Byron: Life and Work (2)

Here Josh Farrington, who wrote this essay soon after finishing his English degree, thinks about Byron and the world of celebrity. He comes across as a poet who 'shares himself with his readers' - who opens up more to them than we might expect, and who seems always to be linked to glamour.

Strangely, I first became aware of Lord Byron through his relatively unknown daughter, Ada Lovelace. She was a maths prodigy, and a close friend of Charles Babbage, inventor of the Analytical Engine, the forerunner to our modern computers (indeed, Ada is sometimes called the world's first computer programmer, and has a computer programming language named in her honour). Reading a short, of her, I gradually became aware of the invisible but powerful presence of her father in her life. Raised by her mother, Annabella Milbanke (dubbed the Princess of Parallelograms by Lord Byron), Ada never really knew her father, who had left England for good following his unseemly divorce. The closest that she really got to him, was that in the house where Ada grew up, a portrait of him in exotic Oriental dress was kept above the mantelpiece. Except the portrait was kept covered behind a thick velvet curtain, in order that any passing maids wouldn't see it and faint, immediately captivated by his irresistible beauty. And if that isn't a good enough reason to start investigating someone, I don't know what is...

'Mad, bad, and dangerous to know' is a phrase that has become fairly commonplace, but it's worth remembering that once upon a time, it famously applied to one particular man, and one man alone - Lord Byron. It was Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his many scorned lovers, who came up with it. (In 1824, she accidentally crossed paths with Byron's funeral cortege as it made its way to his burial place, an incident that provoked a nervous breakdown, and rumoured insanity.) Byron may well not have minded the insult at all - the idea that all publicity is good publicity may have applied as well then as now. Byron might be thought of as the first modern celebrity, the original overnight success who awoke one morning to find himself suddenly and irreversibly famous.

In many ways, Byron is still a celebrity today, having TV shows and books written about him. Author Tom Holland even re-imagined Byron as a vampire in his 1995 novel The Vampyre. He is still inspiring trends and fashions: for example, Gregory House MD, played by Hugh Laurie, is as Byronic as they come with his cutting wit and the steady limp that Byron himself is said to have had. And he is still being namedropped by all the right people. In the NME's annual 'Cool List' of 2006 (issue of 25th November), the singer Tahita Bulmer (of New Young Pony Club) declared Byron to be 'the coolest person ever... he was the first superstar'. There aren't many people who get their names turned into words either - and it's worth remembering that when people describe someone as Byronic, they're not just comparing (as they would when saying 'Dickensian' or 'Shakespearean') someone to one of Byron's characters, but to Byron himself.

Byron is one of the few poets who has managed to escape from the library and establish himself in the public consciousness, and it's true, this is just as much for his fascinating life as for his poetry. But in reality, these two things are intrinsically linked, because Byron lived his life through poetry, and his poetry contained so much of his life. It often seems that Byron saw the world in quatrains and rhymes. For him, writing poetry was as natural as breathing, as shown in this extract from one of his journals: 'To-day I have boxed one hour - written an ode to Napoleon Buonaparte - copied it - eaten six biscuits - drunk four bottles of soda water.' Poetry, to Byron, was as natural as exercise or eating (not that he was a fan of eating - by modern standards he would almost certainly be diagnosed with having an eating disorder, often fasting himself, then binging on supposedly healthy things like boiled vegetables mashed in vinegar). Many poets at the time, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge used to write about how important it was to write poems whilst still feeling the full immediacy of an event, but only Byron was ever radical enough to take this to the extreme:

I would to heaven that I were so much clay,
As I am blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling -
Because at least the past were passed away -
And for the future - (but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly today,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say - the future is a serious matter -
And so - for God's sake - and soda water!

This little poem, scribbled in the margins of his masterpiece Don Juan (it has the same abababcc 'ottava rima' rhyme scheme) shows off Byron's playfulness, and sense of mischief, but also gives a sense of his innate talent for creating poetry. It sometimes seems that it took Byron no effort at all to render his life in verse.

Byron had this talent from a young age. He published his first book of poetry, Fugitive Pieces, when he was just 18, and it contained poems written when he was just 15. He soon recalled all the copies though, and tried to have them all burnt after a friend suggested that some of the poems were indecent. Byron never did take criticism well - his first major long poem, English Bards and Scots Reviewers was a furious riposte to negative comments made about his book Hours of Idleness (a book that collected some of the surviving Fugitive Pieces poems). However, looking back at Fugitive Pieces (some copies thankfully did survive) we can see some of the features forming that would go on to shape his later works.

The poem 'To Mary', for example, the key poem seen as being 'too warm', shows off his poetic verve, and his unashamed tackling of full-on subject matters. It addresses the problem of a failed relationship, and young love lost, but doesn't do so in any mawkish or romanticised way. Instead, it goes for the jugular, reminding Mary exactly what she's lost:

RACK'D by the flames of jealous rage
By all her torments deeply curst,
Of hell-born passions far the worst,
What hope my pangs can now assuage?

I tore me from thy circling arms,
To madness fir'd by doubts and fears,
Heedless of thy suspicious tears,
Nor feeling for thy feign'd alarms.

Resigning everythought of bliss,
Forever, from your love I go,
Reckless of all the tears that flow,
Disdaining thy polluted kiss.

No more that bosom heaves for me,
On it another seeks repose,
Another riot's on its snows,
Our bonds are broken, both are free.

No more with mutual love we burn,
No more the genial couch we bless,
Dissolving in the fond caress;
Our love o'erthrown will ne'er return.

Though love than ours could ne'er be truer,
Yet flames too fierce themselves destroy,
Embraces oft repeated cloy,
Ours came too frequent, to endure.

You quickly sought a second lover,
And I too proud to share a heart,
Where once I held the whole, not part,
Another mistress must discover.


Though not the first one, who hast blest me,
Yet I will own, you was the dearest,
The one, unto my bosom nearest;
So I conceiv'd, when I possest thee.

Even now I cannot well forget thee,
And though no more in folds of pleasure,
Kiss follows kiss in countless measure,
I hope you sometimes will regret me.

And smile to think how oft were done,
What prudes declare a sin to act is,
And never but in darkness practice,
Fearing to trust the tell-tale sun.

And wisely therefore night prefer,
Whose dusky mantle veils their fears,
Of this, and that, of eyes and ears,
Affording shades to those that err.

Now, by my foul, 'til most delight
To view each other panting, dying,
In love's extatic posture lying,
Grateful to feeling, as to sight.

And had the glaring God of Day,
As formerly of Mars and Venus)
Divulg'd the joys which pass'd between us.
Regardless of his peeping ray.

Of love admiring such a sample,
The Gods and Goddesses descending,
Had never fancied us offending,
But wisely followed our example.

There's something irresistibly devil-may-care in his attitude here, as he reminds Mary of the physical pleasures they once shared, now sadly gone forever. The distinctive rhyme scheme (abba) is recognisable from Tennyson's later poem In Memoriam, another poem about loss and regret. Here though, Byron is discussing loss in an entirely different, and far more provocative way.

Byron continued sharing himself with his readers like this throughout his career. In his early years, he most commonly represented himself through his poems about Newstead Abbey, the ancestral Byron home. Later on, his poems filled more and more with the people he knew, and the places he visited. His early epic, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage basically recounts his Grand Tour through Europe. Eventually, his masterwork Don Juan became a type of alternative biography, injected full of Byron's own personality. Whether discussing his politics (like in The Vision of Judgement) or his private life, his poetry always spoke for him. Confession and self-revelation were the key driving forces for Byron's work, and that is why his poetry is still as vital and as vibrant today as it was when it was first published to both scandal and acclaim.

After Byron's death fighting with the Greeks against the Turks at Messolonghi, his friends gathered in a London drawing room, and burnt his memoirs in the hearth, just as they had burnt the body of his great friend Shelley two years before. To many, it remains one of the most painful moments in literary history, as one of the most potentially revealing and entertaining manuscripts ever went up in flames. However, in a sense, we already had what we needed of Byron's life - because it has been there in his poetry all along.

Further Reading

  • The best concise introduction to the connection between Byron's life and works is Paul Douglass's chapter 'Byron's life and his biographers' in Drummond Bone (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Byron (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 7-26.
Other more in-depth approaches to Byronic self-making and literature might include:
  • Frederick Garber, Self, Text and Romantic Irony: The Example of Byron (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).
  • Frederick Shilstone, Byron and the Myth of Tradition (Lincoln, Nebraska and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).
A serious interest in his life would require looking at a range of representative biographies of Byron. For example, three influential but very different biographies are:
  • Thomas Moore's Letters and Journals of Lord Byron: With Notices of his Life, 2 vols. (London: J. Murray, 1830). This was one of the first published biography after Byron's death and captures much of contemporary opinion.
  • Leslie A. Marchand, Byron: A Biography, 3 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1957) Very long but the standard scholarly biography of Byron. Available in a shortened one volume version, Byron: A Portrait (London: Futura, 1976).
  • Fiona MacCarthy, Byron: Life and Legend (London: John Murray, 1992). A modern biography written for a slightly more popular audience.
Another terrific resource to dip into for all work on Byron, but particularly this topic, are the texts collected in Andrew Rutherford (ed.), Byron: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970).

Further Thinking

As in Rocco Falconer's essay on Byron's Life and Poems, Josh Farrington emphasizes that Byron seems to tell the truth about his innermost thoughts in his poetry. In a poem like 'To Mary', quoted here in full, we might expect to see some powerful sincerity. On the other hand, there have been countless poems about lost love, and many things about such poems can seem conventional even though they are passionate. What is it about 'To Mary' that gets across the exciting possibility that this is the naked truth?

The quotation in which Byron sets up the trio of great men (himself, Napoleon, Beau Brummell) is very suggestive. It seems to suggest that poetry, fashionable glamour, and political / military power are equally important. Do you think his poetry shares this sense of priorities, where (to the serious-minded observer) things of greater and lesser value to society are being equated?

The book in question is Lucy Lethbridge, Ada Lovelace: The Computer Wizard of Victorian England (London, 2001).
A kind of German white wine.

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