Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Clubfoot, Caul and Controversy: Byron Biography and the Foundation of Genius

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Clubfoot, Caul and Controversy: Byron Biography and the Foundation of Genius

Article excerpt

I can't deny that my distrust of the taste of our time has perhaps risen in me to a reprehensible height. To see every day how people get the name 'genius' just as the wood-lice in the cellar the name 'millipede'-not because they have that many feet, but because most people don't want to count to 14-this has had the result that I don't believe any more without checking.

(Georg Lichtenberg, Aphorisms)

Byron, as a figure, has never been stable. His story has changed, both in his own selfpresentation, and in the multiple presentations we have in the texts of others. Reading the innumerable accounts of his life is often assumed the sole requirement to understanding the Byronic figure. 'Byron' himself, however, as a narrative rather than a man, cannot be understood without taking an intimate look at the assumptions that underlie the figure, particularly assumptions about identity, genius, and artistic creation that originated in the eighteenth century. While these attitudes may distort our image of the poet, it is well to remember that contemporary attitudes about Byron continue the process, and such 'distortion' is the very process by which we have any notion of Byron at all.

Contemporary descriptions of Byron are often derived from several excellent twentieth-century biographies, more than one of which was proclaimed as 'definitive', including E.C. Mayne's 1912 Byron, and Leslie Marchand's 1957 Byron: A Biography. Though subsequent projects would be judged according to their standards for the remainder of the century, projects in Byron biography did not stop with the publication of either Mayne's or Marchand's work, requiring a logical question: why are biographical volumes produced by a community when 'definitive' ones have been already written? To answer that, we must ask what are the unspoken assumptions and agendas in the biographical project, and what are the repetitions and points of convergence in these ostensibly unnecessary biographical texts.1

Insight into one key repetition in Byron biography lies in understanding the development of the word 'genius'. By the end of the eighteenth century, the word had become a topic of considerable discussion. A relevant genealogy begins in 1774, when Alexander Gerard wrote one of the first essays devoted to the theme, An Essay on Genius, producing what would become the standard ideology for the word.2 'Genius' is natural, he argued, as opposed to cultivated; a claim which easily supported-and probably contributed to-the thematics of the nature-based Romanticism which began to proliferate immediately thereafter. Another aspect of his argument, which would become particularly important in the creation of the Byron figure, was the idea that 'genius' is somewhat 'defective'. By 1891, the community of literary scholarship had advanced that assertion far enough for Cesare Lombroso to announce, in his work The Man of Genius, that genius was not only defective, it carried with it correspondent symptoms of illness and abnormality, including Degeneration, Rickets, Pallor, Emaciation, and Lefthandedness.3 If this ideology verifies Byron, with his clubfoot and sexually deviant behavior, as a certifiable genius, the exposure of 'genius' as a historically determined word calls into question whether being one really has any meaning other than one as a culturally variable, suspect measurement of value.

An even earlier text that has bearing on this inquiry, Edward Young's 1759 'Conjectures on Original Composition', argues for 'originality' in contrast to reliance upon classical, traditional texts. The definitions of both Gerard and Young privilege inspiration that is necessarily outside of traditional notions of culture and education. I mention Young to give a more complete picture of the history that informs developing notions of eighteenth-century 'genius', but he is an excellent example, as well, because he was also labelled a genius in his time, and descriptions of him are rather 'Byronic' in nature. …

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