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.’

Reading the poems from the beginning is to see the appropriateness of that death in Greece, along with Byron’s final leavetaking of pretty women and pretty uniforms. The real basis for his career, the poem he was always in effect rewriting, was the two-canto Childe Harold of 1812, which describes a journey that is also a pilgrimage to Greece. For Byron, Greece always meant a political ideal before it meant a place, and his first Canto (a better poem than the second) is situated in a location which ensures that the entire poem will seem politically topical. Childe Harold makes for Greece via the Spanish peninsula, the most recent theatre of the long war against France which followed the French Revolution. As the Vietnam War demonstrated in modern times, nothing so divides and demoralises the Western intellectual as a war against a left-wing enemy. Even with its military dictator dressed up in imperial robes, France displayed a more radical profile than Tory England, and a polity more attractive to the English liberal Whig than Catholic, Inquisitorial Spain and Portugal. Decidedly a liberal Whig, Byron abstains pointedly from cheering on the war effort. He denounces our Portuguese allies as cowardly and murderous, and sees the Spanish resistance as compromised by Spain’s long record of oppression at home and abroad: ‘They fight for freedom who were never free.’ Sooner the French, you feel, than the Spanish Bourbons. Byron even shows more respect for the French Army than for the British, with a partial exception made for Wellington, who ‘baffled an enemy which though often beaten (in our Gazettes) never retreated before his predecessors’. The basis for all this cynicism is the liberal’s characteristic suspicion of the motives of the British Administration in waging war at all. ‘lf ever we are enslaved it will not be by a foreign invader, but a domestic army.’

The earlier Childe Harold distracts with its Spenserian archaisms and with its up-to-the-minute guilt-ridden hero, but it is essentially a topographical poem in the 18th-century manner, a vehicle for reflections on men, manners and politics. The tendentiously political notes are inseparable from the whole, and those to Canto II probably say more than the verse. Excessively detailed, the notes belabour the superstition of the Greeks and their Turkish conquerors, but the interesting point is that on the whole the Turks come off better. If Byron had been intent only on the limited goal of Greek independence, it should have been the other way round: but he had the 18th-century aristocrat’s principled individualism, and the European’s view of the Church as the historical cornerstone of despotism. Like Gibbon and Voltaire, Byron all his life kept institutional Christianity in his sights as the chief satiric target.

Childe Harold II is not, when all is said, much of a poem. Without the bold, explicit Canto I, it would hardly bring the issue of Greek independence forcibly home to the British reader. Byron made his point much better the following year in ‘The Giaour’, a romance in Scott’s manner and metre which brilliantly evokes a culture lost in barbarism and religion. Byron was surprised by the success of ‘The Giaour’, but he shouldn’t have been. This ‘fragment of a Turkish tale’ remains, surely, the best of the Oriental poems he wrote in London while basking in the fame brought him overnight by Childe Harold. McGann points to the likelihood of an autobiographical source, when Byron was in Athens in 1810, for the central plot motif: ‘the adventures of a female slave, who was thrown, in the Mussulman manner, into the sea for infidelity, and avenged by a young Venetian, her lover’. It may be that Byron was in the nick of time to prevent a girl he had seduced from being dumped in the Aegean. The fineness of the poem does not depend on his exposure to the practice but on his deep sense of involvement with the principle. Fragment or no, ‘The Giaour’s’ tight structure conveys a fierce, clean anti-clericalism, together with an apprehension (closer in feeling to Scott’s novels than to his poems) that all the major figures are the victims and prisoners of their respective religions.

They are involved in one of those amorous triangles so beloved of the sentimental 18th century, but where Rousseau in La Nouvelle Héloïse wrote about love, Byron writes of a fierce sectarian hate: each of his three central characters is responsible for the death of one of the others. To the Turks, Leila’s husband Hassan dies a hero, sure of Paradise, while the infidel Giaour, who has murdered him, will linger as a vampire before he arrives in Hell. Indeed, the Giaour’s last days, spent skulking around a convent, suggest the later career of Ann Radcliffe’s villain Schedoni in The Italian, which, as far as the heroine of that novel is concerned, has certainly something vampirish about it. When the Giaour makes his deathbed confession to his Superior, in anything but a spirit of penitence, contemporaries will have been reminded of another Eloise, Pope’s, in ‘Eloisa to Abelard’. Byron’s preference for the dictates of the heart over those of the Church is made far plainer than Pope’s, and his animus has an altogether harsher edge.

Byron cannot have thought much of the public’s reasons for admiring ‘The Giaour’. When he capitalised on its success, it was by repeating the setting and the cardboard cutout swashbuckling hero, as though the point had merely been to orientalise Scott’s ‘Marmion’. The love-interest, which was never presented directly in ‘The Giaour’ (Leila having been sown up and dispatched before the action opens), becomes protracted and slushy. Selim in ‘The Bride of Abydos’ is reputed to lead a double life as a pirate, but is visible to the reader only in the vicinity of the harem, and Conrad, the bold Corsair, has a refined notion of sex which includes uxoriousness and a dislike of girls with blood on them. Byron was working for more polished versification and a smoother, ampler narrative, but in achieving them he lost both ‘The Giaour’s’ intensity and the larger point behind its tight, bare narrative, the political resonance.

In his informative, invaluable commentary, McGann maintains, on the contrary, that these poetic romances of Byron’s years of fame in London are all symbolically political. He prints the political squibs Byron was mean-while writing against the Regent, who had turned away from his old friends the Whigs and aligned himself with the Tory Administration. Certainly Byron’s romances contain details which would be identified with ‘liberalism’; and glorifying a series of outlaws looks like a rude gesture at the status quo, as Schiller made it in his revolutionary classic The Robbers. All the same, the Oriental poems don’t read as though Byron was becoming more politically aware, but less so. While in 1812 and 1813 he had been alluding to real societies currently involved in struggles for independence – Spain, Greece – he moved afterwards into obscure places or non-places, thus sparing his readers actual politics. In ‘Lara’ – set in a country of which we are only told that it can’t be Spain – a peasant revolt against serfdom is brought in as a prop to the real drama, which is personal. ‘The Siege of Corinth’ was begun soon after ‘The Giaour’ with similar ingredients, but, significantly, all the leading characters are Westerners in origin. The theme of the clash of cultures and the implicit anti-Christian animus have given way to a more introspective study of a renegade.

Too little credit for services to literature is commonly given to Byron’s incompatible wife, Annabella Milbanke. Without her, he would have retained his place in London society, and probably the heightened political tensions of the post-war era would have tempted him into more indirections and suppressions. As it was, needled by his own hurt amour-propre and by the crowing of the Tory press, Byron at once translated his flight into a political exile. He reverted, logically, to the unfinished political poem Childe Harold. Seeing Canto III here in the amplified context of his earlier London career, and with all its political notes, is like seeing it for the first time. Byron sent part of the manuscript back to England with his new and very radical friend Shelley, who clearly understood that he was to see it through the press, but the nervous publisher John Murray preferred the politically safe editorial hand of William Gifford. The material censored by Murray and Gifford now appears in full, and McGann is right to point to the enhancement of Childe Harold as one of the great contributions of his edition so far. Canto III deserves illumination, since it may actually be Byron’s masterpiece, Don Juan notwithstanding. It is surely, along with The Excursion, one of the two seminal English poems of the extraordinary second decade of the 19th century.

Canto III opens as though obligatorily with what was by now Byron’s literary signature, his morose and tormented self-projection as the poem’s ‘hero’. But the context is contemporary Europe, pacified and carved up by the victorious Allies after the collapse of the Napoleonic empire. Against the backdrop of this new conservative dispensation, the motifs of Childe Harold III emerge as public rather rather private:

What! shall reviving Thraldom again be
The patched-up idol of enlightened days?

The poem contemplates the great men of the time, fallen heroes now of a fallen revolutionary cause, especially Bonaparte and Rousseau. It is conventional for literary critics to see these as in some senses ‘figurae’ for Byron himself, but this is quite to miss the significance of his reversion to his poetic ‘pilgrimage’ Childe Harold III struggles for disinterestedness; if Byron betrays some consciousness of his past literary self-indulgences, and even symptoms of self-dislike, so much the better. ‘Conqueror and captive of the world art thou!’ he says of Napoleon, and compares him unfavourably with the other republican generals, Marceau and Hoche, who died in 1796 and 1797, before the Revolution was finally betrayed. Napoleonic energy was sublime, but the inhumanity that led to Waterloo was not. Analysing Bonaparte’s character in the notes, Byron finds ‘a continued obtrusion on mankind of his want of all community of feeling for or with them’.

To travel up the Rhine towards Switzerland was to trace the Revolution back to one of its intellectual sources, but in the Genevese Rousseau Byron detects only another example of overweening ambition. Two years after the publication of The Excursion, the writer-prophet the English public would more readily associate with mountains was Wordsworth. Byron, like other liberal writers of his generation, had a bone to pick with Wordsworth, who had once associated the simple life with political liberalism, and had now recruited it in support of English patriotism and religious orthodoxy. Rousseau, and shadowily Wordsworth, are as much spoilt radicals as Napoleon – all three spoilt by their egotism, and (despite their connection with democracy or ‘levelling’ or republicanism) by an actual hatred of other people. Rousseau raged with a strange fury against his own kind. Though he helped to inspire the movement which pulled down France’s ‘inborn tyranny’, that tyranny was back, dungeons and thrones had filled again, ‘because ambition was self-will’d’.

Somewhat awkwardly, for this is not his style, Byron goes out of his way to reiterate Rousseau’s original idealisms, his faith in the simple life as opposed to the sophisticated, and in the true human feeling he invested in his heroine Julie. The Revolution is dead: long live the Revolution. The sentiment is almost Shelleyan, as explicit a political declaration as Byron ever made:

         they who war
With their own hopes, and have been vanquished, bear
Silence, but not submission: in his lair
Fix’d Passion holds his breath, until the hour
Which shall atone for years; none need despair:
It came, it cometh, and will come.

Eventually Shelley seems to have approved, since he paid Canto III the ultimate compliment when he used some of its ideas and personalities for his last poem, ‘The Triumph of Life’. In the short run, he had reservations – he wanted a more positive note, more encouragement to action and less harping on the defections of the lost leaders. Byron catered for this kind of objection from the liberal side when, two years later, he brought out his fourth and last Canto. He set it in Italy, and made of it a true exile’s poem, written not for a general national public but for an international audience of supposedly like-minded intellectuals. Now that the fighting has stopped, is the Revolution done for? Byron dangles instead the idea of resistance, kept alive by the memory of great republics – Venice, Florence and ancient Rome. The hero-figures of Canto IV are positive where those of Canto III were negative, though as artists and intellectuals they stand some way back from direct action – Petrarch, Tasso, Dante, Michelangelo, Alfieri, Galileo, Machiavelli. The presiding geniuses of the poem are two memorialists of great societies and of great artists – Sismondi, the historian of the Italian republics, and Gibbon, the critic of the Roman Empire. The writer, as the defender of Mind, challenges all despotisms – monarchies, aristocracies, even republics. Canto IV’s decisive intellectual step is to see writing itself as potential political action:

                              I twine
My hopes of being remembered in my line
With my land’s language.

The Byron who is emerging from McGann’s expanded text of the poems may gain less popular recognition than the Byron of Marchand’s Letters and Journals. Byron the letter-writer is so attractive and so readable that it is almost tempting to see informal prose as his true medium and private life as his métier. Besides, to get the best out of McGann’s edition you have to be reading it in three places at once – text, notes (often by Byron) and commentary (McGann’s). In the absence of a loose-leaf edition the serious reader needs three copies, and that, at £35 or £45 a (hardback) volume, is a tall order. Even so, there can’t be a Byron-fancier anywhere who wouldn’t hock all so-called criticism, even McGann’s very good earlier books, for the illumination he now offers in his edition. Forget the mind-blowing intricacies of the publication history of ‘The Giaour’. Forgive the gremlin, with a seemingly republican bias, who occasionally feeds out misinformation on Europe’s crowned heads (Caroline of Brunswick becomes George IV’s mother rather than his wife, and Napoleon is ‘still secured’ on St Helena in 1816, as though this was anything but a terminal arrangement). It is a huge task, these are small slips, and there remains no substitute for studying the greatly improved text of a major poet in its amplified context.

It is hard on Shelley, and doubly hard on Paul Foot, to turn to his book after the Byronic feast. Foot is modest about his own professional credentials – he charmingly quotes the equally charming observation of the Shelley scholar G.M. Matthews: ‘I do not think you err on the side of pedantry.’ The readership he aims at seems to be not so much the full-time, paid-up student of literature as the general reader or intelligent sixth-former – who may in fact already know enough to be put off by the opening sentences: ‘In the 12 years of Shelley’s adult life (1810-22), Britain had its worst government ever. That government devoted all its energies to two monstrous wars. The first was against Napoleon and the French armies. The second was against the mass of the British people.’ Like the title of one of Paul Foot’s earlier books, Why you should be a socialist, that is the message of the broadsheet in the vocabulary of Ladybird books.

And yet the best thing about Foot’s book is that it does draw attention to Shelley’s literary after-life, to his underground influence as a political educator and his special reputation among Chartists, Fabians and other progressives. Foot’s roll-call of Red Shelley’s feminist admirers is especially illuminating – Harriet Taylor, J.S. Mill, Olive Schreiner, Vera Brittain, Virginia Woolf. Shelley’s modern reputation has too often suffered from the outmoded phrasing of his other 19th-century disciples, who saw him as a would-be religious idealist, a winsome child who was, as Francis Thompson put it, ‘gold-dusty with tumbling amidst the stars’. Foot may err in his spelling but not on the point of substance when he says that Shelley was not one of your ‘bananas and sandles idealists’. He has the support of the best recent scholarly opinion when he insists that Shelley remained to the end an unrepentant atheist and an advocate of revolutionary change, though the Shelleyan, Godwinian hatred of violence left obscure the method by which the revolution was to be achieved.

On the other hand, Foot doesn’t get properly to grips either with Shelley’s poetry or with his politics. He has fresh things to say about the immature poetry, like ‘The Revolt of Islam’, where Shelley is being fairly crudely didactic in support of revolutionary idealism and of feminism, but he has no tools for exploring the far subtler developments of Shelley’s period of Italian exile, when in fact he followed a course similar to Byron’s. It’s a bit late in the day to advocate reading literature as a working-class autodidact of the 1880s might have.

The trained reader of poetry will feel that Foot has left the poetry out, and the trained historian will be no more satisfied. Studying Shelley’s politics can hardly make sense without analysing how he related to or compared with others: his father, who served the Duke of Bedford’s interest as a liberal Whig MP; William Cobbett, William Hone, Richard Carlile, the radical polemicists; Francis Burdett, John Cam Hobhouse, Jeremy Bentham, the radical figureheads; and of course Byron, the most-publicised liberal poet. If Paul Foot compares Shelley with anyone, it is with the paid-up post-Marxist; the tests of soundness are those appropriate to a later phase of radicalism, and they include an awareness of the importance of working-class participation and of political organisation. To be fair, Foot avoids twisting the evidence for the sake of simply recruiting Shelley: ‘those who claim him as a socialist strain the truth about him.’ But what should we claim Shelley as?

Glauco Cambon is a professional critic all right, and he has a story to tell which bears close comparison with those of Byron and Shelley. Ugo Foscolo was the leading Italian poet of the era following the French Revolution, which meant that he too experienced the trauma common to many educated nationals of countries at war with France. All his important work was achieved between the French invasion of his North Italian homeland, in 1797, and the withdrawal in 1814. For Foscolo, as for so many Italian liberals, the arrival of the French Revolutionary armies at first meant release from oligarchic misgovernment, Catholic bigotry or Austrian domination. In practice, rule from Paris instead of rule from Vienna could feel like an alternative petty despotism – and yet the fall of France spelt certain disaster. It drove Foscolo into political exile in England, where he achieved no further poetry and died in poverty in 1827.

Cambon chooses to elevate us above particular European experience around 1800 by making the story a timeless one. He proposes that Foscolo’s exile began early. Even Venice and Florence were only adoptive homes: he was born of a Greek mother and an Italian father on the Greek island of Zante. There is thus a biographical explanation why his poetry should be suffused with a sense of a lost homeland and a lost primal innocence. The artist who both chooses exile and carries a sense of exile with him is a phenomenon at least as old as the prophets of the Old Testament and Ovid, and as modern as Joyce and Pound. (Perhaps, though Cambon doesn’t go into this, the internal part is the birthright of man born of woman.)

At first sight, the eclecticism of Foscolo’s writing lends colour to Cambon’s international theme. The major work of his youth was The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis (1798), an epistolary novel heavily indebted to Goethe’s Werther and to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. But the poetry he wrote afterwards reverts in its phrasing to Dante and Petrarch, and beyond them to pre-Christian sources. The unfinished rhapsody ‘The Graces’ invokes Venus, rising from the waves, and the poet Tiresias, blinded when he saw Pallas naked. Cambon uses the with-it term ‘intertextuality’ for the feast of literary allusions, but shows that they extend to the other arts too – Botticelli’s painting of Spring and Canova’s recent statue of the Graces.

Unlike Foot, Cambon is clearly writing for students of literature. He assumes a knowledge of critical procedure but not of languages, and everywhere translates Foscolo’s graceful Italian into his own rather graceless English: with luck, the word ‘fecundate’ won’t catch on. As his field of comparison suggests, he presupposes a selective acquaintance with the Great Books of world literature rather than familiarity with other Romantic poets. In fact, for anyone with Byron or Shelley in close-up, some of his priorities will seem fairly perverse. In Byron’s introduction to Childe Harold IV, Foscolo is mentioned (favourably), and so are the disputes of Italian artists about Classicism and Romanticism. Cambon says nothing about these, nothing about where Foscolo stood, nothing about the circumstances which drove him into exile, and almost nothing about politics as they clearly must be reflected in his writing.

No doubt Cambon knows his market. Just the same, readers of the English Romantics will be stirred into making a few comparisons of their own. Foscolo’s earlier manner, visible not only in Jacopo Ortis but in the intense, whimsical, self-conscious letters he wrote to his mistress at the same time, looks typical of the efforts of young contemporaries to respond to life minute-by-minute and to manufacture a persona: Byron’s letters, along with Lamb’s and Keats’s, are eminently comparable. His later manner, the Neoclassical poetry, strongly resembles that of the English younger Romantics, especially Keats and Shelley. Though he was writing in the Neoclassical style a decade earlier than his English counterparts, he was a fellow liberal responding to the same disappointment. The Revolution seemed to have failed, not because it led to the mob and the Terror, but because it ended in Napoleon’s aggression and aggrandizement. Paganism kept alive the ideal of radical simplicity and made undying if notional war upon the feudal Catholic Europe of the dethroned monarchs. So did the device of making a hero of blind Homer and blind Tiresias, as Byron and Shelley would make heroes of Tasso, Dante and England’s blind prophet Milton. Writers are problematic heroes for revolutionary activists, to be sure, since they still carry the smack of self-indulgence and self-creating with them. But it is not so indulgent to play Tiresias as it is to play Werther. For all its indirection, Foscolo’s career, like Byron’s, gives the appearance of moving onwards and not just sideways.