A monarch of words

Byron: life and legend

Fiona MacCarthy <em>John Murray, 674pp, £25</em>

ISBN 071955621X

Oh dear, another life of Byron. At least, Fiona MacCarthy's biography is nicely (or should that be cynically?) timed to coincide with the latest revival of interest in the old poet-poseur, including an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. If you missed the BBC's recent Omnibus profile, or any of the many books on Byron and associates that have been published in the past decade, here, once more, are the dry details: born in London on 22 January 1788, the year before the French Revolution, his short, scandalous life was coterminous with a period of great social and political upheaval in Europe - an age of extremes, when the old aristocratic order was in reaction against the forces of modernity that were determined to remake society. Byron powerfully embodied many of these extremes in his own life - with its iconoclasm, restless wandering and anarchic intent - and in his poetry and letters, with their preoccupation with freedom and self-dramatisation. His heroes were Prometheus, Cain (about whom he wrote a long poetic drama) and Napoleon.

Byron was an oppositional figure in every sense. What mattered to him was sensation, the feeling that he existed, even when in distress. In his great poem "Manfred", which was such an influence on Nietzsche, he created the archetype of the Romantic wanderer, a wild, irrational, antisocial sensualist who seeks to transcend conventional morality and the instincts of the herd. His only solace is to be found in the wilful embrace of the sublime and, in particular, in the remote grandeur of the Alps, through which he wanders obsessively as he dreams of a great revolutionary transformation.

Byron may have had an aristocratic inheritance (his ancestral home was crumbling Newstead Abbey in Sherwood Forest), but his father was a less than, er . . . noble influence, being both a libertine and spendthrift. His mother largely raised her son alone, first in Scotland and then in London. He was overweight as a child, and infantile paralysis left him with a withered right leg. There are suggestions, too, that a nursemaid sexually abused him. At Harrow School, he excelled at games, despite his physical restrictions, and began publishing poetry while at Trinity College, Cambridge, where, if his letters are to be believed, he kept a bear in his rooms.

Byron took his seat in the House of Lords in 1809 and settled, for a time, in London, where he was briefly, unhappily, married to the aristocratic Annabella Milbanke, with whom he had one daughter. His London life was one of random affairs with men and women, casual decadence, political agitation and elaborate self-positioning. As his wife wrote: "He is the absolute monarch of words, and uses them, as Bonaparte did, for conquest." Anti-clerical and anti-monarchy, he was drawn to Spain and Italy and to the "gorgeous East". Some of his best poetry, including "Manfred", was written during the summer of 1816, which he spent with Shelley in a villa on Lake Geneva.

In the early 1820s, he travelled widely in Greece, where he was caught up in the war for Greek independence from the Ottoman Turks. But he did not die a "soldier's death", as he had hoped. More prosaically, he was stricken by "fever" (probably malaria) in Missolonghi in 1824, and was bled to death with leeches.

The great Argentinian polyglot writer Borges once said: "The important thing is the image you create of yourself in other people's minds. Many people think of Burns as a mediocre poet. But he stands for many things, and people like him. That image - as with Byron - may in the end be more important than the work." Borges, I think, is right: today, we remember Byron more for the image he created of his life, for what he did and said and represented, than for what he wrote.

MacCarthy covers all this with her usual gusto. She writes well about the poems and her close readings are often impressive. There is little new to interest the standard Byron enthusiast, of whom there are, perhaps, too many, but anyone who knows nothing of the man - if there is such a person - will find all they need here. Until the next time.