“…Watch the manoeuvres of the week-end hikers
Massed on parade with Kodaks or with Leicas…”
Letter to Lord Byron
At the beginning of this trip I wrote of W.H. Auden’s poem, “Dover” which caught so well the essential nature of Kent’s port town - and gateway to Europe – seventy years ago. Shortly before the poet’s stay there with Isherwood in 1937, Auden visited Iceland. Which produced the long state of the nation (seen from away, home thoughts and all that) poem: “Letter to Lord Byron.” It is a (highly sophisticated) kind of blogging in transit, and conversation across time.
“For since the British Isles went Protestant
A church confession is too high for most.
But still confession is a human want,
So Englishmen must makes theirs now by post
And authors hear them over breakfast toast.
For, failing them, there’s nothing but the wall
Of public lavatories on which to scrawl.
…I have, at the age of twenty-nine
Just read Don Juan and I found it fine.
I want a form that’s large enough to swim in,
And talk on any subject that I choose,
From natural scenery to men and women,
Myself, the arts, the European news:
And since she’s on a holiday, my muse
Is out to please, find everything delightful
And only now and then be mildly spiteful."
Auden celebrates in imitation (though not content) a man, a style, and an approach that doesn’t appear to resonate so well with our times. He echoes both Byron’s “Don Juan” and “Child Harold”.
Lord Byron, mad, bad and dangerous to know, represents the spirit of a different age, and though his “idea” has had many revivals since the early part of the nineteenth century, I reckon his stock is low at the moment. Or as Auden wrote of his own time in the mid 1930s:
“The vogue for Black Mass and the cult of devils
Has sunk. The Good, the Beautiful, the True
Still fluctuate about the lower levels
Joyces are firm and there there’s nothing new
Eliots have hardened just a point or two.
Hopkins are brisk, thanks to some recent boosts
There’s been some further weakening in Prousts”
At my school in the 1970s Byron’s fellow “Romantic poets” Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge got a better press; Byron was always thought a little “light”. Reading Byron later in life his poetry comes across as remarkably modern: worldly, serious and yet effortless. His life – and certainly his loves – speaks to that rock and roll lifestyle that might have happened in the sixties and seventies, whilst his work reflects a high and subtle intelligence utterly lacking the ponderous emphasis of a Wordsworth; these days a McEwan. “Child Harold” gives us the fully rounded, fatally flawed “Byronic” hero, filled with ennui, in search of something.
Child Harold is a long verse drama; its protagonist is an English nobleman making a Tom-style grand tour of Europe, albeit with a little more action with the ladies. More than this the places he visits give up a little of their stories as he wanders, post the Napoleonic wars…
“…Gaul may champ the bit
And foam in fetters; - but is the Earth more free?”
…in search of an elusive way to be. One academic writes that these places are “a sequence of geo-historical spots with pre-existent narratives, spots that in some sense speak for themselves. Looking at it this way round Byron might be seen as a brilliantly individual amanuensis to whom the European landscape is dictating its histories, while his psychological interiority is an effect that the poem’s places produce as their histories are articulated.”
That’s the hope for all writing which encompasses the idea of travel and the individual consciousness: Tom Coryat being the “first”, and – in the end – not prepared to reveal the personal side of this journeys, preferring the studied and the observed, is rarely, save for Venice, possessed by place enough to let it dictate to him. To free his mind.
“What exile from himself can flee?
To zones though more and more remote,
Still, still pursues, where’er I be,
The blight of life – the demon Thought.”
Only when this “possession” takes place; is the starting point of observation and then communication, can what I think of as a “lost” Europeanism be grasped. It is not just the churches, (I have seen a lot in Venice, without joy, they are backdrops to photo-shoots and audio guides), the art (collected at auction, or on memory card for one-day download to I-Photo), can any description be meaningful. Or rather, can be helpful.
And all this is done in “Child Harold” without seeming effort: neither this quality, nor the light and the subtle that are Byron’s stock in trade are not high-priority in our zeitgeist now: we prefer more stolidly laboured prose; something tied far more closely to either complete fantasy or the grimly suffered; or linked with celebrity for its own sake, rather than artistic excellence. I am sure Byron would have enjoyed Richard Dawkins crusade for atheism. Would have enjoyed his celebrity though, no doubt of that.
As he claimed to have slept with 200 women in 200 days in Venice (and Italian critics still often refer to him as a homosexual: an interesting definition) what is, perhaps, most surprising is the final impact of Venice on Europe’s leading Romantic ‘trouser snake”. Venice tamed even Byron
“But midst the crowd, the hum, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel, and to possess,
And roam along, the world’s tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endured,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less,
Of all that flatter’d, follow’d. sought and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!”
Instead of the wild, womanising figure we know Venice turned Byron into a somewhat formal character; he takes up an almost “courtly” role as a “cavalier servente.” This was a very Italian institution in form, convention, pragmatism and infidelity. He became the approved “partner” of a married woman, Theresa, with the utter acceptance of her husband: his duties included carrying her bag, standing behind her at the Opera. Whilst he could write of marriage: “That moral centaur, man and wife…” he became part of the bureaucracy. Yes, Venice neutered even Byron.
It is no surprise that today Venice neuters pretty much everyone and everything.
More on that tomorrow.