The seven ages of Byron, pilgrim of no progress


November 19, 1999

Authors in general do not fare well as "the subject of biography". No longer quite themselves, they have turned into names for a collection of texts, or, as Auden puts it, have "become their admirers", and Proust's cork-lined room and Flaubert's eternal night sweats over le mot juste are familiar images for the process of being given over to that life of writing which is the death of the author. In the demanding process of re-presenting themselves as works of art they may seem to have neglected to get a life. Fortunately, biographers have offered to fetch a choice of several for them.

But this can hardly be true of Byron, surely? - the action man who was always acting, the succès de scandale who was even more scandalous than successful, who "awoke one morning to find himself famous", and one acquainted better than Jacques in As You Like It with the truth that one man in his life knows many parts, private and public? As a passionate pilgrim of no progress, he bore across Europe "the pageant of his bleeding heart", as Matthew Arnold put it.

Thus he became a strange kind of demonised culture hero, the original poster-on-the-wall icon whose beautiful features were purloined by countless admirers to become the voice of their own souls, or the bogey figure to all those Regency matrons who seemed to be auditioning for Mrs Grundy.

The Byronic is paradoxically defined by indeterminacies, by mercurial shuttlings and shufflings in moods and modes, genre and gender, desiring what it does not possess and possessing what it does not desire. Thus, for the younger Byron, proper Annabella Milbanke was the "cure" for the hysterically self-dramatising Caroline Lamb, motherly salonières alternate with pure choirboys and those of rougher trades, in what will finally compose a fairly comprehensive guide to the ins and outs of Regency living.

As this new, brisk, no-nonsense treatment of the man with too many qualities and, you might feel, already "too much discussed, too much explained", seems to show, to be made out of alternating currents of feeling, produces only a simulacral selfhood which dissolves on contact with new realities. It was Byron's poetic achievement to realise and exploit this in late poems on which his reputation should rest - Beppo, The Vision of Judgement , and Don Juan , left unfinished on his death in Missolonghi. Here he had (characteristically) initiated a war of liberation for Greeks he abused against Turks he praised, having acquired a considerable taste for "Ottoman" virtues, and vices, in his first "exile", when, skirting Napoleonic Europe, he seemed to be walking "fault lines" of oriental and occidental cultures.

Byron's (no-) character seems to be reflected in his texts: in the earlier work, put simply, much of the writing is bad, if you will, but there is no stable critical agreement as to which poems are that, and the reader is led to wonder quite what "good" and "bad" mean here exactly. Genial if unsubtle satire yields laughs, lyrics still move, tale-telling interestingly mediates ideologies, "folk culture" done into Old Harrovian is not displeasing. If a kind of pseudo-sublimity of Byronic bombast is present, we may recall that all such hollow (in)sincerities would later become his own pleasure to prick. And Childe Harold , which ensured celebrity, finally succumbs to what might be called a megaphonic imperative.

It is typical of his topsy-turvying that it sounds as if his highly respectable marriage to the highly serious "princess of parallelograms", Annabella Milbanke, was an episode in the Inferno , while his highly irregular union with baby-talking "Goosy" Augusta (his married half-sister) reaches the apogee of tranquil domesticity. With John Donne he might have cried, "Oh to vex me contraries meet in one". But he was rather cruelly unfair to both women, and his habit of showing intimate correspondence to loathsome Lady Melbourne was not very kind. Love-hate relations with hysterical, hard-drinking debt maddened mummy explain it all, naturally.

He was a Romantic poet "who was not one", preferring witty Pope to po-faced Lakers, and the company of dandies and boxers to that of pedants and bluestockings. As a peer of the realm brought up in lodgings in Aberdeen, a lover of women who was no stranger to homosexual encounters from Harrow to Albania, at home in the "homosocial" world of Regency curmudgeons with distinctly misogynist leanings, he himself was highly susceptible to emotional dependence on ladies, and the elements of "masculinity" and "femininity" were themselves mixed in him. He was a man of sensibility who was capable of despising sentiment, a radical who would rather break laws than reform them, and a foil to the bien pensant Shelley, staggered by his atavistic opinions no less than his ability to tap into a market which other poets (including Shelley himself) could not reach.

Byron outsold even Sir Walter Scott and forced him to write novels instead. Finally, though, with Don Juan , he alienated his audience as his anti-cant ironies, fruit of a long and interesting sojourn in "that paradise of exiles, Italy", impinging as it did on a cluster of discourses which ran together such initially implausible bedfellows as utilitarianism and evangelicalism to forge the Victorian world of Podsnaps and Pumblechooks, Gradgrinds and Bounderbys (Dickens was, after all, a bit of a bowdlerised Byron). This would demonstrate once and for all that Byronic attitudes were by no means all Mephistophelian.

As a young Scottish Calvinist sexually abused by his nurse who wrote warmly of Roman Catholicism in post-Napoleonic Venice, he could be seen as the natural prey of religion, but was also deeply affiliated to "sort-of- 'Enlightenment' " values imbibed from (for example) the Voltaire of Candide , the Fielding of Tom Jones and the Laclos of those Liaisons Dangereuses that he, if anyone, knew all about.

A Tory-hating Whig peer mesmerised by Napoleon, he nevertheless later wrote an influential anti-Napoleonic "Ode" (impressively set to music by Arnold

Schoenberg). He was praised by F. R. Leavis for his contemptuous defiance of decorum and propriety, and related in a sense of "generous common humanity" to Robbie Burns, and hailed as a "Scottish poet" by T. S. Eliot. But, role-player as he was, he remained very much the English milord and insider (whose "insider dealings" at Holland House finally failed to kickstart a political career). With his coroneted carriage and spare-no-expense impedimenta, highly extended ménage of servants and (endearingly) animals, he fails to inspire thoughts of a fanfare for the common man.

This new biography is stylishly written, well paced and well up, and I would not describe it as meretricious muckraking. If not much is new in the realm of fact or "hermeneutic intervention", it is also "written by a woman": though we have learned to distrust such categories, it is slightly more disenchanted than the male versions which have too much empathy with the conquering hero with whom they "identify". But this is, in fact, more difficult than it initially looks. "Are you one person?" a waitress in Waterloo station once asked Jonathan Routh. With Byron as its subject, the answer to that question could be all too interesting.

Edward Neill teaches literature at Middlesex University.

Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame

Author - Benita Eisler
ISBN - 0 241 13260 6
Publisher - Hamish Hamilton
Price - £25.00
Pages - 835

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