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There’s a recurring question that springs to mind whenever I sit in the Starbucks in the Barnes & Noble in my little East Texas town and stare up at the mural of authors who all seem to have transcended time and space to have coffee alongside the hipsters: who the hell put Oscar Wilde next to George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, and Trollope? Seriously, is it any wonder that the man looks so damn bored? Wilde shouldn’t be surrounded by those Victorian fogies, he should be sipping gin with Truman Capote, Christopher Hitchens, Walt Whitman, and the one man who would almost certainly guarantee a good time, and who also happens to be the focus of this essay, George Gordon Lord Byron. The reason for such inclusion is simple, it’s fair to say that Bryon could be an absolute bitch when he wanted to be one. I use the word in the sense that Capote or Hitchens could bring out their inner “bitch” whenever someone at a dinner party decided to try and be cleverer than them and would often leave decimated by superior rhetorical ability. I know this is a platitude but sometimes I really wish I could have been a fly on the wall whenever Byron let loose one of those glorious aphorisms that sealed his entrance into hall of “Truly Spectacular One Liners,” if only to see and understand how it was that Rodney Dangerfield sealed his membership before the poet. Then again when you’ve starred in Caddy Shack, your “Immortality card” is pretty much secure. Unless you’re that blond kid who was the protagonist, and does anybody have any clue what happened to that guy?
The conflict with teaching and studying Byron is ever always his sexuality, and anyone who has ever taught underclassmen has known this pain. Before you can even begin She Walks in Beauty or Manfred, the question that always arises from the mouth of a student is “Wasn’t Byron gay?” To which case the only honest answer is “Shut up you knave I’m trying to inspire F@#%ING WISDOM IN YOUR BRAINS!”…though this may hurt your tenure track in the long run.
Now it’s important to recognize that being honest with students is vital to keeping them engaged with a work, and dismissal is the weakest tool in a teacher’s chest. Simply saying, “That’s not important” or “What you should be focusing on instead is…” isn’t going to keep a student paying attention because often the student that asks the question is already looking for an excuse not to bother or care about the poem. The best teachers in my experience will answer that question as best they can, replying that Byron was most likely bisexual because contemporary understandings of homosexuality are far different than they were two or three centuries ago. This is a way of answering the student’s question honestly, while also generating interest for students who may be gay or bisexual who are interested in reading the work of someone who shares their sexuality.
Handling Byron’s pickle fetish is one conflict for teachers, but the other problem was the man’s undaunted behavior. Lady Caroline Lamb created the stock phrase, yet accurate assumption of Byron, when she called him “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to know” and once again before we can even move forward it must be addressed why he acquired such a title. It wasn’t just that Byron slept with men and women, you also have to address his occasional boy-boffing, the pet bear he had while attending Cambridge, the numerous liaisons he had with women of high society, and worst of all his expulsion from England after it was “accused” of him that he was having an affair with his half-sister, and if any of your students are still listening and not rocking and reeling from the shock of all this then congrats you’re gonna have a fun semester.
I find it rather disappointing that Byron’s sex life is almost always the first topic of discussion whenever any conversations about the man’s work come into play. A good friend of mine, who threw away an incredible career as a historian to become an accountant, would always say first and foremost that both Byron and Wilde were slumbags and then usually change the subject quickly to discuss an obscure tactical move made by an even obscurer Prussian colonel before I could defend the actual poetry. Despite his character flaws, Byron is one of the most important poets of the Romantic period, not just because the man could string a few words together, but also because the man could write verse so complex in its construction and meter that it is still being discovered today. Byron’s work is a marvel worth the time, patience, and merit of those that would attempt to study it.
With that in mind I’ve decided to pass on that and discuss his Dedication in the epic Don Juan.
I’ve read passages from Child Harold, the poem that launched Byron to stardom overnight, and my initial reading lead me to the conclusion that, much like Paradise Lost and The Knights Tale, sometimes “Great Poetry” can be as painful as root canal surgery. I understand why we continue to study the poem, it establishes the blue print for the Byronic hero, at the same time however a great, and far more readable poem, is at many teachers and scholars’ disposal.
I began reading Don Juan because I had watched the film Don Juan de Marco starring Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando and about two Cantos in I began to realize this was the most approachable epic poem I had ever read. As I write this I realize that somewhere out there Homer just read that line and shed a single man tear, but screw him that boat chapter in The Iliad was torture. This ease was in no small part because of the fact that Byron is, for once it seems, enjoying poking fun at everyone and everything that deserves it in his estimation. The Dedication is to Robert Southey, who my reader will hopefully remember was the Poet Laureate of England at the time. Byron’s words speak for themselves, though I hope these first two stanza won’t require much explanation in terms of tone:
Bob Southey! You’re a poet—Poet-laureate,
And representative of all the race;
Although ’tis true that you turn’d out a Tory at
Last—yours has lately been a common case;
And now, my Epic Renegade! what are ye at?
With all the Lakers, in and out of place?
A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye
Like “four and twenty Blackbirds in a pye;
“Which pye being open’d they began to sing”
(This old song and new simile holds good),
“A dainty dish to set before the King,”
Or Regent, who admires such kind of food;
And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,
But like a hawk encumber’d with his hood,
Explaining Metaphysics to the nation—
I wish he would explain his Explanation.
If the phrase “sick burn” had been around I’m sure it would have been whispered between the smelly salons of Europe at this time (don’t forget they didn’t bath much). When I look back over this passage I can’t help but laugh because while Byron is being an absolute twat, the very fact that modern readers may appreciate that enrichens the experience. His line concerning Colerdige’s “explanations” is a reference to the man’s work in Biographia Literaria, and there again there is a liberation in the fact that there existed someone who possessed the courage to poke fun at one of the most brilliant minds of the Romantic Movement. Speaking of which, if one looks to the next two stanzas:
You, Bob! are rather insolent, you know,
At being disappointed in your wish
To supersede all warblers here below,
And be the only Blackbird in the dish;
And then you overstrain yourself, or so,
And tumble downward like the flying fish
Gasping on deck, because you soar too high, Bob,
And fall, for lack of moisture quite a-dry, Bob!
And Wordsworth, in a rather long “Excursion”
(I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
Has given a sample from the vasty version
Of his new system to perplex the sages;
‘Tis poetry—at least by his assertion,
And may appear so when the dog-star rages—
And he who understands it would be able
To add a story to the Tower of Babel.
Before I get into this it should be worth noting that the edition of Don Juan that I own there is a note after the “a-dry, Bob!” line. The explanation is too perfect to be paraphrased. I’m just gonna have to type it out. Please indulge me this once:
This ribaldry caused consternation among Byron’s friends in England, to whom the double entendre was obvious. In Regency slang “a dry Bob” meant coition without emission.
There’s a moment when you realize that Byron just published poem in which he says the Poet Laureate of England just shot off what now colloquially referred to as a “ghost load.” Not only that, he suggests the work of Southey amounts to a “ghost load” and if you’re not on board at this point then I’m sorry there’s not much more I can really do for you. Reading the Dedication is an experience so unusual to the studies of Romanticism for more often than not the Romantics are otherwise concerned with the Sublime, with memory, with emotional and psychological travesty resulting in despair, dejection, and something else that denotes misery that begins with “d.” Depression. Why couldn’t I remember that? It’s not only rare, it’s almost impossible to find such a text so rich with unabashed ribaldry and snark. If I may cite the fourth stanza where he moves on to Wordsworth’s Prelude, or “the brick.” I read The Prelude, or passages of it anyway, for the Romanticism course I took in the fall and Byron’s colorful description does not seem that far off the mark. The suggestion that, “I think the quarto holds five hundred pages,” may offend the seasoned Romantic who has spent the last six years writing an even longer book about such an immense and important work, but to the student who has to read those five hundred pages your emotions have suddenly become validated by a contemporary. Reading this criticism, and observing that I’m not the only one who read through that long poem scratching my head in places, has opened up the possibility to discuss if Wordsworth’s attempt to write in the language of common men truly succeeded.
The Dedication in my experience is more than just a chance for Byron to poke fun at Robert Southey and the Lake Poets, it’s an opportunity to discuss Byron outside of his sexual experiences. He becomes a political figure, a satirist, for ultimately Don Juan is a spoof of the persona that morphed and fashioned the man who resisted the image he created through his poetry. Byron was often compelled to satisfy the perception that he was the “Byronic hero” in his various poems and works, and no matter how hard he attempted to divorce himself from the public image, the masses would have their way. In the face of authority, tradition, and what can only be described as “Intense Britishness” Byron is playing, rather than attacking…actually no scratch that, Byron is attacking, but, there’s still the softened feature of jest in his works that is almost invisible in the remainder of his work. That in itself is significant.
His Dedication ends with a final address to Southey:
Where shall I turn me not to view its bonds,
For I will never feel them?—Italy!
Thy late reviving Roman soul desponds
Beneath the lie this State-thing breath’d o’er thee—
Thy clanking chain, and Erin’s yet green wounds,
Have voices—tongues to cry aloud for me.
Europe has slaves—allies—kings—armies still,
And Southey lives to sing them very ill.
Meantime—Sir Laureate—I proceed to dedicate,
In honest simple verse, this song to you,
And, if in flattering strains I do not predicate,
‘Tis that I still retain my “buff and blue”;
My politics as yet are all to educate:
Apostasy’s so fashionable, too,
To keep one creed’s a task grown quite Herculean;
Is it not so, my Tory, ultra-Julian?
Byron does not try to hide the contempt of English conservatism that is manifested, in his eyes, in the figure of Southey who has become, by his title, the face of institution. By accepting the “laurels” of such a position Southey has become Empire and tradition and politics and everything that should spell the end for artistic liberation for the self. One can almost hear Mark Twain’s Huck Finn in Byron’s final fleeing to England:
But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
Byron ain’t headed West to fight injuns, smoke pipes, and not bathe like a “real man,” but he is escaping something. It may be he sees in the Lake Poets a rejection of what he feels poetry should be. Rather than titles and prestige, poetry is the honest expression of feeling, it’s the translation of the chaos of raw emotion into a functional communication of passion.
The Dedication may not at first glance offer much for professors and teachers of the Romantic period, but upon deeper examination it will certainly offer up more satisfying class time than having to explain that the person Byron’s addressing in When we Two Parted could be either a man or a woman but that’s not important because KNOWLEDGE DAMN IT!
I’ve selected passages of the Dedication from Poetry Foundation and included a link to the site here. Hope you enjoy:
In case the reader is at all interested, I censored myself in the beginning because I was not sure how NASSR would react at including profanity on their lovely clean website. I assure you dear reader that I have apologized and placed a quarter in the Swear Jar shaped like William Wordsworth’s head. I feel a quarter may be a little severe for dropping an F-bomb, but screw it I understand they’re…what? Ah. Apparently “screw” was too naughty for their taste and I’m now out fifty cents.