So, 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 The aristocrats have been replaced by monied conservatives and Republicans.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.