IT IS HARDLY POSSIBLE TO DISCUSS BYRON'S POETRY WITHOUT TELLING the story of his life in some detail. His father was Captain Jack Byron, a nephew of the fifth Baron Byron, and a psychopathic spendthrift and sponger on women who had run through the fortunes of two heiresses. The first, a marchioness, he had acquired by divorce from her husband, and by her he had a daughter, Augusta Byron, later Augusta Leigh, the poet's half-sister. The second was a Scotswoman, Catherine Gordon of Gight, an explosive, unbalanced, ill-educated but affectionate woman whose only child was the poet. Byron was born in London on January 22, 1788, in great poverty and distress as his mother was returning from France to Scotland to get some relief from her rapacious spouse. He was handicapped at birth with a lameness that embittered his life (what was wrong, and which leg was affected, are still uncertain points), and he also had some glandular imbalance that forced him to a starvation diet in order to avoid grotesque corpulence. The mother brought up her boy in Aberdeen, where his religious training was naturally Presbyterian, giving many a later critic a somewhat dubious cliche about the "persisting Calvinism" in Byron's mind. When Byron was three his father died; when he was six his cousin, the heir to the Byron title, was killed; and when he was ten his great-uncle, who held the title, died and the poet became the sixth Lord Byron. The fact that Byron made so professional a job of being a lord is perhaps the result of his entering on that state when he was old enough to notice the difference his title made in the attitude that society took toward him.
He was then educated at Harrow and at Trinity College, Cambridge. The most important of the friendships he formed there was with John Cam Hobhouse, in later life Lord Broughton, who founded a "Whig Club" at Cambridge, and whose influence had much to do with Byron's left-of-center political views. Byron's chief athletic interests were swimming and pistol-shooting, the latter a useful accomplishment in the days when gentlemen were expected to fight the odd duel, and he got around a regulation against keeping a dog at Cambridge by keeping a bear instead. What with his extravagance, his lack of discipline, and the liberties he took with his rank, he was anything but a model student. He announced more than once that he wished he had gone to Oxford instead, and the Cambridge authorities must often have wished so too. However, he acquired the usual gentleman's classical education, and while still an undergraduate he produced a slim volume of melodious if not very arresting lyrics. This volume was, after some vicissitudes, published in 1807 under the title given it by the publisher, Hours of Idleness. Hours of Idleness got roughly handled in the Edinburgh Review, and the result was Byron's first major satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). Although the motivation for this poem was revenge on the Edinburgh reviewer, Byron took the opportunity to satirize most of his poetic contemporaries, including Scott, Southey, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Meanwhile Byron had been planning a variant of the "Grand Tour" that it was fashionable for young well-to-do Englishmen to take. Instead of the usual journey to France and Italy, he decided to go first to Portugal and Spain, bypass Italy by way of Malta, and then travel in what were at that time Turkish dominions: Greece, Asia Minor, and the practically unknown Albania. He set out with Hobhouse on July 2, 1809, on the "Lisbon Packet." The Peninsular War wras in progress, but life was made easy for people in Byron's social position, and one would never dream from his letters that this was the time and place of Goya's Disasters of War. The travelers passed through Malta, where a Mrs. Spencer Smith became the "Florence" of some of Byron's love poems, and on to Albania. Byron and his party were hospitably received by a local ruler, Ali Pasha, who found Byron as attractive as most people did, besides having political reasons for welcoming English visitors. Once, on suspicion that was no more than gossip, he had had fifteen women kidnapped and flung into the sea. Another woman narrowly escaped the same fate on a charge of infidelity: this incident was used by Byron as the basis for his tale The Giaour, and rumor maintained that Byron himself had been her lover. Next came Greece and Asia Minor, where Byron duplicated Leander's famous swim across the Hellespont, pondered over the sites of Marathon and Troy, and deplored the activities of Lord Elgin, who was engaged in hacking off the sculptures now called the Elgin Marbles from the ruined Parthenon and transporting them to England. Byron's satire on Lord Elgin's enterprise, "The Curse of Minerva" (i.e., Athene, the patron of Athens), was not published until 1815. Meanwhile he had begun to write a poem about his travels, Childe Harold, the first two cantos of the poem we now have.
On his return to England in July, 1811, he went back to New-stead, the estate of the Byrons, where he had established himself before he left, a rambling "Gothic" mansion he was later forced to sell. His mother died suddenly soon after his arrival, and the deaths of three close friends occurred about the same time. The relations between Byron and his mother had always been tense, especially after she had begun to see some of his father's extravagance reappearing in him, but they were fond enough of each other when they were not living together. Byron now entered upon a phenomenally successful literary and social career. Childe Harold, as he said, made him famous overnight, and it was followed by a series of Oriental tales, The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, and Lara, which appeared in 1813 and 1814. He wrote with great speed, completing the thousand-odd lines of The Bride of Abydos in four days, and he seldom revised. "I am like the tyger," he said: "If I miss my first Spring, I go growling back to my Jungle. There is no second. I can't correct; I can't, and I won't."
When Byron said in Beppo:
I've half a mind to tumble down to prose,The last statement, incredible as it may seem now, was true when he wrote. Nobody would turn to poetry for stories nowadays, but in Byron's day there was a popular demand for verse tales that Byron did not create, though he did much to expand it. The melancholy misanthropy, so full of romantic frisson, the pirates and the harems, the exotic Orientalism, the easy and pleasant versification, swept London as they were later to sweep the Continent. As a celebrity Byron could hold his own even in the most absorbing period of the Napoleonic War. The Corsair sold 10,000 copies on the day of its publication by John Murray, and ran through seven editions in a month. Byron probably made more money from his poetry than any other English poet, though being a lord who derived his income from rents, he often gave his royalties away to friends. The first money he accepted on his own account was £ 700 for the copyright of Lara.
But verse is more in fashion — so here goes.
Apart from literature Byron had many other activities, both serious and scandalous. Before he had left England he had taken the seat in the House of Lords that his title gave him, and he now became active in Whig circles. His first speech was made In defence of the "framebreakers," or workers who had destroyed some textile machines through fear of unemployment. He also supported a number of other liberal causes, including the relief of Catholics in Ireland. When Napoleon was banished to Elba, Byron wrote an ode on him in which he contrasted him unfavorably with Washington as a fighter for liberty. (There is an impressive musical setting of this ode, for orchestra and Sprechgesang solo, by Arnold Schonberg.) But his hatred of the reactionary English government, especially Lord Castlereagh, was strong enough to give him a considerable admiration for Napoleon, even to the point of regretting the outcome of Waterloo: he had hoped, he said, to see Castlereagh's head on a pole. In fact his attitude to Napoleon always retained a good deal of self-identification.
Meanwhile Byron was carrying on some highly publicized affairs with several women of fashion. Lady Caroline Lamb, always something of an emotional exhibitionist, kept London, which on Byron's social level was still a small town, buzzing with gossip over her pursuit of Byron, her visits to him disguised, her tan¬trums, and her public scenes. Lady Oxford, whose children, in an erudite contemporary joke, were known as the Harleian Miscellany, was another mistress of his, and there were briefer encounters with others. Despite his crowded schedule, Byron began seriously to consider marriage, making a trusted confidante of Lady Melbourne, Caroline Lamb's mother-in-law, to whom he wrote many frank and unaffected letters. Given Byron's temperament, he could only marry some kind of femme fatale; and the only really fatal type of woman for him would be an earnest, humorless, rather inhibited female who would represent everything that was insular and respectable in English society. His choice fell on Annabella Milbanke, heiress to a title in her own right and niece of Lady Melbourne, and who otherwise reminds one a little of Mary Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. She was highly intelligent and had many interests, including mathematics (Byron called her the "Princess of Parallelograms," as in those days any woman with such an interest could expect to be teased about it), but her mind ran to rather vague maxims of general conduct, and to an interest in the moral reformation of other people which boded ill for marriage to an unreformed poet with an unusually concrete view of life.
The marriage lasted a year (January, 1815, to January, 1816) and then fell apart. A separation (they were never divorced) was agreed upon, and Lady Byron obtained custody of their daughter, Augusta Ada. Byron appears to have gone somewhat berserk in his matrimonial bonds, and his wife's doubts about his sanity were probably genuine. The situation was aggravated by financial difficulties and by the fact that gossip had begun to whisper about Byron and his half-sister Augusta. That there were sexual relations between them seems obvious enough, though the matter is hotly disputed, and the relevant documents have been carefully removed from the prying eyes of scholars. The combination of this exceptionally delicious scandal with the matrimonial one, along with his expression of some perverse pro-French political views, made things unpleasant for Byron, and although social disapproval was perhaps not as intense as he pretended or thought, he felt forced to leave England once more. He set out for the Continent on April 25, 1816, never to return to England.
He made his way to Geneva, where he met, by prearrangement, Shelley and his wife Mary Godwin, along with her stepsister, Claire (or Jane) Clairmont. The last named had visited Byron before his departure from England and had thrown herself, as biographers say, at his head, the result of this accurate if morally unguided missile being a daughter, Allegra, whom Byron eventually placed in an Italian convent to be brought up as a Roman Catholic, and who died there at the age of eight The association with Shelley, one of Byron's few intellectual friends, is marked in the new poetry that Byron now began writing — the third canto of Childe Harold; Manfred; the two remarkable poems "Darkness" and "The Dream"; and the most poignant of his tales, "The Prisoner of Chillon." Shelley's reaction to Byron may be found in his poem "Julian and Maddalo," but for all the skepticism he ascribes to Byron, he was unable to convince him that Christianity was less reasonable than his own brand of Platonism.
In the fall of 1817 Byron went over the Alps and settled in Venice. His "Ode to Venice," Beppo, the opening of the fourth canto of Childe Harold, and two of his dramas, Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari, are some of the evidence for the fascination that this dreamlike World's Fair of a city had for him. At Venice he plunged into an extraordinary sexual debauch, but he also wrote some of his best poetry, including the fourth canto of Childe Harold and the beginning of his greatest work, Don Juan. In the spring of 1819 he met Teresa Guiccioli, the wife of an elderly Count, who was both attractive enough to hold Byron and astute enough to keep other women away from him. Byron moved into the Guiccioli household in Ravenna, and settled down with Teresa into what by Byronic standards was practically an old-fashioned marriage. Ravenna saw the composition of Sardanapalus and Cain, as well as The Vision of Judgment, but his poetic energies were increasingly absorbed by Don Juan.
At that time the two great centers of classical civilization, Greece and Italy, were under foreign occupation: Greece was a Turkish dependency, and most of northern Italy was controlled by Austria. Byron and Shelley were passionate supporters of the efforts of Italian and Greek nationalists to get free of their foreign yokes. Teresa's family, the Gambas, were also Italian nationalists in sympathy, and hence were, as was Byron, closely watched and reported on by the Austrian police. The Gambas were forced to move from Ravenna to Pisa, and Byron followed them. At Pisa Byron rejoined the Shelleys, and here Shelley, on July 8, 1822, was drowned at sea and cremated on the shore. The cremation was carried out by Byron and their friend Edward Trelawny, an extraordinarily circumstantial liar who had reconstructed his past life along the general lines of a Byronic hero. Meanwhile Byron had broken with his publisher John Murray, and had formed an alliance through Shelley with Leigh Hunt, whom he brought to Pisa. The plan was to found a literary and left-wing political magazine, and this magazine, called The Liberal, printed a good deal of Byron's poetry, including The Vision of Judgment, in its four numbers. Hunt, however, was somewhat irresponsible (he is the original of Harold Skimpole in Dickens' Bleak House), and his absurd and even more Dickensian wife and their demonic children helped to keep relations strained.
Eventually the Gamba-Byron menage was forced to move on to Genoa, where Byron wrote some unimportant poems and finished what we have of Don Juan — sixteen cantos and a fragment of a seventeenth. Meanwhile a group of revolutionaries in Greece had been planning an insurrection against the Turkish authority, and knowing of Byron's sympathy with their cause, they offered him membership in their Committee. Byron had been meditating the possibility of going to Greece for some time, and on July 23, 1823, he left in the company of Trelawny and Pietro Gamba, Teresa's brother. He established connection at Missolonghi on January 5, 1824, with Prince Alexander Mavrocordato, the leader of the Western Greek revolutionaries, and put his money and his very real qualities of leadership at the service of the Greek cause. His health, which had been precarious for some time, broke down in a series of fevers, and he died at Missolonghi on April 19, 1824, three months after he had passed the thirty-sixth birthday which his valedictory poem records.
The main appeal of Byron's poetry is in the fact that it is Byron's. To read Byron's poetry is to hear all about Byron's marital difficulties, flirtations, love for Augusta, friendships, travels, and political and social views. And Byron is a consistently interesting person to hear about, this being why Byron, even at his worst of self-pity and egotism and blither and doggerel, is still so incredibly readable. He proves what many critics declare to be impossible, that a poem can make its primary impact as a historical and biographical document. The critical problem involved here is crucial to our understanding of not only Byron but literature as a whole. Even when Byron's poetry is not objectively very good, it is still important, because it is Byron's. But who was Byron to be so important? certainly not an exceptionally good or wise man. Byron is, strictly, neither a great poet nor a great man who wrote poetry, but something in between: a tremendous cultural force that was life and literature at once. How he came to be this is what we must try to explain as we review the four chief genres of his work: the lyrics, the tales (including Childe Harold), the dramas, and the later satires.
Byron's lyrical poetry affords a good exercise in critical catholicity, because it contains nothing that "modern" critics look for: no texture, no ambiguities, no intellectualized ironies, no intensity, no vividness of phrasing, the words and images being vague to the point of abstraction. The poetry seems to be a plain man's poetry, making poetic emotion out of the worn and blunted words of ordinary speech. Yet it is not written by a plain man: it is written, as Arnold said, with the careless ease of a man of quality, and its most striking and obvious feature is its gentlemanly amateurism. It is, to be sure, in an amateur tradition, being a romantic, subjective, personal development of the kind of Courtly Love poetry that was written by Tudor and Cavalier noblemen in earlier ages. Byron's frequent statements in prefaces that this would be his last work to trouble the public with, his offhand deprecating comments on his work, his refusal to revise, all give a studious impression of a writer who can take poetry or leave it alone. Byron held the view that lyrical poetry was an expression of passion, and that passion was essentially fitful, and he distrusted professional poets, who pretended to be able to summon passion at will and sustain it indefinitely. Poe was later to hold much the same view of poetry, but more consistently, for he drew the inference that a continuous long poem was impossible, whereas Childe Harold has the stretches of perfunctory, even slapdash writing that one would expect with such a theory.
In Byron's later lyrics, especially the Hebrew Melodies of 1815, where he was able to add some of his Oriental technicolor to the Old Testament, more positive qualities emerge, particularly in the rhythm. "The Destruction of Sennacherib" is a good reciter's piece (though not without its difficulties, as Tom Sawyer discovered), and anticipates some of the later experiments in verbal jazz by Poe and Swinburne. Some of the best of his poems bear the title "Stanzas for Music," and they have the flat conventional diction appropriate to poems that depend partly on another art for their sound:
One shade the more, one ray the less,(If the reader would like a clue to the caressing rhythm of this stanza, he should read the iambic meters so as to give the stresses twice the length of the unstressed syllables. Then the lines will fall into four bars of three-four time, beginning on the third beat, and the rhythm of a nineteenth-century waltz will emerge.) We notice that while Byron's amateur predecessors wrote in a convention and Byron from personal experience, Byron was equally conventional, because his personal experience conformed to a literary pattern. Byron's life imitated literature: this is where his unique combination of the poetic and the personal begins.
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
Byron was naturally an extroverted person, fond of company, of travel, of exploring new scenes, making new friends, falling in love with new women. Like Keats, in a much more direct way, he wanted a life of sensations rather than of thoughts. As he said: "I can not repent me (I try very often) so much of anything I have done, as of anything I have left undone. Alas! I have been but idle, and have the prospect of an early decay, without having seized every available instant of our pleasurable years." In the records of his journeys in his letters and Hobhouse's diaries, it is the more introverted Hobhouse who dwells on the dirt and the fleas, and it is Hobhouse too who does the serious studying and takes an interest in archaeology. It is Byron who swims across the Hellespont, learns the songs of Albanian mountaineers, makes friends with a Moslem vizier, amuses himself with the boys in a monastery school, flirts with Greek girls, and picks up a smattering of Armenian. He was continually speculating about unknown sensations, such as how it would feel to have committed a murder, and he had the nervous dread of growing older that goes with the fear of slowing down in the rhythm of experience. His writing depends heavily on experience; he seldom describes any country that he has not seen, and for all his solitary role he shows, especially in Don Juan, a novelist's sense of established society.
It was an essential part of his strongly extroverted and empirical bent that he should not be a systematic thinker, nor much interested in people who were. He used his intelligence to make common-sense judgements on specific situations, and found himself unable to believe anything that he did not find confirmed in his own experience. In his numerous amours, for example, the absence of any sense of sin was as unanswerable a fact of his experience as the presence of it would have been to St. Augustine. He thought of sexual love as a product of reflex and mechanical habit, not of inner emotional drives. When he said: "I do not believe in the existence of what is called love," we are probably to take him quite literally. Nevertheless, his extroversion made him easily confused by efforts at self-analysis, and he flew into rages when he was accused of any lack of feeling. One reason why his marriage demoralized him so was that it forced such efforts on him. Now if we look into Byron's tales and Childe Harold we usually find as the central character an inscrutable figure with hollow cheeks and blazing eyes, wrapped in a cloud of gloom, full of mysterious and undefined remorse, an outcast from society, a wanderer of the race of Cain. At times he suggests something demonic rather than human, a Miltonic Satan or fallen angel. He may be a sinister brigand like the Corsair, or an aloof and icily polite aristocrat like the Lucifer of The Vision of Judgment, but he is always haughty and somber of demeanor; his glance is difficult to meet; he will not brook questioning, though he himself questions all established social standards, and he is associated with lonely and colorful predatory animals, as ordinary society is with gregarious ones like sheep and domestic fowl. "The lion is alone, and so am I," says Manfred. The name of the Corsair is "linked with one virtue, and a thousand crimes": the virtue is manifested when he refuses, as a prisoner, to assassinate his captor to escape being impaled. Fortunately his mistress Gulnare was less scrupulous. As for Lara, who is the Corsair returned from exile to his estates:
He stood a stranger in this breathing world,This type of character is now known as the "Byronic hero," and wherever he has appeared since in literature there has been the influence, direct or indirect, of Byron. And if we ask how a witty, sociable, extroverted poet came to create such a character, we can see that it must have arisen as what psychologists call a projection of his inner self, that inner self that was so mysterious and inscrutable even to its owner.
An erring spirit from another hurled.
It happened that this type of character had already been popularized in the "Gothic" thrillers or "horrid stories" of Mrs. Radcliffe, M. G. Lewis (a friend of Byron's, known as "Monk" Lewis from his violent and sadistic tale The Monk), John Moore, whose Zeluco, a much more serious work, Byron greatly admired, and lesser writers. The period of their greatest popularity was the last decade of the eighteenth century, but they survived through Byron's lifetime. Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey was written as a parody of them in 1798, but it still had a point when it was published in 1818. These thrillers were intended for an English Protestant middle-class reading public: consequently their horrid surroundings were normally Continental, Catholic and upper class, though Oriental settings also had a vogue. Into such settings stalked a character type, sometimes a villain, sometimes presented in a more sympathetic, or more-sinned-against-than-sinning, role, but in either case misanthropic, misunderstood, and solitary, with strong diabolical overtones. The devil is a powerfully erotic figure, his horns and hoofs descending from the ancient satyrs, and the various forms of sadism and masochism glanced at in these thrillers helped to make them extremely popular, not least with the female part of the reading public.
Childe Harold and the other lowering heroes of Byron's tales not only popularized a conventional type of hero, but popularized Byron himself in that role. For Byron was a dark and melancholy-looking lord with a reputation for wickedness and free thought; he seemed to prefer the Continent to England, and took a detached view of middle-class and even Christian morality. He owned a gloomy Gothic castle and spent evenings with revelers in it; he was pale and thin with his ferocious dieting; he even had a lame foot. No wonder he said that strangers whom he met at dinner "looked as if his Satanic Majesty had been among them." The prince of darkness is a gentleman, and so was Byron. Again, when a "nameless vice" was introduced into a Gothic thriller, as part of the villain's or hero's background, it generally turned out, when named, to be incest. This theme recurs all through Romantic literature, being almost obsessive in Shelley as well as Byron, and here again a literary convention turns up in Byron's life. Even a smaller detail, like the disguising of the ex-Corsair's mistress in Lara as the pageboy Kaled, recurs in Byron's liaison with Caroline Lamb, who looked well in a page's costume.
Byron did not find the Byronic hero as enthralling as his public did, and he made several efforts to detach his own character from Childe Harold and his other heroes, with limited success. He says of Childe Harold that he wanted to make him an objective study of gloomy misanthropy, hence he deliberately cut humor out of the poem in order to preserve a unity of tone. But Byron's most distinctive talents did not have full scope in this part of his work. Most of the Gothic thriller writers were simple-minded popular novelists, but the same convention had also been practised on a much higher level of literary intelligence. Apart from Goethe's early Sorrows of Werther, an extraordinarily popular tale of a solemn suicide, Addison in The Vision of Mirza and Johnson in Rasselas had used the Oriental tale for serious literary purposes. Also, Horace Walpole in The Castle of Otranto (1764) and William Beckford in Vathek (1786) had written respectively a Gothic and an Oriental romance in which melodrama and fantasy were shot through with flickering lights of irony. They were addressed to a reading public capable, to use modern phraseology, of taking their corn with a pinch of salt. It was this higher level of sophistication that Byron naturally wanted to reach, and he was oppressed by the humorless solemnity of his own creations. His sardonic and ribald wit, his sense of the concrete, his almost infallible feeling for the common-sense perspective on every situation, crackles all through his letters and journals, even through his footnotes. But it seems to be locked out of his serious poetry, and only in the very last canto of Don Juan did he succeed in uniting fantasy and humor.
Byron's tales are, on the whole, well-told and well-shaped stories. Perhaps he learned something from his own ridicule of Southey, who was also a popular writer of verse tales, sometimes of mammoth proportions. In any case he is well able to exploit the capacity of verse for dramatizing one or two central situations, leaving all the cumbersome apparatus of plot to be ignored or taken for granted. But he seemed unable to bring his various projections of his inner ghost to life: his heroes, like the characters of a detective story, are thin, bloodless, abstract, and popular. Nor could he seem to vary the tone, from romance to irony, from fantasy to humor, as Beckford does in Vathek. Byron was strongly attracted by Beckford, and is thinking of him at the very opening of Childe Harold, as Beckford had lived for two years in Portugal. When Byron writes:
Deep in yon cave Honorius long did dwell,he obviously has in mind the demure remark in the opening of Vathek: "He did not think . . . that it was necessary to make a hell of this world to enjoy paradise in the next." But though Byron is the wittiest of writers, the Byronic hero cannot manage much more than a gloomy smile. Here, for instance, is Childe Harold on the "Lisbon Packet":
In hope to merit Heaven by making earth a Hell.
The sails were filled, and fair the light winds blew,and here is Byron himself in the same situation:
As glad to waft him from his native home ...
And then, it may be, of his wish to roam
Repented he, but in his bosom slept
The silent thought, nor from his lips did come
One word of wail, whilst others sate and wept,
And to the reckless gales unmanly moaning kept.
Hobhouse muttering fearful curses,The same inability to combine seriousness and humor is also to be found in the plays, where one would expect more variety of tone. The central character is usually the Byronic hero again, and again he seems to cast a spell over the whole action. Byron recognized this deficiency in his dramas, and to say that his plays were not intended for the stage would be an understatement. Byron had a positive phobia of stage production, and once tried to get an injunction issued to prevent a performance of Marino Faltero. "I never risk rivalry in anything," he wrote to Lady Melbourne, and being directly dependent on the applause or booing of a crowd (modern theaters give us no notion of what either form of demonstration was like in Byron's day) was something he could not face, even in absence. Besides, he had no professional sense, and nothing of the capacity to write for an occasion that the practising dramatist needs. Hence, with the exception of Werner, a lively and well-written melodrama based on a plot by somebody else, Byron's plays are so strictly closet dramas that they differ little in structure from the tales.
As the hatchway down he rolls,
Now his breakfast, now his verses,
Vomits forth — and damns our souls . . .
"Zounds! my liver's coming up:
I shall not survive the racket
Of this brutal Lisbon Packet."
The establishing of the Byronic hero was a major feat of characterization, but Byron had little power of characterization apart from this figure. Like many brilliant talkers, he had not much ear for the rhythms and nuances of other people's speech. Here again we find a close affinity between Byron's personality and the conventions of his art. For instance, in his life Byron seemed to have curiously little sense of women as human beings. Except for Lady Melbourne, he addressed himself to the female in them, took a hearty-male view of their intellectual interests, and concentrated on the ritual of love-making with the devotion of what an earlier age would have called a clerk of Venus. This impersonal and ritualistic approach to women is reflected in his tales and plays, where again it fits the conventions of Byronic romance. It is difficult for a heroine of strong character to make much headway against a gloomy misanthropic hero, and Byron's heroines, like the heroines of Gothic romance in general, are insipid prodigies of neurotic devotion.
But if Byron's plays are not practicable stage plays, they are remarkable works. Manfred, based on what Byron had heard about Goethe's Faust, depicts the Byronic hero as a student of magic whose knowledge has carried him beyond the limits of human society and given him superhuman powers, but who is still held to human desire by his love for his sister (apparently) Astarte. At the moment of his death the demons he has controlled, with a sense of what is customary in stories about magicians, come to demand his soul, but Manfred, in a crisp incisive speech which retains its power to surprise through any number of rereadings, announces that he has made no bargain with them, that whatever he has done, they can go to hell, and he will not go with them. The key to this final scene is the presence of the Abbot. Manfred and the Abbot differ on all points of theory, but the Abbot is no coward and Manfred is no villain: they face the crisis together, linked in a common bond of humanity which enables Manfred to die and to triumph at the same time.
Two of Byron's plays, Cain and Heaven and Earth, are described by Byron as "mysteries," by which he meant Biblical plays like those of the Middle Ages. Wherever we turn in Byron's poetry, we meet the figure of Cain, the first man who never knew Paradise, and whose sexual love was necessarily incestuous. In Byron's "mystery" Cain is Adam's eldest son and heir, but what he really inherits is the memory of a greater dispossession. "Dost thou not live?" asks Adam helplessly. "Must I not die?" retorts Cain. Adam cannot comprehend the mentality of one who has been born with the consciousness of death. But Lucifer can, for he too has been disinherited. He comes to Cain and gives him what he gave Adam: fruit of the tree of knowledge, of a kind that Raphael, in the eighth book of Paradise Lost, warned Adam against: a knowledge of other worlds and other beings, a realization that the fortunes of humanity are of less account in the scheme of things than he had assumed. From such knowledge develops the resentment that leads to the murder of Abel and to Cain's exile. And just as Milton tries to show us that we in Adam's place would have committed Adam's sin, so Byron makes us feel that we all have something of Cain in us: everybody has killed something that he wishes he had kept alive, and the fullest of lives is wrapped around the taint of an inner death. As the princess says in The Castle of Otranto: "This can be no evil spirit: it is undoubtedly one of the family."
The other "mystery," Heaven and Earth, deals with the theme of the love of angels for human women recorded in some mysterious verses of Genesis, and ends with the coming of Noah's flood. Angels who fall through sexual love are obvious enough subjects for Byron, but Heaven and Earth lacks the clear dramatic outline of Cain. All Byron's plays are tragedies, and as Byron moved further away from the easy sentiment of his earlier tales he moved toward intellectual paradox rather than tragedy. It is particularly in the final scenes that we observe Byron becoming too self conscious for the full emotional resonance of tragedy. In Sardanapalus, for example, we see the downfall of a king who pursued pleasure because he was too intelligent to want to keep his people plunged into warfare. His intelligence is identified by his people with weakness, and his pursuit of pleasure is inseparably attached to selfishness. What we are left with, despite his final death on a funeral pyre, is less tragedy than an irony of a kind that is very close to satire. Byron's creative powers were clearly running in the direction of satire, and it was to satire that he turned in his last and greatest period.
In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers Byron spoke of Wordsworth as "that mild apostate from poetic rule." This poem is early, but Byron never altered his opinion of the Lake Poets as debasers of the currency of English poetry. His own poetic idol was Pope, whom he called "the moral poet of all civilization," and he thought of himself as continuing Pope's standards of clarity, craftsmanship and contact with real life against the introverted metaphysical mumblings of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Byron's early models were standard, even old-fashioned, later eighteenth-century models. English Bards is in the idiom of eighteenth-century satire, less of Pope than of Pope's successors, Churchill, Wolcot, and Gifford, and the first part of Childe Harold, with its pointless Spenserian stanza and its semi-facetious antique diction — fortunately soon dropped by Byron — is also an eighteenth-century stock pattern. Byron was friendly with Shelley, but owes little to him technically, and in his letters he expressed a vociferous dislike for the poetry of Keats (considerably toned down in the eleventh canto of Don Juan). His literary friends, Sheridan, Rogers, Gilford, were of the older generation, and even Tom Moore, his biographer and by far his closest friend among his poetic contemporaries, preserved, like so many Irish writers, something of the eighteenth-century manner.
It was also an eighteenth-century model that gave him the lead for the phase of poetry that began with Beppo in September, 1817, and exploited the possibilities of the eight-line (ottava rima) stanza used there and in Don Juan and The Vision of Judgment. Byron seems to have derived this stanza from a heroi-comical poem, Whistlecraft, by John Hookham Frere, whom Byron had met in Spain, and which in its turn had owed something to the Italian romantic epics of the early Renaissance. Byron went on to study the Italian poems, and translated the first canto of one of the best of them, Pulci's tale of a good-natured giant, Morgante Maggiore. But there was one feature in Frere that he could not have found in the Italians, and that was the burlesque rhyme. In Italian the double rhyme is normal, but it is a peculiarity of English that even double rhymes have to be used with great caution in serious poetry, and that all obtrusive or ingenious rhymes belong to comic verse. This is a major principle of the wit of Hudibras before Byron's time, as of W. S. Gilbert and Ogden Nash since, and without it the wit of Don Juan is hardly conceivable:
But — Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,Armed with this new technique, Byron was ready to tackle a narrative satire, and in narrative satire he found not only a means of exploiting all his best qualities, but of turning his very faults as a poet into virtues. He could digress to his heart's content, for digression is part of the fun in satire — one thinks of Tristram Shandy and the "Digression in Praise of Digressions" in A Tale of a Tub. He could write doggerel, but doggerel in satire is a sign of wit rather than incompetence. He could be serious if he liked, for sudden changes of mood belong to the form, and he could swing back to burlesque again as soon as he was bored with seriousness, or thought the reader might be. It is particularly the final couplet that he uses to undercut his own romantic Byronism, as in the description of Daniel Boone in Canto VIII:
Inform us truly, have they not hen-pecked you all?
Crime came not near him — she is not the childIn the new flush of discovery, Byron wrote exultantly to his friend Douglas Kinnaird: "[Don Juan] is the sublime of that there sort of writing — it may be bawdy, but is it not good English? It may be profligate but is it not life, is it not the thing? Could any man have written it who has not lived in the world?" But even Byron was soon made aware that he was not as popular as he had been. The women who loved The Corsair hated Don Juan, for the reason that Byron gives with his usual conciseness on such subjects: "the wish of all women to exalt the sentiment of the passions, and to keep up the illusion which is their empire." Teresa, as soon as she understood anything of the poem, boycotted it, and forced Byron to promise not to go on with it, a promise he was able to evade only with great difficulty. His friend Harriet Wilson, significantly enough a courtesan who lived partly by blackmail, wrote him: "Dear Adorable Lord Byron, don't make a mere coarse old libertine of yourself."
Of solitude; Health shrank not from him — for
Her home is in the rarely trodden wild,
Where if men seek her not, and death be more
Their choice than life, forgive them, as beguiled
By habit to what their own hearts abhor-
In cities caged. The present case in point I
Cite is, that Boon lived hunting up to ninety.
Don Juan is traditionally the incautious amorist, the counterpart in love to Faust in knowledge, whose pursuit of women is so ruthless that he is eventually damned, as in the last scene of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. Consequently he is a logical choice as a mask for Byron, but he is a mask that reveals the whole Byronic personality, instead of concealing the essence of it as Childe Harold does. The extroversion of Byron's temperament has full scope in Don Juan. There is hardly any characterization in the poem: even Don Juan never emerges clearly as a character. We see only what happens to him, and the other characters, even Haidee, float past as phantasmagoria of romance and adventure. What one misses in the poem is the sense of engagement or participation. Everything happens to Don Juan, but he is never an active agent, and seems to take no responsibility for his life. He drifts from one thing to the next, appears to find one kind of experience as good as another, makes no judgements and no commitments. As a result the gloom and misanthropy, the secret past sins, the gnawing remorse of the earlier heroes is finally identified as a shoddier but more terrifying evil — boredom, the sense of the inner emptiness of life that is one of Byron's most powerfully compelling moods, and has haunted literature ever since, from the ennui of Baudelaire to the Angst and nausee of our own day.
The episodes of the poem are all stock Byronic scenes: Spain, the pirates of the Levant, the odalisques of Turkish harems, battlefields, and finally English high society. But there is as little plot as characterization: the poem exists for the sake of its author's comment. As Byron says:
This narrative is not meant for narration,Its wit is constantly if not continuously brilliant, and Byron's contempt of cant and prudery, his very real hatred of cruelty, his detached view of all social icons, whether conservative or popular, are well worth having. Not many poets give us as much common sense as Byron does. On the other hand the opposition to the poem made him increasingly self-conscious as he went on, and his technique of calculated bathos and his deliberate refusal to "grow metaphysical" — that is, pursue any idea beyond the stage of initial reaction — keep the poem too resolutely on one level. The larger imaginative vistas that we are promised ("a panoramic view of hell's in training") do not materialize, and by the end of the sixteenth canto we have a sense of a rich but not inexhaustible vein rapidly.thinning out. As Don Juan is not Don Juan's poem but Byron's poem, it could hardly have been ended, but only abandoned or cut short by its author's death. The Mozartian ending of the story Byron had already handled, in his own way, in Manfred.
But a mere airy and fantastic basis,
To build up common things with common places.
The Vision of Judgment is Byron's most original poem, and therefore his most conventional one; it is his wittiest poem, and therefore his most serious one. Southey, Byron's favorite target among the Lake poets, had become poet laureate, and his political views, like those of Coleridge and Wordsworth, had shifted from an early liberalism to a remarkably complacent Toryism. On the death of George III in 1820 he was ill-advised enough to compose, in his laureate capacity, a "Vision of Judgment" describing the apotheosis and entry into heaven of the stammering, stupid, obstinate, and finally lunatic and blind monarch whose sixty-year reign had lost America, alienated Ireland, plunged the country into the longest and bloodiest war in its history, and ended in a desolate scene of domestic misery and repression. George III was not personally responsible for all the evils of his reign, but in those days royalty was not the projection of middle-class virtue that it is now, and was consequently less popular and more open to attack. The apotheosis of a dead monarch, as a literary form, is of classical origin, and so is its parody, Byron's poem being in the tradition of Seneca's brilliant mockery of the entry into heaven of the Emperor Claudius.
Byron's religious views were certainly unusual in his day, but if we had to express them in a formula, it would be something like this: the best that we can imagine man doing is where our conception of God ought to start. Religions that foment cruelty and induce smugness, or ascribe cruelty and smugness to God, are superstitions. In Heaven and Earth for example, the offstage deity who decrees the deluge at the end is clearly the moral inferior of every human creature he drowns. In The Vision of Judgment the sycophantic Southey is contrasted with John Wilkes, who fought King George hard all his life, but who, when encouraged to go on persecuting him after death, merely says:
I don't like ripping up old stories, sinceThis is a decent human attitude, consequently it must be the least we can expect from heaven, and so the poet takes leave of the poor old king "practising the hundredth Psalm."
His conduct was but natural in a prince.
Byron has probably had more influence outside England than any other English poet except Shakespeare. In English literature, though he is always classified with the Romantic poets, he is Romantic only because the Byronic hero is a Romantic figure: as we have seen, he has little technically in common with other English Romantics. But on the Continent Byron has been the arch-romantic of modern literature, and European nineteenth-century culture is as unthinkable without Byron as its history would be without Napoleon. From the painting of Delacroix to the music of Berlioz, from the poetry of Pushkin to the philosophy of Nietzsche, the spell of Byron is everywhere. Modern fiction would be miserably impoverished without the Byronic hero: Balzac, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, have all used him in crucial roles. In the more advanced political atmosphere of England, Byron was only a Whig intellectual, whereas in Greece and Italy he was a revolutionary fighter for freedom, a poetic Mazzini or Bolivar, though, like them, not a class leveler. As he said:
I wish men to be freeAmong English readers the reputation of the Romantic and sentimental Byron has not kept pace with his reputation as a satirist, but it would be wrong to accept the assertion, so often made today, that Byron is of little importance apart from his satires and letters. An immense amount of imitation and use of Byron, conscious or unconscious, direct or indirect, has taken place in English literature, too, and nearly all of it is of the Romantic Byron. Melville (whose Ishmael is in the line of Cain), Conrad, Hemingway, A. E. Housman, Thomas Wolfe, D. H. Lawrence, W. H. Auden — these writers have little in common except that they all Byronize.
As much from mobs as kings — from you as me.
The most important reason for Byron's great influence is that he was a portent of a new kind of sensibility. For many centuries poets had assumed a hierarchy of nature with a moral principle built into it. For Dante, for Shakespeare, for Milton, there was a top level of divine providence; a level of distinctively human nature which included education, reason and law; a level of physical nature, which was morally neutral and which man could not, like the animals, adjust to; and a bottom level of sin and corruption. This hierarchy corresponded to the teachings of religion and science alike. But from Rousseau's time on a profound change in the cultural framework of the arts takes place. Man is now thought of as a product of the energy of physical nature, and as this nature is subhuman in morality and intelligence and capacity for pleasure, the origin of art is morally ambivalent, and may even be demonic. The Byronic hero, for whom, as for Manfred, pride, lack of sympathy with humanity and a destructive influence even in love are inseparable from genius, dramatizes this new conception of art and life alike more vividly than anything else in the culture of the time. Hence it is no exaggeration to say that Byron released a mainspring of creative energy in modern culture.
Byron's immediate influence in his own country, on the other hand, though certainly very great, was qualified in many ways, by queasiness about his morality, by a refusal to separate him from his posing heroes, by a feeling that he lacked the sterner virtues and wrote with too much pleasure and too few pains. The first canto of Don Juan centers on the nervous prudery of Donna Inez, who is, not surprisingly, modeled on Byron's wife. But Donna Inez was Britannia as well. The sands of the Regency aristocracy were running out, the tide of middle-class morality had already set in, and the age that we think of as Victorian, with its circulating libraries, its custom of reading aloud to large family circles, and its tendency not to be amused, at any rate by anything approaching the ribald, was on the way. As Byron admitted ruefully of the opening cantos:
. . . the publisher declares, in sooth,A more important barrier was raised by the lack of any sense of moral involvement in Don Juan, already mentioned. With the British Empire developing, and a greater number of poets and intellectuals issuing stentorian calls to duty, such detachment seemed inadequate, except for the fact that Byron himself took matters out of Don Juan's hands and died for a cause in Greece. In Sartor Resartus Carlyle summed up the later view of Byron as a poet who had gone through a gloomy stage of denial and defiance, an "Everlasting No," had then moved into a "Centre of Indifference," but had never gone on to the final "Everlasting Yea." For this final stage, Carlyle recommended: "Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe."
Through needles' eyes it easier for the camel is
To pass, than those two cantos into families.
However, Carlyle himself hardly succeeded in closing his Byron, as when he went on to work out his conception of the Great Man what he actually produced was a vulgarization of the Byronic hero. The author of The Corsair would have raised a quizzical eyebrow at Carlyle's hero journeying forward "escorted by the Terrors and the Splendours, the Archdemons and Archangels." This tendency to underestimate Byron without surpassing him has recurred more than once. Bernard Shaw, in the preface to his Don Juan play, Man and Superman, dismissed Byron's Don Juan as a mere "libertine vagabond." Yet Byron had certainly anticipated Shaw's central idea, that woman takes the lead in sexual relations and that Don Juan is consequently as much a victim as a pursuer. No, Byron will not stay closed. It is a better idea to open Goethe, and when we do we find a more liberal view of Byron. Goethe in fact was fascinated by Byron, who dedicated Sardanapalus to him, and he referred to him in the second part of Faust as Euphorion, a kind of Eros-figure whose passion for liberty, if self-destructive, is also an acceptance of life simply because it is there, and has nothing of the compulsion to justify existence that is often close to a distrust of its worth.
We have not yet shaken off our nineteenth-century inhibitions about Byron. A frequent twentieth-century jargon term for him is "immature," which endorses the Carlyle view that Byron is a poet to be outgrown. One thinks of Yeats's penetrating remark that we are never satisfied with the maturity of those whom we have admired in boyhood. Even those who have not admired Byron in boyhood have gone through a good deal of Byronism at that stage. There is certainly something youthful about the Byronic hero, and for some reason we feel more defensive about youth than about childhood, and more shamefaced about liking a poet who has captured a youthful imagination. If we replace "youthful" with the loaded term "adolescent" we can see how deeply ingrained this feeling is.
Among intellectuals the Southey type, who makes a few liberal gestures in youth to quiet his conscience and then plunges into a rapturous authoritarianism for the rest of his life, is much more common than the Byron type, who continues to be baffled by unanswered questions and simple anomalies, to make irresponsible jokes, to set his face against society, to respect the authority of his own mood — in short, to retain the rebellious or irreverent qualities of youth. Perhaps it is as dangerous to eliminate the adolescent in us as it is to eliminate the child. In any case the kind of poetic experience that Byronism represents should be obtained young, and in Byron. It may later be absorbed into more complex experiences, but to miss or renounce it is to impoverish whatever else we may attain.