretched identity in the majesty & the power and the Glory – around – above – & beneath me.’ Identity, Byron knew, is hard to lose; and because identity was increasingly a problem for him and his contemporaries, nature had begun to look like a solution (or an absolution). He realised that it may be our nature not to find nature reassuring, even in, or especially in, its sublimity. For Byron it was clearly not alluring – or rather, it was a temptation to be avoided – to be somehow other or more than oneself. Sexuality seemed more revealing to him than mountains and lakes. In sex, privacy is always at stake, and he was obsessed by privacy, by what people could know and expose about others and themselves.
He relished concealment: he was wonderful at dressing up, as the Byron iconography makes abundantly clear. He thought confession was bribery, and that most self-justification was showing-off – or a form of politeness. When people attempted to excuse themselves in letters, it was often ironised: ‘Your letter of excuses has arrived,’ he wrote to Murray. ‘I receive the letter but do not admit the excuses except in courtesy.’ When he wrote of Coleridge in the dedication to Don Juan, ‘Explaining metaphysics to the nation/I wish he would explain his Explanation,’ he was alerting his reader to the fact that explanation never ends, and that that too needs explaining. He is the most philosophic of poets by being the least metaphysical (and the least earnest). He lived, and his poetry lives, neither by mysteries nor by systems. And in this, as he knew, he was quite different from the other major poets of the time. He had come to Geneva to recover his privacy, and he found himself as a poet; not so much by making sense of what had happened to him but by dramatising a predicament – and by inventing a new kind of hero.
Byronic heroes are haunted by shameful secrets, but Byron is always as interested in whether (and how) people can hide things as he is in what they are hiding. We can only be governed by people who claim to know us, and so we must be able to hide things not only from other people but from ourselves. Indeed, he sometimes intimates that stigma itself can be a form of privacy. Transgression is a quest for solitude: it gives one a life (and a death) of one’s own. MacCarthy argues persuasively that Byron’s big secret was his homosexuality, but more often than not, at least in the poetry, the secret legitimates the hero’s solitude; it is a pretext to keep him apart from other people. Sociability is the problem for the Byronic hero and narrator; not his beginning to wonder, as Byron himself did intermittently, what he was doing by spending all this time with other people, but knowing that isolation was his fate, and possibly his preference. After the summer in Geneva there were to be other loves, but not as many, and an increasingly determined commitment to radical politics, and to the struggles of a country that wasn’t his own.
Ellis makes much of how unsociable, relatively speaking, Byron was in Switzerland, mostly avoiding large gatherings, sticking with his close friends and dieting. In what Ellis calls ‘the more regular and sober mode of existence he adopted in Geneva’, his ‘system’ recovered from the excesses of the previous years. (When he dined in England with his close friend Scrope Davies, they ‘would regularly polish off six bottles of claret in addition to all that came before and after’.) Even though his notoriety was such that tourists could hire boats and telescopes to get a glimpse of him in his villa, sightings were rare. He had come abroad to see himself not being seen. And it made a change. When the abbot wants to see Manfred, he is told that ‘He is most private, and must not be thus/Intruded on’; privacy is there to manage intrusion, to keep violation at bay. Love is always the Byronic hero’s problem because it stops him keeping himself to himself. Celebrity was not simply about fame or recognition, but about testing the limits of privacy, about finding out what about himself people couldn’t see.
When Byron fled to Geneva, it wasn’t simply that celebrity had caught up with him, but that all the personal and cultural solutions to his private predicament were failing him. He was, though Ellis doesn’t put it quite like this, having a peculiarly modern kind of nervous breakdown. But in retrospect his predicament that summer seems more than just personal: increasingly, during that turbulent first decade of the 19th century, politics – at any rate for Byron – seemed to be about the forcing of consensus because there was no real consensus to be had. ‘I only go out,’ he had written in his journal in 1813, ‘to get me a fresh appetite for being alone.’ It was after he left England in 1816 that he began to realise that the very idea of privacy – or a secret inner self, like the idea of a God – was under threat, or even that it might be, to use his preferred word, cant. All life was becoming public life; you needed something to hide in order to have somewhere to hide. What MacCarthy calls Byron’s ‘pathological desire for privacy’ was his growing acknowledgment that there may be no such thing, or at least that it might need to be reinvented.
In the summer of 1816 Byron felt not just, as he had often claimed to feel, that his life was somehow doomed – an always already exhausted project – but that after the catastrophe of his marriage he might not be able to restore, let alone reinvent himself, that the glamour couldn’t be sustained. And yet, Ellis suggests, by removing himself from the scene of his various ‘crimes’ he could see that poetic invention was a better alternative to the many versions of self-knowledge. Whatever else poetry could do, it could complicate and ironise motive. A conversion experience was not needed. What Shelley called Byron’s vile and vulgar prejudices turned out to have a vitality and a resilience that no mountains could match.
All the contemporary accounts of human nature that Byron knew tended to make people feel less alive, or want to be less alive; for Byron ‘the great object of life’, as he wrote fatefully to his future wife in 1813, was ‘Sensation – to feel that we exist – even though in pain – it is this “craving void” which drives us to Gaming – to Battle – to Travel.’ By removing himself to Geneva he allowed Voltaire and Rousseau and Gibbon to preside over his imagination. Ellis describes Byron and Shelley visiting the settings for Rousseau’s Julie and the house in Lausanne where Gibbon had lived. Byron’s reverence is striking: ‘I have traversed all Rousseau’s ground,’ he wrote to Murray, ‘with the Heloise before me – & am struck to a degree with the force & accuracy of his descriptions – & the beauty of their reality.’
In Switzerland he began to feel again that he existed. He enjoyed travelling with his oldest friend, John Cam Hobhouse, who joined him soon after he arrived, and he enjoyed meeting Madame de Staël again, whom he liked more in Switzerland than he had when he met her in London. Most of all, his trips and talks with Shelley restored his spirits. Shelley’s misunderstanding worked wonders. After Geneva there would be Italy and Greece, with their liberation movements, and Don Juan, of which Byron would write to Murray in 1820: ‘The truth is that IT IS TOO TRUE.’