Frequently in literary theory discussion, we are asked to separate the art from the artist – to look at the art without the shading of the artist’s life. With most artists, this is in some small way possible. With Byron, it is entirely impossible.
Aside from a long history of literary fame and controversy, Byron frequently wrote his life into his poems. In “Don Juan,” he uses the direct name of a lawyer he felt wronged him, and paralleled too similarly the character of Donna Inez and his estranged wife so that readers can point to lines in the text and scandals in his life with stunning accuracy. Byron, with biting commentary, uses his life to inspire his work, to defend himself, and to attack those he feels have had their hands in his fate. He opens “Don Juan” with a name-calling criticism of the Lake poets, and from there, he insistently weaves characters in his life into characters in his poem.
Of course, all artists take some pieces of their lived experience and weave it into their work. Mary Shelley could have hardly written the moving scenes of the Alps in Frankenstein if she had not traveled there, Felicia Hemans could have hardly written so movingly of mother-daughter relationships if she had not been so close to her mother, and so on. However, there usually is some degree to which artists alter or disguise people in their lives when they place them in their art. With Byron, the disguise is little more than a changed name.
It becomes increasingly problematic when he romanticizes himself and demonizes others. The Byronic hero is little more than a glamoured version of himself. Among the public, such romanticizing of the self and demonizing of others lends to a more sympathetic view of Byron than he deserved, because the only truth we have is what Byron tells us. Having the privilege of print, Byron gets to memorialize his truth and erase everyone else’s, and additionally, he enforces a violently patriarchal worldview that is as dangerous to public thought as Frankenstein’s passion was to his life. When looked at in the grand scheme of things, it becomes clear that we must lean as far away from Byron’s truth as we lean into the pressing silence of his victims.