Lord Byron in Arcadia

by Jay Rogoff, Liberal Studies

    Lord Byron (1788-1824) would have loved the fact that though he never appears in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, much of the plot revolves around him and gossip concerning him. During his short life Byron pursued love, fame, and adventure, became continually enmeshed in sexual and literary scandal, assisted a revolution in Greece (where he died of fever at thirty-six), and, along the way, became one of the major poets of his time.

    George Gordon Noel Byron grew up in near-poverty, becoming the sixth Lord Byron at the age of ten, upon the death of his great-uncle, and inheriting the rather run-down Newstead Abbey, "a long day's ride" from Stoppard's imaginary Sidley Park (53), the play's Derbyshire setting. He attended Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge, as did his fictional friend Septimus Hodge, and from his youth cultivated flamboyance, dressing fashionably, keeping a pet bear at university, indulging in a variety of sexual affairs, and running up prodigious debts that would plague him all his life.

    Byron's precociousness extended to literature, and at nineteen he published a book of poems that the press generally praised. A pan from the influential Edinburgh Review, however, inspired his first extended poem, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, published in March 1809. English Bards is a scattershot satire on the current state of British poetry and poetry reviewing, and while Byron lambasted many deserving targets in it, his youthful recklessness also led him to trash such major poets as Wordsworth and Coleridge, attacks he later regretted. Byron's imaginary visit to Sidley Park in April comes hot on the heels of English Bards' publication, and for his second edition he satirically offers to include Arcadia's Ezra Chater, with whose wife Byron, Septimus, and Captain Brice all conduct affairs (40). Indeed, Bernard Nightingale discovers four previously unknown lines about Chater penciled in the Sidley Park copy of English Bards, but doesn't know Septimus has scribbled them, not Byron (49).

    Soon after publishing English Bards, Byron left England for two years. Bernard theorizes Byron killed Chater in a duel, necessitating his departure (53-58), but Hannah Jarvis correctly objects that for months Byron had been trying to raise money for his travels and didn't actually depart until summer, unlikely behavior for anyone eluding the law, even Byron (59). No single explanation has ever given satisfaction--to borrow Stoppard's phrase--but less dramatic theories than Bernard's for Byron's journey include his desire to escape his creditors, his avoidance of possible scandal resulting from a number of sexual affairs with both women and men, and his simple wish to see the world and collect material for future literary works. On his return to England he published the first fruits of his travels, two Cantos of a long poem, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, in 1812, and, as he himself put it, "awoke one morning and found myself famous."

    It may seem strange to think of poets as celebrities, but Childe Harold won Byron the kind of fame we associate today with movie stars and rock musicians. All of England clamored to meet him, and women particularly threw themselves at him. With one, Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron had a tempestuous, scandalously public affair in 1812, appearing with her, for example, at the Royal Academy, where Septimus and Lady Croom observe the painter Henry Fuseli sketching them (84-85). Byron nicknamed her Caro, both short for Caroline and the Italian masculine for "dear," and they enjoyed secret assignations in which she would arrive disguised as a boy. In Stoppard's play, Caro also provides the title of Hannah's revisionist book on Lady Caroline, which depicts her as a neglected Romantic genius, a verdict with which few scholars would agree (20-22). Byron's affair with Lady Caroline ended with his marriage to Annabella Milbanke, and the marriage in turn ended when Byron's wife learned of his incestuous relations with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, from whom he had been raised apart. That affair's discovery was one of many factors leading to Byron's decision to leave England permanently in 1816.

    The sensation of Childe Harold derived largely from its romantic and autobiographical hero, whom Thomasina, almost seventeen in Arcadia's final scene, calls "the most poetical and pathetic and bravest hero of any book I ever read before, and the most modern and handsomest, for Harold is Lord Byron himself to those who know him" (79). Thomasina has described what became known as "the Byronic hero," a figure of powerful emotion, subject to violence and cynicism, who tests society's moral limits and partakes of daring adventures. Byron's greatest contribution to Romantic literature, the Byronic hero recurs in many of his poems and influenced such volatile characters as Rochester in Jane Eyre, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and many others.

    Yet Childe Harold also mourns the loss of a spiritually meaningful past and the degradation of the modern world, a favorite Byronic theme that separates him from other Romantic period poets--Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats--and makes him closer kin to the great eighteenth century satirists, especially Alexander Pope, whom Byron revered. The satire and comedy of his work, which culminate in his gigantic satiric poem Don Juan (pronounced "Don JOO-in"), balance the Romantic daring of his heros, making Byron an appropriate emblem for Arcadia. He created a satiric literature that upheld the rationalist values and poetic style of the Enlightenment, but whose heros were a law unto themselves, embodying the unquenchable desire and questing of the Romantic movement.

    Some final footnotes: Byron's daughter Augusta Ada, whose life ended early and unhappily, was something of a mathematical genius and probably inspired Stoppard's creation of Thomasina. Ada worked with, among others, Charles Babbage, inventor of the computation machine and perhaps the world's first computer scientist. On a lighter note, in Arcadia, after Bernard declares Septimus's comically nasty reviews of Ezra Chater "read a damn sight more like Byron than Byron's review of Wordsworth the previous year" (30), Stoppard has Byron admire Septimus's satiric wit (36), tantalizing us with the strange possibility that Byron learned how to write like Byron . . . from Septimus Hodge! Less strange and more poignant, when Stoppard has Hannah quote the beautiful opening lines of Byron's poem "Darkness," written in 1816 after a volcanic eruption temporarily altered the world's weather patterns (79), Byron seems not only a poet of his past and present, but of our terrifying future glimpsed by Thomasina as well.

JAY ROGOFF has taught in Skidmore's Liberal Studies Program since 1993. He is a poet whose work appears in many journals, as well as his reviews and critical prose. His book The Cutoff (Word Works, 1995) won the 1994 Washington Prize for Poetry, and his chapbook First Hand (Mica Press, 1997), won the Poetry Society of America's John Masefield Memorial Award.