|Newstead Abbey, the Home of Lord Byron from 1808 - 1814|
It was Byron's birthday, last Wednesday, January 22nd, and we visited Newstead Abbey to pay tribute. It was a quiet day, and there were no signs of celebration, no traces of the flamboyant, broody, romantic in person, though the mellow stones, the sombre wintry park and the cool, tree-stitched lakes breathed romanticism.
|The Stable Block and the lake where his father, the eccentric Fifth Lord Byron, staged sea battles|
Byron may not be in current vogue, but his work still flashes with brilliance, and his life story still intrigues and excites. His days were erratic and his affairs chaotic. His marriage, to Anna Isabella Milbanke was a disaster, for both of them; his fatherhood, of a daughter (Ada) by his wife, another (Allegra) by Shelley's step-sister-in-law and (possibly) another (Elizabeth) by his half sister Augusta Leigh, was troubled, to say the less. A wayward student at Harrow and Trinity Cambridge, he shot to superstardom at the age of 24 with his narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which describes his travels from Portugal to Greece and Albania. For six years he lived a moody life in the crumbling ruins of Newstead Abbey, which he had inherited from 'Mad Jack' Byron, his father, on his death in 1791, practising pistol shot in the great hall, playing with his beloved Newfoundland dog (Boatswain) in the grounds and riding furiously across the parkland.
Occasional flurries in society brought him difficulties in love, with problems with Lady Oxford and the crazy Lady Caroline Lamb spitting scandal when rejection addled her brain. Following an attempt by his wife to declare him insane, in 1816, at the age of 28, he left his native shores for good.
Adieu, adieu! my native shore
Fades o'ver the waters blue;
The night-winds sigh, the breakers roar,
And shrieks the wild sea-mew.
Yon sun that sets upon the sea
We follow in his flight;
Farewell awhile to him and thee,
My native Land-Good Night!
A few short hours, and he will rise
To give the morrow birth;
And I shall hail the main and skies,
But not my mother earth.
Deserted is my own good hall,
Its hearth is desolate;
Wild weeds are gathering on the wall;
My dog howls at the gate.
Adieu, Adieu! My Native Shore
The publication of the first Cantos of Don Juan brought more fame, but infamy as well, and for the rest of his life he wandered restlessly in Europe, for several years the cavaliere servente of Teresa Guiccioli in Italy, a country he loved and which loved him.
He met his death, on April 19th 1824, when fever combined with the medical science of the day to close his eyes for ever at Missolonghi, where he had taken responsibility for supporting the cause of Greek independence from Turkish oppression.
In the late 1970s, when teaching in Rome, I was party to a naming of houses, when the school's pastoral system went vertical. Charged with finding suitable names for four houses, where the titles would be shoutable on touch lines (hence planets such as Uranus were discounted) and should promote strong values (?) my option was for George Gordon Noel, the sixth Lord Byron. The then Headmaster, one Hendrik Deelman, wished to veto my proposal, claiming that my hero may have had homosexual tendencies, had an embarrassingly uninhibited libido, and spoke his mind..... Also held against him was his reported club-foot, a handicap which apparently made him less attractive as a hero.
These accusations raised my hackles, and on behalf of the long dead lord I fought back. Here was a highly successful writer who lived in, and loved, Italy; who may have had a physical disability but who notwithstanding could swim the Bosporus, the Tagus at Lisbon and from the Lido of Venice across the lagoon and up the Grand Canal in a race; and who effectively gave his wealth and his life to the cause of an oppressed nation. Come on Byron! What more could you ask for?
He may have been described as Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know (by the possibly deranged Caroline Lamb) but it would be risky to suggest that anyone is perfect, and Byron's imperfections seem to me to have been outweighed by his genius. He was an inspiration. And when we launched the house in his name (and indeed celebrated his 200th birthday soon after) we found much to admire, and much to draw on both for succour and for solace.
|Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know......|
On his birthday, in 1824, Byron penned the following poignant lines at Missolonghi, clearly aware that his time was limited:
On this day I complete my thirty-sixth year
'TIS time the heart should be unmoved,
Since others it hath ceased to move:
Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!
My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone!
The fire that on my bosom preys
Is lone as some volcanic isle;
No torch is kindled at its blaze--
A funeral pile.
The hope, the fear, the jealous care,
The exalted portion of the pain
And power of love, I cannot share,
But wear the chain......
This poem, one of his shorter pieces, and the last he wrote, is justly famous, reading today as easily as if it were freshly composed, with a gently loping rhythm that holds up with every fourth line as if riding a horse in wind and rain, not galloping, but surging forward then reining back. Whatever weaknesses Byron may have had, his lyrical qualities were unsurpassed, and for me his plain philosophy rings bells, even if cracked like the west front of his desecrated Newstead.
As champion of the maligned lord, I took time to travel with a copy of Don Juan, reading it in bars and on beaches through one heated July. I read it with a pencil in hand and scored lines against passages that I found particularly resonant, the rolling ottava rima keeping me enthralled. Now, as I complete my sixty-third year (on this day of writing, also his half sister Augusta's birthday) I feel a renewed affection for his life and work, though would not pursue any likeness or pretend any connection beyond admiration.
Well - well, the world must turn upon its axis,
And all mankind turns with it, heads or tails,
And live and die, make love and pay our taxes,
And as the veering wind shifts, shift our sails.
The king commands us, and the doctor quacks us,
The priest instructs, and so our life exhales,
A little breath, love, wine, ambition, fame,
Fighting, devotion, dust - perhaps a name.....
(Don Juan, Canto II, stanza 4)
Outside the rain and wind spatter the garden and the street. It's not a pleasant day, and if I own to a slight despondency it is probably due to the time of year, rather than to my advancing years. I take heart from Byron's lightness of touch when it comes to melancholy, and his shrouded optimism:
Between two worlds life hovers like a star
'Twixt night and morn upon the horizon's verge.
How little do we know that which we are!
How less what we may be! The eternal surge
Of time and tide rolls on and bears afar
Our bubbles. As the old burst, new emerge......
(Don Juan, Canto XV, stanza 99)
These days the trademark Byron is much sought after, and the adjective Byronic needs little explanation. Though, despite his image as romantic hero, dressed in colourful robes, it is the courage of his convictions which still inspires, and, difficult though he may have been, I applaud his outspokenness, even when he adopts the guise of Juan:
This: when I speak, I don't hint, but speak out.....
I may stand alone,
But would not change my free thoughts for a throne.
(Don Juan, Canto XI, stanzas 88 and 90)
Happy Birthday, George! And thank you! We leave the Abbey grounds in quiet weather, enriched by the complex of nature and architecture, grateful to Nottingham City Council for preserving this for the public. From the medieval cloisters, and the remains of the 13th century Priory Church, the Great Hall with its minstrels' gallery, and the 300 acres of parkland and lakes, we take our leave, but carry with us an impression of a life much greater than our own.
So we'll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
(So we'll go no more a-roving)