Thursday, September 20, 2012
"Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know"
"Since I last wrote to you, much has occurred, good, bad, and indifferent, - not to make me forget you, but to prevent me from reminding you of one who, nevertheless, has often thought of you, and to whom your thoughts, in many a measure, have frequently been a consolation." (November 30th, 1813)
He of the bee-stung lips and darkly curling locks. I am spending much time in his company these days, as I embark upon my latest reading endeavor. I did not know I would need to embark, when I began, but such is the case. To explain: I idly picked up volumes I and II of Byron's Letters and Journals (edited by Leslie A. Marchand, published by Harvard), which have been gracing my personal library, unread, for about a decade. I am committed to actually reading the books I already own, and I thought these would be a perfect late-summer indulgence, when I badly needed some purely romantic escapism. I knew nothing of Lord Byron beyond the basics: what he wrote (never read any of it) and who he knew (everybody worth knowing). I was well into the first volume when it occurred to me that I'd better track down volume III, since at the rate I was reading I would need it very soon.
I discovered in short order that this series contains XII - twelve, TWELVE! twelve I say! - volumes, and since I rarely leave a book, or a series, unfinished once I've begun (ahem), I knew I was in for a serious commitment. Perhaps Byron is not the author for such a thing, given his reputation, well-founded, for, shall we say, non-commitment. But nevertheless, here it is mid-September and here I am having just finished reading volume III and well on my way to the next nine volumes.
What to say about them, about him. Thrilling and romantic in volume I. The honeymoon phase. But by the midst of volume III my dislike of him had grown to alarming proportions and I wondered at one point if I could read on. His many letters to Lady Melbourne reminded me of nothing so much as Valmont's to the Marquise de Merteuil, in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. (The epistolary novel, not the film.) However, at the end of volume III his journal is printed, and contains such evidence of human frailty that we quickly became friends again, and I am ready to read on.
One point in his favor, certainly, is his love of books. "If I could always read, I should never feel the want of society. Do I regret it? - um! - ..." (volume III, p.246)
I have also been reading some of the poetry, alongside all the letters to John Murray, his publisher, as his work is put into print. I am the happy owner of a lovely old four-volume leatherbound set of Byron's Works, published by Murray in 1819, and it is definitely a thrill to turn the pages of these early editions, printed during Byron's lifetime. So far I've read the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (some sad stuff; also a boatload of worthy lines afloat in a sea of hypnotizingly beautiful Spenserian stanzas), many shorter poems, and The Bride of Abydos (thinly cloaked despair over his love for his half-sister; exotic and torrid; the chaste lovers both die, naturally).
So this is my winter reading project, a few months early. Onward, on this longer-than-anticipated journey! Is there ever any other kind...?