Posts Tagged ‘Romantics’

I never did care much for Wordsworth. But the rest of the Romantic poets – Shelley, Byron, Keats, and Coleridge, in that order – taught me the rudiments of poetic technique when I was a teenager. What’s more, I learned well enough to have a dozen or so published poems to my credit without trying too hard. But one aspect of Romanticism that I never managed to accept was having a muse.

That wasn’t through lack of trying. Having a muse is potentially convenient when you’re an adolescent boy and not sure how to approach girls. You can play out your infatuations in your attempts at poetry, and not risk actually talking with the object of your affection. Better yet, if – as happened to me – you are grief-stricken at the focus of your infatuation moving away, you can dramatize events until you feel better. I think of this as the Dante gambit, after the Italian writer of The Divine Comedy, who found a muse in a woman he had met only once, and was never around to casually disillusion him, as a real person might.

That was the trouble, really, with the whole idea of a muse. The closer you actually were to a girl or a woman, the less likely she was to act like a muse. She wouldn’t hang around inspiring you by looking soulful or sighing with bliss as you recited the poems you dedicated to her; she had school or a job and would insist on straying from your side on her own business.

I suppose the difficulty of reconciling the projection of a muse on to a woman’s life is part of what is behind Robert Graves’ White Goddess, and his attempt to cast the poet-muse relation in a myth — a myth that inevitably ends in the muse’s betrayal of the poet’s loyalty and aspirations, only to start again with the next woman he elevated in his mind. Graves was dramatizing the fact that any woman would eventually tire of being his inspiration, and find some other lover who wasn’t playing so many games.

It seemed to me a form of selfishness – especially when I learned from Graves’ biography that while he was enjoying the masochism of living his myth with a succession of muses, he also had a wife who raised their children and oversaw his household.

I thought much the same about Shelley, playing guitar with Jane Williams while Mary Shelley was nearing a nervous collapse, mourning the death of their child, and trying to run a villa in a foreign country without enough money. Having a muse sounded suspiciously like an excuse for flirting.

After a while, another point started to nag me. If poetry was the result of a literary-minded man’s (mostly) chaste infatuation for a woman, what was the explanation for Sylvia Plath? This was a matter of real concern for me as Plath became one of the first moderns from whom I learned.

Robert Graves did have a throwaway line about women’s poetry drawing on different sources than men’s. But he never explained what those sources were, being uninterested in anything outside his own personal mythology.

Obviously, though, women didn’t have muses in the way that men like Graves did. A new lover might inspire poetry – a lot of it in the early stages of a relationship – but no published woman that I could find seemed to view any man in her life as mystical or even temporarily mythological.

It was all very puzzling, especially since the idea of running off to some modern Missolongi  and dying prematurely had limited appeal. I was tolerably certain that dying of consumption wasn’t on the agenda, either.

Gradually, I came to realize that the idea of a muse was only possible in a culture where men knew few women, and had to fill in the blanks in their knowledge with their imaginations. It was a form of projection, really, not much different from pornography – just prettier. Neither was reconcilable with the real relationships I was starting to have.

Later, my readings in feminism would give me the concept of objectification, and encourage me to condemn the whole idea of a muse as something fundamentally unfair. But, even before then, I had abandoned muses as a concept that was not so much false as mentally exhausting. Trying to believe in muses, I found, only made me affected and self-conscious.

On the whole, fiction writers got along without muses. So, a few years after I discovered poetry, I decided that I could too, no matter what genre or style I wrote.

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George Gordon Noel Byron, better known to literature as Lord Byron, has always presented a problem for me. On the one hand, he is the writer of some of the most magnificent poetry and wry comic verse in the English language, and a champion of social reform and political liberty. On the other hand, he was a braggart and a libertine, and may have been a rapist, abuser, and harasser as well – hardly the sort of person that I’d care to admire.

My ambiguity is not helped by the fact that Byron’s biographers tend to believe whatever they want. At one extreme are those who believe that Byron committed incest with his half-sister, raped his wife, and was guilty of all the other crimes heaped upon his name. This outlook is supported by numerous vague yet suggestive hints from Byron himself.

At the other extreme are those who believe that all the allegations against him are the result of a combination of rumors and his own boasting and exaggeration, as well as his deliberate cultivation of a rakish reputation during some periods of his life. Stung by real or imagined tales of his behavior, Byron liked to present himself as someone who stood outside conventional morality – a pose that only makes him appear even more immoral than ever.

One of the problems I have in trying to decide between these two different portraits is that Byron was a passionate and demonstrative man in a passionate and demonstrative age. The generation that followed his was neither, and today we are still far closer in spirit to that generation than Byron’s. A frank and flowery phrase that seems to us proof of his unnatural fondness for his half-sister Augusta or of active bisexuality (not a crime to us, of course, but certainly to his contemporaries) might be no more than the normal discourse of the times, especially coming from a man who postured as a poet as often as he actually proved he was one.

Another problem in trying to decide what view of Byron to take is that both extremes sometimes take evidence from the same events. For example, those who see Bryon as a sexual sociopath take the fact that Byron’s friends destroyed his autobiography as proof that it included confessions of immorality and criminal activity. By contrast, those who believe Byron to be the victim of his own posturing insist that the autobiography was simply more of the same, with exaggerations and fantasies that his friends either believed themselves or were sure that others would. Since the autobiography no longer exists, either interpretation might fit the facts.

Similarly, how much credibility should be given to those who testify to his depravity and cruelty? The jilted, erratic Lady Caroline Lamb is far from the most reliable of witnesses. If Byron himself was unstable, she seems even more so. She seems to have been capable of saying or doing anything, yet what she knew of Byron might have been shocking even by her easy-going standards.

An even more problematic figure is Annabella Milbanke, Lady Byron. Extremely sheltered before her marriage, how would she have known what sodomy and incest were, unless she had experienced or witnessed them? Or did the sexually active Lady Caroline Lamb coach her? Did she exaggerate because she needed a strong case for separation under the laws of her time? If so, why would her accusations be so lurid and potentially damaging to herself as well as Byron unless they were basically true?

Even the fact that she tried to raise their daughter to be free of what she considered the strain of madness in the Byrons is difficult to judge. Was Byron simply too eccentric for her limited experience and imagination to understand? She seems to have suffered mental and verbal abuse, yet her lifelong obsession with Byron even after their separation suggests she was no less unstable than him. It is hard to imagine anyone spending their lifetime justifying themselves, yet that is exactly what Lady Byron seems to have done.

In the end, the evidence is inconclusive on both sides. Writers about Byron simply see in him what they choose. The sexually neurotic accept all accusations as true, although, were that so, Byron would have had little time for the other parts of his busy life. The hero-worshipers find reasons to excuse him, because of the political sentiments he expressed and his death while fighting for Greek independence – as though his life could be neatly divided into good and bad karma and a final score provided.

Only rarely does anyone consider that both viewpoints might be true, or at least have aspects of the truth – or, rarer still, that all the posthumous gossip has little to do with the worth of his poetry. In the end, Byron remains a figure who is impossible to ignore, but also one who is impossible to define.

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