Byron’s popularity has not always corresponded to his critical appraisal. He stands apart from his fellow Romantic poets— William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—in his stubborn reverence for the poetic style of Restoration and Augustan writers such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope. Indeed, it was the eighteenth century propensity for wit and satire that was also Byron’s forte. It is ironic, then, that Byron is in many ways considered to represent the epitome of the Romantic figure. Both personally and in many of his dark, tormented Romantic heroes, Byron created a cultural icon that had a significant impact on his society and the literary movement of his time, though it must be noted that, although the Byronic hero is certainly in part autobiographical, it represents only one aspect of a complex personality.
Perhaps the salient characteristic of Byron’s work that assures his label as a consummate Romantic is his creation of the so-called Byronic hero. This character type appears in many variations in Byron’s works but is generally based on such literary characters as Prometheus, John Milton’s Satan, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, and many popular sentimental heroes of the age—and, of course, on Byron himself. Though there are variations on this type—Harold, Cain, Manfred, the Giaour, Lara, Selim, and others—generally, the Byronic hero is a melancholy man of great and noble principles, with great courage of his convictions, and haunted by some secret past sin—usually a sin of illicit love, occasionally suggested to be incestuous. He is alienated, proud, and driven by his own turbulent passion.
Recurrent themes in Byron’s work can be said to be subsumed under the larger category of nature versus civilization. Political oppression, military aggression, sexual repression, even the superficial restraints of a frivolous, silly English society—all go against the Romantic aspiration that Byron sees as inherent in human nature, and such oppression always yields disastrous results.
Byron, who appears to have had an almost innate love of liberty, was exposed in his extensive travels to markedly diverse cultures and experiences, thus giving him a unique perspective (and certainly a broader one than his contemporaries) on human nature and civilization. Witnessing the ravages of war, the demoralization of political oppression, and the violence of prejudice and hypocrisy particularly afforded Byron a rare insight into the weaknesses of his own English society. These political and societal flaws Byron exposed in many of his works, particularly in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Don Juan, and The Vision of Judgment, at the risk of great public disapproval and alienation and at great personal cost. The extent and the exotic nature of Byron’s travels, in addition to his vivid descriptions of his experiences and his retelling of colorful folktales, additionally account for much of the popularity of Byron’s works. His accounts of the virtually unexplored, mysterious land of Albania, for example, captivated the imagination of his insular English readers.
A common theme in Byron’s work is certainly that of love in its many manifestations: illicit love, idyllic love, sexual repression, sexual decadence, thwarted love, marriage. Yet in all of its variations, this theme, too, is one of civilization and the discontentment it creates when it denies natural expressions of love. Probably the most touching of Byron’s love stories is that of Don Juan and Haidee in canto 1 of Don Juan. The affair is innocent, natural, primitive, and therefore by society’s standards immoral and unsanctified. Similarly, Don Juan’s lack of proper sex education, despite his mother’s otherwise vigorous intellectual rigors, in denying what is natural and inevitable, ironically destroys lives.
Byron also repeatedly rails against tyranny and political oppression of any kind. The recent turn of events resulting from the French Revolution and the despotic reign of Napoleon I, all of which in the beginning offered such promise, provided Byron with much fodder for condemning such acts of aggression. Yet in war Byron finds inspiration in those who fight to retain or protect their freedoms. His knowledge of political and military history—European, American, Asian, Mediterranean—was vast, his understanding profound.
Byron was a versatile poet, if not always an accomplished one. In addition to skillfully and poignantly handled romantic lyrics such as “She Walks in Beauty,” “When We Two Parted,” and the more famous epics, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan, Byron also completed lyrical dramas, a number of popular exotic and romantic tales, and satirical works on the literary and political foibles of his time. In terms of both style and structure, his indebtedness to his eighteenth century heroes Dryden and Pope has been given much critical attention. His philosophical and literary faith lay more in reason than in emotion; his preferred delivery was more often one of wit and satire than sentiment and self-indulgence.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
First published: Cantos 1 and 2, 1812; canto 3, 1816; canto 4, 1818; the four cantos published together, 1819
Type of work: Poem
Attempting to escape the pangs of guilt resulting from his mysterious past, self-exiled Childe Harold flees to Europe and witnesses the beauties and horrors of other cultures.
Byron began Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage on his first trip abroad, when he and Hobhouse toured Spain, Portugal, Albania, and Greece. It was originally titled “Childe Burun”; “Childe” refers to a young nobleman who has not yet officially taken his title, and “Burun” is an earlier form of Byron’s own name. Inspired by his recent reading of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), Byron chose to employ the nine-line Spenserian stanza for the major part of this work.
The first two cantos were published in 1812, and Byron’s ensuing popularity among the social and literary circles of London was unprecedented, in part because the public insisted—with some accuracy and despite Byron’s prefatory disclaimer to the contrary—upon identifying the intriguing Harold as Byron himself. Byron’s own confusion of the two, however, is evident in his frequent dropping of the story line of the work to engage in repeated authorial digressions, which themselves intrude on the almost gratuitous plot. Harold is a young, though not inexperienced, Englishman who is compelled to flee Britain, although, the reader is told, it is in fact his own psyche he is trying to escape. The young man has a mysterious background, an unspeakably painful secret in his past. Perhaps, it is suggested, the secret is of some illicit love. With Harold, Byron introduces the first of his many Byronic heroes.
In canto 1, Harold leaves England, having lived a life of sensuous indulgence. He bids farewell to no friends or family, not even to his mother and sister, although he loves them both deeply. Landing in Portugal, Harold proceeds to visit various battlegrounds across Europe, thus giving Byron as narrator the opportunity to digress on historical, political, and even moral issues of the recent Peninsular War in which England served to help the Spanish resist the French invasion, an event that portended the end of Napoleon I’s tyranny. As he looks upon the towns that were devastated by Napoleon’s army, Byron laments the loss of life and champions those who nobly fought for the preservation of liberty. Byron praises the courageous women of the Spanish province of Aragon who joined the men in resisting an invading French army. Though these women were not trained to be warriors, like the mythological Amazons, but were taught to love, they nevertheless proved themselves to be strong and brave; thus, Byron suggests, they emerge far more beautiful than the women of other countries such as England.
In Spain, Harold witnesses a Sunday bullfight in one of the most famous passages from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, in which Byron is clearly at the same time fascinated and repelled by this violent yet graceful sport. Though Harold is moved by the beauty and song of the festivities around him, he cannot participate, for his pain alienates him from the joys of human activity. He remains a spectator. Singing a ballad, “To Inez,” Harold mourns the futility of running away when it is his own “secret woe” that he is attempting to escape. Comparing himself to the “Wandering Jew” of medieval legend who, having mocked Christ, is doomed to roam the earth eternally, seeking the peace of death, Harold bemoans the “hell” that lies hidden in the human heart.
Canto 2 opens with a meditation upon the contributions of classical Greece, a salute prompted by Harold’s visit to the Acropolis. As Harold views the ruins of Greece’s high achievements, Byron interprets them as reflections of the present loss of Greek freedom, thus foreshadowing his later involvement in the cause of Greek independence. Descriptions of the mysterious land of Albania in this...
(The entire section is 3759 words.)