Lord Byron Lord Byron: Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World

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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,...

(The entire section is 5,455 words.)