27 JANUARY 1950, Page 22

The Letters of Byron

Byron: A Self-Portrait: Letters and Diaries, 1798-1824. Edited by Peter Quennell. Uohn Murray. 2 vols. 42s. the set.) IN a " foreword " briefer than need was, Mr. Quennell admonishes himself and .the reader of the perils that attend any critic who "meddles with" Byron. But are they as serious as all that ? Is the nonsense that has been written about this " arch-romantic " nearly as bad as that written about Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley— better romantics, all of them, and truer poets ? Determined not to make a fool of himself—or of us—over Byron, Mr. Quennell is Content, or pretends that he is, to direct our contemplation upon a portrait that speaks for itself, the " self-portrait " furnished by the letters and journals of Byron. "A partial, and fragmentary, but extremely vivid, self-portrait," he calls it. "Distorted," "provoca- tive," "freakish," " mystifying " (they are Mr. Quennell's adjectives), yet it "gives the world assurance of a man." "But where," Mr. Quennell asks, forgetting himself for the moment, and speaking for his readers, "where is the real Byron ? "

Some kind of an answer Mr. Quennell hints, without being too helpful. The Byron of the letters and journals is a man amusing him- self at the expense of posterity. "That he might mystify readers yet unborn was an idea that ... appealed to him " ; and it dominates a wide range of his diaries and correspondence. Of the rarely failing effectiveness of the lettefs Mr. Quennell speaks with just apprecia- tion; particularly emphasising, as is proper, their "reckless spon- taneity." Their purely literary quality he somewhat exaggerates, as-I think. When he speaks of "a prose-style at once sensitive and vigorous . . . which at-times rises to the height of imaginative literature," we may allow the vigour, but be a little doubtful about the rest. It is odd, he remarks, "that the most eloquent appreciation of [Byron's] merits as a letter-writer should have been composed by"

(of all men) Ruskin. The passage which he quotes from Ruskin is, truth to tell, a precious poor piece of criticism. But it is Ruskin, and we must let Mr. Quennell have it his own way. Some of Byron's genuine epistolary merits—his" superb descriptive gift," his" broadly dramatic strokes," "his verbal wit "—could be illustrated, I fancy, by happier examples than those which Mr. Quennell himself adduces.

But I am not disposed to quarrel with Mr. Quennell for the opinions expressed in this too brief "foreword." I am more dis- posed to grumble at him for having opinions which he does not express. To this " self-portrait " of Byron he has given a handsome setting. But he will not "meddle." The thing is a speaking likeness. But of a creature oddly complex, inconsistent, perverse. Yet when we put to Mr. Quennell his own question, the question that the portrait itself cries at us, "Where is the real Byron ? ", he stands aside. To each of the six sections into which he divides his anthology he furnishes anything from a page and a half to half a page of biographical introduction. But it is all abominably non- committal. When you have read all the letters to Augusta, all the letters to, or about, the Guiccioli, you find yourself 'still asking, "Where is the real Byron ? " Mr. Quennell knows, but he is not going to let on. If you want to know the truth about Augusta, you will get from Mr. Quennell not a hint of it.

This stand-offish editing 1 cannot think helpful. Nor is Mr. Quennell's critical reserve the only trouble. He judges nobody ; he condemns nothing. This dispassionate quality I might, in some contexts, admire (though I do not). But he carries his non-com- menting disposition into contexts where it has no appropriateness. Most of the letters which he has brought together need quite frequent annotation. Again and again, reading them, I have been pulled up by a name strange to me, or by some allusion which I could not explain. I know not how often I have been driven back on my Prothero for help. Some of the fault is, no doubt, with me. But I feel that Mr. Quennell could everywhere have been; without much trouble to himself, more useful than he is. His,book is a book that can be enjoyed—he meant it so. But he could easily have made it more enjoyable.

Some particular grievances I feel obliged to air. These two . volumes of selected correspondence, running to some 800 pages, have no list prefixed to them of the letters which they include. Nor are the letters numbered. An appendix gives a list of "letters hitherto unpublished," but without either numbers or page-refer- ences—they have to be hunted out under their dates. A loose, and easily losable erratum-slip advises the reader that one of the new letters (pp. 690-1) should not have been included at all, being a mere forgery (by that prince of forgers G. G. Byron). We are all men, in our natures frail. But there is a worse blunder, which no erratum- slip confesses, on pp. 44-5, where a letter to Francis Hodgson is given in both the text and the appendix as "unpublished," though it was, in fact, published years and years ago by Prothero (III. 171). The appendix lists also a number of published letters in which, for the first time, Mr. Quennell prints passages, or sentences, hitherto not printed. But when the reader turns to these letters, curious to know what they have that is new, Mr. Quennell's text gives him no kind of assistance. He is driven to some earlier edititm ; and, painfully collating new with old, is rewarded, more often than not, by some

single sentence, or clause, adding nothing of importance. I tried

• out some half-dozen letters so. On p. 416 .1 got for my pains a new verse-couplet, mildly obscene. Italic type or angular brackets would have enabled me to find it at once. This was rny biggest find. I may have been unlucky in my chance selection of letters.

All the new letters, I suppose, were worth having—anything neW is good. But not all of them, I must think, serve Mr. Quennell's purpose. Most of them, that is to say, add nothing to Byron's "self-portrait." Some of them, however, do. The letter written from Harrow to Mrs. Byron (pp. 9-10) Mr. Quennell rightly thinks revealing. From a much later period, the letter to Octavius Gil- christ (pp. 664-7) illustrates newly the controversy with Bowles ; and was worth having if only because it reminds us how ,.ubbishy Byron's literary criticism sometimes is—" I do not think Pope inferior to Milton," he writes here ; and follows that up with comments on "those poor idiots of the Lakes." Byron's relations with the Lake Poets get grace from the new letter to Coleridge printed on pp7316-7. But they lose it again in the letters to Southey and Kinnaird, on pp. 687-8. The letter to Southey was never delivered ; but in it Byron challenged him to settle their differences by a duel. The new letters to Kinnaird, let me say in passing, constitute rather more than a third of the hitherto unpublished letters. Most of them, except that they are new, seem to me hardly worth having.

The frontispiece to Volume I offers us a portrait of Byron "by G. W. Harlow." It reproduces, in fact, a drawing by George Henry Harlow. In 1819 Harlow sold to Murray some drawings which he had made in Venice of Byron and Margarita Cogni.. He sold them "rather dear," Byron thought. Whether this drawing was among them, I do not know. The frontispiece to Volume II is an "Illustration to Byron's Poems by Richard Westall." An editor more communicative than Mr. Quennell might have thought it worth while to tell the reader that, to Byron himself, Westall's illustrations of " Childe Harold" were better poetry than " Childe Harold."