Friday, 19 March 2010

Lord Byron has a quiet night in

Actually this is Delacroix's painting of Sardanapolous, one of Byron's Eastern Epics...Edward Said would have LOVED it.

English Bards and Scotch Reviewers

It was the advent of the Edinburgh Review in 1809, soon followed by Murray's own Quarterly Review, of the commercial potential for journals of opinion, that provoked Byron into the public sphere. He had already published some minor and largely forgettable lyrics, but it was a bad review of these that first ignited the volcano of his splenetic was in derision that Byron first found a public voice, and came into the view of John Murray.

From 'English Bards and Scotch Reviewers'


Still must I hear? --- shall hoarse Fitzgerald bawl
His creaking couplets in a tavern hall,
And I not sing, lest, haply, Scotch reviews
Should dub me scribbler, and denounce my muse?
Prepare for rhyme --- I'll publish, right or wrong:
Fools are my theme, let satire be my song.
Laugh when I laugh, I seek no other fame;
The cry is up, and scribblers are my game.
I too can scrawl, and once upon a time
I pour'd along the town a flood of rhyme,
A schoolboy freak, unworthy praise or blame;
I printed --- older children do the same.
"T is pleasant, sure to see one's name in print;
A book's a book, although there's nothing in 't.

Byron sets about the literary world with careless violence, poets and critics and publishers...


And think'st thou, Scott ! by vain conceit perchance,
On public taste to foist thy stale romance,
Though Murray with his Miller may combine.
To yield thy muse just half-a-crown per line?

I wonder whether Byron thought of HIMSELF as a poet at this point, thought of poetry as the arena where he would live his life. We must remember that "being a writer" was not then what it is now. It was an accomplishment of Ladies and gentlemen, perhaps...or it was a grubby little job of public entertainer. Poetry as existential vocation is an invention of the romantic age, and in temprement, at this point, Byron seems like a man out of his time...he belongs more to the world of Addison, Pope and Steele, than to that of Southey and Wordsworth...whose choice of vulgar subject matter is held up to withering aristocratic scorn.

With eagle pinion soaring to the skies,
Behold the ballad-monger Southey rise !
Immortal hero ! all thy foes o'ercome,
For ever reign --- the rival of Tom Thumb !

Next comes the dull disciple of thy school,
That mild apostate from poetic rule,
The simple Wordsworth, framer of a lay
As soft as evening in his favorite May,
when he tells the tale of Betty Foy,
The idiot mother of "an idiot boy;"
A moon-struck, silly lad, who lost his way,
And like his bard, confounded night with day;
So close on each pathetic part he dwells,
And each adventure so sublimely tells,
That all who view the "idiot in his glory"
Conceive the bard the hero of the story.

I must confess that as a student, when I first encountered this Byron, Byron the classical reactionary, I was little inclined to read further. I loved Wordsworth...I loved his conscience...his seriousness...I was as serious as a deacon myself...which I suppose makes the point, that Byron the poet could not exist for me, until my existence was open to him...

For one thing, these days, as a public writer myself, I can enjoy his advice to critics...


Fear not to lie, 't will seem a sharper hit;
Shrink not from blasphemy, 't will pass for wit;
Care not for feeling --- pass your proper jest,
And stand a critic, hated yet caresss'd.

But if Byron had stopped here, as was entirely possible before his discovery of himself as a poet on his European journey soon after, then he would be remembered as an critic, albeit an unusually witty and careless one.


Sonnets on sonnets crowd, and ode on ode;
And tales of terror jostle on the road;

What varied wonders tempt us as they pass;
The cow-pox, tractors, galvanism, and gas,
In turns appear, to make the vulgar stare,
Till the swoln bubble bursts --- and all is air !

These are the themes that claim our plaudits now;
These are the bards to whom the muse must bow;
While Milton, Dryden, Pope, alike forgot,
Resign their hallow'd bays to Walter Scott.

But it was Byron's having a pop at the Edinburgh review, that Whiggish success story to which Murray put up a Tory , rival and competitor, that first brought his Lordship to Murray's attention, perhaps prompting him to read the manuscript that Byron produced when he returned from his travels, and which transformed both their lives. Partly for local reference, here's a sample...

Dark roll'd the sympathetic waves of Forth,
Low groan'd the startled whirlwinds of the north;
Strew'd were the streets around with milk-white reams,
Flow'd all the Cannongate with inky streams;

Arthur's steep summit nodded to its base,
The surly Tolbooth scarcely kept her place.

For long as Albion's heedless sons submit,
Or Scottish taste decides on English wit,
So long shall last thine unmolested reign
Nor any dare to take thy name in vain.


I think Murray probably enjoyed that. But no more thought than Byron did that they were shortly to create something quite unprecedented between them...

Bad Lord Byron

The immediate occasion of today's overcoming of inertia and self hood predicates on an attempt to say something about the literary love triangle of Lord Byron, Lady Caroline Lamb, and their mutual friend and publisher, John Murray, whose archive is the recent prized acquisition of this crusty but ambitious institution, and to which purchase I owe my presence here as Writer- in-Residence.


There's that word again. What is that exactly? Well, since the romantics, a writer has been an invention. A second self. The one who writes the poems.

The self- created personality of the Poet. The wind swept Satanic hero gazing into nature, seeing things that no one else can see, creating a self who can do that seeing for him, a second self that exists only in the books...the poet...THAT is the one who gets the fan mail and the nut mail and the stalkers...but it's the other one, the creator of the creator, who has to negotiate with them all, as well as with their own bloated, and eventually unrecognizable avatar. "It is him, the other Borges. He is the one things happen to," says Borges, from his labyrinthine desk in the National Library of Argentina, confessing at the last in self estrangement that "I do not know which one of us has written this page"

Lord Byron, very archetype of the Writer as Public I HAVE to use the word I? Can't I not? commodity, as phenomenon...I WON'T say celebrity , I won't ...the word is meaningless, pounded by over use into a flatness...killed...words can be killed...oh yes they can...and television especially is an ecological disaster for words...

(It started with sport you know. It did. Sports commentary, where fantastic, phenomenal, brilliant, extraordinary, superb...yes, even superlative...have all come to mean EXACTLY THE SAME THING... "Very good".... and not much else. May I suggest transcendent, numinous and hermaneutic as newbies for the next World Cup...His left hermaneutic!)

Celebrity never used to mean a PERSON at was a quality...something that someone had...somewhere between popularity and fame...they were celebrated...the fact of their existence was felt to enhance our own...they reflected well on human any case they represented..something

Does that mean Byron? Does that mean Jordan? Well, maybe it means both...and perhaps it is interesting to think of both of them in terms of the human possibility they share even if it's no more than the disposition to make a fool of yourself in public...

Anyway, the romantic poets, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats et al...pioneered the creation of a poetic self...a particular state of being...of originality, sensibility, and a self made muse or intermediary presence which would allow them to both experience and express experience in an individual way...that involved, inevitably, if only accidentally, exposure of that self to public gaze.

Lonely pioneers they were, most of them. Their second, poetic souls were made in private. Not Byron. Byron did it all in public. Quite by accident, he created a new kind of human being. The Personality. When I was a kid, that word meant the same as Celebrity does now...The private self in public. We used to use that word. Whatever happened to it. Well, if words can get worn out, maybe they can also be brought back...Personality, then...the self created self...created yet reading...It may be said the person writing down words becomes a poet only when they are read...that this second self, the poet, only exists at all with the aquiescence of the reader...when the reader remakes themselves when they are reading, then the scribbler may be said to become a poet. A personality

It may be that it was the advance of the technology of printing and of the business of publishing itself, (so well documented in the archive) that made someone like Byron possible in 1812 and not might think of an earlier English poet whose claim to fame was his badness, madness and dangerousness...the Earl of Rochester...but unless you're a scholar of 17th century English poetry...(Rochester ain't that good) or you're a really serious fan of Johnny Depp, you've never even heard of him.

Everyone has heard of Bad Lord Byron. The genius as Satan...the beautiful vampire. And his successors are legion...I can't even be bothered making a list. I've already mentioned Johnny Depp. Nominations for Byron clones welcome.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The Burial Horde

Here's recent and dead good Byron biographer Fiona MacCarthy

"Chief colluder in Byron's fame was, of course, his publisher, the second John Murray, whose successor, John Murray 7 commissioned this new biography...All my journeys in pursuit of Byron have begun and ended at 50 Albemarle Street off Piccadilly, the dignified house purchased by John Murray 2 in the wave of prosperity following the success of Childe Harold. Teasing contemporaries defined this as the moment at which the one time tradesman bookseller became a gentleman, and certainly, Murray's literary and social status advanced in relation to his author's meteoric rise.

"Your room speaks of him in every part" wrote the besotted Caroline Lamb to Murray in 1816. The Byronic reverberations are still there...the archive (now here) does not consist simply of manuscripts and letters but also includes objects; portraits and miniatures, clothes and medals, accumulated memorabilia; a collection of adoring letters from women of all classes, many quite unknown to Byron, who wrote in desperation, seeking contacts, assignations...; a macabre assortment of hair, donated by the late Lord Byron, who had his magpie side; a little slipper thought to have belonged to Allegra, Byron's daughter by Claire Clairmont, who died aged five in a convent at Bagnacavallo....the resources of the Murray archive can only be described as a burial horde...

Those are the voices you hear first and loudest here.

Byron is where the modern idea of the writer STARTS...

It's also where you have to start when you think about
the house, the dynasty, the collected memories
of John Murray, Publisher, Albemarle Street
John Murray, the unmatched literary archive
John Murray...a dynasty of seven of them
all called John Murray...
JM 6 even going so far as to change his name
by deed poll when he took over the firm...

Wierd, huh? Makes me wonder if that urge to continuity is not unnconnected to the very existence of the archive...itself a gathering of personal and public history...and that this unusual degree of control over memory has its initiating impulse in some other than institutional imperatives…

It’s probably got something to do with Byron. If I’ve found out anything so far about the archive itself, it’s that everything starts with Byron

The House of Murray

I know what the John Murray Archive means for researchers and historians. It's a source of information and evidence on the extraordinary rosta of writers the firm published over 250 odd years, and on the history of publishing itself.

What it is for me, however, is a collection of voices, some familiar, most not...some of them bogglingly alien.

(I'll be doing a piece later on about a scientific Dictionary of the Bible published at the same time as Murray published Origin of Species that seems to me to speak volumes about the crisis of faith that was already well underway by the time Darwin exploded his time bomb...)

What's more, these voices are noises happening inside a space, a particular location. And that location is the former home of the archive, the amazing house at 50 Albemarle Street, Piccadilly, that John Murray 2 bought on the crest of a wave of success occasioned by the publishing sensation of 1812...namely Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.

(A pleasing footnote to that purchase was that Murray bought the house from his rival John Millar, who had turned Byron's manuscript down...the Regency equivalent of Decca knocking back the Beatles...)

This is the most amazing place. Though the firm of John Murray was sold in 2002 and amalgamated with Hodder, John Murray 7 and his wife Ginny are still there. They are the most charming people imaginable, and meeting them there was a slightly surreal experience, like dropping in on the set of some literary adaptation, like finding your self having tea with the Cheeryble brothers. I was at a reception there last year to mark 150 years since Origin of Species, and the place was full of pigeons...fantails and carriers and all sorts...pooping quietly to themselves as living metaphors of unnatural selection while original portraits of Scott and Byron and Livingstone looked down on them.

The upstairs drawing room looks now much as it did when Byron was doing fencing practice with the bookshelves, or when a grief stricken Murray sat in a conclave with other mourners and burnt Byron's (presumably scandalous) memoirs.

It's like wandering round Darwin's greenhouses at Down...being in those rooms gives you the unmistakable feeling that you're in a place where some rather wonderful things happened.

And it's impossible to understand the treasures of the archive, it seems to me, without that sense of event, a sense of those rooms being a theatre of possibilities. Because it was inherent to the strategy that Murray 2 adopted that he have these rooms, that these rooms were opened to literary and social nobility at 4 in the afternoon.

It was a gathering place, a club, a social hub. Murray was, in modern parlance, interfacing with both his writers (or at least the respectable ones) and his customers, the "opinion formers". It wasn't just that they might buy some books in the shop downstairs on the way out (aristocratic customers, then as now, rarely actually pay for things). It was more like those rooms full of goodies for filmstars in LA hotels around Oscar time. Murray wanted these ladies and gentlemen to include him in the social round. He wanted people to know (people always KNOW) that Lord and Lady such and such were reading his wares, because in this way he could advertise those wares and himself. His social and commercial presences were engineered in those rooms.

Murray 1, the founder, had been a bit of a cad. Scottish, which was a bad start in an era when Scotsmen on the make were even less popular in London than Gordon Brown is now, and a womaniser, a financially reckless ducker and diver, the first Murray has been memorialised in by Bill Zachs (an exceptional collector of 18th Century publishing who lives right here in Edinburgh) in his biography. He had also died when his legitimate son and heir, JM2, was only 14, recovering from an accident that had blinded him in one eye....

Murray 2 had struggled for control over his father's firm, and once he had it, he wanted to make more of it than a bookselling business. Hence the bright and hospitable rooms at Albemarle Styreet, hence also, three years earlier, the Quarterly Review, which was not simply a commercial proposition (a Tory counter and rival to the whiggish Edinburgh Review...) but also a place for gentlemen to meet and talk about the issues of the day. Political and diplomatic, military, scientific, religious...

Byron famously said that he awoke one morning to find himself famous...and wags commented that his publisher, John Murray, simultaneously awoke and found himself a gentleman. I don't think that's entirely accurate or fair. I think that the gentleman project, the making himself known as the social centre of an intellectual elite predated when Murray met Byron...and that their unusually close relationship, which I've written about elsewhere, was as much a danger to Murray's hard won status as it was an asset commercially and socially.

To wrap this bit up, it was the second John Murray who invented the publishing house as a "house", as a place full of voices. Just as it was he who’s close, perhaps obsessive relationship with Byron, his hording of Byron's friendship and memory, became the documentary cornerstone of the archive itself.