Academic journal article The Byron Journal

'Unshadowing the Rialto': Byron and the Patterns of Life

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

'Unshadowing the Rialto': Byron and the Patterns of Life

Article excerpt

Abstract

Focusing on Byron's letter to Thomas Moore of 1 June 1818, Byron's first-ever letter from the Palazzo Mocenigo, this essay celebrates the range, the linguistic bravura, the grasp of various literary traditions, the mastery of more than one kind of discourse, the fluency and linguistic fertility, the mixture of abuse and sharp criticism with an understanding and forgiving humanity, and the energy and seemingly unquenchable creative vitality to be found in Byron's letters. It also argues that Byron's letter to Moore is of particular interest because of what it says, and implies, about the shaping and pattern of human lives and the advice it contains, not least in the form of its own example, about the challenges of biographical writing. Specifically, it engages with Leigh Hunt, Sheridan (the subject of Moore's as yet unwritten biography) and a popular play by Arthur Murphy. The letter demonstrates that, even if not overtly, Byron is here concerned both with the critical assessment of literature (which is not only, or comfortably, a matter of aesthetics) and with the writing, and even the living, of life on the dangerous edge.

I

Not long after he had settled into the Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice, Byron wrote to Thomas Moore his first extant letter from that address on the first day of June 1818.1 Moore was one of Byron's most favoured confidants and received a number of letters from Venice,2 which he was the first to print, even if they were disfigured by the asterisks of strong editorial intervention. Though Moore once possessed the full text of Byron's first letter from the Palazzo Mocenigo, we have always been dependent on the truncated version he printed in his Letters and Journals of Lord Byron in 1830, because the original now seems to have disappeared. Even as it stands, Byron's letter is a remarkably fine specimen of his powers as a prose writer. Many years ago, John Ruskin remarked that it contains 'the utmost number that will come together into space, of absolutely just, wise, and kind thoughts', and that it is 'more than noble, it is perfect, because the quantity it holds is not artificially or intricately concentrated, but with the serene swiftness of a smith's hammerstrokes on hot iron; and with choice of terms which, each in its place, will convey far more than they mean in the dictionary'.3 This description emphasises, with justification, the genuinely positive aspects of Byron's letter, but modern readers may also be struck by its range (in spite of editorial deletions), its linguistic bravura, its grasp of a variety of literary traditions, its mastery of more than one kind of discourse, its fluency and linguistic fertility, and its mixture of abuse and sharp criticism with an understanding and forgiving humanity. Above all, perhaps, the letter is marked by energy and a seemingly unquenchable creative vitality. Apart from all these recognisable virtues, Byron's letter to Moore is also of particular interest because of what it says, and implies, about the shaping and pattern of human lives and the advice it contains, not least in the form of its own example, about the challenges of biographical writing. Even if not overtly, Byron is here concerned both with the critical assessment of literature (which is not only, or comfortably, a matter of aesthetics) and with the writing, and even the living, of life on the dangerous edge.

As usual, Byron gives expression to his friendship by taking his correspondent into his confidence and by touching on a wide range of topics. Not the least of these concerns is his anxiety about the possible failure of the fourth canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (which had been published on 28 April) and his immediate need to respond to Moore's technical criticism, which Byron suspected he had picked up from others, 'about the stanzas running into each other' (a practice Byron might have contracted from reading Italian terza rima, as he suggested in his modest and hesitant self-defence). …

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