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The Man Behind the
Byronic Image
By Charles Matthews
San Jose Mercury News, 2002


A Review of "Byron: Life and Legend" by Fiona MacCarthy


George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), was the first modern celebrity. He crafted his reputation, promoted it, and relished it. His image was summed up by one of his mistresses, Lady Caroline Lamb: ''mad - bad - and dangerous to know." This readable new biography tries to sort out the real Lord Byron from the image and the complexities.

He was an English aristocrat whose hero was Napoleon and whose politics were radical - he joined the revolutionary Carbonari in Italy, and when he died in 1824 he was leading an attempt to liberate Greece from Turkey. In the view of some contemporaries he was an effeminate dandy. In his portraits, many of which are handsomely reproduced in the book, he's costumed, primped, and petulant. When he grew fat from self-indulgence he would crash-diet himself into thinness. He had a deformed foot that he took efforts to conceal, yet he was celebrated for such feats of physical vigor as swimming the Hellespont.

He was a womanizer who claimed to have made around 200 conquests during his two-year stay in Venice, but in his letters he expressed revulsion at female physicality (he particularly disliked watching women eat), and he may have had what MacCarthy calls an ''innate sexual orientation toward boys."

In her attempt to get behind the image and see what drove Byron to create and perpetuate it, MacCarthy, like many modern biographers, zeroes in on sex. Much of Byron's behavior stems, she suggests, from sexual ambivalence. There's ample evidence that as a student at Harrow and Cambridge, and on youthful travels in Greece and Turkey, Byron had numerous homosexual liaisons.

Byron's homosexuality, MacCarthy asserts, reinforced his sense of himself as outsider, especially since sodomy was a capital crime in the England of his day. ''England labeled as degenerate the instincts Byron experienced as natural,'' MacCarthy writes. Thus came forth Byron's ''feeling of belonging to no country.'' His love of Greece, she asserts, began ''because homosexual relations in the East had none of the stigma they bore in his own country.'' Byron set out on ''frenetic'' relationships with women that, MacCarthy asserts, had ''an element of cruelty engendered by the knowledge that he was being false to his own heart.''

MacCarthy portrays a Byron who was more sinned against - by a narrow-minded society - than sinning. Certainly we shouldn't be shocked that Byron was gay. But the evidence of his pedophilia is disturbing, as is the emotional brutality toward women that marks his countless heterosexual liaisons, including the one with his half-sister, Augusta. He was driven permanently into exile by the rumors about this incestuous relationship and the whispered allegations of sodomy that arose when Byron and his wife, Annabella, separated in 1816.

On the other hand, the scandal may have inaugurated the modern truism that there's no such thing as bad publicity. When he died, eight years after being exiled from England, the Times of London called him ''the most remarkable Englishman of his generation.'' In the two-chapter coda to her biography - the ''legend'' part of the book - MacCarthy points out that the image of the Byronic hero was so potent that even such eminent Victorians as Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin were able to overlook what they surely would have regarded as serious sexual misconduct in a contemporary. And when Emily Bronte wrote ''Wuthering Heights'' she introduced ''Byronic hints of incest in the love between Heathcliff and Catherine.''

By the time of Arnold, Ruskin, and Bronte, the story of Byron's life had been sanitized by his early biographer, Thomas Moore. And it helped that the Byronic hero was ''dashingly heterosexual,'' as MacCarthy puts it. The heroes of his poems - Childe Harold, Manfred, Cain - are wanderers and outcasts, or else they're scamps like Don Juan. Readers responded to ''Byron's poetic concept of himself as a man grandly and fatally flawed, who had lived so intensely and sinned so outrageously that he, and he alone, was doomed to suffer the retribution of the gods.''

The image may have been a more significant creation than anything Byron wrote. The long poems that made him famous - ''Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,'' ''The Giaour,'' ''The Corsair'' and the like - are tedious reading today. And as pleasant as some of Byron's lyrics are, they don't stand up against the work of his great contemporaries. They lack the imagery and depth of the odes of Keats and Shelley, the haunting magic of Coleridge's ''Kubla Khan'' and ''The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,'' and the penetrating insight of Wordsworth's best poetry. Byron also left no significant critical prose that compares with Keats' letters, Shelley's ''Defence of Poetry,'' Coleridge's lectures on Shakespeare, or Wordsworth's ''Preface to 'Lyrical Ballads.' ''

It may simply be that poetry came so easily to Byron that he didn't take it seriously. MacCarthy asserts that in his youth, Byron saw ''the writing of poetry less as a serious professional occupation than as a diversion, a knack, a self-indulgence. In the scale of human achievement, as he viewed it at this time, rhyming did not count.''

There's not much evidence that this attitude ever fundamentally changed. His most enduring work is his comic masterpiece, ''Don Juan,'' on which he worked on almost until his death (it was left unfinished). The poem's lasting charm lies in the casualness with which Byron handles the intricacies of ottava rima, coming up with rhymes like ''Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,/Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck'd you all?'' Byron's wordplay anticipates the song lyrics of Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin more than it evokes the verses of Shelley and Wordsworth.

Everyone who knew Byron seems to have kept material about him - diaries, journals, and boxes full of letters. MacCarthy is undaunted by the mass of data. She has produced a huge but enticing book that takes its subject seriously - perhaps too seriously. I wish she had found a way to lighten the gloom of her exploration of the darker side of Byron. His letters are buoyant with humor. And his comic and satiric poems - which, in addition to ''Don Juan,'' include ''Beppo'' and ''English Bards and Scotch Reviewers'' - retain a freshness that his ''serious'' work lacks.

The book could also have used more critical edge. MacCarthy discusses the poems hardly at all, and makes no effort to assess their comparative merits or to view Byron's work in the context of the great contemporary literary ferment of English Romanticism. But given the turmoil of Byron's life, both public and private, it's perhaps both necessary and revealing that his literary career fades into the background.

-The End-

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