Why Read Lord Byron? An essay and introduction

An essay and introduction

I created this website in the summer of 1997 because there were no sites featuring a wide variety of information about two of my favorite poets, John Keats and Lord Byron.  I made the original sites in about two weeks; they were, and remain, decidedly low-tech.  Poetry doesn't lend itself to flashing graphics and pop-up ads.  It just needs a quiet room and your attention.  Unfortunately, despite the proliferation of 'poets' in our midst, many people don't read poetry anymore.  Or, if they do, it's the awful modern stuff being churned out by liberal arts majors across the country.  Egads!  The stuff is horrible.  Modern poetry needs its own Tom Servo and Crow to keep the audience sane.  I remember listening to Lucille Clifton reading her poetry at my undergraduate college.  A nice woman, sincere, likable, yes, but the poetry!  And everyone standing up and clapping while I cringed in my seat, thinking, Are they just being polite?!  No, they were not.  No one judges anything anymore.  It's true.  Anything cloaked in sincerity is good enough.  The next semester featured fellow students who had been abused by various boyfriends or were bulimic or bisexual.  I felt like the Grinch for not applauding.  Yes, they were traumatized.  But when did poetry become a self-help ritual?  If writing is cathartic, then write.  Keep a journal; write poems.  But don't write bad poetry, read it in public and expect applause.

Poetry is now panacea for wounded self-esteem.  Anything can get published and read and praised to the sky.  It's ironic to me that our highest art form has become an everyday activity for millions.  People don't sit around saying, 'I can paint like Vermeer!' but they do sit around saying, 'I write poetry!' 

But it isn't real poetry.  It's an oddly-spaced, grammatically-challenged, and often silly prose statement which invariably features lots of 'me' or 'my' or 'mine' and 'I'.  No one is sitting in a garden in Hampstead listening to the nightingale sing anymore.  And it's our loss, a collective loss to millions. 

What happened?

I attended the Clifton reading with a close friend.  We walked back to our dorm afterwards and she asked me what I thought.  It was a tricky moment because I knew she liked Clifton's work.  I was polite but honest.  It wasn't poetry to me, I told her, but it was okay.  And besides, time is the great leveler.  She wasn't happy with my response and one of the things she said has stuck in my mind to this day:  'You don't understand, Marilee.  Lucille is a black woman, she's writing about our experiences....' 

Aha!

Poetry is not merely a booster for self-esteem.  Now it's specifically written for a certain audience - in this case, women in general and black women in particular.  This didn't surprise me.  I thought briefly of Keats struggling to achieve the essential lack of identity of his 'presider', Shakespeare, of his desire to be a 'physician to all men'.  What would he make of this mess?  Nowadays he would be the 'Poet of Orphaned Cockneys'. 

The truth is that Byron and Keats and all great artists make their work for everyone.  They claim the whole world, the endless variety of human experience, as their subjects; they want the whole world for an audience.  In this, Byron and Keats were successful.  People from every background - different races, cultures, men and women, from Gustave Flaubert to Countee Cullen to Tom Clark - love their work.  Now think of our famous modern poets.  Does anyone really believe there are men who read Ellen Bass for pleasure?  But I'm a girl who lives in Annapolis, MD and I read two Englishmen who died centuries before I was born.

What if my exact twin from a parallel universe read me her poetry, which - by my friend's logic - should be very meaningful to me since she would be blonde, addicted to tea, and a fellow Annapolitan?

Since I know I can't write poetry, it wouldn't mean a thing.  And yet Keats's work in particular means everything to me.

I don't think I'm a snob, or an elitist, or pretentious.  I'm solidly middle-class and wear the occasional Doctor Who t-shirt.  I read just about anything, quite a lot of which is entertaining junk.  But I take poetry very seriously.  It's the best stuff in the world.  It matters. 

Most of life is detritus.  It has to be, and it's often enjoyable.  But there are moments when we need something beautiful and true and meaningful.  It could be a kiss from the love of your life, or watching the stars at 3 am, or walking around your neighborhood, or listening to your favorite song, or - perhaps - reading a poem. 

A poem.  A genuine poem.  A work of art which takes you outside yourself and makes you think and feel in unexpected and magical ways. 

And so I hereby request modern poets to show a bit of humility which, as Eliot so wisely reminded us, is 'the only wisdom we can hope to achieve'.  Achieve it, please.  Be wise.  Know your own limits.  If you must write, don't call it poetry.  Call it 'autobiographical sketches' and work on perfecting your prose.  I will be forever grateful.

....

The above mini-essay is all I mention here about me, or my education - and that's why there isn't any 'academic affiliation'.  The websites are about two great poets.  I've assembled (and keep adding to) a collection of works, images, primary sources, etc  You explore them and decide for yourself what you think of Byron and  Keats and their poetry.  Read books about poetry, yes, but read the poetry first.  Critics / academics / professors / teachers - they can all point you in a good direction, give you some insight, encourage you.  But it's up to you to read the work and decide if you like it.  And if you don't like it, that's okay, too.  Just because someone is considered a great poet by millions of other people doesn't mean he'll be great reading for you.  If you don't like Byron or Keats, it doesn't mean you're stupid.  It just means you haven't found the poems you'll love just yet.  But they're out there and you have some great discoveries ahead of you.

Now as for why this website focuses on the 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' Lord Byron:

Lord Byron was the first of the great Romantic poets I read.  I bought a used copy of Don Juan when I was 13.  It was wonderfully entertaining, so much so that I subsequently approached all poetry believing I could understand and enjoy it.  It was Byron who gave me that confidence, and quite a few laughs in the process.  I owe him many thanks.

And so it's strange to realize that his life completely overshadows his poetry.  It did so during his own lifetime and the problem only worsened after his death in 1824.  For the last two hundred years, most studies of Byron have been buried beneath the confused mess of his life, or unduly influenced by it.  The scandals have a life of their own.  No poem - not even the great satire of Don Juan - can rise above them.

It's all Byron's fault, of course, and I doubt he would care if he knew it.  He would probably prefer to be the subject of gossip than a footnote in a high school English lit book.  We can imagine him walking the streets of London today much as he did two hundred years ago, adored and despised in equal measure, but never dismissed as boring or staid or uninteresting.  He arrived on the scene in the early 1800s and remains on the scene today.  It seems as if a new biography is published every other year.  He simply won't go away.  And truth be told, no one wants him to go.  For even if you dislike poetry, you can always read about his life.  Often it seems that most people prefer it that way.

Yet Byron's poetry has all the force and power and charm of his personality, as do his incomparable letters.  His memoirs were burned by well-meaning friends but luckily his letters and journals survive.  And they bring him to life with astonishing clarity.  It's a shame he and John Keats were so dismissive of one another, for together they wrote the greatest letters in the English language.  Actually, let me unqualify that - they wrote the greatest letters ever, in any language.  You read their letters and you want to meet them.  You can't help it.  Have two poets ever been so very likable, in such opposite ways? 

Byron brought most of the opprobrium and scandal upon himself.  He had affairs with lots of women, all of whom were only too happy to oblige.  He was a celebrity, after all, perhaps the first actual one, and not in a 'star of a television sitcom' sense.  He had the talent to support his fame, but then he became infamous - and talent no longer mattered.

Afterwards, when he had fled England and become the most famous exile in Europe, he continued to write.  But the heroic grandeur of his early work changed, deepened, even as he had.  He was no longer the young nobleman on a grand tour of the continent, dreaming of literary fame.  He was an outcast, often bitter, full of regrets but still dreaming of glory.

The John Wilson quote from the main page - 'It is in the contrast between his august conceptions of man, and his contemptuous opinions of men, that much of the almost incomprehensible charm, and power, and enchantment, of his poetry consists.' - is my favorite quotation about Byron.  As for my favorite Byron quote, well, he was too quotable to pick just one.  He just dashed off brilliant and entertaining comments, no trouble at all. 

Byron isn't the ideal poet.  There is no aura of dusty reverence hovering over him.  He continues to inspire and infuriate readers.  But whatever you think of his personal life, he was a great poet.  His best work is timeless, enduring - it gets into you the way all great poetry does.  So let's give Lord Byron his due.  He was far from perfect but he did write perfectly at times.  He deserves his fame.

Or as JFA Pyre explained it almost a century ago in The Atlantic Monthly: "In our days of poetic puttering, when we can point to hundreds of clever technicians in verse, but not to one singer or maker who sways the time, we can ill afford to despise the memory of one who accomplished so much in his way and day. Though a great deal of Byron's subject matter is obsolete, though many of his ideas no longer interest us, so much, at least, is of perennial interest. Byron's liveness, Byron's directness, his intellectual dauntlessness, his ethical cogency, his wholesome contempt for social and artistic futility, his reckless valiancy of spirit, his very faults even, will be educative always, will always cry rebuke to the putterers and patchers of poetry."

Exactly.

Enjoy your visit,
-Marilee

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