‘Temperate I am, yet never had a temper,’ Byron wrote in the unfinished seventeenth canto of Don Juan, whose fragments he took with him on his final expedition to Greece in 1823:
Modest I am, though with some slight assurance,
Changeable too, yet somehow idem semper,
Patient, though not enamoured of endurance
Cheerful, but sometimes rather apt to whimper,
Mild, but at times a sort of Hercules furens,
So that I almost think that the same skin
For one without has two or three within.
The picture is both strangely boastful and disarmingly self-mocking, the complacent self-assessment of a man confident in the interest with which others assess him. He puzzled himself, sometimes happily, sometimes less so, and left his life ‘a problem, like all things’ to his future biographers, who have portrayed him in almost as great variety as he portrayed himself. Most of these versions are more or less familiar, and more or less incompatible with each other: the melancholy misanthrope, the people’s champion, the arrogant peer, the man of action, the play-soldier, the fool of women, the bane of women, the gay icon, the Romantic, the anti-Romantic. He wrote of his own journal: ‘If I am sincere with myself (but I fear one lies more to oneself than to any one else), every page should confute, refute, and utterly abjure its predecessor.’
Biographers probably set out with a similar intention, though their accounts tend to shade towards one or other of the modest ‘two or three within’ that Byron himself recognized. Fiona MacCarthy’s new Life picks out three features in particular for special treatment: Byron’s carefully nurtured celebrity, his thwarted homosexuality, and his political engagement. The last two are perhaps slightly more controversial. Byron’s politics have sometimes been dismissed as ineffectual and insincere, sometimes championed as heroic and revolutionary. His sexuality has come under increasing scrutiny since British censorship laws were relaxed in the 1960s. MacCarthy’s account is generally fair, though she tries to undermine Byron’s heterosexual passions, sometimes to the detriment of her biography; her sexual argument is curiously connected to the political, however, and the overall effect is striking.
George Gordon Byron was born in London in 1788 to Catherine Gordon, a young Scottish heiress who had more money than sense, and ‘Mad Jack’ Byron, a handsome captain embarking on his second marriage, who had neither. He was raised, a surprisingly ordinary, plump and Scottish child, in Aberdeen till he was ten, when the death of his great-uncle William, the fifth Lord Byron, passed the title to George. Whereupon he shifted with his mother to the family estate at Newstead, near Nottingham, and slowly began to move up in the world: went to Harrow at thirteen and Cambridge at seventeen; toured the continent with his friend Hobhouse for two years in 1809, returned alone, made his maiden speech in the House of Lords, published his account of the trip, Childe Harold, and awoke famous; was lionized and frequently loved; began an affair with Augusta Leigh, his half-sister from their father’s previous marriage; married, partly to avoid the scandal, in 1815; separated a year later; after which, harried by creditors and rumours of incest and sodomy, he set off for the continent again, where he would die, famously, fighting for Greek independence, at the age of thirty-six.
For MacCarthy it is ‘Byron’s Napoleonism, his active involvement in political events of his own day and age’ that distinguishes him most sharply from the English Romantic poets that were his contemporaries. The claim demands a host of qualifications. The Lakers began their careers as revolutionaries and utopians, although in later life they more or less retired to their Lakes (metaphorically, that is: watery, sinecured, or opiate). Wordsworth never published his strongest political protest, the Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, and would have ‘refuted and abjured’ it many times over before he died; he did play a later part in local politics—electioneering for the Tories in Westmorland. Shelley has generally been considered the most radical of the English Romantics. He was sent down from Oxford for his postures on atheism; spoke in Dublin on the Irish question; pamphleteered on topics ranging from vegetarianism to human rights; and wrote a series of what have become classic political and poetical revolutionary texts, from A Philosophical View of Reform to the rousing ‘Song for the Men of England’. But most of these remained unpublished in his lifetime—owing in part to his unwillingness to leave Italy for England, where he might have faced imprisonment for his sedition.
MacCarthy’s argument requires that Byron’s ‘active political involvement’ belonged to a different class of protest, although the background is somewhat scanted in her account. As a boy he had read histories of ‘most of the countries of Europe’ as well as Rome and Ancient Greece; at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar he kept a bust of Napoleon in his room at Harrow. But it was his time in Spain, where he travelled with Hobhouse during the insurgency of the Peninsular War, that seemed to have formed Byron’s anti-imperial outlook and national-independence sympathies. It was an important part of the education that, later on in the tour, he turned to write about in the first Canto of Childe Harold—denounced by the Antijacobin Review as ‘the rant of democracy in its wildest form’. The Spanish rebellion brought out the ambivalence of his views on Bonaparte: