Stanzas from Don Juan
I want a hero: an uncommon want,When every year and month sends forth a new one,Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,The age discovers he is not the true one:Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan --We all have seen him, in the pantomime,Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time....Most epic poets plunge "in medias res"(Horace makes this the heroic turnpike road),And then your hero tells, whene'er you please,What went before -- by way of episode,While seated after dinner at his ease,Beside his mistress in some soft abode,Palace, or garden, paradise, or cavern,Which serves the happy couple for a tavern.
That is the usual method, but not mine --My way is to begin with the beginning;The regularity of my designForbids all wandering as the worst of sinning,And therefore I shall open with a line(Although it cost me half an hour in spinning)Narrating somewhat of Don Juan's father,And also of his mother, if you'd rather.
In Seville was he born, a pleasant city,Famous for oranges and women -- heWho has not seen it will be much to pity,So says the proverb -- and I quite agree;Of all the Spanish towns is none more pretty,Cadiz, perhaps -- but that you soon may see: --Don Juan's parents lived beside the river,A noble stream, and called the Guadalquivir.
His father's name was Jóse -- Don, of course,A true Hidalgo, free from every strainOf Moor or Hebrew blood, he traced his sourceThrough the most Gothic gentlemen of Spain;A better cavalier ne'er mounted horse,Or, being mounted, e'er got down again,Than Jóse, who begot our hero, whoBegot -- but that's to come --- Well, to renew:
His mother was a learned lady, famedFor every branch of every science known --In every Christian language ever named,With virtues equall'd by her wit alone:She made the cleverest people quite ashamed,And even the good with inward envy groan,Finding themselves so very much exceededIn their own way by all the things that she did....'Tis pity learned virgins ever wedWith persons of no sort of education,Or gentlemen, who, though born and bred,Grow tired of scientific conversation;I don't choose to say much upon this head,I'm a plain man, and in a single station,But -- Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck'd you all?...Sagest of women, even of widows, sheResolved that Juan should be quite a paragon,And worthy of the noblest pedigree:(His sire was of Castile, his dame from Aragon).Then for accomplishments of chivalry,In case our lord the kind should go to war again,He learn'd the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery,And how to scale a fortress -- or a nunnery....'Tis a sad thing, I cannot choose but say,And all the fault of that indecent sun,Who cannot leave alone our helpless clay,But will keep baking, broiling, burning on,That howsoever people fast and pray,The flesh is frail, and so the soul undone:What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,Is much more common when the climate's sultry....Her plan she deem'd both innocent and feasible,And, surely, with a stripling of sixteenNot scandal's fangs could fix on much that's seizable,Or if they did so, satisfied to meanNothing but what was good, her breast was peaceable:A quiet conscience makes one so serene!Christians have burnt each other, quite persuadedThat all the Apostles wuld have done as they did....He thought about himself, and the whole earth,Of man the wonderful, and of the stars,And how the deuce they ever could have birth;And then he thought of earthquakes, and of wars,How many miles the moon might have in girth,Of air-balloons, and of the many barsTo perfect knowledge of the boundless skies; --And then he thought of Donna Julia's eyes.
In thoughts like these true wisdom may discernLongings sublime, and aspirations high,Which some are born with, but the most part learnTo plague themselves withal, they know not why:'Twas strange that one so young should thus concernHis brain about the action of the sky;If you think 'twas philosophy that this did,I can't help thinking puberty assisted....Thus parents also are at times short-sighted;Though watchful as the lynx, they ne'er discover,The while the wicked world beholds delighted,Young Hopeful's mistress, or Miss Fanny's lover,Till some confounded escapade has blightedThe plan of twenty years, and all is over;And then the mother cries, the father swears,And wonders why the devil he got heirs....Julia had honour, virtue, truth, and loveFor Don Alfonso; and she inly swore,By all the vows below to powers above,She never would disgrace the ring she wore,Nor leave a wish which wisdom might reprove;And while she ponder'd this, besides much more,One hand on Juan's carelessly was thrown,Quite by mistake -- she thought it was her own....Oh Plato! Plato! you have paved the way,With your confounded fantasies, to moreImmoral conduct by the fancied swayYour system feigns o'er all the controlless coreOf human hearts, than all the long arrayOf poets and romancers: -- You're a bore,A charlatan, a coxcomb -- and have been,At best, no better than a go-between.
And Julia's voice was lost, except in sighs,Until too late for useful conversation;The tears were gushing from her gentle eyes,I wish, indeed, they had not had occasion;But who, alas! can love, and then be wise?Not that remorse did not oppose temptation;A little still she strove, and much repented,And whispering "I will ne'er consent" -- consented....Well -- well; the world must turn upon its axis,And all mankind turn with it, heads or tails,And live and die, make love and pay our taxes,And as the veering wind shifts, shift our sails;The king commands us, and the doctor quacks us,The priest instructs, and so our life exhales,A little breath, love, wine, ambition, fame,Fighting, devotion, dust, -- perhaps a name.--George Gordon, Lord Byron
Forgive me if I quote myself, but this review, which ran in the Mercury News in 2002, says pretty much all I have to say about him:
George Gordon, Lord Byron, was the first modern celebrity, the original dude with attitude, a prince of 'tudes. He crafted and relished the reputation that was summed up in the journal of one of his mistresses, Lady Caroline Lamb, who called him ''mad -- bad -- and dangerous to know'' (adjectives that many would have applied to Lady Caroline herself).
Fiona MacCarthy's very readable new biography tries to sort out the real Lord Byron from the complexities, of which there were plenty. 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 (from an infection worsened by the common medical practice of bleeding the patient) 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
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 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 most 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 , Byron had numerous homosexual liaisons. Turkey
Byron's homosexuality, MacCarthy asserts, reinforced his sense of himself as outsider, especially since sodomy was a capital crime in the
of his day. '' England labeled as degenerate the instincts Byron experienced as natural,'' MacCarthy says, and provided the genesis of Byron's ''feeling of belonging to no country.'' His love of England , she asserts, began ''because homosexual relations in the East had none of the stigma they bore in his own country.'' Greece
Awareness of the risks to his reputation -- and, considering the English law, his life -- may have entered into Byron's image-making as well, MacCarthy suggests. Byron hung his early sexuality in the closet, setting 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.'' The result was that he adopted the manner we see as ''quintessentially Byronic . . . the bravura self-mockery of someone forced to recognise his outlaw state.''
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
, 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 '' England ,'' she introduced ''Byronic hints of incest in the love between Heathcliff and Catherine.'' Wuthering Heights
By their day, 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 evokes the song lyrics of Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin more than it does the verses of Shelley and Wordsworth.
MacCarthy is undaunted by the enormous amounts of information available on Byron's life -- everyone who knew him seems to have kept diaries, journals and boxes full of letters. 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 -- she 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.
BYRON: Life and Legend
By Fiona MacCarthy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 674 pp., $35