Fantastic Romantics, Byron Edition

Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. My guest today is Terry Weyna, who has been on our staff since December 2010. Terry would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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Lord Byron, George Gordon, in Albanian dress

Why have the English Romantic poets become popular characters in fantastic fiction? What is it about these sensualists, these literary theorists, these naturalists and philosophers, that so entrances contemporary writers of speculative fiction?

In Hyperion (1989) and The Fall of Hyperion (1990), Dan Simmons creates a new John Keats, embodied in a cybrid; and a poet, Martin Silenus, is in the process of rewriting Keats’s poetry. In R.F. Nelson’s Blake’s Progress (1975), William Blake visits with Cleopatra, the prophet Ezekiel, Churchill and JFK without leaving his easy chair. And in Tim Powers’s The Stress of Her Regard (1989), Shelley and Keats struggle with forces beyond their comprehension – but not beyond their imaginations.

One possible explanation for the fascination is that these poets possessed a “firm belief in the autonomy of a poet’s imagination,” as Harold Bloom put it in The Visionary Company. The English Romantic poets sought a life of the mind, a life lived in letters, a life in which poetry was more important than the day-to-day tangibility of life. Each of them created a body of remarkable poetry filled with extraordinary creatures not of this world – their own fantastic fiction, in verse, from Keats’s Lamia to Byron’s larger-than-life Don Juan to Blake’s mythic prophecies and blazing Tyger. Yet each was also tied to the world, to reason, to science, to nature, to politics. They felt that their poetry made the real more real.

Contemporary writers of the fantastic similarly use the Romantic poets as characters in their fiction in order to personify the fusion of reason with imagination, to meld the world of the fantastic with the world of flesh and blood. One of the most frequently used characters for this purpose is George Gordon, Lord Byron. In each novel, he is a different man yet the same character; malleable as a mythic figure himself, he makes it possible for writers of fantastic fiction to ground their narratives in a reality that is somehow unreal. Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage shows the character that is the quintessential Byron in contemporary fantastic fiction:

But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:

My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,

And my frame perish even in conquering pain;

But there is that within me which shall tire

Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;

Something unearthly, which they deem not of,

Like the remember’d tone of a mute lyre,

Shall on their soften’d spirits sink, and move

In hearts all rocky not the late remorse of love.

Byron appears as a vicious, arrogant man in Federico Andahazi’s The Merciful Women, a beautifully fanciful novel about the creative process. The viewpoint character is Polidori, Byron’s doctor, who is treated as nothing more than a servant. The story takes place at Villa Diodati on Lake Leman in Switzerland in 1816, during a visit by Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley and Jane Clairmont (known as Claire). Polidori’s claustrophobic, paranoid tale is told by the venerable device of calling it a “discovered manuscript.” Polidori considers himself Byron’s superior in every way, and resents Byron’s success. But he can write only in his dreams, and forgets everything the moment he awakes:

But the harder he tried to grasp the strands of his tale, the faster they melted from his memory. For a moment, he thought he had rescued a paragraph, a brief trace of words that would set him on the right track. But after reaching for pen and paper, he found that his fragmented thoughts flew away like the dust of a shooting star. Nothing. The story he had dreamt had slipped like sand between his fingers.

Polidori is solicited by an odd, hideous being into performing sexual favors in exchange for one perfect story, which is how “The Vampyre” comes to be written – a gothic short story that anticipated Bram Stoker’s much more well-known Dracula by the better part of a century. Polidori cannot bear to think that this story will be the only work bearing his name, but matters only become worse when he discovers that Byron, too – and E.T.A. Hoffman, and Pushkin, and dozens upon dozens of others – have “written” “their” works in precisely the same fashion.

Andahazi thus reduces Byron to a dilettante who cannot resist any form of depravity — and the poetry itself becomes another form of depravity. Writing becomes synonymous with grotesque sex, a wrenching from oneself of one’s vital essence in order to publish works with lives of their own.

In The Merciful Women, then, reason is all that Byron has, and he must use his reason to barter for imagination. This is clearly the Byron who was “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” as Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his many lovers, said of him. Andahazi seems to suggest that the works of the Romantics are too beautiful and strange to have been the invention of mere humans.

Byron is not as depraved, but is considerably less intelligent, in Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates (1983). This convoluted, highly plotted, richly written novel is really about Brendan Doyle, a Coleridge scholar from 1983 who time travels to 1810, becoming stranded there. He falls into the midst of a sorcerous scheme to destroy London, part of a larger plot to restore Egypt and its gods to ascendancy in this world. Part of the plan involves persuading Byron to kill King George. Byron is known for his views on revolution and the rights of people, and the sorcerers believe that a regicide performed by a titled peer of the realm will help bring England to its knees.

The problem is that at this point in his life Byron was in Greece and Turkey. So the sorcerers induce in Byron a fever, and one of them poses as a doctor to treat him. He creates a “ka” of Byron by flicking drops of Byron’s blood through a candle flame from Patras to London. The blood falls in a vat of paut, and a new Byron is formed, complete in every way, down to the memories. The sorcerers brainwash this new Byron, sending him out into the city to preach revolution for a few days before he is to have an audience with the king. The real Byron continues to live in the ka, somewhere behind the brainwashed creature he has become. But Byron is pulled from his brainwashing by our hero, Doyle, who recites lines from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to Byron until he is again himself. Byron isn’t too terribly bright; he goes galumphing after the sorcerers armed with nothing but pistols, despite Doyle’s warning that he’s more likely to get killed than he is to wreak revenge. Powers’s Byron, then, is the opposite of the Byron Andahazi gave us. Powers’s Byron is all poet and no reason, and is reduced from a brilliant and debauched figure to a buffoon.

Byron is most fully realized in Tom Holland’s Lord of the Dead. This framed novel is told today, to one of Byron’s descendants, by the Byron who is a 200-year-old vampire. Byron relates the story of his travels in Turkey and Greece in poetical terms that bring the actual Byron’s letters and poetry strongly to mind:

The beauty of the sky and mountains, and the mournful reminders of decay all around, were pleasantly profound; I scribbled, and dozed, and followed my thoughts. It grew increasingly hard for me to know, as day darkened into the purples of evening, whether I was awake or asleep; everything around me began to grow impossibly vivid, so that I felt that I was seeing the true stuff of life for the very first time, the beat of existence in flowers and trees in the grass, even in the land itself, the rocks and soil, which seemed to me like flesh and bone, something like myself.

Byron meets a powerful and mysterious figure, the Vakhel Pasha. Everyone is afraid of the Pasha, and even the Sultan tries to warn Byron away from accepting an invitation. Byron ignores the warnings, and finds himself in a palace that reminds the reader of an M.C. Escher drawing or a Coleridge poem, one in which halls branch off halls into infinity, and stairways wind up into the sky, leading nowhere. Here, the Pasha transforms him into a vampire.

To his own considerable surprise, Byron feels no thirst during the first months after his transformation. But he does feel more alive than he ever has before:

There were only sensations – desires, whole universes of them, hinting at still further delights, far beyond my dreams…. I would feel a calm that was also a fierce joy in my veins, just from the delight of having consciousness, of knowing myself to exist….Sensuality was in everything – the kiss of a breeze, the scent of a flower, the breath of life in the air and all around.

Byron attributes this new sense of feeling everything — “even my misery enchanted me” – to his becoming a poet. A surfeit of reality, thus, leads to poetry. The story continues with a recitation of Byron’s further adventures, but the heart and soul of the novel is contained in that transformation: the revelation that it is only by his becoming inhuman that Byron’s art can flourish.

What do these three very different books have in common, other than Byron? Each book is, at its core, about the creative process. Each attributes Byron’s talent to an inhuman agency. Each seems to honor a personality who seems somewhat less than poetic – a man who seems vain, foolish, gluttonous, even depraved – as he transforms into a poet by going through some gauntlet of horror. They call to mind Byron’s own Promethean approach to his art: the gift of fire, in different forms, was the basis of his entire poetic career. As Bloom puts it, Byron’s “inspiration is both glorious and sinful, and his creation glorifies human aspiration (and his own) and increases human culpability.”

Byron is thus the ideal historical figure to serve as a character in a work of fantastic fiction. He is an intellect, a reasoning creature, who lived a fantastical life. He is a means by which the writer can demonstrate how the real world – science, nature, politics, even technology – affect the poetic imagination. The Romantics tried to combine these seemingly contradictory human endeavors at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution; we, now, use their efforts, their poetry and their very selves at the dawn of the age of artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation. Perhaps they can help us understand.

Readers, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the Romantics and fantasy. One commenter will win a book from our Stacks.


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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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7 comments

  1. Terry, it’s great to read one of your essays again!

  2. This was a really interesting read! Loved it Terry!

  3. Fantastic essay, Terry! I wish I’d been able to pick your brain when I was taking a Romantics class in college — you clearly would have been a tremendous help!

  4. great essay Terry. Love that connection at the end! Thanks for this.

  5. I love the idea of him as a “reasoning creature who lived a fantastical life.”

  6. I’m reminded of a quote I can only half-remember from The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s something about how great artists are dull, as they live their lives wholly through their art, while mediocre artists lead fantastic lives, desperate to grasp in life what they can’t manage to capture in their art. Something to that effect anyway. (Or maybe I imagined it entirely, it’s been a while). Byron seems to defy that, which immediately makes him fascinating.

    Also, for speculative fiction purposes, we can’t forget Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace. Her work with Babbage on early computing has made her an SF author’s dream. Quite a family.

  7. Ben, if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

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