British poets and the French Revolution. Part Three: Byron - "Mad, bad and dangerous to know"

Unlike Wordsworth and Coleridge, Byron remained loyal to his youthful revolutionary fervour. His innermost nature was revolutionary, but his weakness was his Romanticism. This was reflected in his admiration for Napoleon, just as later Romantics were to become admirers of Stalin without understanding what he really stood for. The poetic spirit rebels against the constraints of tradition and habit and seeks to reshape the world in a new image. Thus, conservative poets are generally bad poets. The later writings of Wordsworth are proof enough of this assertion. But not all those poets who set out as revolutionaries deserted the cause. Lord Byron died in Greece, where he had gone to fight for the cause of national liberation. Shelley, whom Marx greatly admired, remained a consistent revolutionary democrat until his death. And the great national poet of Scotland, Robert Burns, also remained a fierce opponent of monarchy, religion and oppression.

Of the three, it was Byron (1788-1824) who made the biggest impact during his lifetime. His poems acted as a major source of inspiration for generations of Romantics, from Alfred de Musset in France to Alexander Pushkin in Russia. Unfortunately, his verses have not lasted well. His most famous poems are very long and belong to a more leisurely age when people had the time and inclination to read such things. But Don Juan still sparkles with a wit that is most un-English, and the shorter lyrical verses can still give much pleasure.

Don Juan begins with a rebuke to those poets who had sold their soul to the Devil, like Robert ("Bob") Southey who had, like so many others, abandoned his revolutionary ideals and become a hack writer, and was finally rewarded for services rendered with a pension from the English government, which made him Poet Laureate, although in practice he had given up poetry for more lucrative journalism and politicking. To this creature, and with a pointed reference to the "Lakers", (the "Lake poets", Wordsworth and Coleridge) Byron ironically dedicates his epic poem:

"Bob Southey! You're a poet-Poet laureate,
And representative of all the race;
Although 'tis true that you turn'd out a Tory at
Last - yours has lately been a common case;
And now, my Epic Renegade! What are ye at?
With all the Lakers, in and out of place?
A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye,
Like 'four and twenty blackbirds in a pye;

"Which pye being open'd they began to sing'
(This old song and new simile holds good)
A dainty dish to set before the King.'
Or Regent, who admires such kind of food;-
And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,
But like a hawk encumber'd with his hood-
Explaining metaphysics to the nation-
I wish he would explain his Explanation."

Lord Byron, who died in Greece when he was still young (he was 36), was seen by his contemporaries as a complete rebel. His generation was forged under the hammer-blows of the great events that flowed from the French revolution. But Byron's revolutionism needed no external source. It flowed from his innermost nature. His active involvement in radical politics began at a very young age.

George Gordon, sixth lord of Byron was born into what Thackeray might have called "shabby genteel" surroundings. Abandoned by his father, "Mad Jack", he was short and lame as the result of a physical defect (a shortened Achilles tendon). But on the other hand he was endowed with a handsome face and an instinctively rebellious temperament, fired by raw energy. But the world into which this natural revolutionary was born was anything but a revolutionary place.

Napoleon's final defeat at the battle of Waterloo ushered in a new period of European and British history: a period of triumphant reaction, in which, to quote Marx: "Pope and tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police spies" entered into an anti-revolutionary conspiracy to "exorcise the spectre of Communism." The agreement between Austria, Russia and Prussia known as the Troppau Protocol, signed in 1820, stated the attitude of the three powers to "states which have undergone a change of government due to revolution." It declared: "if, owing to such alterations, immediate danger threatens other states, the Powers bind themselves by peaceful means, or, if needs be, by arms, to bring back the guilty state into the bosom of the Great Alliance." It was quite clear to everyone that any popular revolution would be seen by Alexander, Metternich and the king of Prussia as a threat to them, and that the revolutionaries would be "guilty".

This general atmosphere of reaction inevitably affected the psychology of the intellectuals and artists. A whole layer of former supporters of the French Revolution, notably Wordsworth and Coleridge, capitulated and went over completely to the side of the counterrevolution. However, a new generation of young poets still upheld the revolutionary tradition. And a new revolutionary force was beginning to take shape - the proletariat. This was reflected in the poetry of both Byron and Shelley.

The defeat of Napoleon brought no improvement in the condition of the masses. After 1815 there was a deep slump, which paralysed trade and brought widespread unemployment and poverty. Even before this the Continental system had destroyed trade for English manufactured goods. The ranks of the unemployed were swelled by a flood of discharged soldiers and sailors. The victors of Waterloo and Trafalgar were forced to beg for crusts of bread in the streets of London, Manchester and Portsmouth.

It was a period of great misery for the masses. The living standards of the masses suffered steep falls. In the period 1797-1804 the weekly earnings of weavers were 26 shillings, 8 pence. Form 1804-11 - 20 shillings; from 1811-18 - 14 shillings, 7 pence. With this money, it was possible to purchase (in equal quantities of flour, oatmeal, potatoes and meat): 281 pounds of food in the first period, 238 pounds in the second, and a mere 131 pounds of food in the third.

The position of the textile workers was particularly bad. 10,000 weavers and spinners in the North of England were laid off or had their wages cut. The mood of the masses was turning in a revolutionary direction. The authorities were increasingly alarmed. There were outbreaks of violence and smashing of machines in Lancashire and Yorkshire by the Luddites. These were desperate unemployed working men who had been threatened with hanging for the crime of machine smashing. The violence frightened the ruling class even more. The spectre of revolution loomed large in their minds.

The young Byron supported the workers. He even wrote a poem in honour of "King Ludd". In 1812 he delivered his maiden speech in the House of Lords. This is traditionally a non-controversial speech that is meant to provide the excuse for polite applause. But Byron chose to address the Lords on the subject of Luddism. It was a fiery speech denouncing the evils of capitalism and defending the working class, which was listened to in stony silence by the assembled aristocrats: "These men merely destroyed their looms," the young orator thundered, "which had become impediments to earning their bread."

Byron was a gifted orator with a flare for the dramatic gesture. To his horror, the speech was met by a blank wall of indifference. Byron's failure to make the slightest dent on the parliamentary benches convinced him that change had to be brought about by other means. He adopted a position strongly reminiscent of anarchism.

One might say that occasionally the gesture or pose seemed more important to him than the idea itself. But this was entirely characteristic of the Romantics in general. It was also characteristic of many Romantics to admire - even worship - Napoleon, the Corsican upstart who had hijacked the French Revolution in its period of decline. The attraction felt for the person of Bonaparte among the Romantics bears a certain resemblance to the attitude of many foreign intellectuals to Stalin. Sincerely sympathising with the cause of the Russian Revolution and the USSR, they lacked the Marxist understanding to be able to analyse the real nature of Stalin's regime or see any difference between it and the regime of workers' democracy established by Lenin and Trotsky in 1917.

In an analogy to Stalin, Napoleon, the gravedigger of the French Revolution, was seen by many as the continuator of the revolutionary traditions of 1789-93. Wherever his armies set foot, they set about smashing the old order in Europe, and therefore, in a distorted form, they stood for revolution. On the other hand, the armies of England everywhere defended the forces of reaction. Nelson, the national hero, hanged the patriots of Naples and delivered them over to torture and murder at the hands of the reactionaries. Inside England, the reactionaries went on the rampage, smashing printing presses and beating up suspected radicals.

Byron, though an Englishman, was an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, and also an actor of considerable skill. Such attachments were dangerous, being considered as unpatriotic and subversive at the time. Byron's attachment to Napoleon reflected, on the one hand, a sincere attachment to the revolutionary cause, which, albeit in a completely distorted form, Bonaparte seemed to represent. On the other, it was an expression of defiance against England and its ruling oligarchy.

Byron felt alienated from his native land, he felt he was an outcast - which he was. His revolutionary politics and unconventional behaviour led him to be described as "Mad, bad and dangerous to know". It is not surprising that Byron felt ashamed to be English and abandoned the country as soon as he could. In a typical Romantic gesture, he sought refuge in the most lonely and inaccessible places in the Alps. He visited Italy, where he wrote his celebrated Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. He visited exotic places where respectable Europeans of the time did not venture to go - places like Albania and Turkey. He had a portrait of himself painted in Albanian traditional dress.

As portrayed in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, nature is seen, not as in the comforting visions of the later Wordsworth and Constable, a place of tranquil repose and meditation - a place to which to escape - but a turbulent place where waterfalls thunder and huge rocks glower. This nature contains a threat to the established order of things - it is an anarchistic nature that knows no rules and cannot be tamed. In fact, it is not nature at all, but a poetic metaphor for the indomitable revolutionary human spirit.

Childe Harold was an immediate success in England. Byron was now popular. The publishers were delighted. This was better than poetry - it was good business. This was the new capitalist England where everything - and everybody - was for sale, from tea and calico to the consciences of politicians and the souls of poets. Byron himself was a shrewd businessman where money was concerned and drove a hard bargain. He would demand and get a good percentage of the profits. This poet's head may or may not have been in the clouds, but his feet were firmly on the ground.

What saves Byron from banality is his sense of humour. He is witty not in an English but in a French way. This is a rarity. This wit sparkles and bubbles like champagne. It is full of life, and completely irreverent. It scandalised the British Establishment as much as it delighted the public. Byron was grossly maligned by the reactionaries, not so much for his scandalous sex life but for his politics, his attacks on the establishment and his defence of the underdog.

In the end, Byron had to stay abroad. He was joined in Italy by Shelley and his wife, Mary. In exile, they became even more radical and hostile to the Regency and the reactionary government in London. Byron was attracted by the Italian revolutionary secret society, the Carbonari, who were attempting to organise the resistance against Austria. He swore he would only return to England after the victory of the revolution which "alone can save the earth from pollution."

It was Byron's misfortune to be taken over by the English establishment that savaged him when he was alive and hounded him till he left the country, never to return. Copies of his masterpiece, Don Juan, had to be smuggled back into England where they were sold in cheap editions to middle class and working class readers sympathetic to the Radical cause. This subversive book was an instant success, selling thousands virtually overnight. This fact showed how the mood of the masses was open to revolutionary ideas. Byron did not cause this mood, but he connected with it through his forceful, witty and biting verses and his merciless satire on the existing order.

However, Byron was ever the man of action who believed that a man should be judged not by what he writes but by what he does. In 1823 he set sail for Greece to participate in the war for independence against the Turks. He arrived in Cephalonia at a time when Greece was in the grip of revolutionary turmoil. Byron felt at the bottom of his soul the call of revolution. He even abandoned poetry. Even his letters of this period became prosaic, as other demands took priority. The law of revolution is a stern master and admits no equal. When the cannons roar the Muse is silent. It would have been nice to think that he had died in action, fighting for Greek freedom, but it was not quite like that. He died of dysentery in Messalonghi, without having fired a shot in anger.

Marx said of Byron that it was fortunate that he had died so young, whereas it was tragic that Shelley had not lived longer: "The true difference between Byron and Shelley consists in this, that those who understand and love them consider it fortunate that Byron died in his thirty-sixth year, for he would have become a reactionary bourgeois had he lived longer; conversely, they regret Shelley's death at the age of twenty-nine, because he was a revolutionary through and through and would consistently have stood along with the vanguard of socialism." (Marx and Engels, On Literature and Art, pp. 320-1.)

Why was Marx so sceptical about Byron's attachment to the revolutionary cause? He probably sensed that, behind all the noisy scandals and revolutionary rhetoric, there was just another bourgeois dilettante and poseur. Here the form was more important than the content. Marx's comments underline the difference between the two men. For all its sound and fury, Byron's revolutionism was shallow. It was all on the surface.

Byron was particularly careful about his image. He had himself painted dressed in a white shirt, carelessly unbuttoned at the collar, covered in an immense black cloak. In this way was born the myth of the "Byronic hero". But on closer inspection we see that this untamed beast is only a pose, a creature of the imagination. Here we have a beast that is very tame indeed: it is a sheep in wolves' clothing, a toothless lion, a paper tiger to terrify young society ladies - a drawing-room "revolutionary".

The portrait of the Byronic hero shows the ideal of the bourgeoisie - its imaginary face, not its real bare backside. Byron remained a rebel to the end, yet there was something superficial about his radicalism. He never fully broke with his bourgeois-aristocratic standpoint.

The success of Byron's poetry was no accident. The Romantic dream allowed the bourgeois - or at least their poetically inclined sons and daughters - an escape from the crude reality of the market economy and the "cash nexus". By immersing themselves in the adventures of Manfred, roaming solitary in the Alps, or the Corsair dashing from one adventure to another on the high seas, they could forget for an hour or so the sordid world of pounds, shillings and pence. Byron's verses were popular because they presented the bourgeoisie with an image of itself, not as it was, but as it would have liked to see itself.

Romanticism in general, and the poetry of Byron in particular, corresponds to the period in the early 19th century when the storm and stress of the French Revolution had calmed down, when the bourgeoisie had set its fat rump firmly in the saddle, and was getting down to the serious business of making money. In Romanticism the bourgeoisie relived the dreams of its revolutionary youth - but from the comfort of its armchair. The "free spirit" of Childe Harold and Don Juan manifested itself as free trade. The anarchistic poet was just the idealised embodiment of the anarchy of the market.

This is the eternal contradiction of all forms of anarchism, Romanticism included: that in rebelling against the bourgeois system in its most superficial manifestations, it merely reaffirms the bourgeois system in its essentials. By posing the question of revolt as the revolt of the individual against a heartless and unfeeling world, it never for a moment abandons the standpoint of individual egoism - that is, the standpoint of the bourgeoisie.