Monday, November 26, 2007

"Your whisky has made you original."

Jenny Davidson's's great post a week or so ago at Light Reading on Lord Byron's letters about swimming (specifically, as you may have guessed, about swimming the Hellespont) led me to pick up, on her recommendation, the one-volume distillation of Harvard University Press's twelve volumes of Byron's correspondence, Selected Letters and Journals (1982).

On receiving the book, I turned to the index in search of some name that had recently been on my reading list; settling on James Hogg, I thumbed my way to a letter the twenty-six-year-old Byron wrote to the forty-four-year-old Hogg on March 24, 1814. After an introductory paragraph acquiescing to Hogg's request for some verse for a journal he was printing, Byron gets right down to the good stuff: strongly held opinions, exuberant scurrility, and wonderful bombast. I'm going to quote at more length than I usually do, simply because each paragraph contains at least a couple of lines so creative or ridiculous as to be well worth sharing.
You seem to be a plain spoken man, Mr. Hogg, and I really do not like you the worse for it. I can't write verses, and yet you want a bit of my poetry for your book. It is for you to reconcile yourself with yourself.--You shall have the verses

You are mistaken, my good fellow, in thinking that I (or, indeed, any living verse-writer--for we shall sink poets) can write as well as Milton. Milton's Paradise Lost is, as a whole, a heavy concern; but the two first books of it are the very finest poetry that has ever been produced in this world--at least since the flood--for I make little doubt Abel was a fine pastoral poet, and Cain a fine bloody poet, and so forth; but we, now-a-days, even we (you and I, i.e.) know no more of their poetry than the brutum vulgus--I beg pardon, the swinish multitude, do of Wordsworth and Pye. Poetry must always exist, like drink, where there is a demand for it. And Cain's may have been the brandy of the Antediluvians, and Abel's the small [?] still.

Shakespeare's name, you may depend on it, stands absurdly too hight and will go down. He had no invention as to stories, none whatever. He took all his plots form old novels, and threw their stories into a dramatic shape, at as little expense of thought as you or I could turn the plays back again into prose tales. That he threw over whatever he did write some flashes of genius, nobody can deny: but this was all. Suppose any one to have the dramatic handling for the first time of such ready-made stories as Lear, Macbeth, &c. and he would be a sad fellow, indeed, if he did not make something very grand of them. [As] for his historical plays, properly historical, I mean, they were mere redressings of former plays on the same subjects, and in twenty cases out of twenty-one, the finest, the very finest things, are taken all but verbatim out of the old affairs. You think, no doubt, that A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! is Shakespeare's. Not a syllable of it. You will find it all in the old nameless dramatist. Could not one take up Tom Jones and improve it, without being a greater genius than Fielding? I, for my part, think Shakespeare's plays might be improved, and the public seem, and have seemed to think so too, for not one of his is or ever has been acted as he wrote it; and what the pit applauded three hundred years past, is five times out of ten not Shakespeare's, but Cibber's.

Stick you to Walter Scott, my good friend, and do not talk any more stuff about his not being willing to give you real advice, if you really will ask for real advice. You love Southey, forsooth--I am sure Southey loves nobody but himself, however. I hate these talkers one and all, body and soul. They are a set of the most despicable impostors--that is my opinion of them. They know nothing of the world and what is poetry, but the reflection of the world? What sympathy have this people with the spirit of this stirring age? They are no more able to understand the least of it, than your lass--nay, I beg her pardon, she may very probably have intense sympathy with both its spirit (I mean the whisky,) and its body (I mean the bard.) They are mere old wives. Look at their beastly vulgarity, when they wish to be homely, and their exquisite stuff, when they clap on sail, and aim at fancy. Coleridge is the best of the trio--but bad is the best. Southey should have been a parish-clerk, and Wordsworth a man-midwife--both in darkness. I doubt if either of them ever got drunk, and I am of the old creed of Homer the wine-bibber. Indeed I think you and Burns have derived a great advantage from this, that being poets, and drinkers of wine, you have had a new potation to rely upon. Your whisky has made you original. I have always thought it a fine liquor. I back you against beer at all events, gill to gallon.

By the bye, you are a fine hand to cut up the minor matters of verse-writing; you indeed think harmony the all-in-all. My dear sir, you may depend upon it, you never had name yet, without making it rhyme to theme. I overlook all that sort of thing, however, and so must you, in your turn, pass over my real or supposed ruggedness. The fact is, that I have a theory on the subject, but that I have not time at present for explaining it. The first time all the poets of the age meet--it must be in London, glorious London is the place, after all--we shall, if you please, have a small trial of skill. You shall write seventeen odes for me, anything from Miltonian blank down to Phillupian [sic] namby, and I a similar number for you, and let a jury of good men and true be the judges between us. I name Scott for foreman--Tom Campbell may be admitted, and Mrs. Baillie, (though it be not exactly a matron case.) You may name the other nine worthies yourself. We shall, at all events, have a dinner upon the occasion, and I stipulate for a small importation of the peat reek.

Dear sir, believe me sincerely yours,
There's so much fun stuff there I don't even know where to begin. I've noted before Byron's slagging of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey in Don Juan:
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 mouthey.
It's amusing to note that in the poem he dismisses Coleridge for being drunk, while in the letter he dismisses Southey and Wordsworth for not being drunk. And what great phrases Byron casually tosses off throughout! Homer the wine-bibber; gill to gallon; when they clap on sail, and aim at fancy; the brandy of the Antediluvians; the peat reek-- by which I assume (correctly?) he means whiskey.

This letter alone has made the purchase of the whole volume worthwhile. I'm sure I'll share more in the coming months, but a more extensive reading will have to wait, as I'm hip-deep in Tom Jones. Until then, I'll leave you with this line from a letter Byron sent his publisher, John Murray (whom I like to imagine receiving letters of a very different sort from one of his other authors, Jane Austen), on October 15, 1816:
[B]ut poetry is--I fear--incurable--God help me--if I proceed in this scribbling--I shall have frittered away my mind before I am thirty,--but it is at times a real relief to me.

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