Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron's Love Letters

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron's Love Letters

Article excerpt

While in Milan in 1816, Byron was 'most delighted with a correspondence of letters all original and amatory between Lucretia Borgia & Cardinal Bembo' that was kept in the Ambrosian library. He claimed to have 'pored over them', going 'repeatedly to read the epistles over and over'. He liked them so much that he tried to get copies of the letters made, but this was 'prohibited '. Instead he 'got some of them by heart '. The letters, he said, were 'short - but very simple sweet & to the purpose ' - the 'prettiest love-letters in the world '.1

Byron's own letters, together with his journals, are thought to 'constitute one of the [...] most significant informal autobiographies in English'.2 His letters have also been widely praised as letters ever since Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote in 1831 that they offered their reader 'a rare and admirable instance of that highest art, which cannot be distinguished from nature ',3 and they have sometimes received sustained critical attention in their own right.4 But few admirers of Byron's letters have singled out his love letters for particular praise.5 This is, perhaps, not very surprising. His love letters are usually not that 'short', or particularly 'simple ', 'sweet', 'pretty' - or original. Byron wrote striking love poems. He was also very good at creating fictional lovers. Yet his own love letters are often rather conventional. One can sometimes suspect he is going through the motions when writing letters to lovers.6 And he wrote surprisingly few love letters (though perhaps he wrote many more than we know about, but which have not survived).

Yet Byron could be interested in love letters, as his reports from Milan show, and his own love letters have more to tell us than they might at first appear to. In the following, I want to read a sample of Byron's love letters via a number of key passages from Byron's poetry, especially some famous passages from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan in which Byron stresses both the inadequacy of language to express emotion and thought and the power of language to produce emotion and thought. I want to suggest that the conventionality of Byron's love letters, far from showing a lack of interest in the business of writing such letters, is Byron's way of both navigating language 's expressive limitations and deploying its emotive power. The love letters we will look at here seek to seduce their recipients into, rather than just with, feeling - indeed they use language 's expressive inadequacy to do this. Their very conventionality reveals something about Byron as both a lover and a writer.

From relatively early on, Byron's poetry is concerned with language's simultaneous power and impotence. In 'Stanzas for Music', written in 1814, for example, Byron writes:

I speak not, I trace not, I breathe not thy name,

There is grief in the sound, there is guilt in the fame:

But the tear which now burns on my cheek may impart

The deep thoughts that dwell in that silence of heart. (1-4)

We see a key Byronic juxtaposition here. There is 'grief ' in the 'sound' of 'thy name ', 'guilt' in its pronunciation (the meaning, here, I take it, of 'fame ' - being known by being named): to speak is to make oneself feel; silence is a refuge from emotion. Yet silence is also where the 'deepest' thoughts - and feelings - are known: deep 'thoughts', deeper than 'grief ' and 'guilt', one presumes, 'dwell' in the 'silence of heart '. What is deepest lies beyond the reach of words.

However, while the stanza stresses the limitations of language, it also deploys those limitations, and in a way that is characteristic of Byron's verse more generally: the suggestion that he is feeling more than language could possibly communicate is an example of that 'flirtation' through which, according to Corin Throsby, Byron 'consciously courted female consumers' of his poetry,7 employing 'a fundamental characteristic of Simmelian flirtation', namely the '"withdrawal of the self [. …

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