Monday, June 04, 2012

An invitation to Byron, were he alive

Most of the pleasure of the correspondence between George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis, aside from the pair's obvious joy in literary friendship, consists of pithy judgments, apposite and relatively obscure quotations, and references to books and authors long forgotten (a fate that seems to befall biographies, belles-lettres, and criticism with sad frequency). But once in a while there are unexpected gems of a different sort, such as the poem below, written by Duff Cooper, explains Hart-Davis in a letter of January 26, 1957, in response to a contest by “one of the newsweeklies,” asking for poems titled “On first hearing that Wordsworth had had an illegitimate child.”

I’ve written before about Wordsworth’s illegitimate child—and the tentativeness of judgment on the topic that mars Adam Sisman’s otherwise excellent book on Wordsworth and Coleridge, The Friendship—but I can’t imagine a better person to hammer the old Sheep of the Lake District for his hypocrisy than Byron, and I can’t imagine a better bugle call to the charge than this one:
Byron! Thou should’st be living at this hour, We need thy verse, thy venom and thy wit To castigate the ancient hypocrite. We need thy pith, thy passion and thy power— How often did that prim old face turn sour Even at the mention of thy honoured name, How oft those prudish lips have muttered “shame” In jealous envy of thy golden lyre. In words worth reading hadst thou told the tale Of what the Lakeland bard was really at When on those long excursions he set sail. For now there echoes through his tedious chat Another voice, the third, a phantom wail Or peevish prattle of a bastard brat.
The opening nod to Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron” makes up for the inevitable “words worth” pun. None of which should obscure the truth that Lyttelton notes in his reply to Hart-Davis’s letter:
Wordsworth . . . must have been uniquely dried-up, stiff, dull, self-satisfied, arrogant, but at his poetic best—Who was it said “He stumps along by your side, an old bore in a brown coat, and suddenly he goes up and you find that your companion is an angel”, i.e. is at home in a region where Byron saw only George III and Southey having their legs pulled.
That said, I think that despite the perils, had I a single dinner invitation to send, it’d be Coleridge or Byron, not Wordsworth, who’d receive it.

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