Byron and Scotland

April 2016

Two hundred years ago this month, Lord Byron left England for good. It marked a spectacular fall from grace. Just four years earlier, in March 1812, he had achieved immense success with the publication of the first two cantos of his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and in the months that followed he became what many consider the first modern celebrity with the appearance of a series of “Oriental tales”, including The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, and The Corsair, which sold an astonishing 10,000 copies on the day of publication, 1 February 1814. (By comparison, Jane Austen’s six published novels did not sell 10,000 copies in total until about 1830, thirteen years after her death). Yet Byron was soon in serious trouble. He made a disastrously misjudged marriage to Annabella Milbanke in January 1815. He could not get his debts under control. Rumours swirled of homosexual encounters. He had a brief affair with an actress behind Annabella’s back, and before her he paraded his intense affection for his married half-sister Augusta Leigh. By early 1816 his marriage was over, and personal and political animosities had left him badly bloodied. As the bailiffs prepared once more to descend, Byron fled London, stayed briefly in Dover, and then sailed into exile on the Continent, where he lived in Switzerland and then Italy before dying in Greece in 1824.

Yet in some ways Byron was in exile long before he left England, for he spent most of the first decade of his life in Scotland, and his ties to that country were deep and enduring. Born in London in January 1788, Byron was the only child of the fortune-hunting profligate Captain John (“Mad Jack”) Byron and his second wife, Catherine Gordon, a daughter of the twelfth laird of Gight. Byron’s father soon decamped for France, where he died at just thirty-five years old, while in 1789 his mother took her infant son and relocated to Aberdeen. She was – in Byron’s phrase – “as haughty as Lucifer” about her noble Scottish ancestry, and dressed her son in the Gordon tartan, hired a nurse and a tutor who were both rigid Presbyterians, and sent him to Aberdeen Grammar School. At the age of seven, Byron became deeply attached to his distant cousin Mary Duff of Aberdeen, and during these years he spoke with a pronounced Scottish accent. “Dinna speak of it!” he cried when he heard someone talking about his lame leg. Looking back on these Aberdonian days, Byron proudly declared that he was “half a Scot by birth, and bred / A whole one”.

At the age of ten Byron left Scotland to take up his English title and his English estate, and as an adult he could vigorously berate the country, as seen especially in the satiric wrath of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Yet Scotland retained a powerful hold on him. He celebrated the splendour of the Scottish landscape in poems such as “Lachin Y Gair”: “England! thy beauties are tame and domestic, / To one, who has rov’d on the mountains afar”. He honoured the bravery of Scottish warriors in ballads like “Golice Macbane”: “With thy back to the wall, and thy breast to the targe, / Full flashed thy claymore in the face of their charge”. The Scottish Calvinism drilled into him as a boy clearly shapes his conception of the alienated and guilt-ridden Byronic hero of Childe Harold and the Oriental tales, as T. S. Eliot and several other commentators have pointed out.

Byron’s Scottishness, however, is perhaps best revealed by Tom Scott in a 1983 essay in which Scott conducts a remarkable experiment. Byron opens his great comic epic Don Juan with an attack on Robert Southey, a man and poet he despised as a political turncoat who had championed radical views in his youth but who had now joined several of his friends in the pocket of the Tory government. Mocks Byron:

Bob Southey! You’re a poet – Poet Laureate,
And representative of all the race;
Although ’tis true you turned out a Tory at
Last, – yours has lately been a common case.

Scott takes these English lines and renders them in Scots:

Bob Southey! Ye’re a poet – Poet Laureate,
An representative o aa the race;
Whit tho it’s true ye’ve turned oot a Tory at
Last, – yours has lately been a common case.

For Scott, the ease and energy of the transposition demonstrates how close to the surface Byron’s Scottishness actually is, and how he is best understood as belonging to a distinctively Scottish tradition in poetry.

Scott’s essay is still one of the most thought-provoking investigations of Byron and Scotland. But there is a larger issue at stake here. The point is not that Byron might be considered a Scottish poet and therefore not an English poet. The point, rather, is that Byron remained open to diverse, foreign, and even hostile histories throughout his career, and that he was repeatedly inspired by them. He is simultaneously a Scottish, and an English, and indeed an international poet, and to understand him means trying to understand how in his life and poetry these different identities mobilize, defy, and reinforce one another. For all of us, nationhood and selfhood are clearly linked. Should Quebec remain within Canada? Should Scotland remain within Britain? Should Britain remain within the European Union? These questions are pressing and recurrent, and they stir up such passion because they go to the heart of who we think we are, and – more importantly – what we think we might become. Byron’s poetry demonstrates the value of identities that embrace plurality, of nationalisms that look outward rather than inward, and of allegiances that are deep but diverse.