BYRON IN LOVE
A Short Daring Life
By Edna O'Brien
W. W. Norton
228pp. | $24.95
Lord Byron's tireless love of women, men, teenagers, prostitutes, his own sister, the wives of others and their 11-year-old daughters--all of them chronicled in the most famous poetry of the 19th century--helped forge a legend that has parallel only in the debauched exploits of Casanova and Sade. Few lives have been as legend-ready as Lord Byron's, few writers as able to cultivate a legend commanding enough to boom down through the centuries. Charlie Chaplin was the first face recognized around the globe, and Charles Lindbergh was the first media celebrity, but Lord Byron (1788-1824) was the first to sing shamelessly of himself from across oceans and continents.
In her new short biography of the poet, the Irish fiction writer Edna O'Brien has chosen to disregard Byron's verse almost entirely and instead spotlight the romances only, a decision that is hard to defend, for without the poetry, Byron would have been just another solipsistic sex addict. His Childe Harold, the poem responsible for his overnight European renown, is second only to Wordsworth's Prelude in its illumination of how phenomena mold the mind of a poet. Don Juan remains a masterpiece of protean form, equal parts picaresque, satire, epic, romance, essay, philosophy-lyric and narrative, airy as a folktale, heavy as a fact. Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, the verse romance that spawned Russian literature, would not have been possible without the Byronic hero. Goethe also owed considerable debt to Byron. Those without enough stamina for the meticulous analysis in the definitive Leslie Marchand three-volume life, or the deft unraveling of Byron's psyche in Phyllis Grosskurth's study, will discover in O'Brien's competent short biography a general appraisal of Byron, the lover and the legend.
The boy entered the world with a lame foot-in Milton the mark of Satan--and soon proved himself a prodigy of nearly Mozartean proportions: translating Horace at age six, annotating the Hebrew Bible by eight. In adolescence he named Napoleon his personal Ubermensch, and had already acquired the dazzling gravity that would tilt people toward him for the remainder of his days. Despising his mother and yearning for exploration, the young lord began his Grecian travels in 1809 with an ostentatious caravan in tow. By the time he reached Italy several years later he had romped with so many men and...