In Beppo the garrulous narrator tells the story of how Beppo short for Guiseppe disappears on a sea voyage, how his wife Laura assumes he's dead and, after a perfunctory period of mourning, takes a dilettante called The Count as a lover. Beppo then turns up again, recounts how he converted to Islam and lived as a pirate, is reconciled with Laura and comes to a pragmatic agreement with the Count. The story, however, is much less important to the poem than the many digressions, in which the narrator discusses the differences between Italy and England, gives advice to travellers, and generally displays his accomplishment as a gregarious raconteur. Byron used the Italian ottava rima stanza, which he would go on to use for his long c…. Citation: Mole, Tom.
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Byron felt the same about poets. But his problem with poets ran deeper than a dislike of certain examples of the breed. Byron occasionally found better things to do; he died pursuing them. But his attitude was more than simply boastful, and later in his career, he began to write a kind of poetry that could stand up to his own suspicions of the form.
Strangely enough, given his feelings about Wordsworth and Wordsworth's "poetical system", the preface to Lyrical Ballads sets the stage for the problems of Byron's final flourishing. Poetry, Wordsworth had said, should return to its roots, the real language of men. Byron took him at his word - though he differed substantially in his sense of "real language" and real men.
In the spring of , he wrote from Venice to ask his friend Thomas Moore to assure the critic Jeffrey, one of his supporters, that "I was not, and, indeed, am not even now, the misanthropical and gloomy gentleman he takes me for, but a facetious companion, well to do with those with whom I am intimate, and as loquacious and laughing as if I were a much cleverer fellow.
It's very easy for writers, like other people, to slip into their professional roles, to let it take over their personalities. The problem, for a poet like Byron, is that he distrusted the writer's point of view; he preferred the man of the world's. A few months later, he began work on "Beppo", and in it he tried to capture something of the flavour of his Venetian life, and something of the personality he had described to Moore. The first stanza quietly announces his heretical intentions.
Byron sets the scene for his Venetian tale with a piece of very ordinary information. He's describing the Carnival, and his account includes a series of useful and wonderfully unpoetical tips. Verse, as a rule, doesn't deal in practicalities; Byron is making a point. Don't dress up as a priest, he writes, the locals won't like it. A Lent will well-nigh starve ye". The rhythm, loose, conversational, and the rhyme, comically excessive, tend towards the same end: to undermine the traditional "poetical" effect of his story.
The story itself is scant but dramatic enough. A pretty woman suspects that her sailor husband, Beppo, has been lost at sea. She mourns him decently for several years, but finally succumbs to the general practice and takes a lover, a cavalier servente. He is a count, a gallant and fashionable man, with excellent taste, and a wide and pleasant range of amateurish talents: he writes, sings, knows his way around a gallery, and dances as well.
He turns out to be her old husband. All of this takes up very little space. The real hero of the piece is the poet himself Byron once criticised Wordsworth for making "the bard the hero of the story" , who digresses chattily from stanza to stanza on a variety of topics, including his own life. I say the poet is the hero - it's his failure as a poet that makes him who he is, and I wonder if Byron had in mind the self-portrait he offered Moore when he wrote:.
Writers often try to imagine what they might do, what they might be like, if they weren't writers. It's a source of anxiety that has produced, ever since Wordsworth, a great deal of unprofitable farming.
Byron, here, is imagining himself as a non-poet, and the genius of the move lies in the fact that he imagines himself more or less the same, only unsuccessful - and, crucially, a little more inclined to prose. He even manages to work in a few digs against his own backlist. The world did delight. What he's describing is his own canny exploitation, of inspiration, of experience; his transformation of these vague quantities into a marketable good.
Such modesty, I think, is real enough, but he banks it for a reason. He wants to make us suspicious of such writing - to set us up for the kind of writing he's selling us now.
Self-mockery is also the device he employs to justify his mockery of others. It is less than two years since his separation, the facts of which, among many rumours, had remained in the public eye. For the benefit of the less knowing, he gestures heavily at what he isn't saying. Again, he insists that the real story can be told only in prose. Byron made good on the pun, too, and was writing up the famous memoirs his life around the time he was working on "Beppo".
The point of these digressions isn't merely spiteful and personal though they are that, too. He's trying to give a rounder and more layered self-portrait than he had given in "Childe Harold". Readers are justifiably suspicious of fictions, in prose or poetry, about writers - their self-reflexiveness puts them in the class of trade manuals, not fit for general consumption.
Byron himself, as he makes clear in this poem, is suspicious of writers defined entirely by their art. On the other hand, the device allows him to add the kind of "real" texture that has begun to matter to him.
One reason writers write themselves into their works is that they don't like the monotony of their own "voice". It seems a little inhuman to them, omniscient, pure, etc.
They want to give it a personality, to play with the contrast between private and professional, to hint at its insincerities: to make it more human.
The contrast between his public and private selves, outlined in that letter to Moore, had been bothering him; "Beppo" showed him how to deal with it. It became the model for his masterpiece, "Don Juan".
The poem, however, is much more than a discourse on poets and poetry - that is only its undertone. Really, it is a series of digressions on worldliness: on how to take pleasure from the world, on how to live. Louis MacNeice once wrote: "I would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions.
If this seems remarkably modern "Beppo" came out in , the year in which Keats published "Endymion" and Shelley began work on Prometheus Unbound , that's because it is, though I wonder how many modern poets can suggest, in their poetry, so generous, natural, humorous and serious a response to modern life as Byron shows here.
There's a kind of chicken and egg argument, in Byron criticism, about the roles of irony and sentiment in his work. It is clear that his first public read him for his "love"; later critics have tried to reclaim the sentimental stuff by making it part of some ironic and post-Romantic strategy.
My own sense is that his contemporaries were nearer the truth. Irony, in Byron, is a kind of investment he makes, to build up his capital of sincerity. What he wants to spend it on is sentiment, on earned sentiment, and "Beppo" contains a beautiful description of the joys of love: "But they were young: Oh! What would youth be without love! His career trajectory - I'm aware of the strangeness of the comparison - looks a little like Woody Allen's. They wrote serious or they wrote funny, but they couldn't do both at the same time until they stumbled on this simple idea: the real tragedy in life is that people get over things.
Byron had built a career arguing that they don't and can't, but in "Beppo", they do. It's one of the strange and wonderful turns in this strange and wonderful poem: Laura takes Beppo back.
Rereading Books. A man of the world. Byron's 'Beppo', in which the real hero of the piece is himself, is not just a chatty, satirical discourse on poets and poetry. Above all, it is a lesson in how to take pleasure from life, writes Benjamin Markovits. Benjamin Markovits.
Published on Sat 2 Feb G eorge Orwell once said of saints that they should be judged guilty until proven innocent. I say the poet is the hero - it's his failure as a poet that makes him who he is, and I wonder if Byron had in mind the self-portrait he offered Moore when he wrote: But I am but a nameless sort of person, A broken dandy lately on my travels And take for rhyme, to hook my rambling verse on, The first that Walker's lexicon unravels, And when I can't find that, I put a worse on, Not caring as I ought for critics' cavils.
I've half a mind to tumble down to prose, But verse is more in fashion - so here goes. Why I thank God for that is no great matter, I have my reasons, you no doubt suppose, And as, perhaps, they would not highly flatter, I'll keep them for my life to come in prose And so God save the Regent, Church, and King! Which means that I like all and everything. What'er his youth had suffer'd, his old age With wealth and talking made him some amends; Though Laura sometimes put him in a rage, I've heard the Count and he were always friends.
My pen is at the bottom of a page, Which being finish'd, here the story ends; 'Tis to be wish'd it had been sooner done, But stories somehow lengthen when begun.
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Moira - I am so glad you did a piece on Mardi Gras. What an amazing time of year for clothes, I always think. Such amazing costumes! And you tied it into Byron, too! An excellent post.
Beppo, A Venetian Story
Beppo marks Byron's first attempt at writing using the Italian ottava rima metre , which emphasized satiric digression. It is the precursor to Byron's most famous and generally considered best poem, Don Juan. The poem tells the story of a Venetian lady, Laura, whose husband, Giuseppe or "Beppo" for short , has been lost at sea for the past three years. According to Venetian customs she takes on a Cavalier Servente , simply called "the Count". When the two of them attend the Venetian Carnival , she is closely observed by a Turk who turns out to be her missing husband. Beppo explains that he has been captured and enslaved, and was freed by a band of pirates that he subsequently joined.
Beppo: A Venetian Story