Finding the Byronic in Me
Here’s the image of Lord Byron I love most. He’s a kid at Harrow School and he’s in the graveyard of the local church. He’s lying on a big flat tombstone with a great view of the surrounding countryside. He’s sulking. He’s feeling unappreciated, misunderstood, unloved. Those aren’t the feelings of a great poet two hundred years ago. Those are everyone’s teenaged years.
The graveyard, the stone big enough for a boy to lie on as a bed, and the view are all Byron’s unique twists on the universal melodrama. It was also distinctively him that he refused to let it go. At age nineteen, after he’d finished school, begun to write poetry, and made at least one lifelong friend among the teachers, he was already planning his funeral at Harrow. “Here might I sleep where all my hopes arose; scene of my youth, and couch of my repose.”
What’s “Byronic” about this is his premature melancholy and sensitiveness, combined with a no-holds-barred throwing himself at his talent with words, his passion. He was a lifelong teenager. Even in his twenties and thirties he liked to consider himself doomed. Increasing age and maturity, however, never stopped him from an incautious hurling himself at creative self-revelation as if he were a kid on a skateboard.
That creative self-revelation, that recognition of our talents, embracing them, that not holding back, is something we all need. It’s what I need as a writer, but it’s what you need too, be you a teacher, a banker or a short-order cook. Pessimism about the future, humbleness, shyness: all these are ways of burying your personal Byronism. Absolute consciousness of the power that is in you, willingness to exercise it to the utmost, that’s finding the Byronic in you.
Coming to know Byron’s biography sends me back to my own. To know Byron’s childhood, and his earliest grappling with the schoolwork that would nurture his gift, is to renew my sense of the moments when my own powers were born. Recollecting a pivotal year renews my sense of wonder and awe at my kid self. Blundering and fearful though I then was, I managed to stumble on some of the things that still continue to give me joy more than fifty years later. Those childhood memories return me to my life now with greater relish. They renew in me a sense of my vocation. They make me want to grasp the power that I discovered in me then and throw it as Zeus threw thunderbolts, though I don’t yet have his godlike grip. I’m still trying. I will get there.
My father had a sabbatical from teaching for a year when I was between the ages of eleven and twelve. We lived in London. To get there we crossed the ocean in a ship of the United States Lines. We left New York harbor on a hot August afternoon. We sailed under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and were at sea for five days.
The ship churned up an enormous white wake. You could stand at the furthest end of the ship and hear the roar of the water receding from under the fan tail. Or you could go to a deck high up toward the bridge. There you would be nearly blown off your feet by the onrushing wind from the ship’s progress across the Atlantic, a plane with no trees. There is a picture of me wearing a tie, a party hat, and a tweed coat in the dining room. It’s a gala night and I’m pressing my fork into a piece of white cake.
When we got to Southampton, we transferred to a boat train drawn up in a long customs shed next to the ship. It grew dark before we left so I had no sense of what the English countryside looked like from the train that first night. Instead, my first impression of England was from being given a chocolate bar and a can of ginger ale from the buffet car. The bar was a Kit Kat. I was a boy connoisseur of chocolate bars. Kit Kats were not then widely available in the States. It was strange, but definitely good. The ginger ale tasted nothing like what I recognized ginger ale to be in the States. I was also sent to look for the bathroom and came across a cabin marked “lavatory.” What was that?
We soon moved into an apartment on the top two floors of a white townhouse in Kensington. It was off Kensington Church Street, not far from the Notting Hill Gate tube station. There was a furnished living room, dining room, and kitchen on the lower floor. Two bedrooms and a small study were upstairs. The bathroom was in a nook halfway up the stairs. Today it’s certainly a better address than I could afford, though the neighborhood then was a bit scruffier than it has since become.
Living in an urban setting, and without a garden or backyard of our own was no hardship. My brother and I made sailboats out of empty matchboxes. We launched them on the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens in the evenings. There was always an impressive display of flowers in front of the local grocery shop. There was no TV and my father refused to rent or to buy one. We all went to a local bookshop where we were allowed any book we wanted. My brother and I became more committed readers than before and, after a while, didn’t miss having a TV. That fierce boy reader is at the core of why I’m a writer today. Whatever power I have comes from that bookshop across an ocean. I had no idea I’d grow to love it before I left home. I couldn’t even have imagined it.
My mother went to an art school south of the river. My father spent his days doing research and writing in the old round reading room of the British Museum. My brother went to Fox Primary School a few streets away. When he told his teacher, Mr. Mead, where his father worked, Mr. Mead told him “there are cats in the stacks at the British Museum!” He called the eight and nine-year-old boys “ducky.” My brother was one of his favorites. We discussed Mr. Mead’s stylized language and his theatrical manner at the dinner table. He was unlike anything that could be found in Columbus, Ohio. My brother and my parents both approved of him. “I liked him and he liked me,” my brother told me the other day. There was no discussion of whether he was gay, a word not then in our vocabulary, and a thing not in my consciousness, though I think that’s what Mr. Mead probably was. Nor was there any sense that a teacher’s having made a favorite of my little brother would be anything other than beneficial for both of them.
My school was between Westminster Abbey and Victoria Station. I went there via a twenty-minute ride on the number 52 bus. I was in the first form. We wore a uniform with the school crest and motto, Unitate fortior, on the breast pocket. “We’re stronger if we all stick together.” I had a hard time sticking together with the other boys at first.
One of the kids I liked remarked as we clattered down the stairs to lunch, “the morning didn’t go half fast.” What did that mean? Somebody told me that my shirt was the wrong shade of blue and that the shoes I was wearing weren’t right either. Miss Hickmott, the French mistress, reprimanded me for following her absent-mindedly into the staff lounge. I had no idea it was out of bounds. I went home crying several days running.
My father was fed up. He accompanied me to school in the morning. He impatiently thrust me into the hands of a man in a lab coat. He told him that I didn’t know where to go and that he should do something about it. I was quietly taken off. I don’t remember being especially looked after following that, but I settled down.
My two best friends were Peter Lehter and Robert Bridgewater. Peter was a blond-haired kid who had Estonian parents. He was serious, practical, and intelligent. Robert was a tall, willowy, dark-haired boy, with high pink color in his cheeks. He had a mole on his cheek that looked like the beauty mark of a barmaid in an old Western. He had a talent for whimsical storytelling.
These two didn’t particularly like each other. I sometimes felt disloyal and divided in my affections if I spent too much time with one when the other would have preferred my being with him. These were my first intense male friends, though there was nothing consciously sexual in my relationship with either of them. Being good at sports was not a prerequisite for their friendship. Peter exposed my ignorance about the theology surrounding the concept of the holy ghost. Robert explained to me what a blow job was. I was skeptical about this. Neither of us thought of it as something we wanted to do. It was fascinating, but disgusting. These were my first memorable friends and whatever love I’ve had from men since then rekindles the magic I first felt with them. Love and friendship are certainly two fundamental ingredients in what continues to turn me on as a writer today.
Latin is a dead language
I can remember evenings after school when I lay on my belly on the floor behind the sofa doing my Latin homework. We were doing translations of simple passages from Julius Caesar and Virgil. I found this work fairly simple. It felt like a puzzle that could be solved and which turned afterwards into an interesting story. My father and the Latin master, Mr. Grant, were both proud of me.
Latin was a long way away from what I would’ve been taught in the sixth grade at Clinton Elementary in Columbus, the grade I was missing by being in England. It made me feel grown up and sophisticated to find my way around in Latin. I still sang along with the other boys when they taught me a jingle. “Latin is a dead language, as dead as it can be, first it killed the Romans, and now it’s killing me.”
Though a command of classical languages is no longer the basis of education in Britain or in the States, it still had an anachronistic prestige even in those days, more than a hundred and fifty years after Byron’s. I can appreciate and identify with his having demanded that his mother pay for extra Latin lessons before he went to Harrow. He wanted to stand out and so, after a rough initial period of accommodation, did I. There was backward-looking glamor in learning to command a language of the past. Expertise in language, I discovered, also gave me a kind of standing in the world that diminished my insignificance. It was the birth of my self-respect and my ambition.
The Byronic in me is my mounting excitement whenever I arrive at an airport and the thrill I feel as I’m pressed back into my seat with the rush of take-off. It’s my continuing sense of books as solace, as excitement and as sources of how-to. It’s in friendship and giving myself unreservedly, incautiously, even when the love is sometimes not returned. It’s in language and knowing how what I’m writing now rests on the back of that kid who translated Virgil on his belly behind the sofa. That’s my power. That’s my daring. I dare you now to find it in you, and to tell me about the Byronic in you.