- Letters to the Editor
I wanted to thank you and the rest of the editorship at The Byron Journal for publishing my work on Byron and the U.S. Navy in issue 45.1. Altogether that issue is a terrific collection of essays on Byron's American reception, and I was proud to be involved with it.
In my essay, I shared the discovery of a long-neglected painting by American portraitist William Edward West, depicting Byron's 1822 visit to the USS Constitution. I'm writing because, since publishing that essay, I've come across an 1816 caricature by George Cruikshank that is similar to West's painting. It's plausible that West had seen this image and was consciously alluding to it in his own. Readers of the journal might find the visual congruity of interest, at any rate.
The Cruikshank image forms the top half of a broadside lampooning Byron's dramatic departure from England following the separation scandal. The bottom half is a printing of 'Fare Thee Well', a poem to which I imagine the journal's readers would need no introduction. Suffice to say, it is a lyric of tortured parting that met with some skeptical disdain in the British press. Cruikshank's image offers perfect evidence of this disdain: it represents the poem as crocodilian remorse uttered by a smirking Byron, who is enjoying the company of three women, including the actress Charlotte Mardyn, with whom it was assumed he was having an affair. Annabella Milbanke, with infant in arms, watches from shore as the tawdry quartet, along with a pilot, makes its way on a skiff to a waiting ship, no doubt bound for Europe. The ship's crew laughs at the spectacle, marvelling at Byron's libertinism, and objectifying the women. (An aside: George Cruikshank's brother, Isaac Robert Cruikshank, also had a go at Byron and Mardyn in his own spoof entitled 'The Separation: A Sketch from the Private Life of Lord Iron.')
I'm hardly the first Byronist to comment on Cruikshank's image. Susan Wolfson, who also contributed to issue 45.1, has written about it (see her Romantic Interactions, 2010), as have a number of other scholars. All the more reason for me to regret not having noticed its resemblance to West's painting earlier. The latter, which graces the cover of 45.1, also shows a standing Byron (waving not a hat, as in Cruikshank, but a red kerchief) on a small skiff, being rowed to a larger vessel, in this case the Constitution. The composition is different, but the essential similarities invite speculation. [End Page 69]
Of course, one speculation is that both images share in some common tradition of maritime art that has nothing to do with Byron, and so their similarities are 'mere' similarities and that's all. The English marine painter George Chambers (who was a contemporary of Byron, Cruikshank and West), for example, produced several paintings of small boats being rowed to or from large anchored ships. A naval art historian might find all of this unsurprising.
But let us suppose that West was intentionally referring to Cruikshank's image. How does that change the way we see West's painting?
In my essay I suggested that West meant 'to portray Byron—with his larger-than-life reputation—in the rather more human and vulnerable state that he [West] had met him in. Here is the great Lord Byron, small and getting smaller by the second, losing himself in the spectacle of American war-power and pageantry' (64). With melancholy poignancy, the image represents a postnationalist construct that the poet himself enjoyed, 'America's Byron'.
If West was linking Byron's visit with the U.S. Navy to Cruikshank's take on his scandalous 1816 departure from England, then I suppose there are two major possibilities, each with more room for nuance than I can accommodate here. One is that West shares Cruikshank's skepticism and is (with a wink to his knowing viewers) mocking Byron's visit, perhaps as yet another indication of the poet's capricious loyalties: no more faithful to country than to wife. The other is...