[Byron Society home page] [All events]

The Byronic Spirit

by Chris "Childe Harold" Oakley

Since some of you will be new to the Byron Society concept, I felt that it would be helpful to spell out exactly what this is, and what you might be required to do about it. L’esprit Byronique est une espece de folie divine, as Goethe wrote in his scientific tour de force, The history and development of the G-string, composed on his travels in the Amazon rain forests in 1787 [Mind you, he also voiced such opinions as, La plume de ma tante—c’est mieux dans m’arriere, s’il te plait! and, outside Victoria Coach Station, C’est magnifique, mais c’est ne pas la gare! — whether we should lend any credence to his views is open to question]. Perhaps we should bear in mind rather the prognostications of such Byronists as C. Vanderbilt Richard ‘Mad Jack’ Schulze III, who was heard to opine: "Women—well, as Pa used to say, ‘My valet always told me: ‘Women are like a Dayville’s Ice-Cream Parlour: there are 32 flavours, and you won’t know which you like best until you’ve tried each and every one!’’"

However, this is too naïve. To fully understand the implications of the quasi-telemodal esocareening, neo-substantial, vapour-inhaling, hangoverian telepresence of fully-fledged non-simplistic Byronism, we involve ourselves in an intellectual exercise of the sort that has taxed the livers of some of the most brilliant minds in literary criticism for over a century, and one which must be approached with the utmost trepidation.

Byron—the liberal who was part of, and supported, an almost feudal aristocracy. The poet whose verses could be the most elevated and the most sordid of all the Romantics. One does not have to look hard to find contradictions in this complex man, contradictions which can only be resolved in that essential word: Byronism. I was totally perplexed by this problem of presenting simply, but accurately what it is that constitutes "the Byronic", and eventually decided that the only solution was to consult with "Mad Jack" Schulze, who was in any case the initial inspiration for the society, and the person, I felt, in whom the spirit of Byron was strongest. I procured a Keasbey Travelling Bursary for Literary Research from the college, and flew to Mad Jack’s plantation in North Carolina. As I was driven down the avenue by his old and trusted valet, Condom, I noticed the grounds littered with burned-out motor vehicles (Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Aston Martins mainly). "His Lordship had a little Destruction Derby here yesterday," explained Condom, smiling indulgently, "such a lot of fun for the locals!"

I was ushered into the house by Mad Jack’s svelte Swedish maid, named (as it happened) Svelte. Facing us on the staircase was a portrait of M.J. fully fifteen feet in height. It showed the man attired in the full court dress of a Mesopotamian potentate, brandishing a silver, rune-encrusted dagger in one hand and a rolled-up copy of Car and Driver in the other. As Svelte led me upstairs I explained my mission, whereupon she said that she did not understand about literature, but that if there was anything I wanted—anything at all—then she would be only too glad to help. I found M.J. reclining on his mahogany carved throne ("A present from King Faisal"—he explained). His half-sister, Julietta, was sleeping face-down, naked, on a chaise-longue next to his throne, with M.J. playing "elevenses" on her back. The floor and tables were littered with the debris of all-night revelry: glasses, empty bottles, syringes, contraceptives, etc. The writing desk had a half-finished poem upon in, with the title Stanzas to Glenn Miller.

"You can’t put cards on a Jack and a King if there’s no Queen," I said. "That’s cheating."

A flash of Byronic anger appeared on M.J.’s face, which quickly turned into a sardonic smile as he wittily riposted:

"No, but I can put lead in your gut, if you’re going to be a pain!"

He was brandishing his Prussian Cavalry Officer’s pistol in a most threatening way. He then laughed, and greeted me with the time-honoured secret handshake of the Byron Society. He asked me about the journey, and would I like a drink or a wench?—No, I was here for literary reasons: I needed a definitive definition of the Byronic Spirit from the man who I felt was the one who understood it best.

He sat back on his throne, pouring himself another glass of laudanum.

"Consider Byron the man first, and the poet second," he intoned, slowly rolling himself a joint. "Macaulay described him thus—‘a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart; a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge—yet capable of deep and lasting affections’." He produced a jewelled knife with his initials engraved upon it, and began cutting a small lump of cannabis.

"As a poet, there is a clear distinction to be made between Byron the lyricist and Byron the satirist," he continued. "Although it was the former which made him famous initially, it is for the latter which he is chiefly remembered today—in particular his Don Juan, wherein his best qualities as a poet were combined."

"What were these qualities?" I inquired.

M.J. leaned back, taking a long draw on the joint, followed by a snort of cocaine and a swig of laudanum. He then paused—for effect, I think—and answered, "Principally his iconoclasm, his vitality, his humour, his magnificent, ironic detachment, and his zest for life. All of these qualities are on triumphant display in Don Juan."

"I see," I said, "and his lyric poetry?"

"She walks in beauty is probably the best remembered of these, but as the homosexual-nymphomaniacal, chainsaw-dismembering Archbishop W—"

He was interrupted by Julietta’s husband, Colonel Sanders, bursting into the room at that moment. Julietta awoke with a shriek and rushed into a bedroom, scattering playing cards everywhere. Of the ensuing scene I do not remember much except that there was a lot of "finger-lickin’" this and "finger-lickin’" that. Colonel Sanders, unfortunately, just did not seem to understand that ordinary people sometimes have to make sacrifices for truly Byronic souls—poor man. The patient, quiet nobility of M.J.’s countenance during these ravings was inspiring to watch.

But I digress. The point is that M.J.’s words can furnish us with a useful definition of the Byronic Spirit. Normally as many participants of Byron Society events as possible will compose poetry, to be read out after the dinner. For guidance, see the Proceedings of the Byron Society, which is a distillation of the poetry presented at the first two dinners. There is a copy in Trinity library; alternatively a copy may be purchased from me, price £3.60. The cost of the dinner should be in the region of £16. I hope very much that you are able to come.