A Public Man - Lord Byron

Francis Gastrell was very annoyed. He had bought a nice new house only to find hordes of uninvited guests tramping through his garden and helping themselves to sprigs and branches from his mulberry tree. These trespasses angered him so much that one day he took up an axe and chopped the tree down, thus removing the inconvenience. The visitors stopped coming, which in turn upset the villagers who relied on their money. They formed a gang, descended on Gastrell’s house, and smashed all his windows. With the score evened, things quieted down for a bit, at least until the town council decided to raise the taxes on the property, thus driving Gastrell into a renewed frenzy. Rather than pay the increased dues, the reverend (for Gastrell was a man of the cloth), chose to vacate the house and dismantle the entire building brick by brick and gable by gable. A fresh stump and a razed plot were all that remained to inform visitors that here had stood New Place, the handsome and spacious manor house that William Shakespeare had bought for his retirement, and where, with his very own hands, he had once planted a mulberry tree.

Gastrell’s spectacularly vindictive act of vandalism took place in 1759, depriving the world of one of the only remaining sites with unambiguous ties to Shakespeare. But it served to mark the advent of literary tourism. Infused with the nascent spirit of romanticism, late-eighteenth-century lovers of literature who desired greater intimacy with their favorite works set off to commune with the spirit of genius as it lingered in place. Writers became objects of fascination, celebrities noted not for their craft or erudition but for their vivid individuality and the expansive range of their passions. For living legends like Voltaire and Rousseau, daily life involved a procession of curious sightseers who came not to speak with them as equals, but to nudge each other and point as if gazing at monuments, which made Rousseau so uneasy he built a trapdoor in his study to escape them. Souvenirs were an essential part of the experience, a sliver of the mundane snatched to unite oneself to the vast infinity of the sublime. Though fairly innocuous in the case of literary gardens, they could also be decidedly ghoulish. The body of the novelist Laurence Sterne was dug up shortly after his death by resurrectionists at the behest of surgeons who prized the opportunity to examine the great wit’s organs. The body was recognized on the slab by horrified students also acquainted with literature. When the body of John Milton was exhumed in 1790 in order to locate the exact site of his grave, it was immediately ransacked for hair, teeth, and ribs and put on display for anyone willing to pay sixpence. The dismantled Milton was eventually put back together, but only after a scandalized antiquarian bought back the remains at an inflated price. The heart of Percy Bysshe Shelley was famously plucked from the flames of his funeral pyre on a beach near Viareggio and squabbled over by Leigh Hunt and Edward Trelawny, the former wishing to preserve it in a jar of wine, and the latter wanting to present it to Shelley’s widow, Mary, who eventually kept it in a drawer of her writing table. Lord Byron had wanted to keep Shelley’s skull, but Trelawny, “remembering he had previously used one as a drinking cup,” only preserved a fragment of it, which is now in the possession of the Pforzheimer Collection of the New York Public Library. It looks exactly like a piece of dried leaf.

Byron had a penchant for keepsakes and mementos, often traveling with a specially made screen that had pictures of his favorite actors on one side and his favorite boxers on the other—ironic given that he felt so devoured by the ravening and persistent intrusions into his private life that he eventually sent himself into exile. “Byromania” (a term coined by his future wife, Annabella Milbanke) swept England after the publication in 1812 of his poetic travelogue Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which went on to sell a remarkable twenty thousand copies. It was followed by a series of “Oriental tales” that were also successful—The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos (both 1813), Lara and The Corsair (both 1814), The Siege of Corinth and Parisina (both 1816)—all eminently accessible poems, built around bold, questing narratives and propelled by jogging rhythms that depicted men of “loneliness and mystery” tormented by forbidden knowledge and a threatening secret.

The unprecedented reaction to Byron’s poetry coincided with the demands of intimacy that romantic readers were making upon authors they admired. As Sir Walter Scott would write, Byron was “the first poet who, either in his own person, or covered by no very thick disguise…directly appeared before the public, an actual living man expressing his own sentiments, thoughts, hopes, and fears.” The work became virtually secondary to the man whose own identity was the real achievement, sending London “stark mad,” according to the poet Samuel Rogers, in their efforts to inhabit some small part of him. Men practiced Byronic scowls at their dressing tables, but it was women for whom the work resonated most strongly, drawn to the poet’s fantasies of unconstrained movement that gave voice to freedoms they were otherwise flatly denied. Many went to extraordinary lengths to get near him, propositioning him at the theater, turning up at his house, or disguising themselves as chambermaids. They bombarded him with letters filled with frank confessions and amorous addresses and begged him for souvenirs: locks of hair, signed copies of his works, samples of his handwriting, and even “an occasional place in your lordship’s thoughts.”

Yet for all the adoration transmitted by his readership, Lord Byron was ultimately viewed as more consuming than consumed. From the start there was the suggestion of something supernatural about his fame. His friend and early biographer Thomas Moore remarked how it had been oddly instantaneous, forgoing all “the ordinary gradations,” and simply appearing “like the palace of a fairy tale, in a night.” William Wordsworth (who had his walking stick pried off him by a souvenir hunter and was perpetually battling with tourists who peered through his windows and defiled the bushes at Rydal Mount) condemned the public’s insatiable thirst for “outrageous stimulation,” denouncing Byron as “coarse” and “epigrammatic,” a panderer to the basest artistic urges and secretly insane. (By way of retort, Byron referred to the Lakes poet simply as “Turdsworth.”) Amelia Opie, one of the many women Byron charmed, described him as having “such a voice as the devil tempted Eve with; you feared its fascination the moment you heard it,” a mesmeric quality that critics also found in his verse, which had, according to the critic Thomas Jones de Powis, “the facility of…bringing the minds of his readers into a state of vassalage or subjection.” As with the Byromania, the Byrophobia was the result of the sheer gravitational weight of a fame that had the power to distort everything around it. As one of the earliest beneficiaries of a new kind of entrepreneurial celebrity forged in the furnace of rapid industrialization and no longer dependent on the authority of conquest, church, or heredity, Byron embodied a phenomenon that was new and unnerving in the range of emotions it could elicit and the power seemingly at its command.

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