The Magazine

The Byron Image

A post-mortem portrait reveals the sitter.

Oct 23, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 06 • By PATRICK J. WALSH
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Walking into the Owen Gallery on New York's 75th Street in April 1999, John Clubbe saw a gorgeous portrait of Lord Byron hanging on the gallery wall. It left him utterly astonished. Clubbe stood transfixed, staring at Byron's face. A Byron scholar for 40 years, he knew all the major portraits of the poet but had never seen this one. His perfunctory judgment told him this was the work of some great master. Below the canvas, a card attributed the portrait to Thomas Sully (1783-1872). For the next six years Clubbe sought out the enigma of the portrait and the painter.

George Gordon Lord Byron (1788-1824) held both Europe and America spellbound during the Romantic age. The Romantics had reacted against Europe's secular materialism and faith in science--or, as Yeats put it, "Newton, Descartes took the world and left us excrement instead." Newton imprisoned man in a world of infinite matter, without beginning or end, while Descartes removed himself from the world of matter, retreating into abstractions of the mind. Both systems alienated man from himself, and from other men; one theory made man a material beast and the other a disembodied intellect.

By contrast, poets approach the total reality and mystery of human existence, and do so with reverence. They know that human beings encounter things through the senses, and that reverence lends itself to love and to a deeper understanding for the mystery of things--a dimension beyond the realm of science. The new scientific method rejected the validity of such poetic knowledge. It also rejected human experience, common sense, and religion. But the Romantics never clearly articulated a refutation of the godless universe of the scientist. Instead of reasoning their way back to sanity by incorporating head and heart, the Romantics tended to deny reason, postulating feeling instead. They turned inward on themselves. In "Don Juan," Byron defied the modern, de-rationalized world with aristocratic disdain:

When Bishop Berkeley said 'there was no matter,'
And proved it--'t was no matter what he said:
They say his system 't is in vain to batter,
Too subtle for the airiest human head;
And yet who can believe it? I would shatter
Gladly all matters down to stone or lead,
Or adamant, to find the world a spirit,
And wear my head, denying that I wear it.

With no deep religious belief to sustain them, the Romantic poets became disconsolate chimeras, searching for some abiding spiritual truth. Byron desired a place of refuge from the dominant secular order of science, rising commerce, and material innovation--"Inventions that help man as true / As shooting them at Waterloo"--and denied fealty to such a world. Byron, Shelley, and Keats drifted to Rome, which Shelley renamed "a paradise of exiles."

For several decades after the fall of Napoleon, the Romantics shaded and colored the daydreams of young Europeans and Americans. Byron had sought an escape from despair in sexual escapades, but experience brought him only despondency. He thought marriage would tame him, yet his marriage dissolved in less than a year. Rumors of mistreating his wife soon hounded him out of England, and in 1816, he left never to return. Sorely out of humor with the world, he defied it by further asserting his wit, his ego, and his fearsome pride.

In exile, Byron would have nothing to do with the English, who peered at him from a distance through telescopes. But he had a fondness for Americans: "Americans are the only people whom I never refuse to show myself. The Yankees are great friends of mine." Commodore Jacob Jones invited him aboard the USS Constitution for an official visit as it lay in anchor off Leghorn in 1822. George Bancroft, the American historian who was also a guest on board that day, wrote that "finding all on board to be Americans, Lord Byron's manners became easy, frank and cheerful." Touring another American ship Byron was pleased to find a New York edition of his poems.

(Not only was Byron pleased by American frigates, he was also impressed by American writers, particularly Washington Irving. Once, hoping to find a copy of Irving's latest work in a trunk sent from England, Byron rummaged in vain. Upon finding a volume of Jeremy Bentham instead, he hurled it across the room.)