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Byron’s war on tranquillity

A new biography reveals how the poet’s life of extremes was echoed by the hyperactive irony of his work.

By Rowan Williams

George Gordon, Lord Byron, is as baffling and hard to pigeonhole today as he was in his lifetime. To all appearances a quintessentially English aristocrat, he was born in 1788 in London and grew up in both Scotland and England in an atmosphere of acute practical and emotional insecurity (including regular sexual abuse from a nurse, and hostility and mockery from his volatile mother), not helped by a damaged right foot which made him at times angrily self-conscious about his body. From time to time – notably in his last months in Greece, where he died aged 36 in 1824 – he dusted off his Scottish ancestry. Writing about his involvement with the Greek partisans, he enjoyed casting himself as a kind of Walter Scott character, a chieftain battling for his oppressed peasantry.

He was constantly and spectacularly in debt for a great deal of his life, as a result of a breathtakingly extravagant lifestyle and an equally remarkable generosity. He spent most of the proceeds from the sale of his English estate on the cause of Greek independence, equipping a military unit and funding extensive humanitarian relief (which included Muslim as well as Greek Orthodox recipients). He had a deep instinct of compassion for the vulnerable and used his maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1812 to defend Luddite workers protesting against the industrial innovations that threatened their employment. He was also – by any imaginable criteria – a sexual predator and sexual abuser. The glamorous aura of boldly “transgressive” behaviour that surround Byron’s legacy fades somewhat in the light of his sadism towards his wife, his neglect of his children, and his indiscriminate exploitation of partners, male and female, of all ages, including many who were in one way or another dependent on him as patron or employer.

And then there is the curious contradiction of his literary identity. “Byronic” is an adjective that conventionally goes with “romantic”, and Byron was absorbed in the romantic project of charting the journey of a unique and solitary selfhood in search of an always elusive role to inhabit, or place to settle. Yet he is mercilessly satirical about the poetic giants of his generation: Wordsworth is a dreary moraliser, Coleridge clotted and incomprehensible, even Shelley does not quite escape. And Keats is the object of Byron’s contempt, at least in his earlier work and correspondence; his sneers about the non-aristocratic and non-classically educated Keats make unpleasant reading, snobbish, condescending and poetically tone-deaf.  Even towards the end of his life, Byron could make a heartless joke of Keats’s premature end – directed more at the cult of Keats as a martyr to insensitive criticism than at the poet himself, but still leaving a rather cheap impression.

Byron made his first major literary impact in his “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” of 1809, in which he blithely wrote off practically every other contemporary poet, with the casually clever malice of a bright undergraduate. He did not become noticeably more lenient as time went on: Don Juan, his last extended work (left unfinished at his death in 1824), returns to the fray in its Dedication – a ferocious address to Robert Southey, at that point the most successful of the “Tory” romantics, feted by the political right of his day – and, like his earlier polemic, looks back with nostalgia to the literary style of the 18th century. Alexander Pope was one of his poetic heroes; and it helps to remember that Pope, the great exponent of elaborate satire and elegant Augustan classicism, was also capable of an intense, sensuous manner – and perhaps also that he shared with Byron the experience of living with physical disability, always adopting an outsider’s perspective, despite his great literary standing. 

Much of Byron would make complete literary sense if Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats had never written. But it was precisely the revolution of poetic sensibility in the decades just before and after 1800 that drew Byron into both his assaults on romantic poetry and his protracted and complicated but ultimately enriching relationship with Shelley. Byron is more than an 18th-century classicist born out of time, even if he refuses to sit quietly under any general classification alongside his poetic contemporaries. Textbook summaries may prompt us to treat “Keats, Shelley and Byron” as a natural unit, but the more one reads, the less helpful this seems. 

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Byron wrote a handful of beautiful and accomplished if not hugely distinctive lyrics – such as “She Walks in Beauty” – which well deserve their place in the canon. But what is most distinctive is not so much his lyrical fluency as his unrelenting irony and sheer verbal ingenuity. Odd as it may sound, he looks as much forward to the golden (well, gilded) age of Victorian light verse (WS Gilbert, Richard Barham) as backward to the 18th century. Don Juan is notable for many things, but one of them is definitely its outrageously bad puns and ludicrous rhymes (“intellectual” and “hen-peck’d you all” is one of the more memorable): you sense something like the spirit of Punch in its High Victorian heyday.

Like many a fantastically gifted and naturally sceptical soul, Byron clearly spent much of his life looking for something to commit himself to – finding it eventually in the struggle for Greek independence, which made him in short order a national hero in liberated Greece and a romantically doomed martyr in the English imagination. To his credit, he would have found both these images absurd. He never lost his corrosive irony; and his hard-working and selfless devotion to the battle against Ottoman rule in Greece could co-exist with a completely unillusioned awareness of the duplicity and petty rivalries of the Greek political and military factions.

He was not quite immune from that recurrent English disease of imagining that non-western-European political conflicts could be resolved by a solid dose of bossing-around by British experts and an injection of British parliamentary culture. He helped to create that slightly messianic tradition among English literary figures that encourages the aspiring poet to make his (it usually is “his”) soul, or at least stretch his sympathies, in the crucible of foreign struggles of liberation (from the young Tennyson in Spain to the Brownings in Italy, and Stephen Spender and other poetic talents involved in the Spanish Civil War).

Andrew Stauffer’s book is a sound introduction to many aspects of Byron’s life, and the selected letters (varying from an almost  real-time report on seductions in a stately home to Byron’s despatches from the hectic and disease-ridden Greek port in which he was to die) allow the reader to see something of the chronic restlessness and contrarianism of the man. As Stauffer notes in his introduction, the market is becoming fairly saturated with books purporting to delineate the history or life of their subject in ten (or 20, or 100) objects/poems/letters/battles (he rightly singles out Lucasta Miller’s excellent Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph, from 2021, as a fine instance). It is a genre which has the advantage of offering the reader the chance of learning how to “read” a whole life or era by way of attending to local and discrete detail, and so to resist the tyranny of a forced-march narrative; we are free to finger the texture of a personality or a period without being rushed.

The disadvantage is that the wider narrative may end up being compressed or over-selective, and Stauffer’s book does not entirely avoid this, sometimes assuming too much knowledge in the reader (for example, in the sections on the Greek rising we could have done with explanations of terms such as “Suliot” and “Phanariot”). Inevitably, the use of Byron’s most personal documents rather tilts the balance towards Byron the Celebrity (and indeed Byron the Celebrity Sinner). Getting to grips with Byron strictly as a writer would need a rather more expansive canvas. But so many of Byron’s personal landscapes are brought alive here with energy and sureness of touch – his tumultuous undergraduate career at Cambridge (complete with a tame bear), the very dark shadows of his short-lived marriage to Annabella Milbanke, the squalor of his ménage in Venice, with its hectic succession of sexual partners, and its physical crowding and filth (it shocked the fastidious Shelley), the bleak isolation of his final bivouac in Messolonghi, dying at the hands of incompetent physicians.

And Stauffer does not spare us the hard questions. What on Earth was going on in Byron’s marriage, where he seems to have set out systematically to humiliate and destroy his remarkably intelligent and loyal wife? Why exactly was his scandalous relationship with his half-sister so lastingly significant for him, sustained and strengthened even during his marriage? Is his behaviour abroad tantamount to “sex tourism” of the most squalid kind? And how much of his activism, his promiscuity, even his prolixity as a writer, is the result of a low boredom threshold? Jane Austen’s novels give us some sense – from a very different perspective – of the fathoms-deep boredom that characterised the leisured classes of Regency England; repeatedly, the Byron of these letters gives us a glimpse of a furiously fidgety spirit, picking up persons, projects, causes, as an escape from both the tedium of conventional leisure and the pain of inner alienation and confusion.

The insistent facetiousness of so much of the correspondence and poetry has at times the sound of a skeletal xylophone: this is someone who does not know who he is, who does not know what kind of a poet he really has to be, who will always have an alibi for being serious because of his feverish intelligence and fluency. There is a poignant anecdote about Dylan Thomas in full flow in a Fitzrovia pub, pausing and saying, “Someone’s boring me and I think it’s me.” It is not difficult to hear this note in Byron from time to time.

Readers have often pointed out how, in Don Juan, the cliché of the omnivorous sexual conqueror is transformed: Juan is indeed a polyamorist on an Olympic scale, but he is repeatedly the seduced rather than the seducer. Is this to do with Byron’s childhood experience? It’s often said that the abused become abusers; and this is partly because a child introduced to sexual activity by grooming and coercion is likely to associate this activity with factors outside their own agency. Sex is something that happens to you; and this may lead to a mechanical and impersonal attitude to sex, or to a carefully nurtured narrative in which what others see as sexual aggression in you is really the result of someone else’s seductive behaviour. Byron’s sexual behaviour, by his own account, is marked by both these distortions.

A damaged person, then, transmitting a fair amount of damage to others; yet retaining a good number of deep friendships, including (as Stauffer highlights) his long-lasting attachment to John FitzGibbon, Earl of Clare, his school contemporary at Harrow, who may have been his lover as a teenager and whom Byron spoke of to the end of his life in terms of strong devotion. And as for his female lovers, his last serious relationship, with the Countess Teresa Guiccioli, shows that he was not completely incapable of a settled and adult partnership; had he not died when he did, the future of this liaison might have shown us a very different Byron (Shelley evidently thought this could be the case when he visited Byron in Ravenna in 1821). Yet he turned his back on the possibility of some kind of future with Teresa when he set out for Greece in 1823; as if the anguished restlessness had still not been assuaged.

He may or may not have grown into another kind of life had he survived Greece. It is hard to imagine him as an old man. Could he have become a churchgoing Conservative like the ageing Wordsworth? Or would his hyperactive irony have saved him? What we know is a life of theatrical tensions and dramas, incessant travel and boundary-pushing, brilliant but uncomfortably diverse writing, and an unsleeping sense of the absurd. Not an easy legacy; not an easy hero.

Rowan Williams is a former Archbishop of Canterbury and a lead reviewer for the New Statesman. His “Collected Poems” is published by Carcanet Press

Byron: A Life in Ten Letters
Andrew Stauffer
Cambridge University Press, 300pp, £25s

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[See also: Lexicon of loss]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland

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