Byron's Letters and Journals (Magill's Literary Annual 1981)
The force of Lord Byron’s personality is, for many, what draws them to his poetical works, more so than the philosophy or the literary strength of the works themselves. Byron was the major voice of Europe in his time. He embodied the Romantic movement in literature, his fervent liberalism spawned the dominant political movements of the nineteenth century, and his flamboyancy made him the most appealing man of his day. Nowhere is this flamboyance more evident than in the more than three-thousand letters written throughout his lifetime. Not only does one obtain a vivid glimpse into the daily events that shaped Byron’s life and work, but one also is provided with a vast body of prose that may well outshine his poetry for literary merit.
“A Heart for Every Fate” contains the complete text of some 240 letters written to friends, publishers, and other acquaintances during the ten months Byron spent in a small hilltop town overlooking Genoa. The letters range from precise and detailed instructions to his publishers to impassioned reflections on destiny, love, bratty children, the selfishness of women (as he saw it), and political faith, particularly the cause for which Byron ultimately gave his life, the Greek struggle for liberation from Turkey.
Leslie A. Marchand’s task in compiling these letters was to reproduce them as they were written with little editing and censuring. Unlike the bowdlerized versions handed down by Victorian editors, the letters in this edition reflect the range and spontaneity of Byron’s personality and allow readers to evaluate the prose in its natural state. Byron’s own eccentric punctuation and phraseology was left intact so as to preserve the flavor of his personality and times; and, rather than obscure his meanings, the natural prose returns readers to the person to which they, even in the twentieth century, can respond. The reader sees his own foibles and aspirations in Byron’s human, if exaggerated temperament.
The chronology at the beginning of the volume provides a brief outline of the chief events of this period including the literary works completed. There is an appendix which includes short biographical sketches of Byron’s principal correspondents first appearing in the volume. These are helpful in illuminating the relationship Byron held with each person.
Byron settled at the Casa Saluzzo in Genoa after a period of following Teresa, Countess Guiccioli—the last and most famous of his mistresses—around Italy. Accompanying the two were Teresa’s father and brother; Mary Shelley, the widow of Byron’s good friend, Percy Shelley; Leigh Hunt, Byron’s collaborator on his political journal, The Liberal; and Hunt’s wife and six children. Mary and the Hunts lived in a house nearby.
This period of Byron’s life is usually characterized as the final restless and regretful months just before his fateful departure for Greece. A few months earlier, Byron had witnessed Shelley’s cremation and had suffered the death of his five-year-old daughter Allegra. The former years were full of adventures; in Genoa, he was merely resuming the routine of life. Byron was completing one canto of Don Juan after another and despite a strained relationship with Leigh Hunt, continued to work on The Liberal.
The difference in temperaments in Byron and Hunt provided no small amount of tension between the two. Hunt was quiet, mousey, and a constant source of irritation to Byron. On the days they decided to work on The Liberal, Hunt would groggily start his day late in the morning while Byron was up at dawn, bellowing Rossini arias out of tune, and demanding that Hunt share his enthusiasm for the morning.
Especially loathesome to Byron though, were Hunt’s six small children. Writing to Mary Shelley, who shared her house with the Hunts, he noted:“I have a particular dislike to anything of S(helley)’s being within the same walls with Mr. Hunt’s children. - They are dirtier and more mischievious than Yahoos(;) what they can(’t) destroy with their filth they will with their fingers. - . . . Poor Hunt with his six little blackguards - . . . was there ever such a kraal out of the Hottentot Country before?—.
Byron always seemed to have had difficult relationships with the people in his life. Even his close friendships had some melodramatic, tragic touch to them. When the poet Shelley drowned, Byron did not so much mourn his death, as take the attitude that this was only another episode in Byron’s struggle with Destiny. Any person to whom he was involved was bound to meet some tragic end. Byron seemed to be battering at life. He was mystified by it, repelled by it. It was as if he had to intensify life in order to know he was alive.
Among the many relationships Byron had, those he had with the women in his life are especially interesting, and the letters in this volume reveal some vivid examples. Famous for his phenomenal appeal to women, he projected an image of romantic sensibility that they found impossible to resist. In reality though, he behaved abominably toward the women whose lives he touched. He acquired a series...
(The entire section is 2171 words.)
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