Jonathan David Gross. Byron: The Erotic Liberal. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001. ISBN 0-7425-1162-6. Price: $21.95.[Record]

  • G. Todd Davis

…more information

  • G. Todd Davis
    Miami University

In Byron: The Erotic Liberal, Jonathan David Gross examines the relationship between Byron's "erotic life and political commitments" (1). Gross follows predecessors Michael Foot and Malcolm Kelsall, among others, in investigating the Byronic persona through a political lens, yet Gross attempts to move beyond this groundwork by connecting the political to the erotic. This methodology has both advantages and disadvantages to recommend it. By linking the two, Gross underscores how Byron's personal life cannot be disconnected from his public life. Byron flourished within the interstices, creating a place for himself in the limbo that exists between binaries. Gross appreciates this. However, this methodology also assumes, by the connectivity that informs it, that the two should be read together. This leads to a reduction, if not a complete effacement of the lacuna between the two binaries. Byron performs for his audience, and never more so than when either his political or his erotic lives were in question. As Lady Blessington rather insightfully quipped: "Byron is a perfect chameleon [. . .] and says it is owing to the extreme mobilité of his nature." This mobilité gives Byron his cultural relevance, but it also dismantles any categorizing attempts to evaluate one aspect of Byron's life either in conjunction with or in opposition to another aspect. Gross is most effective when he capitalizes on the blurred boundaries between Byron's public and private life. He argues that Byron "resolved the tension between eros and libertinism, in part, by using his poetry to define a new political outlook—erotic liberalism—which he referred to in his letters as a 'politics of feeling'" (1). Gross employs both Plato and Sappho to define eros; for the former, he draws upon the Symposium and Aristophanes' speech to define eros as the "search for wholeness" while also incorporating Plato's idea of "self-completion"; for the latter, he connects eros and glukipikron, which he translates as "sweetbitter" (2). Accordingly, Gross distances Byron's eros from libertinism by saying: "Byron was not a libertine" (3). Byron, instead, cultivated "cosmopolitanism," which, with both eros and his rejection of libertinism, appreciably influenced his political views. By constructing the term "erotic liberalism," Gross establishes a category within which Byron's quest for personal and political freedom can be encompassed. The author situates himself against two previous works on Byron's political life: Michael Foot's The Politics of Paradise and Malcolm Kelsall's Byron's Politics. He summarizes Foot's book as illustrating "Byron's political idealism," viewing him as an "aristocratic rebel who championed the cause of the oppressed." Kelsall, he says, "by contrast, debunks the legend of Byron's radicalism by demonstrating his debt to Whig principles" (15). These approaches overlook "the political significance of Byron's private conduct" (31). The connection between the private and the public resonates here, especially in relation to Byron's search for freedom in the realms of politics and sexuality. To further his argument, Gross explores Byron's wish to be both a writer and a politician. He examines the three speeches in the House of Lords, not only their performance, but also how they fit Byron's "politics of feeling." Byron "emphasized passion rather than parliamentary procedure, genius rather than middle-class morality, and action rather than words," Gross argues (21). Byron's pose triumphs over the content, his appearance and fervor surmounts the subject matter. Yet, for all Byron's zeal at the podium, his private life began to intrude into the political experience. Gross identifies the vilification of Lord Elgin in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and the alleged incestuous relationship with Augusta as inauspicious ways to begin a political career. "Private conduct was beginning to matter," he says (27). …