Byron: high-voltage radicalism

Issue 

Byron: The Flawed Angel
By Phyllis Grosskurth
Sceptre, 1997
510 pp., $19.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Lord Byron provoked strong passions. Attacked in his day by Tory journals as the "poet of seduction, adultery and incest: the contemner of patriotism, the insulter of piety, the raker into every sink of vice and wretchedness to disgust and degrade and harden the hearts of his fellow-creatures", Byron was, as noted by Engels, widely read amongst the proletariat for his "glowing sensuality and his bitter satire upon our existing society".

Phyllis Grosskurth's biography of Byron follows the short but high-voltage life of the handsome, bisexual English poet. Born in 1788, with his deformed foot and an obscure and not very privileged peerage, he upset all the establishment people worth upsetting and died whilst fighting for Greek independence in 1824.

The adolescent Byron was not a terribly attractive character. An impoverished aristocrat duly schooled in snobbery, narcissism and misanthropy at Cambridge, he regarded life as a tiresome struggle to mitigate boredom and fled his creditors with a tour of the Continent in 1809.

The horrors of the French/Spanish war and the theft of Greece's archaeological treasures by Lord Elgin, however, awoke him to the ills of the world.

One of the worst ills was on Byron's doorstep in Nottinghamshire as the industrial revolution's transformation of England with the introduction of new knitting and weaving machines turned thousands of weavers into destitute unemployed.

In 1811 Byron toured the county. Appalled by the poverty, sympathetic to the Luddite frame-breaking weavers and contemptuous of the thousands of troops, spies and informers used to crush the rebellion, he wrote in one poem, "Down with all kings but King Ludd!".

A member of the House of Lords, Byron used his maiden speech to oppose a bill to make frame-breaking a capital offence and to heap scorn on the "law and order" response of the assembled lordships: "When a proposal is made to emancipate or relieve, you hesitate, you deliberate for years, you temporise and tamper with the minds of men; but a death-bill must be passed off hand, without a thought of the consequences."

An eloquent and powerful speech ("I spoke very violent sentences with a sort of modest impudence, abused everything and everybody, put the Lord Chancellor very much out of humour"), it won Byron to the hearts of the working poor and to middle-class reformers.

Byron's friendship with Shelley, the most revolutionary of the Romantic poets, pushed Byron further to the left.

On his second tour of Europe, fleeing an emotional entanglement and a stressful divorce, Byron provided money and stored arms for the Carbonari, a secret insurrectionary organisation of revolutionaries, freemasons and liberals opposing Austrian rule of Italy, and acted as a representative of the London supporters of the Greek independence struggle against Turkey.

After failing to raise a private army and being caught up in the machinations of warring tribal chieftains and bandit leaders who were trying to turn the liberation struggle to their own gain, Byron contracted marsh-fever and died in Greece in 1824.

Byron's death in a noble cause at a young age further enhanced his fame and radical credentials, which were justified by his later, more profound and politically targeted work.

The magnificent epic verse narrative "Don Juan" for example, is one long mockery of the political status quo — the Tory government, the church, the army, the poet laureate Southey and the apostate Wordsworth who had thrown over youthful radicalism for stuffy reaction and as a reformed radical was the darling of the establishment.

One of Byron's admirers was Karl Marx who, as reported by his daughter Eleanor, enjoyed and respected the poet but who also speculated that Byron's death at age 36 may have been fortunate in preventing his becoming a steaming reactionary if he had lived longer. For Byron was a flawed radical, his politics an unstable structure built on contradictory class foundations.

Shelley was one of many who regretfully noted Byron's excessive pride in his social rank. His class origins marred his personality and his politics.

Faced with mass campaigns for an extension of the vote to those without property, the now-wealthy Byron, despite his liberal intentions, could not help fretting over the safety of his government bonds. He wrote that "to be free with such men" as the labouring poor was like "being in bonds with felons". There were definite limits to reform. Property and rank, when too close to home, were inviolate.

Byron's loathing of pomposity, hypocrisy, tyranny and the unfettered scramble for riches often put him off-side with his own class which had a monopoly on these commodities. Yet his scepticism of establishment ideology often fell over into cynicism about the possibility of social change. An enlightened oligarchy was the best to hope for. If social change was to be despaired of Byron, for the sake of fame and fortune, was prepared to contain his more radical instincts, to trim his satirical assaults on authority and religion.

Women were also to be kept in their place. Unlike Shelley, Byron expected women to respect his genius, satisfy his lust and not pretend to intellectual abilities. Unplanned pregnancies were solved by banishing the mother (a servant girl) and child, or sending the child to a convent (his extra-marital daughter Allegra died there of neglect aged five).

Despite these defects, the satire of this nineteenth century male liberal aristocrat, if a little curtailed, still inflamed conservative opinion ("impiously railing against his God, madly and meanly disloyal to his Sovereign and his country") and endeared him to his later working-class readers.

Byron's verse is highly entertaining and accessible, and indignantly libertarian. The targets of his satirical wit lie splendidly trapped and preserved in polysyllabic rhyme.

If only Grosskurth's biography was half as good. The blizzard of minute detail she whips up about Byron's sexual affairs (which read like an extended supplement to Who magazine), quite obscures the substance of Byron's political affairs which were neither incidental nor marginal to his poetry.

Just as his Chartist readers loved this radical liberal's stinging venom against the port-and-privilege parasites of his day, so can we value Byron in ours.