Lord Byron Was More Than Just Byronic

Lord Byron Was More Than Just Byronic

It is almost two hundred years since the death of Lord Byron. He succumbed to a fever on April 19, 1824, in the town of Missolonghi, on the west coast of Greece, at the age of thirty-six. As was far from unusual at the time, medical professionals did much to hasten the end that they were supposed to prevent. In Byron’s words, “There are many more die of the lancet than the lance.” Leeches, enemas, and blistering—the deliberate raising of blisters on the skin—were part of the treatment. Byron was reluctant to be bled by his physicians, whom he slighted as “a damned set of butchers,” but eventually surrendered to their efforts. One modern expert has estimated that, in his final days, they drained at least two and a half litres of his blood. It is surprising that the patient lasted as long as he did.

Byron had come to Greece the previous year, sailing from Italy, where he had been living since 1816. He was a British peer, and his poems have lodged him in the canon of English verse, yet the last eight years of his life were spent in exile. His liberal sympathies had always been fierily provocative, and his hope, on arrival in Greece, had been that he might lend his name, his title, his legendary lustre, and his considerable wealth to the cause of Greek independence in the fight against Ottoman rule. A naval officer, Captain Edward Blaquiere, had assured him that “your presence will operate as a Talisman—and the field is too glorious,—too closely associated with all you hold dear, to be any longer abandoned.” Yet here was Byron, expiring not in glory but in delirium, with an unavailing gaggle of doctors and servants, amid a Babel of English, Italian, and Greek, and, outside, the shout of a thunderstorm. “Half smiling,” one onlooker reported, the dying man said, “Questa è una bella scena.” Or, “What a beautiful scene.”

Illustration by Rose Wong

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That clear note of the theatrical—of the self-dramatizing reflex, ringing out even at the last, on a dismal deathbed, far from home—is what we should listen out for, two centuries on, as we consider the case of Byron. Seldom is the drama unattended by the half smile. However heated the moment, and no matter whether the action is carnal, domestic, military, meteorological, or fashionably social, Byron, at his best, takes care to cast a cool, appraising glance at how the spectacle must appear to the passing ironist:

They look upon each other, and their eyes
Gleam in the moonlight; and her white arm clasps
Round Juan’s head, and his around her lies
  Half buried in the tresses which it grasps;
She sits upon his knee, and drinks his sighs,
  He hers, until they end in broken gasps;
And thus they form a group that’s quite antique,
Half naked, loving, natural, and Greek.

Such is the pretty picture presented by the hero and his paramour (one of many) in the second canto of “Don Juan,” Byron’s uncontested masterpiece. He began it in 1818; the fifteenth and sixteenth cantos were published shortly before his death, a fragment of a seventeenth long afterward. Notice how the quip at the stanza’s end—a comical counterpart, you might say, to the vision of arrested beauty in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—provides something other than cynical deflation. The fact that the lovers conform to a type, in their sighing and gasping, seems to buoy up, not to pop, the erotic mood. For all his lofty status, Byron tends to look askance rather than down. Ever generous, he bequeaths to us his craving for sensation. Just because there is nothing original under the sun doesn’t mean that adventurous souls should not be over the moon. Tomorrow to fresh beds, and battles new.

But where to start? Should you wish to tackle Byron, now is the time, as the bicentenary of his death draws near; there’s no denying, however, that his collected works loom like a fortress in your path. He claimed to detest the act of writing: “I feel it as a torture, which I must get rid of, but never as a pleasure. On the contrary, I think composition a great pain.” Join the club. Somehow he mastered the torment and plowed ahead. A fine new Oxford edition of his poetry and accompanying material, edited by Jonathan Sachs and Andrew Stauffer, omits great swathes of Byron’s output, but still runs to some eleven hundred pages. (And costs a hundred and forty-five dollars. Could one request a small discount, perhaps, given that there’s a typo on the first page of the introduction?) As for his letters and journals, they have struck devotees as the most unflagging in the language, but these days they need to be hunted down secondhand, and, be warned, they fill thirteen volumes in all. To read straight through them would ruin your sleep, imperil your relationships, and entail trading your life for Byron’s. Sounds like a fair swap to me.

Luckily, there is an alternative. Stauffer is paying double homage, not just co-producing the Oxford edition but also giving us “Byron: A Life in Ten Letters” (Cambridge). This is a compact biography, elegantly structured around a few choice pickings from the poet’s correspondence. Each letter affords Stauffer a chance for a ruminative riff on whichever facet of Byron’s history and character happened to be glittering most brightly at the time. We are presented, for instance, with a jammed and breathless communication from Byron to his London publisher, John Murray, almost three thousand words long, sent from Ravenna, in 1819, and centered on “La Fornarina”—Margarita Cogni, a tempestuous baker’s wife with whom Byron had been involved in Venice. Stauffer comments, “One gets the sense that he could have kept going indefinitely with more juicy details, except he runs out of room.”

The person whom we know as Lord Byron made his entrance into the world, in 1788, with a plainer name: George Gordon Byron. The baby’s mother was Catherine Gordon, a Scottish heiress, and his father was Captain John Byron, commonly referred to as Mad Jack (not to be confused with his father, an admiral known as Foulweather Jack), a spendthrift who did his best to burn through his wife’s inheritance. The child had a misshapen foot and lower leg, which was to cause him lasting pain and lent him what one biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, calls a “sliding gait.” Even here one finds a spasm of unlikely comedy: among his adult acquaintances, there was some disagreement as to which foot was actually deformed.

Young George was three years old when his father died. The boy was taken to Scotland by his mother, who was anything but temperate—“haughty as Lucifer,” as he later recalled. From first to last, there is no sense of placidity, let alone swampy flatness, in Byron’s existence; he was either forcing things to happen or having them befall him, and, in following every twist, you constantly need to remind yourself that this is a real being and not a fictional character. (He may have suffered the same confusion himself.) When he was six, the plot took another turn. The great-nephew of Foulweather Jack was killed by a cannonball in Corsica, the upshot being that Byron was now the heir presumptive to a title. He acceded to it in 1798, becoming the sixth Lord Byron, and his earliest biographer, Thomas Moore, tells us that, at school roll call, the word “Dominus” was prefixed to Byron’s name. According to Moore, the ten-year-old child “stood silent amid the general stare of his school-fellows, and, at last, burst into tears.”

With his change of status came an ancient house, Newstead Abbey, near Nottingham, which still stands today. Grand and gloomy, with monastic ruins built into its structure, and three hundred acres of parkland, it is almost a parody of a Gothic dwelling; Washington Irving, having paid a visit, described it as one of “those quaint and romantic piles, half castle, half convent, which remain as monuments of the olden times of England.” No less absurd is the notion of its having been the fiefdom of a lad. A poem titled “On Leaving N—st—d,” written when Byron was fifteen, shows how the place ignited his flammable imaginings:

Through the cracks in these battlements loud the winds whistle,
For the hall of my fathers is gone to decay.

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