UNLIKE many superstars of today, George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), was not just the product of media hype. He was, in truth, very handsome, a champion swimmer, highly intelligent, and extraordinarily gifted. With the publication in 1812 of the first two cantos of ''Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,'' a kind of travel-diary in verse, he became an overnight celebrity. The reading public swiftly conflated the poem's brooding hero with its author, and a legend was born.
Solitary, embittered, handsome, saturnine, sometimes rather satanic (Emily Bronte's Heathcliff), more often a dark angel whom a good woman might redeem (Charlotte Bronte's Rochester), the Byronic hero would crop up throughout 19 th-century literature (and doubtless quite as often in life, which imitates art almost as much as the other way around). The Byronic hero's literary antecedents included Richardson's Lovelace, an aristocratic rake bent on seduction, and Milton's Satan, in whom Romantic revisionists like Blake and Shelley saw possibilities (or at least parallels) of a Promethean heroism. Yet the real Byron, like his own delightful character, ''Don Juan,'' was more seduced than seducing, and, despite his support of reform at home and revolutionary causes abroad, was finally far more conventionally Calvinist than his friend Shelley, and at times felt the attraction of Roman Catholicism. His basic pessimism made it hard for him to have much faith in the political causes he supported.
Because the aura of his celebrity ''translated'' more easily than the actual poetic achievements of less glamorous poets, such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats, Byron was long considered the foremost Romantic, especially by Europeans. Yet, though he greatly admired some of Coleridge's wilder efforts (''Christabel,'' ''The Rime of the Ancient Mariner''), he had little regard for the Lake Poets or the ''Cockney'' Keats, or even for the poetry of his own friend Shelley, whom he considered ''the best and least selfish man I ever knew.'' He thought of himself as a poet in the Augustan tradition of Pope and Dryden, as these verses from ''Don Juan'' illustrate: Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope; Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey; Because the first is crazed beyond all hope, The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthy: I know that what our neighbors call 'longueurs,' (We've not so good a word, but have the thing, In that complete perfection which insures An epic from Bob Southey every Spring) We learn from Horace, 'Homer sometimes sleeps'; We feel without him, Wordsworth sometimes wakes. . . .
It is tempting to assign Byron's comedy and satire (''English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,'' ''Beppo,'' ''The Vision of Judgment,'' and his masterpiece, ''Don Juan'') to his Augustan side, leaving ''Childe Harold,'' the Oriental and Gothic verse tales, the Faustian ''Manfred,'' the mythopoeic ''Cain,'' and the love lyrics to his Romantic side. But this would oversimplify a complex personality.
Byron's crowning achievement, ''Don Juan,'' clearly draws upon the neoclassical ''Augustan'' style of Pope and Dryden and the classical Augustan mode of Horace. Yet ''Don Juan'' is Romantic in its anti-Romanticism - Romantic, because it struggles with Romanticism: Now my sere fancy 'falls into the yellow
Leaf,' and Imagination droops her pinion,
And the sad truth which hovers o'er my desk
Turns what was once romantic to burlesque. And if I laugh at any mortal thing, 'Tis that I may not weep; and if I weep, 'Tis that our nature cannot always bring Itself to apathy . . . . The self-mockery that animates the poet's despondency and the wit that enlightens, however momentarily, his fluctuations of mood are a welcome transformation of Byron's own earlier ''longueurs,'' as is shown here from ''Childe Harold'': Yet, though a dreary strain, to this I cling, So that it wean from the weary dream Of selfish grief or gladness - so it fling Forgetfulness around me - it shall seem To me, though to none else, a not ungrateful theme.
Which is not to say that only his wit and worldliness save Byron from bathos. The power that magnetized 19th-century readers still vibrates through many lines of his dramatic and lyric poetry:
'Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy . . . . . . years steal Fire from the mind as vigor from the limb, And life's enchanted cup but sparkles near the brim. (from ''Childe Harold'') My blood is all meridian; were it not, I had not left my clime, nor should I be, In spite of tortures, ne'er to be forgot, A slave again of love, - at least of thee. (from ''Stanzas to the Po'')
As one who liked to present himself as an aristocrat and man of action, Byron frequently expressed his scorn for ''scribbling.'' And, indeed, his writing may strike the reader as deliberately ''off the cuff,'' relying more upon the writer's innate facility than upon painstaking craftsmanship. Yet, Byron felt certain that he had to write, if only to release tension. When he wasn't producing poems, he was letting off steam in the 12 volumes of letters and journals that Leslie A. Marchand has been editing over the years.
Marchand's one-volume selection from the letters and journals includes a brief biography of Byron, sketches of his correspondents, an anthology of ''memorable passages'' - all eminently quotable - and an index. That unmistakable mixture of passion and levity, melancholy and mockery that culminated in ''Don Juan'' is just as evident in the poet's correspondence, whether he is discussing his love life with his confidante, Lady Melbourne, or refusing to make the cuts in ''Don Juan'' that his publisher has suggested. Or describing his meeting with a young fan from Boston, who seemed disappointed not to find Byron more Byronic: ''I can never,'' writes Byron, ''get people to understand that poetry is the expression of excited passion, and that there is no such thing as a life of passion any more than a continuous earthquake, or an eternal fever. Besides, who would ever shave themselves in such a state?''