Lord Byron: Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The history of the poetic development of Lord Byron intersects at every stage with the saga of his life; yet it is only one of many paradoxes that he valued the writing of poetry primarily for the opportunity it afforded him to escape what he termed “my own wretched identity.” More than anything else, poetry for Byron was a means both of sublimation and, ultimately, of self-realization. In his letters he thus suggests the former function when he speaks of poetry as “the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake,” the volcanic metaphor signifying the cathartic release that the process of writing afforded him. The precise way in which it fulfilled the second function, however, is less obvious. Through the dynamics of self-projection, of investing much of his own multifaceted character in his personae, Byron strives to transcend the narrow limits of “personality” and achieve a more comprehensive perspective on himself and his experience. The essential goal of this artistic quest, which constitutes a progressive ontology, is delineated in canto 3 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “’Tis to create, and in creating live/ A being more intense.” To trace Byron’s growth as a poet, therefore, is to witness him reaching beyond subjectivism and attempting to realize that intensity of being that comes about through the continuous act of self-creation.

Hours of Idleness

Any account of Byron’s achievement must begin with the poems collected in Hours of Idleness and the early satires. In the preface to the 1807 miscellany, the nineteen-year-old Byron calls attention to himself by posing as an unlikely author (one “accustomed, in my younger days, to rove a careless mountaineer on the Highlands of Scotland”), by minimizing the merits of his literary endeavor (“to divert the dull moments of indisposition, or the monotony of a vacant hour, urged me ’to his sin’”), and by passing preemptive judgment on his work (“little can be expected from so unpromising a muse”). Such ingenuous posturing is clearly meant to invite, under the guise of dismissing, public recognition and acclaim. Despite the transparency of the subterfuge, the poems within Hours of Idleness form a revealing self-portrait in which Byron, while paraphrasing past idioms in poetry and exploiting eighteenth century literary conventions, obliquely seeks to discover a mythologized pattern for his emerging sense of himself. The one theme sounded repeatedly is what Robert F. Gleckner designates “the ruins of paradise,” or the fall from youthful innocence. As he explores the experience of spiritual loss and shattered illusions, Byron can be seen moving toward this latter belief that “the great object of life is Sensation—to feel that we exist—even though in pain.”

Admittedly imitative in style, often to the point of mannerism, Hours of Idleness revolves around several episodes of separation and disenchantment that, for the speaker, spell the end of an idealized, prelapsarian past. The short poem “Remembrance,” composed in 1806 but not published until 1832, epitomizes both the tone and outlook of the volume as a whole:

My days of happiness are few:Chill’d by misfortune’s wintry blast,My dawn of life is overcast,Love, Hope, and Joy, alike adieu!—Would I could add Remembrance too!

Although the lines verge on doggerel, the same mood of melancholic nostalgia informs such other generally more successful poems as “On Leaving Newstead Abbey,” “The First Kiss of Love,” “On a Distant View of the Village and School of Harrow on the Hill,” and “Lachin y Gair.” In all these works Byron cannot disown the power of memory because, though denounced as a curse, it alone provides glimpses of what in “Childish Recollections” he refers to as “the progress of my youthful dream,” the foundation for his concept of self. This tension gives rise in other lyrics to a plangent wish to escape the “dark’ning shades” of maturity, regaining the uncompromised or “freeborn soul.” Knowing the fatuity of the desire, however, the poet resorts at last to a kind of protective cynicism. In “To Romance,” for example, abandoning what he derides as the “motley court” of “Affectation” and “sickly Sensibility,” he admits that “’tis hard to quit the dreams,/ Which haunt the unsuspicious soul” but abjures the past as illusory and refuses any longer to be the dupe of his romantic fancy. Embittered by his early discovery, as Byron was later to write in canto 3 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, that “life’s enchanted cup but sparkles near the brim,” the poet in Hours of Idleness fluctuates between moments of elegiac regret and tenacious hope, the ambivalent response itself prefiguring the skeptical idealist of the major poems to follow.

Poetic acrimony

The Popean satires, which were composed shortly after the 1807 collection, disclose Byron’s reaction to his disillusionment and punctured faith. In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, Hints from Horace, and The Curse of Minerva—all written during the next four years—Byron lashes out at various individuals whom he regarded as typifying the literary and moral shortcomings of his age. The motto of “these degenerate days,” he announces in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, is “Care not for feeling,” and so in arraigning nearly all his contemporaries except Samuel Rogers and Thomas Campbell he poses as the hardened realist determined to expose error on every hand: “But now, so callous grown, so changed since youth,/ I’ve learned to think, and sternly speak the truth.” In the diatribe Byron often vents his anger indiscriminately, but the acrimony of his attack stems from a keen sense of embarrassment and outrage at the reception accorded Hours of Idleness by such critics as Henry Brougham in the Edinburgh Review. Thus, before indicating all those “afflicted,” as his preface charges, “with the present prevalent and distressing rabies for rhyming,” Byron debunks himself as well:

I, too, can scrawl, and once upon a timeI poured along the town a flood of rhyme,A school-boy freak, unworthy praise or blame;I printed—older children do the same.’Tis pleasant, sure, to see one’s name in print;A Book’s a Book, altho’ there’s nothing in’t.

The same irreverent or iconoclastic spirit pervades Hints from Horace, a mocking jab at contemporary literary practice from the vantage point of Horace’s Ars Poetica(13-8 b.c.e., The Art of Poetry), and The Curse of Minerva, a Swiftian condemnation of Lord Elgin for his despoiling Greek sculpture. In these strident satires Byron alters his earlier poetic stance through two mechanisms: by adopting the voice of savage indignation and by spurning the accepted standards of his age. The detachment that he tries to win through both devices is another step toward his large aesthetic goal of self-realization.

Intertwined modalities

A crucial phase in that ongoing process involves the composition, spanning the period from 1809 to 1817, of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and, to a lesser extent, of the exotic Oriental tales that include The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, and Lara. These verse narratives are significant because in them two sides of Byron’s complexity as an artist are counterbalanced—the usually antithetical modes that Keats, in his letters, conceptualizes as the “egotistical sublime” and “the camelion [sic] Poet.” Though Keats associated the first quality with William Wordsworth, the element of the “egotistical sublime” in Byron reveals itself in the highly developed reflexivity of his semiautobiographical poems and in his tendency to concentrate on his own immediate thoughts and emotions. At the same time, however, there emerges an equal but opposite impulse that reflects Byron’s essentially centrifugal rather than centripetal habit of mind. This is his characteristic propensity for employing a gamut of masks or personae through which he endeavors to escape the restrictive confines of self-consciousness, especially as molded by memory, and to achieve the intensity of being that comes with self-transcendence. Together, these intertwined modalities, the “egotistical” and the “chameleonic,” make up the unique “strength” of Byron’s imagination.

Readers of the time were nevertheless inclined to recognize only the former tendency in his works and so to find him guilty of facile exhibitionism. Certainly when Byronism was rampant, no one impersonated Byron better than Byron himself; yet, if one allows for this susceptibility, the earnestness with which the poet responded to his detractors is instructive. Echoing the well-known protest lodged in his 1820 “Reply to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine,” he expostulated a year later to Thomas Moore that “a man’s poetry is a distinct faculty, or soul, and has no more to do with the every-day individual than the Inspiration with the Pythoness when removed from her tripod.” Similarly, in the privacy of his journal for 1813, while writing the very poems that incurred the charge, he remarks: “To withdraw myself from myself (oh that cursed selfishness!) has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all; and publishing is also the continuance of the same object, by the action it affords to the mind, which else recoils upon itself.” The vehemence of these statements should not be allowed to obscure Byron’s clear point regarding the psychology of composition. The vicarious world of poetry, as he views it, makes possible a release from the concentricity of the mind that otherwise, to borrow two of his favorite images in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, would sting itself to death like the scorpion ringed by fire or consume its scabbard like a rusting sword.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Byron first expands upon this aesthetic in cantos 3-4 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, but some attention to the earlier cantos is prerequisite to understanding the later two. When he began the travelogue in 1809 while touring Europe and the Levant, Byron conceived of a work in Spenserian stanza form which would depict, in the eighteenth century tradition of topographical or “locodescriptive” poetry, his vivid impressions of the scenes and peoples he visited, intermixed with meditative reflections. “For the sake of giving some connection to the piece,” which otherwise, according to the preface, “makes no pretension to regularity,” Byron introduces the “fictitious character” of Harold, who serves as the nominal hero-protagonist, although this syntactical function is about all that can be claimed for him. Out of “the fulness [sic] of satiety,” it is true, Harold “resolve[s]” to leave England behind, having run through “Sin’s long labyrinth”; yet in his wandering pilgrimage through Spain, Portugal, Albania, and Greece he remains a curiously static, one-dimensional figure and is little more than a partial projection of Byron’s darker moods (for example, misanthropy, remorse, cynicism, and forced stoicism). As such, he adumbrates the explicit theme of cantos 1-2: that is, “Consciousness awaking to her woes.” Neither Harold nor Byron, however, has yet learned “what he might be, or he ought,” and it is somehow fitting that canto 2 should close in a Greece stripped of its ancient grandeur and heroes.

Throughout this half of the poem, Byron’s protagonist bears a marked resemblance to the poet himself, but it is well not to overlook the punning assertion made in the 1812 preface that Harold is “the child of imagination.” Shortly before the publication of cantos 1-2, in a letter to Robert Charles Dallas, Byron reinforces the distinction between himself and his central character: “If in parts I may be thought to have drawn from myself, believe me it is but in parts, and I shall not own even to that . . . I would not be such a fellow as I have made my hero for all the world.” The disclaimer has not won wide acceptance, largely because in the holograph copy of the poem Byron initially christened his protagonist “Childe Burun”; yet the first two cantos themselves substantiate the dissociation which Byron’s comment to Dallas emphasizes. On one hand, they dramatize the alienated figure of Harold, who, like the tortured hero of Lara, is portrayed as “a stranger in this breathing world,/ An erring spirit from another hurled;/ A thing of dark imaginings”; on the other hand, they are mediated by a separate narrator who, distanced from the foreground, objectively recognizes that “the blight of life” that overtakes men like Harold is “the demon Thought,” or the canker of self-consciousness. In...

(The entire section is 5455 words.)