A densely detailed, lackluster life of the eminent poet, adventurer, and enfant terrible.
Think of Jim Morrison, or maybe Kurt Cobain, and you’ll have an idea of how George Gordon Byron (1788–1824) was perceived by the young people of his time. He had all the rock star turns, after all: he thrived on shocking society, wrote ardent lyrics, wore such outré duds as “a frogged greatcoat and ‘a curious foreign cap,’ ” figured prominently in gossip columns, traveled everywhere and in the worst of company, and died at the tender age of 35. Moreover, Byron wrestled with extraordinary demons: an absent father, an overweening and unhinged mother, a disfiguring handicap, an unreconciled and insatiable homosexuality, cycles of depression that sent him “veering between lassitude and hyperactivity, haunted by nightmare images and assailed by a sense of the uselessness of human endeavor.” Throughout a life packed with action and sometimes misbegotten enterprise, Byron managed to write such resonant poems as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan, to inspire Mary Shelley to pen Frankenstein (on something of a dare), to advance the cause of Greek independence against the Turks, and to set an example for bad-boy artists henceforth. Byron’s life, it seems, was without a single dull moment, but MacCarthy (William Morris, 1995, etc.) fails to convey any of the excitement or undeniable glamour of his days. Instead, she worries rather excessively over his handicap, the cause of his death, and the sexual torments that he managed to work his way through by sleeping with everyone in sight. Neither does she seem to have much of an appreciation for his writing—the source, after all, of his renown—or for his achievements as a romantic revolutionary.
Still, MacCarthy’s exhaustive catalogue of Byron’s every waking hour will be useful as source material for a future biographer seeking to craft a more interpretive—and shorter, and more interesting—study.