May 9, 1999
There’s something to be said for dying young. The death in 1824 of George Gordon, Lord Byron, a few months after his 36th birthday, could not have been more propitious for his reputation if it had been orchestrated by a firm of top-notch publicists. He died of a fever in western Greece, where he had gone to aid the Greek rebellion against Turkish rule. He was at that moment the most famous, or at any rate the most glamorous, literary figure alive. In his last poem, “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year,” he confessed himself physically and emotionally exhausted, fit only to yield up his life in a noble cause. He did; all Europe wept; and the Byron legend was secure.
Rarely has celebrity been so well deserved. Byron was indeed the handsomest, bravest, and wittiest, as well as the most dissolute, reckless, and extravagant – in a word, the most “Byronic” – of the English poets. His works, dashed off between trysts or other adventures, sold in unprecedented numbers. But he was also star-crossed: fatherless, lame from birth, in love with his half-sister, and married to the only woman he ever met (according to his valet) who couldn’t easily manage him.
His forebears set a bad example. His grand-uncle, from whom he inherited the title, was called the “Wicked Lord” for killing a neighbor and presiding over orgies. His father, “Mad Jack” Byron, seduced rich heiresses, squandered their money, fled his debtors, and finally joined his equally loose-living sister in France, where they became lovers and where he died when his son was three.
George Gordon was born in 1788 with a clubfoot. He and his abandoned mother lived in genteel poverty in Aberdeen, Scotland. He was a pretty child and intellectually precocious, but his foot caused him much pain and humiliation, and both mother and son had a towering temper. At six, he unexpectedly became next in line to a title and four years later succeeded to it, though his inheritance was largely ruins and debts.
At Harrow and Cambridge he was clever, headstrong, and spendthrift, running up to London frequently for “Routs, Riots, Balls, Boxing matches,” and every other available amusement. He also began to fill his idle hours scribbling verses, which got a mostly encouraging critical reception. Like most young noblemen, he was eager to go abroad. Because of the Napoleonic Wars, the usual Grand Tour through France and Italy was not feasible, so he took a less beaten path through Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Turkey. It was a fortunate accident: these more exotic destinations inspired “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” a long travel poem, published on his return, that made him instantly famous.
Success spoiled Lord Byron. Titled women began throwing themselves at him. The most persistent was the brilliant but unstable Lady Caroline Lamb, who took to stalking him around London after their brief affair, scandalizing even the jaded Regency aristocracy. But scandal-wise, this was only the beginning.
Byron had seen little while growing up of his older half-sister, Augusta. Apparently she had inherited “Mad Jack”’s warm heart and easy sensuality. Her husband neglected her, so she and her brother exchanged epistolary and then physical consolations. It wasn’t a grand passion, but they liked and understood each other better than anyone else did and couldn’t bring themselves to feel guilty about their relations.
His friends, however, were appalled, urging him to marry and reform. As a result of this pressure and of some curious misunderstandings, a casual flirtation with an intelligent and high-minded but somewhat over-earnest young heiress turned serious. Byron found himself engaged, then married. He seems to have reacted like a trapped animal, bewildering and tormenting his unfortunate wife, particularly with dark hints about incest. They separated after only a year. He left England in 1816 and never returned.
Byron lived riotously in Venice, more quietly in Ravenna with his last mistress, the Countess Guiccioli, and together with Shelley and Leigh Hunt formed the “Pisan Circle” of English literary exiles. His art matured in these years: he wrote the second half of “Childe Harold,” “Manfred,” “Cain,” “The Prisoner of Chillon,” and many other works, nearly all wildly successful. He scaled new heights with “Don Juan,” the longest and funniest satire in English, about which his friend Shelley wrote: “It sets him not above but far above all the poets of the day: every word has the stamp of immortality.” And his scintillating, often rollicking letters are every bit as sublime as his best verse.
He began to take an active interest in the Italian and Greek national liberation movements. He was ready to join an expected uprising in Naples against the Austrians, but the Neapolitans ran away even before the enemy arrived. So he went to Greece. The Greek patriots and their Albanian allies were more interested in squabbling with one another and extracting money from Byron than in fighting the Turks. But so great was Byron’s prestige that his death sparked international sympathy for the Philhellenic cause, and he was long revered by the Greeks as their liberator.
Benita Eisler’s “Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame” is an admirably full and well-balanced account of an extraordinarily crowded and dramatic life. Eisler is very good on Byron’s travels, which had their comic side. (As she notes, his moves usually required “the logistics of a military invasion.”) Her portrait of the ill-starred marriage is sensitively drawn, as are her characterizations of the other women in Byron’s life: Augusta, Caroline Lamb, and Teresa Guiccioli. She psychologizes a lot – plausibly, for the most part, though sometimes a reader’s eyes can get to rolling. In particular, she pounces triumphantly on every evidence of homoeroticism, as though it were the key to some mystery about Byron. But the only mystery about him, as far as I can see, is the perennial mystery of where preternatural wit, gaiety, and charm come from.
Insightful as Eisler’s biography is, it ought perhaps to have tried to explain less. Sometimes a sparkling surface is simply more interesting than the murky depths below.