Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life, by Edna O’Brien, W. W. Norton, 228 pp., $24.95
Lord Byron’s tireless love of women, men, teenagers, prostitutes, his own sister, the wives of others and their 11-year-old daughters—all of them chronicled in the most famous poetry of the 19th century—helped forge a legend that has parallel only in the debauched exploits of Casanova and Sade. Few lives have been as legend-ready as Lord Byron’s, few writers as able to cultivate a legend commanding enough to boom down through the centuries. Charlie Chaplin was the first face recognized around the globe, and Charles Lindbergh was the first media celebrity, but Lord Byron (1788–1824) was the first to sing shamelessly of himself from across oceans and continents.
In her new short biography of the poet, the Irish fiction writer Edna O’Brien has chosen to disregard Byron’s verse almost entirely and instead spotlight the romances only, a decision that is hard to defend, for without the poetry, Byron would have been just another solipsistic sex addict. His Childe Harold, the poem responsible for his overnight European renown, is second only to Wordsworth’s Prelude in its illumination of how phenomena mold the mind of a poet. Don Juan (pronounce Don Joo-an) remains a masterpiece of protean form, equal parts picaresque, satire, epic, romance, essay, philosophy—lyric and narrative, airy as a folktale, heavy as a fact. Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, the verse romance that spawned Russian literature, would not have been possible without the Byronic hero. Goethe also owed considerable debt to Byron. Those without enough stamina for the meticulous analysis in the definitive Leslie Marchand three-volume life, or the deft unraveling of Byron’s psyche in Phyllis Grosskurth’s study, will discover in O’Brien’s competent short biography a general appraisal of Byron, the lover and the legend.
The boy entered the world with a lame foot—in Milton the mark of Satan—and soon proved himself a prodigy of nearly Mozartean proportions: translating Horace at age six, annotating the Hebrew Bible by eight. In adolescence he named Napoleon his personal Übermensch, and had already acquired the dazzling gravity that would tilt people toward him for the remainder of his days. Despising his mother and yearning for exploration, the young lord began his Grecian travels in 1809 with an ostentatious caravan in tow. By the time he reached Italy several years later he had romped with so many men and women—“sodomy and sherbet debauches,” O’Brien notes—that one can hardly tally them all or tell one from the other. Women devoured Childe Harold and then wished to drop their husbands and children in order to devour its author.
The world Byron ambled through seems torn from a picture book about an alien world: the lords and ladies, duchesses and dukes carrying on in love like lunatics; the melee of marriage proposals, marriage announcements, engagement cancellations; Byron traveling with exotic animals and spending great sums despite his abysmal arrears; sex with his sister within earshot of the new wife he loathed; the fathering of illegitimate children he wanted no part of; the numerous and agonizing venereal diseases; the revolutionary posturing in Greece. Casanova wrote his memoir masterpiece in old age, retired from amorous excess; Sade composed from the Bastille where there was nothing else to do; but Byron wrote on the run amidst a hurly-burly of the groin and heart. How he managed to versify at all is a mystery on par with quantum mechanics. Still, he was the third greatest English poet of his generation, close on the heels of Keats and Shelley. Both Shelley and Mary Shelley came to scorn their friend Byron for his callous neglect of his offspring.
Thucydides, Francis Bacon, and Milton in “Lycidas,” among other scribes, warned of celebrity’s ominous vortex long before it became fashionable for coddled Hollywood cynosures to decry the complexities of fame. But Byron relished his fame. And Shelley, in Adonais, writes about “the Pilgrim of Eternity, whose fame / Over his living head like Heaven is bent, / An early but enduring monument.” But how pleasant to think that when composing Keats’s elegy, Shelley might have had his former friend in mind, that he indeed might have been referring to all three of them—Keats, Byron, himself: that unequaled English triumvirate, dead too soon but crooning still. In Edna O’Brien’s new life one catches only a glimpse of Lord Byron, but oh what a glimpse it is.