• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Authors Exceeding Their Art: Cervantes and Byron

Updated: Apr 24, 2021

Seldom does one find the life of an author to exceed in richness and variety, vastness and depth, intelligence and feeling, mystery and candor, turbulence and beauty, danger and intrigue, heroism and disrepute, that of the character into whom—with but an eloquent exhalation carried by a soulful wing, or a gentle breeze along which the divine, unutterable tune of inspiration dances—he’s breathed a vital wind.

This wind, of course, is of an uncommon type. It’s a precious, perhaps even ethereal air by which mortal pipes aren’t often tickled, and for which, thus, having so slight a familiarity with an essence so delicately-crafted and deliciously-sublime, our unrefined human tongues haven’t yet developed a taste. As if accumulated above the vaulted tree line of Mount Parnassus , that dizzying summit around which the divine, frolicsome muses daily gather and sing, it has difficulty infiltrating the lower levels of Earth. It has trouble finding us—we inhabitants of this reduced sphere— and filling our crude bodies with its melodious voice. It faces many obstacles as it attempts, on occasion, to descend so many steps, to stoop to a world of aging flesh and rusted clay, and to suffuse its quiet gift over this, a vulgar realm, in which we mortals haven’t a choice but to live, love, cry, and play.

In most cases, it’s the character—whether he be a man of virtue, action, defiance, and daring, or she, a woman of silence and wisdom, of keenness and tact, of impenetrable philosophy and inscrutable substance—in whom the humble author invests all or part of himself. He deposits in the former all things of which he imagines his own over-confident sex capable, a list of grandiose plans and heroic notions before which, inevitably, he and his virile kind are bound to fall short. To the latter, his female character, he gives every refinement and every grace, every conquest of decorum and sparkle of brilliance. He endows her with every lofty attribute and radiant beauty to which humanity, when it thinks of itself in the distant, idealized form toward which it forever strives, can only dreamily aspire.

To them, in short, he bequeaths every asset that his gilded mind can mint, every grinning obol or solemn drachma upon which, be it happy or sad, regal or base, he’s imprinted the changing lineaments of his face. He’s studied its peculiar contours, rendered its image, and thinks nothing of the difficulty of it being reproduced. After all, he’s passed many hours gazing into the mirror, into that perspicacious glass by which no quality, no matter its subtlety, is ever long concealed. Having done so, he invests his characters with his highest morals, his various shortcomings, his quiet ambitions, and his unconfessed sins. He transfers to them his best qualities, and burdens them with the weight of his faults. He hopes, with this assorted and newfound wealth, they can serve as merchants through whom he can at once profitably and vicariously live.

Usually, the life of the character drawn by the author surpasses that which he actually lived. In support of this claim, one need look no further than to that most eminent of all bards, to the masterful Englishman to whom, despite the passage of many long centuries and, with them, the laudable challenges offered by many distinguished nations, there’s still no equal. I speak, of course, of William Shakespeare.

If you know anything about him, your knowledge is probably circumscribed by your reading of his works. So much the better; the contents of his life hardly deserve mention, much less the rapt and scrutinizing study of which his plays and sonnets are so imperiously demanding. Very little that might be deemed “noteworthy” occurred in the quiet brevity and constant tedium of his fifty-two years. Though shockingly brief, his life was utterly unremarkable—not unlike many of ours today. Of course, we ought not to become smug in our contemplation of so pleasing a thought. It is, I assert, no cause for flattery, in seeing the hazy similarities between Shakespeare and ourselves. There is, if it need be said, more than a slight difference between his life and ours; despite its complete lack of excitement, it was productive of such figures as Hamlet, Iago, Falstaff, and the mad King Lear. Characters so brilliantly drawn easily compensate for the dullness and obscurity of an author’s forgotten life.

Indeed, come to think of it, only a few authors can claim to have lived truly remarkable lives, to have endured existences so extraordinary, that their own writings, when held in contrast, might be overshadowed. We might number among such men, first and foremost, Miguel de Cervantes—the Spanish novelist and playwright of whom the English Shakespeare was a contemporary (indeed, one day alone separated their death). Like the venerated bard from Stratford-upon-Avon, Cervantes made an attempt to escape the sordid difficulty of his own age by building out of the fertile soil of his rich imagination and blossoming mind, a world adorned by chivalry, fragranced with romance, prickled with danger, and honeyed with humor. Unlike Shakespeare, however, his own life was a story in itself.

While the tribulations and injuries suffered by Cervantes’ titular character, Don Quixote, are many to behold, and fantastic to ponder, they pale in comparison with those to which the poor, indebted Spaniard was repeatedly subjected. As a young man, he was prosecuted for having engaged another person (doubtless a fellow high-strung hidalgo) in an unlawful duel, an ungentlemanly crime for which he was made to flee his beloved Madrid—the royal city of his birth and the shining capital of Castile. Then, compelled either by piety or pelf, by the hope of religious fulfillment or the lure of piratical treasure, he joined the Italian navy. Under the foreign grandeur of that ancient flag, he sailed to the famed Greek town of Lepanto, that ensanguined entrepôt at which one of history’s greatest naval battles took place.

Cervantes, a Catholic, was on the winning side of the Battle of Lepanto, but he suffered dearly for this tremendous victory for Christ. During an early engagement, he was repeatedly wounded: once in the left arm, and twice in the chest. With little time to convalesce and regain his ruddy complexion, and no chance for his tender gashes to erect sturdy domes of scars beneath which they might heal, he was again sent forth to the front lines. Despite the painful wounds from which he hadn’t nearly enough time to rebound, he conducted himself valiantly. As was his wont, his leadership was laudable, and his men thanked him for the unwavering poise and consummate courage he once again displayed.

At the end of the day, when the turban-crowned bodies were counted, and the bullet-punctured ships salvaged, it was clear that Cervantes had helped not only Italy, but all of Christendom to an historic victory. In the process, he helped to prove Europe—despite the growing schisms into which it was suddenly falling—a continent not without a little moxie and fight. He showed that its people, increasingly polarized by the changing priority of their views, and deeply shaken by a strange, new access to scripture, was not yet willing to forgo their defense of a still-venerated resurrected Jew.

It was at this point Cervantes embarked on his long journey home, to that Iberian Eden from which he’d been so long ago banished. Unfortunately, though tantalizingly close to that strange land of conversos and inquisitions, that dazzling kingdom of piety and saints, he was not to step foot on the blessed Catalonian shore—at least not yet. As he descried fair Barcelona over the misty horizon of the sea, and filled his wistful lungs with the taste of unforgotten wind, his ship was overtaken by a group of Ottoman corsairs.

Conscious of the value of their freshly-won loot, a living, breathing booty for which a high price might be asked, these Muslims proceeded to capture and enslave Cervantes. They salivated over the ransom his seemingly noble mien would demand, but the payment was unforthcoming. He proved to be a less desirable commodity for trade than they had hoped. Thus, in every place where the crescent moon reflected on the Mediterranean pool, that nourishing sea by which the coasts of three continents are still bathed, Cervantes was held a captive. From Tripoli in northern Africa, to Istanbul in Turkey, he was counted among the scum of humanity—a good-for-nothing Christian slave.

Verily, the story of Cervantes’ life is more fascinating than that of his beloved Quixote—the most delightful and complex chivalric son to which, now at liberty to write, his fertile imagination gave birth. Indeed, had I the time and you the attention, much more could be said of the former’s real-life adventures, of his picaresque dealings, of his crippling penury, and of a burgeoning genius of which, at the time, few Spanish readers, and fewer Spanish patrons, cared to take note. Much more could be said of his internal torment, of his public humiliations, of his near-death experiences, and of a life of discomfort and pain from which—not until his ragged bones were swept into that final panacea in the soil, into that all-healing grave atop which the grass-fringed turf rests in quiet peace—he struggled to find a moment of relief.

I must move on from him—unwilling though I may be—if I’m to persist in my survey of another author to whom attention must be paid. I must look to another man whose own astonishing life, filled with triumph and chastened by misery, far exceeded that of the characters whom he brought into being.

In a treatment of the life of George Gordon Byron, the dashing, scandalous, brilliant young noble to whom the honorific “Lord” couldn’t have been more aptly applied, one must borrow the poet’s very own words, and use them against him: as it pertains to his life, it was “strange, but true; for truth is always strange, stranger than fiction; if it could be told, how much would novels gain by the exchange!”. It’s not an insignificant fact, at least I don’t think, that most of Byron’s works of fiction were thinly-veiled autobiographical sketches. And I think I risk no accusation of reading with an uncritical eye when I say that his novels, perhaps more than those wrought by any other hand, gain immensely by the exchange.

Like Cervantes before him, Byron was impeded by a physical deformity from which, throughout the entirety of his life, he was never fully able to get relief. Unlike the cross-bearing, gun-wielding Spaniard, however, whose injury was the effect of a sharp Islamist’s aim, Byron’s was the consequence of a difficult birth, and, sadly, of a mother inattentive to the infant needs of a hobbled child. As was evident from the moment of his descent from the womb, Byron was born with a right foot that was inverted at its sole, and tensed at its heel. A daily regimen of kindly massage and sustained stretching might’ve cured the congenital oddity for which, in our own day, a simple course of physical therapy might be prescribed, but his mother had neither the patience to see to her son’s improvement, nor the will to endure the extra writhing it might provoke.

In time, this ill-formed foot proved incapable of accepting bipedal weight. Specialized shoes were ordered and crafted for the limping lord, but they were of little use. Until his final days, Byron walked with a halting and disjointed gait. It was an inelegant, awkward pattern for so handsome a frame, a staggering anomaly at which his polished, aristocratic upbringing could do nothing but blush. As any person ailed by a similar impediment can attest, it was a personal quirk of which he wasn’t particularly proud, and which he couldn’t easily conceal. Perhaps it motivated him all the more to pursue and gain mastery over more sedentary arts—among which he favored poetry and whoring, writing and lusting, composing and coition.

Thankfully for us, this gnarled foot never stopped him from skipping along couplets, leaping about allusions, and dancing across rhymes and metaphors as not even a Russian ballerina could. And as for that very ballerina, whose flawless feet catapulted her through the air as though made of elastic sinew and rubberized bone, she would, upon landing, be susceptible to Byron’s winning charm. She, and all like her, would sooner fall prey to his lion-like advances, to his animal, sexual pursuit, and bear her smooth neck, if only to be tasted by so voracious a tongue. As it turns out, it wasn’t Byron’s inflexible foot, but another rigid organ with which he’d pursue his cherished dames, and to which, predictably, they’d always yield.

Byron was a man of countless loves and unfathomable passions, of universal acclaim and inescapable ennui. His temperament was as stormy as his relationships. The most notorious of them was with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Five years his elder, she had that one, arousing attribute before which the boyish Byron was forever helpless: a prior matrimonial commitment. In other words, she was married (to her first cousin: who says that incest can’t run in one’s family?) with three children of her own. In the prurient opinion of Byron, however, this was no obstacle; he pursued her as if she were a maiden of no discernable relation. He was a man, after all, whose aversion to bourgeois morality was absolute, and whose disdain for religious prohibitions of such things was as genuine as a feeling could be.

It wasn’t long before the unspeakable specifics of his relationship with Augusta became public knowledge. Indeed, never one to repress an emotion or ignore a slight, Byron eventually unbosomed himself of the terrible sin by which all of England was now officially scandalized; he admitted to the affair openly in print. He again made reference to it in one of his later dramas. Of course, in gentlemanly fashion, he did so only after finalizing his separation from his estranged wife, Annabella, and departing from his beloved home, England. From that time until his death, he was never to return to Albion’s cliff-encrusted shores, to those jagged, milky walls of Dover behind which his family was seated, and his history buried.

Invigorated by his newfound liberty, and numb to the accusations that chased him from his home, he sought his refuge in the forests of Switzerland. Can a man so sensitive to the allurements of nature be blamed for so instinctive a choice? What writer of feeling hasn’t done the same in seeking those snow-capped Alps as his preferred landscape, and those limpid lakes as his regenerative salve? What poet of sentiment hasn’t been drawn to the chilled comfort of this wintry, free, and mountainous place?

It was there that a famous trinity, perhaps the greatest of all literary unions was formed. It comprised Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft—with whom the young Percy had recently fallen in love. Enmeshed in the games of reciprocal genius, they decided to challenge one another to produce ghost stories. After some days spent on the eldritch project, only a third of the group was up to completing the task. We still savor the fruit of her daring effort, and startle at her morbid imagination, to which we affix the frightening name, Frankenstein.

Slowly, Byron departed the land of William Tell and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of Goethe’s dreams and of Voltaire’s exile, and continued south to Italy—to be one amongst the spirits of Ariosto and Dante, of Boccaccio and Petrarch. With them did he mingle, as he did a fawning train of young Italian girls. Yet neither of these stimuli had much of an effect on him. After a life of so many carnal pleasures and so much literary distinction, his senses had become blunted to the tickling loveliness of their touch. He had sunk into a state of philosophic ennui and hampered arousal. Both mind and body were spent. He began to reflect on his brief life and, as is the tendency of all unsatisfied men, to overlook his accomplishments and fixate on his shortcomings. “A man”, he now felt, “ought to do something more for mankind than write verses”.

If all he did for us was write verses, it would’ve been enough. Our gratitude, offered two centuries hence, wouldn’t yet begin to compensate him for the invaluable output with which he left us. Byron, however, was deaf to the silent thanks of a distant posterity, to a legion of readers as unapplauding as unborn. He needed in his life—to complete his life—one final, heroic action with which to be sent off. Greece, in her ageless struggle for liberty, and in need of a figure around whom her dispirited sons might rally, offered just the opportunity. Byron leapt at the chance.

Since the middle of the fifteenth century, but a decade after the conversion of Hagia Sophia from an Orthodox church to a Mohammedan mosque, Greece had slumbered under the dominion of Turkish rule. The loud echoes of the ghosts of Themistocles and Leonidas, of Pericles and Brasidas had grown, in the interim of those four-hundred years, utterly silent. Asia’s conquest of the country (first rebuffed, so many years ago, at both Marathon and Salamis) was now complete. It wasn’t until 1821 that her simmering frustration reached a boil. She issued a plea for assistance from all the nations of Europe, a vast continent to which, as though a bountiful mother, she bequeathed all the treasures of her cultural, literary, and philosophic inheritance. Sadly, most were reluctant to acknowledge her gifts and to join her cause.

Byron, always the exception, could think of no cause more deserving. He was positively brimming to act, and was willing to expend every last bit of himself, if only to give back an ounce to a mother, to Greece, from whom he’d taken a pound.

The rest of his waning days were dedicated to the cause of Greek liberation. He took all his remaining funds and invested them in the hope that this great and storied nation—this place that was home to democracy and freedom, philosophy and feeling, drama and life—might be returned to its ancient glory, and restored to its forgotten splendor.

“I have a presentiment”, Byron wrote to a female friend, “that I shall die in Greece. I hope it may be in action, for that would be a good finish to a very trite existence”.

One should never doubt the foreboding of an artist—a man so sensitive that he grasps not only himself, but his fate. As it turns out, half of his startling premonition came true. In 1824, only months into his campaign to rally the troops, he fell ill. He was spared the pain of a Turkish bullet (the kind of Allah-guided dart by which, but a few miles to the east at Lepanto, Cervantes was struck), but grew pale and feverish. Depleted of his life after multiple rounds of bleeding, and unable to tap into a reserve of strength that his years of excess now denied him, he died. A more interesting life, and a more shocking end, couldn’t have been imagined for Childe Harold or Don Juan.

Thus, having long since exhausted your attention, and, yet again, having overspent myself, I end with the following remark: The most intriguing authors, if not the best, are those who exceed their own art. Atop this list we find Cervantes and Byron. Might we not also include more?

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