Byron & Shelley: The Making of the Poets


Byron_ShelleySo, the other book I read was Byron & Shelley in their Time: The Making of the Poets. This is written by Ian Gilmour. Gilmour’s writing is much different from Sisman’s. Whereas Sisman’s narrative voice is more generically reportorial, Gilmour packs his narrative with subjective opinion and analysis – revealing a knowledge of culture and politics that Sisman nowhere matches.  Gilmour digs in, hard, giving opinions on both Byron and Shelley’s behavior — and doesn’t pull any punches. I frankly like Gilmour’s style of writing more than Sisman’s. If Gilmour thinks Shelley was  being ridiculous, he says so. And there’s plenty of opportunity. Interestingly, it strikes me that Gilmour repeatedly dismisses Shelley’s atheism and I do have to wonder whether part of that is because of his having been a Conservative MP from 1962 to 1992, “having served as Secretary of State for Defense under Edward Heath and then as Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher.”  I don’t know if a conservative MP is the same thing as a conservative in the United States (those in the United States never saw a problem the Bible couldn’t fix.)

The downside to Gilmour’s biography is that there’s relatively little poetry. He spends much of his time on Byron and Shelley’s politics (which makes sense, I suppose, given his background) and sexual proclivities, speculating time and again on whether their various physical ailments were due to STD’s. To be fair, the lion’s share of the biography takes place before they had written anything memorable, and yet some influence on their later work ought to be demonstrable. If you visit Amazon you’ll see that other readers thought Gilmour dwelt too much on the “biography” and too little on the poetry.

As for myself, the whole book was an education on the brutal Lord of the Flies that was the British educational system, and the incompetent, self-interested, cruel corruption that characterized the rule of the aristocracy. What really struck me is how, in certain respects, little has changed. We still see the same forces battling each other today, including in the United States. The aristocrats have been replaced by monied conservatives and Republicans. The Republicans of Byron and Shelley’s day, on the other hand, have become our modern liberals. Just as the authoritarian English aristocrats felt they were entitled to their money and status (and didn’t owe a shred of their wealth to the less well off) so it is with modern authoritarian conservatives — whose cries of socialism are little more than an affirmation of Social Darwinism (which is all well and good when the money’s in their pocket).

The British  government didn’t serve the people; it was the other way around and knowingly so. And Religion, by the way, really was the opiate of the masses. The upper classes knowingly expected the Church (which has almost always enjoyed the status of an aristocracy) to uphold the social order:

Together with Napolean and many others, Edmund Burke was convinced that only if religion was able to keep the poor, if not contented, at least quiescent, could great inequalities of wealth survive. Thus to the Church — long an important part of the state — fell the task of providing ‘divine cement’ to hold society together by urging the poor to seek their consolation in the next world, not this one. [p. 48]

In our own time, the parallel is to the elevation of unregulated Capitalism. Just as the poor were urged to seek consolation in the “next world”, the poor in the United States are urged to seek consolation in the promise that they too, given the right  circumstances, could enjoy the ‘next world’ that the wealthy and rich already enjoy — the ‘divine cement’ of modern America is the illusion of “equal opportunity” or rather, the notion that all opportunity is equal, that the same wealth can be had by all — promised (though through different means) by both Republicans and Democrats. Gilmour goes on to add:

William Wilberforce, who took a much stronger line on slavery, of course, also urged the poor to be grateful for having to withstand fewer temptations than the rich, consequently they should be content to have ‘food and raiment’ (even though many of them did not have enough) since ‘their situation’ was better ‘than they deserved at the hand of God.’ [p. 48]

And for comparison’s sake, here’s Tucker Carlson of Fox News:

 “All of us should be happy about one thing, and it’s that for the first time in human history you have a country whose poor people are fat.  So this does show this sort of amazing abundance.  For the last however many millennia, poor people starved to death.  And this is a country that’s so rich, whose agriculture sector is so vibrant and at the cutting edge technologically, that our food is so cheap, poor people are fat! I mean, I don’t know. We shouldn’t take that for granted.”

It’s the same monied aristocracy alive and well today. By today’s standards, Shelley would be a scrappy progressive writing blistering jeremiads for far left think tanks, giving Republicans dyspepsia (he reviled marriage before settling, it seems, for an open marriage), and Byron would be the well-heeled Democratic Senator from Massachusetts (a devastatingly handsome, brilliant, womanizing, Ivy-League progressive with a gated colonial at Martha’s Vineyard). Both Shelley (and Bryon especially) came from aristocratic families, and both were active in their political leanings. For example, the British law of the entail requires that the passage of (a landed estate) [be limited] to a specified line of heirs, so that it cannot be alienated, devised, or bequeathed.” This meant, by law, that Shelley was entitled to his father’s inheritance and estate (and none of his sisters). And, as it turns out, William Bysshe Shelley was the first and only eldest son and aristocrat, in the history of England, who tried to disinherit himself — so disgusted was he by the whole system. Shelley’s father, Timothy Shelley, a cold, disinterested and inept father of strong conservative conviction would have been equally happy to disinherit his son:

Shelley had had no word from his father. As soon as Timothy received his son’s letter of 25 August, posted by Charles Grove (which, as we have seen, boorishly demanded his belongings), he hastened to London to consult Whitton, his solicitor. He would have liked to disinherit his son, but Whitton showed him that the entails ruled that out, much as they had ruled out Shelley disinheriting himself. [p. 280]

And that was that. Gilmour also devotes a chapter to Shelley’s trip to Dublin, Ireland.

The object of his Address to them, which he had written at Keswick and revised in Dublin where it was printed cheaply and shoddily, was to ‘awaken… the Irish poor’ to the evils of their present state and suggest ‘rational means of remedy — Catholic Emancipation, and a Repeal of the Union Act, (the latter the most successful engine that England ever wielded over the misery of fallen Ireland,)… Hence, Shelley had ‘wilfully vulgarized its language… [to suit] the taste and comprehension of the Irish peasantry who have been too long brutalized by vice and ignorance.’ [p. 306]

Gilmour goes on to assert that Shelley misjudged the Irish only insomuch,  it seems, as he was too progressive. “Shelley further offended his target readers by telling them that the gates of heaven were open to people of every religion, which was not the general view in a country where, as Byron had written… ‘jarring sects convulse a sister isle'” [p. 307] Byron, on the other hand, is portrayed as a more practical personality with a more  even-keeled intelligence. And that’s where I discovered that I liked Byron after all, and more than Shelley (though I don’t dislike Shelley).

Byron’s ill-repute is based on his womanizing, his  incestuous relationship with his sister, and his aristocratic hypocrisy (while decrying the undeserved entitlements of the ‘nobility’, he nevertheless took offense at the most trivial slights to his own). In another biography of Byron and Shelley (I’ve just started) the author, John Buxton, puts it this way:

Charles Hentsch, the banker, who at twenty-six was already well known [in Geneva] came [to Byron] to apologise for not recognizing Byron when he visited the bank on the previous day. He had the tact to say that he had had no idea that he was then speaking to one of the most famous Lords of England. Byron took to him at once (as he would not have done had Hentsch called him one of the most famous poets of England… [p. 6 Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship]

That made me laugh. And I’m inclined to agree with Buxton. The thing about Byron though (and this is also true of Shelley) is that one has to consider his upbringing before judging his adulthood. Byron was born with a club foot (or an abnormality that was inaccurately diagnosed as such). As a child, he had to wear a brace (concocted by a quack) which was ostensibly meant to correct the leg but only caused extreme pain and possibly worsened Byron’s leg. Once Byron landed in school, a brutal environment where a hundred boys might be ‘disciplined’ by a single adult, he was bullied mercilessly because of it  (like Shelley for smallness, eccentricity and effeminacy). Sex between adolescent boys was, if not rampant, tacitly accepted. Boys were expected to grow out of their homosexual experimentation (if not desperation) once they reached manhood. Education for the young men of the aristocracy was a brutal affair, a true Lord of the Flies tale of bullying, favoritism and ruthless hierarchy. Shelley learned to identify with the downtrodden, as did Byron, who pointedly protected younger students from bullying once he was old enough (another reason I like him).

Byron was also sexually exploited [abused?] as a child by his nurse, May Gray:

According to Byron, he ‘certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; yet he had sexual experiences. These were provided by his nurse Mary Gray. As the boy subsequently told his solicitor… his sternly Calvinist nurse ‘used to come to bed to him and play tricks with his person… [p. 35]

Add to this the extremes of anger and affection that characterized his mother, the utter abandonment of his gold-digging (if not sociopathic) father, and the Gordon and Byron family history of murderous dysfunction  (too much to go into), it honest-to-God makes George Gordon Lord Byron look like a Saint (compared to who he could have been). If incest and aristocratic hypocrisy are the worst of this crimes, then I love the man. As to Byron’s seemingly “misogynistic” attitude toward women, this was not unique to Byron, but was shared by nearly all men of the age (except perhaps the ‘pantisocratic‘ Coleridge). Women, by in large, were considered light-brained, trivial beings, incapable of much beyond macramé and sugar plums.

The opinion I have of the generality of women–who appear to me as children to whom I would rather give a sugar plum than my time, forms a barrier against matrimony which I rejoice in. ~ John Keats

And if we’re fair, women chased Byron with as much alacrity as he chased them. It’s not as if Byron thrust himself on them (or his sister). The Byron that I discovered (more so than with Shelley I think) was a deeply intelligent man, inquisitive, gentle, sensitive to the suffering of others, compassionate, with a fixed sense of right and wrong, but also proud, quick to take offense, and volatile. In his maiden speech to the House of Lords, prompted by the 1812 Frame Breaking Act, he could write the following:

But suppose it past,—suppose one of these men, as I have seen them meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life which your lordships are perhaps about to value at something less than the price of a stocking-frame ; suppose this man surrounded by those children for whom he is unable to procure bread at the hazard of his existence, about to be torn for ever from a family which he lately supported in peaceful industry, and which it is not his fault than he can no longer so support; suppose this man—and there are ten thousand such from whom you may select your victims,—dragged into court to be tried for this new offence, by this new law,—still there are two things wanting to convict and condemn him, and these are, in my opinion, twelve butchers for a jury, and a Jefferies for a judge!”

 The force of Byron’s personality (which he captured in the heroes of his poetry) led to the neologism: Byronic.

“…a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection” ~ Lord Macauley

All that said, if Shelley walked through the door, I’d drop everything: my best wine, a four course dinner. and maybe my lover if he asked. I mean, come on, it’s Shelley and Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein. Maybe, at some point, we’d discuss poetry; but to spend the evening with that keen and impatient idealist — and intelligence — would be pretty cool.

So, anyway, this post is just some brief impressions and the renewal of my friendship with Byron. Gilmour’s book ends just before Byron and Shelley meet, so while I can guess at the mutual attraction (similar backgrounds, sympathies and politics), I haven’t read the biography. Fortunately, John Buxton’s  Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship (written earlier) will pick up where Gilmour left off. I’ll report on that book too, when I’m done with it.

9 responses

  1. So what is your estimate of them as poets? Would welcome “Vermont’s choice” of a poem or stanza that shows them at their best.

    • Okay, as long as we don’t pretend that I know what their best poems were. One by each comes to mind:

      Byron: So, we’ll go no more a roving…


      It’s passages like this:

      ” Lo ! where the pass expands
      Its stony jaws, the abrupt mountain breaks,
      And seems with its accumulated crags
      To overhang the world : for wide expand,
      Beneath the wan stars and descending moon,
      Islanded seas, blue mountains, mighty streams,
      Dim tracks and vast robed in the lustrous gloom
      Of leaden-coloured even, and fiery hills
      Mingling their flames with twilight on the verge
      Of the remote horizon. The near scene.
      In naked and severe simplicity,
      Made contrast with the universe. A pine.
      Rock-rooted, stretched athwart the vacancy
      Its swinging boughs, to each inconstant blast
      Yielding one only response at each pause.
      In most familiar cadence — with the howl. ”

      Or the strikingly similar passage from the Cenci:

      But I remember
      Two miles on this side of the fort, the road
      Crosses a deep ravine; ’tis rough and narrow,
      And winds with short turns down the precipice;
      And in its depth there is a mighty rock, 285
      Which has, from unimaginable years,
      Sustained itself with terror and with toil
      Over a gulph, and with the agony
      With which it clings seems slowly coming down;
      Even as a wretched soul hour after hour, 290
      Clings to the mass of life; yet clinging, leans;
      And leaning, makes more dark the dread abyss
      In which it fears to fall: beneath this crag
      Huge as despair, as if in weariness,
      The melancholy mountain yawns … below, 295
      You hear but see not an impetuous torrent
      Raging among the caverns, and a bridge
      Crosses the chasm; and high above there grow,
      With intersecting trunks, from crag to crag,
      Cedars, and yews, and pines; whose tangled hair 300
      Is matted in one solid roof of shade
      By the dark ivy’s twine. At noonday here
      ’Tis twilight, and at sunset blackest night.

      One might fairly counter that these are somewhat Elizabethan in flavor and don’t represent Shelley’s best work, but I’ve always loved passages like these.

  2. “All that said, if Shelley walked through the door, I’d drop everything: my best wine, a four course dinner, and maybe my lover if he asked. I mean, come on, it’s Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. Maybe, at some point, we’d discuss poetry; but to spend the evening with that keen and impatient idealist — and intelligence — would be pretty cool.”

    To Wordsworth

    Poet of Nature, thou hast wept to know
    That things depart which never may return:
    Childhood and youth, friendship and love’s first glow,
    Have fled like sweet dreams, leaving thee to mourn.
    These common woes I feel. One loss is mine
    Which thou too feel’st, yet I alone deplore.
    Thou wert as a lone star, whose light did shine
    On some frail bark in winter’s midnight roar:
    Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood
    Above the blind and battling multitude:
    In honoured poverty thy voice did weave
    Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,—
    Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
    Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.

    Still cool?

    • Still cool. Wordsworth was greatly admired in his own day, and I don’t begrudge that admiration. Shelley, the idealist though, isn’t writing in praise of Wordsworth, but deploring Wordsworth’s turn to conservatism. I can’t entirely blame Wordsworth however. He and many others had great hopes for the French revolution, and felt betrayed when the murderous Robespierre appeared, then later Napoleon. Wordsworth and others, including Coleridge, had risked a great deal when they initially supported the French. They risked prosecution for sedition (the British aristocracy was extremely unnerved by the popular French uprising) only to be embarrassed, if not humiliated, when the murderous excesses of the revolution served to confirm the suspicions of critics. Wordsworth, who had been an Paris at the outset, felt especially burned by the whole experience. His idealism, rather than maturing, turned against itself. His interests became parochial and reactionary (or at least that’s the biography I’ve read).

  3. I reckon you’re familiar with T.S. Eliot’s views of Shelley. He felt about Shelley almost the way you feel about Wordsworth—unreadable. I think Eliot thought he was a little too pushy with his ideas. Not a problem for me, because I’m an idealist too, though about other ideas. Can’t understand why T.S. couldn’t have been more gracious about this if I can.

    • I’m familiar with Eliot’s views but, you know, I’ve never read the actual Norton lecture. I should, and have just ordered the book. My understanding is that Eliot was being a Christian prude in his criticism of Shelley — much put off by Shelley’s call for free love. (Eliot, I think, had “issues”.) He also insinuated that Shelley was the rich and spoiled son of an aristocrat, all hat and no cattle.

      Eliot couldn’t have been more wrong in his assessment of Shelley’s character. His mother and father were coldly indifferent. They didn’t raise him but left the boy to his sisters. At boarding school he was brutally bullied. He didn’t have it easy and, in the end, practiced what he preached. As I wrote, Shelley was the first and only first-in-line who tried to disinherit himself. I suspect that Eliot didn’t really know much about Shelley’s biography, and why should he? In short, Eliot’s objections are of the ‘straw man’ variety.

      But setting that aside, disliking a poet because one objects to his or her opinions is different than disliking a poet because he or she writes poorly. The latter is something the reader ought to be able to objectively demonstrate. What’s subjective is whether one can tolerate it. My disagreement with Wordsworth is that he’s a demonstrably poor writer/poet. Just yesterday, I was trying to think of a better way to characterize him — and that’s that he’s probably the most mediocre of the “great” poets.

  4. Thank you for both this post and the one on Wordsworth and Coleridge, I really enjoyed reading them both!

    I wholeheartedly recommend Richard Holmes’ biography Shelley: The Pursuit. It’s both a sensational read and meticulously researched and is generally considered one of the best literary biographies ever written. One of those biographies which manages to get you, the reader, inside the head of its subject like you know them personally. And there’s a decent chunk of analysis on his poetry as well (even his juvenalia).

    You are absolutely right to suspect that Gilmour is whitewashing Shelley’s atheism. While travelling through Switzerland he wrote in a hotel guestbook “Name: Shelley. Occupation: Atheist. Destination: Hell”; this caused a scandal when reported back in England. I don’t think anyone can read the furious denunciations of religion in Queen Mab without being disingenuous in casting him as a religious person. Though to be cautious, I don’t think Shelley was atheist in the modern, materialist sense. That had to wait for Darwin.

    As for Byron…blech. Reading about his trip to Greece and Turkey which went into Childe Harold is nauseating. For all the orientalism, the true purpose of the voyage was for Byron to have sex with young male prostitutes. And the popular image of him as the Byronic hero feels to me as simply a fabrication for his own publicity. I mean, yes, Byron didn’t have the best upbringing, but this scathing depiction of his own mother in Don Juan is (while very funny) more or less a fabrication for poetic fodder. An insincere, belligerent, egomanaical aristocrat.

    Shelley I think also suffers from some of the same flaws, being an aristocrat who also ran around wracking up unpayable debts that others had to foot the bill for. On his upbringing, it was quite normal and even libertine until he went to boarding school. Holmes writes anecdotes about as a child how Shelley would run about the house conducting ‘science experiments’, such as blowing up furniture with gunpowder and electrocuting his younger sisters. But yeah, he was horribly bullied at Eton for refusing to take part in the hierarchical fagging system at the school. Overall though, I love the bloke. He’s my favourite (not the best, Keats is probably better) of all the English poets. He writes with such sincerity and belief married with an austere classicism in his mature style. Whereas Keats can be a bit provincial at times (perhaps that’s unfair…), Shelley is always trying to save the world. It’s so sad that he died at the age of 29 just as he was writing his best stuff. Lines written in the Bay of Lerici is probably my favourite lyric ever:

    And the fisher with his lamp
    And spear about the low rocks damp
    Crept, and struck the fish which came
    To worship the delusive flame.

    I don’t know why, but I just adore that image.

    On Wordsworth and Coleridge, I generally agree with respect to their character and poetry. Wordsworth was a prig and an astoundingly narrow thinker. His philosophy is as if someone had bashed him over the head with Rousseau until he had suffered irreparable brain damage! But I think it’s only fair to point out that by the latter stage of the two men’s friendship Coleridge had turned into an opium-addict, financial drain and general social embarrassment for Wordsworth. And while nothing in his oeuvre can compare to, say, Frost in Midnight (that last stanza…wow!!), I do enjoy the pastorals like Michael and The Ruined Cottage in a cozy, comfort-food sort of way. The sort of thing you can read in front of the fire and get pleasantly sentimental over. And I think the first two books of The Prelude are genuinely good (“As if with voluntary power instinct…” – such a good line) when he’s not being completely didactic.

    It’s almost 5am, so I’ll stop rambling here (I have to be up in 3 hours…). One could write about the Romantics all day! Such an astonishing generation or two.

    • Thanks Will. I’ve all but finished another biography called Byron & Shelley: The History of a Friendship, and not that good; but more on that in another post. After reading your comment, I waited to respond because I was looking up more biographical information Byron. The picture that’s beginning to emerge is of a man who was the victim of his own fame. According to my reading, England could be a vicious mill of rival cliques, innuendo, rumor, gossip, etc… Seems that literate society liked nothing more than to delight in, and condemn, the perceived “moral” failings of peers — the more “peerish”, the better. The same sort of thing goes on today. The trolls have moved to the Internet, but trolls have always been around; and Byron seems to have been an especially rewarding target for some very vicious and nasty trolling — who could in some ways be compared to paparazzi, but with pens rather than cameras.

      He fled England and assiduously avoided the English once abroad. So, what do I think Byron was really like? Having read a lot of biography on Shakespeare, especially as regards the utterly trumped up authorship controversy, I’ve gradually learned to be reasonably skeptical of anything biographical. You write that Byron’s trip to Greece and Turkey was for the enjoyment of male prostitutes. Possibly, but I have to say that this is precisely the kind of rumor — and lies — that were typically spread about Byron in his day. Byron had a variety of enemies who, as an added bonus, could expect an ample monetary reward for trolling him (due to the salacious interests of the public). Certainly, there’s circumstantial suggestion of bisexuality and pederasty, but hard and fast evidence? There is none.

      I’m not suggesting that the rumors are utterly unfounded, but we also have to question the motives of various modern biographers. There’s an article that discusses the code words in Byron’s poetry suggesting homosexuality. On the face of it, it’s persuasive; but then I’ve seen the same sort of analysis suggesting, with equal forcefulness, that Shakespeare left codewords revealing that he was really Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford.

      My own feeling is that whenever you read some salacious “facts” about Byron’s life (such that he slept with his sister); just remember when and by whom these rumors got started. I mean, incredibly unreliable stuff propagated by a class-culture that was virulently cliquish and scandal-thirsty. What a feast Lord Byron must have been!

      It’s also the rare biographer who approaches his or her subject without biases and agendas. There’s ample agenda for some biographers and “scholars” to insist that Byron was gay as a March Maypole. Others demur, preferring a “straight” Byron.

      Increasingly, and knowing the merciless rumor-mongering to which the “godless” Byron and Shelley were subject (not to mention Wordsworth and Coleridge); I’ve really grown skeptical of some of the claims made for Byron. The bottom line is that no one really has evidence. There’s always the burned memoirs and destroyed letter. Why? What salacious truths did they conceal! As if the fact of their destruction were evidence of some sort.

      All sides (the homosexual versus the bi– versus the heterosexual Byron) accuse the other sides of whitewashing, invention, omission, fabrication, etc… What that tells the reader is that no one truly knows — and to be skeptical of all of them. :-)

  5. Pingback: “Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship” : Review « PoemShape

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