McGill Reporter – October 2005
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Idols of the idle
In high school, Tom Mole carried about Byron’s “Don Juan” like a dandy’s gold-topped cane. “I thought it was the funniest, most brilliantly written poem I’d ever come across,” says Mole, in his office in the Department of English.
The London-born Mole, the first in his immediate family to go to university, always assumed he’d study Lord Byron (1788-1824) in depth, but it wasn’t until his graduate studies at the University of Bristol that he seriously cracked the book spines of the Romantic-era wit. A more mature look at the poet led Mole to thinking less about Byron’s product and more about the product of Byron.
Byron enjoyed an unprecedented celebrity and fame, previously the domain of those who did great deeds, had high social standing, and were, uh, dead. “Real fame was thought to be posthumous fame,” says Mole, but Byron was enormously popular while he was alive — his poem “The Corsair” sold 10,000 copies in one day.
It’s not that Byron was the David Bowie of his generation, but that a range of emerging social factors and technologies set up the conditions for Byron’s celebrity.
There was increasing literacy among the masses, who were sufficiently leisured and sufficiently moneyed to buy and read poems, and a better infrastructure for getting books and pictures to people.
As well, his image was marketed vigorously, Mole says, thanks to the portraits Byron commissioned. “They circulated widely in engravings, and every time they’re engraved — there’s no copyright — they change a little bit. Then they start to appear in caricatures and other kinds of graphic satire.” It didn’t take long for pictures that portrayed Byron with an open collar and curling forelock to circulate widely.
Unlike a commissioned painting, anyone can buy an engraved image to possess and “consume” in the privacy of their own home. “What’s key to Byron’s celebrity is the intimacy his readers feel,” Mole says. “When you’re reading a Byron poem, looking at a Byron picture, reading a biographical sketch in the paper, when you’re consuming Byron’s celebrity image, it feels like you’re having a kind of relationship with the poet.”
By drawing the connections between the poetry and his life, Mole says, “each reader believes that they alone are the one who understands Byron.”
Also, with the surge in printed material at the end of the 18th century, writers and readers became less known to each other. Culture needed to find a way for texts to bridge that gap. Byron’s poems avoided the impersonality of mass-produced products by constructing an impression of intimacy.
Byron had a knack for always seeming to reveal something about himself in his work, in a veiled dance of reveal and conceal, Mole says. “He always left the reader something to imagine. And he could always write another poem that could reveal a little bit more — it kept readers coming back.”
Byron was merely one part of a celebrity-making machine, says Mole. “It’s about Byron, his publisher, newspaper journalists, artists, engravers, caricaturists, printers, magazine publishers — a whole cultural apparatus.”
Now that Mole is happily settled in to the “vibrant university culture” at McGill, he wants to tackle the history of celebrity, using Byron as the first case study.
“We’re obsessed with celebrity,” he says, citing the global success of TV’s American Idol and its knock-offs, which purport to uncover people’s inner brilliance or manufacture them into stars. The fantasy is that anyone can become a celebrity (ironically, the program’s format is far more successful than anyone who’s come out of it).
“Celebrity culture has an investment in us not thinking about it, remaining mystified. As long as we attribute the public profile of an individual to their talent or innate star quality, celebrity culture continues to work untrammeled.
“Only by thinking of that history, will we be able to engage critically with celebrity culture now.”