In a hilarious moment of the two-part documentary The Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron (2009) presenter Rupert Everett discusses with Donatella Versace–as they wait for her butler to announce dinner at her own luxury Milan home–whether Byron (1788-1824) was really as handsome as so many contemporaneous testimonials claim. At this point, Everett has already seen diverse portraits and has even donned the same Albanian dress that Byron wears in the famous painting by Thomas Phillips, now at the National Portrait Gallery. Seeing handsome Everett look rather ridiculous in it, the spectator might conclude that Byron was indeed a man of good looks and even better poise. Also, a man who controlled each portrait that was made of him as we control our image in our Instagram accounts. He wanted specifically to look manly, a man of action and not a poet, as Everett notes, and also disguise a limp caused in childhood by polio.
Everett and Versace note that notions of beauty were very different in the early 19th century, suggesting that Byron’s physical appearance would not seem so extraordinary today. I find this quite tantalizing! Everett quips that, on the other hand, Byron must have looked stunning at a time when having all your teeth while still young was not common. At a later point in this second episode the tone changes and becomes a bit less flippant. Rather subtly, Everett’s comments start defending the view that by the time when Byron died, aged only 36, he was past his prime. The infection that killed him was an accident of life, perhaps one preventable, but the documentary hints that Byron’s choice of malaria-infested Missolonghi as his home in Greece was somehow suicidal. It is implied in short that had Byron lived on his life would have been a sad, gradual fall into physical decadence. This is, at the same time, part of the Byron myth: live fast, die soon, and conquer eternal fame. I’m not sure about leaving a beautiful body to bury.
In life, Byron enjoyed fame but he was mostly beset by celebrity and by notoriety–and, of course, scandal. It is fit that Everett, an openly gay man with a pansexual past, presents Byron’s biography, for George Gordon (this is his actual name) was a product of the sexual prejudice of his time or, rather, of its hypocrisy. Just as it seems impossible to discuss Coleridge without mentioning his drug addiction it seems impossible to discuss Byron without alluding to his sexual adventurousness. Likewise, whereas no biographical sketch of Wordsworth is complete without his sister Dorothy, no portrait of Byron can be offered without associating him with his half-sister Augusta Leigh (his father’s daughter by a first wife).
Byron might scream to high heaven that they did not commit incest and that Augusta’s third child Medora was her husband’s and not his but we would still doubt his word, for that is what celebrity and scandal are about: constructing people as we want them to be, not as they are. With lights and shadows: incest may be too much even for us but the pansexual man Everett describes is more to our taste. Funnily, as we dismantle the sexual prejudices of Byron’s time (serious enough to land you in jail for sodomy), we have started criticizing the man for not being handsome enough, and even for being at times in his life rather overweight. Duncan Wu, in particular, offers an image of an effeminate, flabby, shortish, stout Byron totally at odds with the connotations that the word ‘handsome’ awakes in our minds.
Byron was an aristocrat and though not an extremely rich man (he lived on borrowed money, mostly, like most of his class), he led a life of ease and luxury that seems to belong in the 18th century rather than the early 19th. He may be celebrated as a great national hero in Albania and Greece but his mildly Whig politics in defence of nationalism (and even at one point of the anti-Industrial Revolution luddites) are not based on very strong beliefs. It seems, rather, than in a world in which nobody cared for anyone beyond the national borders, Byron’s curiosity and personal presence in remote lands was in itself welcome as a heroic act. His contribution to the independence of Greece was, at best, very marginal and he seems to have been seen during his time at Missolonghi in the early 1820s as just a rich English lord that could be easily milked for his money, if you excuse the expression. He did not die a hero’s death in battle as one might expect from all the exaltation but simply write verse that vaguely endorsed the right of Greece to be a free nation again, on the strength of what it used to be in the classical past. He died, as I have noted, of a fever variously attributed to an imprudent ride in the rain or a bug caught from his pet dog.
If abroad he was a hero, at home Byron was a celebrity of the kind that the Daily Mirror enjoys praising and demolishing in equal parts today. And this what happened to this man: he found himself suddenly famous, as he wrote, after the immense success that the first two cantos of Childe Harold (1812) were, only to be completely ostracized just four years later. In 1816 Byron had to leave England for ever following the scandal of his separation from his wife Annabella because of the rumours about incest with Augusta. Byron was probably one of the worst husbands on record and the separation makes complete sense: his wife, whom he had married for her money as his father had married his two wives, just could not endure the constant humiliation of Byron’s active extramarital life. What is hypocritical is the scandal. Byron often claimed that he had never seduced any woman because he didn’t have to: basically, the women of the Regency period that chased him were the first groupies in literary history, and no wonder, since Byron has often been compared to a rock star. One of the harassers, Lady Caroline Lamb, defined Byron as ‘bad, mad, and dangerous to know’ but probably this is who she, not him, was.
The good looks, the hectic search for sexual pleasure, the journeys to distant lands, the scandalous married life, the more than likely homosexuality and the incest with Augusta… all these are sufficient not for one but for several celebrities. What makes Byron a radically different celebrity from those plaguing our time is that his fame was based on his poetry, for which he did work much harder than he pretended. The sales of his work from Childe Harold onward were in the first years high enough to push best-selling poet Walter Scott out of the market, to the point that Scott became a novelist (though he published anonymously his early novels as if ashamed that they were a second-rank, mercenary product). Byron was particularly well-known because of his narrative verse and he continued enjoying that success even after he had been socially ostracized, from his exile in Switzerland, Italy and finally Greece. To understand how relatively lucky he was, we need to think of the far more tragic fate of Oscar Wilde, a man as flamboyant and sexually curious as Byron but who could not escape, as Byron did, the harsh action of British homophobic legislation. Wilde’s exile in the late 1890s was a much sadder story indeed but, then, he was no aristocrat.
Byron’s main cultural legacy, beyond his poetry and even beyond Literature, is the Byronic hero, a construction that was appended to his own person by his readers whether he wanted it or not. We cannot know what Byron was really like but just as his looks his personality also elicit doubts. He insisted for years that he was not Harold, the character that first expresses the Byronic temper which other male characters inherited–restless, moody, pessimistic, curious about people yet a loner, interested in pleasure but little capable of sustained love. Yet, Byron eventually gave in and granted that in many ways the Childe’s pilgrimage was his own, and Harold a thin mask for himself. Indeed, Byron is all over his poetry, also as Manfred and Don Juan and most of his main male characters, but this is not at all singular. Look at how Wordsworth mined his own youth for The Prelude. I see the appeal of the Romantic construct and why the Byronic hero soon surfaced in many other narratives (mainly novels and plays) giving us Heathcliff, but also Dracula, and even Christian Grey. What puzzles me is what kind of audience Byron had and how they could follow him at all.
I have just finished reading Childe Harold, the four cantos, and I’m not sure how to describe the experience. Last week I told my students that Romantic poetry was published in its time with no footnotes and that the original readers did not expect a critic to decode the meaning, or any obscure passages, for them. We had read the passages in Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth introducing some of his poems but they were aimed at describing the circumstances that inspired each poem, not the poem itself. Likewise regarding Coleridge and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. We listened in class to Ian McKellen’s beautiful reading of this long narrative poem (about 30 minutes) and though I stopped now and then to make sure students could follow the plot, in general the text was well understood. I’m not in favour of that kind of teaching that turns reading poetry into a forensic exercise, of which you can find plenty on YouTube (a lot from India, for whatever reason!) and I’d much rather my students enjoy the poems they should know about. With Byron, however, I simply don’t know what to do. The booklet we are using includes all of Manfred and Don Juan’s first canto and not Childe Harold but even so the point is the same one: Byron’s poetry is just too obscure for us today, here and in my second-language, second-year classroom.
I did try to read Childe Harold without checking Byron’s own lengthy notes (mostly on points of History, always showing an amazing erudition) or the notes of his editor, which also included notes to Byron’s notes!! It was just impossible: it was like reading through glasses that would suddenly cloud and blind me, but also suddenly disappear altogether, a veritable rollercoaster. Thankfully, Rupert Everett’s documentary follows the journeys by Byron reflected in this long poem and I could make sense more or less of where Harold was at given points but without that aid (and the notes) I would have been quite lost. To my surprise, even though I expected a very intimate portrait of the Byronic hero to connect the diverse observations of the pilgrim, I found the stanzas oddly detached except in the few passages (mainly in canto four) where Harold bemoans his fame and wonders what it will be like once he dies. I positively missed Wordsworth, whom Byron very much disliked, in the stanzas about the landscapes and even the cities. And I had a really tough time understanding allusions to personalities of the 1810s even with the editor’s excellent notes. There was also the problem of when to read the notes, for they constantly interrupted the flow of the lines. I eventually settled on reading them after each stanza. When I came across six stanzas without notes, it felt like being on a sailing ship with a full gale.
Reading the negative comments on Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley (1814), I came across a disgruntled reader who, hating this pompous piece of fiction as much as I do, proposes that we ‘decanonize’ Scott. I think that we are already in the process of decanonizing Scott, who has not been included in our second-year 19th century courses here at UAB since at least 1994. Preparing the lectures on Byron I realised that I wasn’t even sure when to tell my students about Scott: now, commenting on his poetry together with Byron’s, or later when we teach Jane Austen. It is very clear to me that an English graduate must know who Scott was but I would not include one of his novels in the syllabus, for that would probably alienate rather than interest students. What I fear is that we have reached the same point with Byron: students must know who he was and what he did, but can they read his poems at all? Perhaps the lyrical pieces like ‘She Walks in Beauty’ but this hardly gives a glimpse of the giant he was.
Arguably Byron (and Scott) are a case not so much of decanonization but of increasingly difficult readability. It’s not the same. Robert Southey may be canonical but we just do not include him in our syllabi, either his poetry or his person, whereas, I insist, knowing about Byron and Scott is essential. This is a typical conundrum for all teachers: how should we teach? On the basis of literary archaeology or on the basis of accessibility? It used to be the former in the ancient times when philology reigned but the more pragmatic current approach tells me that Byron is approaching if not total at least partial decanonization.
I’m not sure that I’m sorry… but that must be my class (and gender) prejudice against privileged male aristocrats, no matter how handsome.
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