“Polidori once asked Byron what, besides scribble verses, he could do better than Polidori himself. Byron icily replied: ‘Three things. First, I can hit with a pistol the keyhole of that door. Secondly, I can swim across that river to yonder point. And thirdly, I can give you a damned good thrashing.’”
OK, somebody go find a black goat somewhere, sharpen me a steak knife, and buy us some spray paint for a pentagram, ’cause we’re gonna resurrect us a champion who can kick the necessary ignorant Protestant ass and make it look easy.
And lucky for you, folks, I’ve pre-selected us a perfect demon: George Gordon, Lord Byron. He’s dead at the moment, but that’s a minor problem. Like his avatar, Prometheus, Byron can die and come back as often as you need him. Hell, he likes getting killed; he was a fighter. Single-handed, he took on the Wordsworth gang and kicked the sticks they had jammed up their asses right up through their teeth.
Byron’s time was like ours, a scared time, a period of reaction and retreat. His England ran the world without knowing or wanting to know a thing about it, just like our America. Our climate is in fact the same nasty Wordsworthian weather Byron fought all his life: humorless, sanctimonious, xenophobic, factional, and cruel. He spent his life firing back at that world in a long fighting retreat that saw him always heading South and East, away from “the moral North” where the Wordsworthian consensus was metastasizing.
And that, of course, is why Byron was adored in Europe but snubbed in England and America. He was everything Wordsworth’s gang was not. They were utterly humorless-a Romanticist once told me that “there are three jokes in Wordsworth, or so they say…but I can’t recall them.”
Byron has thousands of jokes-and better still, they’re actually funny. Not that he was simply trying to amuse. On the contrary, he meant to do great harm. Jokes were, for him, simply weapons against the solemn hicks-humor to sprinkle on their high seriousness like salt on slugs.
Byron was a fighter from childhood, a clubfoot semi-cripple who made himself a boxer and with typically Olympian kindness and disdain made himself the defender of nerds at his public school. He came from serious craziness, his father earning the nickname “Mad Jack” in an era when it took real ambition to seem more mad than the run of male aristocrats.
Probability bowed quickly to him, giving him a title he was never supposed to inherit, then making him instantly famous for Childe Harolde, his first and worst album. With fame, money and sex settled, he had to find something else to fight, and like any honorable man he chose to fight his own people. And that was how Byron the sentimental poet of graveyards and lost loves became the Satanic joker all England loved to hate.
He chose to be noisily “immoral” not because he was any worse (or any better) than the average aristocrat of his time but as a weapon against the moralism of Wordsworth. I don’t mean “moralism” in a normative sense-God no. I remember sifting through the elderly Wordsworth’s letters looking for any comment at all on the Great Famine which was extirpating the Irish, and finding only one remark, in which the great moralist earnestly prays that England will not weaken, ie provide any aid whatsoever. It’s one of the curiosities of English literary history that you’ll never find the least particle of compassion for the Irish in “moral” poets like Wordsworth.
Only the “mad, bad and dangerous” Byron mentioned the slaughter of 1798, attacking the PM, Castlereagh, for “dabbling [his] sleek young hands in Erin’s gore” and, as Pope would have recommended, delivering an extra kick to his enemy’s corpse in this epitaph: “Posterity will never survey a nobler grave than this: here lie the bones of Castlereagh: stop, traveler, and piss.”
That’s the formula Byron worked out for beating the Victorians: keep it low and funny, never flinch, and never stop kicking as hard as you can. He knew that the Victorians, like our Bush-leaguers, could not bear the notion of a world populated by grownups who fucked and laughed. So, at every possible opportunity, Byron counterposed his world to theirs: sexy where the Lakers were determinedly pre-pubescent, Continental where they were fiercely insular, facetious where they were hopelessly earnest.
Like our hick commissars, Wordsworth and his boys lived in the shadow of a great fire: the French Revolution. And like our hicks, they got it totally wrong. Instead of realizing that no heads ever deserved to roll more than those lopped by the so-called Terror, these pig-ignorant xenophobes developed a sudden case of compassion for the basketheads and started the deploring industry which is still going strong. Like Byron, they showed their allegiances in their choice of real estate.
While he fled England headin’ due SE, Wordsworth and his fellow Lakers fled straight NW, inland, ever inland! to the Lake District. Not because they loved Nature-these are creatures of fear, who loved nothing whatever. Their only emotion was fear, and they fled as far as they could from the Continent, the sea, the world of wogs, Papists, and rebels.
See, the bad guys won. It’s hard for us monolingual bumpkins to face that fact, because the bad guys, Wordsworth & co., speak English, and the good guys-Napoleon’s great army-spoke that language we can never pronounce right. The bad guys won at Trafalgar, the bad guys won at Waterloo. And they took their revenge by enforcing stupidity and intellectual cowardice.
We think 9/ll was bad, but it was a mild hangover compared to the orgy of churchgoing bullshit that consumed England post-Napoleon.
Stendahl summed up Byron’s role in fighting this Bush-league reaction: “Like a child, Lord Byron exposed himself to the attacks of English high society, that aristocracy all-powerful, inexorable, terrible in its vengeance… which cannot, without utter loss of self-control, bear the mockery of its children. The fear generated…by [the French Revolution]…has made the English aristocracy we see today: so strong, so morose, so riddled with hypocrisy.”
Byron is a comic poet simply because that was the best way to hurt the proto-Victorian enemy that “cannot…bear the mockery of its children.” He’s often dismissed as “merely” comic, but there was nothing “mere” in this choice of weapons.
Every word he wrote, no matter how seemingly casual or flippant, was an act of war against his home country.
The Victorian sensibility repaid the compliment by smearing Byron as well as Karl Rove himself could have done it. If you know only one thing about Byron, it’s probably that quote about him: “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”-or the story that he had an affair with his sister.
Byron colluded with the smear for strategic reasons. The blacker they painted him, the bigger the Wordsworthian idiots made him among the early 19th-century Goth kids who adored him. Byron played the PR beautifully-he was, after all, the first real Star in the history of the world. And as a follower of Pope’s notion of poetry as dramatized combat, he depended on being attacked, always happy to be provoked. And since he was about a million times smarter than Wordsworth’s goons, he could turn these provocations into the makings of beautiful, lethal comic verse.
So Byron must have giggled and hopped joyously around on his club foot when Robert Southey, a Laker spear-carrier who was one of the worst poets writing, and a proud traitor to the European Revolution, labeled him “Satanic”: “The publication of a lascivious book is one of the worst offences…against the well-being of society. The [literary] school [Byron and friends] have set up may properly be called the Satanic school…”
Southey’s indictment has a nasty contemporary sound to it, with its solemn concern for “society”-in fact, it’s exactly the sort of crap I’ve been getting from James Frey’s fans for years now, all those earnest scolding illiterates chiding me for failing to endorse shit writing for the good of all those poor addicts out there. These cockroaches are all over the place again, it’s as bad as it was in 1820. And that’s why it’s the perfect time to summon Byron…because just wait till I show you what he did to that miserable pious jerk Southey. Oh, it was glorious.
He ripped that sanctimonious hick into little tiny bloody scraps. And not just once. Oh no. Byron killed Southey in wonderful satiric verse, and then killed him again, and then stitched the corpse together so he could rip it up in print a few more times.
By the time Byron was ready to smash Southey, he had migrated to Venice, the most oriental and immoral of Italian cities, and was living with a local mistress in a rented palace with its own private zoo. He found an Italian poetic form he liked, adapted to disrespectful and immoral verse of the sort he loved to fire back at the North, and used it to produce his masterpiece, Don Juan.
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