Saturday, September 29, 2012


Byron, on the rocks

I am in the middle of volume V of Byron's Letters and Journals and I must say that seeing his life unfold is like watching a beautiful treasure galleon under full sail.  Perilously close to a lee shore.  In a storm.  As I read along I keep a weather eye on those looming rocks and want to say to him No, no, go back, look out for the... but it's too late.  Nearly two hundred years too late, in fact.  No, no, don't have an affair with the unstable married woman who will then write a scandalous novel about you!  Don't marry that cold fish bluestocking who will up and leave you!  Don't - really - don't, cast loving eyes upon your half-sister!  And then write love poetry to her!  Too late, too late.  Byron knew he was trouble:  "- Heaven knows why - but  I seem destined to set people by the ears. --"  (volume V, p.92)

But he carried on anyway (in all senses of the phrase), and, bad reputation aside, what abides is his poetry, in which all of his weaknesses and strengths are clearly on display.  He knew that too.  From Byron's long poem The Corsair, this could be his own epitaph:

"He left a name to all succeeding times,
Link'd with one virtue and a thousand crimes."

Over the past several years I feel like these long reading projects I've undertaken have given me a greater awareness of the range of human hopes and a view toward what is possible during one lifetime, no matter how short (Byron will die at age 36, for example - where I am now in the letters he is only age 28).  From The Iliad and The Odyssey, to Montaigne's Essays, to the Diary of Samuel Pepys, to much of the literary output of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, to a panoply of painters' diaries and collected letters, and now this.  The centuries unfold and all the little details of how people lived and what they dreamed of doing and what they actually accomplished, is set out before us on wide harvest tables like a veritable feast.  Holy mackerel, great books are the best!  Every one brings worlds to life and resonates down through the years.  They help us to understand and accept ourselves as human beings (in spite of everything terrible we know about one another).  Some especially so.  To wit, I'll give Byron the last word today, from Venice, November 17th, 1816 (volume V, p.129):

"...I have been familiar with ruins too long to dislike desolation."      

Holy mackerel, indeed. Sounds like a great project.
Hi Dan, hope all is well with you. I have come to realize that I love long reading projects for their immersive qualities. And the sustained attention they require. I find it more and more satisfying to concentrate so intently, in this world of distraction and piecemeal information (the same goes for painting, it requires a similar kind of sustained concentration).

Last night I read Canto III of "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" - it's the best of the three thus far. He's getting much better as a poet, so quickly.
Sarah - welcome back - I have missed you. Kathleen
Thank you, Kathleen. I think I will be posting here more often this winter. We'll see how it goes.
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