1927 | 11,233,916 words
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THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK:
BYRON IN HIS LETTERS AND JOURNALS
Byron has received more biographical attention than any of his famous contemporaries, but he still continues to defy all attempts at defining his character in universally acceptable terms. For, as Peter Quennell rightly observes, “Although Byron is the most alluring of themes, and although there is no other great man who appears at first sight to reveal himself more readily, his character, if we study him closely enough, and follow him hard enough, often seems, as our knowledge increases, to be among the most elusive.” (Byron: A self-Portrait) One of the basic reasons for this intractability of Byron’s character lies in his own dual personality which found expression, on the one hand, in his fierce denunciation of all cant and insincerity, and, on the other, in his love of affectation and mystification. One of his contemporaries and acquaintances, Lady Blessington, has made some interesting remarks on this point which are worth quoting. “It is difficult to judge” she writes, “when Lord Byron is serious or not. He has a habit of mystifying, that might impose upon many but that can be detected by examining his physiognomy; for a sort of mock gravity, now and then broken by a malicious smile, betrays when he is speaking for effect, and not giving utterance to his real sentiments. If he sees he is detected, he appears angry for a moment, and then laughingly admits that it amuses him to hoax people, as he calls it, and that when each person, at some future day, will give their different statements of him, they will be so contradictory, that all will be doubted,–an idea that gratifies him exceedingly!” (Conversations of Lord Byron with the Countess of Blessington) That Byron has been greatly successful in his game of “hoaxing people” is clear from the numerous contemporary accounts of his life and personality which are at variance with one another. Even Lady Blessington, who speaks of seeing through the game, cannot be credited with infallibility on all occasions. Moreover, the authenticity of these contemporary accounts has been further undermined by the fact that they are, more or less, tainted by the personal prejudices and idiosyncracies of their respective authors. All later biographers, who depend on these accounts for their information, are thus confronted withthe herculean task of “disentangling the real Byron from the false Byron.” (Frederic I Carpenter, ed., Selections from the poetry of Lord Byron.) It is true that Leslie A. Marchand, in his monumental Byron: A Biography (New York and London, 1957), has, to a large extent, performed this task admirably well, but his book, owing to its bulk and diffusiveness, has failed to make any noticeable impact on an average student of Byron’s works; he still continues to carry in his mind the stale and antiquated notions about Byron’s character, put forth by Byron’s Contemporaries and the author of Astarte: A Fragment of Truth (London, 1905; rev. ed., 1921). There is, as such, a need for a compact and succinct account of Byron’s personal life, highlighting the broad characteristics of Byron the man as distinguished from Byron the poseur.
In the following pages an attempt has been made in this direction by approaching Byron through his letters and journals. Written on the spur of the moment or for emotional relief, they are least affected by Byron’s penchant for affectation, and offer more reliable and better clues to his real being than do the contemporary accounts or the studies based on them. Not that Byron’s biographers have been unaware of this fact. Almost all of them have drawn on Byron’s letters and journals in some measure, but these are invariably subordinated to, or, mixed up with, materials drawn from other sources. No effort has so far been made to represent Byron exclusively on the strength of his letters and journals. The present study, which is based on a close and objective analysis of the whole corpus of Byron’s letters and journals, is just intended to fill in this gap.
The first thing that strikes a reader of these letters and journals is Byron’s unhappy relationship with his mother, of whom he speaks in a language unbecoming of a Son. In a letter to Augusta (August 18, 1804), he refers to her as “my tormentor, whose diabolical disposition (pardon me for staining my paper with so harsh a word) seems to increase with age, and to acquire new force with time.” (The Works of Lord Byron: Letters and Journals, ed. R. E. Prothero) In the same letter he gives an account of the time he had to pass with her. “No captive Negro, or prisoner of war,” he tells his half-sister, “ever looked forward to their emancipation, and return to liberty with more joy, and with more lingering expectation, than I do to my escape from this maternal bondage.” In another letter to the same correspondent (November 2, 1804) he expresses his feelings rather more explicitly. “My mother,” he writes, “has lately behaved to me in such an eccentric manner, that so far from feeling the affection of a son, it is with difficulty I can restrain my dislike.” He does not, however, state the cause of his antipathy; it is only from his letter to John Hanson, dated December 13, 1805, that we can possibly form some idea of what irked him. It contains his reply to the latter’s plea that greater allowance ought to be made for Mrs. Byron’s faults as she was his mother. “I am afraid,” he writes, “that you have added to rather than diminished my dislike, for independent of the moral obligations she is under to protect, cherish and instruct her offspring, what can be expected of that man’s heart and understanding who has continually (from childhood to maturity) beheld so pernicious an example? His nearest relation is the first person he is taught to revere as his guide and instructor; the perversion of temper before him leads to a corruption of his own, and when that is depraved, vice quickly becomes habitual, and, though timely severity may sometimes be necessary and justifiable, surely a peevish harassing system of torment is by no means commendable, and when that is interrupted by ridiculous indulgence, the only purpose answered is to soften the feelings for a moment which are soon after to be doubly wounded by the recalls of accustomed harshness, “adding that he was” the more confirmed in my opinion of the Futility of Natural Ties, unless supported not only by attachment but affectionate and prudent behaviour.” In fact as we know from other sources, Mrs. Byron was subject to occasional tantrums, which were always followed by acts of over-indulgence or excessive affection. It was this intemperate behaviour of his mother that Byron disliked most. However he bore her no ill-will; what he disliked was simply her company. “I would wish her to be happy,” he writes in a letter to Augusta (Nov. 6, 1805), “but by no means to live with me in person.” In this context, it is also worth noting that his letters to mother, written from abroad, are always tender and affectionate. In a letter from Smyrna (April 9, 1810) he expresses his love for her, and in another from Constantinople (May 24, 1810) he asks her to use his funds without reserve. It is, therefore, not surprising to see what he wrote to John M. B. Pigot on her death: “I now feel the truth of Mr. Gray’s observation, ‘That we can only have one mother’.’ The words, with all their terseness, are an expression of a genuine grief, and confirm only Byron’s earlier statement to Augusta (March 26, 1804) that “although I am violent I am not capricious in my attachments.”
However, the treatment he received from his mother did leave, besides the immediate misery it had caused, an unwholesome effect on the whole of his life. He himself, in a letter to Augusta (August 30, 1811), says: “You must excuse my being a little cynical, knowing how my temper was tried in my non-age; the manner in which I was brought up must necessarily have broken a meek spirit, or rendered a fiery one ungovernable; the effect it has had on mine I need not state.”
Byron’s stay at the university did not make the matters any better. The life at the Temple of Learning was hardly conducive to any advancement either in learning or in morals. “They call it University,” he writes to John Hanson (November 23, 1805), “but any other appellation would have suited it much better, for study is the last pursuit of the society; the master eats, drinks and sleeps, the fellows drink, dispute and pun.”In such an environment, his life as he tells Elizabeth B. Pigot, had “been one continued routine of dissipation–out at different places everyday, engaged to more dinners, etc., than my stay would permit me to fulfil.” Again, in another letter to her (June 30, 1807), he writes: “The University at present is very gay from the fetes of divers kinds. I supped out last night, but eat (or ate) nothing, sipped a bottle of claret, went to bed at two, and rose at eight.” And yet amidst all these distractions Byron could find time for studies. His reading, especially of history, was fairly extensive. He himself, in a letter to Robert C. Dallas (January 21, 1808) says: “As to my reading, I believe I may aver without hyperbole, it has been tolerably extensive in the historical department; so that few nations exist, or have existed, with whose records I amnot in some degree acquainted, from Herodotus down to Gibbon. Of the classics, I know about as much as most schoolboys after a discipline of thirteen years; of the law of the land as much as enables me to keep ‘within the statute’–to use the poacher’s vocabulary.” As a matter of fact, he was a voracious reader. He read, as he tells us, “eating, read in bed, read when no one else reads; and had read all sorts of reading since I was five years old.” At school, he was noted for “the extent and readiness of my general information.” Nevertheless, the notion has gone round the world that his learning was but superficial and negligible. Even a man like Sir Walter Scott observes that “Lord Byron’s reading did not seem to me to have been very extensive either in poetry or history.” Such a misconception, it seems, arose from Byron’s usual flippancy in conversation or his express dislike of pedantry. But his letters; independent of his own assertions, give an unmistakable evidence of the wide range of his reading. There are not only literary, mythological, and biblical allusions but also frequent quotations from various authors and works. R. E Prothero alone, in his edition, marks out a number of quotations drawn from 136 authors and 260 works of different languages, subjects and periods. His findings, needless to say, may considerably be increased by a similar scrutiny of the letters not included in his collection. Moreover, we should also take into account the fact that one reads, as a rule, more books than one can quote from.
Theatre-going was another of his hobbies which engaged Byron throughout his life. His letters and journals, from 1804 onwards, make frequent references to his visits to the theatrical world. Whether in England or abroad, he hardly missed any opportunity of witnessing a stage-production – be it a drama or a melodrama, an opera or a mere pantomime. This preoccupation with the theatre, along with the fact that be himself took part in acting in his early life, is important to remember, for it may, to some extent, account for his own attempts at play-writing.
These letters and journals also offer an early evidence of some of the characteristics which distinguish Byron’s personality and temperament. For instance, there is a clear indication of his strong sense of honour in his letter to his mother, dated May 1, 1803. Speaking of his quarrel with Henry Drury, takes exception to the latter’s calling him a “blackguard”, adding “Better let him take away my life than ruin my character.”In another letter to her (September, 1803) he underlines the word “honour” in order to emphasise its unusual significance to him. This was, to a great extent, a necessary concomitant of his blood-consciousness which he could never shake off completely in spite of his earnest championship of the underdog. He was a democrat in his sentiments, but an aristocrat in his manners. In a letter to John Murray (February 21, 1819) be says openly, “I am out of all patience to see my friends sacrifice themselves for a pack of blackguards, who disgust one with their cause, although I have always been a friend to and a voter for reform.” Such a mixture of heterogeneous elements, however, made his character difficult to understand.
Similarly, there are signs of his spirit of independence and undaunted courage. His words to John Hanson, in this respect, are quite remarkable. “I am by no means disposed,” he writes to him (December 7, 1806). “to bear insult, and the consequences what they may, I will declare in plain and explicit terms, my grievance, nor will I overlook the slightest mark of disrespect, and silently brood over affronts from a mean and interested dread of injury to my person or property. The former I have strength and resolution to protect; the latter is too trifling by its loss to occasion a moment’s uneasiness.”
More important, however, than the intimations of these traits is the revelation that Byron was not a gloomy sentimentalist as he is popularly taken to be. The man who emerges from these letters and journals is the man who likes society and laughter, conversation and wine, plays and players, not a Childe Harold who loves solitude or a Manfred who shuns the company of his fellow-men. The letters written during the composition of these sombre poems offer a vivid contrast. As John D. Jump rightly observes, “In the letters of those earlier years, we have glimpses of Dallas, Fletcher, Madame De Stael, Annabella Milbanke, Wedderburn Webster, Pindemonte and Polidori, in the verse of the same period we encounter only such attitudinizing dummies as Childe Harold, Conrad the Corsair, and Manfred.” (“Byron’s letter,” Essays and Studies). Byron himself, more than once, points out his penchant “for the ridiculous than for anything serious.” In a letter to William Harness (December 15, 1811) he says, “You know I am not one of your dolorous gentlemen: so now let us laugh again.” Again, in a letter to Thomas Moore (October 2, 1813), he openly disclaims his reputation of “gloom” saying that “thou know’st that I can be a right merry and conceited fellow and rarely larmoyant.” Similarly in another letter to the same correspondent (March 10, 1827), he desires him to tell Jeffrey “that I was not, and, am not even now, the misanthropical and gloomy gentleman be takes me for, but a facetious companion, well to do with those with whom I am intimate, and as loquacious and laughing as if I were a much cleverer fellow.” In fact, we do not hear in his letters any lachrymose or self-pitying voice. Even his misfortunes or troubles, as a rule, are presented in a lighter vein. Whether they are descriptions of his mother’s treatment of him or the accounts of his own illness, they are always couched in a language or interpersed with remarks which cannot fail to provoke laughter. Here is, for instance, his narration of the fever he had had at Lerici:
“The doctor made his debut by talking of Hippocrete; in consequence of which, I sent him away; but the women being clamorous as usual, and myself, as Fribble says, in ‘exquisite torter’ he was recalled; and after several formidable administrations of medicines which would not remain in the stomach; and of glysters which would not be persuaded to quit it again, Nature, I presume, did the business and saved me from threatened inflammation of the bowels; during which (by way of rocking my cradle) we had a slight shock of an earthquake, such as we felt at Athens, probably an echo of that of Aleppo.” (Letter to Hobhouse)
This, of course, is Byron’s usual style. He is not so much concerned with conveying his suffering as amusing the correspondent by underlining the comic aspects of the situation. However, this is not to suggest that grief or sorrow never crossed his way. In a letter to Augusta (August 6, 1805) he himself observes, “Your sympathetic correspondence must be some alleviation to my sorrows, which however are too ludicrous for me to regard them very seriously; but they are really more uncomfortable than amusing.” In fact, it was his “relish for the ridiculous,” as he tells Hobhouse, which made “my life supportable.” His own circumstances were far from being satisfactory, and there was also an undeniable strain of melancholy in his composition. But all this never made him grumble or whine, or present in life a pageant of the bleeding heart.
In fact, he was an antithesis of the popular image of a poet as represented by Shaw in his Candida. He himself never liked to be thought of as a mere poet. “I prefer,” he writes in a letter to Miss Milbanke (November 10, 1813). “the talents of action–of war or the senate, or even of science–to all the speculations of those mere dreamers of another existence (I don’t mean religiously but fancifully) and spectators of this apathy.” He was rather amused to see that people were often disappointed in their expectations of him as a poet. Speaking of one Mr. Coolidge who paid a visit to him, he humorously observes, “I suspect that he did not quite take so much to me, from his having expected to meet a misanthropical gentleman, in wolf skin breeches, and answering in fierce monosyllables instead of a man of this world.” But he was, of course, a man of this world, as his letters and journals demonstrate unmistakably. His readings of the Greek and the Italian insurrections speak of his astute commonsense and understanding. Not only did he take an active part in worldly affairs, but he was also a shrewd observer of men and manners. As he said to Lady Melbourne (October 1, 1813), “anything that confirms, or extends one’s observations on life and character”, delighted him. Instead of being a filmy-eyed recluse, he was worldly even to an unhealthy extent. His love of money in his later life is a well-known fact. However, it will be wrong to accuse him of avarice or miserliness. In spite of his assertion that “every guinea is a philosopher’s stone, or at least his touchstone.’(Letter to Douglas Kinkaird) he declined to accept a legacy of two thousand pounds left by Shelley. It is true that he tried to effect economy in his personal and household expenditure, but he was always ready to help the needy and poor. His charity remained undiminished till the end of his life. In a letter to Douglas Kinkaird (February 25, 1822), he says: “Whenever I find a poor man suffering for his opinions–and there are many such in this country – I always let him have a shilling out of a guinea.” Again, ‘I never in my life gave a mistress so much as I have sometimes given a poor man in honest distress.” While at Revenna, he put several poor people on a weekly pension, and at Cephalonia provided a Moreote family with a house and decent maintenance “besides sending a sum of two hundred and fifty dollars to the resident in Ithaca” for the refugees there. However, there are but a few instances of his bounteous charity which was open even to the people he did not like. In a letter to john Murray (October 8, 1822) he writes “It is strange enough, but the rascaille English, who calumniate me in every direction and on every score, whenever they are in great distress, recur to me for assistance: if I have had one example of this, I have had letters from a thousand, and, as far as in my power, have tried to repay good for evil, and purchase a shilling’s worth of salvation, as long as my pocket can hold out.” But he did not like that his money should be spent to promote any selfish interest. As such, he took exception to Count Gamba’s spending five hundred dollars on dress and other fripperies, adding that “I do not grudge any expense for the cause, but to throw away as much as would equip, or at least maintain, a corps of excellent ragamuffins with arms in their hands” was “rather beyond my endurance,” (Letter to Charles Hancock) But when there was a noble cause, he could willingly sacrifice all that he had; his services to the Greek in their struggle forfreedom leave us in no doubt.
His love of liberty is too well-known to need any elaboration; what one should emphasize is that he had also a warm and sympathetic heart. Far from being a misanthropical being, he always did his best to relieve the sufferings of humanity. He accepted war only as a means of liberating people from the yoke of tyranny. “It is a difficult part,” he writes about his association with the Carbonari, “to play amongst such a set of assassins and blockheads–but, when the scum is skimmed off, or has boiled over, good may come of it,” adding that “I abhor cruelty more than I abhor the Austrians.” His principal object after arriving in Greece was “to alleviate as much as possible the miseries incident to a warfare so cruel as the present,” “When the dictates of humanity are in question,” he adds, “I know no difference between Turks and Greeks. It is enough that those who want assistance are men, in order to claim the pity and protection of the meanest pretender to humane feelings,” (Letter to Mr. Mayer) He succeeded in obtaining the release of twenty-eight Turks, out of which he sent twenty-four to Prevesa at his own expense. (Letter to Samuel Barff)
All this is not to suggest, however, that Byron was an epitome of all the virtues as G. Wilson Knight seems to do in his book, Lard Byron: Christian Virtues (London, 1952). Nor is it intended to serve as a full-length portrait of Byron the man. The few aspects of Byron’s character that have been touched upon here are largely those which have either been overlooked or distorted by his biographers in general. The foregoing account, as such, may serve as a corrective to the popular impression of Byron’s personality, and provide a new perspective for those who are accustomed to looking at him through the eyes of others. In any case, it will help us, in a modest way, in our continuing search for Byron’s identity.