The Truant of His Age
Sexual Outlaw, Romantic Rebel, Sublime Poet
By Christopher Hitchens
Byron, Child of Passion, Fool of Fame
By Benita Eisler
Byron, The Last Journey
By Harold Nicolson
Los Angeles Times, Sunday, April 4, 1999
Exactly two centuries ago, the 11-year-old George Gordon, later to be Lord Byron, was put in the safekeeping of a drunken and promiscuous Scottish nursemaid named May Gray. She beat him savagely during the day and took him into her bed for sexual games at night. She also instructed him in the Old and New Testaments. By the time he was 12, therefore, and had been retrieved by his aghast mother, the boy had a working knowledge of libidinous cruelty and an instinctive contempt for religious cant. I think we have to say, then, that the Romantic movement owes May Gray a debt that lies well beyond repayment. If I knew the whereabouts of the grave of this obscure and brutish slattern, I should make it a place of pilgrimage. Obelisks should rise even now, with lapidary words inscribed upon them.
In the boyhood of Judas, it has been said, Jesus was betrayed. Byron would certainly have approved of the line, and the sentiment too. For a flying start in life, a twisted boyhood is indispensable. Born as one of those lucky people who arrive on Feb. 29 and thus don’t have to count their birthdays in the same lugubrious way as the rest of us, Byron entered the world with a malformed right foot as his birthright of resentment. The lesson was driven home, as it were, by sadistic doctors who screwed the limb into pointless wooden restraints. One of his tutors in Greek and Lain, who could see the agony thus inflicted, observed to him in his 12th year: “My Lord, I don’t feel comfortable at having you sitting opposite me there, in such pain as you must be.” The tough little lordling responded: “Never mind, Mr. Rogers, you shall not see any signs of it in me.” This recalls the infant John Stuart Mill, replying to some matronly tenderness over a skinned knee with the words: “Thank you, madam. The pain has sensibly abated.” Byron always had Mill’s indignation about injustice and oppression, yet he comes down to us as one who hated these things rather than criticized them and who set about to overturn, in words and deeds, those systems and mentalities that he found beneath contempt and beyond reform.
However, a crippled and bitter person may well become the moral equivalent of a fascist (as we have good reason to know), and the interest of Byronic style lies precisely in his avoidance of this outcome. The poet himself phrased it well in writing about his early literary model, the hunchbacked genius Alexander Pope. He observed the “unhappy dispensation of Nature that deformed persons…are born with very strong passions. They are condemned to combat, not only against the passions which they feel, but the repugnance they inspire.” Obviously there is something disingenuous in this attribution. His lameness apart, Byron was beautiful and had that charismatic appeal that (as Lord Alfred Douglas was later to phrase it, too lamely in my opinion) filled the hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.” Still, he seems to have decided early on that Pope was right and that the energy of disappointment should be directed outward, at the dolts and dunces and bullies, rather than transmuted into self-hatred or remorse. The birthday every four years seems a perfect metaphor now: Impressed by a gypsy woman’s prophecy that he should beware of his 37th year (he died at the age of 36), Byron told his friends, he had lived so hard and so fast that he felt himself to be an old man. In 1811, at the age of 23, he wrote a journal entry replete with Weltschmertz, that observed that at such a great and burdensome maturity: “The best of life is over and its bitters double.” He quoted Horace to the effect that “neither maid nor youth delights me now” and could not even be bothered to put the humorous topspin on the observation that Prince Hamlet managed in his deepest despair. “I have outlived all my appetites,” he concluded, “and most of my vanities, aye, even the vanity of authorship.” This was premature, as well as immature. The age came to his rescue.
“Now God be thanked who has matched us with his hour.” In another epoch, Byron might have died of green chartreuse or fornication and perhaps have left us a few well-wrought trifles. But his brief time on Earth coincided with a revolutionary temper on a European and international scale, and he became a specially vibrant and sensitive register of insurgency from Thrace to Pennsylvania. Let me give an instance, very well-described by Benita Eisler, of his sense of urgency. The time is 1812, and the British state is committed on all fronts against Napoleonic France. The issue is Ireland. A man of 24 rises to speak in the House of Lords to defend a doomed bill that proposes the emancipation of Catholics from civil and political disability. The Tory line is, as always, that the time for this measure is not ripe:
“It is not the time, say they, or it is an improper time, or there is time enough yet. In some degree, I concur with those who say it is not the time exactly; that time is past.” There’s a beautifully balanced piece of ironic rhetoric. So, will the speaker hold his audience, or will he show his disdain for their cowardice? Stupid question:
“It might as well be said that the negroes did not desire to be emancipated, but this is an unfortunate comparison, for you have already delivered them out of the house of bondage without any Petition on their part, but many from their taskmasters to a contrary effect; and for myself, when I consider this, I pity the Catholic peasantry for not having the good fortune to be born black.”
That more or less did it: a political career out of the question; a reputation for general unsoundness firmly established. “Mad, bad – and dangerous to know” – that was the epithet that attached itself to him during his affair with Lady Caroline Lamb. It became a general condemnation.
However, the world was widening in those days, and the British establishment had not fully absorbed the shock of losing the 13 colonies. Able to choose a larger stage for his radicalism, Byron decamped for Europe and exile and vented himself on the frigid and foggy land of his birth in poems that never lost their power to excite. The forces of reaction – of Metternich and Castleagh and the Holy Alliance – might have defeated Bonaparte and established a superficial and cynical “balance of power.” But there were forces, especially in Italy and Greece, that had not been consulted about this. The Romantic movement, in poetry and politics, was to give voice and color to those insurgencies. It was a romantic movement in the sense that its leading personalities, like Shelley and Byron and Leigh Hunt, were brave and dashing and willing to risk early deaths. It was also romantic in that it required the well-born and the classically educated to place their faith in the common people.
This was certainly not easy for Byron, who was at times almost a misanthrope but decided that popular revolution was the best revenge on the cruelties of his own class. His most celebrated target was Lord Elgin, despoiler of the Parthenon, collaborator with the Turkish imperial occupiers and also (like Byron’s sadistic nursemaid) a Scot. Byron’s beautifully turned verses were like pamphlets or wall posters, lampooning the nobs and inciting contempt for their rule. Eisler, whose book will I think be the one to beat for many decades to come, is especially artful and dexterous in matching the poetry to the life and ideas. She is alive to the essential connection between the sexual outlaw and the professional revolutionary, as this letter from Byron about the point of a celebrated poem shows:
“As to ‘Don Juan’ — confess — confess you dog — and be candid — that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing — it may be bawdy — but it it is not good English — it may be profligate but is it not life, is it not the thing? — Could any man have written it — who has not lived in the world? And tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a Gondola? against a Wall? in a court-carriage? in a vis-a-vis? — on a table? — and under it?” To which one might add, and with his half-sister? And when demented with brandy and champagne and oysters? And in the days when the pox was a tough thing to treat? And with boys of all sexes and of none, in Albanian bath-houses? Byron burned his boats, all right.
“Don Juan,” which was to inspire later sexual and political truants like W.H. Auden, also contains the imperishable verses about “The Isles of Greece.” The Hellenic revolution of 1821 was the Spanish Civil War of its day, uniting all the liberal and radical forces of old Europe against the decaying empires and monarchies that made up the prison-house of nations. The cause of Greece against Turkish rule was partly an invented nationalism, partly a neoclassical revival and partly a replanting of the liberty tree of 1776 and 1789. In all of these respects it was perfect for Byron. Sir Harold Nicolson, that epitome of suave British diplomacy (and 20th century champion of the return of the Elgin marbles to Athens), is quite right to say that it served his interests as much as his passions. A success in Greece might have worked as a salvage for the poet and demonstrated that he was a practical man as well as an idealist. Certainly, his actual expedition to Missolonghi was consumed in, and eventually destroyed by, the sorid details of organizing, recruiting, financing and manipulating a political struggle. To read of it again is to know what heartbreak is. Yet i think Nicolson is correct: Without the force and gaiety of Byron’s failed example, there might well have been no independent Greece. Some men, like Che Guevara and James Connolly must die fighting impossible odds in order that later and more sober men can make the necessary compromises and redraw the maps. When Eugene Delacroix, one year after Byron’s death, created the canvas “Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi,” he also helped create a Europe-wide acceptance of a national homeland for the Greeks. When, in the following year, the Decembrist poet Rylevev climbed the scaffold with a copy of Byron’s poems in his hand, he was proclaiming a larger revenge on Czarism than he can ever have contemplated in his most idealistic dreams. (When Isaiah Berlin visited Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad in 1945, he tells us: “After a silence she asked me wether I would like to hear her poetry, but before doing this she said that she wished to recite tow cantos of Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ to me, for they were relevant to what would follow.”) To my rage, the un-Byronic Berlin could never remember which cantos these were (and each canto is at least a dozen pages), but what if he had listened to Akhmatova declaiming this, from Canto the Third?
But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousand, perhaps millions, think;
‘Tis strange, the shortest letter which man uses
Instead of speech, may form a lasting link
Of ages; to what straits old Time reduces
Frail man, when paper – even a rag like this,
Survives himself, his tomb, and all that’s his.
Like T.E. Lawrence with his band of ragged Arab patriots (there really ought to be a history of English sexual delinquency as a historical force), Byron strove to find generalship among people with a history of banditry and brigandage. His soldierly model, of which I which I wish Eisler had made more, was George Washington. Indeed, as Nicolson reminds us, Byron considered the American Revolution to be the finest example of the triumph of liberty and more than once told his friends that he had decided to emigrate here. Had he not been slaughtered by his incompetent physicians at Missolonghi, who quite literally bled him to death, he might have become a freeman of New York or Philadelphia. But then he might have become stout and full of recollection and anecdote, which in turn would mean that our word “Byronic” would never have been coined. As he phrased it in his “Epistle to Augusta”:
With false ambition what had I to do?
Little with love, and least of all with fame;
And yet they came unsought; and with me grew,
And made me all which they can make – a Name.
Thus to the constituent and paradoxical elements of the Romantic, one must add that death is needful, and also defeat, so that the most eloquent man of his age should expire, frustrated and inarticulate, on what he — who often wrote chronicles of his own death foretold — should once have termed “a voiceless shore”.