Monday, December 03, 2012


revisiting Byron and Blythe

One of the many pleasures of reading widely across several centuries is discovering what one's literary heroes thought of one's other literary heroes.  For example, Lord Byron on Samuel Johnson.

January 9th, 1821 (from his Ravenna Journal):

"Dined.  Read Johnson's 'Vanity of Human Wishes,' - all the examples and mode of giving them sublime, ....'tis a grand poem - and so true!"

Byron says elsewhere that if Johnson was writing during his own time, he himself would never have ventured to publish a single thing.  He considered Johnson's intellectual (and moral?) capabilities so far above any of his own, or for that matter above those of any other writer then living.  Praise indeed.  Byron also mentions somewhere in his letters that he intends Don Juan to be akin to Montaigne's Essays, but of course all his own at the same time.  I've taken so many notes from the letters that I can't find my citations, forgive me!

Another example, from my weekend reading, during which I took my own advice and re-read some Ronald Blythe.  I found that Blythe and Byron are not far apart at all (conjecture from my previous blog post, see below), and I need not have worried that I was changing the subject by bringing up Ronald Blythe while writing about Byron.  Because I picked up Blythe's lovely collection of essays A Year at Bottengoms Farm (Canterbury Press 2006) and promptly read the following, in the middle of a lovely paragraph about owls and their talk (p.17):

"Byron thought there was only one thing sadder than owl songs.  It was the phrase, 'I told you so.'"

I smiled to see Byron mentioned with familiarity, by Blythe.  And then, the very next book I picked up, edited by Blythe, was The Pleasures of Diaries: Four Centuries of Private Writing (Pantheon 1989).  I spent two hours browsing slowly through this treasure trove of a book, before coming to a section I had forgotten was even there at all - the chapter entitled The Diarist en route contains Blythe's introduction to some excerpts from Byron's journals.  Over several pages we may read Blythe's summation of Byron's comet-like trajectory across the landscapes (both societal and literal) of his time.  There is high praise here, and my heart warms to it gratefully (pp.312-314):

Byron's journal has, Blythe says, "bite, glorious colour and the sinewy energy only to be found in a narrator of the first rank.  He is reckless, audacious and tender all at once, and often wildly humorous.  Idealism gleams beneath the sophistry.... His short life... was turbulent and restless, fame and infamy tumbling over each other, the poetry itself a river-flood, his politics advanced and urgent.... Besides their unrivalled confession of emotion and descriptions of action, Byron's journals have a grand worldliness.  They are fiercely anti-cant and they move with dramatic swiftness through various phases of freedom - freedom from a wife who wanted to cage him, from sexual restrictions, from Regency Britain and its reaction, for la dolce vita in Italy and, finally, freedom to fight for the liberation of Greece from the Turks.  Byron's journals echo with the sound of shackles being broken.  They are glittering and poignant."

Apparently Pantheon's house style did not include the use of the Oxford comma (ahem) but otherwise, holy mackerel what a passage!  He sums up the situation better than I ever could, and I find myself sinking back into that wonderful state in which, as you read along, you feel cared for by an author who can afford to be, and chooses to be, this generous with others.  Such a trustworthy author is to be treasured, and I certainly do just that.  I don't even own his new collection of essays yet, At the Yeoman's House (Enitharmon Press 2012), which the TLS review called "...gentle but not soft, both tough-minded and charitable."  But I will own this book soon, and will keep it long, beside his others.  In the memoirs and autobiography section, in the book room and across the hall from the big bookcase full of sets where Byron and Samuel Johnson keep company.  Oh how I love owning books!

I meant this to be a short post, and now look.  My enthusiasm overflows, as usual...

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