The Byron Journal

Clubfoot, Caul and Controversy: Byron Biography and the Foundation of Genius

The Byron Journal (2004), 32, (1), 31–38.


Clubfoot, Caul and Controversy: Byron Biography and the Foundation of Genius 0 Steven Zani I can’t deny that my distrust of the taste of our time has perhaps risen in me to a reprehensible height. To see every day how people get the name ‘genius’ just as the wood-lice in the cellar the name ‘millipede’—not because they have that many feet, but because most people don’t want to count to 14—this has had the result that I don’t believe any more without checking. (Georg Lichtenberg, Aphorisms) Byron, as a figure, has never been stable. His story has changed, both in his own selfpresentation, and in the multiple presentations we have in the texts of others. Reading the innumerable accounts of his life is often assumed the sole requirement to understanding the Byronic figure. ‘Byron’ himself, however, as a narrative rather than a man, cannot be understood without taking an intimate look at the assumptions that underlie the figure, particularly assumptions about identity, genius, and artistic creation that originated in the eighteenth century. While these attitudes may distort our image of the poet, it is well to remember that contemporary attitudes about Byron continue the process, and such ‘distortion’ is the very process by which we have any notion of Byron at all. Contemporary descriptions of Byron are often derived from several excellent twentieth-century biographies, more than one of which was proclaimed as ‘definitive’, including E.C. Mayne’s 1912 Byron, and Leslie Marchand’s 1957 Byron: A Biography. Though subsequent projects would be judged according to their standards for the remainder of the century, projects in Byron biography did not stop with the publication of either Mayne’s or Marchand’s work, requiring a logical question: why are biographical volumes produced by a community when ‘definitive’ ones have been already written? To answer that, we must ask what are the unspoken assumptions and agendas in the biographical project, and what are the repetitions and points of convergence in these ostensibly unnecessary biographical texts.1 Insight into one key repetition in Byron biography lies in understanding the development of the word ‘genius’. By the end of the eighteenth century, the word had become a topic of considerable discussion. A relevant genealogy begins in 1774, when Alexander Gerard wrote one of the first essays devoted to the theme, An Essay on 2 Genius, producing what would become the standard ideology for the word. ‘Genius’ is natural, he argued, as opposed to cultivated; a claim which easily supported—and probably contributed to—the thematics of the nature-based Romanticism which began 31 ByronJrn_05 31 30/6/04, 3:27 pm

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Author details

Zani, Steven