Last week, I heard a story on NPR, wherein an author, who was a huge fan of George Elliot’s Middlemarch, was reviewing a memoir by another author essentially writing about what an impact Middlemarch had on her life. As I listened to her praise not only the memoir but her own memories of Elliot’s influence on her, I got to thinking about my own literary influences. Ask me who my favorite authors are, and I speedily tick off the names Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Albert Camus, and Ian Fleming. But it occurred to me that, as profound an impact as the Romantics and Existentialists had on me, I haven’t read any of them since graduate school. I read Fleming a little more recently, but not much.
So it occurred to me that maybe it was time to go back and reread those classics that had such an impact on my young mind. Perhaps I should have another look at the literature that made me want to write, that inspired me. I left graduate school over 20 years ago. It’s not only possible, it’s likely that all that time in the real world has changed my perceptions. What do Byron and the Shelleys mean to me in middle age that they might not have in my 20’s?
So I plan this year to reread many of the books that inspired me in my young adulthood. And, of course, I’ll be blogging about them. Maybe I’ll get a memoir out of this. Maybe not. Regardless, I like the idea of re-exploring the classic literature that helped make me who I am.
It seemed appropriate to start with Byron. He was easily my favorite of the Romantics, and he somehow is the very definition of the Romantic Age of Literature. As Jerome McGann writes in his introduction to the collection of Byron’s poetry I still own from my graduate school days,
Byron was born in London the year before the French Revolution broke out in Paris in 1789; he died in Greece in 1824. Since that time, students of history and literature have often dated the Romantic Period 1789-1824, partly because the character of this period was so determined by the epochal events in France, and partly because the career of Byron seemed at once its summary and its climax.
Thus, Byron has to be the right place to begin this journey.
I have to say, it gave me a little thrill to dig out my old copy of Byron, Third Edition edited by McGann for the Oxford Authors series. It’s about two inches thick, and it’s heavy. The pages are thin, like Bible pages, so that the book’s nearly 1100 pages can be more easily contained. Byron and I would both scoff at the idea of it being some sort of holy tome, but there is that sense of electricity that accompanies reading something on special pages that is over 200 years old.
Making a Pilgrimage
As I mentioned, my copy of Byron has almost 1100 pages of poetry and notes. Byron was fairly prolific. Where to begin?
I read a few of his early poems but settled on Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage as my jumping-off point. It was the work that brought Byron to notoriety. Hailed as brilliant and criticized for its protagonist’s unheroic character, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is a complicated work. Byron maintained steadfastly throughout his life that it was not an autobiographical work, but Harold bears a strong resemblance to Byron, and his journey is based on Byron’s own travels. The first two cantos were published in 1809-10 when Byron was just 21. It seems hard to believe a passionate young man isn’t pouring himself into an epic that seems designed to decry the politics of the time.
I’ve made it through most of the first canto at this point, and a number of things strike me about the narrative.
First, Byron’s poetry is witty and amusing. I remembered this about him largely through his unfinished comic epic, Don Juan, but this humor is present in his early work too. In just the second stanza he writes:
Whilome in Albion’s isle there dwelt a youth,
Who ne in virtue’s ways did take delight;
But spent his days in riot most uncouth,
And vex’d with mirth the drowsy ear of Night.
He could have written that Harold was simply a scoundrel, but instead he chooses the wittier turn of phrase, “Who ne in virtue’s ways did take delight.” It gets a laugh, and it makes the poem more fun to read.
Along those lines, though, I also found I had to pay a lot closer attention to the text to understand it. It’s been a long time since I read British Romantic poetry, and the turns of phrase — the poetics, if you will — take some getting used to. Byron expresses himself in a way that is foreign to a 21st Century American.
But really, it’s sort of like listening to someone speak in a thick accent. After awhile your ear learns to hear through it. Such was my understanding of Byron’s poetry. After a bit, I got a knack for it, and I found that reading it aloud actually increased my comprehension.
But perhaps the most striking thing about the first canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is how little action there is to it. There are 93 stanzas plus two shorter poems written by Harold contained within it. But the only thing that really happens is Harold gets on a ship, leaves England and sails down the Spanish and Portuguese coasts. The vast majority of the first canto is made up of Harold’s impressions of the scenery and the people who live there. For example:
Oh, lovely Spain! renown’d romantic land!
Where is that standard which Pelagio bore,
When Cava’s traitor-sire first call’d the band
That dy’d thy mountain streams with Gothic gore?
Where are those bloody banners which of yore
Wav’d o’er thy sons, victorious to the gale,
And drove at last the spoilers to their shore?
This is a fairly typical passage. Harold observes a place he passes, remarks at first on its beauty, and then decries the people who live there for not living up to their standards. With Napoleon’s transformation from revolutionary to conquering tyrant and the rest of Europe allying against him, Byron, and through his wasted hero Harold, finds Western culture at a nadir. The poem thus far is less about Childe Harold’s pilgrimage and more about his finding the West wanting. Harold may be traveling physically across the ocean, but he is actually a metaphorical vessel for Byron’s own internal journey.
Finding Byron; Finding Me
What I remember of myself in my early 20’s is a person who was much the same as this fiery poet. Like Byron, I was on an internal journey. I moved to Kansas to go to graduate school in 1991, but this physical journey, just like Harold’s pilgrimage, was an outward metaphor for my internal travels.
At the time I was disillusioned with American culture. I felt the first President Bush was out of touch with this constituents. I saw the justice system offering anything but justice. I didn’t really understand what love was despite being engaged.
I found myself in Kansas. I finished a blowing up of who I’d been in high school and remaking of myself into adulthood. And, despite having found Byron and the Romantics while I was in college, it was in graduate school — after the physical journey that stood as metaphor for the mental one — that I really came to know and understand his poetry.
Twenty-three years later, I’m a little embarrassed. If there’s anything I’ve learned after nearly a quarter century of both failure and triumph, it is that life is circular. No matter how bad it gets; it gets better. No matter how good it gets; it gets worse. You just have to wait out the bad times and hang on tightly during the good ones.
My younger self had no ability to understand that. Like the young, passionate Byron, he could only see the negative things and not hope for the future.
But if that’s a naive perspective shared universally by the young, it also has the virtue of passion. I remain a passionate person. I believe deeply in my ideals, and I fight for them. But I am rarely fiery anymore. It takes energy I need to conserve for other things.
In that respect, I have both lost something and gained something. I just can’t get as worked up as I used to, and that impedes my ability to fight for what is right. It also enables me to focus my energy on the battles that mean the most instead of scattering it across everything.
Byron came to me at a time in my life that he could give me focus, help me find myself. Now he’s helping me understand better who I was then and who I’ve become.