BBC’s Byron

I cannot say much about the BBC’s Byron which aired this weekend since it was on past my bedtime. I set my reading (the wonderful Brick Lane) down at 9:45 or so on Saturday, clicked on the t.v. and found the show that my former student had told me about over coffee on Friday. I got through a good forty minutes—enough to make me wish for greater stamina or a dvd. It’s fitting that this should be so: Byron conducted his whole life past my bedtime.

Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting) plays Byron and he struck me as just right: irritiating, immoral, sexy, imperious, petulant. I also found the depiction of Byron’s friendship with Shelley to be just what I wanted. When I studied Romantic poetry in college, Byron did not even rank and Shelley was held up to us as a great political hero, a revolutionary and poet who fulfilled the ideas that the first generation Romantics—well, really, mainly Wordsworth—espoused and then backed away from. But I could never get excited about Shelley. It was not just his generic mistreatment of women. (His first wife killed herself; Mary Shelley was consistently belittled for taking the deaths of her children too hard.) I just found the whole idea—Terry Eagleton’s and others’—of Shelley as somehow the best, most moral poet as somehow annoying. I preferred Coleridge.

From Byron’s point of view, however, Shelley comes off as a real prig and I find that small revenge on Shelley somehow satisfying. Often right about important things (such as Byron’s shocking neglect of his daughter Allegra), Shelley shows up at Byron’s house occasionally to remind him of his duties, to call him back to himself. In this moral universe, Byron’s complete lack of interest in what others think is a more truly revolutionary stance than Shelley’s complicated dance of revolutionary politics and forays back into respectability. I guess, in the end, Shelley still cared that others like him while Byron enjoyed notoriety more.