Thomas Clarke: Life Lessons from Byron? Back to school with Byron

Life Lessons from Byron, by Matthew Bevis

Macmillan Books, September 2013, 128pp

In 2008, Alain de Botton, alongside the former curator of the Tate, Sophie Howarth, set up an institution called the ‘School of Life’ around the corner from University College London. Seen from the street, the building appears to be nothing more than another modern looking bookshop, like the London Review of Books store a few streets away. Indeed, it was in that publication that Christopher Taylor published an article describing de Botton’s ‘university of life’ as a place selling “programmes and services concerned with how to live life wisely and well”.1 The School of Life certainly does offer an array of ‘programmes and services’. The website advertises ‘cultural insights and innovation’ for business, classes on ‘how to make love last’, ‘how to be confident’, ‘how to be cool’ and even has an in-house psychotherapist who offers a ‘Career MOT’ for £250. They also publish books. Matthew Bevis’ book is part of a series of six offering ‘life lessons’ from Bergson, Freud, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Hobbes and, here in the latest volume, Byron. These books are sold in the shop on Marchmont Street alongside other physical products such as ‘conversation cards’ and a box set of ‘how to’ guides called the ‘toolkit for life’. In 2011, the School of Life formed a partnership with the Morgans Hotel Group, an international chain of high-end hotels. This would result in a series of School of Life ‘curated’ vending machines dispensing their products to the guests and £35 ‘minibars for the mind’ in each room which, an article from the Economist tells us, contain ‘dreams and fears’ notebooks, conversation cards and reading prescriptions. Simply listing these products presents the whole enterprise in a starkly commercial light, which is precisely the impression given by the institution’s website. In the business section, under a picture of a smiling De Botton, we can read about how Citibank paid the School of Life to give them a “philosophical perspective” because “[b]anking has an image problem”. Proctor and Gamble’s section asks us “Do you suffer from affluenza [sic]?”.

Michael Bevis’ slim book on Byron is certainly very removed from this smartly packaged corporate consultancy and we ought to attempt to consider Life Lessons from Byron, as most readers will, without too much concern for the background of the publisher. However, this is no ordinary publisher, and this book has a task set for it: to show us the ways that Byron may “stimulate, provoke, nourish and console”. It is difficult not to conclude that this task weighs heavily on Bevis’ otherwise precise and pleasing analysis.

Michael Bevis is the tutor for English at Keble College and has written on Byron before, as well as publishing books on Tennyson, Joyce and Empson. He is also familiar with this shortened format having written Comedy: A very short introduction. I would imagine however, that this project, to find “the ways in which we might have better pleasure” in Byron, was a different matter altogether to those previous books.

Bevis has to make an important concession on the very first page of his introduction. Byron, he rightly notes, “is not convinced that you can get life lessons from books”. He quotes the poet himself, asking “Who was ever altered by a poem?”. Byron is a poet concerned with the nature of experience and Bevis is keen to show us how he sought experience and arranged it in his poetry. He has an interesting angle on this process, which he also highlights in his introduction. Bryon once said he wanted to “learn experience”, which Bevis acutely notes is “not necessarily the same thing as learning from [experience]”. This distinction is the way Bevis attempts to deal with the problem of the poet’s disregard for influential lessons in poetry. Byron describes in Don Juan how Haidee teaches Juan her language by subtle expressions, “a pressure of hands”, a “smile” and even “a chaste kiss”. Bevis simply says “this is how life lessons are learned in Byron’s universe”- by living. At this point the reader surely senses a serious roadblock in the path to practical wisdom via Byron. His poetry almost screams at us to put it down and get on the first boat to the continent. This after all is exactly what Bevis himself did. He describes in his conclusion how he “went to study as a postgraduate in Bologna – learning Italian, reading more Byron, drinking it all in and falling in love while the sound of his poetry played in the background”. Why then should we read this book and what could it possibly teach us about that life above and beyond practical advice like “go to Italy, soon”?

Bevis’ response to this problem is to focus on Byron’s “genius for talking and thinking on paper” and to consider what it might mean to “learn experience”. In the chapter titled ‘How to become yourself’ Bevis examines Byron’s views on personal identity. He quotes a particularly useful passage in Childe Harold’s pilgrimage where the poet pinpoints a creative impulse, writing:

It is to create, and in creating live

A being more intense, that we endow

With form our fancy, gaining as we give

The life we image, even as I do now.

What am I? Nothing: but not so art thou,

Soul of my thought! With whom I traverse earth

This is a striking verse and Bevis is right to highlight it. One of the main difficulties in reading criticism of long epic poetry is that there is a frequent temptation to put down the critic, find the line in the original text and carry on reading where the quotation given was cut off. Against that temptation, Bevis seeks to draw out lessons implicit in particular selections from the text. The lesson here, he says, is that “rather than trying to improve ourselves, perhaps we might invent ourselves”. Byron’s invention is happening in his verse in this extract, such that the reader is able to witness a potent example of his “thinking on paper”. However, one wonders if Byron is not specifically celebrating writing about rather than reading about a character, as a particularly valuable form of experience. Bevis wants to connect this quotation to his book’s plan and says that “to write and to read is to go forth and multiply” but he gets here via Freud, for whom fiction provides us with “the plurality of lives we need”. This does not in itself render Bevis’ point invalid – the text can be interpreted by any means, other texts included – but he gives us little evidence that the point is one to which Byron would have subscribed. The power of the supposedly Byronic lesson does seem somewhat undermined if the teacher might not endorse it. Byron clearly believes that living life is the best experience and it does not help us much with our own lives to know he felt that writing helped as well. That is unless the lesson we are meant to be taking from this is that we should write. If so, Bevis does not mention it, but it certainly seems to have been the route to his own happiness.

This is the pattern followed by much of the book. Bevis is quietly illuminating on many aspects of Byron’s work but each of the main points he makes are ultimately tenuously tied to some bit of life advice in an effort to fulfil a brief which, we increasingly notice, Byron may well have dismissed. In only ten pages, the section on comedy uses an impressively wide range of quotations from Lara, The Corsair, Don Juan, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the letters to Francis Hodgson and Beppo, all to show that Byron had a sophisticated knowledge of the way laughter may be at another’s expense as well as more healthily self-deprecating. Bevis focuses on this difference, mentioned by Alexander Pope, between “laughing at and laughing about”. This sort of concise and insightful analysis is a pleasure but the chapter is not called ‘laughter in Byron’, it is called ‘How to laugh’, so it ends with this:

We can be doubled up or doubled over by laughter but a good laugh leaves us “doubly serious” because it reminds us of just how much we yearn to be part of a double act.

Having discussed viewpoints on humour with precision, and having commented on the way in which Byron shifts his perspective from the formal ‘one’ to a more inclusive ‘us’, Bevis enlists no further evidence to support this supposed ‘lesson’ about how laughter reminds us of our desire for companionship. It seems like a big leap to make on such little textual basis and, more importantly, it is intended to serve as a concluding consideration to the less didactic points made beforehand, despite having little connection to those points.

In the chapter on ‘How to go astray’ Bevis claims Byron teaches us to be spontaneous and explore tangents in our lives. His handling of this element of the poetry is interesting in that it admits the existence of evidence both for and against “going astray” in the text. He shows us how Byron lamented that he had “a fate, or will, that walked astray” in the Epistle to Augusta. By contrast, he quotes passages in Don Juan, which deal with the pleasure of simply “going at full speed” in any direction. This second idea feels instinctively more Byronic but Bevis rightly presents both views on life’s digression; he knows Byron too well to line up only those quotations that support a potential ‘life lesson’, to the exclusion of quotes that fail to support his thesis. Yet, again we find that a line of criticism is derailed by the need to outline some sort of teaching plan. We learn that Don Juan never once contains the words ‘develop’, ‘development’ or ‘developing’. Surely we do not need to know this to feel that the poem is about travelling and getting distracted? It seems like another tenuous bit of close analysis employed in order to lend a degree of certainty to an aspect of Byron’s poetry that Bevis has already shown is in fact complicated and contradictory, and not reducible to the command: ‘go astray!’

It is possible to look past these moments of tentative coaching and argue that what Bevis really encourages is a closer look at Byron rather than a closer look at ourselves. However, one paragraph in the first chapter, ‘How to become yourself’, steers worryingly close to the core principles of ‘self help’ and its most distasteful aspects. Bevis quotes Byron talking about welcome anonymity in Italy: “I am a nameless sort of person”. He then gives a few lines from the Prisoner of Chillon:

My very chains and I grew friends

So much a long communion tends

To make us who we are.

Bevis acknowledges that Byron’s personal predicament (a need for refuge from his fame) is not ours but he seeks to make Byron’s condition a source of advice for readers when he adds that “many of us have felt beholden to a version of ourselves that we’ve grown uncomfortable with, or at least felt that our personality is a bit of a drag”. The way in which his point with its use of the word ‘beholden’ is colloquially reworked to the phrase ‘bit of a drag’ seems like an obvious attempt to help readers swallow this. Bevis is asking readers to agree with the idea, rephrased in unthreatening language, that we can be a disappointment to ourselves and that we have the desire to isolate and improve that ‘version’ or ourselves. This is highly personalised, individualised advice, and it makes the attempts to convert Bevis’ observations about Byron’s poetry into ‘life lessons’ much more difficult to pass off as just the occasional return to a bothersome brief. He certainly seems to have at least some belief in the process. In understanding the dubiousness of this approach to textual criticism, we need look no further than another publication from the School of Life. In the third chapter of Life Lessons from Kierkegaard, Robert Ferguson writes “One of the great myths of rationalism is that there is a trick or knack to being happy….. publishers make fortunes from books that promote this idea”.

‘Fortunes’ is no exaggeration. There is indeed a lot of money to be made from this ‘drag’. It is very easy to be unsettled by the way in which the School of Life marries its desire to “help us live wisely and well” with its high end products. One of the items for sale in the vending machines they ‘curated’ at the St Martin’s Lane hotel was a voucher entitling the bearer to dinner with Alain de Botton, bottle of wine included. The cost of his company at the table? £5000.

Life Lessons from Byron may only cost £6.99 but the School of Life’s problems go beyond this writer’s discomfort with their pricing habits. The book contains a couple of notable School of Life accoutrements. There is a quotation about the process of learning from John Ashberry, who asks:

But now to have absorbed the lesson, to have recovered from the shock of not being able to remember it, to again be setting out from the beginning – is this not something good for you?

Next, a section entitled ‘Homework’ contains recommended reading to help with each of the chapter headings; Bob Dylan helping you with ‘how to say goodbye’ and Carl Jung prescribed to help you ‘become yourself’. Then the book ends with a few pages of note paper lines for the reader’s own thoughts.

The Ashberry quotation and a reading list entitled ‘Homework’ highlight perhaps the most fundamental problem with the whole project. Ashberry is right, we all forget the lessons we have learned and going back to the beginning is good for us. Bevis is right, we can indeed keep learning about Byron. But here the whole process is oddly infantilised. Everything is framed in terms of supervised education and school life but we are never offered anything like an alternative for those things. Instead, the School of Life sells a return to the classroom. Is this the route to the important life lessons we need? Bevis says in his introduction that he prefers to focus on the text rather than considering biographical details. This is not only his right but also perfectly unsurprising; such is the approach of many academics, and it is well grounded in over a century of consideration of where a text’s value lies. However, this inevitably inhibits any discussion of how Byron died fighting for Greece or even Byron’s politics in a broader sense. This is a man with plenty to say about revolution and the defence of liberty in Europe but this is not what The School of Life wants to consider. They want us to focus not on political questions but on our internal spiritual malaise – a malaise that seems to be overwhelmingly rooted in modern middle class life. It is a malaise which, De Botton believes, may be remedied or eased by a return to the cultural treasure trove we have apparently neglected to appreciate, or perhaps by purchasing a £22 “virtue doll”. In the context of this book, it all seems at odds with the poet’s handling of his own life. We are drawn back along a chain of command; Byron tells us to see Italy, Bevis tells us to see Byron and De Botton tells us to see Bevis, his lecturers and, most importantly, himself. The lectures, consultations and therapy offered by the programme are all designed to make you feel like you are back under wise cultural supervision while this particular slice of culture tells you that learning comes from experience outside of the classroom. Perhaps the project should have been called the ‘Life of School’. Unlike de Botton’s implicitly infantilising project, a ‘School of Life’ deserving of the name would raise its ambitions beyond training people to live within the strictures of authority and the market. It might instead address the task of encouraging the kind of critique capable of analysing and refashioning the world around us.


Thomas Clarke is a third year Classicist at Wadham College, Oxford.

1 Christopher Taylor, ‘Short Cuts’, London Review of Books, Vol. 33 No. 10, 19 May 2011, p. 22

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s