Lord Byron

In Brief

The Romantic-era poet George Gordon, "Lord Byron" (1778-1824), figured in the erotic imaginations of both Blooms during their courtship: Leopold gave Molly a book of Byron's poems, and both she and he seem to have fancied that he possessed some likeness to the famous poet. But Byron's influence on Ulysses goes deeper than this. One of his early lyric poems describes the power of erotic kisses in ways that strongly shape a reader's understanding of Bloom, Molly, Stephen, and Joyce himself. The opening stanzas of Don Juan shed light on Joyce's decision to make his first erotic encounter with Nora the foundation of a new fictional world.

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Molly came into her relationship with Bloom liking poetry and imagining that this new man in her life might bear some resemblance to the poet who notoriously embodied sexual ardor: "I always liked poetry when I was a girl first I thought he was a poet like lord Byron and not an ounce of it in his composition I thought he was quite different." Bloom appears to have played along with Molly's fantasy, and his looks helped: "he was very handsome at that time trying to look like Lord Byron I said I liked though he was too beautiful for a man and he was a little before we got engaged." Ithaca observes that Bloom, caught up perhaps in this mutual focus on his Byronic potential, sent a romantic lyric to Molly on Valentine's Day, 1888 that emphasized her affectionate name for him. It does not proclaim the second coming of Lord Byron:

Poets oft have sung in rhyme
Of music sweet their praise divine.
Let them hymn it nine times nine.
Dearer far than song or wine,
You are mine. The world is mine.

Molly also remembers, in Penelope, that Bloom gave her a book of Byron's poems when they were arguing: "after that I pretended I had a coolness on with her over him because he used to be a bit on the jealous side whenever he asked who are you going to and I said over to Floey and he made me the present of Byrons poems and the three pairs of gloves so that finished that I could quite easily get him to make it up any time."

Ulysses does not record the name of the book, but Byron's first published collection, Hours of Idleness (1807), contains a poem called "The First Kiss of Love" that seems powerfully relevant to Molly and Bloom. (It also features a poem titled “To Marion.”) In seven quatrains, "First Kiss" praises the experience of new sexual passion as an authentic inspiration for poetry that far surpasses the influence of stale artistic conventions:

Away with your fictions of flimsy romance;
Those tissues of falsehood which folly has wove!
Give me the mild beam of the soul-breathing glance,
Or the rapture which dwells on the first kiss of love.

Ye rhymers, whose bosoms with phantasy glow,
Whose pastoral passions are made for the grove;
From what blest inpiration your sonnets would flow,
Could you ever have tasted the first kiss of love!

If Apollo should e'er his assistance refuse,
Or the Nine be disposed from your service to rove,
Invoke them no more, bid adieu to the muse,
And try the effect of the first kiss of love.

I hate you, ye cold compositions of art!
Though prudes may condemn me, and bigots reprove,
I court the effusions that spring from the heart,
Which throbs with delight to the first kiss of love.

Your shepherds, your flocks, those fantastical themes,
Perhaps may amuse, yet they never can move:
Arcadia displays but a region of dreams:
What are visions like these to the first kiss of love?

Oh! cease to affirm that man, since his birth,
From Adam till now, has with wretchedness strove,
Some portion of paradise still is on earth,
And Eden revives in the first kiss of love.

When age chills the blood, when our pleasures are past—
For years fleet away with the wings of the dove—
The dearest remembrance will still be the last,
Our sweetest memorial the first kiss of love.

Byron's description of the physical energy of the kisses—"effusions that spring from the heart, / Which throbs with delight"—makes clear that these are embraces of a passionately carnal sort, like those represented later in the 19th century by Rodin, Munch, and Toulouse-Lautrec. But he also uses religious language to characterize their spiritual power. New love is "soul-breathing," a "rapture," a "blest inspiration" which shows that "Some portion of paradise is still on earth." The allusion in stanza 6 to mankind's fall from Eden, with its recognition that only "Some" of the original perfection can "still" be glimpsed, introduces the thought of the final stanza, that within individual lives too there is a falling away. Rapturous sexual "pleasures" belong to hot-blooded youth, because (in an echo of Psalm 55:6) "years fleet away with the wings of the dove." First kisses do not remain in one's experience, but they do endure in memory: the "dearest remembrance" of older years, "Our sweetest memorial," will be the flaring passion we experienced in youth.

The poem is clearly relevant to Molly's memories. Although she seems almost as addicted as Gerty MacDowell to "fictions of flimsy romance," when left alone with her thoughts what stirs her is the passion of a "first kiss." The lyrical rapture that closes Ulysses blends her memory of kissing Mulvey in Gibraltar with the memory of kissing Bloom on Howth Head: "my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath." Such kisses, she thinks, possess an intensity that dissipates in long-term relationships: "its only the first time after that its just the ordinary do it and think no more about it why cant you kiss a man without going and marrying him first you sometimes love to wildly when you feel that way so nice all over you you cant help yourself I wish some man or other would take me sometime when hes there and kiss me in his arms theres nothing like a kiss long and hot down to your soul almost paralyses you."

Bloom too looks back on the picnic on Howth Head as a kind of lost paradise. His recollections in Lestrygonians are sadder than Molly's, but no less rapturous: "Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweet and sour with spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft, warm, sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. . . . Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman's breasts full in her blouse of nun's veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me."

The eyes gazing on Bloom, the hand caressing him, the sense of rapture, undoubtedly derive from Joyce's memory of his first date with Nora, when she took the sexual initiative and caressed him to orgasm. In a letter he wrote to her years later, Joyce recalled that evening in Ringsend when she "first led the way" by reaching into his pants, "all the time bending over me and gazing at me out of your quiet saintlike eyes." In another letter he called Nora the girl who "took me so easily into her arms and made me a man." He was overwhelmed by the realization of what sex could be with a woman who somehow evaded, or combined, the Catholic dualities of fallen woman and saint.

In Proteus Stephen wishes for the same experience. Walking on the strand not far from where Jim found delight with Nora, he longs for someone to "Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand." Knowing nothing but sexless Catholic icons and prostitutes, however, he cannot imagine a kiss like the one that dwells in the memories of Molly and Bloom. A few paragraphs earlier, seeking inspiration for a poem, he concocted a fantasy of a kiss that was itself inspired by a poem, meriting Byron's condemnation of art that is sterile because it knows only art. Moreover, it involves a prostitute meeting a man who "comes, pale vampire, through storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea, mouth to her mouth's kiss." The association between love and nutrition seen in Bloom's recollection of the seedcake here is inverted into a vampirish draining of life. 

§ Joyce famously set his masterpiece on the day when he walked out to Ringsend with Nora, and his sense of the importance of that date points to still more Byronic influence. In a note titled "Byron's Don Juan and Joyce's Ulysses," James Joyce Quarterly 29.4 (1992): 829-33, which argues that Byron's ottava rima comic epic exerted great influence on Ulysses, Walter E. Anderson quotes from the first canto, where Byron narrates the beginning of the amour between Don Juan and Donna Julia:

'Twas on a summer's day—the sixth of June—
I like to be particular in dates,
Not only of the age, and year, but moon;
They are a sort of post-house, where the Fates
Change horses, making history change its tune. (1.103)

James Joyce too liked to be particular in dates, and Ulysses shows his fascination with crucial moments when lives can track a new course. Anderson infers that he must have been struck by the coincidence of June 6 and June 16, and he quotes more lines from Don Juan which may have further inspired Joyce to make his date with Nora a date that changed the tune of history: "June the sixth (that fatal day / Without whose epoch my poetic skill / For want of facts would all be thrown away)" (1.121). Byron here reiterates his sense of the date's cosmic importance and returns to the lyric poem's theme of basing literary art on actual human experience, "facts." Several lines later, he recalls another motif from "The First Kiss of Love," its fancy that new erotic passion is a taste of Edenic perfection which outshines all the later events of a life:

But sweeter still than this, than these, than all,
Is first and passionate love—it stands alone,
Like Adam's recollection of his fall;
The tree of knowledge has been pluck'd—all's known—
And life yields nothing further to recall. (1.127)

Anderson leads off his brief article with these passages about newfound love, but he seems chiefly interested in the ways that Byron may have inspired Joyce to write an irreverent, densely contemporaneous version of ancient epic poetry: "Seminal as is the suggestion of a fateful day of seduction in June, it seems at least equalled in importance by other basic propositions" (830). This may be true, but the importance to Joyce of the life-altering effect of sexual delight should never be underestimated. Not only do all three principal characters of Ulysses show the unmistakable imprint of "The First Kiss of Love," but the novel itself is founded upon the author's experience of a kiss that set his life upon a new course.

In Part 2 of A Portrait of the Artist (85-86), Stephen endures a pummeling by bullies rather than recant his high esteem for Byron's poetry. His classmates object to Byron primarily on moral grounds: "Byron was a heretic and immoral too"; "Byron was a bad man"; "Byron was no good." Stephen maintains his aesthetic judgment that Byron is the greatest English poet (one that Joyce shared even in later life, according to Ellmann) despite his notorious philandering. There is a kind of ironic triumph in knowing that in Ulysses Joyce values Byron in large part because of his enthusiastic celebration of erotic passion.

John Hunt and Doug Pope 2018
1813 oil portrait of Byron by Thomas Phillips, held in Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Edvard Munch, The Kiss, 1895 drypoint etching printed in brown ink, held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Source:www.metmuseum.org.
In Bed: The Kiss, 1892 oil painting by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Source: www.amazon.it.