Byron’s Travels by Lord Byron, edited by Fiona Stafford

Everyman’s Library

Review by David Starkey

First of all, God bless Everyman’s Library. What other publisher lists among its new releases the novels and tales of Pushkin, the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, and Chester Himes’s Harlem detective novels featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones?—not to mention a backlist that includes everything from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Plato’s Republic to My Ántonia. And of course the books themselves are a pleasure to read: well-made and compact, but with a font that’s comfortable on the eyes. They are, in short, hard for a bibliophile to resist.

I’m drawn to the series no matter the author or subject matter, so I was more than willing to given Byron’s Travels, edited by Fiona Stafford, a close look, even though its author has never been a particular favorite. The book’s premise is fairly straightforward: Stafford divides Byron’s writing—mostly his poetry and letters—into chapters centering on the place where the work was written or is set. Thus, in “Spain and Portugal,” we have excerpts from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan, along with letters to his mother and a friend; “Switzerland” contains more passages from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, several letters, and a scene from his play Manfred; “Ravenna” is all letters save for three stanzas from his satire Beppo; and so on, as we visit Turkey, Albania, London, Venice, Greece, and elsewhere.

It’s a bit of a whirlwind journey. Just as you are settling into a juicy tale from Don Juan, Byron is writing his banker pleading for money or sending off a hot and heavy in a letter to his half-sister Augusta. The spillover over from his actual adventures to his fictional escapades in the poems is interesting, although I came to prefer the relative spontaneity of the letters to his highly wrought stanzas. Granted, some of the epistolary prose is quite elegant, but the journal entries can be as telegraphic as a James Ellroy novel. Here, for instance, are a few hours on September 20, 1816, in the Alps, as Byron follows a boy and his pet goat: “strolled to river—saw a boy [and] a kid—kid followed him like a dog—kid could not get over a fence & bleated piteously—tried myself to help kid—but nearly overset both self & kid into the river.” Memorable moments of lived experience and humanizing comedy like this one occur throughout Byron’s Travels, the great poet not averse to making fun of himself.

Indeed, there is quite a bit of humor in both the poetry and prose, though not all of it will please contemporary readers. Lamenting in his journal, for instance, that a friend has taken a wife when he could have had any woman in France as a mistress, Byron pauses to reflect: “But a mistress is just as perplexing—that is, one—two or more are manageable by division.” Later in the same journal, he opines: “a mistress never is nor can be a friend. While you agree, you are lovers; and when it is over, any thing but friends.”

Traveling heightens the senses, and very little seems to escape the poet’s notice, whether it is the intrigues of Piedmontese politics or the latest literary rumors or the quality of the local wine. “Forever on the move, forever torn by ties and tomorrows,” Stafford says of her subject, claiming that “Byron’s travels make mental travelers of us all: whether or not the places are familiar from first-hand or virtual experience, from reading, viewing or listening, from maps and itineraries or memories and imagination, they can never be quite the same once Byron has entered the scene.” That may be something of an exaggeration, but it’s true that the Romantic hero still cuts a swashbuckling figure, even two hundred years after his death.

The last entry in the book is a poem Byron wrote on his thirty-sixth birthday, just a few months before his demise:

Seek out—less often sought than found,

   A Soldier’s Grave—for thee the best,

Then look around and choose thy ground

  And take thy rest.

For all his bluster, Bryon was also a person of action, and when he became ill, he was in the midst of planning an attack on Lepanto during the Greek War of Independence. Byron’s Travels may be weighed down at times by the sheer amount of its autobiographical (and imagined) detail, but it certainly paints a portrait of an artist who never missed an opportunity to live his short life to its fullest.