|Jul/Aug 2002 • Miscellaneous|
George Noel Gordon, better known as Lord Byron (1788-1824), was once the most celebrated poet in Europe. Handsome and charismatic, he was the darling of polite society, the cynosure of salons, a pacesetter in fashion and mannerism, the observed of all observers. Smitten debutantes, madams, and maidservants vied for the attention of the dashing peer of the realm. Men envied him. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, published when the poet was twenty-four, captivated the romantic imagination of a continent.
"I awoke one day," said Byron, "and found myself famous."
Despite his demurrals, readers fused him with Childe Harold—a brooding, enigmatic pariah haunted by a dark past and nameless guilt.
Though he cloned Childe Harold several times, Byron was no one-trick pony (or poet). Don Juan, his epic masterpiece, is, as he said, "a little quietly facetious on everything." It bristles with trenchant quips on the eternal human comedy:
"Life's a poor player"—then play out the play,
Ye villains! And above all keep a sharp eye
Much less on what you do than what you say:
Be hypocritical, be cautious, be
Not what you seem, but always what you see.
All present life is but an interjection,
An "Oh!" or "Ah!" of joy or misery,
Or a "Ha! Ha!" Or "Bah!"—a yawn or "Pooh!"
Of which perhaps the latter is most true.
Bryon was a master of the ingenious rhyme:
Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded That all the Apostles would have done as they did.
But—Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual, Inform us truly, have they not hen-pecked you all?
Even his wife, no fan, conceded his verbal brilliance: "He is the absolute monarch of words."
When he died of a fever in Missolonghi, where he was aiding the Greeks in their struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire, newspapers called him and Napolean the greatest men of the era. Goethe, the reigning monarch of belles lettres, hailed him as "a personality of such eminence as has never been and is not likely to come again."
"Eminence" played better on the Continent than in England. There, long before his death, Byron's fame had mutated to infamy. In separation papers, Lady Annabella Milbanke, his wife and the mother of his infant daughter, Ada, accused him of psychological and physical abuse, including attempted rape. Soon, his private history, sordid and profligate, became public. One report had him and some Cambridge cronies, dressed as monks and using skulls for bowls, keeping wassail at his abbey. Gossip sheets sizzled with lurid tales of homoeroticism, pederasty, whoremongering, adultery, and an incestuous liaison with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Throughout England, the clergy thundered "on his head pious libels by no means few."
Ostracized in London, where he was then living, Byron fled England in April 1816. He never returned. He spent his final eight years in Italy, Switzerland, and Greece. Reviled at home, he was feted abroad.
Caroline Lamb, a blue blood who hounded Byron into an affair, said he was "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" (her kind of guy, apparently). George Ticknor, a literary acquaintance, described him as "gentle, mannerly, natural, affectionate, and modest." Both were right. Byron was an amalgam of disparate traits: cruelty and kindness; misanthropy and philanthropy; cynicism and idealism; affectation and sincerity; arrogance and self-mockery; pettiness and magnanimity; intemperance and asceticism; self-pity and courage. On balance, the virtues trumped the vices: "For all his flashes of vulgarity, his unworthy intrigues, his intellectual caprices," biographer Ethel Mayne concluded, "Byron was a man of daring, tenderness, and candor, and one of the most generous spirits of his age."
His vices were aggravated by indoctrination to Calvinism, which he could never quite shake despite "an early dislike to the persuasion." Of his first grammar school, in Aberdeen, Scotland, he reminisced: "I learned little there—except to repeat by rote the first lesson of monosyllables—'God made man—let us love him'—by hearing it often repeated." Harangued by a pious, domineering mother and catechized by a string of Presbyterian tutors and Scripture-quoting nurses, young Byron perversely deduced he was irremediably damned. A clubfoot (his mark of Cain), the mockery of playmates, and the early loss of his father confirmed his reprobate status. His wife, who wrote an account of their stormy marriage, limned a victim of religion gone haywire: "His principal insane ideas are—he must be wicked—is foredoomed to evil—and compelled by some irresistible power to follow this destiny."
Armed with a Puritan conception of wickedness, Byron wallowed in Olympian debauchery, oscillating between "ungodly glee" and self-loathing. His Calvinistic conscience doomed him to a repetitive round of sin, remorse, and desire for punishment.
"Byron," said critic Mario Praz, "wished to experience the feeling of being struck with full force by the vengeance of Heaven. The gloomy tragedy of his life was set in a moral torture chamber." Like Childe Harold, Byron was tormented "by demons, who impair / The strength of better thoughts, and seek their prey / In melancholy bosoms, such as were / Of moody texture from their earliest day, / And loved to dwell in darkness and dismay."
His unmerited reprobation led him to identify with Lucifer and Cain: "Souls who dare look the Omnipotent tyrant in / His everlasting face, and tell Him that / His evil is not good." In Cain, a closet drama on the Fall, the scofflaws collaborate on an indictment of the Almighty.
Why, Cain grouses, should he be punished for his parents' disobedience? He didn't pluck the forbidden fruit: "What had I done in this? I was unborn." Besides, wasn't Jehovah guilty of entrapment: "The tree was planted, and why not for him [Adam]? / If not, why place him near it, where it grew, / The fairest in the center?" In any event, why proscribe knowledge and life: "How can both be evil?"
When he queries his parents, he gets nothing but sophistry:
They have but One answer to all questions, "'Twas his will, And he is good." How know I that? Because He is all-powerful, must all-good, too, follow?
No, Lucifer tells him: "Evil and good are things in their own essence, / And not made good or evil by the giver." Knowledge and life are inherently good. Lucifer, a proponent of both, is called wicked because conquerors define morality: "Were I the victor, his works would be deemed the only evil ones."
Most ethereal beings, says Lucifer, are servile hypocrites who worship the Almighty out of fear, not love. Those (like him) who refuse to kowtow are treated to draconian punishment: "Higher things than ye are slaves: and higher / Than them or ye would be so, did they not / Prefer an independency of torture / To the smooth agonies of adulation / In hymns and harpings, and self-seeking prayers."
Ever since they ate the apple, Cain notes, his parents and siblings have been like mindless serfs: "My father is / Tamed down; my mother has forgot the mind / Which made her thirst for knowledge at the risk / Of an eternal curse; my brother is / A watching shepherd boy, who offers up / The firstlings of the flock to Him who bids / The earth yield nothing to us without sweat; / My sister Zillah sings hymns."
Jehovah, Lucifer assures Cain, wanted humans to live as beasts in "A Paradise of Ignorance, from which / Knowledge is barred as poison." He inflicted the race with such "poor attributes as suit / Reptiles engendered out of the subsiding / Slime of a mighty universe, crushed into / A scarcely-yet shaped planet, peopled with / Things whose enjoyment was to be in blindness." Thought he imprisoned in "foul and fulsome" flesh racked by hunger, thirst, deprivation, sickness, debility, disease, pain. Sexual pleasure, the Puritan archangel advises, was a machination to perpetuate misery: "A sweet degradation / A most enervating and filthy cheat / To lure thee on to the renewal of / Fresh souls and bodies, all foredoomed to be / frail and unhappy." Lucifer sums up the human lot: "Eat, drink, toil, tremble, laugh, weep, sleep, and die."
The tree of knowledge, Cain carps, "was a lying tree, for we know nothing." Or, rather, he knows only that life isn't worth the living: "I live, / But live to die; and, living, see no thing / To make death hateful, save an innate clinging, / A loathsome, and yet all invincible / Instinct of life, which I abhor, as I / Despise myself, yet cannot overcome / and so I live."
Lucifer, no false comforter, tells Cain his posterity will have it worse than he. His suffering and sorrow "are both Eden / In all its innocence compared to what / Thou shortly mayst be; and that state again, / In its redoubled wretchedness, a Paradise / To what thy sons' sons' sons, accumulating / In generations like to dust (which they / In fact but add to), shall endure and do."
Before disappearing, Lucifer—perhaps recalling he is supposed to be a bearer of light—rouses Cain with a pep talk on the power of reason to surmount celestial despotism:
One good gift has the fatal apple given— Your reason: let it not be over-swayed By tyrannous threats to force you into faith 'Gainst all external sense and inward feeling: Think and endure—and form an inner world In your own bosom—where the outward fails.
Whenever Byron escaped the undertow of Calvinism, he wrote like an Enlightenment rationalist. "In morality," he remarked, "I prefer Confucius to the ten Commandments and Socrates to St. Paul." He disdained revelation and mystery: "God would have made his Will known without books," he told his lifelong friend Francis Hodgson, a cleric, "considering how very few could read when Jesus of Nazareth lived, had it been His pleasure to ratify any peculiar mode of worship."
"I wouldn't subscribe to some of the articles of faith," he told a correspondent, "if I were as sure as St. Peter after the Cock crew. I refuse to take the Sacrament because I do not think eating Bread or drinking wine from the hand of an earthly vicar will make me an inheritor of Heaven." On miracles, he sided with the skeptics: "I agree with Hume that it is more probable men should lie or be deceived than that things out of the course of nature should so happen."
Resurrection made no sense: "If people are to live, why die? And are our carcasses worth raising? I hope, if mine is, I shall have a better pair of legs than I have moved on these two-and-twenty years, or I shall be sadly behind in the squeeze into Paradise." Like eternal punishment, eternal bliss was unjust: "All the pious deeds performed on Earth can never entitle a man to everlasting happiness."
The Christian scheme of salvation was superfluous: "Christ came to save men, but a good Pagan will go to heaven and a bad Nazarene to hell. If mankind who never heard or dreamt of Galilee and its Prophet may be saved, Christianity is of no avail. And who will believe God will damn men for not knowing what they were never taught?" Even were Christianity valid, the Christian is no more spiritually secure than the ancient Roman: "According to the Christian dispensation, no one can know whether he is sure of salvation-even the most righteous—since a single slip of faith may throw him on his back, like a skater, while gliding smoothly to his paradise. Therefore, whatever the certainty of faith in the facts may be, the certainty of the individual as to his happiness or misery is no greater than it was under Jupiter."
Byron anticipated Freud's "moral fallacy" of Christianity: "The basis of your religion," he wrote Hodgson, "is injustice. The Son of God, the pure, the immaculate, the innocent, is sacrificed for the guilty. This proves His heroism; but no more does away with man's guilt than a schoolboy's volunteering to be flogged for another would exculpate the dunce from negligence or preserve him from the rod. You degrade the Creator by converting Him into a tyrant over an immaculate and injured Being, sent to suffer death for the benefit of some millions of scoundrels, who, after all, seem as likely to be damned as ever."
Byron judged religions pragmatically by the moral character of their adherents. On that score, Christianity did not impress him: "Talk of Galileeism? Show me the effects-are you better, wiser, kinder by your precepts? I will bring you ten Mussulmans shall shame you in all good will towards men and duty to their neighbours." On the efforts of Hodgson and another Christian friend to proselytize him, Byron commented: "If Hodgson takes half the pains to save his own soul, which he risks to redeem mine, great will be his reward hereafter; I honor and thank you both, but am convinced by neither."
Byron despised institutionalized religion: "I know nothing, at least in its favour," he wrote. "We have fools in all sects and impostors in most." Elsewhere, he said: "I am no Platonist, I am nothing at all; but I would sooner be a Paulician, Manichean, Spinozist, Gentile, Pyrrhonian, Zoroastrian, than one of the seventy-two villainous sects tearing each other to pieces for the love of the Lord and hatred of each other."
In The Vision of Judgment, a satirical tour de force on Christian eschatology, Byron ridiculed the Church of England:
I know this is unpopular; I know 'Tis blasphemous; I know one may be damned For hoping no one else may e'er be so; I know my catechism; I know we're crammed With the best doctrines till we quite o'erflow; I know that all save England's church have shammed, And that the other twice two hundred churches And synagogues have made a damned bad purchase.
Don Juan percolates with saucy irreverence. Imperiled by a sinking ship, a passenger asks a clergyman (Pedrillo) to pray for him: "And there was one / That begged Pedrillo for an absolution / Who told him to be damned in his confusion." For spiritual solace, religion had a worthy competitor: "There's naught, no doubt, so much the spirit calms / As rum and true religion." Then, there was the Reverend Rodomont Precisian: "Who did not so much hate the sin as the sinner." Don Juan's mother is stumped by an English idiom: "'Tis strange—the Hebrew noun which means 'I am,' / The English always use to govern 'damn.'" The son, too, was baffled:
Juan... did not understand a word Of English, save their shibboleth, "God damn!" And even that he had so rarely heard, He sometimes thought 'twas only their "Salam," Or "God be with you!"-and 'tis not absurd To think so: for half English as I am (To my misfortune), never can I say I heard them wish "God with you," save that way. For the narrator, bouts of illness authenticate orthodox doctrines: The first attack at once proved the Divinity (But that I never doubted, nor the Devil); The next, the Virgin's mystical virginity; The third, the usual Origin of Evil; The fourth at once established the whole Trinity On so uncontrovertible a level, That I devoutly wished the three were four On purpose to believe so much the more.
Despite the antic impieties, Byron was never secure in his apostasy. "He had read enough of Hume and the Voltairian skeptics before he left Cambridge to unsettle his faith in the dogmas of the established religion, both Catholic and Protestant, and to make him an agnostic," noted biographer Leslie Marchand, "but he never completely made up his mind." Percy Bysshe Shelley, his neighbor and fellow exile in Switzerland, bemoaned his own inability to "eradicate from Byron's great mind the delusions of Christianity, which, in spite of his reason, seem perpetually to recur."
"Let us ponder boldly," Byron wrote, "'tis a base / Abandonment of reason to resign / Our right of thought-our last and only place / Of refuge; this, at least, shall be mine."
But the demons of his childhood dwelt there, too.