Child of Passion, Fool of Fame
by Benita Eisler,
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|The Brothel’S Lewd Minstrel
by Maurice Elliott
Benita Eisler has written a very large and very heavy book on Lord Byron—perhaps the largest single volume ever.
Now, there is clearly a demand for biographies and memoirs. The political memoir, royal gossip, and celebrity chat all contribute to an apparently insatiable longing for what Ms. Eisler says (with some exaggeration, I hope) are the only consolations in this century: “sex and consumerism”. Even poets are having their day, with recent biographies of Keats, Wordsworth, and Coleridge; and these are by no means limited to the scholar’s study. Byron may present a special case, and I would offer a brief anecdote from my own precocious lubricity—in my hot youth, and before I found those necessary consolations.
When I was sixteen or seventeen in the early 1950s, I once gave a talk on Lord Byron to fellow schoolboys. It went on forever, and most of what I had to say was cribbed from the recently published (1950) two-volume selection from Byron’s letters and journals edited by Peter Quennell, Byron: A Self-Portrait, which an encouraging schoolmaster lent me after I discovered Don Juan. The letters were fantastic, but, of course, what I was really interested in was the sex, and so was my audience—only I did not know the half of it: the boys, the sister, the children, the wives, the actresses, the “pieces”, the urgency and frequency of the “couplings”. Had I known, and said so, I expect I would have been expelled. As for the poetry, that came later. And so the wheel turns: a student in a fourth-year seminar of mine a few years ago told me with some chagrin that she had not known that Byron was a poet, but that she had found that he “was a good read”.
Ms. Eisler indeed knows that Byron is a poet and she would like to do justice to his poetry. She writes: “No twentieth-century biographer has troubled to examine his art, as though the breathless excitement of the life had obscured the work.” The first half of this statement is an exaggeration. The second half is very much a description of the book she has written.
Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame is a blow-by-blow account of the poet’s troubled life from lonely birth to melancholy death, and it is a good read. Which is to say that there is a certain breathlessness—perhaps a politer term would be energy—in the account which carries one along without flagging and guides a reader through a mass of very complex material while managing to hold a general interest. The key passages of Byron’s life are handled deftly and sensibly: his unhappy marriage, where Ms. Eisler’s even-handedness on the vexed question of evidence is very impressive; his relations with Shelley, the description of which has a freshness; his love affair with Greece, including his clear-sightedness at the end. I should, however, have liked more clarity on financial matters instead of the continual jabs at Byron’s lawyer; but then this is a maze of difficulty. Also the reader does have to put up with a certain amount of modishness—the “self-made man”, “value-added”, “doting sugar daddy”, and “advertisements for myself”—and snappy punning: “Even without firearms, he was a loose cannon”; and after Hobhouse’s detailed account of a flogging ordered by Byron, “far from lashing out only at the powerful”. Perhaps she thinks “general readers” like this sort of thing.
And then, of course, there are the sex, the booze, the money troubles, the snobbery—consolation enough for anyone who really wishes to read about a monster in relationships, a damaging and damaged man whose crucial catastrophe, according to Ms. Eisler, was his deformity (of foot) which entitled him to the forbidden. We are under obligation to Byron for his poetry. Were we not, we might as well be reading Kenneth Lynn’s biography, Charlie Chaplin and His Times, or Charles Fleming’s High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess—horror shows, both. And here, surely, Mrs. Leigh Hunt had it right: “It is so painful to be under obligation to a person you cannot esteem.” In other words, from Ms. Eisler’s account, good read though it may be, it is difficult to hold on to esteem in the face of extraordinary cruelty, or to value properly Lady Blessington’s perception that Byron was “a tragic man isolated in another country and language, utterly alone”. And we do need to hold on to esteem if we are not to agree that he has become the “lewd minstrel of a brothel”. We either need help from a consistent psychological theory—and there is not one in this book, not even of flawed angel—or very careful attention to his art, the poetry. Without these, there is an awful sense that, as for the “life” of the poet, we should respect his wished for epitaph—“Implora pace”.
It is a great pity that, in order to esteem Byron, Ms. Eisler resorts to the very crude device of denigrating his contemporaries. Bowles is not a minor poetaster; Southey was not a “toady”; Maturin is not best known as Oscar Wilde’s uncle; Shelley was not “unworldly”; and Valeri’s portrait of Stendhal does not give him “raccoon cheeks”. At one point, Ms. Eisler speaks of Sir Walter Scott’s “lifeless verses”, and surely it is not to show her superiority to the great unwashed of the Regency that she speaks of him four pages later as “the most popular and prolific of British poets”. The worst case of this is with Thomas Moore, about whom Ms. Eisler is continuously sneering and misguided or downright wrong; and, although she is content to rely on Moore’s memory of the burnt “Memoirs” in his biography of 1830, it takes her nearly 600 pages to acknowledge that he was indeed a friend of Byron. She speaks of him in one place as an “energetic philanderer”—and I would be very interested to see the evidence for this. The absence of any thought about the relationship with Moore and the reliance on “upright”, “loyal”, “fearful”, “conventional”, “inflexible” Hobhouse as the one true friend do her subject great disservice. Sadly, what the whole demonstrates is a serious flaw in the presentation of Byron’s background, a flaw which translates itself into the criticism of the poetry itself.
Regrettably, the criticism of the poetry, which somehow other biographers like Leslie Marchand have not attended to (but see his 1965 Byron’s Poetry: A Critical Introduction), is represented by gush: the “most famous lines””; the “most beautiful”; “the most famous” (in regards to different poems!); “the most radical”. Byron’s “claim to genius” is Don Juan. And a sentence which begins, “[i]n a gorgeous stanza with echoes of John Donne...”, may be taken as representative of the impressionistic and highly selective judgments which assume, at least, a mild scholarly interest. There is no analysis at all of the poem, “The Vision of Judgment”—one of the “mostest”, if I may venture an opinion—and surprisingly very little of its context.
I said “mild” scholarly interest, because we must assume from the painstaking accumulation of data that Ms. Eisler would like to reach out to all readers. But serious scholarly interest balks. Nearly every transcription from Marchand’s magisterial thirteen-volume edition of Byron’s letters has mistakes in it: sometimes these are (if any scholarly error is not a breach of trust) venial; in other cases, they are more serious. for example, there are twenty-one errors of transcription on page 549. A vigilant editor might have helped here, as with curiosities like “djerid”, which in one place is a form of polo played on horseback and then, ten pages later, is an “equestrian form of darts”. Sometimes there are curious lapses: the dating on page 179, for example, or Disraeli’s novel on page 753.
The perceptive general reader will pick up something very valuable from this book. The reader will notice very quickly that the volume is extremely reliant (despite the faulty transcription) on Byron’s letters and journals. They are quoted generously and to good use. However, unless I am much mistaken, the only critical or evaluative reference I could see to the letters within the text is the following: “In rapid-fire journalistic prose, Byron conveys the sights, sounds, and movement of the brilliant scene; within weeks he would shape these jottings into poetry”. These “jottings” are from a long letter from Byron to his mother on November 12, 1809, and “journalistic prose” is surely an entirely feeble description of what can be claimed as some of the finest letters ever written in English. No wonder they were read aloud in Murray’s back room! A reader of Ms. Eisler’s volume will not find a commentary on this essential aspect of Byron’s art, but will find plenty of illustration. No general reader will want to go through Marchand’s thirteen volumes, but perhaps there is enough here to tempt her or him to begin where I did forty-five years ago. •
Maurice Elliott is Professor of English at York University.