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."      

Saturday, September 22, 2012


The wreck of the past?

What an interesting summer.  Last season I sold tons of paintings and not many books; this season many books and fewer paintings.  I've been idly considering what it would take to reopen my shop and I don't think the advantages would outweigh the expense, not to mention the toll such a move would take on my available painting time.  But don't think I haven't thought of it.  The years since I closed the bookshop have been wonderful, so much so that even shopkeeping has taken on a rosy glow.  I have forgotten many of the day-to-day irritations and frustrations.  But not the monthly climb up the mountain carrying a giant boulder, i.e. earning enough to pay the rent and utilities.  That lingers. 

Anyway, I am happy to be able to say that my book booth at the Antiques Marketplace is thriving.  And I must mention a lovely write-up it received, from Thomas over at My Porch.  Thank you - the pleasure of sending good books to good homes is one of the reasons I remain a bookseller!

Back to Byron for a moment.  I just read his long poem The Corsair, and more shorter poems, which are beginning to smack of genius, and am now in the middle of volume IV of the Letters and Journals, entitled Wedlock's the devil.  While we are meditating on the rosy glow of years gone by, here is the final stanza from his poem Stanzas to -, published in the same volume as The Corsair:   

"From the wreck of the past, which hath perish'd,
     Thus much I at least may recall,
It hath taught me that what I most cherish'd
     Deserved to be dearest of all:
In the desert a fountain is springing,
     In the wide waste there still is a tree,
And a bird in the solitude singing,
     Which speaks to my spirit of thee."

Oh bookshop, Oh Byron.  Oh dreams of my youth.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


ne plus ultra

I forgot to mention that an interesting Byron association copy has just come on the market. 

I mean, like, OMG... 


"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...?      

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