Death in Greece

Marilyn Butler

  • Byron’s Letter and Journals. Vol. XI: For Freedom’s Battle edited by Leslie Marchand
    Murray, 243 pp, £11.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 7195 3792 4
  • Byron: The Complete Poetical Works edited by Jerome McGann
    Oxford, 464 pp, £35.00, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 811890 2
  • Red Shelley by Paul Foot
    Sidgwick, 293 pp, £12.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 283 98679 4
  • Ugo Foscolo, Poet of Exile by Glauco Cambon
    Princeton, 360 pp, £15.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 691 06424 5

We can know Byron better than anyone has ever known him. Leslie Marchand’s edition of the Letters and Journals, which is far more extensive than any previous collection, has now covered Byron’s whole life. J.J. McGann’s complete edition of the poems is proceeding expeditiously: the three volumes to date include all the poems written before Byron left England in 1816, and Volume II has the whole of the masterpiece Childe Harold, including Cantos III and IV, which were written in exile in 1816 and 1818.

The difference this makes can be seen from Marchand. In addition to the Journals which Byron kept intermittently, he has printed about 2,900 letters, compared with 1,198 in the previous edition, Prothero’s, of 1898-1904. More than 85 per cent are published from manuscripts or from facsimiles. Only about a hundred are completely new, but many hundreds are published entire for the first time. McGann’s edition of the poetry also contains some poems which were previously either unknown or not identified as Byron’s. But its more significant contribution is to make available passages, either from the poems or from Byron’s or Hobhouse’s notes for them, which on first publication were censored for political reasons.

The literary effect of the new completeness is to establish a Byron who is more satirical and also more serious than the tame tiger of the drawing-rooms, modishly ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. Leslie Marchand observed on first introducing his 11-volume series that in the Letters and Journals one side of Byron is hardly glimpsed: there is little of Childe Harold or Manfred. It begins to look as though even the poems have less of them than we used to suppose.

Marchand’s Volume XI shows the divisions in Byron at their most extreme. The first half consists of the letters of the last months of Byron’s life, all written from Greece in 1823-4. The second half prints the 15 letters recently discovered in the vaults of Barclay’s Bank in a trunk deposited in 1820 by Byron’s Cambridge friend Scrope Davies. The latter series, dated 1809-19, are more obviously entertaining. To read them after the Greek letters is to be carried back to the Byron of the delightful third volume of the letters, that real-life Liaisons Dangereuses which covered the episode in 1813 when Byron was having an affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, and contemplating (over a game of billiards) the seduction of the chaste Lady Frances Wedder-burn Webster, while he confided in Lady Melbourne, suavest of older women, about both.

The love of women hardly bothers Byron in his last months. His messages even to Teresa Guiccioli, the last attachment, are terse postscripts added to letters she was receiving from her brother. His more typical correspondents are his business agents in the Greek islands, his banker friend Charles Barry in Genoa, and the Greek Committee in London. The tone is, according to your taste, practical or already middle-aged. Perhaps, as Marchand suggests, the Greek leader Prince Mavrocordatos was flattering Byron and encouraging him to spend more of his money when he put him in charge of the forces that were to march against Lepanto: but there can’t have been many leading British poets who sound as well-equipped to be a C-in-C as Byron does.

Other foreign idealists and adventurers were going home in 1823-4, shocked by the dissensions among the Greeks and by their crookedness. Byron’s eyes were as wide open as anyone’s. ‘There never was such an incapacity for veracity shown since Eve lived in Paradise.’ Greek bankers tried to make him pay interest on his own money, still in his possession, which he brought to spend in the Greek cause. A true son of the Enlightenment, Byron attributed these degenerate traits to centuries of slavery. Until the Greeks were free, they could not be expected to realise the standards of free men. ‘Whoever goes into Greece at present should do it as Mrs Fry went into Newgate – not in the expectation of meeting with any especial indication of existing probity – but in the hope that time and better treatment will reclaim the present burglarious and larcenous tendencies which have followed this General Gaol delivery.’

The last months would be painful reading if Byron himself did not come so well out of them. He remarked wryly that the Greeks could have managed him if they had set a pretty woman on to him. There was no woman, only the boy Lukas, one of the few people to find Byron sexually resistible. With far less danger from death in action than the Greeks and their admirers like to claim, there was so much illness that Byron did not overrate his chances of surviving. He commended himself stoically to Tom Moore. ‘If any thing in the way of fever, fatigue, famine, or otherwise, should cut short the middle age of a brother warbler ... I pray you to remember me in your “smiles and wine”.’ As the winter of 1823-4 wore on, there seemed less and less to live for, but, aided by his high intelligence and low expectations, he stuck it out. ‘I have hopes that the cause will triumph; but, whether it does or no, still “Honour must be minded as strictly as a milk diet.” I trust to observe both.’

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