Lord Byron: Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5455

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.”...

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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 actuality, both entities are Byron, and through the dichotomy he seeks to plumb his own contradictory nature.

By the time that Byron came to write canto 3, however, life had paradoxically imitated art: Exiled from England by public vilification for his alleged cruelty toward his wife, the poet became that which before he had only imagined. This turn of events contributed to a new coalescence or ironic similarity between the author and his persona. Byron still does not identify himself completely with his titular hero, but he is now able to assimilate Harold as an exponent of himself without capitulating to the kind of Haroldian angst that suffuses cantos 1-2. He seems to register this altered orientation in the following lines: “Yet am I changed; though still enough the same/ In strength to bear what time can not abate,/ And feed on bitter fruits without accusing Fate.” Implicit in the passage, with its allusion to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), is an undertone of confidence that even despair can be transformed into a source of stimulation and proof of his endurance. Byron now is speaking in propria persona. No longer rhapsodizing as in canto 1 “a youth,/ Who ne in virtue’s ways did take delight,” he is instead dealing with himself as a social and moral pariah—“the wandering outlaw of his own dark mind.” The full assurance that he can avoid entrapment from within remains to be found, but the seeds of spiritual recovery are before him.

The groundwork is laid at the start of canto 3 when, after the framing device of an apostrophe to his daughter, Byron declares his artistic manifesto for the work: “’Tis to create, and in creating live/ A being more intense, that we endow/ With form our fancy, gaining as we give/ The life we image, even as I do now.” Reflecting Shelley’s influence on Byron in 1816, the passage continues and reveals that the poet now views his quotidian identity as “Nothing,” as a hollow fiction, while the project of art discloses to him an ideal “other” or truer self which he will appropriate through the act of creating. The poem itself, in short, becomes the vehicle for self-discovery. Thus, although Harold continues to be much the same character as he was in cantos 1-2, what has changed greatly is Byron’s positioning of himself as artist vis-à-vis the poem. He no longer depends on his protagonist as a surrogate or alter ego; even though the disease of self-consciousness has not been expunged, his faith has been restored in the imagination’s ability to locate new horizons of meaning in an otherwise entropic world.

Both the third and fourth cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage contain clear evidence of his shift in outlook. The two major scenes visited in canto 3 are Waterloo and the Swiss Alps, locales which by their historical associations stand symbolically opposed. In the former, Byron finds only the tragic vanity of life and the futility of worldly ambition; in the latter, he surveys the benign sublimity and undisturbed repose of nature. Initially, it would seem that he is elevating one sphere above the other, idealizing the serenity of “throned Eternity” in contrast to the agitation of “earth-born jars.” He is, to some extent, but in a unique manner. Rather than treating these landscapes as discrete alternatives, Byron exploits them as provisional constructs for raising questions and defining some of his own misgivings about the human condition. Thus, if at Waterloo he rejects the “wretched interchange of wrong for wrong” within society, in the Alps he sees nothing “to loathe in nature, save to be/ A link reluctant in a fleshly chain.”

In much the same way, he responds ambivalently to the fallen figureheads of each domain—Napoleon Bonaparte and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—whom he envisions as variants of himself. Both the Napoleon who was “conqueror and captive of the earth” and the “inspired” Rousseau whose oracles “set the world in flame” were men of unbounded energy, yet each was responsible for the shambles of the French Revolution and each was subverted by “a fever at the core,/ Fatal to him who bears, to all who ever bore.” Byron recognizes their failure as potentially his own as well: “And there hath been thy bane,” he proclaims. The stanza’s rhetoric reverberates with his affinity for these individuals and suggests that Byron, as Jerome J. McGann observes in Fiery Dust (1968), is coming to the realization that “to ’know oneself’ one must submit to immediate and partial acts of perception.” Within canto 3 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, therefore, the poet moves further toward the understanding that to be human means to be a pilgrim, but a pilgrim ever in the process of redefining himself and the world that he inherits.

Canto 4 continues the archetypal pattern of the journey, in this case one extending from Venice to Rome, but broadens at the end to reveal a significantly matured Byron arriving at the genuine goal or embodiment of his questing spirit. Centered around the elegiac motif or sic transit gloria mundi, the last canto weighs the respective claims of both art and nature to permanence as Byron tries to decipher the enigma of humanity’s existence. “The moral of all human tales,” he postulates, is the inevitability of ruin and unfulfilled hopes, such that “History, with all her volumes vast,/ Hath but one page.” This stark lesson occasionally moves the poet to invective, as when he declares that “Our life is a false nature—’tis not in/ The harmony of things.” Nevertheless, in the poetry of Torquato Tasso, the sculpture of Venice, and the Colosseum in Rome, he discerns a grandeur and genius which transcend the melancholy attrition of time. That discovery, in turn, rekindles conviction as to the vitality of his own essential self, a realization heightened when Byron finds that he has outgrown the fictive prop of Harold:

But where is he, the Pilgrim of my song,The being who upheld it through the past?. . . . . . . . . . . .  . .He is no more—these breathings are his last;His wanderings done, his visions ebbing fast,And he himself as nothing. . . .

In the poem’s concluding apostrophe to the sea near Albano, conceived as a “glorious mirror” and thalassic “image of Eternity,” Byron achieves the true goal toward which he has been tending all along. Awesome in its untrammeled energy, the ocean becomes the symbol of the creating self that the poet has reclaimed. “My Pilgrim’s shrine is won,” writes Byron, for “I am not now/ That which I have been.” With that declaration, Byron enters upon the last great phase of his poetic career.

Don Juan

The monumental epic Don Juan forms the inspired climax to Byron’s evolution as an artist, but to understand how this is so requires brief attention to a disturbing undercurrent in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Despite the general movement toward self-apprehension in that work, there yet occur moments when the inadequacy of language to articulate “all I seek,/ Bear, know, feel” subverts the poet’s faith in his enterprise. Thus, although in canto 3 he would willingly believe that “there may be/ Words which are things,” he has not found them; nor is he able to disguise from himself the knowledge that language is part of the disintegrated syntax of a fallen world. Along the same lines, after pondering in canto 4 the disappointed ideals of such poets as Dante and Petrarch, he ruefully admits that “what we have of feeling most intense/ Outstrips our faint expression.” The intransigence of language, its inherent circularity as an instrument of meditation, was for Byron tied to the kind of Metaphysical despair dramatized in Manfred and Cain (pb. 1821), and by way of overcoming those quandaries he adopts in Don Juan a more radically versatile poetics.

The chief difference between Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and his later “epic of negation,” as Brian Wilke describes Don Juan in Romantic Poets and Epic Tradition (1965), lies in Byron’s refusal any longer to be controlled by “the stubborn heart.” After opening with the farce of Juan’s sexual initiation, before which he pauses to berate Plato as a charlatan, Byron makes his new outlook resoundingly clear:

No more—no more—Oh! never more, my heart,Canst thou be my sole world, my universe!. . . . . . . . . . . .  . .The illusion’s gone for ever, and thou artInsensible, I trust, but none the worse,And in thy stead I’ve got a good deal of judgment,Though heaven knows how it ever found a lodgement.

Cognizant of the fictiveness of all experience, he plans to make his rambling medley of a poem mirror the manifold delusions and deceptions that man allows to impose upon his right of thought. In the face of such knowledge “Imagination droops her pinion,” turning “what was once romantic to burlesque”—lines aptly capturing the shift from his stance in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. In composing his “versified Aurora Borealis,” however, Byron obviously sensed a creative exhilaration linked to his complete separation of himself from his hero. His letters written during the work’s early stages reveal an exuberant confidence in the undertaking which, as he told Thomas Moore, was “meant to be a little quitely facetious upon every thing.” Thus, addressing his old friend Douglas Kinnaird in 1819, he expressed a typically high-spirited opinion of his achievement: “As to ’Don Juan’—confess—confess—you dog—and be candid—that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing—it may be bawdy . . . but it is not life, is it not the thing?—Could any man have written it—who has not lived in the world?”

Byron’s governing purpose in Don Juan is to “show things really as they are,/ Not as they ought to be.” Toward that end he does not forbear lampooning all the assorted follies and philistine pretenses of “that microcosm on stilts,/ Yclept the Great World,” for he sees its attachment to illusion as the root cause of men’s inability to recognize or accept the truth about themselves. Byron’s attack is all the more effective because he exempts neither himself as poet nor the function of language from his skeptical scrutiny. Overturning all conventional notions of structure and voice in poetry, he is intent upon making his “nondescript and ever-varying rhyme” demystify itself at every turn. Both serious and cynical, he consequently avers that compared to the epic myths of Vergil and Homer “this story’s actually true,” then later reminds his audience that his work “is only fiction,/ And that I sing of neither mine nor me.” Nearly every stanza of Don Juan unmasks itself in similar fashion through the whimsical freedom of Byron’s style. Fearless of incongruities in a world permeated by fraud, the poem’s narrator defends his fluid cynicism in the name of verisimilitude (his aim is to “show things existent”) while simultaneously debunking traditional concepts of authorial integrity: “If people contradict themselves, can I/ Help contradicting them, and everybody,/ Even my veracious self?” True “sincerity” in these terms is equated with inconsistency, paradox, and radical doubt, an outlook anticipated as early as 1813 when Byron, with uncanny self-knowledge and prescience, remarked in his journal that “if I am sincere with myself (but I fear one lies more to one’s self than to any one else), every page should confute, refute, and utterly abjure its predecessor.” By constantly deflating the artifices on which his own poem is built, Byron seeks to generate a self-critical model for exposing the larger abuses of his society.

Don Juan is, as William Hazlitt was quick to note in The Spirit of the Age (1825), a “poem written about itself,” but foremost among the vices it satirizes are the contemporary prevalence of cant and the moral blindness or hypocrisy which it fosters. Both traits are first encountered in the character of Donna Inez, Juan’s mother, in canto 1. A prodigy of memory whose brain is filled with “serious sayings darken’d to sublimity,” she is walking homily—“Morality’s prim personification”—who sees to it that her son is taught from only the most carefully expurgated classics. Unable to find anything to censure or amend in her own conduct, Donna Inez nevertheless carries on a clandestine affair with Don Alfonso, the husband of her close friend Julia, and later writes in fulsome praise of Catherine the Great’s “maternal” attentions to Juan. Such self-deceiving and myopic piety moves Byron to wish for “a forty-parson power to chant/ Thy praise, Hypocrisy,” the vice that he regards as endemic to his age and culture at all levels.

On a larger scale, Byron dramatizes the disastrous consequences of cant and its ability to obscure human realities in the Siege of Ismail episode beginning in canto 7. Here his target is in part the gazettes and their debased glorification of war, particularly as they promote “the lust of notoriety” within modern civilization. Spurred on by the hope of being immortalized in the newspapers or war dispatches, a polyglot collection of soldiers join with the Russians in devastating the Turkish fortress. Before recounting scene after scene of the mindless butchery, in which thirty thousand are slain on both sides, Byron reflects on whether “a man’s name in a bulletin/ May make up for a bullet in his body.” The final irony is that the gazettes, preoccupied with trivial gossip of the beau monde at home, generally garble the names of the dead and thoroughly distort the facts of the campaign. Determined to unriddle “Glory’s dream,” Byron shows that it is founded on nothing more than an abject appetite for fame and conquest. His greatest ire is reserved for someone such as the Russian leader Aleksandr Suwarrow, who, in a dispatch to Catherine after the slaughter, can glibly write, “’Glory to God and to the Empress!’ (Powers/ Eternal! such names mingled!) ’Ismail’s our’s.’” The same purblind insensitivity, he charges, makes it possible for Wordsworth to speak of carnage as “God’s daughter.” In all these instances, Byron shows how language is a ready instrument for the perversion of thought and action.

His own aesthetic in Don Juan thus bases itself on an unswerving respect for truth, “the grand desideratum” in a society glutted with cant and equivocation. Early in the poem he comments that his is “the age of oddities let loose,” such that “You’d best begin with truth, and when you’ve lost your/ Labour, there’s sure market for imposture.” The lines also echo his mocking dedication of the work to Robert Southey, who succeeded Henry James Pye as poet laureate in 1813, and his arraignment there of the other so-called Lake Poets. Having disowned the radical politics of their youth, they are depicted as comprising a “nest of tuneful persons” who now warble sycophantic praise for the Tory regime of King George III. Their apostasy in Byron’s eyes is all the more reprehensible because they have, in effect, become the hirelings of the “intellectual eunuch Castlereagh,” a master of oratorical “trash of phrase/ Ineffably—legitimately vile.” To counteract this mounting Tower of Babel in his age, Byron persistently explodes the enchantment of words and their tendency to falsify reality. There is, accordingly, an underlying method to his chameleonic mobilité and digressiveness in the poem, for he demonstrates that only by doubting the language-based constructs, which people impose upon experience, can he, like the poet himself, avoid the pitfall of “universal egotism.” Viewed in this light, the whole of Don Juan becomes an open-ended experiment in linguistic improvisation, a poem that demythologizes the very act by which it comes into being.

Because Byron’s mock-epic attempts to encompass no less than “life’s infinite variety,” any synopsis of its innumerable subjects and themes is doomed to failure. From the opening line in which the narrator declaims “I want a hero” and then seems arbitrarily to settle on “our ancient friend Don Juan,” it is evident that the ensuing comedy will follow few established conventions or patterns. This impression is reinforced later, in canto 14, when Byron points out his technique in composing Don Juan: “I write what’s uppermost, without delay.” The stated casualness in approach, however, belies the artistic integrity of the satire. Jerome J. McGann, in Don Juan in Context (1976), convincingly shows that the poem is “both a critique and an apotheosis of High Romanticism,” primarily because it implicitly denies that any imaginative system can be an end unto itself while also endeavoring to reinsert the poetic imagination back into the context of a fallen world. If there is one crux around which the entire mosaic turns, it is that of the fundamental opposition between nature and civilization. After Juan’s idyllic love affair with Haidée, “Nature’s bride,” is destroyed by her jealous father in canto 4, Byron suggests that the Fall is humanity’s permanent condition; he conducts his hero into slavery at Constantinople in canto 5, into the bloodbath of the Siege of Ismail in cantos 7-8, into the lustful tyranny of the Russian empress in cantos 9-10, and finally into the fashionable corruptions of English society in cantos 11-17. Not all, however, is moral cannibalism. By the introduction of such unspoiled figures as Haidée at the start and Aurora Raby at the end, Byron ascribes a certain redemptive value to natural innocence that offsets, even if it does not quite counterbalance, the ruling vices of society. Don Juan thus immerses itself in all the unflattering details of “life’s infinite variety,” but always with the purpose of embodying the human realities with which the artist must deal. Byron distills the complexity of the matter in a few words: “I write the world.”


Byron has often been criticized as a poet for his many supposed failures—for not projecting a coherent metaphysic, for not developing a consistent attitude to life, for not resisting the Siren call of egotism, for not paying sufficient attention to style, and for not, in short, being more like Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley. Because he did not adopt the vatic stance of his contemporaries or espouse their belief in organicism, he has been labeled the leading exemplar of Negative Romanticism. Common to such estimates, however, is a reluctance to recognize or concede Byron’s uniqueness as a poet. Although he did not share with others of his time an exalted conception of the imagination as being equivalent, in Keats’s metaphor, to “Adam’s dream,” he was able ultimately to do what the other four poets generally could not—namely, to accept the mixed quality of human experience. Through his ironic detachment and comic vision he permanently enlarged the domain of poetry and made it meaningful in a fresh way. This he accomplished through his skeptical idealism and his acceptance of his own paradoxes as a man and poet. “I am quicksilver,” he wrote to a friend in 1810, “and say nothing positively.” Therein lies perhaps the essence of his “sincerity” and “strength,” traits that continue to make him an enduring cultural force.

It should also be noted that the titles of Lord Byron’s principal poetic works include dramatic as well as lyrical and narrative works. Byron wrote eight plays in all, most of which focused on either speculative or historical subjects and were never intended for the stage. He designated them “mental theatre,” or closet drama modeled after classical principles, and clearly regarded the plays as among his most important productions. Complementing Byron’s extraordinarily prolific and diverse career as a poet is his versatility as a writer of epistolary prose. During his lifetime Byron composed more than twenty-nine hundred letters, which have been scrupulously edited by Leslie A. Marchand and published between 1973 and 1982 in twelve volumes under the title Byron’s Letters and Journals. The sheer immensity of this correspondence is matched only by the unlimited range and immediacy of Byron’s voice as he speaks without reserve on a variety of topics. In addition to these private documents, along with John Keats’s letters the most revealing correspondence of the British Romantic poets, Byron also published the combative Letter to [John Murray] on the Rev. W. L. Bowles’ Strictures on the Life and Writings of Pope (1821) and, in the first number of Leigh Hunt’s The Liberal (1822), “A Letter to the Editor of ’My Grandmother’s Review.’” The Parliamentary Speeches of Lord Byron, comprising three addresses he made while a member of the House of Lords, was issued in 1824, well after he had grown disillusioned with what he called “Parliamentary mummeries.”

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Lord Byron: Guide to Dramatic Fiction