Academic journal article The Byron Journal

'D-D Corkscrew Staircases': Byron's Hangovers

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

'D-D Corkscrew Staircases': Byron's Hangovers

Article excerpt


This essay examines the odd richness of a Byronic hangover. It firstly provides a detailed account of Byron's hangovers as documented in his correspondence to Hobhouse, Moore and others before situating what Byron knew about his constitution in relation to contemporary medical accounts of the liver and stomach. It proceeds to argue that for Byron the morning after a night of heavy indulgence was a reminder of the interpenetration of body and soul. The essay then applies this discussion to the period of uncertainty surrounding the composition of the early cantos of Don Juan, exploring the way in which the grammar of a hangover becomes a way to encounter and engage with the moral squeamishness of readers, who Murray feared might find it difficult to 'stomach' Byron's satirical turn following the commercial success of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.

One of the most frequently quoted comic incidents from Byron's correspondence involves a drunken escapade. The letter in which it appears was sent to Thomas Moore on 31 October 1815, just before the separation crisis. Byron was often drinking heavily in company at the time, usually with Sheridan, Kinnaird and other luminaries associated with the Drury Lane Theatre Sub-Committee. Byron was hoping that Moore might join him in the venture; whether such stories as the following would persuade or dissuade is a matter for conjecture:

Yesterday, I dined out with a largeish party, where were Sheridan and Colman, Harry Harris of C[ovent]. G[arden], and his brother, Sir Gilbert Heathcote, D[ougla]s Kinnaird, and others, of note and notoriety. Like other parties of the kind, it was first silent, then talky, then argumentative, then disputatious, then unintelligible, then altogethery, then inarticulate, and then drunk. When we had reached the last step of this glorious ladder, it was difficult to get down again without stumbling; and, to crown all, Kinnaird and I had to conduct Sheridan down a d-d corkscrew staircase, which had certainly been constructed before the discovery of fermented liquors, and to which no legs, however crooked, could possibly accommodate themselves. We deposited him safe at home, where his man, evidently used to the business, waited to receive him in the hall.1

While the letter has recently been used by Timothy Webb as evidence of Sheridan's dissipation and the chaos surrounding the organisation of the Sub-Committee,2 and by Peter Cochran as an example of Byron's continued ability to write and feel comically during the period of the straight-faced Oriental tales,3 its full implications as a figure for a hangover have yet to be properly considered. The metaphor is clear and insightful: whoever goes up the 'ladder' of inebriation must descend via the 'd-d corkscrew staircase'. Whereas the ascent is pleasurable, direct and even glorious, the descent is awkward, confused and painful.

Once Byron and Kinnaird managed to deposit Sheridan at his home the stumbling continued into the next morning. The drink had evidently affected Byron's memory of events and physical well being more severely than that of the more practiced drinkers at the table:

Both [Sheridan] and Colman were, as usual, very good; but I carried away much wine, and the wine had previously carried away my memory; so that all was hiccup and happiness for the last hour or so, and I am not impregnated with any of the conversation.

Byron concludes the letter by associating inebriation with inspiration and witty conversation, and of 'poor' Sheridan he says: 'his very dregs are better than the "first sprightly runnings" of others'. Byron demonstrates that the anacreontics of Ben Jonson and his 'tribe' still run, albeit slowly and in the sediment of poor 'Sherry's' Regency glass. But he signs offin ventris nausiae: 'My paper is full, and I have a grievous headache'.4

The present essay is not concerned with glorious ladders, about which a fair deal has already been said, but with damned corkscrew staircases. …

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