Settling accounts

Keith Walker

  • ‘A heart for every fate’: Byron’s Letters and Journals, Vol. 10, 1822-1823 edited by Leslie Marchand
    Murray, 239 pp, £8.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 7195 3670 7

‘A heart for every fate’: the title Marchand has chosen, from the enchanting lyric Byron wrote to Thomas Moore in 1817, doesn’t seem quite appropriate. It would have been better to borrow Doris Langley Moore’s Lord Byron: Accounts Rendered, for in these months in Genoa (October 1822 – June 1823) Byron was settling his accounts with his creditors, with his public, with his publisher John Murray, with his mistress, and making arrangements to settle his accounts with life and fame. Late in this volume we see Byron discussing a collected edition of his poems with J.W. Lake. Elsewhere Byron says he wants to amass enough money to be able to leave something to his sister Augusta and her children, and to contribute to the Greek cause. He laughs at himself in assuming the role of miser: ‘I am economizing – have sold three horses and pay all bills in person – keeping a sharp look out – on the candle’s ends.’

Why call the miser miserable? As
   I said before, the frugal life is his,
Which in a saint or cynic ever was
   The theme of praise: a hermit would not miss
Canonisation for the self-same cause,
   And wherefore blame gaunt Wealth’s austerities?
Because, you’ll say, nought calls for such a trial;
Then there’s more merit in his self-denial.

He is your only poet ...

Perhaps. But during the period of these letters the other poet in Byron kept on ‘scribbling’ (it was his favourite description) away at Don Juan, and completed seven cantos (10-16), not to mention ‘The Age of Bronze’ and ‘The Island’. If the reader detects a certain loss of Byron’s accustomed brio in these letters, he should bear in mind that his main writing work was elsewhere.

The most trivial of Byron’s experiences gets caught up in Don Juan. ‘Send me a good Cocker,’ Byron writes to his banker Douglas Kinnaird, referring to the author of a 17th-century manual: ‘or the best Simplifier of Arithmetic – and you cannot imagine the difference.’ By the same principle of good husbandry, he puts Cocker to use in Don Juan:

  Though all Exchequer Chancellors endeavour
Of late years to dispense with Cocker’s rigours,
And grow quite figurative with their figures.

The Earl and Countess of Blessington arrive in Genoa ‘travelling with a very handsome companion, in the shape of a “French Count”... who has all the air of a Cupidon déchainé, and is one of the few specimens I have seen of our ideal of a Frenchman before the Revolution’. The Count d’Orsay delighted Byron with his description of English society. Did he also sit for this portrait of Juan in Canto 14?

No marvel then he was a favourite;
   A full-grown Cupid, very much admired;
A little spoilt, but by no means so quite;
   At least he kept his vanity retired.
Such was his tact, he could alike delight
   The chaste, and those who are not so much inspired.
The Duchess of Fitz-Fulke, who loved tracasserie,
Began to treat him with some small agacerie.

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