'Becoming Manfred': Tchaikovsky and Byron

by David Perkins
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s festival overture, The Year 1812, (popularly known as the 1812 Overture), is probably one of his most famous works. Tchaikovsky didn’t think much of it as it was a commission piece to open the All-Russian Arts and Industry Exhibition. “It is impossible to set about without repugnance music that is destined for the glorification of something that delights me not at all,” he grumbled. To his patron he wrote, “The Overture will be very loud and noisy…I wrote it without any warm and loving feelings, and consequently it will probably be lacking in artistic merit.” The Year 1812, much to Tchaikovsky’s chagrin, was a great success—and continues to be. But it also demonstrates his uncanny facility as a musical craftsman, able to create music that stirs human emotions, even if his heart was not in it.

Tchaikovsky in 1884

Tchaikovsky in 1884


His letters and his diaries reveal that the works he was most proud of were those pieces that deeply engaged his emotions, which evoked those “warm and loving feelings.” This was true when it came to literature as well. He was a voracious reader: philosophy, poetry, novels, and plays. Fluent in many languages, he adored Pushkin, Dickens, Schiller, Dante, and Shakespeare; and even once considered writing an opera based on George Eliot’s Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story. In literature and in music it was imperative that something should stir his soul.
It is by the symphony, however, that composers are often measured, and Tchaikovsky’s six numbered symphonies place him among the world’s greatest. His first symphony, Winter Daydreams (or Winter Reveries), and his sixth symphony, the Pathétique, have made their way into being ranked among the 50 Greatest Symphonies  according to Tom Service, music critic for The Guardian. No one has ever claimed that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are devoid of emotion. His first symphony was a brave act for a young composer in Russia. It wreaked havoc on his health, as he attempted to reconcile his unique Russian vision to the form while yet striving to be true to his academic conservatory training. His second and third symphonies developed his skills and expanded that vision. His fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies are regarded as masterpieces of the Romantic genre.
 
Manfred
There is an outlier among those numbered symphonies, however. His bewitching and magnificent Manfred Symphony, based on Lord Byron’s poem, was created between his Symphony No. 4, which arguably propelled him into the pantheon of great symphonists, and his Symphony No. 5, which confirmed that standing.
The idea for a symphony based on Byron’s poem was initially proposed to him in 1882 by his friend and fellow composer Mily Balakirev. Tchaikovsky was not inspired by the detailed outline Balakirev proposed, saying it left him “cold,” and furthermore “when the heart and imagination are not warmed, it is hardly worth setting about composing.” He also admitted that the shadow of Schumann’s Manfred, which he admired greatly, might be an undue influence. The matter rested for two years until they met again in Saint Petersburg. Balakirev had been of tremendous inspiration, help, and influence to Tchaikovsky in the composition and revision of the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, and Tchaikovsky trusted his musical judgment. It would seem, up until this point, that Tchaikovsky had not actually read Byron’s poem and had only encountered the idea of it through Schumann and through Balakirev’s outlines but he was at last convinced to reconsider it, and promised to purchase a copy to read as “I will soon be in the Alpine mountains, where the conditions for successfully portraying Manfred in music will be very good, were it not for the fact that I am going to visit a friend who is gravely ill.”
Bierstadt Albert Staubbach Falls Switzerland 1865

Bierstadt Albert Staubbach Falls, Switzerland 1865


 
The “friend” was actually more than a friend; he was an important pivotal person in Tchaikovsky’s emotional life, the talented young violinist, Iosef (Joseph) Kotek. Kotek had studied music theory and composition under Tchaikovsky, and following graduation had become resident violinist in the household of the extremely wealthy widow, the now famous Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who ultimately became Tchaikovsky’s patron. Kotek, who also adored Tchaikovsky’s music, was instrumental in acquainting her to Tchaikovsky’s music. Beyond that, Tchaikovsky consulted Kotek’s expertise on the violin and they worked together often on various works (Tchaikovsky dedicated his Valse-Scherzo, Op.34 for violin and orchestra to him). Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s famous violin concerto was brought into being at the suggestion of and collaboration with Kotek. Tchaikovsky considered dedicating the concerto to him—but demurred, as he was afraid it would stir up gossip. Gossip, because their noticeably very close relationship might have been interpreted as not entirely professional—which it wasn’t. For a time, he was deeply infatuated, and as he confessed only to his brothers, “I am in love, as I haven’t been for a long time…I love him endlessly…” and “I love him very, very much. He is kind and has a tender heart.” This love it seems was never physical, their age differences making the idea disgusting to Tchaikovsky, but the emotion was deep and genuine—and Tchaikovsky, with the text of Manfred in hand, went to Davos, Switzerland among the snow-capped Alpine peaks to see Kotek, who was dying from tuberculosis.
Iosef Kotek and Tchaikovsky, 1877

Iosef Kotek and Tchaikovsky, 1877


 
In the third volume of David Brown’s massive biographical Tchaikovsky tetralogy, he somewhat coyly remarks, “Something occurred to revive the Manfred project. Exactly what we will probably never know, though we may guess.” It would seem simple, however. Tchaikovsky took “great pleasure in the wild landscape” during this visit, as he reported, and it was at Davos in the company of Kotek where he read Manfred in full. This encounter with his hopelessly ill and cherished friend; the eerie, harsh magnificence of the scenery; and the rueful torment of Byron’s Manfred over the death of Astarte, all moved Tchaikovsky to begin to shape the symphony in his mind. The idea of a tortured hero, longing for oblivion and consumed by lost love and an unnamable sin, had taken hold and flowered in the thin air of Davos, and in the rich soil of Tchaikovsky’s emotional imagination.
Davos Platz 1880

Davos Platz 1880


 
On his return to Russia and in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck, he said, “In April I began to make sketches for a program symphony on the theme of Byron’s Manfred…I am so captivated… [It] requires tremendous effort and labour from me as it is a most complicated and serious assignment.” And later on in the process, Manfred “happens to have such a tragic character that occasionally I become somewhat of a Manfred myself…I am having to squeeze every last drop of effort from myself…[I] am using up all my strength and as a result, I am absolutely exhausted. Never before have I expended such labour and exertion as on the symphony I am now writing.”

“And loved each other as we should not love…”

Manfred, Act I, Scene 2

Two other earlier programmatic works by Tchaikovsky influenced by literature should be noted here—along with the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet, there is his other famous orchestral fantasia, Francesca da Rimini, based on Canto V of the Inferno from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Both of these works, along with Manfred, are intensely emotional—is there any other love theme in music more famous than that found in Romeo and Juliet? And love is the subject of all three, but it is, more to the point, forbidden love, proscribed love, that intensifies the anguish, that magnifies the tragedy.
Romeo and Juliet were separated by the warring families, Francesca and Paolo’s love forbidden by Francesca’s marriage to Paolo’s brother. It is also notable that Romeo and Juliet was composed around the time that another former love of Tchaikovsky, Eduard Zak (Sach), a former student, committed suicide. It is plain that the incestuous love hinted at in Manfred, paralleled by Byron’s own similar shocking scandal, is yet another form of that “forbidden” love, “as we should not love.” These elements all sound not only notes of pain and sorrow, but notes of great soaring beauty as well.
Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini are shorter works, fantasies in one movement, but Manfred is a full-fledged symphony—and not only that, but Tchaikovsky’s largest purely orchestral work, calling for a prodigious and virtuosic orchestra. Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony is epic in scope, exploring the heights and the depths of the theme of tragic love—and yet another form of love that in society, “dare not speak its name.”
Although it was Balakirev’s persistence and his detailed outlines that drew Tchaikovsky to the work, it was Byron’s poem itself and the circumstances under which it was read that propelled Tchaikovsky into undertaking the symphony, and Tchaikovsky developed his own scheme for the work (later apologizing to Balakirev for taking his own path). He followed his heart into the work, and wrote to his friend, the Russian soprano Emiliya Pavlovskaya, “I had been for a long time planning to write a symphony on the subject of Manfred…and became so carried away, as often happens, that I could not stop. The symphony has come out enormous, serious, and difficult; it is absorbing all my time and sometimes wearying in the extreme, but an inner voice tells me that I am not labouring in vain and that this will perhaps be the best of my symphonic compositions.”

John Martin Manfred and the Witch of the Alps. 1837. The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

John Martin Manfred and the Witch of the Alps. 1837. The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester


 
Manfred’s three acts are divided into four movements, and Tchaikovsky interpreted the poem not in a strict incident-by-incident fashion, but as an emotional landscape as he also did with Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini. Some have indeed called it more of a tone poem in four movements rather than a symphony, although all the characteristic building blocks of a symphony are in full force, filtered through Tchaikovsky’s own unique compositional skills. The critic John Warrack called it “one of the great programme symphonies of the nineteenth century.” One can see Tchaikovsky’s translation of Byron’s poem in the four prefaces he wrote for each movement:

I. Lento lugubure:
Manfred wanders in the Alps. Wearied by the fatal questions of existence, tormented by hopeless longings and the memory of past crimes, he suffers terrible spiritual yearnings. He has delved into the occult sciences and commands the mighty powers of darkness, but neither they nor anything in this world can give him the forgetfulness to which alone he vainly aspires. The memory of the lost Astarte, once passionately loved by him, gnaws at his heart, and there is neither limit nor end to Manfred’s despair.

II. Vivace con spirito:
The Alpine Fairy appears to Manfred beneath the rainbow of a waterfall.

III. Andante con moto:
Pastorale. A picture of the simple, free and peaceful life of the mountain folk.

IV. Allegro con fuoco:
The subterranean palace of Arimanes. An infernal orgy. Appearance of Manfred in the midst of a bacchanal. Evocation and appearance of the spirit of Astarte, who pardons him. Death of Manfred.

One need not have read Manfred to enjoy the symphony—musically the symphony stands on its own—however, knowledge of the poem enhances it immeasurably. The listener enters the landscape of despair at the very first notes of the first movement, the initial melody of the bass clarinet and three bassoons are joined by sorrowful, descending viola and cello. Immediately, the heart is engaged in Manfred’s anguish. It is a movement haunted by gloom and portrays not only Manfred’s travail, but his strength as well as he struggles onward with the burden of his pain, visited by the recurring, spectral, and lovely memory of Astarte.
 
Tchaikovsky’s famous Swan Lake ballet precedes Manfred by a decade; his ballets, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker are in the future, but the second movement of the symphony is in the best tradition of all three, full of all the magical touches endemic to his ballet skills, lightening the mood with its charming, eldritch sorcery as the Alpine Fairy (Byron’s “Witch”) makes her kaleidoscope appearance beneath the rainbow of a waterfall—and unable to relieve Manfred’s agony, disappears finally in a high skittering flurry of violins and harp.
The Alpine scenery is the setting for the third movement, as Manfred seeks respite in the beauty of his surroundings and from the free and simple life of the environment’s habitants, “My soul would drink those echoes,” and

Oh, that I were
The viewless spirit of a lovely sound,
A living voice, a breathing harmony
A bodiless enjoyment—born and dying
With the blest tone which made me!

His desire is in vain, as once again, the memory of Astarte returns along with the ferocity of his tortured passion, and discovering he will find no solace here, the initially pleasant pastoral themes fade as an echo into a melancholy retreat.
Many critics, including Tchaikovsky himself, have erroneously stated that the last movement is the weakest. Multiple hearings in the light of Byron’s poem belie that assessment. The longest of the four movements—as long as Romeo and Juliet, almost as long as Francesca da Rimini—it covers many elements and has much to say as it conjures up not only an orgiastic bacchanal in the palace of Arimanes, it directs itself to the universal themes of forgiveness, transfiguration, mortality, and death. And here, again, Tchaikovsky devotes himself not to the letter of the poem, but its spirit, the landscape of Manfred’s soul. Tchaikovsky portrays the evil palace of Arimanes in a dark, feverishly driving and ultimately raucous (but delicious) fugue. Manfred appears and appeals again to Astarte, her achingly sweet theme finally promises him deliverance from the agony of his tortured mortality in soaring strings and double harp.

Tis over—my dull eyes can fix thee not;
But all things swim around me, and the earth
Heaves as it were beneath me. Fare thee well—

Manfred’s dying moments are signified by announcing tympani, the full orchestra rising beneath him, lifting and delivering his battered spirit toward transcendence and transfiguration—and release, the moment of Manfred’s death, proclaimed with immense and powerful, towering chords in the organ, followed by a solemn orchestral postlude, a dying fall into peace.
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The Manfred Symphony is a sublime tribute to Byron’s hero—filled with passion and insight and emotional daring, indeed one of the greatest program symphonies of the nineteenth, or any other century. Tchaikovsky was initially very satisfied, and then, as was all too often his wont, it fell out of his favour, and he declared that he would destroy it all save the first movement. Tchaikovsky was always his own harshest critic and all too often wrong in his severe self-assessments—but the symphony has thankfully survived. For many long years the Manfred Symphony was rarely performed—part of those reasons being its length and difficulty. In the last few decades however, it has been rediscovered by conductors and orchestras to the delight of audiences worldwide. Enjoy it if you have the opportunity—but to fully savour this resplendent musical achievement, begin by rereading Manfred and follow the footsteps of Byron’s tragic hero as he wanders the Alps in search of the lovely, lost Astarte.
Iosef Kotek died, alone, in Davos shortly after Tchaikovsky finished composing Manfred. A year and a half later, Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary, “Kotek’s letters. Tears.”

Tuberculosis sanitarium in Davos, 1890s

Tuberculosis sanitarium in Davos, 1890s


 
Sources
“Tchaikovsky Research.” Edited by Brett Langston, Tchaikovsky Research, www.tchaikovsky-research.net/.
Wiley, Roland John. Tchaikovsky (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (New York: Schirmer Books/Macmillan, 1991).
Warrack, John. Tchaikovsky (London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973).
Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky Through Others’ Eyes (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999).
Kearney, Leslie. Tchaikovsky and His World (Princeton, New Jersey; Princeton University Press, 1998).
Brown, David, Tchaikovsky: The Years of Wandering, 1878-1885, Volume III (New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1986).
 
David M. Perkins is an amateur Tchaikovsky scholar, and a retired book David M. Perkinspublishing executive, formerly with Oxford University Press (USA), the University of Illinois Press, and Georgetown University Press. He has had many hundreds of book reviews, some various articles, essays, and poetry published hither and yon; and he is owned by a blue-point Siamese cat named Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (“Mr. Petes”).

David Bowie and Romanticism

By Matthew Sangster, Emily Bernhard Jackson, Joanna Taylor and Beatrice Turner
 
In thinking about the developments of the Romantic period, scholars often place a great deal of emphasis on examining works’ receptions around the time of their original composition or publication. However, in re-inscribing the importance of Romantic-period developments, it is important to acknowledge the continuing power that Romantic authors and works exert in the present, where they continue to foster moments of inspiration, re-engagement and reconfiguration. As the Wordsworth Trust’s ongoing work demonstrates, Romanticism is in many respects a movement that continues to happen, shaping the ways in which we think about nature, consciousness, art and selfhood. While the ideas developed by writers like William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Jane Austen and John Clare have been altered and modified in the centuries since their deaths, their influences linger on in modern art in diffuse but potent manners.
David-Bowie_Chicago_2002-08-08_photoby_Adam-Bielawski
Our panel at the British Association for Romantic Studies conference sought to explore these enduring patterns of influence by focusing on an artist who seemed to us to be both powerfully inspired by elements of Romanticism and capable of realising new aspects of its potential. If the rock stars of the sixties presented themselves in manners that were often unreconstructedly Romantic, David Bowie offered a series of self-aware alternatives to this model, challenging many of its underlying assumptions about masculinity, sexuality, genius, aesthetics and performance. His oeuvre engages with a number of common Romantic-period themes – including desire, drugs, innocence, space, death, identity and the nature of childhood – but it also pushes forward in manners that iterate on, improve and sometimes reject previous Romantic conceptions. Through examining this multifaceted and self-consciously constructed artist and his works, we sought to consider how Romantic-period modes of making art and selves constitute a living tradition that later artists have drawn upon and challenged in their seeking to improve our ways of being, seeing and understanding.
 
The accounts below give a sense of the angles from which each of us approached Bowie’s engagements with Romanticism.
 
Beatrice Turner
Hunky Dory (1971) is a record in which things are everything but, voiced from the caustic perspective of the kids who have been left, as ‘Changes’ has it, ‘up to our necks in it’ by their parents’ generation. At its centre, however, is ‘Kooks’, a track which I’ve always found far more compelling than it seemed to deserve, and a strange choice to place at the album’s heart. Set against the lyrical cynicism and extravagant orchestrations of ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ or ‘Life on Mars’, or the visionary anti-prophecy of ‘Quicksand’, ‘Kooks’’ simple, jaunty arrangement and twee sentimental parental address feels wilfully naïve, at odds with the rest of the album’s grim sense of history unfolding.
In my paper, I tried to resolve this apparent contradiction in tone by suggesting that we understand ‘Kooks’ as belonging to the same Romantic lineage as poems like Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, or Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’, or the Immortality Ode. These are Romantic poems in which a ‘real’ child is overinscribed by the adult speaker as an idealised figure, preserved in eternal innocence and as a creative potential by its seclusion from formal education, society, the city, or any other form of experience that might taint its intuitive connection to nature. If you know the song, perhaps you might agree with me that the adult speaker’s feelings in those poems belong to the same order as ‘Kooks’, warning that ‘If you ever have to go to school ǀ Remember how they messed up this old fool’, and its gently anarchic suggestion, ‘If the homework brings you down ǀ Then we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown.’
David_Bowie_-_TopPop_1974_11
With its appeal to the holding-off of adult experience and induction into the social order, ‘Kooks’ imagines Bowie’s baby son as the same Romantic child, who, as Wordsworth says, comes ‘trailing clouds of glory’ before adulthood regretfully sets in, and who, as Coleridge says, can read in nature the ‘eternal language’ of God. This image of the child, and the adult speaker who doesn’t want him to grow up, gives force to Bowie’s surrounding cast of angry, knowing adolescents and their rejection of Romantic innocence. While the Blakean awakening into nightmare reality of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ (‘look out the window, what do I see? ǀ a crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me’) represents one of the album’s many authentic moments of anger, ‘Kooks’ ventriloquises a reactionary adult incursion into teenaged self-awakening that renders all the sharper the rest of the album’s call to ‘wake up, sleepyhead’. The adult speaker, who repeatedly entreats his baby son to ‘stay’ in the adult lovers’ ‘story’, can’t or won’t see that the adolescent generation who’ve inherited his world have far more urgent concerns than simply ‘driving their mamas and papas insane’, as the bathetic chorus of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ has it. Like the children, biological and literary, of the first Romantic authors, I think Bowie understood himself and his generation at this moment as poised finely on the cusp of a new world that would turn away from Romantic optimism in the post-1960s comedown to face painful knowledge instead.
 
Emily Bernhard Jackson
Writing about David Bowie’s habit of slipping in and out of different personae over the course of his career, David Buckley stated that ‘before Bowie…nobody had ever…conceived of his or her career as the adoption of a succession of masks and alter egos.’ But as Romanticists know, someone had: Lord Byron. My paper explored the connections between the ways in which Byron and Bowie stretch the concept of identity.
 

 
In the video for his 1984 song ‘Jazzin’ for Blue Jean’, Bowie gestures backward to Byron by donning a costume that obviously draws on Thomas Phillips’ portrait of the poet in Albanian dress.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips. Picture courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips. Picture courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery.


However, it is possible to read Bowie’s entire career – certainly between 1972 and 1983, and possibly later – as a continuation of Byron’s exploration of the concept of self, and as building on the poet’s eventual conclusion that there was no such thing as a single or stable ‘self.’
For one thing, both men had no trouble seeing, and announcing, that there was a difference between the poet or singer and his productions. While Byron was fully complicit in spreading a manufactured version of himself, for instance demanding alterations to portraits he found unflattering, Bowie created public selves that could possibly be taken as real as an acknowledgement of fundamental falseness involved in being onstage. At the same time, however, both men smeared the line between their fictional and actual selves, as well as their selves and their characters, suggesting through doing so that it is a mistake to think of the self as a single entity.
Bowie_1983_serious_moonlight
Where Bowie appears to build on Byron is in extending Byron’s conception of the self as multiple (expressed most clearly in Don Juan) out of multiplicity and into absence. For Bowie, during the period a persona exists, it is the self: when Bowie assumes a persona, there does not seem to be any other person underneath. Interestingly, Byron himself suggests something similar in The Vision of Judgement, although he does not explore the idea in any depth. It took a hundred-and-fifty years for David Bowie to live its truth.
 
Joanna Taylor
The Romantic period witnessed a profound shift in understandings about lived experiences of everyday spaces. This change was attributable to a number of factors, not least – as Norbert Lennartz points out – political events in France and enclosure in Britain. For writers like the Wordsworths, Charlotte Smith, John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, liberty depended upon the knowledge of the limits which contained the self.
It was Coleridge, though, who thought about this relationship most extensively. In Biographia Literaria, that tension was central to his conceptions of selfhood and poetic creation. He declared that ‘[w]here the spirit of a man is not filled with the consciousness of freedom (were it only from its restlessness, as of one still struggling in bondage) all spiritual intercourse is interrupted, not only with others, but even with himself’. Coleridge suggests that knowledge of freedom can only exist with an awareness of ‘bondage’. The boundaries themselves, though, are not self-evident; what makes the ‘spirit of man’ aware of his entrapment is his struggles against it. It is his ‘restlessness’, or what elsewhere Coleridge would call ‘motion’, that elucidates the connection between containment and expansion. In my paper, I suggested that David Bowie’s music enacts restlessness with a similar aim; that is, to elucidate a spatial oddity whereby close confinement can – and in Bowie’s corpus usually does – result in freedom.
David_Bowie_1976
In my reading, Bowie emerges as an artist who self-consciously engaged and played with Romantic spatial strategies. Tracks from ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘Blackstar’ make clear that Bowie considered questions about expansion, containment and their effect on the self throughout his career. ‘Space Oddity’, for instance, mingles the fictional spatial narrative with the listener’s experience of the song as a spatial construct, and immerses the listener in the dialectics of containment and expansion that ‘Space Oddity’ both describes and enacts. The oddity is both Major Tom’s experience of outer space, and the strange way that the song uses and engages with spaces. This oddness is inherited from Romantic writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth – but it might also offer us new ways through which to understand Romantic spatialities.
 
Matthew Sangster
The Romantic period saw the reification of the modern idea of the artist, as poets brought their own identities to the centre of their works by making heightened claims for the special nature and implications of their sensibilities. In no previous era would it have been possible to conceive of an epic poem whose central subject was the ‘growth of a poet’s mind’. In defining powerfully what an artist should be – albeit in various and often conflicting manners – the poets of the early nineteenth century and the Victorians who synthesised their ideas created kinds of cultural authority that served powerfully to legitimate their heirs, but which also imposed considerable obligations upon them.
 
My paper explored the ways in which David Bowie engaged with the legacy of the heroic Romantic artist by showing it simultaneously to be absolutely ersatz and absolutely true. His work built on one of the Romantic period’s unquestionably great legacies – the radical expansion of the boundaries of representation in literature – by including previously marginalised figures, modelling new kinds of language and defending the value of oft-neglected subjectivities. As he put it in ‘Changes’, ‘These children that you spit on/ As they try to change their worlds/ They’re immune to your consultations/ They’re quite aware of what they’re going through’. The affordances of modern mass media allowed Bowie to reach audiences on a scale that was almost unimaginable in the Romantic period, performing to thousands in theatres and projecting himself to millions through carefully-designed records and TV appearances that deliberately distorted the line between stagecraft and self. As Shelley once wrote enviously of Byron, Bowie’s representations ‘touched a chord to which a million hearts responded’.
David Bowie en "Rock in Chile"
However, Bowie was deeply suspicious of another key Romantic paradigm: that of the visionary artist’s transcendent capacity for communication. For Bowie, as he worked through a series of characters and selves compromised by recognisably Romantic maladies, such as self-love, madness and addiction, the artist was simultaneously a visionary and a fraud. He was fully capable of ‘play[ing] the wild mutation as a rock & roll star’, but in showing this to be play, albeit of a serious kind, he argued implicitly for more fluid notions of genius that recognised the roles played by change, chance and foolishness. Over the course of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, it becomes clear that the title character is at least in part a terrible person, self-absorbed and self-regarding. Crucially, however, this does not mean that Ziggy’s project is necessarily a failure. What matters is not so much the artist himself, but the inspiration that other people draw from him and build upon. What’s reported of the Starman’s ‘hazy cosmic jive’ is pretty vague and garbled; what’s important is how his transmission makes his listeners feel, creating a community united for a moment in the ecstasy of shared excitement. Bowie shows both the medium and the message to be fallible, but their human fallibility is intrinsic to their effectiveness as a form of art that can mean something for others, saying with certitude, ‘Oh no love, you’re not alone.’
 
This post arose from a panel at the recent British Association for Romantic Studies  ‘Romantic Improvement’ conference, held at the University of York.

‘’Huge and blackbearded and ferocious’’: Byron’’s manservant Tita Falcieri

by Claudia Oliver

If there is one thing I have learnt about my ancestor Giovanni Battista Falcieri, as I have worked on my biography of him and the film script that seeks to bring his story to life, it is that he was an absolute nightmare to live with.
He had the Italian temperament, of that there is no doubt. He was also by trade a gondolier, a group described by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Review in the 1820s as “noisy fellows, but a fine, faithful, violent race”. He certainly lived up to the reputation, and spent his life working for some equally noisy literary fellows – Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, author of a scandalous Gothic novel, the outspoken atheist Percy Bysshe Shelley, and – most famously – Lord Byron. Tita (as he was known) was just 19 when he began his valeting career in his native Venice, working for Matthew Gregory Lewis. In Tita, ‘Monk Lewis’ had finally resolved a long-standing problem with finding reliable and trustworthy staff. One of Lewis’ travelling companions, Mary-Anne Finlason, recalled how enamoured Lewis seemed by this new servant:

For this man he had a great respect, and used to relate a romantic adventure which first introduced them to each other. I believe it had reference to an encounter with banditti, when Lewis was travelling in Italy, from whom Tita had aided his escape.

 

Matthew 'Monk' Lewis, by Henry William Pickersgill, National Portrait Gallery, London

Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, by Henry William Pickersgill, National Portrait Gallery, London

When Lewis died at sea on the way back from Jamaica, seven months after this recollection, one of his last acts was to write his will and ensure the payment of Tita’s wages. Tita first met Byron at La Mira in 1817, whilst in Lewis’ employ, although he wasn’t to work for the poet for another fourteen months. Tita then became Byron’s bodyguard, as the poet already had a valet, William Fletcher. Tita certainly took his duties seriously sticking close by his master’s side, resplendent in Byron’s special livery:

A cocked hat with a plume of feathers, scarlet coat, richly embroidered with gold lace; pantaloons, also similarly embroidered; Hessian boots, with tassels; sword and sash completed his equipment when out on special occasions in attendance of his Lordship.

 Tita 2
Lord Byron did run a rather disorganised household, that much is evident. Richard Hoppner, the Venice Consul, described Byron as being “culpably lenient” with his staff and that “he rather bantered with them than spoke seriously to them”. When they were in Venice, Tita swam with Byron in the Grand Canal, they rode out together on horseback, and he was responsible for ferrying Byron to and from his various amorous liaisons, of which there were many. Bad habits set in early. Byron bailed Tita out each time he came up against the authorities, paying his fines, and a generous sum to allow him to avoid conscription in Venice. Later still, he paid his father an annuity to compensate him for Tita leaving Venice and abandoning the family business at the Palazzo Mocenigo, where he and his brothers were all gondoliers.

Byron Grasmere

Lord Byron, by Richard Westall, on show at Grasmere

He clearly had a forbidding demeanour: Byron described him as “huge and blackbearded and ferocious in appearance“, though insisted he was, nonetheless, “the gentlest of men.” Shelley agreed, describing him as “the most good-natured looking fellow I ever saw”, and Mary Shelley concurred that he was “an excellent fellow, faithful, courageous, and daring”. But despite his apparent good nature, Tita still managed to get himself arrested on at least three separate occasions while in Byron’s service – for being armed, for arguing with the Austrian guard who then ruled Venice and indeed much of Italy, and roughing up the occasional member of the military personnel. Percy Bysshe Shelley described how he had “stabbed two or three people” and William Ferguson Beatson Laurie, who later met Tita at the India Office, wrote a short memoir of him in the 1870s, which included this recollection:

On one occasion, in Venice, when some police came to take him up for some offence, he looked at them and smiled, telling them they had better not venture. They attempted to take him, and he threw three of them into the street, while the other four took to their heels. The Commandant of Police went to Byron, and Byron went to the Grand Duke. His Highness remarked that it would be ‘all right’, as the men ‘were being attended to in hospital!

The most serious incident occurred in Pisa, in March 1822. A garrison Sergeant Major of the Tuscan Royal Light Horse named Stefano Masi had argued with Byron and his friends whilst out in the street. Shortly afterwards, Masi was attacked and ‘pitchforked’ by one of Byron’s servants – although as it later transpired Tita was not the culprit. Edward Williams, who was to drown with Percy Shelley and Charles Vivian at the Bay of Spezia, claimed that Tita was ‘innocent, but “mad enough to go into court armed with a stiletto and a brace of pistols…” He was, of course, promptly imprisoned. Mary Shelley takes up the story:

The officer in question [Masi] has not died which is fortunate. However, our imprisoned servants have been kept a fortnight on jail allowance without being allowed to see any friend, not even their wives, or to receive any assistance, or even a change of linen from their friends. Even so Lord Byron has sent them down a 12 course dinner to share amongst their fellow prisoners, their only companions.

Once released from prison, Tita decamped to Lerici for several months where he worked for the Shelleys and their entourage. Once Tita had safely arrived, Shelley reported excitedly to Byron on 3rd May: “I ought to tell you Tita is arrived with Mr. Dawkins’ passport and has reassumed his marine life. He seems as happy as a bird just let loose from a cage.”
After Shelley’s death, Tita accompanied Byron to Missolonghi, where Byron died in Tita’s arms in April 1824. As Count Pietro described it:

At four o’clock, after this consultation of his physicians, [Byron] seemed to be aware of his approaching end. I think this was the exact time, and not before. Dr Millingen, Fletcher, and Tita were round his bed. The two first could not contain their tears, and walked out of the room. Tita also wept, but he could not retire, as Byron had hold of his hand; but he turned away his face. Byron looked at him steadily, and said, half smiling, in Italian—Oh questa è una bella scena.

Tita later wrote to his parents “it has been a great sorrow for me to lose such a good Master who was to me everything I held dearest in the world.”
Tita accompanied Byron’s body back to England aboard the Florida, sleeping with the coffin – faithful bodyguard to the very last. He also followed the funeral cortege to the tomb at St Mary Magdalene, close by Newstead Abbey, the ancestral Byron home.
Just over a year later, still in England and working for John Hobhouse, one of Byron’s closest friends, Tita decided to return to Greece He joined Pietro Gamba, whom he’d met while working for Byron, and remained in Greece until the close of the War of Independence in 1828, when he returned to England and joined up briefly with what remained of Byron’s old household in London.
From 1832 to 1848, Tita lived in the Chiltern Vale in Buckinghamshire, serving in the household of Benjamin Disraeli’s parents. But despite his advancing years, he still managed to get himself into scrapes: he was hauled in front of magistrates, accused of attacking one of the local lads in the village (of which he was found innocent) and quarrelled with staff who were then sacked. He almost eloped with one lady’s maid and secretly married another whilst still in service, and he was well known for taking impromptu holidays down to London to visit old friends. Amazingly enough, the D’Israelis even put off house guests one Christmas so Tita could ‘enjoy the holidays’.
Throughout his career Tita always regarded himself as an ‘obedient, faithful servant’, even though the evidence suggests he was rather negligent of the niceties required of an effective valet, and rather managed his masters than the other way round. He spent nearly 30 years in the service of others – six years with Byron, six or so with Lewis, Shelley, Hobhouse and others, and sixteen with the D’Israeli family. After this he turned his back on valeting, and spent the last twenty six years of his life at the Board of Control, later the India Office.
By the time he died, he had been immortalised in literary works great and small. Firstly by Byron as ‘Beppo’ and subsequently in Don Juan. Then as himself in Samuel Rogers’ poem ‘Italy’, inspired by his meeting with Byron at Bologna, and then by Disraeli as the hero’s Italian valet in his autobiographical novel Contarini Fleming of 1832. And Dizzy’s father also mentions him in a revised edition of Curiosities of Literature, and he appears here and there in many more literary works besides. When he died, his passing was reported around the world. William F B Laurie, a colleague of Tita’s at the India Office and author of Sketches of Some Distinguished Anglo-Indians, first published in 1875, drew on his chapter on Tita for the columns of the Times by way of an obituary. He reminisced over the last months of his life, saying that with Tita’s passing there disappeared “a most interesting relic of the Byronic legends”. He continued:

During what seemed his convalescence, Falcieri occasionally hobbled down to the India Office, where I had a conversation with him a month before he died. The old fire seemed to be hovering about his eye; and I could not help thinking of ‘Tita’ as one of the few men in London who connected the past romantic and poetical age with the distracting, too-fast, and ever busy present.

Claudia Oliver is a writer and fashion designer and currently lives in Manchester. Claudia’s interest in Lord Byron began when she discovered her great-great-great-grandfather was his gondolier and bodyguard Tita Falcieri. She published her biography of his life in 2014 and a revision is due out in 2017. She has contributed to various publications and has appeared on TV and radio in connection with her research. As well as running her own business, Claudia now works at Newstead Abbey and continues to research and write about her genealogy. She is currently working on a film script about Tita’s life.Claudia

'The more I study, the more insatiable do I feel my genius for it to be'’: Ada Lovelace and her mother Annabella Byron

by Eleanor Fitzsimons
‘Never was a bridegroom less in haste’. This worrisome observation was noted down by politician and diarist John Cob Hobhouse as he accompanied his dear friend George Gordon Byron on a convoluted journey to Seaham Hall in County Durham. Once there, Hobhouse, who had known Byron since both were students at Trinity College, Cambridge, witnessed the marriage of his friend to Annabella Milbanke at eleven o’clock in the morning on 2 January 1815.
 

Seaham Hall

Seaham Hall


 
Although his bride had expressed a preference for a lavish wedding, Byron insisted on a private ceremony; the only people present besides the bridal couple and Hobhouse, in his capacity as Byron’s groomsman, were Annabella’s parents, her governess, and two members of the clergy. In his journal, Hobhouse also noted that although he expressed uncertainty about the strength of his love for Annabella, Byron insisted their marriage would provide ‘the surest road to happiness’. It did not.
 
The newly-weds, sketched by Byron's former lover, Lady Caroline Lamb

The newly-weds, sketched by Byron’s former lover, Lady Caroline Lamb


 
Ever since he had first met her, Byron had been intrigued by his ‘Princess of Parallelograms’. When Sir Ralph Milbanke, 6th Baronet, and his wife, the Hon. Judith Noel, realised that their daughter Anne Isabella Milbanke, known affectionately as Annabella, had an exceptional gift for mathematics, they had engaged former Cambridge fellow, and tutor in mathematics at Jesus College, William Frend, to oversee her education. An enlightened man with stellar credentials, Frend had also tutored Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and Robert Malthus. Under his supervision, Annabella studied philosophy and mathematics to an advanced level, and also demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude for astronomy.
 
annabella-byron

Annabella Byron


 
Although she was exceptionally scholarly, she was far from dull and she absolutely loved to dance. In 1810, aged eighteen, Annabella attended her first London season, attracting several eligible suitors as she swirled around the most fashionable ballrooms in the capital. Two years later, she was introduced to Byron, who, at twenty-four, was already celebrated as an accomplished poet. Although she rejected his first proposal of marriage, Annabella was captivated by the notion of taming Byron’s turbulent nature. She accepted his second proposal in 1814.
 
Difficulties in their marriage arose almost immediately. As Annabella struggled through an early pregnancy, she was beset by worries arising from her husband’s dark moods, heavy drinking and casual infidelity. Augusta Ada, the couple’s only child, was born on 10 December 1815, but her parent’s marriage survived for just six weeks more. In January 1816, Lady Byron, at her husband’s request it seems, fled with her new-born daughter back to her family home. This rash act gave rise to widespread speculation. By leaving her husband, she was inviting notoriety. Since a divorce would almost certainly not be granted, she was also destroying any chance of a happy marriage in the future. Also, she stood to lose custody of Ada, since Byron, as her father, had sole rights to his daughter.
 
On 8 February 1816, a remorseful Byron wrote to his estranged wife:

I still cling to the wreck of my hopes, before they sink forever. Were you, then, never happy with me? Did you never at any time or times express yourself so? Have no marks of affection of the warmest and most reciprocal attachment passed between us? or did in fact hardly a day go down without some such on one side, and generally on both?

 
In a letter to Irish poet Thomas Moore dated March 1816, he accepted responsibility for the failure of his marriage, writing: ‘I do not believe—that there ever was a better, or even a brighter, a kinder or a more amiable and agreeable being than Lady B’. Weeks later, having agreed to a legal separation amid rumours of a scandalous affair with his half-sister Augusta, he left for continental Europe, never to return. Although Byron never saw his daughter again, he assured his publisher, John Murray: ‘I have a great love for little Ada, and I look forward to her as the pillar of my old age, should I ever reach that desolate period, which I hope not’. He also sent her a locket containing a lock of his hair, and received in exchange a portrait of his little girl. Byron’s longing for Ada is expressed in the first stanza of the third canto of his narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!
Ada! sole daughter of my house and heart?
When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled,
And then we parted, – not as now we part,
But with a hope. – Awaking with a start,
The waters heave around me; and on high
The winds lift up their voices: I depart,
Whither I know not; but the hour’s gone by
When Albion’s lessening shores could grieve or glad mine eye.

 
Eight years later, Byron, still hopeful of reconciliation, told his confidante William Parry: ‘The prospect of retirement in England with my wife and Ada gives me an idea of happiness I have never experienced before’. His faithful servant Fletcher insisted that he died with words of affection for Annabella on his lips.
 
With help from her mother and a band of tutors and servants, Annabella took charge of Ada’s upbringing and education, filling her days with music lessons, mathematics and French, although poetry was excluded from the curriculum. Aged twelve, Ada, precocious and imaginative but prone to ill-health, drew up plans for a flying machine. At seventeen, she was introduced to Charles Babbage, Cambridge Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and founder of the Statistical Society. He invited her to inspect a small-scale version of the difference engine, a calculating machine he was working on at that time. Ada was fascinated. She began to exchange notes with Babbage discussing complex mathematical matters including his plans for an Analytical Engine. One such note, she signed ‘Your puzzle-mate’.
 
No longer required to oversee her daughter’s education, Annabella devoted her intellect to developing a radical new educational model. She held Harrow responsible for corrupting her husband and denounced ‘the vicious systems of our schools,’ adding: ‘Few have as much cause as I have to lament their effects’. In 1833, she founded Ealing Grove School for labouring-class boys, and she presided over it until 1852, instilling in its pupils skills that were practical as well as academic. Ada was drafted in regularly to teach and lessons included allotment schemes, carpentry, masonry, and the commercial principles of marketing garden produce. Annabella also attended the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, worked to improve slum conditions, and pioneered women’s rights. In 1852, she bought Red Lodge in Bristol and invited educationalist and social reformer Mary Carpenter to administer it as a reformatory for girls.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace


 
In 1835, when she was nineteen, Ada had married William King, later Earl of Lovelace, and their three children were born between 1836 and 1839. In 1841, she rekindled her passion for mathematics under the tutelage of Professor Augustus De Morgan of University College London. She also corresponded with leading mathematician and astronomer Mary Fairfax Somerville, the woman who had introduced her to Babbage. When she published her translation of Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s Sketch of the Analytical Engine in 1843, she included her own extensive notes, which contained the first ever algorithm detailing instructions for the very first computer programme. She also developed a passion for gambling but the mathematical model she formulated in an attempted to improve her chances of winning was a spectacular failure.
 
Ada Lovelace died of uterine cancer on 27 November 1852. She was just thirty-six years old. At her own request, she was buried beside the father she had never known at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.
 
byron-grave
 
Her mother Annabella died of breast cancer on 16 May 1860, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. We are grateful for Ada’s contribution to computing to this day. Since 2009, ‘Ada Lovelace Day’ has been commemorated on the second Tuesday of October in order to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths and ensure that women and girls can look to role models in these fields. Perhaps we should also remember Annabella and her input into her daughter’s education.
 
 
Further Reading:
Julia Markus, 2015: Lady Byron and Her Daughters (New York: W. W. Norton & Company)
Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1870: Lady Byron Vindicated
The British Library holds a set of letters from Ada Lovelace to Charles Babbage
Doris Langley Moore, 1977: Ada: Countess of Lovelace (London: John Murray)
Joan Baum, 1986: The Calculating Passion of Ada Byron (Archon Books)
Betty A. Toole, 1992: Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers (Mill Valley, CA: Strawberry Press).
 
Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher and writer who specialises in historical and current feminist issues. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin. In 2013 she was awarded the Keats-Shelley Essay Prize and was runner-up for the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize. Her work has been published in The Keats-Shelley Review, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, History Today and elsewhere. Her book Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women he Knew was published by Duckworth Overlook in October 2015. She is working on a new biography of Edith Nesbit for publication in 2018.
 
https://eafitzsimons.wordpress.com/
@EleanorFitz on Twitter

Byron and his women: Mad, bad and very dangerous to know

by Alexander Larman
In the (mercifully) final season of Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham, played with wooden heartiness by Hugh Bonneville, is convalescing after a spectacular moment of bloody vomiting. To aid him in his recuperation, he is shown leafing through a volume of Byron’s poetry. There is a jocular exchange in which Byron is said to have been ‘a great lover of wine’, and then an indulgent chuckle before it is announced ‘and women too’. This has for centuries been the accepted public face of Byron, that of a man who loved – ‘not wisely, but too well’. He loved liberty, life and literature, and made himself one of the most talked-about men of letters who ever lived.

Lord Byron, by Richard Westall, on show at Dove Cottage

Lord Byron, by Richard Westall, on show at Dove Cottage


 
The adjective ‘Byronic’ has entered the language in a way that the names of few other writers have, and is generally bestowed as a mark of approval. Many men, and not a few women, would regard being described thus as a badge of honour; it seems to convey dash and panache, coupled with a liberal political stance and peerless artistic achievement. The less savoury and more unfortunate aspects of Byron’s character – the often callous treatment towards his lovers; the violence of his mercurial temper; an attitude towards friends that alternated between reckless generosity and equally reckless dismissal – have not been ignored, but have become part of the Byronic myth. It is time to delve beneath the surface of the myth, and be prepared for what we may find there.
 
The greatest falsehood propagated about Byron is that he loved women. On the contrary, his attitude towards those in his life was mainly a mixture of contempt, violence and lordly dismissal. In addition to the innumerable chambermaids, maidservants and acolytes who were, in Byron’s own words, ‘tooled in a post-chaise- in a hackney coach – in a gondola – against a wall – in a court carriage- in a vis a vis — on a table — and under it’, he had a series of mutually destructive relationships with a variety of women. Some of them, such as Lady Caroline Lamb and Annabella Milbanke, he was initially drawn to because of their status and wealth but soon grew tired of. Others, including his most tragic mistress Claire Clairmont and his mother Catherine Gordon, were treated with disdain and even anger. The two exceptions were his final lover, Teresa Guiccioli, who at least received a small measure of compassion; and his half-sister Augusta Leigh, who weathered the slings and arrows of a scandalous and incestuous affair with a dignity and good humour that makes one wonder why she has been regarded by posterity as little more than a brainless dupe.
 
The answer, unfortunately, is a lazy misogyny that has permeated the Byron establishment for decades. In a hurry to put their beloved lordly poet on a pedestal, scholars, critics and general readers alike have been all too keen to overlook the obvious faults that he had as a man. When I decided to write an ‘anti-biography’ of sorts, it seemed obvious to examine his life through the prism of his relationships. I was not prepared at first for how distressing this would be, nor how revealing. Using as much of his lovers’ and friends’ correspondence as I could, I set out to paint a picture of those who were so much more than mere satellites orbiting an aloof star. I was equally keen for the voices of those around him to be heard, whether the precise, cold decisiveness of Annabella, the worried but fiercely loyal bustling of Catherine, the warm affection of Augusta and even the bewildered tenacity of his presumed illegitimate daughter Medora Leigh, product of incest and deceit.
Byron women
What is plain to see in the people I spent so much time with is how extraordinarily independent-minded and tough they all were. Catherine, abandoned by her feckless and debt-ridden husband, doggedly brought up her son to be worthy of the title that he inherited; Caroline took revenge on Byron by publishing a roman-à-clef that was nearly as scandalous as anything that her lordly lover ever wrote; the unlikely trio of Mary Shelley, Claire and Shelley travelled through Italy and Switzerland as free agents, casting off the shackles of respectability that they were expected to wear in favour of intellectual and sexual emancipation; and his daughter Ada Lovelace played a pioneering role in the development of computing science.
 
All nine of ‘Byron’s women’ in my book are a remarkable reminder, decades before universal suffrage and the concept of ‘women’s rights’, that intelligent and forthright women could and did expect to live lives considerably richer than merely serving as wives and dutiful producers of children at regular intervals. These lives might often have been difficult, or unconventional, or short, but they were seldom boring.
 
And what of ‘the Manager’ himself, as Annabella and Augusta nicknamed Byron? At times, as I wrote about his grotesque cruelty towards Annabella and Claire, I found myself loathing him so much that it was almost an ordeal to continue to chart his misdeeds. Yet I must confess that I have, like so many others, been at least been half-seduced by Byron. Like the women he associated with, he was a pioneer in thought and deed. Of all the Romantic poets, it is his writing that speaks most clearly to us today, as his hatred of ‘the cant’ will find a warm reception with readers who have themselves long since wearied of being told what they should think and feel. His personal legacy is undeniably a tarnished one, and many readers may have some sympathy with the manner in which Annabella attempted, without success, to bring up her daughter in ignorance of what her father represented. But there can be little doubt that Ada’s fierce protectiveness of him should find an echo in all but the most dogmatic of hearts. Unlike the Roman, I have come here neither to praise him, nor to bury him.
 
Nonetheless, as I consider, with some reluctance, the relationship between Byron, his romantic relationships and Downton Abbey, it is appropriate to remember the words of the Dowager Countess from an earlier episode: ‘The only poet peer I am familiar with is Lord Byron. And I presume we all know how that ended.’
 
Alexander Larman is the author of Byron’s Women, published in September 2016. He is a writer and biographer whose books include Blazing Star (2014), a life of Byron’s predecessor the Earl of Rochester and Restoration (2016), a social history of the year 1666. He writes Alex Larmanabout literature and culture for publications including the TLS, Observer, Times and Telegraph, and lives in Sussex with his wife Nancy and daughter Rose.

Diets of the Romantic poets

by Andrew McConnell Stott
Cartoon by Mike Barfield

The most notable meal in the history of English Romantic poetry took place on a Sunday afternoon in late December, 1817, as a garrulous group of men assembled at the London home of the artist, Benjamin Robert Haydon.
The guests included William Wordsworth, the essayist Charles Lamb, one of Haydon’s models, a gatecrasher, and a young unknown named John Keats. According to Haydon’s diary, it was a great success—a big boozy incitement full of laughter, argument, and discussion of topics as diverse as Homer, mathematics, and postage stamps—all in the shadow of the host’s enormous, jostling masterpiece, Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem, which hung on the dining-room wall.
Christ's_Entry_into_Jerusalem
But while Haydon’s “immortal dinner” is never to be forgotten as a high point of Romantic conviviality, there is no record of what the men actually ate. This is perhaps not so surprising given that Romantic poetry is largely unconcerned with food beyond the occasional ripening ear of corn or grapes dangling above the lyre. But even poets have to eat—so what do we know of their diets?
Perhaps it’s telling that the most influential Romanticist was also the least concerned with food. Wordsworth paid scant attention to gustatory matters, celebrating at his table, as in his work, simple country provisions such as fresh bread and milk, cheese, and “hasty pudding,” a gruel of oatmeal boiled in brine. He did, however, accept edible gifts from admirers, and was once given an entire calf’s head.

William Wordsworth by Richard Carruthers, Wordsworth Trust

William Wordsworth by Richard Carruthers, Wordsworth Trust

In contrast, William Blake loved to eat and his wife Catherine was an excellent cook. She also had a habit of serving him up with empty plates as a reminder that he needed to start bringing home some money. Habitually broke, Blake maintained temperate appetites, eating cold mutton and drinking pints of porter from the local pub. (He was particularly offended by wine glasses, which he considered an absurd affectation.) Blake also accepted gifts from admirers, and having once been given a bottle of walnut oil that he didn’t know what to do with, decided to drink it all in one go.

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, National Portrait Gallery, London

Two decades of opium addiction wreaked havoc on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s digestion (one of its chief side-effects was an awful, binding constipation). Subject to frequent and recurring “bowel attacks” that made him “weep and sweat and moan and scream,” he was off solid food for weeks at a time, and accordingly ate a lot of broth. He even dabbled in vegetarianism for a while, but believed it gave him insomnia. When he was well, Coleridge loved to go out to dinner, and his hosts never failed to find him the consummate companion—witty, erudite, able to recite long poems by heart, and with more natural intelligence than any writer of his generation—although he could also be a handful. At one dinner party, encouraged by the host, he smashed a window and several wine glasses, and started pitching the cutlery at the tumblers. Coleridge particularly loved apple dumplings.

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

Coleridge in 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London

If the first generation of Romantic poets had an unhappy relationship with food, the second were little better. Lord Byron, scarred by being a “fat school-boy,” had transformed himself into a “leguminous-eating Ascetic” by the time he went up to Cambridge in 1805. But the fat wanted him, and he spent his entire life dieting, caught up in a vomitous cycle of binge and purge, fasting all week and then gorging himself on “a pint of bucelles [Portuguese wine] and fish.” While convinced that he always felt better when he was a bit heavier, he was similarly certain that the extra weight caused him to misbehave, and that it was his duty to “starve the devil out.” Byron rarely accepted dinner invitations and claimed to be especially repulsed by the sight of women eating, although at least some of this can be attributed to the creation of his own myth. When Byron went to Samuel Rogers’ house for dinner, he refused soup, fish, mutton, and wine, and when asked what he did eat, replied, “nothing but hard biscuits and soda-water” (Rogers eventually served him potatoes, “bruised down on his plate and drenched with vinegar.”) A few days later, Rogers met Byron’s best friend John Cam Hobhouse, and asked him how long Byron intended to continue with his diet. “Just as long as you continue to notice it,” was the reply.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall, National Portrait Gallery, on display at Dove Cottage

Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was prone to forgetting where he was and who he was married to, frequently became so absorbed in thought that he also forgot to eat. A vegetarian from his teenage years, Shelley’s pamphlet On the Vegetable System of Diet (1813) equated rearing livestock and eating meat with man’s murderous urge to war and dominion. When he did eat, his sweet tooth held sway over an array of jam tarts, penny buns, and “panada”—a kind of boiled dough covered in sugar and raisins—and glasses of “spurious lemonade.” He also liked to test the inspirational qualities of various foods, and once badly poisoned himself by eating laurel leaves. Laurel is the garland of the poets, and also contains prussic acid. He also liked to lick tree sap.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, National Portrait Gallery

Finally, as poor, sickly John Keats spent most of his life battling the twin poetic evils of poverty and illness, he was forced to endure many months on restrictive diets that were intended to restore his health, but only made him weaker. When in good spirits, he was particularly partial to game—hare, partridge, grouse, woodcock and pheasant, which it was the fashion to hang almost to the point of putrefaction before cooking. He washed it all down with buckets of claret, and while the stereotypical image of a weakling Keats doesn’t really permit for him to be an heroic drinker, claret, he said, transformed him into “Hermes.” It was “the only palate affair I am at all sensual in.”

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. National Portrait Gallery.

Andrew McConnell Stott’s books include The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness, and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, which won the Royal Society of Literature/Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction and was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron which we review here. He is Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His Twitter ID is @amstott1789.
Andy Stott

Death, disaster, and the ‘End of Days’: ‘Darkness’, by Lord Byron

by Allen Ashley 
Later years and a deeper and wider reading of their work have shown me that the Romantics had a great affinity with the fantastic; but when I first read ‘Darkness’ during A’ Level English studies, I was amazed and delighted. Amazed that the dashing Lothario more associated with the bedroom and the battlefield, author of Don Juan and ‘She Walks in Beauty’, had turned his hand to a proto-SF piece. Delighted because, having had to temporarily abandon my usual fare of Brian Aldiss and A. E. van Vogt (New English Library, with Bruce Pennington covers) in favour of the dubious delights of The Winter’s Tale and Middlemarch, I could now legitimately pore over something I recognised and empathised with: a catastrophe story. ‘Darkness’ is essentially a poem depicting the end of life on Earth. The cause? The sun goes out:

The bright sun was extinguish’d and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;

Writing long before the scientific romances of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, Byron’s source of inspiration is, in part, the King James Bible. In essence, Byron has inverted the divine imperative: “Let there be light”, restoring the universe or our segment of it to the earlier state of, “Darkness … upon the face of the deep.” Think The Book of Revelations told in a more measured tone and you have the atmosphere of this poem.

Again prefiguring later works, Byron maps out the stages of the disaster and its aftermath with the logic of a Hollywood SFX blockbuster. But there’s no Will Smith or Tom Cruise rescuing the remnants of humankind here: Earth is left thus –

… The world was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.

The repeating suffixes – “Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless” –echo like a list of dead brothers at a war memorial service.
At first, people take to creating their own light and heat, burning

The palaces of crowned kings – the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons

Soon whole “Forests were set on fire” but this can only be a temporary solution – like looting the abandoned supermarket in a disaster novel; the stock is going to rot or run out one day if never replenished. Some people realise that they are essentially building “Their funeral piles with fuel”. As the urge to survive becomes ever more desperate, fights to the death break out over food, “War” returns and the birds fall from the sky. Even the dogs turn against us except for one faithful hound who keeps watch over the corpse of his dead master, guarding him from the cannibals until:

But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answer’d not with a caress – he died.

Effective; if a tad melodramatic to modern eyes. This is one example of Byron realising that readers might not be able to grasp the macrocosmic totality of the tragedy; so he focuses in on one individual’s extended story to stand as representative of the fate of all. Symbolic moralism to the fore, Byron next focuses on the last two men who each see the other as a “Fiend” and promptly die. From here it’s just a dozen lines to the unfashionably bleak ending. Indeed, for what is effectively an End of Days epic, the poet has told his tale in a mere and surprising 82 lines.

Byron composed the piece during July-August 1816, the infamous year without a summer, with the permanently overcast sky having been caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia – what we would now call a “nuclear winter”; an event unexplained at the time and leading to outbreaks of mass hysteria. This is Byron with his finger on the pulse, portraying the effects of an unfolding environmental catastrophe and playing it out to Armageddon proportions.

As a poet, traditionally the conscience of a nation, Byron can adopt a moral stance that, perhaps, he doesn’t always adhere to in real life. From the authorial point of view, it’s a classic instance of taking something from the real world and extrapolating it into fictitious fantasy. I did something similar when I saw somebody severely reddened by sunburn and eventually wrote my catastrophe story Sunburst Finish. Indeed, I think Byron’s influence over me has been strong – neither of my disaster stories The Overwhelm or The Twilight would have existed without “Darkness”. One might also say the poem is a precursor to some of the much-loved twentieth century British disaster novels of John Wyndham, J. G. Ballard, John Christopher, Edmund Cooper et al. But Byron’s poem is a far from cosy catastrophe.

Also, one could respectably suggest “Darkness” as an influence on Isaac Asimov’s classic, breakthrough science fiction tale Nightfall (1941) – set on a world where the human inhabitants are about to encounter nightfall for the first time ever and are filled with fear. Moving beyond genre, or perhaps stretching science fiction’s boundaries to encompass modern theatre-craft, one can discern Byron’s dark light reflected in the following quotes from the final scene of Samuel Beckett’s End-Game (1963):

From the character Clov: “I say to myself that the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit”
From the character Hamm: “You cried for night; it falls: now cry in darkness”.

Sometimes the poem “Darkness” is too heavily influenced by Biblical verse forms: “Happy were those who dwelt within the eye / Of the volcanos”. There are occasional archaisms and awkward phraseology: in Line 10, for example: “They did live by watchfires” – the insertion of “did” really jars to modern ears. Yet at other times the writing is vivid in its unrhymed yet resonant precision: “Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea” (Line 75).
“Darkness” is a thrilling poem that has lasted two hundred years and in many ways is more pertinent now than at the time of its original execution. It is a piece that was ahead of its time for, although some of the vocabulary and idiomatic language has necessarily dated, the scenarios that Byron envisages seem more believable than ever in these times of climate change and ecological concern. And he knows and shows us that catastrophe may well bring out the baser elements of human nature. Wise words of warning, indeed.

Allen Ashley works as a creative writing tutor, with five groups running across  north London. His most recent book is as editor of Creeping Crawlers (Shadow  Publishing, 2015) and his next book will be an expanded re-release of his novel The  Planet Suite (Eibonvale Press, June 2016). He is a committee member of the British Fantasy Society. He has previously appeared on the Romanticism Blog with Kubla Khan – A Lament for a Lost Eden.

Romantic readings: Childe Harold, by Lord Byron

by Francesca Blanch Serrat

Lord Byron left England in April 1816 after he and his wife Annabella Milbanke had begun separation proceedings. The whole of English society had risen with a commotion over Byron’s alleged misconduct toward Lady Byron and his presumed incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Those who up to that moment had regarded the poet as an amusing, exotic, unapologetic character now rebuffed him. Byron, haunted by scandal and debt, and ostracized by his fellow Englishmen, sailed for Belgium. He was never to return home. Home was not home anymore. He had sold his estate, Newstead Abbey; his parents had passed away; only a few of his most loyal friends remained. In the years that followed, until his death in 1824, he would travel through Europe, from France to Italy and Greece. He masked his unrest by forming romantic acquaintances, creating political allegiances with liberal nationalistic movements and writing.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was published in its complete form in 1818, two years after the beginning of Lord Byron’s exile. However, the poet had started his composition as early as 1809, during his Grand Tour (1809-1811). The first two cantos were published in 1812, and with their release came Byron’s sudden rise to the status of celebrity: “I awoke one morning and found myself famous”. Canto III was published in 1816 and canto IV in 1817. Nevertheless, Byron’s disdain for English society and his life of debauchery did not change through the years. Byron maintained the same disregard for his native land from 1809 to 1817, so we cannot assume the composition of Childe Harold to be a reaction to the commotion there in 1816.

'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, by J.M.W. Turner, 1823

‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, by J.M.W. Turner, 1823, Tate, London

Behind the mask of the wanderer, now in the poetic persona of Childe Harold, Lord Byron expresses his detachment from English society and the life he has led in the past: “He felt the fulness of satiety: / Then loath’d he in his native land to dwell, / which seem’d to him more lone than Eremite’s sad cell” (Canto I 4:7-10), “And now Childe Harold was sore sick at heart, / and from his fellow bacchanals would flee” (Canto I 6:1-2). He is satiated, tired of the pleasures he has experienced, which cannot satisfy him anymore. He loathes everything that surrounds him, especially England for representing everything he has grown tired of. Moreover, he feels alone and imprisoned, out of place: “Apart he stalk’d in joyless reverie, / and from his native land resolv’d to go, / and visit his scorching climes beyond the sea” (Canto I 6:5-7). Childe Harold, much like Byron, decides to leave land and explore new territories across the sea, where he hopes to regain his sense of wholeness and belonging. However, contrary to Byron’s own experience, leaving England is Childe Harold’s own and unconditional decision, inspired by the feeling of alienation that plagues him: “I stood / among them, but not of them” (III: CXIII). Our hero wanders sorrowful and tormented. It was the year 1809 and Byron had already defined the myth that was to survive him to become one of the most reproduced tropes in our culture: the Romantic hero. Through the Romantic hero that Childe Harold embodies, Byron will attempt to recover from the sufferings of exile. The healing will come from poetry itself, which allows him to detach himself from his situation by placing his struggle in Childe Harold’s hands. In other words, the poetic act allows Byron to explore his feelings from the viewpoint of the creator-poet.

Nevertheless, by writing Childe Harold, Byron does not simply yield to the muses—he is following an agenda. I do not think his intention was to be readmitted to English society, because, in my opinion, he would have never come back with less than the treatment of a national hero and the restitution of his properties and reputation; however, he writes seeking a pretext that will amend society’s rejection of his character. It is debatable whether or not he had actually “lost all local feeling for England,” as he wrote to Douglas Kinnaird in a letter from Ravenna in 1820. He might have thought of England with regret and even hatred, but it is undeniable that he did think of England.
CH MS
The self’s attachment to one’s homeland is something an exile can never escape: “But my soul wanders; I demand it back” (IV:XXV). He has lost his sense of identity, and the farther he is from England, the stronger his need to attach himself to new nationalities, and the stronger his remembrance of England: “Nor is it harsh to make, nor hard to find / A country with – ay, or without mankind; / Yet was I born where men are proud to be, / Not without cause; and should I leave behind / The inviolate island of the sage and free, / And seek out a home by a remoter sea.” (IV: VIII). The third and fourth lines contrast with the references in the third canto to Childe Harold’s loathing towards Albion’s Isle. What Byron the recent graduate thought of Britain has nothing to do with what Byron the exile feels about it. In conclusion, there is no closure possible for him; he is as detached from Britain as from anywhere else. He is, in his own words, alone on Earth: “What is the worst of woes that wait on age? / What stamps the wrinkle deeper on the brow? / To view each lov’d one blotted from life’s page, / And be alone on Earth as I am now” (II: XCVIII).

In conclusion, Byron crafted Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage partly as a therapeutic strategy, seeking solace from the trauma of his exile. In the long poem we can divine the contradictions of Byron’s internal turmoil. Byron possibly did not feel himself at home in England, but leaving left him with grief over the native land, a grief that never abandoned him. No matter how far he went, how much his society changed, he would forever feel attached to Albion’s Isle. As he wrote in the aforementioned letter to Kinnaird: “I have quite lost all local feeling for England, without having acquired any local attachment for any other spot.” And that is the tragedy of the exile, living between worlds, never being able to call anywhere home.

Francesca
Francesca Blanch Serrat is a Master’s student, recently graduated in
English Studies with a minor in Gender Studies from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. This post is a revised piece from her degree
dissertation on Lord Byron and Charlotte Smith’s Poetry in Exile. Her main interests are 18th-century women writers and English and French Romanticism. She is currently writing her MS thesis focusing on the construction of female Romantic heroism in Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya.

Boxing with Byron

 by David Snowdon

To day I have been very sulky – but an hour’s exercise with Mr. Jackson of pugilistic memory – has given me spirits & fatigued me into that state of languid laziness which I prefer to all other.

Lord Byron, letter 8th April 1814

The ‘exercise’ referred to is pugilistic sparring, and Byron regularly attended lessons at the Bond-Street rooms of former prizefighting champion John ‘Gentleman’ Jackson.

 John Jackson

John Jackson

Writing to Thomas Moore the following day, Byron claimed to have been ‘boxing for exercise, with Jackson for this last month daily’, and appeared to revel in these invigorating-cum-fatiguing sessions with ‘the Emperor of Pugilism’. The foremost sports-writer of the period, Pierce Egan, portrayed Jackson as the ‘fixed star’; other pugilists being ‘the many satellites revolving around … his dominion’ (Boxiana I, 1813). Byron invited Jackson to Cambridge, Brighton, as well as Newstead.

Byron’s pugilistic fascination was not some short-lived mania. In 1808, he declared that he would willingly ‘advance any sum necessary for the liberation of the captive’, Bob Gregson, the boxer, from debtors’ prison. Thus, in October, Gregson was free to fight national hero Tom Cribb for the ‘championship of England’. A snippet from Pierce Egan’s commentary of that fight’s second round reveals Gregson’s uphill task:

CRIB full of activity, put in two body hits … Gregson endeavoured to return the compliment, but CRIB dexterously avoided it by shifting, and put in a severe blow … which made the claret flow most profusely.

Apart from journalism, Egan’s principal publications were the Boxiana series, which comprised ‘sketches’ of pugilism (1812-29), and a metropolitan tour, Life in London (1821). He was a member of various sporting and drinking clubs and had the ‘inside line’ on sporting affairs.

 Pierce Egan

Pierce Egan, National Portrait Gallery

In the initial volume of Boxiana (1813), the reader is guided by ‘ONE OF THE FANCY’ through Egan’s predominantly London-based ‘pugilistic hemisphere’. Collectively, ‘the Fancy’ comprised those who followed sporting events, but the term was particularly applied to prizefighting votaries. This sporting set embodied much of pugilism’s inherent shadiness, exacerbated by Egan’s use of their ‘flash’ city slang.

Byron was already ahead of the game, urging Moore to ‘go to Matlock … and take what in flash dialect, is poetically termed “a lark”, with Rogers and me for accomplices’. Moore would later record: ‘It was not a little amusing to observe how perfectly familiar … with all the most recondite phraseology of “the Fancy”, was the sublime poet of Childe Harold’.
A common interest in the prizefighting scene found Lords and MPs mingling with coal merchants and costermongers. For the wealthy, being ‘seen in the ring’ predominantly involved occupying the role of patron, but  such knowledge was considered essential for gentlemen who wished to be part of the fashionable world. Moreover, the practise reinforced a sense of masculinity, and countered the perceived insidious spread of ‘effeminacy’. The notion of pugilistic exercise as a ‘manly’ activity, boosting vitality and hardihood was one persistently promoted by Egan, and Byron noted in his journal on 17 March 1814:

I have been sparring with Jackson for exercise this morning … My chest, and arms, and wind are in very good plight, and I am not in flesh. I used to be a hard hitter, and my arms are very long for my height (5 feet 8 ⅓ inches). At any rate, exercise is good and this the severest of all.

‘Fatigue’ is, again, ascribed with positive connotations; purging bodily and mental impurities.

Daffy Club
In Boxiana I, Egan recalled an ‘insolent’ Venetian Gondolier threatening to ‘take the shine out of Englishmen’, but he was soundly ‘punished’ and ‘the conceit was so taken out of him’. This latter phrase, essentially, expressed knocking the arrogance out of an opponent. It was a staple Boxiana expression and flows quite naturally from Byron in an August 1814 letter to Moore as he mocks literary rivals:

Half of the Scotch and Lake troubadours, are spoilt by living in little circles and petty societies. London and the world is the only place to take the conceit out of a man – in the milling phrase.

‘Milling’ was a term appropriated by the Fancy as a verb to denote fighting. Byron’s Don Juan provides instances of the writer incorporating flash idiom into his work (in 1819, Keats specifically referred to it as a ‘flash poem’). In Canto VIII, Byron commends the resistance of the Tartar Sultan’s sons before they ‘died all game and bottom [a sporting term signifying stamina]’. Canto XI is relatively awash with slang, including a footnote tribute to Jackson.

Egan regularly commented on the social diversity of spectators rubbing shoulders ringside or in popular sporting meeting places such as the Castle Tavern, Holborn: ‘The groupes to be met with … are highly characteristic of the different grades of life – abounding with ORIGINALS of all sorts’. Byron’s interest is evident in his journal entry of 23 November 1813: ‘Jackson has been here: the boxing world much as usual … I shall dine at Crib’s to-morrow. I like energy – even animal energy … and I have need of both mental and corporeal’. Note Byron’s emphasis on the dual nature of the benefit to be derived.

Still a national hero, Cribb was at this time landlord of the King’s Arms, Duke Street, and Byron’s ‘animal’ reference assumes a complimentary aspect, not implying brutishness but, rather, a vitality that he feels is preferable to an enervated state of lethargy and overindulgence. Following his ‘audience’ with Cribb, Byron’s ‘Mezza Notte’ journal entry is almost unstinting in affectionate admiration: ‘A great man! … Tom is an old friend of mine; and I have seen some of his best battles’.

Egan consistently arraigned the capability of foreign foes to ‘meet our brave sons on equal terms in the field or on the wave’ (Book of Sports). A street altercation abroad might result in a concealed dagger being wielded to inflict lethal revenge, but an argument between two Englishmen could be resolved openly in the ring in a somehow civilised ritual that was expressive of national character. Byron, writing from Pisa to Walter Scott (May 1822), told of a tussle with an Italian dragoon: ‘he got his paiks – having acted like an assassin’. Byron selects this Scottish term for blows to describe the physical admonishment he claims to have meted out.

Egan extensively quoted a ‘Mr. M’ who proposed pugilism as a ‘cure’ for social unease: “We must allow passion to work itself off … We must have a safety-valve” (Boxiana III). The notion of sparring as a therapeutic activity, a cathartic outlet, corresponds with Byron’s comments implying that his body has been reinvigorated, his mind exorcised of ‘demons’, and passionate desires sublimated. Byron’s preoccupation with his intermittently bulging waistline might be placed at the head of any list of motivating factors. He would doubtless also have wished that all memory of another aberration (‘wedlock’) could have been pummelled out of his system.

Egan argued that a mutual interest shared across a broad spectrum of society meant that, at boxing matches, distinctions of rank were temporarily blurred in an air of sporting unity. His remark: ‘the love of claret levels all distinctions’ is simple but intuitive. The ethos of uninhibited sporting fraternisation was one that Byron savoured, but ultimately his social status appears to have precluded an appearance on the prizefight bill. The enticing prospect of seeing ‘Battling Byron, the Newstead Nailer’ going through his paces competitively at a showpiece event was always going to be a purely fantasy scenario.

Several years after Byron’s death, Egan reflected that this literary heavyweight had consistently ‘mixed with society in all its different shades’ (Book of Sports), and this is underscored by Byron’s partiality for mixing with the loungers at certain coffee-houses such as Limmer’s, which as Venetia Murray puts it in High Society, was ‘the rendezvous for the sporting world, in particular the boxing fraternity and men of the turf ’. Naturally, Egan particularly lauded Byron’s interest and ability in the ‘noble art’:

His Lordship, like his poetry, always entered into the spirit of the thing; – he viewed boxing as a national propensity – a stimulus to true courage…In setting-to … he received with coolness from his antagonist, and returned upon his opponent with all the vigour and confidence of a master of the art. (Book of Sports)

Throwing oneself ‘into the spirit of the thing’ is the pivotal element here, sparring offering Byron a physical and psychological outlet. Ultimately, Byron’s absorption with vigorous exercise may have simply been an attempt to reconcile his conscience for past and ongoing dissolute behaviour, and his aforementioned boast of an intensive sparring timetable went on to record:

I have also been drinking, – and, on one occasion, with three other friends at the Cocoa Tree, from six till four, yea, unto five in the matin. We clareted and champagned till two – then supped, and finished with a kind of Regency punch.

Following one late night out with its accompanying heavy drinking, Byron chronicled his penitent exercise regime the following day: ‘Got up, if any thing, earlier than usual – sparred with Jackson ad sudorem, and have been much better in health than for many days’.

Towards the end of these month-long exertions, on 10th April 1814, Byron reaffirmed his new-found credo: ‘The more violent the fatigue, the better my spirits for the rest of the day; and then my evenings have that calm nothingness of languor, which I most delight in’. It was a question of discipline versus dissipation. To fully embrace the flash and Fancy culture involved exposure to an ambivalent societal group replete with its conflicting qualities: probity yet dishonesty; salutary yet pernicious. Strenuous sparring could negate or partially offset perceived physical and moral degeneration. Crucially, it also fended off ennui. Pugilistic exertion induced fatigue and, for Byron, this constituted an elevated state of bodily health and psychological consciousness.

‘This sporting piece of furniture, in the possession of LORD BYRON, and so much admired by the higher flights of the FANCY, from the numerous portraits and anecdotes it contained … was made principally from the first volume of BOXIANA. At his Lordship’s sale it proved a good sporting lot, and produced a handsome sum. It originally cost his Lordship £250.’ (Boxiana II, 1818) It was bought by John Murray at the 1816 auction.

‘This sporting piece of furniture, in the possession of LORD BYRON, and so much admired by the higher flights of the FANCY, from the numerous portraits and anecdotes it contained … was made principally from the first volume of BOXIANA. At his Lordship’s sale it proved a good sporting lot, and produced a handsome sum. It originally cost his Lordship £250.’ (Boxiana II, 1818) It was bought by John Murray at the 1816 auction.

David Snowdon is the author of Writing the Prizefight: Pierce Egan’s SnowdonBoxiana World, which won the BSSH Lord Aberdare Literary Prize for Sports History in 2014. He runs the  website www.pierce-egan.co.uk

The romance of the Romantics

by Carl Rollyson
In graduate school at the University of Toronto I had the splendid opportunity to study with Kathleen Coburn, the great Coleridge scholar who was then editing his notebooks. If I had not already committed myself to writing a dissertation about William Faulkner under the guidance of Michael Millgate, I would gladly have turned to a Romantic subject under Coburn’s supervision. Even so, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats have in so many ways informed my work and that of the subjects of my biographies.

Faulkner, to begin with, was entranced with Keats–as anyone can see in the great fourth section of “The Bear” when Cass Edmunds explains to the kinsman, Ike McCaslin, why Ike did not shoot Old Ben, the Moby Dick, you might say, of the hunters’ quest. Cass quotes “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “She cannot fade, though thou hath not thy bliss . . . Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.” The she for Ike is not a woman but the wilderness itself, which is his first love. But that love, Cass implies, will, in time, recede just as the wilderness recedes in the advance of civilization. Ike’s wilderness experience has been out of time–as he acknowledges when he relinquishes his watch as part of his search for Old Ben. Ike, who fails to adapt to the changing times, becomes irrelevant because he tries to live the poem Cass quotes. Ike, in other words, is beguiled by a dream of perfection, which exists, in truth, only in Keats’s poem. Ike is caught between the ideality of art and the reality of life. Art is permanence and unity; life is change and multiplicity. So much of what Faulkner learned about art and life stems from his reading of the Romantics, as I will explore in my biography of Faulkner, which I have just learned will be published by University of Virginia Press.

As I show in Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography (2013), she was steeped in the Romantics and began her career writing poetry derived from Keats and other Romantics. Her first published book of poetry, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass is, of course, an allusion to Shelley. If Lowell had to break herself from too close of a fealty to Keats’s verse, he nevertheless presides over “The Green Bowl,” included in her first book, which shows her emerging as a modern poet, adapting the formal grandeur of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to a far more relaxed musing on art’s extension of nature’s impact on human consciousness: “A quiet place, still with the sound of birds,/Where, though unseen, is heard the endless song/And murmur of the never resting sea.”

Lowell wrote poems about Keats, she collected Keats, and she ended her life producing a prodigious two-volume biography of the poet. What should still amaze readers is her astounding ambition, which she announces at the outset: “I have attempted to write a biography, a psychological novel, and a book of poetical criticism, all at once, and not let any of these three aspects of my subject override the others.” It is as if Dorothy Richardson, whose novels Lowell loved, and Rebecca West, whose criticism Lowell found bracing, had combined to do justice not only to Keats but to Fanny Brawne, whose presence in the poet’s emotional life had been seriously misunderstood before the advent of Lowell’s work.

Among Keats’s contemporary biographers, only Walter Jackson Bate and Stanley Plumly have acknowledged her pivotal role in Keats biography. She embodied a twentieth century sensibility and married it to a neoclassical style reminiscent of Samuel Johnson writing about Richard Savage–as can be seen in this passage of balanced antitheses:

Insufficiently equipped, uncertain of his way, not even thoroughly aware of his own goal, unwisely guided by his friends, ignorantly and cruelly criticized by his enemies, buffeted by the hurricanes of his own changing ideas, Keats died at the age of twenty-five still unformed in many ways, profoundly discouraged and dissatisfied, but leaving behind him a body of work in his poetry which does not die because of qualities in it even more important to mankind that those which appear on the surface, and in his letters a possibly no less valuable legacy to the student of psychology and a volume of perennial charm to the ordinary reader.

In her day, in 1925, Lowell commanded a wide readership that should be the envy of any poet/biographer writing now. Like Faulkner, she found in Keats, the man and the poet, a powerful harbinger of a modern sensibility but also a spirit beyond not only his time but any time.

There is in Keats, and of course no less in Wordsworth, and in quite a different way in Byron, a kind of therapeutic imagination and art that we simply cannot live without. So Michael Foot put it to me in many conversations we had over a very intense three years while I worked on the biography of his wife, Jill Craigie, and then on my memoir of him, just published as A Private Life of Michael Foot. “We read Byron’s letters there [in Venice] together. Then we were going up in the world, having the bloody government pay for our holidays. . . . Venice revived him [Byron]. It restored him,” Michael insisted to me. And of course Michael was thinking of himself–of not only his opportunities to get away from Cabinet worries during the administrations of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan but also of how through Byron he re-created his love for Jill Craigie on trips that were nothing less than romantic revivals.

During the terrible accident that nearly cost him his life and left him lame, Michael read Byron, telling me “When I went through Don Juan the first time [in hospital], every time I got to a part I wanted to read it to Jill as soon as I got back here [his Hampstead home].” Brought up a strict Methodist, Michael reveled in Byron’s mocking tone about sex and said Jill thought sex was often treated too seriously and should be the subject of satire. She was not, in fact, a great reader of the Romantics, but as Michael would say, she sure knew how to join in the spirit of the thing.
Michael credited the Byron Society with helping him to recover from his disastrous electoral defeat in 1983. “Byron helped me,” Michael said. “He never gave in. The only way to read Don Juan is right through and that’s what I did. I spent the whole of Christmas doing so–leader of the Labour Party I as supposed to be [he laughed] . . . it [Don Juan] put me in a good temper.”

Michael was as possessive of his Byron as the most devoted scholar can be. At a Byron Society meeting he grumbled about Benita Eisler’s Byron biography. “Terrible book.” He grunted through her talk.” Eisler later told a friend of mine that Michael stood up and said, “Worse book ever written.” He was as passionate about his literary likes and dislikes as he was about his politics. On a trip to Bermuda, he considered one of its main points of interest that Byron’s great friend, Thomas Moore, had visited the island. Jill could get quite put out with Michael’s Romantic obsessions. When a friend was visiting, Jill said, “Michael do be quiet. I don’t want to hear you about Byron. I’ve heard it so many times. I want to know what Lizzie has been doing.”

Michael never could believe that anyone could have enough of Byron and wrote a whole book about him. I watched Michael and his nephew Paul, who had written a book about Shelley, go at it. Did Paul think Shelley a greater poet than Byron, I asked Michael. “No,” Michael assured me. “He doesn’t think so at all. He’s converted the other way around in my opinion.” When I laughed, Michael said, “Better ask him.” But then Michael assured me that Paul now realized that Byron had a sharper wit and a better sense of humor than Shelley. Paul would just laugh in such a way as to imply doubt about his conversion.
Given enough time, Michael believed he would win the world to his side. Is there anything more Romantic than that?

Carl RA University of Toronto Ph.D, Rollyson has published more than forty books ranging in subject matter from biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, and Jill Craigie to studies of American culture, genealogy, children’s biography, film, and literary criticism. He has authored more than 500 articles on American and European literature and history.
http://www.carlrollyson.com/

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