Saturday, 12 October 2013

Gorgeous George and the Devil Himself

Brawls are fun to enjoy from the bleachers. And the first great literary feud still has a lot to teach us. Meet the two combatants now.
Byron 1824.jpg



In the left corner, Lord Byron (aka George Gordon): Born in 1788. 5'8". Lover, boxer, swimmer, marksman and literary rock star. Drank wine from a human skull and had sex with his half-sister.


In the right corner, Robert Southey: Born in 1774. A 6' former rebel who turned coat for a government pension. Became Poet Laureate when Walter Scott declined. Sang prolifically then for his supper.

Fight genesis: Motives seem murky. Southey may have seen in Byron the sins he wished he'd been blessed to commit, while Byron saw in Southey the staid bore he feared he'd become. But three factors combined to stir up the big brawl:
--1818. Byron took quick playful shots at Southey in the Dedication of Don Juan. Though Lord B's English Bards & Scotch Reviewers had lambasted everyone nine years before, his new dig at Southey turned obscene:

You, Bob, are rather insolent, you know, 
  At being disappointed in your wish
To supersede all warblers here below,
  And be the only Blackbird in the dish;
And then you overstrain yourself, or so,
  And tumble downward like the flying fish
Gasping on deck,because you soar too high, Bob,
  And fall, for lack of moisture quite a-dry, Bob!

(Note: a dry bob refers to sex without ejaculation.)

--1820. Southey swung back in his Vision of Judgement, attacking the 'Satanic school' of poetry--to which, he suggested, his rival belonged.
--1822. Byron believed that Southey had spread rumors of a 'League of Incest' involving him and Shelley. And so he delivered the next, mortal blow: a brilliant parody of Southey's VOJ (which had portrayed George III's ascent to heaven). Byron's version ridiculed both the 'mad, old, blind, despised and dying king' and his poet mercilessly. And Southey became the new national joke while two years later Byron died a hero's death in Greece.

A few points to consider for those contemplating feuds:
1) A change in moral climate may make you rue your words. Young writers came to envy the Byronic lifestyle. And the 'Satanic school' seemed a cool school to attend. Better to burn with Lord Byron than be an insufferable bore.
2) An ironic twist of fate can do still more to ruin you. If the sinner you've had the misfortune to slime dies young and heroically, your past attacks will have dug your own grave. Today there are statues of Byron in and around Missolonghi while no one remembers Bob Southey, who lost his health and then his mind.
3) The wittier writer may trump Manly Men. Norman Mailer once slugged Gore Vidal because of a snotty review. But GV was ready the next time--as luck would have it, on TV. When Mailer headbutted him, GV replied: 'Once again, words fail Norman Mailer.' End of conversation.
4) The best defense against cruel wit can be the unvarnished truth. Vidal had lampooned Tru Capote and Tennessee Williams for years. (Sample? One of many: 'Truman's a full-fledged housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices.') Tru's response: 'He's jealous. Gore has literally never written a masterpiece. He has not written an unforgettable book or a book that was the turning point in either his or anybody else's life. Without that, it doesn't matter how much he does or what he does.'  Nor was Tru afraid of Mailer, who'd sat on him and called In Cold blood 'A failure of the imagination.' Tru responded, when the time was right: 'Now I see that the only prizes Norman wins are for that kind of writing. I'm glad I was of some small service to him.'
5) But even the wittiest may do themselves in. Capote was shunned when word got around that his work in progress, Answered Prayers, would tar-and-feather his rich, famous friends. And Oscar Wilde went to jail for his jovial quips in the courtroom -- not because he preferred sex with boys.

Conclusion and Proposal
Byron was lucky to have died before TV and Facebook, TMZ and Twitter. The fur now flies at frightening speed. And the quickest clicks of keys cause feuds that last for years. Hold your fire when you can. And return to your desk to do battle again with the Devil Himself that's within you.

All the rest is smoke and noise.




30 comments:

Lee said...
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Lee said...

Since you may be aiming this at me, at least in part, I'm happy to consider your criticism (seriously!) -- though, of course, you'd do more to persuade me if you left off the clichés in your final paragraphs.

Why am I so sensitive about them? Because I'm convinced that:

1. they're simply lazy shortcuts
2. they give self-publishing a bad reputation

Lee said...

And yes, I do understand that the last line may be a deliberate taunt - I grinned when I read it - but my main point still stands: clichés are ill-advised. I include not just phrases here, but characterisation, situations etc., like the the ones I still cringe to read from my own novels.

Lydia Bennet said...

hm feuds a-plenty among poets on facebook this week Reb! I do feel that the likes of Lord B and lovely Oscar Wilde would have loved the modern age, Osc would have been on the media hosting tv shows being witty and outrageous verbally, and Byron would have loved being scandalous in every way, I can imagine a reality TV series about his life a la Ozzy Osbourne!

Jan Needle said...

ah what a lovely wake-up on a drizzly morning. thanks reb, i really enjoyed that. i must have missed something, though, because i don'd understand lee's comments at all. anyone want to fill me in?

Susan Price said...

Lee, why do you think Reb's piece was aimed at you? I'm as puzzled as Jan. We are A-E insiders, and we've no reason to think it is.
Reb's writing about literary spats and handbaggings - which have been a feature of literary life for hundreds of years - and have now moved to Twitter and FB. It's not about anyone in particular.

Bill Kirton said...

Entertaining and refreshing, Reb. I didn't read it as having a particularly personal intent either, just a reminder of the humanity of these apparent Titans and the power of well-chosen words. Vitriolic criticism hurts but when it's cleverly phrased (and aimed at someone other than oneself) it can also be a delight.

madwippitt said...

Ahem! No mention of Byron the animal lover? Especially his Newfie Boatswain?

Reb MacRath said...

Thanks, Jan, Bill and Susan. You're right: I didn't have anyone here in mind when I wrote this piece. The subject's been on my mind for decades. And it would take a vain person to think I'd written about him or her in writing of Byron and Southey.

I won't even answer Lee except to say: If you have nothing better to do, I pity you. Here's what I'm doing these days--besides working, writing my seventh ebook, maintaining a popular blog, honoring the memory of a fallen colleague (dead from acute alcoholism) and still making time for my family and friends: I'm following my plan to read and review at least one book by every member of AE. I'm reading Bill Kirton's latest--loving it. Next up: Catherine and Val. How 'bout you: done anything to help anyone at all?

To the members of AE, a simple request: if you agree that my posts 'give self-publishing a bad reputation', that they're riddled with the one-trick pony's favorite word (cliche! touche!)...of if you feel my posts draw too much heat...let me know. And out of respect and love for the group, I'll withdraw.

Nick Mercurio said...

Dudes, dudes, what's going on here! It's me, Little Nickie--five-foot and proud of it. It's been a while since I've posted, I know, though I've continued to visit. But I'm posting because I'm sickened--no, no, make that SICKENED--by this Lee's stalking of poor Reb MacRath. And I'm probably gonna get bounced, I known, thrown off this great site forever. But even little people sometimes have to speak their minds. I hate to think this is good bye, but I'm still gonna say it:

Lee, if your words pass for wit in your neck of the woods, drool first next time around so we all know you're joking.

How'd I do, Reb?

Felicia Moore said...

Fascinating and informative read as usual, Reb! I totally agree about competing with yourself instead of with others. In my opinion, engaging in a little friendly competition with one's self is positive and empowering while competing with hostile, combative opponents can be antagonistic and counterproductive. Can't wait to read your next blog!

Reb MacRath said...

Thanks, Felicia. The Devil Himself ain't Bob Southey at all.

And Nick, it's a bit of a cliche for you to be so short and feisty. But I salute your bounce and verve. Please keep visiting AE.

Reb MacRath said...

Yes, madwippit: Byron the animal lover. I still remember reading his poem on the death of his dog. Not a great poem, but so moving in its sincerity.

Nick Mercurio said...

Thanks, Reb. If I were only short and feisty, it would certainly be a cliche. But, may I add humbly, I'm ridiculously cute.

Still, you've got me thinking now about all the fussin' and feudin'. I'm ashamed to admit this but--God help me--I came this close to posting that I'd like to bite Lee's ankles.

Thanks to you I won't, though. Have a warm, loving, cliche-free evening, my friends!

Lee said...

Go ahead and bite my ankles! No problem, they're well-padded.

Reb, I've certainly never suggested - nor even thought - that you should withdraw from AE. But anyone who can write 'I was born to write' without wincing should be more self-critical.

This has very little to do with the amount of work you have.

There's a place for cliché in good writing, but it has to be done with care. David Mitchell, for example, uses clichés very effectively in Black Swan Green to explore Jason's early development as a writer.

I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it no matter how many defenders you have: clichés are lazy writing.



Susan Price said...

And can we all cool it? Nobody is expected to leave, children. We disagree as we draw breath.You don't have to like each other, you just have to live together. So shut up and get on. (The words of my great-grandmother as she glared around her crowded table at assembled children, siblings and in-laws, who all vigorously hated each other, and slammed the edge of her razor-sharp bread knife on the board.)

JO said...

Oh heck, I just wanted to thank Ann on her post, and find fisticuffs. I'm off - will leave you to it. (But still thank Ann for her post).

Lee said...

Agreed, Susan. I've made my point, and I won't make it again. (And my kids, not my grandmother, keep telling me that I repeat stuff too much anyway. Obviously they've got my number - appropriately, to end on a cliché!)

Nick Green said...

Oh, but this is great, isn't it? Really? Reb writes about a brawl, and Lo and Behold. (Actually I think it must be orchestrated and this mysterious 'Lee' doesn't really exist...) The most comments we've had for ages.

Lee said...

Heheh, Nick, I'm better at plotting brawls than novels, I suspect.

Which doesn't address the issue of whether I really exist. For that, you'll have to read Corvus.


;-)

Anonymous said...

Some facts are in order here: Byron never went on any military expedition on behalf of Greece - he died at age 36 from sepsis before any "heroism." Further, he was in Greece to avoid charges of incest and sodomy in England. Southey took the laureate in exchange for the pension, and may have been a sycophantic Tory, but did not sponge off his various love interests as did his rival, and lived a much longer prosaic life. He also seemed to have a sense of social justice,lacking in the foppish Gordon. Last there are some who conclude that Byron could never have written his best work without Southey as a foil, and that Southey's prose, especially letters, are better than Byron's.

Reb MacRath said...
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Reb MacRath said...
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Reb MacRath said...

Two points of clarification: "I was born to write' is a simple declaration, not a cliche. Some are born to be doctors. Some are born to be actors. I left college, as I said, because I knew that I'd be tempted to turn my back on that. I don't believe simple statements or insights call for gilded metaphors.

Anonymous: Byron was accorded a hero's death though he die of a fever--because he did go to Greece to assist the fight for freedom. Knock Lord Byron all you like on moral grounds, he gave his life and his money to a country that he loved. The full account is in Leslie Marchand's classic biography of Byron. But this sums it up concisely. From Wikipedia: 'He travelled to fight against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence, for which Greeks revere him as a national hero.[1] He died at age 36 from a fever contracted while in Missolonghi in Greece.'

Reb MacRath said...

Correction: first line in response to Anonymous: should read 'he died of a fever'.

Reb MacRath said...

Further clarification to Anonymous' charge:

Byron had already left England in 1816 for relief from the charges of incest. He spent most of his last eight years in Italy, productive and in love. He didn't need to go to Greece in 1823 because of the old charges. He went to help the Greeks.

Nick Mercurio said...

Aw, Nick Green, you broke my heart. It would be just my luck if Lee didn't exist. Just when I found a girl whose ankles I really wanted to bite. Only thing worse than her being a ghost would be if she turned to be--well, a dude. You want to know the funny part? I'd nearly screwed up my courage to ask if I could sit on her lap. Or her laps. Pity Little Nickie.

Reb MacRath said...

Final clarification re Byron before bed: Man's man and adventurer Edward J Trelawny would have disagreed with anyone who labelled Byron a mere fop. Though in touch with his feminine side, as we say, B--as I wrote above--was a fine marksman and boxer. He also swam the Hellespont. Not bad for a small, clubfooted man. Trelawny, a friend of both Shelley and B, went to Greece to help B's military efforts. Too bad he couldn't have stopped the doctors from bleeding his lordship to death with their damnable leeches.

Kelly Grote said...

I found this blog to be very thought-provoking! In this age of technology, we get harsh criticism almost immediately. I never quite understood the need for some people to be so cruel to others. There is a time and a place for constructive criticism, but there is never a need to attack a person simply because they write differently than you.

I totally agree with Reb when he says you should be fighting and competing with only yourself. When you start comparing yourself to others is when you start trying to fit into the cookie-cutter version of the perfect writer. It doesn't exist. A writer's voice is the most precious gift, and trying to change it to fit someone else's definition of great writing would prove to be devastating.

So, to the people who love to cut others down because it makes them feel superior, I just have to say your time would be better spent giving constructive criticism rather than cruel and unnecessary comments. Maybe if you spent more time helping people than cutting them down, you might be a little happier.

Reb MacRath said...

Thanks for your kind words, Kelly.