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George Gordon (Noel) Byron, Lord Byron 1788–1824
English poet, dramatist, and satirist.
Both celebrated and vilified during his lifetime, Byron was one of the most flamboyant of the English Romantic poets. He is now perhaps best known as the creator of the figure of the "Byronic hero," a melancholy man,...
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- Critical Essays
George Gordon (Noel) Byron, Lord Byron 1788–1824
English poet, dramatist, and satirist.
Both celebrated and vilified during his lifetime, Byron was one of the most flamboyant of the English Romantic poets. He is now perhaps best known as the creator of the figure of the "Byronic hero," a melancholy man, often with a dark past, who rejects social and religious strictures to search for truth and happiness in an apparently meaningless universe.
Byron was born in London to John "Mad Jack" Byron and Catherine Gordon, a descendent of a Scottish noble family. He was born with a clubbed foot, with which he suffered throughout his life. Byron's father had married his wife for her money, which he soon squandered and fled to France where he died in 1791. When Byron was a year old, he and his mother moved to Aberdeen, Scotland, and Byron spent his childhood there. Upon the death of his great-uncle in 1798, Byron became the sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale and inherited the ancestral home, Newstead Abbey in Nottingham. He attended Harrow School from 1801 to 1805 and then Trinity College at Cambridge University until 1808, when he received a master's degree. Byron's first publication was a collection of poems, Fugitive Pieces, which he himself paid to have printed in 1807, and which he revised and expanded twice within a year. When he turned twenty-one in 1809, Byron was entitled to a seat in the House of Lords, and he attended several sessions of Parliament that year. In July, however, he left England on a journey through Greece and Turkey. He recorded his experiences in poetic form in several works, most importantly in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. He returned to England in 1811 and once again took his seat in Parliament. The publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold in 1812 met with great acclaim, and Byron was hailed in literary circles. Around this time he engaged in a tempestuous affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, who characterized Byron as "mad—bad—and dangerous to know." Throughout his life Byron conducted numerous affairs and fathered several illegitimate children. One of his most notorious liaisons was with his half-sister Augusta. Byron married Annabella Millbank in 1815, with whom he had a daughter, Augusta Ada. He was periodically abusive toward Annabella, and she left him in 1816. He never saw his wife and daughter again. Following his separation, which had caused something of a scandal, Byron left England for Europe. In Geneva, Switzerland, he met Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Godwin Shelley,
with whom he became close friends. The three stayed in a villa rented by Byron. During this time Mary Shelley wrote her famous novel Frankenstein, and Byron worked on Canto III of Childe Harold, which was published in 1816. In 1817 Byron moved on to Italy, where he worked on Canto IV, which was published the next year. For several years Byron lived in a variety of Italian cities, engaging in a series of affairs and composing large portions of his masterpiece Don Juan as well as other poems. In 1823 he left Italy for Greece to join a group of insurgents fighting for independence from the Turks. On April 9, 1824, after being soaked in the rain, Byron contracted a fever from which he died ten days later.
Byron is difficult to place within the Romantic movement. He spurned poetic theory and ridiculed the critical work of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Although he was a friend of Shelley, Byron was not, as his friend was, part of the mystic tradition of Romanticism. Byron's first successful work, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, is a satire in the neoclassical tradition of Alexander Pope. His Eastern verse tales—including The Bride of Abydos. A Turkish Tale and The Giaour, A Fragment of a Turkish Tale—and, especially, such poems as Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Manfred are more typically Romantic, with their portraits of outlaws and brooding heroes. Beppo, A Venetian Story dispenses with the Byronic hero and turns again to satire, as does Don Juan, a mock epic which casts a critical eye on society, presenting its title character not as the notorious womanizer of legend but as a naive victim. This complex, digressive satire, influenced by Italian burlesque poetry, was condemned on its publication as obscene and has been described by some as careless and meandering; however, most critics now regard Don Juan as Byron's masterpiece, citing its skillful rendering of a variety of narrative perspectives and its treatment of an array of topics, including politics, society, and metaphysics.
Byron's poetry was extremely popular during his lifetime, although some reviewers regarded both his personal life and his writing as immoral. He was nearly forgotten by critics in the second half of the nineteenth century, and during the first half of the twentieth century, he was often ranked as a minor Romantic poet. Since then, however, his poetry has met with increasing critical interest—in particular for its employment of satire and verbal digression, for its presentation of the individual versus society, and for its treatment of guilt and innocence. Finally, Byron's place within the Romantic movement and his debt to the eighteenth-century neoclassical writers before him are a source of ongoing interpretation and reassessment.
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* Fugitive Pieces 1807
English Bards and Scotch Reviewers 1809
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: A Romaunt [Cantos I and II] 1812
The Bride of Abydos. A Turkish Tale 1813
The Giaour, A Fragment of a Turkish Tale 1813
Waltz: An Apostrophic Hymn 1813
The Corsair, A Tale 1814
Lara. A Tale 1814
Ode to Napoléon Buonaparte 1814
A Selection of Hebrew Melodies Ancient and Modern 1815
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Canto the Third 1816
The Prisoner of Chillon, and Other Poems 1816
The Siege of Corinth. A Poem. Parisina. A Poem 1816
The Lament of Tasso 1817
Manfred, A Dramatic Poem (verse drama) 1817
Beppo, A Venetian Story 1818
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Canto the Fourth 1818
Don Juan [Cantos I and II] 1819
Mazeppa, A Poem 1819
Don Juan, Cantos III, IV, and V 1821
Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice. An Historical Tragedy, in Five Acts. With Notes. The Prophecy of Dante, A Poem (verse drama and poetry) 1821
Sardanapalus, A Tragedy. The Two Foscari, A Tragedy. Cain, A Mystery (verse dramas) 1821
The Vision of Judgment 1822
Don Juan. Cantos VI.-VII.-and VIII 1823
Don Juan. Cantos IX.-X.-and XI 1823
Don Juan. Cantos XII.-XIII.-and XIV 1823
Heaven and Earth 1823
The Island; or, Christian and His Comrades 1823
Werner, A Tragedy (verse drama) 1823
Don Juan. Cantos XVI. and XVI 1824
The Deformed Transformed; A Drama (verse drama) 1824
Other Major Works
The Parliamentary Speeches of Lord Byron (speeches) 1824
Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, with Notices of His Life. 2 vols, (correspondence and journals) 1830
Byron's Letters & Journals. 12 vols, (correspondence and journals) 1975-1982
* This work was revised and reprinted in 1807 as Hours of Idleness, A Series of Poems, Original and Translated.
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SOURCE: "The Fatal Bounds of the Will," in The Blind Man Traces the Circle: On the Patterns and Philosophy of Byron's Poetry, Princeton University Press, 1969, pp. 61-90.
[In the excerpt below, Cooke analyzes the nature of the self and the strength of individual will as they are presented in Byron's dramatic poem Manfred.]
Critical theorists celebrate as one of the outstanding marks of romanticism the realization that the seat of value is in the self, and the obligation of the self the apprehension of its home beyond brute circumstances of time and place; its "heart and home," as Wordsworth declares, "is with infinitude." A decisive shift in orientation takes place here. For where traditional Christianity had promised redemption of the individual from eternal wretchedness by a briefly incarnate Christ, Agent of Infinitude, romanticism is seen propounding a redemption of infinitude from entrenched materialism by the self, Bearer of Infinitude—so that Christ, as used by Blake for example, comes to represent man-as-God more truly than God-as-man. It would appear quite fitting, then, for Byron to have been brought home to himself in 1816, just as it would appear standard for him, in the name of that self, to have laid claim to infinitude. But Byron's situation and his response admit of features that have no exact parallel within the romantic complex.
The cardinal quality that sets Byron's presentation of the self apart in its time I would describe as starkness. The frustrating interaction of circumstances and personality which almost systematically in Childe Harold III strips the self of armor, integument, and salve leads to a minor metaphysical insight in Byron's work, in the implicit recognition that self-assertion counts more than self-regulation in a difficult universe. Of course one cannot be blind to moments of starkness undergone by the other great romantics: as when Keats finds himself tolled back from the nightingale, the blessed world of vision, to his "sole self; or when Wordsworth experiences "a sense, / Death-like, of treacherous desertion … / In the last place of refuge—[his] own soul"; or in Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode" or in certain of Blake's Songs of Experience or Europe: A Prophecy. But these instances only remind one that the romantic poet's affirmation of the Self Infinite is rarely divorced from the context, if not the formal process, of argument. It bears emphasizing that the inevitable recoil of romantic self-concern is the recognition of the way others will stand as strangers to one's own presuppositions and predilections, and the recoil of romantic vision the awareness of profane, even antagonistic views. An undernote of philosophical differing, of necessary, if muted argument continually impinges on the reader's consciousness in the most affirmative romantic poetry; but not as a distraction. Rather it leads attention unresisting back to the main theme with little further need for a suspension of disbelief. There has been a barely audible clashing and getting done with the adversary mind, such as we may perceive when Wordsworth writes: "And I must think, do all I can, / That there was pleasure there." The interpolated phrase "do all I can," acknowledges opposition which is obviously made futile (I must think). Wordsworth's claim to vision, and by the same token, the claims of his vision have to be made good against the possibility of error. "If this be but a vain belief…" he worries in "Tintern Abbey," and goes on to purge himself and his reader alike of such misgivings, the force of his renewed conviction breaking the grammatical pattern with an anacoluthon:
His doubt, played out on a rationalistic, argumentative speculation, shows itself to be unsupportable in the real order of fact and faith. The moment of argument becomes a foil to the moment of affirmation as the verse paragraph swells with exclamations and nearly ritual repetition ("often" works in diction and in experience) to annihilate the potentially crippling doubt with which it commences. The doubt, not the belief, is vain. Yet the element of doubt, the possibility of negation appears in a way necessary to the visionary affirmations of romantic poetry. To recognize the immortality of the bird's voice in "Ode to a Nightin-gale" or "To a Skylark" or "To the Cuckoo" is also inevitably to recall mortality. And to express immortality is impossible except through denial, or suspension, or actual time and transitoriness. These latter must keep a half-life in the mind for the very sake of one's belief in immortality. The visionary poet thus with equal validity enjoys, or has hopes of, or only continues to believe in, vision. His poetry may be a matter of pursuit as well as of possession, and need do no more than set itself positively on the spiral of aspiration.
This dualistic idea of aspiration and relationship, the concept of ex-stasis that is bound up with the romantic portrayal of the Self, Byron brings to its lowest pitch. The possibility of negation gets in him the kind of substance that represses aspiration into unbending defiance, replacing identification in, and with, the Universe with general self-assertion. It is a rhetorical emblem of a metaphysical orientation that Byron has no nightingale or urn, no cuckoo or solitary reaper, no skylark or west wind, no mountain and no light with which he can collaborate in the discovery and perpetuation of value. At least, not in 1816. He has his special passages of passion, of symbolism, of action, but these eliminate more than they create, building up, as it were, to nakedness. As in Childe Harold III they create the image of a man unaccommodated though unlamenting, undefended and yet not reduced to defeat. In Manfred that figure is again presented, and for the first time substantially characterized.
The profile of unaccommodated man, as critics have perennially remarked, has another and doubtless more spectacular side from which Manfred appears as unaccommodating man—defiant, seemingly solipsistic, and in less danger of being possessed than self-possessed. But Manfred develops into something more than an all-repudiating hero. He crackles with an aggrieved superiority, but actually by this enables us to observe that the fierceness of his rejection of whatever he has or is offered corresponds to the depth of his fixation on what is, more than coincidentally, unattainable. He typifies the perfectionist and iconoclast in collision with reality, and ordained to recover strength and sanity through acceptance rather than action and aggression.
Notwithstanding Manfred's apparent energy and self-involvement, the play is moving toward an ideal of acceptance from the start. Thus Manfred early implies a repudiation of his past deeds, or misdeeds; "I have ceased / To justify my deeds unto myself—/ The last infirmity of evil" (I.ii.27-29). It is worth stressing that Manfred becomes a hero less for what he can do than for what he can do without. A major rhythm is established in the play with his rejection of an assortment of orthodox forces and relationships. His opening speech—and the first words of the drama—straightway engages us in the mystique of doing without. It recapitulates the things ("Philosophy and science," etc.) which have "avail'd not" for him, presenting him as the disengaged man:
What he does have is a purpose ("Now to my task") or, to put it more abstractly, a will. That will must seem curiously thwarted if compared with the will of a Tamburlaine [in Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine]: Manfred fails to achieve anything, and even puts aside such particular goals as knowledge, benevolence, conquest, and happiness. His will goes practically unsatisfied. But Byron's play, concerned with a different order of will than Marlowe's, plants its standard on a different peak. Tamburlaine triumphs over all obstacles and opposition, only succumbing to death; Manfred defies all dangers and powers, including death. The emphasis in Tamburlaine falls primarily on material operations, in Manfred on a spiritual condition, so that the creature's death experienced in common by the two heroes becomes for one a reversal, for the other a culmination of his career. Manfred, as a hero who excels by doing without, proves in his most perfect moment capable of the ultimate excellence of doing without life.
It is crucial to see that Manfred rises above the things he rejects, and at the same time to see that in this he only achieves a negative victory, indicating what he is too strong to submit to, not what he is strong enough to realize. And the latter does not depend on an exercise of will. Manfred's ultimate state takes him clearly beyond mere strength of denial, or of assertion, beyond what Shelley calls "the anarchy / Of hopes and fears." The drama itself seems so far from centering around the manifestations of a substantive will that no other character evinces even Manfred's passing and partial reliance on will, whereas the will of Tamburlaine for example gets its basic definition by out-towering the stilted will of others.
The early spectacle of Manfred's emphatically self-conscious and self-confessing determination too easily seduces attention from the fact that he is met in a pattern of self-discovery and self-acceptance, just as his outbursts of pride tend to drown out a steady note of eagerness for reconciliation and calm. This needs to be remembered in judging his relationship with the rest of the characters; his haughty rejection of them, seemingly progressive in its sequence from Chamois Hunter to Abbot to otherworld Spirits, actually serves to show him arrested at a point of psychological and spiritual crisis; he is living in the trap which the Stranger so dispassionately sets for Arnold in The Deformed Transformed, with "no bond / But [his] own will, no contract save [his] own deeds" (Pt. I, i.150-151). These widely differing figures, however, are not the ciphers they are often taken for; they show us a sort of abortive excellence in Manfred, and help to define the impasse of Manfred's situation.
On the cliffs of the Jungfrau and in the mountain cottage, at the outset of the drama, Manfred is seen in a natural and human context. He is divorcing himself from both, finding nature's beauty and man's compassion alike irrelevant and impotent for himself. But he leaves his impress behind. The Chamois Hunter defers to him as a superior man, and he signalizes Manfred's spirit rather than his agility in saying that the latter,
Who seems not of my trade, … yet hath reach'd
A height which none even of our mountaineers,
Save our best hunters, may attain.
Untouched by the world he is leaving, Manfred is also untouched by the underworld he dares to enter. He disdains the shock and indignation of the attendant Spirits in the Hall of Arimanes (Ill.iv), and indeed extracts from them the same simultaneously personal and professional praise the Chamois Hunter has accorded him, as one of the Spirits breathlessly recognizes in him a "Magian of great power, and fearful skill." There is, finally, the world that comes to Manfred, in the person of the Abbot of St. Maurice who, working in the human sphere in the interest of a spiritual, divine order, in himself comprehends features of two worlds. The indefatigable Abbot shares the experience of the Chamois Hunter and the chthonian Spirits; he can do nothing with Manfred, but finds something admirable and attractive in him, sensing qualities that normally enable one to take a fair place among the brotherhood of man and, ultimately, the communion of saints (II.i). The degree of Manfred's excellence, as well as the degree of his separateness can be discerned in the subjunctive with which Hunter, Abbott, and Spirit all express their responses to him: "You should have been a hunter," "This should have been a noble creature," "He would have made / An awful spirit." The range of his influence can be gauged by the way he moves representatives of the secular, the religious, and the chthonian orders.
Yet it is all too evident that his impregnable loftiness hinges on a secret defect. Certainly there are points at which the "noble" and "awful" uniqueness of Manfred presents itself in a dubious light. In the guilty action with Astarte which Manuel speaks of to the Abbot offstage, and which Byron coyly drags in without unwrapping, Manfred has without doubt been the aggressive, the demanding, the reckless party. He is thus liable to the charge of selfishness, and his conduct after realizing that he has in effect victimized Astarte by inducing her into a passing act of passion contrary to her profoundest principles turns his supposed individualism into something more like peevishness. He repudiates philosophy, altruism and so on (I.i) because he has failed to maintain "a kind of transcendental state outside ordinary human experience, … an ineffable absolute irreconcilable with the world, … [and] more real than the world' [Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World, trans. Montgomery, 1956]. He does it impressively, philosophically even, with sententiae like "Sorrow is knowledge," and "The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life," but it remains tantamount to striking out at others to beguile personal pain.
The emphasis in the early scenes of the play on Manfred's will and what it can make others do tends to corroborate this judgment. Manfred, with the Seven Spirits, and on the Mountain of the Jungfrau, seeks to prescribe terms to the Universe, seeks to act and be immune to consequences. Even his implied yearning toward "serenity of soul," which he recognizes as a form of "immortality" (II.ii), betrays a known imperfection in his individualism. The root conflict of the drama occurs inside Manfred's mind, and is but intimated in the more conspicuous confrontations with Chamois Hunter or Abbot or otherworld agents. Its root issue has finally two distinguishable terms to be resolved: can Manfred keep from losing himself to various outside forces, can he withstand the "temptation" to "the abandonment of his will"? And if so, can he further find for himself, instead of deadened detachment, a more than mortal "serenity"?
In a sense, the play drives Manfred toward the fullest experience of his somewhat irritable boast that he is, like the lion, "alone"; his metaphor expresses life's literal truth, and life's uncompromising challenge. His difficulties with truth and challenge alike arise chiefly out of his relation to Astarte, whose universe he has not expanded but shattered in pressing her toward some uncanonized transaction. Manfred must learn to accept, albeit without sacrificing his essential self; and he must learn not to expect, and this is a lesson that he takes longest to learn where Astarte is concerned. His intensest expectation, and gravest weakness, appears as he presses her, or her Phantom, for an expression of forgiveness, then of love, at the end of Act 11. He is denied, and as one of the Spirits present vindictively observes, "He is convulsed—This is to be a mortal / And seek the things beyond mortality." But what looks like the final humbling for Manfred is only the sign of a crisis, in dramatic as well as spiritual terms. Manfred responds superbly. Another Spirit reports on the scene:
Yet, see, he mastereth himself, and makes
His torture tributary to his will.
These lines, perhaps, tend to revive the idea of Manfred's predominance of will. In fact, what gets "mastered" here is the curl of the interested self; the will works as a rectified will, not aiming toward (or away from) objects, but purely sustaining the integrity of the existential self. The present "tributary" does not swell the hero's store, or consciousness of will. If anything it destroys it. Manfred emerges from the scene purged of the defects which had led him into it. He remains alert and involved, but he is no longer harshly purposive; in his brief exchange with Nemesis as the scene and act come to a close he shows himself above all ready for whatever may arise. Significantly Astarte now virtually disappears from the play, and Manfred enjoys a new state:
Here Manfred attains a dignity beyond what merely "lies in his conscious awareness of, and defiance of, the fates which are his antagonists" [Peter L. Thorslev, "Freedom and Destiny: Romantic Contraries," Bucknell Review XIV, May, 1966]. The serenity for which he has yearned has in effect befallen him, and that in the unlikeliest of places, where he has been thrust through the final gate of agitation.
Clearly this experience of serenity on the part of the "mortal" affords the immortality which he had expected of it, inasmuch as it frees him from the sense of incompleteness and instability inherent in mortality; it is the Emersonian idea of immortality as being "not length of life, but depth of life, … not duration, but a taking of the soul out of time." We may note, too, that the singular experience of immortality is given a universal moral bearing in Manfred's identification of it as "the golden secret, the sought 'Kalon'." He has discovered mankind's "good," not just his own; and he has discovered it neither in enormous energy nor in vacant self-forgetfulness, but in the strength of vital peace. And where before he has been bent on rejecting or destroying all terms of existence, his new state proves harmonious and inclusive. It brings back the scholar in him, for one thing, and we may find in his recollection of his "tablets" a noteworthy echo of Hamlet, in an affirmative chord befitting one to whom has been revealed not evil but unprophesied grace:
It hath enlarged my thoughts with a new sense,
And I within my tablets would note down
That there is such a feeling.
Manfred's feeling, his knowledge of spiritual goodness and self-accord opposes as it also redeems his earlier condition of desperate stagnancy, which even he recognized as a "curse." If his "pride and defiance" have any "moral-philosophic value," it must be the negative one of constituting symptoms of a soul dis-eased, of representing the problem rather than the foundation of the play. Manfred's "Promethean" ability to withstand various orthodox and systematic attacks on his self-possession should finally be taken as ambiguous, being but a half-way stage between the ultimate degradation of surrender and his ultimate attainment of a more than personal "calm of mind, all passion spent." For while it could seem that Manfred ceases "to struggle toward resolution," in actuality resolution has befallen him. He knows what it means "wenn ein Glückliches fällt."
Two other problematical points are resolved less successfully as regards Manfred's character. The first is the relation of Manfred to the Abbot, who, unlike the Chamois Hunter and the assorted servants and Spirits parading through the play, ends up in the final version of the play as much more than a foil to the hero. He is a considerable character in his own right, and his position carries substantial weight; because of him Manfred escapes being "a one-character drama." Manfred, rejecting his aid, is far from negating his values. Ultimately he fails to break out of the orbit of his priestly function, as he does out of the orbit of the Chamois Hunter and Astarte. The Abbot is present and active to the end, and his persistence, without arrogance or prurience as it is, adds at once to his credit as a priest and to his stature as a character. This is not to gloss over the fact that he is practically stymied. He has, and can have, no proper answer to the serene and simple finality of Manfred's expiring words: "Old man! 't is not so difficult to die." But the play allows him the concluding statement:
He's gone, his soul hath ta'en its earthless flight;
Whither? I dread to think; but he is gone.
In this way Byron himself has partially "destroyed the whole effect and moral" of the drama. Manfred avoids the merely conventional piety of Maturin's Bertram: "Lift up your holy hands in charity"; but a problem remains. Has Manfred transcended, or only ignored the possibility intimated in the Abbot's summary? Hasn't the "noble" and "awful" resolution of his last words—the "serenity" which we have been invited to take as a form of "immortality"—been impugned by the fact that the Abbot has the last word? Or do we interpret it that the Abbot retains enough of the intellectual obtuseness and institutional rigidity of the original version to prevent him from appreciating a new existential sanctity in the hero?
Manfred ends on an ambiguous note of affirmation and uncertainty. That uncertainty, however, does not concern the power of the will, which is at best irascible and negative. It concerns the possibility and efficacy of purging the will, and constitutes the final problem to be recognized in the play. Is the hero's philosophy ultimately viable? Is his conscience respectable, his character plausible? Even with the affirmative force of "earthless flight" to temper the Abbot's misgivings, the play offers nothing like an answer to such questions, which indeed it raises at the eleventh hour. But as the figure of the self-subsistent hero, most powerfully limned in Manfred, reappears in Byron's work, so does the element of doubt as to his ultimate status. More than this, doubt seems to get amplified into disapprobation as Byron gets closer to the terms of actuality and, in particular, to the contemporary European scene.
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SOURCE: "Byron's Strange Perversity of Thought," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 33, December, 1972, pp. 405-19.
[In this essay, DePorte analyzes Byron's depiction of the struggle for individual freedom in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, claiming that for Byron the desire for freedom can ultimately result in a form of madness.]
Byron's affection for Augustan satire is well known, but Childe Harold is hardly the poem one would turn to for echoes of Swift. Nevertheless, canto 3 contains lines strikingly reminiscent of the "Digression on Madness" [in Swift's Tale of a Tub], where the lunatic is pictured as a man unwilling to "pass his Life in the common Forms" and intent on "subduing Multitudes to his own Power, his Reasons or his Visions," and where it is argued that all conquerors, contrivers of philosophical systems, and founders of new religious sects are thus mad.
Byron has been reflecting on the fate of the latest conqueror, praising him really. The assessment of Napoleon seems balanced because of the careful antitheses—"An Empire thou couldst crush, command, rebuild, / But govern not thy pettiest passion" (3.38)—yet the balance turns out to be mainly grammatical. That Napoleon can sway empires and at the same time be unable to control himself is not the paradox for Byron it might be for others. He expects irrationality and imprudence of his heroes. After all, what is control to Napoleon? His reforms, his wars, his crimes are alike inspired by a consuming impulse to throw off controls. Such a man hungers after a freedom that is total, a freedom that is above all unchecked from within. Byron understood these aspirations; to a great extent he shared them and tried to act them out. Washington, the responsible revolutionary, he admired; Napoleon, the grasping, extravagant adventurer, bewitched and implicated him. How startling, then, yet how typical of Byron, that he should deflate the portrait of Napoleon with a moral from Swift, reveal the source of the magic charisma as lunacy.
The effects of this shift are interesting. Most immediately we see Byron trying to have things both ways. He has given us Napoleon the demigod; now, to temper awe with pity, he gives us Napoleon the victim. The greatest man of the age, he shows, was inwardly sick and suffering. True, he tricked and betrayed others, but he also betrayed himself. He could not even relish power because he kept hungering for more. There is, we learn, no lasting joy for the mighty: "tempted Fate will leave the loftiest Star" (3.38). Byron has a way of bringing all topics to bear on himself, and in this case he adds "Bards" to Swift's list of archetypal madmen lest we forget that he too is one of the unhappy great, and mistakenly envy the rich and famous poet when we should be shedding a tear for the tormented, misunderstood genius. This is the familiar, self-indulgent mood of Childe Harold, a mood established in the first canto by the description of Harold as a scornful, "pleasure drugged" youth who can find nothing worth loving … yet whom, alas, "none did love!" (1.6, 9). It is a kind of self-indulgence far removed from Swift.
But tone aside, the passage on madmen is a remarkably close para-phrase of Swift's theory that madness is born of the impulse to spurn tradition and common sense. For Byron is not only out to elicit every emotional response he can; he is after a kind of perspective as well. Why else, in casting about for a means to understand Napoleon, should he evoke the perceptions of a writer less apt to sympathize with his hero than almost anyone he could have thought of? Such is Byron's honesty, an honesty which promises not so much to speak the truth as to admit the worst. Unlike many of his contemporaries in the romantic movement, Blake in particular, Byron seldom inverts traditional values by arguing, say, that excess is wisdom, or that hell is bliss, or that imagination leads to truth while reason deludes. Thus his observation on the madness of conquerors, poets, and philosophers is not a rhetorical ploy introduced to show that what seems mad to the common mind must in fact be sanity of a rare order. That he can allow his heroes to be judged by Augustan criteria without feeling a need to revise definitions does not mean his sympathies are Augustan; it means simply that he feels no compunction to accept the conclusions implied by those definitions. On the contrary, Byron tends to affirm his independence by reacting against the implications of the very definitions he accepts. He will admit that Napoleon is a madman and a fool, and like him the more for it. His view of Rousseau is similar. Rousseau is both a genius and mad. His genius lay in the single-mindedness of his love:
His passions, wild and ignoble as they often were, suffused everything. He could make a casual kiss or glance seem a thing of piercing beauty and significance. His urgent visions of a new, just society were "oracles which set the world in flame, / Nor ceased to burn till kingdoms were no more" (3.81). But he was also single-minded in his hate; he made his life "one long war with self-sought foes" (3.80); he injured those who loved him most. Rousseau's madness is not his genius, yet neither is it separable from it. While madness is no virtue for Byron, it is the mark of an uncommon soul, of a mind resolved to impose rather than accept conditions.
Blake's theories, though radical, are ultimately normalizing; that is, they aim at exploding one set of norms for the sake of another. He meets the old standards head on. He rejects utterly the Augustan's distrust of private inspiration as bordering on madness: "Who shall dare to say … that all elevation is of self & is Enthusiasm & Madness, & is it not plain that self-derived intelligence is worldly demonstration?" To Reynolds's insistence that the ability to formulate general truths is "the great glory of the human mind," Blake replies: "To Generalize is to be an Idiot." The abnormal per se could have no appeal for Blake; in his terms it is conventional wisdom and morality that are abnormal. Byron, however, is fascinated with madness as madness, not as disguised good sense, in the same way that he is obsessed with incest not as a possibly natural relationship, but as an irresistibly criminal one.
The lure that madness has for Byron cannot be understood without understanding his vision of the Fall. In his mythology, the Fall is less a fall from righteousness into sin, or from reason into passion, than it is a fall from ignorance into awareness. "The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life," Manfred laments (1.12); the Tree of Knowledge deprived man of Eden, and in the world outside Eden the Fall is relived again and again. Each new thing we learn qualifies our hopes and diminishes the possibilities for happiness. Cain is at first eager for the knowledge Lucifer offers him, since knowledge is the only compensation for the loss of Paradise. But he becomes increasingly despairing as Lucifer's harsh truths unfold. He does not really want to know that the beauty of his beloved Adah is a thing of the moment and will soon fade, or that man will continue to degenerate until human life is more unbearable than he could ever have imagined. After Lucifer has left Cain with these thoughts, he finds himself looking with envy on his sleeping infant son, looking with half a mind to dash the child against a rock and so spare him the agonies of consciousness. Like Wordsworth, Byron has many poems regretting the loss of childhood. But whereas Wordsworth longingly recalls childhood as a time of vision and intuitive wisdom, Byron cherishes it as a time of ignorance, as in these lines from "I Would I Were a Careless Child":
Childhood is a dream: there are no laws of probability that will not bend to desire; horizons are without limit; the child is in a kind of psychic womb where no sally of imagination is stopped cold by reality and the self seems all.
When one awakens from this dream, he awakens to the misery of Cain. Ordinary men may accept the awakening and resign themselves, but for others the awakening is often too violent, or the misery too intense, and they go mad. In Byron madness always results from some sort of confrontation of the self with external realities intolerable to it. When Don Juan is cut down before Haidée's eyes, and her dream of happiness suddenly violated, she falls into a swoon. When, days later, she regains consciousness, she is hopelessly mad: "Thought came too quick, / And whirled her brain to madness" (4.67). The tales are rife with such grief-maddened heroines: Parisina, Medora, Zuleika, Lara's faithful Kaled, who refuses to leave the spot where he was killed in battle but sits cradling an imaginary figure in her arms. Nor need the shattering of expectation be so violent for it to induce madness; the suggestion in "The Dream" is that the everyday suffocations of adult life are alone enough to derange a sensitive soul. Once Mary Chaworth has attained the conventional goals of a husband and children, a shadow settles over her. "What could her grief be?—she had all she loved" (136). The implied answer is that though she had all she loved she had nothing left to hope for; her horizons had begun closing in; only in madness could she break out and regain the sense of freedom and possibility she had known earlier:
Byron's fragile, suffering heroines typically retreat from reality into delusion or death; his outlaw heroes, on the other hand, declare war: they seem consumed by a need to punish the world for its crimes against their sensibilities. At the death of his beloved Leila, the Giaour is overwhelmed by a maniacal passion for revenge which becomes for him a despairing affirmation of the self's right to fulfillment. He would not forget Leila if he could; to do so would not only compromise her memory, but call in doubt the power and validity of personal vision:
Earth holds no other like to thee,
Or, if it doth, in vain for me:
For worlds I dare not view the dame
Resembling thee, yet not the same.
The very crimes that mar my youth.
This bed of death—attest my truth!
'Tis all to late—thou wert, thou art
The cherished madness of my heart!
Byron's heroes are always afflicted by a "madness of the heart," that is, by a madness of response rather than of perception, a madness like that which the bishop predicted would befall Marino Faliero in his old age when he becomes unbearably sensitive to anything which opposes his will, or like that of Jacopo Foscari, whose passion for Venice is so intense that it blinds him to every consideration of prudence and family responsibility, or like that of Lara, which does not manifest itself in obvious ways:
'Tis true, with other men their path he walked,
And like the rest in seeming did and talked,
Nor outraged Reason's rules by flaw nor start,
His Madness was not of the head, but heart;
And rarely wandered in his speech, or drew
His thoughts so forth as to offend the view.
Lara, Conrad, the Giaour are not self-deceived; they do not retreat into illusion. Indeed, as M. G. Cooke has said [in The Blind Man Traces the Circle: On the Patterns and Philosophy of Byron's Poetry, 1969]: "They are heroes who bear the primary stap of consciousness." They see the reality others see, but they refuse to accept or be guided by that reality. They see the distinction between inner and outer worlds only too clearly and know that whatever dreams of happiness or fulfillment they once had are only dreams and can never be actualized. But if they cannot be happy they can yet be free. In Byron, madness is a supreme expression of the desire for freedom because for him freedom demands an uncompromising assertion of the self. Barriers to experience, whether physical, societal, or psychological, must be overcome if the self is to get the measure of that assertion.
The obvious difficulty with such a notion of freedom is that it borders on the psychopathic; it requires a commitment to self so great as to reduce other people to instruments. Ruinous collisions are bound to occur. Of this Byron was painfully conscious. In Childe Harold he writes of Cromwell: "What crimes it costs to be a moment free" (4.85). His thoughts on Napoleon in Childe Harold no doubt lead him to echo the "Digression on Madness" in part because of its savage attack on the aspiring self. To Swift, total freedom for the individual means slavery for everyone around him; one cannot impose his will without others resigning theirs. Swift thus loathes conquerors, innovating philosophers, and enthusiasts, as tyrants or would-be tyrants, as men who would "reduce the Notions of all Mankind, exactly to the same Length, and Breadth, and Height of [their] own." Byron's view of freedom and self-fulfillment is close to Swift's except that the priorities are reversed:
Swift worries about the harm ambitious men do their fellows; Byron laments that their yearnings should be frustrated, that those who brave the free life should be so ill-fated. Byron is not blind to the suffering a man like Napoleon might inflict. Nor does his idea of heroism require psychopathic indifference to others. He often railed at the butcheries of Napoleon's wars and was always sensitive to abuses of power by leaders he disliked. But Byron's imagination was more engaged by the plight of the hero pitted against the many than by that of the many at the mercy of the one. His wish would be for a natural coincidence of interests. This is why Napoleon originally so captivated him. During Napoleon's years of glory he seemed to have come close to achieving the ideal: he did just what he pleased, yet in working out a personal destiny received the adulation of the masses and gave Europe hope of a new order.
Byron's fantasy, then, is of a situation in which the hero achieves the fullest self-expression without injury to others. It is, though, a fantasy he seldom indulges for long; he sees that like all fantasies it can never be realized. A life given up to single-minded assertions of will is inevitably destructive of friends, enemies, and followers alike. The heroes of the tales, not to mention Napoleon, leave a legacy of devastation. And finally such madness of the heart destroys the self; it marks a man out for violent, untimely death or for lacerating despair. Indeed, Byron's sympathies are so often with the conqueror or the outlaw because, despite a genuine abhorrence for their crimes, he identifies with their doomed passion for freedom, with their unreasoning determination either to transcend the limitations imposed by the Fall or to wreak their vengeance on the created order of things. The problem of freedom takes on a special urgency in canto 3, which Byron wrote the year after Napoleon's final defeat in 1815, and only months after his own humiliations in London. Here Byron seems to resign once and for all the possibility of being free in society, any society. From the beginning Harold was an outsider and a renegade, but in the first canto his motives for leaving home are uncomplicated. He is simply tired of his life of ease and pleasure—"the fulness of Satiety" (1.4) has left him melancholy—and he is eager for adventure. By the third canto his disillusionment with society is far more serious and irresolvable:
"A life within itself—Byron, always preoccupied with the priorities of the self, considers now the possibility of voluntary withdrawal from the world in order to enjoy the unchallenged freedom of contemplation. His reflections on Napoleon and heroism force him to conclude that solitude alone offers the self a chance for fulfillment:
In isolation man can do and think as he wishes without danger of contradiction. He need make no compromises with the world; he need fear no intrusions. One who has suffered and been disillusioned like Byron or Harold is best able to understand what it is the hermit seeks in the wilderness:
The solitary man has the best hope of preserving his ideals because he is unexposed to abrasive contacts with other men. Nature, as opposed to society, lays no claims upon the freedom of the mind. Indeed, what most impresses Byron about "Maternal Nature" is that her beauties are malleable. He likes the passivity of nature, the way she responds to the suggestions of imagination. "Like the Chaldean," Harold
He appreciates the way nature can become almost an extension of the self—"Are not the mountains, waves, and skies, a part / Of me and of my Soul, as I of them?" (3.75)—and give us a new sense of ourselves by drawing out of us feelings hitherto unknown:
Significantly. Byron is moved less by what is revealed to him than by what is revealed in him. Though there are Wordsworthian moments in Childe Harold when Byron believes he senses a divine presence animating the forms of nature, his deepest experience of nature is not one of communion. Nature most inspirits Byron by calling forth in him the fullest expression of self, by exciting the discovery of new emotions and sensitivities, and thus enriching and intensifying his experience of himself. She permits him a feeling of participation in the life around him without curtailing his freedom because he encounters nothing there but the various manifestations of his own being.
In his life of Byron, Moore remarks on this all-encompassing preoccupation with the creations of self [Thomas Moore, Life, Letters, and Journals of Lord Byron, 1892]. Byron, he observes, cultivated his imagination to the point where he could not accurately perceive the external world and saw only "the reflection of his own bright conceptions." A state of mind which for the Augustans would have been a symptom of madness is for Moore "the very nature and essence of genius." Moore, in fact, maintains that precisely those qualities of mind which unfitted Byron for life assured his greatness as a poet. He suspects, for example, that despite Byron's reputation as a lover, he much preferred dreaming of women to sleeping with them. In the company of a mistress he was soon bored; alone in his study, however, he could adore his mind's image of her:
It was there that, unchecked by reality, and without any fear of the disenchantments of truth, he could view her through the medium of his own fervid fancy, enamour himself of an idol of his own creating, and, out of a brief delirium of a few days or weeks, send forth a dream of beauty and passion through all ages.
There is much in Byron to bear out Moore's insistence that he gave highest priority to the world of imagination. For Byron the freedom of solitude, or of poetry, is the freedom to regain the child's world of projected realities by asserting the primacy of mental experience. He was fascinated by dreams as pure creations of mind; dreams, he wrote, "divide our being." They are proof of the mind's ability to make
Substance, and people planets of its own
With beings brighter than have been, and give
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.
("The Dream," 20-22)
The poet he sees as the man who can dream waking, whose imagination, like Tasso's, is such that he is able to behold "The visions which arise without a sleep" (The Lament of Tasso, 165). His own Childe Harold Byron calls a "protracted dream," which ends only when his power to reify images begins to fail:
And earlier, at the opening of the third canto, he had described the writing of the poem as a process of giving body to imagination:
'Tis is 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.
But Byron's attitude toward the imaginative process is more complicated and self-conscious than Moore would make it seem. Having said in one stanza that he writes as a way of extending the provinces of the self, he reproaches himself in the next:
It is as if he has suddenly seen what he has written through the eyes of a Swift or a Johnson and realized that to have poetry born of the impulse to impose fancy on actuality is to make poetry a kind of madness. Clearly, Byron does not share Moore's view, or for that matter the views of Coleridge and Wordsworth, that to write from such impulse is simply to be a genius. Though he may echo Coleridge's "Dejection" and exclaim that neither "Worth nor Beauty dwells from out the mind's / Ideal shape of such" (4.123), his meaning is different from Coleridge's. For both Coleridge and Wordsworth the mind's impositions on the external world were evidence that one could not talk about "reality" apart from the way it is perceived. "Reality" is a construct of external stimuli and internal response; each mind in some measure creates the world it perceives by transforming raw sensory data into a uniquely personal vision. Since the object becomes in the instant of perception what it is perceived to be, the richer a man's imagination, the richer his experience of reality. There is none of this affirmation of fancy in Byron. He rates highly the textures imagination gives to life, but for him the textures remain imaginary. His sense of frustration is too keen for him not to insist on an irrevocable division between inner and outer; he desperately wants "Worth" and "Beauty" to have objective existence.
Thus for most of the last canto of Childe Harold, Byron's pose is that of the heroic victim, the man done dirt both by the world and by his own perceptions. In the famous opening stanzas Byron relates how he conquered his disappointment over the shabbiness of modern Venice by recreating creating the glories of her past in imagination and filling her streets with characters from Shakespeare and Venice Preserv'd. As in his appreciation of nature, he is drawn once more to the life of subjective experience in which pattern, tone, and significance are projected on external reality. He sees that by turning inward the self retains absolute integrity: "The Beings of the Mind are not of clay" (4.5); they cannot be touched or compromised. Yet he no sooner affirms the attraction of imagination than reason intervenes and he pulls back:
Another unexpected turn on imagination: dreams, he decides, bear only semblances of truth, the power of fancy is madness akin to that of poor Mary Chaworth who ruled as "Queen of a fantastic realm," and he perhaps rejects it in part because he sees it as a response essentially feminine and unheroic. This rejection can be taken as evidence of Byron's realism, of a hardheaded refusal to accept the "transcendental ideal." Or, as in the case of his curious epitaph to the portrait of Napoleon, it can be seen as one more attempt to elicit from his readers the double response of admiration and pity. He cannot present the isolated self as a completely happy sanctuary from reality without sacrificing the pathos of the poem. Yet at the same time the sharpness of the reversal suggests a certain intellectual perversity. Given the way he has set up the dilemma of the individual in society, a life of inward meanings is the logical solution. But Byron's instinct is always to recoil from such logic, to resent as an imposition on his freedom conclusions which seem "necessary." He characteristically reacts "in spite of," not "because." He is, as he pictures himself in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, a man "skilled to know the right and choose the wrong."
As has often been said, it is the outlaw's scorn for common morality which compels Byron's imagination. For him, freedom is experienced as an act of definance: the more radical and dangerous the defiance, the stronger the sense of freedom. Thus Byron's outlaws are never merely outlaws. The ordinary criminal may oppose the laws of his society, all the while adhering to some other carefully rationalized system of values—a personal code, the code of the underworld. Byron's outlaws, however, resist all systems of thought, all logic, whether externally imposed or internally conceived. If, like Lara, they have come to scorn the life of virtue, yet they will not become totally criminal. For at times Lara can
In Byron, as in his heroes, contradictions are intensified rather than resolved. He too is possessed by "some strange perversity of thought." When he sees the decaying palaces of Venice, he longs for the city of his imagination. When he raises up that vision, it immediately begins to fade: "other voices speak, and other sights surround." Canto 4 comes back repeatedly to the point that objects take on a richness in contemplation which they never have outside the mind:
But Byron refuses the obvious inferences: that one should either commit oneself to the inner life or be resigned to reality. He refuses because he is unwilling to limit himself by denying any feeling or thought. Throughout Childe Harold he laments the passing of youth as a time when self and surroundings might easily merge. But he sees that to return more than momentarily to the illusions of childhood would curtail radically the experience of self which is had through confrontation with a reality alien to it. Harold's journey itself is a metaphor for the kind of freedom to be had by constant change. The discontent with his homeland, the subsequent traveling, the refusal to settle any place reflect Byron's own restlessness of mind. He knows that the man of action's bid for freedom is doomed, yet he finds it impossible to withdraw entirely into the freedom of reverie or solitude. What remains is the exhilarating freedom of change. Here, as in the tales and plays, the uncompromised self emerges as a tangle of conflicting thoughts and desires; the celebration of freedom becomes finally a celebration of ambivalence. In this ambivalence we perhaps see most clearly Byron's own madness of heart. Byron does not altogether share Cain's malignant resentment of creation, nor is his rejection of conventional society, much though he liked to dramatize it, ever so explosive as that of Conrad or Lara. But his outcry against those conditions of mortality which prevent a man's being both happy and fully conscious is every bit as deeply felt, and his willful assertions of self every bit as startling and intense.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3341
SOURCE: "The Narrator of Don Juan," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 5, No. 2, April, 1974, pp. 49-58.
[In the following essay, Parker contends that the narrator of Don Juan is intentionally inconsistent and that Byron patterned him after the literary figure of the rogue.]
As a poet and as a man, Byron was a poseur, everyone agrees, but some of Byron's posturing is more interesting than most poets' sincerity, and by no means everyone disapproves of it. Nevertheless, for those like myself who feel that what there is of value in Byron is not to be dissociated from this posturing, there is a problem; not one that immediately affects our enjoyment of the poetry, but one that can ultimately do so, once we start puzzling about meaning: it is often difficult to know who is saying what is said, how seriously, and with what shade of irony, if any. The problem has been complicated by current intellectual fashions. Problems of identity are all the go, and it is tempting to see Byron as a Regency Borges with a passion for masks, as a precursor of existentialism, or as a devotee of the absurd. I think he probably does have some importance in the history of these phenomena, but simply to say that Byron was doing what lots of writers today are trying to do seems to me neither accurate, nor a good way of seeing where he stands in literary history, nor indeed a reason why we should admire what he wrote.
One critic who has managed to state the problem, without falling into the pedantry encouraged by intellectual fashion, is John Wain [in "Byron: The Search for Identity," in Essays on Literature and Ideas, 1963]. Byron's failure to establish his own true identity, he argues, prevented him from having "a fully successful relationship with his poetic imagination." Byron's method, he suggests, was to project an image of himself, "and then let the image do the writing." Because he lacked the confidence to look deeply into his own mind, he fell into the trap of projecting oversimplified images, who wrote oversimplified poetry for him.
I agree that Byron failed to establish his own true identity, that his life and his poetry may be seen as a series of experimental postures, and, like John Wain, I cannot see how he would have developed had he lived, but it seems to me that in one poem at least this failure was no handicap. In Don Juan, I believe, Byron exploited his lack of firm identity, his posturing habit, to create a work of enduring value, in which the oversimplification is transmuted into something richer and more satisfying.
The oversimplification is found in each of the multiple narrative voices that all wakeful readers of Don Juan notice. Some critics have been offended by these multiple voices, but most readers enjoy them, and it seems to me that the critic should be wary of finding blemishes where the common reader finds only things to enjoy. I am thinking of the narrator's trick of appearing in alternative and contradictory guises. At one point he tells us he is past his "days of love"; at another, that he is "fond of a little love," fond of the "old pleasures," "so they but hold." Almost as soon as the prevailing worldly and tolerant attitude towards sexual irregularity has been established, we come across stanzas such as the following, expressing a prudish distaste for amatory verse:
One could go on listing examples for a long time.
Objections of the sort John Wain makes are set aside by critics who favour the interpretations endorsed by intellectual fashion. They explain the multiple voices of Don Juan by making Byron out to be a modern, with a taste for the absurd, in the modern sense. The meaning of the poem, they suggest, is to be found in the ironic dissonance of the many voices. "Its irony," says William H. Marshall [in The Structure of Byron's Major Poems, 1962], "is terminal rather than instrumental." This is not an explanation likely to satisfy an enquiring mind; its anti-historical tendency has obvious disadvantages. Indeed, it has been opposed, and fairly successfully I feel, but it seems to me that the way the different narrative voices are united has yet to be fully explained.
The notion that the irony is "terminal" is no longer tenable, once we recognize the pervasive mocking tone, which suggests a judging mind, the narrator's or Byron's, assessing each of the multiple voices. It is only at one level, a fairly low and immediate one, that we find ourselves thinking of, and responding to, the sort of mind that prefers "decent" to "chaste," that speaks with relief of Virgil's "pure" songs, and that dare not refer to the second eclogue, except as "that horrid one / Beginning with 'Formosum Pastor Corydon.'" Most of today's readers, I suppose, see that there is a joke in such passages, first of all because they know Byron. A reader new to Byron might recognize the mockery in this passage, because it is out of tune with what's gone before. But you don't need to know Byron, or to have read any but this single stanza, in order to see that there is a joke. By itself, the stanza makes us aware of the judging mocking mind, a mind that delights in human absurdity (I'm not now using the word as a modernist slogan), but delights also in rising above it, in fixing or placing it, by giving it a crazy elegance of a sort the mind mocked could never devise and would never approve. In this stanza, the rhymes alone make us aware of the judging mind. And whenever the dissonant narrative voices chime in, the comic rhymes, the seemingly casual versification (in truth cunning)—all the things that give the unmistakable air of pretence—clearly indicate that there is something behind the diversity, that the irony is not terminal. The oversimplified images suggest a hidden complexity.
By itself, of course, a tone is not enough to provide a poem with unity. We don't recognize a tone as such, unless it suggests something deeper. My contention is that the multiple voices are united in our recognition, partly induced by the tone, that the narrator is a version of the rogue, who traditionally discovers identity in diversity. Byron's admiration for eighteenth-century literature is wellknown, and some critics have demonstrated, specifically, his debt to picaresque fiction. I should say, however, that I feel the narrator's roguishness is not to be explained simply by the identification of a specific "influence." He has qualities fundamental to rogues found throughout the long tradition of rogue literature.
Juan himself is a version of the rogue, but the narrator, in his mode of thought rather than in his actions, is the one who evokes more often the sentiments that belong to rogue literature. It is his commentary that gives the work its distinctive flavour. It is he who focuses the hatred of cant and hypocrisy, such as we find in The Alchemist; he who glorifies faith in impulse and truth to nature, such as we find in Tom Jones. And it is he who, through being protean, attains to a higher, freer identity. From Mak the sheep-stealer in the Towneley Mysteries, to Felix Krull, rogues have always been lovers of disguise, mimicry and imposture. The narrator of Don Juan takes his place in this tradition. Like the character in The Importance of Being Earnest (Wilde is surely one of Byron's literary progeny), he discovers that one is more alive, more alert to the possibilities of life, the more one stretches oneself to embrace alternatives and contradictions. He discovers that, when it is difficult to approach truth at all, it is better to approach it obliquely, from many points, than to pretend it is easy from one.
Recognizing that the narrator is a version of the rogue helps solve not merely the puzzle of the multiple narrative voices; it helps solve the puzzle of how far we should allow ourselves to hear Byron's own voice in the poem. It doesn't matter whether we tell ourselves we are listening to Byron, or to an image projected by Byron, or to a dramatically conceived narrator. The important thing is, we are listening to someone discovering identity through diversity, someone getting at the truth with the help of a variety of alternative disguises. This someone stands behind, concealed, knowable only through deduction and intuition. Perhaps the most sensible thing to say would be that Byron himself is the figure we ultimately sense or detect, and that the narrator is a projected image, the last layer of disguise. That, however, is by no means the only profitable way of imagining the latent structure of the poem. The point is, there is something complex behind the surface simplicities, but it is definable only in terms of those simplicities.
It might be objected that considering Don Juan as a piece of rogue literature is no more helpful than considering it as a piece of absurd literature. Both traditions suggest that there is something wrong with conventional attitudes towards truth and identity, and that imposture is a significant activity. Yet there are differences, and Don Juan, I feel, has some of the qualities that distinguish rogue literature from absurd literature. The latter usually suggests that there are no certainties: that what we think of as truth is convenient fiction, what we think of as personal identity is role-playing. Sometimes this postulate produces a grim or freakish comedy, but almost always, in the background, there is despair, or at best glum stoicism. Rogue literature, too, questions what is normally accepted as truth, and casts doubt on the fixity of human identity, but it usually does this on the understanding that it is primarily the certainties endorsed by society it is criticizing; rarely does it strive towards the metaphysical nihilism of absurd literature. If it is in any way nihilistic, it is not so glumly; rather, in the dissolution of certainties it finds freedom and scope for the imagination; not a pretext for angst. Even while we criticize them morally, we admire the imagination and appetite for life of Lazarillo de Tormes, of Falstaff, of Roderick Random. We find their scepticism about rules and theories exhilarating, not dismaying. Don Juan provokes the same exhilaration. In it, the feeling of moral liberation and the gusto, that belong to rogue literature, blend imperceptibly with the love of freedom and of truth to nature, characteristic of romantic literature. The narrator of Don Juan is the rogue as romantic sensibility.
It is not just that looking at Don Juan as rogue literature makes us see it better than looking at it as absurd literature. It seems to me that this way we are more likely to do justice to the intelligence and sanity of the poem. Rogue sentiment and the romantic love of freedom both easily turn into superficial gesturing, but not so easily as the existentialist angst that seems to be at the heart of absurd literature. The trouble with this angst is that it is wellfounded only if you believe the universe has let you down, if you feel it has neglected its clearly defined duty to provide you with certainties. Absurd literature is the literature of an age of transition; its value lies more in the way it records characteristic experiences of the age, than in its insight into enduring truths. Too often, it amounts to little more than the formalized self-pity of the generation. Don Juan is altogether more robust than most absurd literature. There is a continuous energy behind it that stops it from ever degenerating into superficial gesturing (however much it makes superficial gesturing its subject matter). Its clarity of vision demands that the poem be put in a different category from absurd literature.
Some readers might resist thinking of the narrator of Don Juan as a rogue, because he is aristocratic in temperament and style. He is familiar with members of the Spanish gentry, and he writes in a lordly fashion, with the manner of a man who finds it easy to laugh at modish ideas, persons and institutions, because his breeding sets him above them. It would be wrong to see this as something disqualifying him from being a rogue. Rogues are drawn to gentlemanly and aristocratic styles, and there seems to be an obscure link between rogues on the one hand, gentlemen and aristocrats on the other. Some rogues, like Mak the sheep-stealer and the hero of Quevedo's La Vida del Buscón, are enthusiastic mimics of upper-class styles. Some, it is suggested (ironically or otherwise), are good at upper-class styles because of a natural affinity with gentlemen and aristocrats: Robin Hood in the ballads, for example, Macheath, and Fielding's Jonathan Wild. And some rogues have an easy command of upper-class styles because, like the heroes of Restoration comedy and Roderick Random, they really are gentlemen or aristocrats.
During the Restoration era, in fact, it became fashionable to assume that all true gentlemen had something in common with rogues (it helped distinguish them from the hypocritical bourgeoisie). The old equation, "rogues are like gentlemen," was reversed. But the way had been well-prepared by the rogue tradition in literature. In the ballads, Robin Hood is a yeoman with a courtly style. At the end of the sixteenth century, Anthony Munday made him a real aristocrat, the wronged Earl of Huntingdon. Within a few years, it became natural to think of rogues as possessing a certain elegance. In Volpone, Mosca speaks admiringly of
… your fine, elegant rascall, that can rise,
And stoope (almost together) like an arrowe;
Shoot through the aire, as nimbly as a starre;
Turne short, as doth a swallow; and be here,
And there, and here, and yonder, all at once;
Present to any humour, all occasion;
And change a visor, swifter, than a thought:
The rogue's very protean nature is thought of as elegant. By the time of A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1625), we find an old-fashioned low-class rogue, Sir Giles Overreach, being defeated by one of the new upper-class gentleman-rogues, Welborne, whom Massinger evidently thought naturally superior in wit and resourcefulness. In the Restoration era, as I say, both in comedy and, it seems, in life, gentlemen and aristocrats thought of themselves as rogues. The tradition was carried forward by The Beggar's Opera and by eighteenth-century fiction. During the Regency period, the Restoration feeling about rogues and gentlemen was evidently revived in social life and, by Byron among others, in literature.
The style, or rather styles, of Don Juan is one of the things that points to a link with the rogue tradition. "Carelessly I sing," the narrator tells us, "But Phoebus lends me now and then a string" (VIII. 138). This is a fair description—of the effect at any rate. We admire the ramshackle gracefulness of the verse, and the way it moves imperturbably from one contradictory note to another. Rogues are always masters of style, and of quick changes between styles. It is part of their delight in disguise, mimicry and imposture. This is another area, too, in which the rogue and the gentleman meet. We can think of the narrator of Don Juan as one of the mob of gentlemen who write with ease, or we can think of him as a rogue with a love of brilliant surface. For a complete response, we have to think of him as both.
As many critics have pointed out, there is an exactness of control lying behind the seeming carelessness of the verse of Don Juan. Byron had a good ear, and a sure taste for effect. The effect of carelessness is carefully contrived. It is largely a matter of courting poetic disaster, striking a pose, or moving from one pose to another, in such a way that the reader is convinced the precarious balance will be lost, and is disproportionately pleased when it's not. The narrator behaves, verbally, like one of those circus performers who are both clowns and acrobats. Doing a trick, he always manages to give an impression of clumsiness, of impending failure, but always at the last moment he converts clumsiness into grace, and succeeds. And like the acrobatic clown, the narrator makes those he mockingly pretends to imitate seem silly and dull; what he does is a sort of demonstration of his contempt for such actions, such postures.
It shouldn't, then, be too difficult for us, when we are reading Don Juan, to identify with sufficient precision who is saying what is said. It is a rogue, a prankster, whom we perceive precisely because we are addressed by so many contradictory voices. It makes little difference whether we assume this rogue to be Byron or a dramatically conceived narrator. It is a little difficult to tell how seriously any particular utterance is made, and what shade of irony, if any, we are supposed to detect, but not much more difficult than it usually is in ironic literature, or, speaking more specifically, in rogue literature. Reading the poem, we get to know the rogue behind the various disguises; our sense of character, our natural discernment, teaches us how to assess each utterance, for its degree of seriousness and degree of irony. Most sensible critics have realized this, and I don't propose to demonstrate what they already have. The judicious reader will agree with Helen Gardner's reply to the charge that Don Juan is amoral (a charge implicit in the notion that it is a piece of absurd literature). "It is preposterous to call Don Juan an amoral work," she says [in "Don Juan," The London Magazine 5, July, 1958]. "Apart from the obvious moral passion in many passages, we are in no doubt as we read that Byron admires courage, generosity, compassion and honesty, and that he dislikes brutality, meanness, and above all self-importance, hypocrisy and priggery." We are in no doubt, that is, that Byron's values, formally presented through the medium of the narrator, are ultimately the values that lie behind most rogue literature worth reading. They are the values of Ben Jonson and Henry Fielding.
Supporters of John Wain's thesis might object that the rogue tradition is not something a poet can devote his creative life to exploiting. He may try it once, or a few times even, but he has to go on. At best it offers only a provisional adjustment to social and psychological fact. It doesn't offer a mode for discovering the deepest truths. I would agree; but I would also point out that such an objection, severely adhered to, puts out of court a great deal of literature most qualified readers admire. It implies that we should admire only the very greatest. What I am trying to suggest is this: I don't think it is true to say that Byron's failure to establish his own true identity prevented him from having "a fully successful relationship with his poetic imagination," if by that it is meant that Byron never wrote anything of significance in which this failure is not manifest, and which is not in some way spoiled by it (I think that's what John Wain does mean). Don Juan might not tell us whether Byron ever discovered himself, but it doesn't matter. In Don Juan we have a poem, unique in its way of course, but at the same time very nearly perfect of its type. And paradoxically, in the very diversity of voices heard within the poem, we perceive a man who, if he has not actually discovered himself, has got very near to it (close enough, indeed, for the purposes of the poem), through a process of exclusion: through identifying a multitude of inadequate and despicable moral postures, and thus disowning them. Negative though this process may be, it shows us a complex and volatile personality achieving at least a provisional stability, and that's no mean feat for a poem to perform.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3773
SOURCE: "The Byronic Pilgrimage to the Absurd," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XV, No. 4, Summer, 1974, pp. 325-65.
[In the following essay, Hinkel contends that Byron's poetry reflects his continuing attempts to come to terms with a world he considered chaotic and meaningless.]
In 1821, only three years before his death, Byron wrote in his diary: "It is all a Mystery. I feel most things, but I know nothing except—." He then covered the page with a series of blanks. The best of Byron's poetry is variation on that theme. The theme assumes nearly as many different emphases as the poet assumed poses, but the recurring motif, from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage through the fragmented Canto XVII of Don Juan, asserts an essentially absurdist view of the world. In one sense, Byron was born out of phase with time. While Coleridge and Wordsworth affirmed the organic unity of life and the blessedness afforded one who participates in an ultimately benevolent process, Byron traced the shrineless pilgrimage of Childe Harold who searches relentlessly for he is not sure what. While Shelley—even in Byron's presence—found "flowering isles" in the "sea of life and Agony" (imaginatively, if not actually), Byron allowed Manfred to die out of an unbearable, guilt-ridden existence. While Keats was steeling himself against misery with his doctrines of disinterestedness and "soul-making," Byron prepared Don Juan to play cleverly and sometimes heartlessly with a world which shifted constantly beneath his feet. Unlike his contemporaries, who were capable of affirmation in the face of misery, Byron affirmed, then doubted his own affirmations. Unable to realize, intellectually or emotionally, the stability and sanctity of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's organically unified world, Byron faced a world in which there was yet no adequate defense against chaos.
Like T. S. Eliot one hundred years later, Byron felt the need to shore some fragments against his ruin. In his poetry he first explores a fragmented world, then builds a refuge against it. Byron spent the balance of his poetic career haunted by what Harold Bloom has called the "specter of meaninglessness" (The Visionary Company, 1961). He used the force of his poetic genius to deal with this specter, first by shouting defiance of the world, then by mocking it, laughing that he might not weep. Ironically, the power of Byron's opposition made the specter materialize; the poetry from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage through Don Juan progressively reveals an incoherent, essentially meaningless world.
Although there are moments in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage when the pilgrim seems to have found what he seeks, something of extraordinary beauty and value, most of the pilgrimage wanders from one disillusioning experience to another. From the beginning there is a poignant sense of burned-out life, of energy so purposelessly spent that only a void remains. In the very first stanza the poet sets the tone by denying himself a muse: "Nor mote my shell awake the weary Nine / To grace so plain a tale—this lowly lay of mine." This initial humility is the poet's, but the pilgrim will eventually realize it as well. No muse could elevate and inspire the poem, for the subject itself is base. From "Childe Harold's Good Night" till the end of Canto IV, the pilgrim wanders; less heroically than Tennyson's Ulysses, he defines his existence in terms of quest and new experience. Each new experience, though, disappoints. The shining, enchanting beauty of Lisbon seen from afar becomes the wretchedness and poverty of the city seen in close-up. Heroic and legendary Greece has a modern sculptor; an Englishman, Lord Elgin, hacks away at Grecian monuments, forcing Byron to write "The Curse of Minerva." Countless experiences and themes from the poem might be cited to support the claim that the poet is beginning to develop a nihilistic view of things: the lasting disparity between ideal and real, aspiration and achievement, imagination and reason; the sic transit gloria mundi theme which informs Cantos III and IV; the lonely soul theme which the alien Harold reiterates so boldly but sadly. But ultimately there is hope in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. The poet found at least one way of dealing with a disappointing world: the creation of art. The fear of nothingness leads nowhere, so Byron seized, almost in desperation, the idea of living through imaginative structuring of experience:
'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….
This concept, reinforced by the Shelleyan-Wordsworthian optimism that appears in the middle of the canto, suggests that Byron had reached despair but passed beyond it. Shelley's optimism, though, is unnatural to Byron, and there is a regression to bleakness in Canto IV. But the notion of living by creating gave Byron one defense against chaos; he finds another in Canto IV, a tremendous faith in the power of the human mind and will.
As Childe Harold enters Venice in Canto IV, Byron is still sustained by his newly achieved conviction that the creative imagination gives structure and meaning to the poet's existence. In an echo of the passage from Canto III, vi, Harold identifies "The Beings of the mind" as being of more than clay. They are "essentially immortal," and they afford us eventually a more "beloved existence" (IV, v). Eventually, though, the creations, the "Beings," yield importance to the mind itself. In stanza xxi Byron affirms an even greater strength in the mind:
Existence may be borne, and the deep root
Of life and sufferance make its firm abode
In bare and desolated bosoms: mute
The Camel labours with the heaviest, load,
And the wolf dies in silence—not bestowed
In vain should such example be; if they,
Things of ignoble or of savage mood,
Endure and shrink not, we of nobler clay
May temper it to bear,—it is but for a day.
The poet's eye is turning yet more inward, scanning the creations of the mind for their beauty and life, but praising the mind even more because it can will endurance for our mortal clay. No longer seeking to transcend bodily life by momentary engagement with the higher world of art, Childe Harold gradually adopts a quite acceptance of his unrewarding quest. In stanza cxxvii he says that it is "a base / Abandonment of reason to resign / Our right of thought—our last and only place / Of refuge…." This last proclamation reaffirms his suspicion, first voiced in stanza xxv, that perhaps the best he can do on his pilgrimage is "To meditate amongst decay." The very power of art to revitalize life depends upon the mind's receptivity; the mind itself is our last refuge.
Byron's belief in the shaping power of poetry undoubtedly influenced his notion of the indomitable force of the mind; poetry, which gives life to the poet, is of course a creation of the mind. But the Prometheus myth added another dimension to Byron's developing conviction that the mind itself is man's greatest resource. Prometheus had long fascinated Byron, enough so that he wrote an entire poem about the rebellious Titan. His defiance of Zeus, his opposition to a force supposedly greater than himself, made Prometheus attractive to Byron at this point in his development. The Titan epitomizes heroic volition, terrifying assertion of one's own will. Zeus stood as a judge who enforced illogical and indefensible laws. Through an act of will, Prometheus became the soul judge of himself by refusing to accept any external standard or law. He became a law unto himself, and it is to this same position that the poet himself came. Having failed to find coherence and stability in a world of orthodox standards and conduct, Byron concluded that coherence could at least be achieved within the individual mind. With this pervasive sense of individual order, Manfred was composed.
Simply stated, Manfred dramatizes the refusal of the mind to yield to anything outside itself. Manfred, then, at least in part, develops from Childe Harold whose last refuge is the mind itself. As did Childe Harold, Manfred sought for something more than the "humble virtues," "hospitable home," and "spirit patient" represented by the Chamois Hunter. But like Childe Harold, Manfred was destined to be an alien: "though I wore the form, I had no sympathy with breathing flesh" (II, ii, 56-57). Tormented by his sense of guilt for having loved "as we should not love" (II, i, 27), Manfred seeks forgetfulness. He is offered what he needs by the Witch of the Alps if he will only yield his will to her. Manfred's reply to the Witch of the Alps might be the poet's to the world:
I will not swear—Obey! and whom? the Spirits
Whose presence I command, and be the slave
Of those who served me—Never!
(II, ii, 157-159)
Even at the moment of death when the spirits come to claim him, Manfred asserts the supremacy of his own will:
I do not combat against Death, but thee
And thy surrounding angels; my past power
Was purchased by no compact with thy crew,
But by superior science—penance, daring,
And length of watching, strength of mind, …
(III, iv, 112-116)
Strength of mind, the impassioned assertion that the individual will is the most powerful of forces. Manfred's anguish came not from any external imposition, but from within—and so does his death. The common mind (the abbot), shaped by orthodoxy, is at a loss to understand Manfred's willful death. It is this same common mind, nourished by traditional values, which both Byron and Manfred repudiate. Childe Harold tentatively asserted the supremacy of the individual will; Manfred glorifies it.
Heroic defiance cannot last indefinitely. Either it must consume its possessor, as it does Manfred, or be consumed, leaving a void behind. The tone of the poetry after Manfred suggests that the latter may have happened to Byron, that at least in his art the will to command experience absolutely slowly diminished. In the best poems, especially in Don Juan, there is a resignation which accepts incoherent meaninglessness and deals with it. In his epic, Byron's outright defiance fades, and he doubts the sanctity of most things, the individual will and poetry included. Having lowered his two earlier defenses against ruin in the face of chaos, Byron adopted new ways of dealing with an essentially absurd world. Sentimental visions of innocence, shrineless pilgrimages, aesthetic imposition of order, heroic self-assertion, and Shelleyan transcendence all failed to uncover the coherent, ordered world he sought. By 1818, then, Byron concluded that no order was to be found. His consequent acceptance of chaos is even reflected in the form of his greatest works. The earlier poetry usually had been written in rhymed forms dignified by the weight of tradition. Pope and the heroic couplet stood behind English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers, supporting an interesting but lame satire. Spenser and all his imitators gave aged authority to the stanza form of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Even the plays, although unique in many ways, show obvious indebtedness to the rich English and Greek dramatic traditions. But in English there was no ottava rima tradition, no precedent for the unlikely rhymes, the diversified metrics, sometimes Mil-tonic in grandeur, sometimes deliberately doggerel. Byron was on his own, free from serious concerns for propriety and structure. The rejection of most literary standards complemented his rejection of the idea of an ordered universe. With the freedom afforded by the ottava rima, Byron developed his last defense against incoherence. Childe Harold's quest and Manfred's peculiar knowledge had turned up relatively little to be celebrated in the world. The world, though, could be neither transcended nor ignored, but had to be faced. Laughter, even when it tended toward the hysterical, offered a way of coping without going mad.
A cursory look at Beppo confirms that Byron had begun to laugh. The material for an explosive melodrama is here. After years away, Beppo returns home to find his wife, Laura, keeping the company of a "Cavalier Servente." If Beppo had had Childe Harold's idealism and Manfred's grand passions, he could have turned his unexpected home-coming into an Italian domestic tragedy. The poem, though, gives nothing of the sort. The hero accepts his plight calmly, makes necessary adjustments. Laura occasionally enrages Beppo by henpecking him, but his fury is soon spent. Indeed, the Count, the "Cavalier Servente," and Beppo "were always friends." No heroic vengeance; no epic destruction of Penelope's suitors. Beppo simply accepts things as they are, and his acceptance resembles Byron's own; things may occasionally enrage him, but he is now amiable on the whole.
Mazeppa reaffirms the notion that nothing now is very important. Much of the poem approximates the emotional depths Byron had examined in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Manfred. The tale relates events of passion, violence, and revenge, and Byron seems to have exposed his pulse in public once again. But finally Mazeppa is an elaborate joke, a shaggy-dog story constructed in 868 lines leading to a punch line which deflates the serious tone of the narrative. The fact that the King, the intended audience, slept through the balance of the narrative implies that the poet's art is really a soporific. The poet may have participated in a greater world created by the imagination in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (III, vi), but in Mazeppa poetry has become dull entertainment which may or may not reach the intended audience; it really does not matter, though, because the joke is for the poet's sake.
With the peculiar calm which resulted from his realization of nothingness in the world, and with the relaxed freedom afforded by the ottava rima, Byron wrote Don Juan. To demonstrate in this poem the despair at a meaningless world is easy. Indeed, the unlimited scope of the poem makes it likely that nearly anything can be proved by reference to the text. But the idea of nothingness permeates the poem because it appears at so many strategic and dramatic moments. For example, the following stanza might be cited as evidence of Byron's vision of nothingness:
Canto VII is of course one of the war cantos; consequently its dominant tone is seriously satirical. War is shown to be violent, and Don Juan, at least for a while, fights violently beside the best of the Russian troops. Yet the high seriousness of the tone and the subject matter is regularly undermined. While monstrous war goes on in Canto VII, in the next canto, after the Russians have besieged the city, the serious tone is interrupted by levity. In the best Roman-Sabine tradition, the raping begins:
The flippant couplet alone turns a sad situation into a comic episode. In the next stanza, though, the narrator points out "that some disappointment there ensued," and the following stanza tells why:
The nothingness which Byron holds up here is not the fact of war, but the inane responses to it. Against the cruelty of war and the subsequent inanity which informs man's response to war, Byron protects himself with laughter. On the whole, the war cantos reveal a depth of compassion and sense of the sanctity of human life. But to be only serious about such matters is again to invite despair. Byron chooses to laugh, and then to move on to the Court of Catherine the Great. Rapid movement and laughter becomes his defense against senseless cruelty and inane human behavior.
That laughter and acceptance of nothingness have replaced the earlier defense against ruin which Byron found in the creative act is reflected in his expressed attitude toward poetry in Don Juan. At the beginning of Canto VII the poet identifies his tale as a "versified Aurora Borealis / Which flashes o'er a waste and icy clime" (VII, ii). The light of his verse, though, is not to redeem or to elevate, but to lay bare a wasteland of a civilization that we may know it for what it is. The following passage tells what the Aurora Borealis elucidates:
Poetry now induces laughter; no longer does it allow its creator to participate in a better world of art, rather to live with his lesser world of factual nothingness—a "show." Among myriad possibilities, several stanzas from Canto XIV reflect the persistency of Byron's now casual attitude toward poetry. In stanza viii "Poesy" is "a straw, borne on my human breath." Whimsical by intent, it acts "according as the Mind glows." Like straw, poetry is essentially hollow, lacking the passionate emotion which surfaced so regularly in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Manfred. The couplet of stanza viii comments further on poetry:
And mine's a bubble, not blown up for praise,
But just to play with, as an infant plays.
After admitting in stanza x that "I can't help scribbling once a week," Byron expresses a defense of poesy that must have shocked his friend, Shelley:
Writing is like a pointless game of cards or is a soporific, like reading and drinking. It pacifies. All these passages, and countless other, suggest that Byron had become obsessed with emptiness and futility. Art became a game, played only as earnestly as suburban housewives might play bridge, to keep blankness away.
This affable but calloused appraisal of the world finally leads Byron to train his hero quickly for the insubstantial, hypocritical society he will find in the English Cantos. After several stanzas of cataloguing ignominious historical events and figures in Engliand's past and present, the poet instructs Juan in how to survive in the inanity of the English society Juan has entered:
All races and days in this society are transient, and Juan must learn self-annihilation and shape-shifting if he is to play in a frivolous world. This is self-annihilation, though, which is manifested in convenient refusal to be a person; Juan must always be whatever the situation demands. This capacity to disguise one's essential self while playing various roles is identified in Canto XVI as "mobility." While Lady Adeline entertains her husband's political supporters, she assumes her role so elegantly that Juan "began to feel / Some doubt how much of Adeline was real" (xlvi). Furthermore:
"Want of heart" is precisely what is wrong in the world Juan inhabits. Strong will and heart moved Childe Harold and Manfred through anguished existences, though, and Byron, like Juan and Lady Adeline, has learned that an emotional commitment to an essentially meaningless existence can only bring anguish. Don Juan will prosper in England; like Lady Adeline he learns to adjust to the moment at hand. Persistent and flippant inconsistency is the only way to deal with an insubstantial, incoherent world.
Don Juan is something of a labyrinth, though, and around each corner and at each dead-end is more evidence that the poet has determined existence itself to be an incoherent maze. Rather than proceed with more particular illustrations, perhaps it is better to look at three general points about the poem to show that it is finally about nothingness. First, the very fact that the poem concerns everything suggests that it is ultimately about nothing. Byron admitted in a letter to his publisher (April 23, 1818) that the poem "is meant to be a little quietly facetious upon every thing." A central theme is impossible to locate. At times the theme seems to be the old discrepancy between illusion and reality. Or perhaps it is, as several critics recently have argued, the theme of the Fall with elaborate variations. Or perhaps a desire to expose gross hypocrisy motivated the poem. Or perhaps. The possibilities are countless. The focus is finally nowhere. By being every-where, Don Juan is not anywhere—it is constantly in the process of becoming, but it never simply is, nor could have been until it ended, and it could end only with Byron's death. To look too closely at any single subject, or to narrate in a single tone of voice, would be to edge toward consistency, and consistency is more than the hob-goblin of small minds; it is madness. Byron's "mobility," though, allows him to keep playing opposites off against one another in a desperate defense against despair. If love becomes painful, it must be mocked. If war is violent and cruel, there must be women wondering when the raping will begin. If there is an Aurora Raby, there must be a Lady Adeline. Rapid movement with a shifting world is the only means of survival.
Secondly, the character of Juan himself demonstrates the emptiness of the world Byron inhabited. Mobility becomes the habit of Juan's soul. A reader spends an immense amount of time with Juan, but finally knows very little about his character. Even more important, Juan almost completely lacks the will which sustained Childe Harold and Manfred. As numerous critics have pointed out, the world acts upon him. Even his few willed acts, like the saving of Leila, are vague gestures that go nowhere. Like Auden's unknown citizen, "When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went." When there is an empress to pamper him, he lets her. But that is Juan's victory; the moment determines both his actions and his essence.
Finally, the essential formlessness of the poem reflects Byron's conviction that life is ultimatley incoherent and chaotic. The poem literally sprawls from Spain to Greece, from Greece to Turkey, from Turkey to Russia, and from Russia to England. Byron was too much an artist to try to impose strict, traditional artistry on Juan's meandering. He simply terminates episodes when they no longer interest him, and numerous digressions interrupt and defy a strictly coherent narrative. This formlessness, though, comes not from incompetence, but from Byron's understanding of how he had to operate within his world in order to stay sane. From one canto to the next he wrote what pleased him, how it pleased him. If he decided that the reader did not need to know how Juan escaped from the Seraglio, Byron did not bother to tell. If Leila, who was the occasion for Juan's one really heroic and compassionate act, virtually disappears from the poem though she remains with Juan, the poet does not care. What did it matter? The poem meant more to Byron as process than as achievement. With urbane laughter and the emotional detachment afforded thereby, Byron survived in his poetic world which earlier had nearly devoured him. Byron's own comment that parts of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage were written by a man much older than he would ever be is appropriate. Childe Harold's idealism-to-anguish journey tired the poet; the endless growth and process of Don Juan not only kept him young, but sustained him in a world which he intellectually knew and experimentally proved to be im-perfect.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4966
SOURCE: "Masses and Solids: Byron's View of the External World," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 3, September, 1974, pp. 257-71.
[In the essay below, Bostetter examines Byron's ideas regarding the relationship of the human mind and the physical world as expressed in his poems.]
John Locke's theories affected all the major Romantics, even those like Coleridge who repudiated them with such scorn. In particular, they were influenced by his separation of senses into primary and secondary sensations, the external world versus the inner world. The distinctions Locke drew were simple and dramatic: the "primary" qualities of objects—solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number—are those that really exist in the objects, whether anyone's senses perceive them or not; and secondary qualities—colors, sound, tastes, etc.—"in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities, i.e., by the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of their insensible parts" [An Essay Concerning Human Understanding].
Take away the sensation of them, let not the eyes see light or colours, nor the ears hear sounds; let the palate not taste, nor the nose smell; and all colours, tastes, odours and sounds, as they are such particular ideas, vanish and cease, and are reduced to their causes, i.e., bulk, figure, and motion of parts.
Most of the Romantics, except Byron, were enthralled by the secondary sensations. They dismissed Locke's conception of them as illusory and decided, contrary to Locke, that they were actually as real as the external world of primary sensations. Wordsworth and Coleridge sought to dramatize the interaction of internal and external worlds; Keats and Shelley sought through the visionary experience to find evidence for a world of beauty and truth to which the present external world is inferior and which is indeed molded and shaped by the imagination; Blake boldly reversed Locke's position and saw imagination as the only reality, and the external world as illusory. Indeed, most of the Romantics sooner or later developed such a conception of the imagination and clung to it, even though the younger Romantics like Keats and Shelley became increasingly disillusioned and skeptical about its powers to discern the ultimate truth.
Byron, in contrast, was the only major Romantic poet who wrote within the empirical tradition. The external world is the ultimate reality for him. His poetry abounds with the mountains, seas, and infinite spaces of the physical universe. But he was skeptical of the visionary experience and had little or nothing to do with it. There are surprisingly few images of color, and perhaps a few more of sound; but on the whole Byron uses the secondary sensations sparingly as subsidiary to the primary, except when he is dealing wholly with the human world, as in the third canto of Don Juan (Haidée's feast) or in the last cantos (e.g., the Epicurean feast).
This is not to say that Byron does not explore an inter-relationship between man and the physical world (or more often a relationship between himself and that world). But he confronts the external world not so much through imaginative vision as through the naked ego, defying, supplicating, probing, always seeking some answer, as from an oracle or an allegorical painting, to the mystery of his own identity. For Byron believes that beyond yet immanent in Nature is a power of Mind (though he vacillates on this in his view of nature, which ultimately perhaps he sees as indifferent or hostile, activated by a power or energy similar to mind, but subordinate in the short run at least to the power of mind in the human being). This power manifests itself in reason, which can control both human society and the natural world. One notices that these terms are well-grounded in the eighteenth-century empirical tradition.
Byron's reaction to his world is ambiguous, often contradictory, oscillating back and forth according to his moods and experiences until Don Juan, when his attitude tends to stabilize. There are at least four possible ways in which he views the external world:
(1) as the deteriorating world of a lost pastoral paradise, of which remnants still remain (the first act of Cain, Haidée's island, The Island). The prehistorical earth may have contained superior beings, or there may have been other worlds with such beings before our own, with its inferior beings, was created. At any rate, past nature was the Ideal by which to measure the present.
(2) as a benign universe in which man finds comfort and solace, into which he can project himself, and with which he can identify (the Alps in the third canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, the end of the fourth canto, Haidée's island, and other portions of Don Juan).
(3) as an active, often malevolent universe, both creative and destructive, a world of titanic power which man, to survive, must defy with the power of his mind—or one which Byron can admire and identify himself with as superior to other men—a power of nature himself (Childe Harold, Manfred, the second canto of Don Juan).
(4) as an indifferent world of bleak masses and solids, of an infinity of worlds, unfathomable, other than which there is emptiness, nothingness, meaninglessness; a world that will ultimately sweep away man and his works and leave nothing except a wasteland; beyond this world no God, no purpose, no prime mover ("Darkness," the third canto of Childe Harold, Manfred, Cain, Don Juan throughout).
At the same time, Byron was in conflict; the opposite side of the coin was his conviction that mind was superior to matter and could well prevail. If so, there was a great design beyond nature, an omniscient Mind. Here again Byron comes close to the eighteenth-century tradition, Deism.
Let me now examine episodes in representative poems in illustration of these generalizations.
The "lost" earthly paradise of Byron was the world of his childhood: the Scottish Highlands, Newstead Abbey, Harrow. In his earliest poems—most of them in Hours of Idleness—he writes about these places frequently with nostalgia and yearning. The poems on the Scottish Highlands indicate the origin of his love of mountains and oceans and point toward Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Manfred, and other later poems. In "Lachin Y Gair" he writes:
And in "When I Roved a Young Highlander" he writes of how he would climb snow-covered Mt. Morven:
and later on, "I lov'd my bleak regions, nor panted for new." Here are the elemental forms which loom so large in Byron's later poems; and here is one of the first expressions of identifying with them—mountains, torrents, crags, rocks, ocean ("Place me among the rocks I love, / Which sound to Ocean's wildest roar," in "I Would I Were a Careless Child"). One other feature goes into these memories of childhood: there is always some human being whom he loves and who loves him. This becomes one of the most poignant and powerful elements in the childhood paradises he so wistfully recalls—giving them the warmth of human love to make the land-scape meaningful.
Newstead Abbey and Harrow are pastoral landscapes described in the traditional language of the English pastoral. As Byron matured as a poet, Newstead became increasingly important to him, and he individualized it more and more. The old Gothic ruins of the Abbey in the center of the lovely landscape gave an additional charm to his memories. In the "Epistle to Augusta" Lake Leman and its environs take on special meaning because they recall Newstead Lake and its environs. But it is in canto 13 of Don Juan, where he describes Norman Abbey, the seat of the Amundevilles, in terms of Newstead Abbey (stanzas 56-58), that he gives his most intense reconstruction of the childhood paradise:
And he describes the stag, the wild fowl nestling in the brake and sedges, the woods sloping downward to the lake.
Byron's paradise is in many respects like Rasselas's happy valley. He seems always to view his paradise through a frame, as if it were a picture, or through a camera obscura. Newstead Abbey is always framed by its woods; the Scottish Highland valleys, by their mountains. An important result is the aesthetic distancing that Byron attains. In numerous poems, he provides a glimpse of an Earthly Paradise (similar to but with no reference to his childhood paradise). In The Prisoner of Chilien, the prisoner climbs to the window where he glimpses the wondrous world surrounding Lake Geneva framed by his prison window. In Manfred, the protagonist has a glimpse through the Chamois Hunter of a pastoral paradise no longer accessible to him. Cain has his parents' memories of Eden. In canto 3 of Childe Harold, Rousseau's Clarens becomes the center of an idyllic landscape. But the two major constructions of dream paradises, wistfully built upon memories and (as Byron knew) impossible hopes for the future, are Haidée's island in canto 3 of Don Juan and The Island. Haidée's paradise, isolated by rugged cliffs, almost impenetrable and ringed by the raging sea from which Juan had been tossed, has all the pastoral beauty of the English landscape that Byron recalls. But it is ultimately marred by the corruption of the human beings who live there, and Byron makes clear how ephemeral it is, acknowledges that Haidée and Juan cannot long enjoy it, and wishes that they could die in the high ecstasy of their love. The Island, ironically perhaps the last work of Byron, except the final cantos of Don Juan (13-17), contains his most unabashed dream picture of paradise. Drawing upon accounts of the South Seas and his own wistful memories and hopes, he describes the ultimate paradise framed by wild cliffs and a dangerous sea. Neuha is truly the innocent savage, more pure and simple than Haidée, enamored of the barbaric splendor of feast and clothing and furnishings. Torquil is the dashing young Highlander, who still recalls the glories of his Highland youth. The astonishing thing is that Byron allows them to escape from their pursuers through the hidden cave and return to the island, there presumably to live happily ever after. Here just before setting off for Greece, he allows himself the indulgence of a dream picture of an enduring paradise.
Childhood memories and the influence of Wordsworth by way of Shelley were mainly responsible for Byron's recurrent belief in the benignity of the natural world. A strong pull toward Deism also contributed. In an early poem, "The Prayer of Nature" (1806), Byron writes in echo of the Newtonian-Lockean creed:
In the later poems it is the Wordsworthian creed of the immanence of a living and benign power in natural objects that dominates. This power is most evident in the massive primary forms—mountains, ocean, the physical universe of stars and planets. The most famous passage demonstrating these points is the apostrophe to the Alps in canto 3 of Childe Harold, but similar passages occur in most of the poems. In fact, throughout the four cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, with the exception of the ambiguous apostrophe to the ocean at the end, the beauty and goodness of nature are contrasted with the corruption of man. Even in the most somber poems this motif recurs. In Manfred, though in most of the poem the elements are indifferent or destructive, there is the passionate cry in I.ii:
And there are the splendid apostrophes to the Witch of the Alps (II.ii), the sun (III.ii), and the moon (III.iv). In Cain, the physical universe, if left alone by God, is serene and beautiful. When Cain is carried up into outer space, he exclaims:
The star had special symbolic significance for Byron; it was a sign of purpose in the universe. He called his destiny or fate a star and saw Augusta as a star guiding him on. The eye of a beautiful woman was like a star. The stars are "the poetry of heaven." Only in Manfred is the star destructive and malign. In Cain, as the quotation indicates, stars are the symbols of eternity and the ultimate mystery, the key to knowledge which Cain thirsts for so desperately. Cain—after his apostrophe—identifies them with good: "Within those glorious orbs … / Ill cannot come: they are too beautiful."
Even in Don Juan in the midst of the most flippant or realistic passages (as in the shipwreck), a nostalgic glimpse of benign Nature intrudes suddenly: in the description of Haidée's island, in the Ave Maria stanzas in canto 4, and in the description of Norman Abbey, for example. In The Island, Nature not only is benign, but actively aids and abets the lovers in their escape—though beyond the islands lie dangerous reefs and turbulent seas.
The most recurrent motif is perhaps that of the ambivalence of the beautiful and powerful forces of the physical universe. They are at the same time creative and destructive, indifferent, even hostile, to man, capriciously capable of doing him—according to man's ethical standards—good or ill. With his view of man as part of the physical world, Byron contemptuously called him "clay"—molded from the clay of the earth and doomed to crumple like clay, struggling constantly to transcend his physical limitations through his reason—fighting a continuing battle of the spirit to dominate the flesh—but doomed in the end to destruction by the elemental forces of nature. The most striking example of the ambivalence in nature is given in the apostrophe to the ocean in stanzas 177-84 of canto 4 of Childe Harold. The passage begins with a return to the motif of benign nature in the section on the Alps in canto 3: "Oh! that the Desert were my dwelling-place, / With one fair Spirit for my minister," and he asks the elements "in whose ennobling stir / I feel myself exalted" if they can find him such a being. "I love not Man the less, but Nature more"—because his experiences in Nature have led him to mingle with the universe. But with the apostrophe to the ocean a shift in mood takes place. The ocean is an indifferent destructive power to man, sweeping away his ships and petty empires, despising "the vile strength he wields / For Earth's destruction." Byron seems to revel in this ruthless description of the meanness and insignificance of man before the titanic powers of the ocean—and the passage suggests that beneath the words "I love not Man the less" there is a partly unconscious Freudian delight in the annihilation of corrupt human beings—who had been responsible for his own exile—by the cleansing power of the ocean. The ocean is also a creative force, as Byron apostrophizes in one of his finest stanzas:
It is with the ocean Byron identifies, superior himself to the rest of mankind. For him the ocean is benign: "For I was as it were a Child of thee, / And trusted to thy billows far and near."
Here, then, the ocean is presented as indifferent and destructive, creative and benign. For Byron the ocean remains a symbol of the awesome power of natural elements. There is the deluge in Heaven and Earth, in which the threat of man's annihilation in canto 4 of Childe Harold is realized, and there is the storm in canto 3 of Don Juan, followed by the description of the protective reef which insures the safety of Don Juan and Haidée; a similar alternation between menace and protection is found in The Island.
In Cain Byron subscribes to the deteriorationism of Cuvier. Once there were other worlds more magnificent than earth; there were mighty beings, "Intelligent, good, great, and glorious things," far superior to man; and there were the great mammoths of the land and leviathans of the sea. Cain views them as phantasms in the dark Hades to which Lucifer has led him. When Cain asks how they were destroyed (II.ii), Lucifer replies, "By a most crushing and inexorable / Destruction and disorder of the elements, / Which struck a world to chaos," and he implies that Cain's earth will be similarly destroyed, as it decays into "dull damp degeneracy."
But the most vivid use of destructive elements is in Manfred. When Manfred conjures up the spirits of earth and air (Li), each declares his power of unleashing destructive forces. And the seventh spirit, no longer the benign star of other poems, is now malevolent. It tells Manfred that his star was once a world as fresh and fair as ever revolved around the sun. But now it is "A wandering mass of shapeless flame, / A pathless Comet, and a curse, / The menace of the Universe," rolling on with innate force, a bright deformity on high.
The destinies who do the bidding of Arimanes are akin to, perhaps are, the elements of the first act. But here they are openly destructive (II.iii) of the good—they restore tyrants to their thrones, sink ships, rescuing only the traitor, spread the black plague. And in II.iv they hail Arimanes as
At his will, tempests shake the sea, clouds reply in thunder, sunbeams flee, earthquakes rend the world, volcanoes rise; his shadow is pestilence, and planets turn to ashes at his wrath. The Manicheism indicated here between the evil "God of this World" and what Manfred calls the "overruling Infinite" is developed on a fuller scale in Cain. There the God of Adam is responsible for human suffering, as Lucifer says in I.i:
Lucifer, the tables turned as in Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell, presents himself as the good, and in Byronic eyes is the good.
Under these varying views of Nature lay a fundamentally bleak view of the natural world as made up of masses and solids, of infinite planets living and dead, and as inexorably moving toward the destruction of earth and its inhabitants. This view, which Byron had held at least from early manhood, lay not far beneath his surface consciousness and erupted at frequent intervals in his later poetry. We find a glimpse of it in the Hebrew Melody "When Coldness Wraps This Suffering Clay" (1815) and a more explicit statement in a letter to Annabella, March 3, 1814, in which he states, "Why I came here, I know not. Where I shall go to, it is useless to inquire. In the midst of myriads of the living and the dead worlds—stars—systems—infinity—why should I be anxious about an atom?" Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, particularly cantos 3 and 4, and Manfred have references to the earth as "wasteland," "desert," "With blasted pines … barkless, branchless," but these epithets are perhaps mainly the reflection of Byron's own moods. It is in "Darkness" (1816) that he presents a terrifying picture of the earth becoming a dead planet, returning to chaos:
In Manfred, the description of Manfred's star as "The burning wreck of a demolished world" gives us another glimpse into chaos, this time inextricably bound up with Manfred's sense of his own deterioration and doom.
Cain is a vivid illustration of Cuvier's theory of deterioration, which, as the preface indicates, fascinated Byron. Key features are the description of Hades with the dead worlds floating there, along with the titanic beings that once existed and the implication—spelled out by Lucifer—that tiny earth and its inhabitants will be destroyed in the same way, returning the Universe to chaos.
Heaven and Earth is perhaps the most spectacular presentation of the earth being overwhelmed by the surging waters of the ocean. The deluge fulfills Byron's implicit prophecy in canto 4 of Childe Harold. As one of the fiendish spirits says, "Earth shall be Ocean!" Japhet on Mt. Ararat exclaims:
And he muses on the thought that, all other living things dead, serpents shall escape
To hiss and sting through some emerging world,
Reeking and dank from out the slime, whose ooze
Shall slumber o'er the wreck of this….
The fiends tell him that he will survive, but that his race will be inferior to what had gone before, as will other living things. He denies this and dreams of a new Eden.
When the deluge does come, the clouds "fixed as rocks" wait to pour out their "wrathful vials," the stars are no longer glorious, and in the sun's place, "a pale and ghastly glare / Hath wound itself around the dying air." And here, as in "Darkness," the sun is at last obliterated. Mountains collapse, torrents rush down, and rocks crash into the deep. A chorus of mortals rushing by describes the chaos descending upon the world. The final touching note is the cry of a fleeing woman recalling the paradisical world that is being destroyed:
Here is a good time to digress for a moment and write of Byron's influence. In his emphasis on the massive effects of nature, he had little appeal for the poets who followed him—who were mesmerized by the preoccupation of the other Romantics with vision. Browning's Childe Roland and some later poems came closest. But painters and composers were greatly stimulated. In particular, John Martin, the English painter who has only recently come into his own, was spurred to some of his most impressive paintings. One of them, The Deluge, first displayed in 1826, was accompanied by a pamphlet in which he quoted from Heaven and Earth, "that sublime poem." Later, when he did a group of three paintings on the Deluge, exhibited in 1841-42, he again quoted from Heaven and Earth. He was also fascinated by Manfred and "Darkness" and did paintings inspired by them. Indeed, the massive mountains, rocks, and overpowering oceans in his nature pictures become a transformation of Byron's descriptions into painting.
The music of composers like Berlioz was also molded and shaped by the massive forms of Byron and Martin. To both Berlioz acknowledges his debt. The monumental orchestration in works like Harold in Italy, Requiem, Damnation of Faust, and Te Deum, often with several choirs and orchestras, plainly shows the transformation into music of the massive grouping of Byron and Martin. Heine, commenting on the influence of Martin, writes of the "orchestration placed tier upon tier, vistas, in music, disappearing into infinity." Berlioz's influence was not great during his lifetime, but he led the way toward the huge orchestras used by Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, all of whom were influenced also by Byron.
Now what are we to say about Don Juan? In this long "medley" of a poem, as John Jump calls it [in his Byron, 1972], Byron is mainly concerned with the relation of his characters to each other and to society, and with their physical vulnerability—the mutability of themselves and their civilization. He is less concerned with the physical universe outside him, except for the raging storm and implacable sea in canto 3. He touches upon every aspect of nature as his mood or the particular context prompts. But implicit in the poem, and increasingly pervasive as it proceeds, is a view of the natural world as, if not meaningless, at least capricious and indifferent to man, without purpose of its own, and ultimately absurd, a "glorious blunder." So he finally anticipates existential and absurdist literature of the present: man is on his own to make what he can of life. In reality, the universe has become unimportant to Byron, as he becomes involved in castigation of the "cant" of civilization, in efforts to promote a moral toughening therein by relentless exposure of the "facts" of human behavior, and therefore in working toward the improvement of civilization. The malevolent or indifferent deteriorating universe, its destruction millennia away, no longer disturbs him in his preoccupation with what man can do with his experience here and now. His new point of view is also affected by his shift from the serious to the comic perspective, always present in the Letters, but now through the ottava rima poems surging up to release Byron as poet in all his potentialities. The perspective of Don Juan, like Pulci's, is essentially comic, and increasingly skeptical as the poem proceeds into the English cantos. Byron questions the reality or truth of everything, except what he feels upon his pulses, as Keats said—in other words, the experience of his senses. But this is enough. The poem reveals throughout Byron's exuberant love of life on its own terms. He writes with gusto and evident enjoyment. He laughs at himself and his characters with genuine humor, and often with boisterous explosions. This is what gives the positive note which dominates the often nihilistic and pessimistic implications of the poem.
The Island, as we have seen, represents a startling change of pace and mood from the satiric realism of the English cantos into which it is sandwiched. Though an uneven poem, it takes on a strange poignancy in the love affair between Torquil and Neuha. This is Byron's most nostalgic dream of the Earthly Paradise, with its innocent lovers (Neuha is Haidée stripped of her barbaric trimmings), secure in the protection of the ocean, rocks, cliffs, and caves.
Byron's death was a sad and miserable anticlimax, the opposite of the glorious death in battle of which he had dreamed. The wretched climate of Missolonghi, plus his own imprudence, killed him. But there was final spectacular moment. On the evening that he died, an approaching storm could be heard, with terrific claps of thunder and blinding lightning. For one who so wanted to identify with the elements, it was a fitting finale to his life.
From the beginning Byron was the spectator standing like Lucifer on his promontory, observing the world as it goes. To him the real world was the Lockean world of massive forms. He was irresistibly drawn to the titanic—the ocean, mountains, cliffs, lakes, storms, thunder and lightning. With these he identified, and felt himself superior to the rest of mankind. And yet he remained restless and dissatisfied. The mind, that "fiery particle," was surely superior to nature and linked to a power transcending both nature and man. In the mind and the reason he found his ultimate source of hope and affirmation. Though them man can control his destiny. He can control his environment, initiate the necessary social and political revolutions, and make a better world for himself. Thus he can triumph over the forces threatening to destroy him, with the exception of mutability and the ultimate deterioration of the universe. But that deterioration was a long way off (and now he was not quite sure that the universe was not eternal).
Byron's confidence in the triumph of mind over matter, if man will only follow his reason (and there is a doubt that he will), occurs as a recurrent theme through the major poems—the fourth canto of Childe Harold, Manfred, Cain, Don Juan. It becomes a more firm and constant conviction as Byron grows older.
Byron's most succinct statement is given in the Detached Thoughts No. 97:
Matter is eternal, always changing, but reproduced, and, as far as we can comprehend Eternity, Eternal; and why not Mind? Why should not the Mind act with and upon the Universe? as portions of it act upon and with the congregated dust called Mankind? See, how one man acts upon himself and others, or upon multitudes? The same Agency, in a higher and purer degree, may act upon the Stars, etc., ad infinitum.
John Martin has painted a memorable water color of Manfred and the Chamois Hunter on the Jungfrau. The mountains are enormous and the figures tiny, insignificant creatures standing at the top of the picture, but placed as they are, they surprisingly dominate the scene. The picture captures Byron's conception of the relation of man to nature, and seems an admirable place at which to leave him for the time being.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4250
SOURCE: "The Byronic Heroine and Byron's The Corsair," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1, January, 1978, pp. 71-83.
[In the following essay, Hull—focusing particularly on Gulnare in The Corsair—analyzes the general characteristics of Byron's heroines.]
The phrase, "the Byronic heroine," usually evokes an image which is epitomized by a sketch executed for Byron's Corsair by Richard Westall, a contemporary painter famous for his mannered book illustrations. Westall's watercolor shows a tall, tragic-stricken young woman in Oriental dress—including billowy pants, a long camisole tunic, and a trailing, embroidered train—leaning forlornly against the outer wall of a vine-covered, Mediterranean cottage which is perched high on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea. Her hair straggles untended down her face, shoulder, and back; her figure is stooped; and her hands hang listlessly. She has turned from a departing ship which is disappearing into the distance, while the vast lonely horizon further accentuates her grief.
This character represents Haidée and the women of the narrative tales which Byron produced in 1813-14, and is usually considered to be "the Byronic heroine." More importantly, she is the figure so designated by Byron himself. Despite the excellence of some of his other female characters (for example, Aurora Raby in Don Juan and Myrrha in Sardanapalus), whenever he mentioned his "heroines," Byron catalogued only Leila from The Giaour, Zuleika from The Bride of Abydos, Gulnare and Medora from The Corsair, and Haidée (who will not be considered here). Unlike the Byronic hero, who has been the subject of much deliberation, the Byronic heroine has not received the primary attention which she deserves. Generally, she is not as compelling a figure as the hero (though this is not always true in individual cases) nor is she as central in English and European literary history. Nevertheless, these Byronic heroines are important and should be more carefully studied for the following reasons: they are fascinating and worthwhile in themselves, especially since they were drawn by the author who created the most notorious and influential English hero type; they are important for the additional insights which they give into the nature and use of the Byronic hero; they show some of the larger trends of Romanticism—for instance, the romantic dichotomy of light-dark characterizations seen in Radcliffe's and Scott's novels; and they document a stage in Byron's growth as a poet and reveal a facet of his personal character.
In 1823, the last year of his life, Byron explained these female characters to his friend, Lady Blessington:
I flatter myself that my Leila Zuleika, Gulnare, Medora, and Haidée will always vouch for my taste in beauty: these are the bright creations of my fancy, with rounded forms, and delicacy of limbs, nearly so incompatible as to be rarely, if, ever, united; … so that I am obliged to have recourse to imagination for my beauties, and there I always find them…. I should leave [my mistress] … to dress her up in the habiliments of my ideal beauty, investing her with all the charms of the latter, and then adoring the idol I had formed [Lady Blessington's Conversations of Lord Byron, ed. Ernest J. Lovell, Jr., 1969].
And in a conversation that same year with Thomas Medwin, he added:
My writings, indeed, tend to exalt the sex; and my imagination has always delighted in giving them a beau idéal likeness, but I only drew them as a painter or statuary would do,—as they should be. Perhaps my prejudices, and keeping them at a distance, contributed to prevent the illusion from altogether being worn out and destroyed as to their celestialities [Medwin's Conversations of Lord Byron, ed. Ernest J. Lovell, Jr. 1966].
In both of these statements, Byron outlines a method of characterization which is essentially non-realistic. He stresses the distinction between life and art and emphasizes the role of the idealizing imagination. Therefore what he says here shows his bias toward ideally-depicted women and further suggests that, in his art, this was the conscious level from which he worked. While this definition of his creative process falsifies some of Byron's other female characters and fails to tell the whole story about these five women, it does indicate the attitude which dominated the creation of "the Byronic heroine." No doubt, his poetic medium (which sanctioned romantic characterizations) and the fact that all of the women are non-English (and therefore exempt from the low opinion which he held of his countrywomen) helped him in projecting his beautiful ideals.
Though these heroines have traits which distinguish them as individuals, they share many common characteristics. They are all Eastern, young, and beautiful. They are fond of music, poetry, and romantic tales, and are often skilled in singing and playing. Refined and noble, these heroines seem to be highborn even when they have become harem slaves (as two of them are). In a sense, they are all orphans, alone with no close family or friends. Consequently, they are sequestered and are wont to live in spiritual and emotional solitude, their only meaningful contact being with the hero.
This hero is the object of their attention, passion, and eternal devotion, and they love him above all else. Even though they are usually quiet, mild, obedient and retiring, they can become vocal in expressing their love and exhibit strength and courage in its pursuit and defence. The Byronic heroines are essentially pure in soul and spirit despite their worldly crimes (like murder) and moral transgressions (like perfidy to their tyrant lords)—presumably because these "sins" are committed for the sake of a supra-human passion. All of these qualities make them eminently worthy of the hero's love, and they, in turn, provide his sole inspiration toward all that is good and human. Yet the heroines lead melancholy, troubled lives and end tragically. All of them die, three of broken hearts and one by being drowned for her infidelity.
This woman character is of the utmost importance to the purpose and effect of Byron's Oriental tales, and is one of the elements which justify T. S. Eliot's judgment of these contes as "readable … well-told … interesting" ["Byron," in English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. M. H. Abrams, 1960]. Though these heroines are conceived within certain limits, if one does not misconstrue the limits as automatic artistic flaws and ignore the variety and excellence of their depiction within them, then they can be rightly appreciated as one broad type functioning in many ways. They provide the central plot motivation, and much of the narrative interest, thematic meaning, and poetic symbolism.
Of all the tales, The Corsair (written in 1814) is the one which best illustrates the complex role of the Byronic heroine. Leila does not actually appear in The Giaour and therefore remains a shadowy figure. Zuleika, Byron's first deliberate attempt at a heroine, is a full representation of her type—but what Byron does with her he achieves also with Medora. And Kaled in Lara principally derives her significance from her earlier characterization as Gulnare. Thus the two women of The Corsair, Medora and Gulnare, show what Byron is able to accomplish with the Byronic heroine during this phase of his career. The poem also boasts an exciting romantic plot and a towering Byronic hero.
Conrad, the Corsair, is the leader of a pirate band that returns to his island hideaway and immediately prepares for a raid on Seyd Pasha, his enemy. He takes a tearful farewell of Medora, the woman he loves, despite her beguiling attempts to dissuade him. The foray is all but successful until Conrad is moved by the frightened cries of Seyd's women and pauses in the fight to rescue them from the burning castle. Seyd's forces rally, and Conrad is beaten and thrown into the tower prison. Falling in love with him, the harem queen, Gulnare, frees Conrad, and escapes with him to sea where they are joined by the happy remnant of his followers. Back to the island, Conrad discovers that Medora has died, and disappears mysteriously with Gulnare.
Medora and Gulnare share certain functions in the tale. They contribute to the action, convey the symbolic meaning of the poem, and help to characterize the hero by allowing him to reveal aspects of himself which would otherwise remain hidden. Peter L. Thorslev [in The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes, 1962] points out an important instance of this last function in his discussion of women and their relationship with the Gothic villain, who was a prototype of the Noble Outlaw, Conrad. All of the villains were crass misogynists who delighted in feminine persecution. But,
according to the sentiments of the age, of course, any act of cruelty or even of unkindness and disrespect for women was unforgivable; … and Byron and Scott take advantage of this fact when portraying their Noble Outlaws. Make your protagonist a Hero of Sensibility in his regard for women, and this characteristic alone will mitigate all of his other crimes, no matter how Gothic…. a Romantic love for his mistress and a courteous attitude toward women in general is the "one virtue" amidst a "thousand crimes" which makes Conrad … a character over whose death readers could weep.
Further than this, it is a mistake to generalize about Medora and Gulnare together, for they are quite different. Their physical appearance provides the first and most obvious clue to their individualities. In making Medora blue-eyed and fair-tressed (468, 470) and Gulnare darkeyed and auburn-haired (1008-09), Byron is drawing on the romance tradition of contrasting fair and dark heroines which was begun by Mrs. Radcliffe (whom he numbered among his favorite authors) and extensively used by later writers—Scott, for example. Eino Railo [in The Haunted Castle: A Study of the Elements of English Romanticism, 1927] describes these two romantic heroines:
The first named type [the fair woman] breathes a fine femininity, a tender and sacrificial maternal spirit, fighting the battles of life with the weapons of resignation and tears, and bringing to love everything that is divine, passion excluded. The second type, [the dark woman] more spiritedly poetical, is represented in the independent and oppositional beauty, who feels deeply, demands freedom of movement and choice, and is not impervious to passion.
Railo's distinction, which conveniently categorizes the two basic types of women in Byron's poetry, is first clearly manifested in Medora and Gulnare.
Medora's character is not difficult to determine. She is Conrad's beautiful young mistress functioning as a positive love figure who softly expresses her adoration and concern for her roaming Corsair. She first appears in the metaphorical guise of a "Bird of Beauty" caged and singing a melancholy song high in the tower which suggests a prison atop Conrad's hill. She implores Conrad to end her agony by learning to share "the joys of peace"—if not for her, then for his own "far dearer life, / Which [now] flies from love and languishes for strife" (394-95).
Her gayer side emerges when she invites her lover to eat the fruit which she has carefully culled and dressed for him, to taste the sparkling sherbet, to watch her dance or sing, or to read Ariosto's tales. When he begins to leave, she becomes passionate, kissing and caressing him "in all the wildness of dishevelled charms" (471). He walks away, calling her "the dim and melancholy Star / Whose ray of Beauty reached him from afar" (511-12). In this way, Medora is identified with the beacon-fire which blazes in the tower to direct him home. By leaving her, the Corsair rejects what she represents; he goes off to war with his enemy—repudiating Love and Beauty for Hate and Death. Symbolically, then, Medora is probably the physical embodiment of Conrad's tender features and one of Byron's many counterpart figures.
But Gulnare is decidedly richer, more complex, and more engaging. Because she exhibits the typical characteristics of the Byronic heroine, she is representative of them and shows how these traits are incorporated into the tales. At the same time, she is given a more expanded and active role in the poem and made a more human and realistic character. Thus, she points toward fuller feminine characterizations in Byron's later poetry, and can therefore be viewed as a transitional figure in his artistic development. Furthermore, the way Byron handles her illuminates him as a man and simultaneously raises some worthwhile questions about the construction of the tales.
Within the symbolic framework of The Corsair, Gulnare's meaning is rather easily arrived at if one uses the suggestions given by earlier tales and by Medora's role. In an important sense, she belongs to the world of strife for which Conrad abandoned Medora and represents that part of his being and experience. Thus she is, as Jerome J. McGann aptly puts it [in Fiery Dust: Byron's Poetic Development, 1968], "the proper image of Conrad's divided spiritual aims." The ambiguity of his situation is reflected in her, for not only is she a part of what separates him from Medora, but she in turn comes to embody love and salvation from even greater violence by Seyd—yet primarily through the kind of violence which was, in the first place, and continues to be, the undoing of love. Furthermore, as William Marshall suggests [in The Structures of Byron's Major Poems, 1962], she intensifies the Corsair's psychological and emotional problems since she "(a Woman, therefore a Love symbol) has brought Death to the Seyd." And in any reading of the poem which stresses the bisexuality of human spiritual nature, she is certainly crucial, uniting as she does elements from both sides and suggesting the Doppelgänger theme which plays throughout these tales.
In further describing Gulnare, one must employ concepts and qualities which do not even arise with the other woman. The contradictory aspects of her character emerge with her initial appearance in the poem. Conveyed to safety in Conrad's arms during the fighting, she is "the Harem queen—but still the slave of Seyd"; and these opposites, queen and slave, first define her. Accustomed to the haughty wooing of the Pacha, she marvels at the courtesy shown her by her rescuer and becomes aware of what is due her, a female slave, as a person. She becomes even more human and appealing by musing sarcastically about her rescue:
The wish is wrong—nay, worse for female—vain:
Yet much I long to view that Chief again;
If but to thank for, what my fear forgot,
The life—my loving Lord remembered not!
Gulnare's physical loveliness is emphasized as she appears late that same night in Conrad's cell, drawn there from sleeplessness at Seyd's side. This action gives the first hint of her intrepidity. Gazing in wonder at Conrad as he calmly sleeps, she voices a dawning of romantic love: "What sudden spell hath made this man so dear?" (1030). She immediately begins to rationalize it in terms of gratitude, then attempts to dismiss it with "Tis late to think," and finally confesses to Conrad when he awakes: "I came through darkness—and I scarce know why— / Yet not to hurt—I would not see thee die" (1045-46).
In their ensuing conversation, Gulnare reveals her intelligence, initiative, pride, and strength. She promises to use her beguiling power with the Pacha to delay Conrad's impalement so that they can save him. When the Corsair despondently reflects on his situation and recalls Medora in a panegyric to their love, he yet shows his susceptibility to Gulnare's beauty: Until her form appeared, his "eyes ne'er asked if others were as fair [as Medora]" (1096). Gulnare, apparently affected by his declaration of love for another woman, gives a psychologically revealing response: "Thou lov'st another then?—but what to me / Is this?—'tis nothing—nothing n'er can be" (1097-98). And then she tells him how she envies those who love without the sighing after visions which besets her. She cannot, despite her striving, love "stern" Seyd, for, as she hesitatingly puts it, "I felt—I feel—Love dwells with—with the free" (1008).
After Gulnare leaves the Corsair, she employs her charm and cunning with the Pacha to try to save him. When these fail, she becomes increasingly resourceful and active. The escape scene enacted when she tremulously returns to Conrad at midnight is masterful. After hearing her affirm his sentence of death, he persists in a strange lassitude. Gulnare exhorts him: "If thou hast courage still, and would'st be free, / Receive this poinard—rise and follow me!" (1474-75). Still he hesitates, worrying about the clanking of his chains and the unsuitability of his garments for flight. She assures him that she has safely engineered the escape, and explains the motivation for her actions in a forty-five-line speech (1480-1525). In it Gulnare decrees the Pacha's death because he prematurely accused her of infidelity. Though a slave, she refuses to be threatened and then spared simply to be "a toy for dotard's play / To wear but till the gilding frets away" (1510-11). The fire in her "Eastern heart" has only now been kindled, for her love of Conrad and hatred of Seyd are the first strong emotions she has felt.
After the Corsair refuses to knife a sleeping man and advises her to be peaceful, Gulnare decides herself to kill Seyd and springs to do so as the fettered Conrad trails behind. With wild eyes and streaming hair, she returns, and a spot of blood on her brow proclaims the murder. If he had shuddered at her passion before, Conrad is now thoroughly revulsed. Still in command while Conrad "following, at her beck, obeyed," she leads them aboard ship and they embark. Lost in contemplation, Conrad reviews the past and dreams of "his lonely bride" until the reality of "Gulnare, the Homicide," kneeling beside him and watching his "freezing aspect and averted air," compels his attention. The "strange fierceness foreign to her eye" has now disappeared in tears:
"Thou may'st forgive though Allah's self detest;
But for that deed of darkness what wert thou?
Reproach me—but not yet—Oh! spare me now!
I am not what I seem—this fearful night
My brain bewildered—do not madden quite!
If I had never loved—though less my guilt—
Thou hadst not lived to—hate me—if thou wilt."
The change in her becomes even more pronounced when they join Conrad's men who so perplex her by their stares that she turns to him her—"faint imploring eye," "drops her veil," and stands silently. If she or Conrad had revealed how they escaped, the pirates would certainly have made her their queen. But they both scruple to have it known that he was rescued by a woman. Moved by her meekness and the knowledge of all she has done for him, Conrad embraces and kisses her. Had it not been for the "bodings of his breast" about Medora, "his latest virtue then had joined the rest" (1715-16). But he remains faithful, and Gulnare fades out of the conclusion of the poem.
Throughout, Gulnare manipulates the action in such a way that she becomes the one person with whom the Corsair must reckon. She compels him to respond—in admiration for her beauty, in horror at her violent love and "desecration of feminine gentleness," and in unbidden affection for her devotion. That self-containment on which he prided himself is shattered by the force of her individuality. In the escape scene, Conrad's inaction and revulsion are inconsistent with his expressed atheism (1083-84) and his reputation as a fearless outlaw. This lapse in his characterization is Byron's way of dramatizing the complete metamorphosis of Gulnare's personality and the horrible perversion of the "natural" scheme of things which has resulted in their both being "unsexed," Byron's symbol in these tales for a world which is out of joint.
Gulnare's change of character deserves even further comment. At the point where she confesses her love to Conrad, she launches into an accurate comparison of herself and Medora:
Though fond as mine her bosom, form more fair
I rush through peril which she would not dare.
If that thy heart to hers were truly dear,
Where I thine own—thou wert not lonely here:
An outlaw's spouse—and leave her Lord to roam!
What hath such gentle dame to do with home?
Interesting first for its characterization of Gulnare, this speech is doubly valuable because it raises some artistic questions about the Byronic hero and heroine. In the tradition which produced them, there were a dark and a light hero as well as the contrasting heroines mentioned earlier. The fair young types were generally linked together in a happy fate while their dark counterparts suffered tragedy. Byron merged the two kinds of heroes by taking over most of the characteristics of the dark one and some gentler elements of the light. The women, too, he merged, but in opposite proportions, appropriating more features from the fair heroine. Ordinarily, he used the resulting figure by herself in each poem. But here in The Corsair, the two feminine representations appear, and Byron tentatively feels his way (one might even say he stumbles) among this new material.
He first pairs his towering hero with a woman unlike him in command and power, and then with a parallel heroine drawn on a scale equal to his own. After having painted this bold portrait of a dark heroine, he tones down the colors and makes her, at the end, a light type in all but her appearance; and he even creates the impression that her looks, too, have faded: She "now seemed changed and humbled, faint and meek, / But varying oft the colour of her cheek / To deeper shades of paleness" (1701-03; my italics). Thus, he recaptures the contrast between the hero and heroine which was present in the first instance. His retreat from his headier creation back to the safer delineation of the one-dimensional woman and simpler Byronic heroine represents a capitulation to the orthodoxy of his genre and society, and also to his own ambiguous feelings about bold, strongly individualistic women. Considered from the point of view of his artistry, Byron's treatment of Conrad and Gulnare suggests that he did not wish to wrestle with two heroic figures in the same story, especially since handling them would not have greatly changed the outlines of his poem. He apparently felt that there was room enough for only one such character and made certain that nothing would detract from his male hero.
All of the female characters in Byron's Oriental tales are not as striking as Gulnare. Yet, as a group, they deserve recognition—especially when their socio-literary contexts are considered. These larger frameworks provide extensive avenues for further investigation which can only be suggested here.
Obviously, one fruitful approach is to compare them with the other women characters in Byron's poetry. When this is done, they emerge as deliberately balanced counterparts to his Byronic heroes who, together with these heroes, represent Byron's achievement in the romantic verse narrative on which he focused during this period of his artistic life. Furthermore, Byron's experimentation with these heroines was apprentice work for his more fully-developed women. Haidée, for instance, is the culmination of the artistic impulse which produced her sisters in these earlier tales, while anticipations of Myrrha can be seen in Gulnare.
When the Byronic heroine is placed against the background of Regency England, she stands out as a reflection of the prescribed—and primarily emotional—roles which that society accorded to its women. Ironically, Byron's depiction helped to perpetuate the stereotyped prevailing image which had first influenced him. He was also probably thinking of the numerous women in his audience when he laced his verse with chivalrous romanticism.
From the viewpoint of the literary historian, the Byronic heroine can be compared with other romantic female figures (Shakespeare's, for example, or the heroines of Gothic romances and verse narratives). She could be placed within the tradition of the femme fatale (where she does not strictly fit, even though some ambiguity attaches to her as a love figure since she is sometimes the indirect cause of the hero's death). And finally, she might fruitfully be related to the symbolic use of women by other Romantic authors (Shelley, for instance). Certainly, the Byronic heroine is a rich figure, and she becomes even richer when one fully realizes her intrinsic value and larger significance.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7007
SOURCE: "Byron's Don Juan: Myth as Psychodrama," in The Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. XXIX, 1980, pp. 131-50.
[In the essay below, Tate reads Don Juan as a "psychodrama," in which "the poem served the poet as a kind of therapeutic theater in which he could reenact certain of his own problematic amorous adventures."]
In his "uncommon want" of a hero, Byron deliberately chose Don Juan as one whose myth satisfied his own needs both as poet and as private man. Examining Byron's poetic reworking of the Don Juan myth in relation to his own psychology yields a reading that lends continuity to a poem still being termed a "hold-all." The myth is descended from Tirso de Molina's El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (ca. 1616), which combines an account of the amorous adventures of a fictive character whom Tirso named Don Juan, with the Spanish folktale of a stone statue that comes to life and delivers the village rouge to hell. Both the amorous adventures of the Don and the avenging stone statue are central to Byron's presentation of the myth.
The classical, or pre-Romantic, Don Juan is renowned more for his ceaseless efforts than for his actual triumphs. He resorts to all sorts of chicanery: even his successes tend to be comically colored by the overintensity of his assaults. The Byronic Don Juan, on the other hand, is l'homme fatal, universally irresistible. The humor in Byron's Don Juan is provided only by the narrative voice. The narrator's skillful, satiric assaults upon humanity's sacrosanct foibles are counterpoised against the inadvertent quality of Juan's successes. The narrator jokes about Juan's innocence, but his tone remains light and playful when he speaks of him. The egoistic exuberance of the young Don's adventures contrasts with the diabolical character of the traditional Don, whose famed selfish, blustering cynicism Byron makes an attribute of the knowing narrator, rather than of his naive hero. In a sense, the cynical wisdom of the narrator is what the naive Juan is evolving toward throughout the poem. In fact, Byron seems to have created an entirely new version of the myth: he has given Juan the characteristic erotic prowess, but he leaves him uncharacteristically vulnerable to women. Juan's virility is not only subject to the taming influence of love, it is also coveted, manipulated, and subjugated by every female he encounters.
Similarly, in the traditional versions of the legend, Don Juan's insult to the spirit of the dead commandante animates the stone statue, and his defiance becomes the final offense for which all his lechery is punished; the last scene of fiery annihilation is appropriately heroic. Yet, the personality of Byron's Don Juan, by contrast, seems to fade, and the narrator becomes dominant just as the poem comes to a fragmented conclusion.
Juan's encounter with the lady ghost, and the disastrous effects of their night together—their mutual fatigue, the implications that sex as the ultimate sensation leaves Juan depleted and dissatisfied—completes Byron's irascible interpretation of the myth: the libertine who holds out his hand to specters or avenging spirits is inviting consummation, especially if his bedchamber is on hallowed ground. While the traditional Don Juan is visited by a stone statue from a monastery, and is consumed by flames, Byron's Don Juan is visited by a live woman simply disguised as the ghost of a friar and is annihilated by sexual consummation. Combining the memories of his own childhood terror of Newstead Abbey with the pattern of the original myth, Byron thus makes Juan the unfortunate prey of the restless ghost who haunts Norman Abbey in retribution of offenses the Amundevilles are still committing against the "glorious remnant of the Gothic pile," and the statues of the "Twelve saints [which] had once stood sanctified in stone." The offense against the statues is integral to the animation of the Byronic specter, and, in conformity to the traditional version of the myth, it is the crime for which the Don receives his ultimate punishment. His sexual energy is totally enveloped by female aggression. The legend of the Black Friar of Norman Abbey is a hoax, but so, in Byron's poem, is the myth of Don Juan's inexhaustible, indomitable sexuality. In fact, in Byron's version of the legend women are fatal to Juan; sex is anathema, and he is too enchanted with his own image to see the joke.
The neat reversals of the traditional elements of the legend indicate that Byron's poem does more than recast the burlador as Romantic hero. The narrator of the poem is ostensibly concerned with judging society in terms of Romantic idealism, but the poet is ultimately concerned with the etiology and evolution of Juan's delusions. The poem scrutinizes the pathology of being human. Everyone, including Juan, capitalizes on his charismatic sexuality. Juan is the key to the poem, yet he is only significant in relation to the other characters. The pattern of his relationships with other characters is essentially one of relationships with women and their men, established in Canto I and repeated throughout the poem. While traditional criticism says Byron makes small use of the Don Juan myth, the pattern of Don Juan's relationship with women and their men does, in fact, conform throughout the poem to the patterns of the original myth, but turned about for purposes that a psychoanalytic examination of the poem will clarify. The hero seems deliberately depicted as the personification of the Don Juan complex, as described by Otto Fenichel more than a century later [in The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neuroses, 1945]:
Don Juan's behavior is no doubt due to his Oedipus complex. He seeks his mother in all women and cannot find her. But the analysis of Don Juan types shows that their Oedipus complex is of a particular kind. It is dominated by the pregenital aim of incorporation, prevaded by narcissistic needs and tinged with sadistic impulses…. The striving for sexual satisfcation is still condensed with the striving for getting narcissistic supplies in order to maintain self-esteem…. His narcissistic need requires proof of his ability to excite women; after he knows that he is able to excite a specific woman, his doubts arise concerning other women whom he has not yet tried.
Incorporation, or the infantile desire to engulf external objects, is the Don Juan personality's habitual response toward women: he sees sexual conquest as a means of reunion with the omnipotent external force that mother represents; yet, he also fears this reunion because of a concomitant fantasy of being engulfed by it—hence the oedipal relationship carries "a frequent and intense unconscious connection between the ideas of sexuality and death," between sexuality and an anticipation of retribution. As a result of his conformity to the Don Juan complex, Juan emerges as the least mobile character in the drama. Byron employs him in a particular role, with a severely limited repertoire of responses.
Given that Byron invented neither the Don Juan myth, nor the Don Juan complex, he does devote considerable effort to dramatizing the phenomenon. Byron himself was a man with a compulsion for self-dramatization, and the term "psychodrama," the reenactment of problematic past experiences, real or imagined, in an effort to resolve them, may well express what the poem was for Byron. By concentrating on Juan and the ladies, we can see how the poem served the poet as a kind of therapeutic theater in which he could reenact certain of his own problematic amorous adventures—such as incest both real and fancied—in an attempt to achieve relief from the anxiety that memory must perpetuate. The creation of Don Juan was Byron's attempt to fuse conflicting elements of his own personality, as well as those of the myth he had become:
They made me, without my search, a species of popular Idol; they, without reason or judgement, beyond the caprice of their good pleasure, threw down the Image from its pedestal; it was not broken with the fall, and they would, it seems, again replace it—but they shall not.
He wrote this letter, as he wrote Don Juan, in exile, and both are public statements of hubris that refute the powers of social retribution. Byron was concerned with the reader's reaction to Don Juan only insofar as it related to his own need to be accepted as a Don Juan: Byron reserves judgment for himself, and the poem as psychodrama will reveal that his Nemesis, like Juan's, is a form of degraded eroticism which he may describe or reenact, but which he will not, cannot deny.
Freud's statement [in On Creativity and the Unconscious, 1958] about the poet's relation to his work is fundamental to our understanding of Byron's undertaking:
Some actual experience which made a strong impression on the writer had stirred up a memory of an earlier experience, generally belonging to childhood, which then arouses a wish that finds a fulfillment in the work in question, and in which elements of the recent event and the old memory should be discernible.
Throughout the poem, we can see elements of Byron's childhood, his marriage and divorce, and the trauma of his relationship with Augusta Leigh interwoven into Juan's adventures. If we expand upon Freud, using [Jacob L.] Moreno's principles of psychodrama [in his Psychodrama, 1964] however, according to which the actor (who is also the author) in this genre is the protagonist, and all the other characters in the poem represent "auxiliary egos," actors who "play the roles of absent people involved in his problems or fears" [Ira A. Greenberg, Psychodrama and Audience Attitude Change, 1968], Canto I, as a deliberate innovation to the traditional Don Juan myth, is doubly significant then: we can see the poet's overt attempt to create a plausible source of Juan's eventual disorder, and Byron's own oedipal problems emerge as the ultimate conflict in his psychodrama, with Juan as the protagonist of myth and psychodrama both.
The evolution of Juan as a character spans the wealth of the poem, linking Byron's playful treatment of the sensuous innocent to his portrait of the weary cavalier servente of English drawing-room society. Byron devotes most attention to Juan's psychological development in Canto I, through the detailed description of Juan's childhood behavior and adolescent sensibility. While the Russian cantos make some reference to Juan's dissipation and a mysterious illness, it is only within the confines of Norman Abbey (Cantos XII-XVII) that Byron returns to an in-depth scrutiny of the hero and once again explores the psychology of his malaise. Though the entire poem, particularly such episodes as those of Haidée, Juan, and Lambro, bears examination in terms of Byron's psychodrama, these cantos will serve to illustrate the ways in which Byron's own psychology informs his reinterpretation of the myth.
The poet points out that seeds of Juan's discontent were started in Seville. His mother, like Byron's, is repression personified: "Some women use their tongues—she looked a lecture." His father is a henpecked cavalier, "a mortal of the careless kind" (I.xix.1), whose indiscreet love affairs prove his undoing. According to the narrator, Donna Inez becomes incensed by the gossip and begins to torment her husband:
But then she had a devil of a spirit
And sometimes mixed up fancies with realities,
And let few opportunities escape
Of getting her liege lord into a scrape.
Juan is doted upon, yet undisciplined, because his parents are distracted by maintaining conduct that is "exceedingly well-bred," while "Wishing each other, not divorced, but dead" (I.xxvi.3). Inez attempts to dispose of Jóse by proving him insane, but, lacking enough evidence, she settles for divorce, gathering the forces of public opinion to do battle against her husband:
The hearers of her case became repeaters,
Then advocates, inquisitors, and judges,
Some for amusement, others for old grudges.
With the added enforcement of social institutions, Inez's actual wish is fulfilled:
The lawyers did their utmost for divorce,
But scarce a fee was paid on either side
Before, unluckily, Don Jóse died.
Don Jóse, like Byron, is doomed because his own "malus animus" prevents him from understanding his wife's pernicious hypocrisy; Jóse is too busy pursuing his pleasures to realize that under her cultivated air of stoic magnanimity, she has never ceased plotting revenge. In the contest of wills, Donna Inez's triumphs; Jóse's physical and spiritual strength are destroyed:
Standing alone beside his desolate hearth,
Where all his household gods lay shivered round him.
No choice was left his feeling or his pride,
Save death or Doctors' Commons—so he died.
His power, his life force as symbolized by the household gods, is broken. The shattered gods, the desolate hearth, are touching images of depleted forms that once held life but now are cold, empty, and powerless. His death wish toward Inez, his magic, was no match for hers.
The chronicle of Don Jóse and Donna Inez's divorce parallels Byron's own, but the actual death of Jóse relates to the death of Byron's father, Captain John Byron:
George was three and one-half years old when his father died, and less than three when he saw him for the last time, but he later told Thomas Medwin: "I was not so young when my father died, but that I perfectly remember him; and had very early a horror of matrimony, from the sight of domestic broils…. He seemed born for his own ruin, and that of the other sex" [Leslie A. Marchand, Byron: A Biography, 1957].
Mrs. Byron "assuaged her passionate grief by a mingled hatred and love of the son who reminded her of … [her husband]." Unfortunately for Byron, he was too early the man of the house, like Juan "An only son left with an only mother" (I.xxxvii.7).
Juan is left to Inez's care. She proceeds to discipline and shape his education, "Resolved that Juan should be quite a paragon, / And worthy of the noblest pedigree" (I.xxxviii.2-3). The futility of her excessive effort is intimated even in this early description of Juan's education: Juan's pedigree naturally includes Jóse's legacy, what Inez's lawyers call a propensity for cvil, and "paragon" implies excellence, but it is morally vague. Because of these earliest accounts of Juan's curriculum, his virtue is made something to joke about; one realizes from the narrator's sly remarks that Donna Inez cannot quite maintain control, and tension builds as Juan matures.
Byron shows Juan approaching manhood, amid the screaming protests of Donna Inez, and the docile machinations of Donna Julia. The "almost man" is thrilled and confused with Donna Julia, ignorant of the cause of these new feelings. The narrator vacillates between hinting that something "From sire to son to augur good or ill" is a scandalous possibility, and claiming that Juan is aware of something, but cannot imagine that it could be a "Thing quite in course, and not at all alarming, / Which with a little patience might grow charming" (I.lxxxvi.7-8). Juan as "Poor little fellow!" is incredibly dumb. He wanders, "silent and pensive," through the woods—in fact, he wanders through the entire canto without ever uttering a word. He is purportedly only aware of Julia's eyes, and even this conscious longing occurs in the midst of metaphysical ponderings. He is lost for hours to his scrutiny of leaves and flowers, hearing "a voice in all the winds," filled with imaginings of wood nymphs and "how the goddesses came down to men." These gentle, pensive imaginings of Juan's are sublimated erotic longings. The imagery couches his sexuality in such a manner as to make it palatable to the reader. By thus engaging the reader's approval of Juan's budding sexual appetite, Byron appears to be reshaping the symbol of Don Juan as the comically overassertive lecher, to that of a wandering innocent whose passion is linked to wood nymphs and goddesses. Juan's somnambulant sexuality is given a preternatural quality, which is essentially the characteristic that explains his appeal for women throughout the poem.
In contrast to Juan's passionate ignorance, Julia's knowing attempts at self-control appear contrived and ludicrous:
Yet Julia's very coldness still was kind,
And tremulously gentle her small hand
Withdrew itself from his, but left behind …
She vow'd she never would see Juan more
And next day paid a visit to his mother.
She has prayed to the Virgin Mary as "the best judge of a lady's case," but, when she misses seeing Juan, the Virgin is "no further prayed." Her turmoil is declared in terms of a Christian's inner struggle, that of the virtuous wife tempted by the devil "so very sly," amidst "love divine," angels, and "reveries celestial." Her serenity, however, has a certain concupiscent smugness to it: deciding that her honor is "a rock or a mole," she dispenses "with any kind of troublesome control." She envisions a plan that makes provision for her husband's death, while it ingeniously allows her to begin immediate instruction of Juan in "the rudiments of love."
Julia's fantasy about Alfonso's death exactly resembles Inez's death wish toward Jóse:
And if in the meantime her husband died,
But heaven forbid that such a thought should cross
Her brain, though in a dream, and then she sighed.
As Inez's social and psychological peer, Julia becomes a parental substitute for Juan; as another character in Byron's psychodrama, she embodies again his own mother's violent hatred toward her husband and the emotional excesses that her stern Presbyterian principles neither disciplined, nor relieved, but as with Julia, and Inez, hatred is nicely submerged beneath a veneer of respectability, and the hated husband is replaced by the more easily dominated son.
Byron has been pointing at similarities between Inez and Julia since he first introduced Julia into Inez's domain. The narrator imputes scandal to be the basis of their friendship. If "Inez had, ere Don Alfonso's marriage, / Forgot with him her very prudent carriage" (I.lxvi.7-8), and in "still keeping up the old connextion … / She took his lady also in affection" (I.lxvii.1,3), then Julia's fifty-yearold husband, as Inez's lover, doubles as a father figure to both Julia and Juan, and the implication is, of course, that the young pair could be sister and brother. Alfonso's relationship with Inez and the chance of his being Juan's actual father, or at least old enough to substitute as the father symbol in the exclusive "only mother," "only son" affiliation, sets up an oedipal configuration between these three characters, which is further complicated by the possibility that Julia is "sister-mother" to Juan. When she is depicted as the young wife of a "jealous lord," innocently caressing Juan, this passes as a kind of youthful familiarity. The psychic consanguinity becomes more complex, however, as she assumes the role of older woman, guiding him into a forbidden affair: then, her role as knowing voluptuary and Juan's as the sexually precocious child set the stage for the inevitable confrontation between father-Alfonso and Juan.
Whereas in his own childhood Byron never actually confronted his father, he would have shared his mother's guilt, that is, he would have been aware that his exclusive attachment to her psychologically demanded his complicity in the death wish she expressed toward his father. His relationship with Augusta Leigh was similar to Juan's relationship with Julia and Inez: the sister displaces the mother in an incestuous relationship that could be actualized, and the guilt and anxiety that his father's death had left with him would be resolved by the punishment the incest would inevitably incur.
The confrontation scene is the only aspect of Juan's and Julia's affair that Byron concerns himself with. After so long and carefully preparing the seduction, he devotes only a few lines to their enjoyment; the conflict and upheaval are far more dramatically significant. Their passion is mentioned only briefly, amid the comings and goings of the chagrined Alfonso, and with the maid standing around to chastise their foolishness. The lovers together are never allowed to achieve the grandeur with which they are comically endowed as individual characters. Juan is still the enfant terrible, the naughty man-child, while Julia has developed into a fabliau harpy, the nasty mother-figure capable of holding her own in their struggle with the cuckolded Alfonso. The incestuous implications of stanzas ix through cxvii are no longer strained and snide. The maid, Antonia, gives an indirect praise of Juan that makes the contrast between Julia, the knowing dowager, and Juan, the precocious child, humorous:
"Had it but been for a stout cavalier
Of twenty-five or thirty (Come, make haste)
But for a child, what piece of work is here!
I really, madam, wonder at your taste."
"Stout" has some nice phallic qualities, and the phrase "piece of work" quite explains Julia's "taste." Compared to poor old Alfonso, whose "sword had dropp'd ere he could draw it," and who comes off the impotent buffoon of the scene, Juan is the virile figure who is all the less culpable because he cannot quite pull off the escapade. All he inflicts on Alfonso is a bloody nose, as he runs off naked into the night. Whatever damage Juan has done to Alfonso's sexual nose is innocuous, and the potentially dangerous scene is farcically resolved. For Byron, Canto I allows him to recreate through fantasy, and memory, the bizarre relationships with his own overprotective mother, and wife, and to joke about his own oedipal, or sister-mother, relationship with Augusta Leigh. His treatment of these ladies, within the context of the poem is also integral to the turnabout he makes upon the traditional Don Juan myth: the Don cannot alter his fate: it is conceived and delivered by women.
Byron's method of handling Julia's sexuality merits some further explication, because it prefigures his pattern of developing females as paradoxically predictable and mysterious. While Julia's soft sighs are actually expressions of a powerful erotic appetite, Byron's laughing exaggeration of her feigned restraint, in terms of the Christian metaphor, makes her seem only silly. Yet, as the source of Juan's sexual initiation and the cause of his exile, her sexuality becomes threatening. She claims little of the reader's sympathy; stanzas of her farewell letter to Juan are touching, but the sentiment is immediately undercut by the narrator's description of the care with which the adieu is prepared—even her sorrow seems contrived; her tragedy is mere melodrama. Julia is important as Juan's first lover because she embodies all the puzzling aspects with which Byron endows women throughout Juan's adventures:
Because they are a mystery, all women represent an external threat to Juan's sexuality, and Byron needs Juan to enact an escape from their motherly manipulations. Juan's role as the "innocent" in Canto I differentiates him from the traditional Don Juan character: he is the conquered, not the conqueror, and the parallel between the two heroes' adventures does not clearly emerge until the English cantos. Here, Byron fulfills the prophecy that he is writing about the same hero of the pantomimes, plays, and operas. The English episodes illustrate that Byron has kept the legend of Don Juan and the stone guest within his overall poetic design. With "new mythological machinery, / And very handsome supernatural scenery" (I.cci.7-8) he will manage "in canto twelfth … to show / The very place where wicked people go" (I.ccvii.7-8).
The Don Juan of the English episodes impresses us with the dispassionate savoir-faire he has learned in Russia. In contrast to the fabulous description within which Byron couched Juan's adolescent fantasies in Canto I, with its apotheosis of Juan's innocent eroticism, the itinerary of Juan's advance into the aristocratic circles of London appears merely matter-of-fact. He is the "young diplomatic sinner" who has come to England to regain his health after the dissipation that he was enjoying in Russia mysteriously made him sick. The narrator suggests the cause was "the Empress's maternal [my italics] love" (X.xxxii.8), because even as Juan did "his duty, / In royalty's vast arms he sighed for beauty" (X.xxxvii.7-8). Like the youth of Canto I, Juan barely escapes the dowager's engulfing embrace, but in the Russian canto Byron seems to be suggesting that Juan is becoming somewhat of a predator himself, because the "imperious passion," which Juan dedicates to Catherine in Canto IX, is the "self-love" that makes Juan believe himself "as good as any" (IX.lxviii.8).
We see him approaching the throne with a predetermined intent to serve the queen in a particular fashion. Like Byron, Juan has become a cavalier servente; these cantos were written while the poet was "settled into regular serventismo" to Teresa Guiccioli, and Byron's own ambivalence about his servitude is reflected in his delineation of Juan's Russian post:
What were the actual and official duties
Of the strange thing some women set a value on,
Which hovers oft about some married beauties,
Called cavalier servente—a Pygmalion
Whose statues warm …
Beneath his art.
Whatever his official duties were in Russia, this equation of women to statues who animate under his art has foreboding implications, both in relation to Juan's oedipal relationship to Catherine, and as a figura of the stone statue that comes to life and punishes Don Juan's lechery in the traditional myth: we would expect Byron to demand punishment from an aroused female statue, because of his own oedipal problems, and Juan's strange malady in Russia is yet another way in which the poet expresses his neurosis.
Since Byron's own displaced oedipal problem, his relationship with Augusta Leigh, is integral to his memories of England, by calling England hell in his version of the legend, and by demonstrating the omnivorous immorality of the aristocracy, the government, and the business magnates, he is attempting to invalidate the social condemnation that had forced his exile. Byron's idea of "the place where wicked people go," hell as expressed in Canto XII, is simultaneously different from and identical to the traditional Don Juan's destination. In a letter to Murray, written after the completion of Canto v, he claims that he has "not quite fixed whether to make … Juan end in Hell, or in an unhappy marriage, not knowing which would be the severest." His next remark about the tradition seems good evidence that he is still keeping the traditional legend well in mind: "The Spanish tradition says Hell: but it is probably only an Allegory of the other state." Hence, Juan's "last elopement with the devil" should conform to Byron's conscious interpretation of the traditional legend, as well as being part of the poet's psychodrama and reflective of his unconscious interpolations of the elements of the myth: the word "elopement" in connection with the "devil" points again toward Byron's connection of punishment with the wife-mother figure. Marriage is inherently bound to his transgression of the incest taboo. For the traditional libertine, marriage is an "Allegory" of hell because it represents external restrictions upon his own desire to engulf the objective world. The traditional Don is the aggressor; in London, Byron's Juan is still the obliging son-lover, whose hell is a continuum of falls, with sister-mother.
The epic similes of Canto x prepare the reader for a more spectacular hell than Juan encounters in Canto XII, yet the true map of Juan's descent does underlie Byron's description of his first view of London:
The sun went down, the smoke rose up, as from
A half-unquenched volcano, o'er a space
Which well beseemed the 'devil's drawing-room,'
As some have qualified that wondrous place.
Byron's metaphor of London refers to "the popular tradition that craters of volcanoes lead directly to the pit of hell, hence to the devil's drawing-room" [W. W. Pratt, in Lord Byron: Don Juan, ed. T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan, and W. W. Pratt, 1973]. The "pit of hell" in Canto XII is London, and the "Smithfield Show" a flesh market where all the members of drawing-room society survey each other in an endless parade of possible marriage bargains. Juan enters London, the "devil's drawing-room," with little hesitation; he hovers "undecided / Amongst the paths of being 'taken in,'" pausing only long enough to be received into the "best" society. Whereas the belching infernos of Canto XI and the repeated references within that canto to London as "damned" would seem to be setting the scene for our hero to enter a fiery hell—to meet death in submission or defiance, according to the heroic burlador tradition—perdition becomes only a metaphor of the change in Juan's psychology. In Canto XII, hell is an experience that polishes the skills he had begun to acquire in Russia, and Juan's resemblance to the traditional libertine becomes apparent: he has learned to see women as objects whom he may desire and engulf. He learns to maneuver within the social marketplace, only hesitating "at first because he did not think the women pretty." Like a mercantile Narcissus, he sees his own worth as a reflection of others' desires, and he proceeds to shop for a lady worthy of his charms. In Canto XII, our hero has wandered into an existential hell, where reality is the bartering experience endlessly perpetuated, and universally perpetrated. The narrator lambasts society; Byron refuses to differentiate between Juan and mankind. While the narrator delivers scathing descriptions of genial hypocrisy, Byron shows Juan indulging in the same peccadilloes. Juan is doomed to the ordinary, and in London he seems shallow and insignificant without his mythical trappings.
At the close of Canto XII, Juan has been left "exposed to temptation," but then Byron has done this to him so often that one does not take the narrator seriously when he insists on repeating it. The reader can see that Juan has developed a social cunning that makes the most of any occasion, and the defenseless man-child of the first canto has developed at last into the libertine after whom he is named: he no longer stands "in the predicament / Of a mere novice." His experience, his past servitude, seems to have equipped him to handle even "The loveliest oligarchs of our gynocracy." For Byron, the "English setting makes the last cantos, stanza for stanza, more personal than the preceding ten" [Truman Guy Steffan, The Making of a Masterpiece: Byron's Don Juan, Vol. 1 of Byron's Don Juan: A Variorum Edition], and he uses Juan to reenact the dynamics of his own social triumphs in England. The atmosphere is melancholic, however, and Juan seems to have settled into a "dreary void," an abyss of the "polished, smooth, and cold." The women are lewdly voracious, "marble," and "ice," another collection of cool statues, with as assortment of cuckolded husbands.
The Don Juan of the last English cantos is only a bored aristocrat whose sense of malaise seems part of the social disease he contracted in Canto XII. He is a sophisticated strategist, managing to keep one step ahead of Adeline and her matriarchal machinations. In fact, up until Canto XVI, it appears that Byron is going to ignore the traditional confrontation between Don Juan and the devil that he promised the reader in Canto I. Juan's offenses hardly seem to merit an avenging specter. Instead, Byron has shown that the betrayals are done by the women upon their husbands, and any shame they incur, they bear as emblems of the pleasure they knew with Juan. They never curse Juan or call upon their husbands or heaven to avenge their honor—the image of the ladies' being usually too busy plotting revenge upon their husbands is one of Byron's favorite and most autobiographical motifs. Byron's cavalier servente does receive a few curses from the husbands, or even from a father or two, but since immorality is ubiquitous in his version of the libertine's life and loves, their curses are a comic bluster, part of the overall social satire. Juan lacks the braggadocio that would force the comparison between his own fame as it is discussed in England and the renowned lechery of the legendary Don. The ordinary quality of Juan's dissipation and his sharing this doom daily with his peers leave the reader unprepared for any hell but a continuation of the ennui that has plagued our hero for six cantos.
Thus, when Byron creates a ghost at Norman Abbey, and refers to the curse of the Amundevilles, the family's offense to the stone statues, there would appear to be no connection to Juan or the ghost who leads Don Juan to hell in the stone guest legend. Juan's anxieties appear to be focused on Aurora's "self-possession"; even as he is sighing in his Gothic chamber, listening to the "rippling sound of the lake's billow, / With all the mystery by midnight caused," he is only "restless, and perplexed, and compromised." Byron has dropped the incest innuendoes, and Juan comes off so perfectly blameless in regard to his amorous adventures that one can only attribute our hero's nervous condition to his self-immersion in the powerful aura of superstition that surrounds the desecrated ruins. Juan's encounter with the monk, "The thing of air, / Or earth beneath, or heaven or t'other place," is given such comic-horror treatment that it seems a hoax, although Juan goes "Back to his chamber, shorn of half his strength." The narrator informs us that Juan's taper is "Burnt, and not blue," and, according to the rules of haunting-superstition, no malevolent spirit could possibly be present. Juan, however, does not seem to accept this evidence as any indication of the visitant's benignity, and he appears at breakfast distraught and imperfectly groomed for the first time in his career as a dandy.
The breakfast conversation, about the "Black Friar," is initiated by Lord Henry, but Adeline's perusal of Juan's reactions to her husband's ghostly tale would lead us to suspect that she could very well be the ghostly culprit:
She looked and saw him pale and turned as pale
Herself, then hastily looked down and muttered
Something, but what's not stated in my tale.
She could be playing with him, distracting him from his quest of Aurora; or, in psychological terms, since Juan refused to allow Adeline to settle his marriage match for him, she would be the destructive mother figure, as voracious and repressive as Donna Inez, attempting to control Juan's virility to her own ends. She becomes the prime suspect in the ruse as the narrator questions her motives in singing of the Black Friar:
'Twere difficult to say what was the object
Of Adeline in bringing this same lay
To bear on what appeared to her the subject
Of Juan's nervous feelings on that day.
Perhaps she merely had the simple project
To laugh him out of his supposed dismay;
Perhaps she might wish to confirm him in it,
Though why I cannot say, at least this minute.
Byron returns to the metaphor of hell in Canto XVI, and, when he does, Juan, as a result of the previous visitation, is involved and expecting the spectral encounter. He sits in his chamber, as he did the night before, save this time "Expectant of the ghost's fresh operations" (XVI.cxi.8). The door opens with "a most infernal creak / Like that of hell" (XVI.cxvi.1-2). Juan seems about to be engulfed by something dark and dreadful: "A single shade's sufficient to entrance a / Hero, for what is substance to a spirit?" (XVI.cxvi.6-7). Like the legendary libertine from whom he sprang, who puts forth his hand to touch the stone statue of the commandant, Juan puts forth his hand, determined to touch the "stony death," resolved to pierce the mystery, brave and defiant with a wrath fed by fear. He puts forth an arm, but it touches "no soul, nor body, but the wall." He cowers. Suddenly, the ghost has "a remarkably sweet breath," fair hair, red lips, and "a hard but glowing bust"—it is "The phantom of her frolic Grace—Fitz-Fulke!" (XVI.cxxiii.7-8).
Within the dramatic context of the poem itself, this comic revelation is particularly effective in contrast to all the tension and terror that the legend of the Black Friar and the scenery of the Gothic ruins has evoked. Considering the format of the Don Juan genre, a female ghost seeking Juan in pleasure, as contrasted to the traditional figure of the avenging patriarch, is the final explosion of the myth that malus animus is unique to the burlador. The neatest reversal lies in Byron's setting up Adeline as the female figure most likely to be subverting Juan's strength: instead of the usual hypocritical, aristocratic, cold character, Juan meets damnation from the warm Fitz-Fulke. She is the one person in the English cantos whose "mind was all upon her face," who openly enjoys the "Tracasserie and agacerie." In linking Juan's last fall to such an apparently uncontrived appetite, Byron is intimating that any female, no matter how voluptuous, or openly flirtatious, is as destructive to Juan as the repressive, manipulative Donna Inez and Donna Julia, because women in general are the statues that warm, or become erotically animated, under his art, and their aroused sexuality then threatens to engulf Juan. These fears and fantasies seem particularly meaningful to Byron, because he can employ Juan to play the role of cavalier servente, create continuous escapes for his hero, as he remains bound to Teresa Guiccioli; perhaps, even more significant than the vicarious pleasure that Byron derives from Juan's escapes is the satisfaction and relief he would derive in seeing Juan punished.
The fragment of Canto XVII is the end of Don Juan—Byron leaves his hero with nothing; the curse of the dissipated is only an absence of something:
The ultimate irony is that even when sexuality escapes the moral confines, and appears spontaneous, it is deadly.
This final stanza and the one below, which immediately precedes it in the original manuscript, form an absolutely coherent conclusion to the poem:
But Oh! that I were dead—for while alive—
Would that I neer had loved—Oh Woman—
All that I write or wrote can neer revive
To paint a sole sensation—though quite common—
Of those in which the Body seemed to drive
My Soul from out me at thy single summon
Expiring in the hope of sensation.
In terms of dramatic unity, the stanzas represent the only possible resolution to the poem's overwhelming variety of verifiable paradoxes and playful juxtapositions: together, they illustrate the fusion of the naively innocent Juan persona and the cynically experienced narrative voice. The description of Juan's dissolution echoes the narrator's desperate apostrophe to Woman. Juan's malaise is more than an elegant social disease. His psychic depletion corresponds to the narrator's "Soul … expiring in the hope of sensation." The narrator's howls about Woman's "single summon" belong to Juan's mute encounters with female sexuality. The speaking voice metaphorically articulates an awareness of the oedipal neurosis, which Juan has only been capable of acting out. The conflicting fantasies and fears of engulfment are expressed in both stanzas through Romantic expletives of guilt and anxiety. Fear and impotency are Byron's concessions to his own psychic reality, and about as close as he ever comes to a public statement of morality.
If one compares the merging of the narrator's emotion and Juan's physical state in the last two stanzas with Byron's feelings about his role as cavalier servente to Teresa Guiccioli, the oedipal conflicts of the poem and the poet appear contiguous. In August 1819, distracted from continuing Canto III, Byron sent the following letter to his friend John Hobhouse:
I have been excited and agitated, and exhausted mentally and bodily all this summer, till I sometimes begin to think not only "that I shall die at top first," but that the moment is not very remote. I have had no particular cause of griefs, except the usual accompaniments of all unlawful passions….
I feel—and I feel it bitterly—that a man should not consume his life at the side and on the bosom of a woman, and a stranger; that this Cicisbean existence is to be condemned. But I have neither the strength of mind to break my chain, nor the insensibility which would deaden its weight. I cannot tell what will become of me—to leave, or to be left would at present drive me quite out of my senses; and yet to what have I conducted myself?
If adultery were the "unlawful passion" that tortured him, then the legal negotiations between Byron and Count Guiccioli, in 1820, should have eased the conscience of so infamous a libertine as he. Instead, the legal agreement seemed to irritate. Like the legendary Don Juan, Byron hated the rules and regularity of a contracted affair: "A man actually becomes a piece of female property." Like his pantomiming hero and melancholy narrator, Byron's engulfment anxieties, as expressed in this letter, outweighted "the recompense" of his relationship with the Countess. As Teresa, herself, so aptly described the continuum of Byron's incestuous delusion:
How often has he not spoken of [Augusta] to me! and, much as I loved him, how often I was irritated by his tender affection for his sister! Augusta. C'était un refrain perpétuel.
No matter what shape the relationship with Teresa assumed, legal or otherwise, or if the husband-father figure of the Count challenged or sanctioned the affair, it was still, for Byron, "unlawful" or threatening, and related to his sister-mother confusion.
Byron's separation from Teresa and the trip to Greece seem but another sequel to Juan's adventures. For Byron, Don Juan was his psychodrama: using the Don Juan legend throughout, but making significant alterations, he reshaped the myth in an attempt to confront his past within the present of the poem. In Moreno's terms, all the characters in the poem are the "auxiliary egos" in Byron's own oedipal drama. Byron's Juan is not, nor was he intended to be, a hero: he is only the protagonist of the drama, the man in a frenzy.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3915
SOURCE: "Politics and Religion in Byron's Heaven and Earth" in The Byron Journal, No. 11, 1983, pp. 30-9.
[In this essay, Watkins argues that in Heaven and Earth Byron demonstrates how religious beliefs can be manipulated to support authoritarian political views.]
Byron's faith in the ability of readers to understand and appreciate his poetry seems to have disappeared completely in his later years. His famous response to the strong moral criticisms of Don Juan reflects his sense of how far the public missed his literary aims: "it may be bawdy—but is it not good English?—it may be profligate—but is it not life, is it not the thing?" Criticism of the history plays, too, derived from ignorance; the plays, he claimed, would be appreciated only when properly "understood." His impatience perhaps reached its peak in his sardonic comment that Cain was subtitled "A Mystery" "in honour of what it probably will remain to the reader."
That he had good cause to be touchy about the way his poetry was read is nowhere better exemplified than in Heaven and Earth, a serious work that (since its publication in 1821) has been consistently misinterpreted. It has always been assumed that Byron's objective in this play was to show "that the upper and the lower worlds in some way need each other, and that each constantly gravitates toward the other despite Jehovah's decree" [Jerome J. McGann, Fiery Dust: Byron's Poetic Development, 1968]. Or, as Bernard Blackstone puts it [in Byron III: Social Satire, Drama and Epic, 1971], "What is at issue here is the question of intercourse, or communication. How is the heaven-earth nexus to be achieved?" To exemplify this point, critics cite the sexual union between the daughters of Cain and the angels of God. But there is another, less metaphysical Heaven and Earth in the play that had occupied a central position in Byron's thought at least since the writing of Cain, and that, as far as I know, has never been recognized, certainly never explored. His immediate concern, I believe, was to define as far as was possible the connection between politics and religion; he wished to suggest that the religious values accepted unquestioningly by a society as being true, universal, and absolute can be used to sanction and justify political authoritarianism. The much noted angel-man union is subordinate to this larger interest, serving mainly to clarify and emphasize the play's political message.
Byron had become increasingly convinced in the history plays—Marino Faliero, Sardanapalus, and The Two Foscari—that politics could not be understood simply in terms of exterior political events. To say that the Doge Faliero committed treason only to avenge his wife's injured honour ignores the more far-reaching question of why a substantial portion of the Venetian population was willing to commit treason with him. Or to suggest that Nineveh succumbed to a rebellious uprising only because a pacifist king sat on the throne places blame on a single individual while ignoring the long-standing social problems that gradually had weakened the city. To understand politics properly, these plays suggest, one must look beneath surface events to the primary relationship between the governing values at society's core and the practical needs and drives that motivate people at any given moment in history.
This social perspective on politics is developed further in the two "mystery" plays, in which Byron turned his attention fully to underlying social values and tried to explain how they often create strife and unrest. Like Heaven and Earth, Cain is not so much about theology as about what religion means in terms of political and social reality. The play depicts a society built on a religious foundation, allowing Byron to stress the way religion can dictate society's conduct and outlook on life; every major character except Cain submits readily to the sacred order that man must toil, pray, sacrifice, and, generally, ignore independent human dignity. Cain's unhappiness and restless opposition to prevailing beliefs offer a way of examining the justice of a religious code that demands self-denial and of measuring religious values against the material situation in which they find expression. Each act of the play treats an aspect of the social implications of religion. Act I presents "the accepted social order" [Edward E. Bostetter, The Romantic Ventriloquists: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, 1963], the combination of fundamental religious and political ingredients that makes society what it is. Cain is not yet consciously rebellious because he is as yet unsure about the source of his distress; but he is alienated, torn by his inchoate sense that something is wrong with God's scheme, and driven to question the values that require his submission. The cosmic journey of Act II provides him with a perspective that is larger than the narrowly ideological one of his own culture, enabling him to assess the way religion and society work together to control man's thinking and behaviour. The voyage shows Cain both the insignificance of the world when measured against the vastness of the universe, and—by revealing previous, greater races than man—undercuts man's central role in God's scheme. Act III then returns Cain to the world, where his frustration with the oppressive and evidently unjust "politics of Paradise" causes him to murder Abel. At every point Byron makes the religious story bear on conventional assumptions about man and society; he takes a hard and honest look at the practical significance of a subject most people prefer to leave sacrosanct and unconsidered, and he suggests that social unrest often traces back to the system of values that motivates human action. The play, in short, indicates the social context in which Byron had come to consider religion, and provides a firm foundation for the questions he raises later in Heaven and Earth.
Heaven and Earth pursues many of the interests established in Cain. The play describes both a ruling order and individual discontent with that order; it offers a perspective on social life that is not dictated by society itself; and it presents an openly defiant reaction against the way society is set up. But Heaven and Earth is finally more complex than Cain because it confuses even further the matter of "right and wrong" Rather than having Lucifer lure man into defiance of God's proclamations, Byron has God's own unfallen angels perform the deed; instead of having a traditional villain such as Cain question the laws of God and man, Byron has one of the Elect—Japhet—serve in this capacity; and rather than having the defiant rebels punished by the Deluge, Byron allows them to escape with God's legions—who become rebels to save them. These points emphasize Byron's refusal to label values abstractly as sacred or profane, and more importantly illustrate his belief that a value system—an ideology—is logically subordinate to social circumstance: no pre-determined system of values exists above and beyond man and society.
As the patriach of antediluvian society, Noah represents the controlling orthodox attitude in the play; he embodies a set of idealistic principles against which the other characters measure their individual needs and desires. Noah believes that society is built on laws, codes, and morals handed down by God, not created by the people who live in society; in fact, he believes that humanity has no real control over the world in which it lives, nor, indeed, any right to govern itself. A person gains social power only when he is pre-ordained (as Noah himself has been) by God to voice His wishes. This outlook generates at least two unfortunate practical consequences.
First, it promotes a rigidly authoritarian power structure that justifies tyranny by religious sanctioning. By attributing his power to God, Noah relieves himself of the responsibility attendant upon his position as ruler. As God's mouthpiece, he uses religion to control every facet of social conduct, not only sexual and domestic habits, but even geographical mobility. If individuals deviate from the accepted social norms Noah recalls them not by a threat of physical punishment but by the stronger threat of God's vengeance. To illustrate, Noah claims that his son, Japhet, has no business wandering the Caucasus because "It is an evil spot" (II. 91), nor any right to seek Anah's love because she is "of a fated race" (II. 94); Japhet's errant conduct in both cases is considered to be an affront to God, and punishable by "doom" (III. 466). The sanctions are vague, but effectively intimidating, and they systematically "over-awe" the sensual through their reference to the ideal. A second, even more disturbing consequence of Noah's calvinist understanding of social power is that it deadens human sympathy for mankind and endorses a vicious drive for self-preservation at the expense of others. Noah shows no compassion for the daughters of Cain; he is willing, even eager, to see them destroyed by the Flood. And he warns Japhet to dismiss them also. If Japhet hopes to survive the impending Flood, Noah says, he must "forget / That [the daughters of Cain] exist" (III. 495-96). The selfishness inherent in Noah's power is displayed even more forcefully when it becomes evident that he is willing not only to let the daughters of Cain die, but also to let his son Japhet die for continuing to love Anah despite his commands:
How darest thou look on that prophetic sky,
And seek to save what all things now condemn,
In overwhelming unison
With just Jehovah's wrath!
Noah's power rests not only on his ability to convince society that he is administering God's wishes, but also on his ability to keep individuals fixed in their assigned class positions. The importance of stratification to Noah's rule is presented most clearly in the Caucasus scene, which brings together those characters Byron has chosen to represent antediluvian society: Japhet, the tempted son who must be recalled to the moral norms of society so that eventually he can inherit his father's power; Anah and Aholibamah, the temptresses who challenged Noah's power, both by luring Japhet and by consorting with beings beyond Noah's control; the angels, overt representatives of the religious justification for Noah's rule; and, later, Noah himself, the exemplar of proper social conduct. Noah's frantic response to these characters collected together exchanging ideas openly, without any apparent regard for their appointed social positions, suggests the important role hierarchy plays in maintaining the social order he rules. He angrily reminds the others of their proper stations, threatening them with God's vengeance if they continue to violate the decreed order. He classifies Anah and Aholibamah as "children of the wicked" (III. 465) who deserve no human sympathy; he insists that the angels belong in heaven, out of man's sight—not in the daily routines of society: "Has not God made a barrier between Earth / And Heaven, and limited each, kind to kind?" (III. 475-76). He reminds Japhet that he is better than his associates, and that if he is to be assured of continued social and sacred favours he must forego such unseemly company (III. 494-98).
Plainly Noah's heated, politically shrewd commands—which go so far as to call God's angels themselves into question for intruding uninvited into the world—illuminate the requisites of the power he wields: the regimentation of individuals, the snuffing of any possible opposition before it can solidify, a single authoritarian ruling voice. Further, his comments reveal once more the way religion can be used for political ends: Noah justifies the division of society into classes not in terms of his personal rule but in terms of God's orders. These points not only show the close connection between Noah's religion and politics, but suggest as well the inhumanity and injustice at the heart of his religious beliefs.
One of the ways Byron makes the play's social theme more credible than in Cain is by having Japhet—traditionally associated with unquestioning conformity to God's commands—express many of the same social and religious doubts that Cain had expressed in the earlier mystery play. Japhet is alienated from the blind movements of society, he is expressly unhappy, and he questions many of society's accepted values. Although his immediate cause for distress is Anah's lack of interest in him, he is disturbed also because his emotional needs cannot be satisfied within the scope of Noah's power. He is told bluntly (III. 464-66) that Anah is off-limits to him because she is wicked and thus unacceptable to both Noah and to God. Compared with the ringing finality of this pronouncement, it actually matters little whether Anah loves him or not. Furthermore, he is bothered not only by his private difficulties with Noah and God, but also by the impending Flood, which he doubts is justifiable even in religious terms. If his initial prayer to God to preserve Anah (II. 74-75) suggests his desire for a single exception to God's will, rather than his discontent with the decree that everyone shall die, his later sympathy with doomed humanity as well as his questioning of the logic and virtue of God's plans show a more general concern for mankind and a dissatisfaction with God's law:
Alas! what am I better than ye are,
That I must live beyond ye?
Can we in Desolation's peace have rest?
Oh God! be thou a God, and spare
Yet while 'tis time
Japhet's position here recalls the defiant Cain boldly defending what he instinctively knows to be right; he tells Noah that he would have his lot with mankind: "Let me die with this, and them" (III. 498).
Unlike Cain, however, Japhet's gnawing sense of injustice in the world is outweighed by the heavy hand of religious and social pressure, and thus he never openly breaks with society. He is a potential son of Cain in his unrest and doubt that wilful harm to humanity can be good, but he does not have the courage to side with Anah (though he loves her) in opposition to Noah and God. Traditional attitudes eventually control his thinking and weaken his independence until finally he succumbs to his father's obviously unsatisfactory explanation that the tightening hold on the human race is necessary because "The Earth's grown wicked" (II. 65), and denies his own power to alleviate injustice (III. 51). He expresses his return to conformism when he learns that Anah is consorting with Angels:
… unions like to these,
Between a mortal and an immortal, cannot
Be happy or be hallowed. We are sent
Upon the earth to toil and die; and they
Are made to minister on high unto
This passage echoes Noah's law that man's role is to "die when he [God] ordains / A righteous death" (III. 687-88), and indicates Japhet's inability to stand against the controlling codes of social and religious conduct. Pressed to choose between open defiance and reluctant submission. Japhet cannot sustain the Cain-like posture because underneath his outward discontent he is afraid not to believe Noah's maxim that to "Be a man" (III. 694) means to submit to the dictates of God and society. Still, though he submits, he does point up in his final question the chilling irony of this great system of cosmic and worldly order that divides individuals from their fellow beings: "Why, when all perish, why must I remain?" (III. 929).
Anah and Aholibamah reveal more explicitly the problems embedded in antediluvian society by openly testing and challenging the combined religious and political forces that control their world. Although they display opposite personalities—Anah is introspective, sensitive, submissive, while her sister is proud, defiant, caustic—still they both embody the orthodox idea of human evil, and both are equally condemned by Noah and God. Aholibamah claims that her spirit, "though forbidden yet to shine" (I. 104), demands freer movement than orthodox attitudes permit; in fact, her confidence in her independent strength not only generates contempt for Noah's power, but even prompts her to exhort angels to "Descend and share my lot" (I. 96). The gentle Anah expresses with less assurance and vigour essentially the same radical sentiments as her sister; while lamenting on the one hand that in the world's present condition "Delight [is] / An Eden kept afar from sight" (I. 72-73), she also implies at the same time in her impatient longing for the angel Azaziel that she intends to find what pleasures she can despite Noah and God. Her timidity and her natural trepidation notwithstanding (see, for instance, I. 139), Anah shares with her sister a substantial opposition to the existing social order.
Their nonconformity is revealed clearly in their relationship with the angels. This relationship not only exemplifies their decided refusal to accept without question Noah's commands: it furnishes them with a larger perspective of reality than Noah wants to allow individuals, and thus challenges the absolutism of his political power; and, moreover, it implies their denial of God's cosmic scheme. Anah and Aholibamah believe in a reality beyond the authoritarian rule that now controls the world; they believe in a human spirit that (they feel) has been smothered unjustly by existing laws and structures. Their union with angels manifests these beliefs, and actualizes their hatred of the unnecessary and unjust restrictions which govern antediluvian society.
The social relevance of their affair with the angels crystallizes in Aholibamah's exchange with Japhet, who, though frustrated with Noah and God, finds himself making a clumsy effort to defend the way the world is against what Aholibamah says it can be. The awkwardness of his position highlights the inconsistencies rooted in orthodoxy. For example, he defends his father's willing participation in the impending destruction of humanity as both "welldoing" and "Righteous" (III, 381-82). This statement alone perhaps would not show Japhet in such bad light, but he follows it with a desperate pronouncement of his love for the clearly wicked Anah, which pathetically demonstrates his dissatisfaction with Noah's "well-doing" and "righteous" ways by betraying his longing for things expressly forbidden by Noah. Worse, like Byron's heroes in the Turkish Tales, he rationalizes his love for Anah by deluding himself as to her real standing in the world: "My Anah / Thou who dost rather make me dream that Abel / Had left a daughter" (III. 402-04). Aholibamah recognizes the inconsistencies in Japhet's speech and condemns his spoutings as unhealthy and destructive hypocrisy: "Get thee hence, son of Noah; thou makest strife" (III. 411). His attitude, she knows—less polished but essentially the same as his father's—allows religious fear to fasten unjust authoritarianism and hierarchy on mankind. The clearest material example of the fear that governs his thinking is the Ark, which Aholibamah holds up to him as "The bugbear … built to scare the world" (III. 443) into doing what Noah says. Japhet's bumbling exchange with Aholibamah points up the social injustice at the heart of Noah's political and religious system and, more significantly, explains the importance of the angel-mortal union as a means of combating Noah's authoritarian politics.
Taken together, the characterizations in the play suggest Byron's twofold interest in Heaven and Earth. First, he tries to show the way society's religious foundation dictates man's outlook on life. The dominant social order of the play echoes that which Byron had presented in Cain: it is a paternalistic, restrictive, and authoritarian order that Noan commands as God's regent; it focuses on submission as the central virtue and thus at least seems to work against the best interests of humanity. Noah's pact with Heaven, in short, creates tyranny. This is shown in the Flood, which in the context of the play does not so much represent God's cleansing of the earth as the extreme practical consequence of Noah's philosophy. As the Flood gains momentum, doomed humanity repeats Aholibamah's bitter claim that "heaven and earth unite / For the annihilation of all life" (III. 770-71; see also III. 795-96, and 840-43). The Flood is the culminating illustration of the oppressive and destructive tendency of Noah's powers; it is the practical manifestation of how religion can be used to justify even mass murder.
The other Heaven and Earth union—Anah and Aholibamah linked with Angels—is more frequently commented on, but just as frequently misunderstood. I have tried to suggest that this union not only demonstrates Jerome McGann's argument that Heaven and Earth naturally gravitate towards one another, but also that it provides the rebellious characters with a means of rising above the system of values that controls the world, and of evaluating life from a perspective other than Noah's. Anah and Aholibamah represent the search for a freer reality principle by which to measure their potential in life. Their escape from the Flood with angels who desert God's tyranny to save them suggests both the nobility of their resistance, and the continuing physical and spiritual opposition to the clearly unjust system administered by God and Noah.
Heaven and Earth examines the source of many social attitudes and assumptions treated in Byron's earlier writings, showing the profound impact of religion on society, and supplying thereby an explanation of how systems of values can be used to manipulate people. Social control, even authoritarian social control, is not necessarily maintained by physical sanctions, but very often by ideological ones that derive their strength from religion. Byron emphasizes the role religion can play in causing social injustice by clouding the distinctions between characters traditionally assumed to be good or evil, illustrating more clearly than he had in Cain that the worth of one's values must be determined by material circumstances. That what Noah calls God's values are not automatically good is made evident both through Japhet's frustration and through the angels' evasion of God's command. The play concludes that "The politics of Paradise" and the politics of society in general, become dangerously oppressive when they are built upon so-called religious ideas that in reality deny man his freedom to achieve full potential in the world.
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SOURCE: "Byron's Laughter: Don Juan and the Hegelian Dialectic," in The Byron Journal, No. 11, 1983, pp. 40-3, 46.
[In the essay below, Proffitt examines the function of the comic aspects of Don Juan.]
In his preface to Man and Superman, Shaw ridicules Byron's Don Juan as being a mere "vagabond libertine." Shaw was wrong. Byron's "hero" is, by force of circumstance, a vagabond; but he is no libertine. He is as essentially chaste and as passive as Shaw's own Tanner—never the seducer, always the seduced. Shaw, of course, disparaged Shakespeare, too—his disparagement being a sure sign of his debt. But my point is not that Shaw was influenced by Byron. Given Shaw's own chastity and contrariness, he would probably have come up with a chaste, passive Juan in any event. But Byron! What was he doing with such a hero?
Before I attempt an answer to this question, let me quickly establish the passivity—that is, with respect to matters sexual—of Byron's protagonist. The keynote of that passivity is struck in Canto V, when Juan, in female disguise and known as Juanna, is to be taken from the seraglio to the Sultan. Bidden by his friend Johnson to "Keep your good name; though Eve herself once fell," Juan, as "maid," modestly replies:
… the Sultan's self shan't carry me,
Unless his Highness promises to marry me.
Throughout, indeed, Juan seems more like a modest maid than the rake of legend. With Julia he is the victim of the plot of Donna Inez; with Haidée and Dudù he is the pawn of circumstance; and with Catherine the Great he could hardly be his own man. Byron's women, like Shaw's, are the active agents, not Juan. He might have "learned the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery, / And how to scale a fortress—or a nunnery," as we are told in Canto I (st. 38). But had he accomplished the latter, he would have to have found a particularly aggressive nun.
And even had such been waiting, nothing would necessarily have happened. For Juan is essentially chaste (as well as being chased). Thus, he heroically resists the advances of the tearful Gulbeyaz; and his affairs with both Julia and Haidée are innocent and pure—young love in full bloom. Byron was a bit disingenuous, then, when he described the poem as follows:
As to "Don Juan"—confess—you dog—and be candid—that it 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?—and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a Gondola? against a wall? in a court car-riage? in a vis a vis?—on a table?—and under it? [Byron's Letters and Journals, Vol. IV, ed. L. A. Marchand].
But here is the crux of the problem. Like da Ponte's Giovanni, Byron did those things; Juan does not. Why not?—especially given that the poem is in so many other respects autobiographical and that in terms of mundane particulars, at least, Byron certainly identified with his Juan. As Byron wrote to Murray: "Almost all Don Juan is real life—either my own—or from people I knew."
We are back to our original question: why did Byron choose to make Juan a passive agent, given the tradition he was derived from? Leslie Marchand [in Byron's Poetry, 1965] suggests one answer:
In general this follows Byron's own concept of his relations with women. Reputed to be a rake and a seducer, he felt himself the most pursued of men. Replying to a distorted story of his abduction of the Countess Guiccioli, he wrote: "I should like to know who has been carried off—except for poor me. I have been more ravished myself than anybody since the Trojan War …" And to Murray he wrote in 1819: "Your Blackwood accuses me of treating women harshly: it may be so, but I have been their martyr. My whole life has been sacrificed to them and by them."
In the passivity of his protagonist, Byron reflects, no doubt, half wish and half fact. Especially once his reputation was established, Byron was in fact as often seduced as he seduced.
But a more penetrating answer, perhaps, involves the very reputation that led Byron to take Don Juan as protagonist in the first place. In many ways Don Juan is a parody of, specifically, Childe Harold, or more generally, of the pretensions, posings, and ego-mania of the Byronic hero. Don Juan, that is, marks a healthy comic rejection on Byron's part of the expectations of his audience, or Byron's refusal to become, as did Hemingway, for example, a living parody of his own hero or a writer of inadvertent parody (as Hemingway also became). Via his treatment of the Don, Byron escaped the traps that wait for any writer of his fame.
There is yet a third answer. In Canto IV Byron says in his own voice:
His treatment of the Don was not only Byron's artistic salvation but also his spiritual. Unable to move beyond an adolescent mentality, the Byronic hero falls into a posture of alienation; but that alienation became real and intolerable for Byron himself. What then? Werther shoots himself; Byron laughs. Laughter, then, became the final defence of a mind that could not move beyond youthful idealism and narcissism. Of poems composed while Don Juan was in progress, William Marshall [in The Structure of Byron's Major Poems, 1962] states: "Byron dramatized the ironic situations of those who were essentially unable to reconcile themselves to imperfection." Byron himself was no doubt one of those. In a late canto—Canto XI—Byron says:
It is that that Byron laughs at. But his laughter, finally, has a defensive tone to it. Byron seems not to have been able to attain the wisdom of A. R. Ammons:
By the time I got the world cut down small enough that
I could be the centre of it, it wasn't worth having.
However much Byron laughs at our "universal egotism," or his own, he still hankers after the narcissistic ideal. His laughter, thus, is a defence against the pain of that hankering.
But that laughter can also be viewed as a way toward a more mature vision of things. That is, we might take Don Juan in an Hegelian context. Speaking of the advancement of "spirit" and consciousness, Hegel writes in the Phenomenology that spirit must become
conscious of its own distraught and torn condition and to express itself accordingly,—this is to pour scornful laughter on existence, on the confusion pervading the whole and on itself as well: it is at the same time this whole confusion dying away and yet apprehending itself to be doing so.
Laughter, thus, can move us to a higher state of self-integration, or, as Hegel says, "self-alienation … moulds itself into its opposite, and in this way reverses the nature of that opposite." In pouring laughter on himself, Byron—a most modern man in this regard—is pointing, perhaps, toward wholeness, the kind of wholeness postulated by Hegel or envisioned by Yeats when he wrote:
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.
Of course, to see that rending, we must take Don Juan within the tradition of the Don as rake and seducer as well as within its Byronic context. A passive Juan? Yes, that is to rend and to pour laughter on. As to the Byronic context, we must, as I have suggested, read Don Juan against Childe Harold. So read, Don Juan becomes an antithesis and rings thereby with Hegel's laughter. Compare, for example, the ways in which Harold and Juan go into exile. Harold, wrapped in a cape and standing on the prow of the ship, takes up a handy harp and sings an heroic elegy to the waves as the sun sets. Trying his best to be a Childe Harold—in Juan's case, to maintain the posture of the heroic lover—our hero turned anti-hero gets seasick; and as he does, he gives rise to some of Byron's most scornfully comic lines:
To be sure, to laugh at Juan for being less than super-human is to deride our common mortality; Byron is not reconciled to our clay, but would have us made of more heroic stuff. Nevertheless, his vision of Juan vomiting, like his creation of a passive Juan in the first place, is a healthy counter to his and our infantile aspirations. In sum, though defensive in motive force, Byron's laughter is also liberating in potentiality; his treatment of the Don is a strategy of self-protection in part, but also a strategy of personal growth, that prime romantic value. So seen, the passivity of Byron's Juan is fully comic: funny, yet also instructive with respect to our arrested longings.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7184
SOURCE: "Speed and Space: Byron," in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Vintage Books, 1991, pp. 347-64.
[In the following essay, which was first published in 1990, Paglia regards Byron as instrumental in the development of the phenomenon of the male sex symbol.]
The second generation of English Romantic poets inherited the achievement of the first. Byron, Shelley, and Keats read and absorbed Wordsworth and Coleridge's poems and gave them new form. The younger men created the myth of the doomed Romantic artist. All three went into exile and died young, in pagan Italy and Greece. Publicity and fashion made them sex-heroes of European high society: they were real-life sexual personae, as Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge were not. The poems of Byron, Shelley, and Keats are theatrical gestures of self-definition. The first Romantic generation released the psychic energy in which the second swam and sometimes drowned. Achieving freedom is one problem, surviving freedom another. The early deaths of Byron, Shelley, and Keats demonstrate the intolerable pressures in the Romantic and liberal world-view. Blake and Wordsworth wanted identity without personality: but personality is ultimate western reality. Byron, Shelley, and Keats had a love-hate relationship with personality, their own and others'.
Lord Byron makes Romantic incest stunningly explicit. I see Manfred (1817) as a cross-fertilization of Goethe's Faust with Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey. Byron's passionate hero is tormented by guilt for some mysterious crime. He is obsessed with his dead sister Astarte, his twin in eyes, face, and voice. Byron relishes sexual criminality. Forbidden love makes his characters superhuman. Rejecting all social relationships, Manfred seeks only himself in sexually transmuted form. Wordsworth's sister allows him to remain alone, sex-free, but Astarte (Phoenician Venus) lures Manfred into the vertigo of sex.
The sister-spirit appears in Manfred at exactly the point where she materializes in Tintern Abbey. Astarte died in Manfred's tower when her heart "wither'd" while gazing on his. She has no tomb. What happened? Where is she? Manfred's western lust for knowledge annihilates his sister, like Faust with Gretchen. Oscar Wilde reimagines the scene in the climax of The Picture of Dorian Gray, where two doubles, a man and his portrait, confront each other in a locked attic room. The man is found dead, hideously "withered"—Byron's word. Astarte, gazing at her brother's heart as if into a mirror, dies of daemonic narcissim. Brother and sister trespass the borderlines of western identity and exchange personality. Manfred merges too fiercely with his sister. He assimilates her. How else explain the disappearance of her body?
Manfred's union with his sister is a solipsistic sex-experiment that fails. His restlessness and remorse are symptoms of his engorgement by her. Like Thyestes, Manfred has eaten his own flesh; like Kronos, he must vomit it out. Because real sexual relations have occurred between Manfred and his double, the physical world becomes intolerable to him. Byron's poem is surrealistically expanded in Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, where the sister, entombed in the skull-like house, returns as a bloody apparition to stalk her hysterical brother. In Byron, the sister-spirit's materialization promises psychic relief. Manfred appeals to her to speak, so she can regain her autonomy and stay externalized. But she only prophesies her brother's death and disappears. I say sister collapses back into brother, renewing his sufferings.
In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth's sister does not need to speak. She is the anima in correct relation to the poet. The intercourse of brother and sister is spiritual, not physical. In Manfred, fraternal intercourse is violent and voracious. Blood is shed, which Manfred hallucinates on a wine cup. He has ruptured his sister's virginity. The blood-rimmed cup from which he cannot drink is a nightmare vision of the locus of violation. It is also his bloody mind and bloody tongue, thinking and speaking against nature.
Like Coleridge's Christabel, Manfred centers on a ritual sex act defying social and moral law. In the poem's pagan cult of self-worship, matrimony, communion, and last rites are simultaneous. The ritual victim is torn by the phallic knife and her flesh consumed. Astarte is tombless because she has been perversely absorbed, body and soul, by her brother. As in Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, Manfred is tormented by the internal presence of another being, illegitimately enwombed like a daemonic fetus. Manfred is the Romantic solipsist who has devoured the universe, but it sickens within him. Amputation or self-gorging? Kleist's Achilles makes one choice, Byron's Manfred another. The self is out of sync with the object-world, which floods in or cruelly withdraws, marooning Wordsworth's puckered solitaries. In Manfred Byron makes illicit sex the lists of combat. Romantic sexual personae scratch and claw in attraction and repulsion.
Rumor said Byron committed incest with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. True or false, the story added to his fame. Incest obsessively recurs in Byron's poems. Cain turns the issue into legal conundrum. God allows incest for mankind's second generation, who must marry their siblings. The poem dwells on the mutual love of Cain and his twin sister, incredulous at the prohibition of fraternal sexuality to their own children. In Parisina, the Phaedra-like incest is between wife and stepson, an exception to Byron's favorite brother-sister pattern. Originally, Byron's central characters in The Bride of Abydos were brother and sister in love. In the final version, they are first cousins. But their infatuation dates from childhood, and the girl still believes the boy her brother when, feverishly kissing him, she rejects an arranged marriage. Byron says, "Great is their love who love in sin and fear" (Heaven and Earth). Incest is sexual dissent. Its value is in impurity. Byron would spurn Blakean innocence. He takes the Sadean approach to sex and psyche: make a line, so I can cross it. Unlike Blake or Wordsworth, Byron wants to reinforce the boundaries of self. In incest, libido moves out and back, making a uroboros-circle of regression and dynastic exclusiveness.
Romanticism's feminization of the male persona becomes effeminacy in Byron. The unmanly hero of The Bride of Abydos is stranded among women. Incestuous feeling is incubated in an Oriental haze. The Corsair introduces seductive Gulnare, to appear transvestite in a sequel. Gulnare's relations with the corsair are like Kleist's Penthesilea with Achilles, a dancelike exchange of strength and weakness. There are heroic rescues, then capture, humiliation, and recovery. Byron ritualistically elaborates each stage of assertion and passivity, making the narrative a slow masque of sexual personae.
Until the end of Lara, Byron teasingly implies that the effeminate pageboy, Kaled, is homosexually attached to the chieftain Lara. The truth outs when Lara is killed and the boy faints. Bystanders reviving him loosen his garments and discover Kaled is the woman Gulnare, in love with the corsair Lara. Byron's rippling poetry makes sexual metamorphosis happen before our eyes. First we are admiring "the glossy tendrils" of a beautiful boy's "raven hair." Suddenly, he swoons into sensuous passivity. Now we join the voyeuristic marvelling at public exposure of a woman's breasts, as she lies unconscious. Homosexual and heterosexual responses have been successively induced or extorted from the reader. The blink-of-an-eye sex change recalls Spenser's switch of sexual perspective, but Byron retains his woman's male name to prolong her sexual ambiguity. Surely Gautier imitates this scene in Mademoiselle de Maupin, when a page is knocked unconscious from his horse and his shirt parted to reveal a girl's "very white bosom." I think it all ends up in National Velvet (1944, from Enid Bagnold's novel), where a fallen jockey, played by the young Elizabeth Taylor, is carried unconscious from the race course. The motif is now safely sanitized: a doctor, not titillated passersby, undrapes the succulent bosom.
Lara's sex games echo Byron's own. After leaving Cambridge, Byron had an affair with a girl whom he dressed as a boy and called his brother. G. Wilson Knight [in Lord Byron's Marriage, 1957] suggests Lady Caroline Lamb masqueraded as a pageboy to rekindle the poet's fading passion. Byron probably models Kaled's service to Lord Lara on that of transvestite Viola to Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night. Byron's responses are as bisexual as Shakespeare's. He is equally and even simultaneously aroused by an effeminate boy and a bold cross-dressing woman. Byron's last poems are addressed to a handsome Greek youth with whom he was unhappily infatuated. His early poems to "Thyrza" were inspired by a Cambridge choirboy, probably John Edleston. The boy has a female name partly because the poems could not have been published otherwise. But this is also an example of my principle of sexual metathesis, a shift in gender producing a special eroticism. We feel it in Byron's lascivious delight in Lara's open-air spectacle of sexual unmasking—the topos of deblousing, recreating the mood of the naughty Italian romances purified by Shakespeare.
In Sardanapalus (1821), Byron vies directly with Shakespeare. The poem recasts Antony and Cleopatra—with the hero as Antony and Cleopatra. In a prefatory note, Byron claims he got the story from Diodorus Siculus. The Greek Sardanapalus bore little resemblance to the Assyrian king and general, Assurbanipal. Delacroix's crimson tableau shows Byron's Sardanapalus amid the decadent conflagration of empire. Byron begins his poem as Shakespeare begins his play: a hostile bystander scorns the sexual degeneracy of the protagonist, who enters for our inspection. In Shakespeare, the cynical commentary is contradicted by Antony and Cleopatra's love. Byron's Sardanapalus, however, is just as unmanly as foretold. He sweeps onstage crowned with flowers and "effeminately dressed," followed by a train of women and young slaves. Sardanapalus is Euripides' Dionysus with his Maenads—but now Dionysus is king. We are in Shakespeare's Egypt, a liquid realm of woman, music, and perfume. Maleness dissolves. The king's companions include eunuchs, "beings less than women." Sardanapalus' brother-in-law calls him "the grandson of Semiramis, the man-queen." Who's the queen, Semiramis or Sardanapalus? Calling his hero a "she-king," a "she Sardanapalus," Byron develops an entire character out of Antony's transvestite game. Sardanapalus denies he is a soldier and denounces the word and all who identify with it. Byron tries to argue that Sardanapalus' manhood is more comprehensive than the ordinary. But morality is not the Romantic strong suit. Byron quickly flits off into sexual caprice, his best manner. Sardanapalus' feminized masculinity is far from efficacious. His kingdom is destroyed, and he with it.
Sardanapalus is an experiment in personae: how far can a male protagonist be shifted toward the female extreme without total loss of masculinity? The enervation in Sardanapalus is more extreme than anything in Antony and Cleopatra, which bursts with Renaissance energy. In his journal Byron speaks of the delightful "calm nothingness of languour" and elsewhere describes a "voluptuous state, / At once Elysian and effeminate" (The Island). This floating condition sabotages Sardanapalus. The king laments the heaviness of objects, as if his muscles have atrophied. Sardanapalus is western personality submerged in Dionysian flux. When military crisis forces him into the social world, reality seems stubbornly dense.
Sardanapalus' most masculine moment is his arming for battle, prefigured in Shakespeare when Cleopatra acts as Antony's arms-bearer. Sardanapalus calls for his cuirass, baldric, helmet, spear—and mirror. He flings away his helmet because it doesn't look good. The king of Assyria, who should be psyching himself up for battle, seems more like a lady trying on hats. Shakespeare's hero is attended by his lover. In Byron, the lover becomes a mirror. Sardanapalus is the complete Romantic hero, in love with his mirror-image. He is his own audience and critic, a projected eye. Byron nullifies Sardanapalus' manhood with feminine narcissism. We saw this pattern in Lewis' The Monk, where each sexual movement immediately swings in the opposite direction. Sardanapalus risks his life by fighting bare-headed, apparently because he wants to show off "his flowing hair." This hair belongs to the poet of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," whose sexual ambiguity Byron divines. Byron attaches Coleridge's whole line to the king's Amazon slave, Myrrha (Dante's incestuous sinner), who strides into battle with "her floating hair and flashing eyes." Poets, unlike critics, sense the sex and decadence in art.
As a program for androgyny, Sardanapalus is unconvincing. I find the poem more ominous than does Knight [in Poets of Action, 1967], who praises the "poet-like" hero for "joining man's reason to woman's emotional depth. Sardanapalus seems too vain and whimsical to lead a nation, or even produce art. The brawling Cleopatra gets more done. The effeminacy of Byron's hero is perverse, not ideal. Sardanapalus' richness of Shakespearean reference raises an interesting question. Byron always spoke negatively of Shakespeare. Lady Blessington concluded Byron must be feigning animosity, since he knew so much Shakespeare by heart. Bloom's anxiety of influence would suggest that Byron owed Shakespeare too much and was determined to deny it, even to himself.
In Don Juan (1819-24), his longest and greatest poem, Byron invents another sexually unconventional hero. The seducer Don Juan, a Renaissance Spaniard, is one of the west's unique sexual personae. In contrast to Mozart's Don Giovanni, Byron's Don Juan is smaller, shyer, more "feminine." He is "a most beauteous boy," "slight and slim, / Blushing and beardless," perfect as "one of the seraphim" (VIII.52; IX.53, 47). Juan is partly Byron and partly what Byron likes in boys. Knight, Frye, and Bloom comment on the hero's sexual passivity toward dominant women [G. Wilson Knight, Poets of Action, Northrop Frye, Fables of Identity, 1963; Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company, 1961]. When Juan is sold as a slave in Constantinople, a eunuch forces him into female clothing, supplemented by makeup and judicious tweezing. Juan has caught the sultana's eye. By transvestism he can be smuggled into the harem for her pleasure. Byron's sensual, self-enclosed harem world is like Blake's rose, femaleness multiplied and condensed in a small humid circle.
The sultana Gulbeyaz is one of Romanticism's most potent women. Don Juan continues Sardanapalus' maneuvering of an effeminate male along the sexual spectrum. Juan's tenuous manhood is near-obliterated by female drag. Now Byron shoves him next to an Amazon dominatrix. Juan in petticoats is a trembling pawn upon whom the raging queen bears down. Gulbeyaz is the Cleopatra missing from Sardanapalus. She is the androgyne as virago, luxuriously female in body but harshly male in spirit. Gulbeyaz has Cleopatra's vigorous duality: her "large eyes" show "half-voluptuousness and half-command." She is "imperial, or imperious," with a haughty smile of "self-will." Her eyes "flash'd always fire," blending "passion and power" (V.108, 110-11, 134, 116). Gulbeyaz wears a male poniard at her waist. Byron's sultana will end up as a smouldering Spanish marquise in Balzac's The Girl with the Golden Eyes, where that poniard is drawn and dreadfully used.
Gulbeyaz's entrance into the poem overwhelms Don Juan's residual masculinity. Introduced as a girl to sultan and harem, he blushes and shakes. Byron chooses not to defend his hero's virility and mischievously absents himself to take the sexually external point of view. Poor Juan is now simply "she" and "her." Even Spenser, after briefing the reader, allows his transvestites their proper pronoun. In the next canto, Byron allows "he" intermittent return. But it is rudely jostled by the harem's unflagging attention to the newcomer: "Her shape, her hair, her air, her everything" (VI.35). Gossip, admiration, envy: Juan's female alter ego is fixed by and projected to a captive audience. Asked his name, Juan replies "Juanna." And Juanna he is called for the rest of the Turkish episode, even by Byron himself. This sex transformation of his own name is a sign of Juan's developing sexual complicity, like Coleridge's Christabel lifting the vampire over the threshold. Apologizing for calling his hero Juanna, Byron wantonly stresses the sexual equivocal: "I say her because, / The gender still was epicene" (58). Even at his most perverse, Spenser is never this coy. Byron is flirting with the reader, something new in literature.
Logically, a young man spirited into a harem, like a fox in a hen-house, should soon profit from his access to, as Byron puts it, "a thousand bosoms there / Beating for love" (26). But this is a Romantic and not a Renaissance poem, and in a Romantic poem, as should now be clear, virility is granted no privileges. Juan becomes the object of desire not because he is male but because he is thought female. The harem women fight over who is to sleep with Juanna, and more than sleep is on their minds: "Lolah's eyes sparkled at the proposition" (82). Gulbeyaz is included in this steamy stuff. The sultan is "always so polite" as to announce his conjugal visits in advance, "especially at night." Since the harem is marked by "the absence of all men," the sultan would presumably not be surprised to find Gulbeyaz in bed with her own women (V.146; VI.32) Don Juan's lesbian innuendos frustrate conventional sexual expectation. How does one defeat the virility of a man at happy liberty in a harem? The Romantic poem, with cross-sexual virtuosity, blithely replies: why, by turning him into a transvestite and making him the object of lesbian lust! The rest of Don Juan is a series of sexcapades across Asia and Europe. The unfinished poem ends in female transvestism, a scene probably inspired by The Monk: Juan's bedchamber is invaded by a ghostly, hooded friar, whom the closing words reveal to be a "voluptuous" woman. The best things in Don Juan take place in the Near East, which Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798 had made a subject of European interest. Knight says, [in The Starlit Dome, 1970] "Byron is saturated in oriental sympathies." Byron's Orient, like Shakespeare's, is an emotionally expansive realm liquefying European sexual personae. Genders proliferate: Byron calls eunuchs and castrati "the third sex." We cannot comprehend the mysteries of love, he says, until we imitate "wise Tiresias" and sample "the several sexes." Don Juan's teeming eunuchs—the sultan's eunuch train is "a quarter of a mile" long—are extreme versions of its androgynous hero. Transvestite Juan subject to Gulbeyaz is like a castrate priest of Cybele. The Byronic Orient is matriarchal. Don Juan's seraglio, a "labyrinth of females," is a drowsy Spenserian bower, the womb-tomb of the male will. As in Antony and Cleopatra, the Orient also stands for liberated imagination. It is the anarchic unconscious, a dream-world of unstable sex and identity where objects cannot hold their Apollonian shape.
Don Juan's free and easy style is difficult to analyze. Style reflects poet. Spengler [in The Decline of the West, trans, charles Francis Atkinson, 1929] says western history demands "contrapuntally strong accents—wars or big personalities—at the decisive points." The huge influence of Byron's personality on the nineteenth century is still incompletely assessed. His early poems of brooding defiance, like Cain and Manfred, conform to the popular image of Byronism, but Don Juan actually captures the poet's essential spirit. Don Juan is emotionally various and comprehensive. Bloom says, "The last word in a discussion of Don Juan ought not to be 'irony' but 'mobility', one of Byron's favorite terms." Byron defined mobility as "an excessive susceptibility of immediate impressions." The mobile male is receptive and half-feminine. I myself hit upon "mobility" to describe the psychic volatility of Shakespeare's boys and women, whom his plays class with lovers, lunatics, and poets. The many moods of Don Juan's omniscient narrator make him a Mercurius of multiple personae. The poem explores the emotional tonalities available to a poetic voice speaking for itself and not through projected characters. It is analogous to Chopin's development of the lyric potential of the piano. In Don Juan Byron takes himself for subject nearly as forthrightly as Wordsworth does in The Prelude.
Byron's dedication to Don Juan attacks Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey for "a narrowness … which makes me wish you'd change your lakes for ocean." A lake is enclosed and trapped by the conventional and known. No one point of view can do justice to ocean, vast and metamorphic. Byronic energy overflows Wordsworthian decorum. Impatiently, Byron overlooks the sexual ambivalences in Wordsworth and daemonic Coleridge. He charges them with parochialism, with damming up the waters of emotion in stagnant spiritual ponds. The English are traditionally a seafaring people. Their location on an island amidst a turbulent northern ocean contributed to the out-pouring poetic vitality of the English Renaissance. By the early nineteenth century, the psychic fluidity of Shakespeare's England was long gone. Like Shelley, Byron, the most mobile of poets, fled the resentments of a closed society. The English had become emotionally and sexually landlocked. Frazer [in The Golden Bough, 1935] links ancient Egypt's stability and conservatism to its desert geography. Agriculture's "monotonous routine" gives the farmer "a settled phlegmatic habit of mind very different from the mobility, the alertness, the pliability of character which the hazards and uncertainties of commerce and the sea foster in the merchant and the sailor," with their "mercurial spirit." In Don Juan, Byron takes English imagination back to sea. As Juan is tossed and turned by adventure, the narrator's shifting voice recreates the ceaseless sea change of sex and emotion.
Like Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which made Byron famous, Don Juan is structured by the archetypal journey theme. But Don Juan's journeying has speed. Alvin Kernan [in The Plot of Satire, 1965] speaks of an "onward rush" in the poem, "a vital forceful onward movement." From locomotive to jet plane, speed has transformed modern life. The Renaissance reeled from its sudden expansion of space, as the known world doubled and tripled. Speed is western domination of space, a linear track of the aggressive will. Modern speed alters perception. As late as 1910, Ε. Μ. Forster's heroine in Howards End resists the new speed of the motorcar, which makes her lose "all sense of space." Mr. Wilcox sings out, "There's a pretty church—oh, you aren't sharp enough." Margaret's pre-modern eye moves sluggishly: "She looked at the scenery. It heaved and merged like porridge. Presently it congealed. They had arrived." Speed melts the object-world without remaking it. Revolutionary Byron senses an imminent change in the nature of space, which he did not live to see. Don Juan marks the first appearance in art of modern speed.
Critics sometimes speak of the "swiftness" of Shelley's poetry. But Shelley's movement is upward. He seeks rhapsodic exaltation (exaltare means "to lift up"). Byron is never exalted. His movement is secular and vehicular. Byron's space was created by the Renaissance Age of Discovery and measured by the Enlightenment. Speaking of Milton [in "Milton and the Descent to Light," in Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Arthur E. Barker, 1965], Don Cameron Allen says Judeo-Christianity urges man "to abandon the horizontal movement of human history for the vertical motion of the spiritual life." Shelley is spiritual verticality, Byron earthly horizontality. Shelley is always subverting horizontals: the Witch of Atlas' boat defies gravity and sails upstream, or the procession of "The Triumph of Time" shows life as a leaden line of slaves. Shelley's objects … are weightless and porous, penetrated by vision. Byron's concrete objects are firmly fixed in space and time. Shelley's imagination moves, but what moves in Byron is the body. Byron is a Greek athlete, challenging and surpassing. Objects are his counters and stepping stones.
Shelley's and Byron's speed are energized by different principles of sex-transcendence. Don Juan's speed is a skimming, like Raphael's Galatea flying in her chariot across the sea. But Galatea is drawn by porpoises. Byron's speed is self-motivating. All self-motivating speed is hermaphroditic—in angels, Vergil's Camilla, or Giambologna's Mercury. Pope's Camilla "skims along the Main" (An Essay on Criticism, 373). Byron actually compares the dancing Don Juan to Vergil's Amazon: "Like swift Camilla, he scarce skimm'd the ground" (XIV. 39). Don Juan the character and Don Juan the poem are worldskimmers. The skimming is in both style and content. Byron's poetry is not "finished," that is, finely crafted and polished. Sir Walter Scott saw in Byron "the careless and negligent ease of a man of quality." Calling him "slovenly, slipshod," Matthew Arnold [in his preface to Poetry of Lord Byron, 1881] rebuked Byron for "negligence" and "want of art, in his workmanship as a poet." But this slapdash freedom gives Byron his relentless forward propulsion. Since the lines are not crisply formed, each tips into the next with breathless haste. Shakespeare's spilling lines are weightier, his diction craggier. I said vision in Coleridge and Poe often overpowers language, leaving it rude or weak: words run hot and cold, gorgeous splotches followed by shabby scrabble. But Byron's poetry has evenness of texture, a liquid fluency. Byron greatly admired the Augustan poets, but though his aristocratic satire is Augustan, his style is not. There is no braking midline caesura, nor is there Pope's massy orotundity. Byron cultivates a sensation of linearity. His verse is like a clear, rapid stream. Byron's objects have a friendly exactitude. His moods and objects are tumbled like smooth pebbles in the stream of his poetry. Love and hate, male and female, lobster salad and champagne: this is Byron's object-world in genial rolling flux. All come together in his poetry to make us feel we are skimming a surface.
Poetry began as music, and music began as dance. Shelley's movements are like those of classical ballet, which takes place in abstract space. Ballet ideologically defies gravity. Great male dancers are applauded for their ability to hover at the crest of their leaps, as if momentarily breaking their tie to earth. Female dancers mutilate their feet to remain inhumanly on point, keeping their contact with earth to the absolute minimum. The arms extended from the body, a gesture originating in the Baroque court, suggest wings, contempt for the earth's surface. Ballet is the body rising. Ballet is ceremonial and hieratic. Its disdain for the commonplace material world is the source of its authority and glamour. Ballet is Apollonian. Martha Graham invented or rather reinvented chthonian dance. Modern dance is primitivistic and pelvic. It slaps bare feet on mother earth and contracts with her spasms. The dance of Byron's poetry is neither Apollonian nor chthonian. Byron is attuned neither to sky nor to earth's bowels. He skims earth's surface, midway between realms. Don Juan's Byronic style is found in only one dancer: Fred Astaire. Astaire's supple dancing is a silvery gliding along hard polished surfaces. There is no balletic aspiration in Astaire. He is the here and now, a sophisticate moving in cosmopolitan space. Even when springing up on chairs or climbing the walls, Astaire is exploring the dimensions of our common life. Rudolf Nureyev is a haughty Lucifer shut out from heaven, which he tries to reach in angry leaps. Nureyev is early Byron, tense and defiant. Astaire (and his admirer, Mikhail Baryshnikov) is late Byron. Astaire is a suave reed bending to the wind. He has Byron's "ease," the well-bred manners and gentle smiling irony. Astaire is as elegantly elongated as Giambologna's Mercury. With his smooth head and slim body, he is ageless and androgynous. He is a gracious host or guide, like Milton's Raphael, "the sociable Spirit" or "affable Archangel." Astaire's fluid grace is Byron's mobility, skimming across the world.
Byron knew both his speed and his space. His dedication to Don Juan proclaims to rival poets that, "wandering with pedestrian Muses," he will not contend with them "on the wingèd steed." He is not Nureyev, making Pegasus-like skyward leaps, but Astaire, spiralling across the earth's dance floor with merry carnal Muses (Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth). An eternal "wandering" or surface-skimming: like all picaresque works, Byron's travel poems have no necessary ending and could go on and on. I call Don Juan's lightness and quickness breeziness. A connection to Camilla: Jackson Knight [in Roman Vergil, 1944] says the idea of a fleet figure running atop the grain stalks may have originated in Volscian belief in "the presence of some spirit of the corn." So the meadows' wave-like motion is the wind's invisible steps. The breeziness of Don Juan is the freshness of a spring breeze, a new spirit entering and aerating history. The breeze emanating from Byron—literally, his emanation—is the spirit of youth, which was to have enormous impact upon European and American culture. Rousseau invented the modern cult of childhood; Goethe popularized Rousseau's moody adolescent. But Byron created the glamourous sexy youth of brash, defiant energy, the new embodied in a charismatic sexual persona. Hence Byron senses the dawn of the age of speed. Youth is swiftness in emotionally transient form. Transience, from the Latin transeo, contains the ideas both of travel and of the short-lived. Byron, portrayed by Goethe as the androgynous, self-thwarted Euphorion, died in 1824. The first passenger locomotive appeared in 1825. Byron's spirit seems to have transmigrated into the engine of speed.
Surveys show that two advertising words rivet our attention: "free" and "new." We still live in the age of Romanticism. When novelty is worshipped, nothing can last. Byronic youth-culture flourishes in rock music, the ubiquitous American art form. Don Juan's emotional and poetic style is replicated in a classic American experience: driving flat-out on a highway, radio blaring. Driving is the American sublime, for which there is no perfect parallel in Europe. Ten miles outside any American city, the frontier is wide open. Our long, straight superhighways crisscross vast space. Mercury and Camilla's self-motivating speed: the modern automobile, plentifully panelled with glass, is so quick, smooth, and discreet, it seems an extension of the body. To traverse or skim the American landscape in such a vehicle is to feel the speed and aerated space of Don Juan. Rock music pulsing on the radio is the car's heartbeat. European radio stations are few and mostly state-controlled. But American radio-bands teem with music and voices, like the many moods of Byron's poem. Driving through upstate New York, horizontally slashed by six hours of straight-as-the-crow-flies Thruway, one hears music from Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, as distant as Italy is from England. Twirling the radio dial while travelling the open road, the American driver flies along on a continuous surface of music, with a sublime sense of huge space surveyed and subsumed.
Rock music is normally a darkly daemonic mode. The Rolling Stones, the greatest rock band, are heirs of stormy Coleridge. But rock has an Apollonian daylight style as well, a combination of sun and speed: the Beach Boys. Don Juan and the Beach Boys combine youth, androgyny, aeration, and speed. Lillian Roxon [in the Rock Encyclopedia, 1969] calls the Beach Boys' first album "a celebration of airiness and speed, speed on the water or the road." The romance of motion survives in the Beach Boys' soaring harmonies and chugging sound, like the chuffchuff-chuff of a locomotive or steamboat. The Beach Boys made the California surfer a new American archetype, like the cowboy. Surfing, of course, is skimming in its purest form.
The Beach Boys use a falsetto lead voice set against a boyish chorale; their sound is effeminate and yet enthusiastically heterosexual, as in the immortal "California Girls." We find the same odd combination in Byron. Byron may have been partly or even primarily homosexual, but his poetry affects a distinctive eroticism of effeminate heterosexuality. The Beach Boys' seraphic boy voice gives an unexpected beauty and religiousity to their trivial highschool themes. The tone is Byronic: sympathy and satire, without cynicism. In their exuberance, hedonism, and mannered irrelevance, the Beach Boys epitomize the self-sustaining and annoyingly self-congratulatory modern youth culture that Byron began. The American teenager in a souped-up car bursts the confines of adult space.
Why did Byron's poetry turn to skimming? Bernard Black-stone remarks [in Byron: A Survey, 1975], "We know how much Byron objected to seeing his wife eating, and while this may have something to do with his own horror of obesity and recollections of his mother's gormandising, there were probably moments at which Byron saw himself as an homunculus between the steady munch, munch of Annabella's upper and lower jaws." Byron had a weight problem and struggled to keep thin, even by starving himself. Fat is femaleness, nature's abundance, symbolized in the bulging Venus of Willendorf. Femaleness, I argued, is primitive and archaic, while femininity is social and aesthetic. Byron courts femininity but flees femaleness. His fear of fat is his fear of engorgement by mother and wife. Woman gets under his skin. Skimming is keeping the fat off, in soup or milk. Don Juan's skimming is a defense mechanism, a compromise between earth's primitive chthonianism and sky's repressive Apollonianism. Byron keeps moving, reclaiming space from mother nature. Byron's Sardanapalus eliminates and supplants Cleopatra because Byron fears the femme fatale and female stasis. Even fierce Gulbeyaz is trapped in a male world, the sultan's prisoner. Byron loved water and was so expert a swimmer that he wondered if he had been a merman in a previous life. He chose a mermaid for his carriage crest. Is the mermaid androgynous Byron—or archetypal woman closed to penetration? Swimming was club-footed Byron's freest motion. One of his feats was swimming the Hellespont: Byron honored liquidity but sought to dominate it, athletically. As much as Wordsworth, he wanted nature without chthonian danger. The clarity of Byron's late style is a denial of the murk of woman and water. Female fluids are opaque, resistant; fat, the wateriest part of our body, is mother nature's grip on the human will. Like Blake, Byron refuses to yield to Jehovah or Cybele. "Run, run, run," say a dozen classic rock songs. To grow, a plant must put down roots. So keep young and die. Byron's restless animal motion defeats his female vegetable flesh. Don Juan does not stop because Byron cannot stop.
A contemporary spoke of Byron's "magical influence" on people [quoted in E. M. Butler, Byron and Goethe, 1956]. Mary Shelley said of him, "There was something enchanting in his manner, his voice, his smile—a fascination in them" [quoted in Newman lvey White, Shelley, 1940]. Byron had pure charisma, a power of personality divorced from the conceptual or moral. Charisma is electromagnetism, a scintillating fusion of masculine and feminine. Lady Blessington said Byron's "voice and accent are peculiarly agreeable, but effeminate." His friend Moore saw "a feminine cast of character" in "his caprices, fits of weeping, sudden affections and dislikes" [Lady Blessington's Conversations of Lord Byron, ed. Ernest J. Lovell, Jr., 1969]. Byron belongs to the category of androgyne I invented for Michelangelo's Giuliano de' Medici: Epicoene, or the man of beauty, an athlete of alabaster skin. Jane Porter found Byron's complexion "softly brilliant," with a "moonlight paleness." Lady Blessington called his face "peculiarly pale," set off by curling hair of "very dark brown": "He uses a good deal of oil in it, which makes it look still darker." White skin, dark oiled hair: Elvis Presley. In homage to singer Roy Orbison, Presley dyed his brown-blonde hair black and continued to do so to the end, despite friends' urging to let the natural color return. Presley, a myth-maker, understood the essence of his archetypal beauty.
Byron and Elvis Presley look alike, especially in strong-nosed Greek profile. In Glenarvon, a roman à clef about her affair with Byron, Caroline Lamb says of her heroine's first glimpse of him, "The proud curl of the upper lip expressed haughtiness and bitter contempt." Presley's sneer was so emblematic that he joked about it. In a 1968 television special, he twitched his mouth and murmured, to audience laughter, "I've got something on my lip." The Romantic curling lip is aristocratic disdain: Presley is still called "the King," testimony to the ritual needs of a democratic populace. As revolutionary sexual personae, Byron and Presley had early and late styles: brooding menace, then urbane magnanimity. Their everyday manners were manly and gentle. Presley had a captivating soft-spoken charm. The Byronic hero, says Peter Thorslev [in The Byronic Hero, 1962], is "invariably courteous toward women." Byron and Presley were world-shapers, conduits of titanic force, yet they were deeply emotional and sentimental in a feminine sense.
Both had late Orientalizing periods. Byron, drawn to oriental themes, went off to fight the Turks in the Greek war of independence and died of a mysterious illness at Missolonghi. A portrait shows him in silk turban and embroidered Albanian dress. The costume style of Presley's last decade was nearly Mithraic: jewel-encrusted silk jump-suits, huge studded belts, rings, chains, sashes, scarves. This resembles Napoleon's late phase, as in Ingres' portrait of the emperor enthroned in Byzantine splendor, weighed down in velvet, ermine, and jewels. Napoleon, Byron, and Presley began in simplicity as flaming assertions of youthful male will, and all three ended as ornate objets de culte. British legend envisions a "westering" of culture: Troy to Rome to London. But there is also an eastering of culture. We are far from our historical roots in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor; yet again and again, collective emotion swelling about a charismatic European personality instinctively returns him or her to the east. Elizabeth I also ended as a glittering Byzantine icon.
Another parallel: Byron and Presley were renowned for athletic vigor, yet both suffered chronic ailments that somehow never marred their glossy complexions or robust beauty. Both constantly fought off corpulence, Presley losing toward the end. Both died prematurely, Byron at thirty-six, Presley at forty-two. Byron's autopsy revealed an enlarged heart, degenerated liver and gall bladder, cerebral inflammation, and obliteration of the skull sutures. Presley suffered an enlarged heart and degenerated colon and liver. In both cases, tremendous physical energy was oddly fused with internal disorder, a revolt of the organism. Presley's drugs were symptom, not cause. Psychogenetically, Byron and Presley practiced the secret art of feminine self-impairment.
Discussing Michelangelo's Giuliano, I noted the statue's swanlike neck, strangely contrasting with the massive knees and calves. Countess Albrizzi said of Byron, "His neck, which he was in the habit of keeping uncovered as much as the usages of society permitted, seemed to have been formed in a mould, and was very white." (Shelley also appeared with "his white throat unfettered.") Most of Byron's portraits emphasize the neck. Narcissistically turning his feminine neck, the man of beauty offers his profile for our admiration. The feminine meaning of an exposed neck is plain in Flaubert's Madame Bovary when Emma flirts with her future husband by tossing off a liqueur and, head back, licking the bottom of the glass. I find similar provocative body language in Lucretius' Mars, Ingres' Thetis, Girodet's Endymion, Kleist's Achilles, George Eliot's Rosamond, and Tilly Losch as the vain Chinese dancer in The Good Earth (1937). One of the hallmarks of Elvis Presley's late Orientalizing period was his architectural stiff standing collar, elongating the neck and revealing the throat in a plunging V to the chest. In his Las Vegas shows, Presley ritualistically draped scarves about his neck and cast them into the audience—self-distribution as formulaic neck-remembrance. Do this in memory of me.
Where does charisma belong? Where should it stay? Byron was full of political ideas, which led him to sacrifice his life in the cause of liberty. But he was an Alcibiades whose glamour was too intense for his own society. England could not tolerate Byron's presence and convulsively expelled him. Perfect narcissism is fascinating and therefore demoralizing. Byron's narcissism released the archaic and asocial phenomenon of incest. What if Lord Byron had entered English politics? We have the precedent of another man of beauty, George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, favorite of James I and Charles I. Wandering through the Palazzo Pitti twenty years ago, I was electrified by an ill-lit, unmarked portrait of stunning androgynous beauty. It turned out to be Rubens' painting of Buckingham. Playing Buckingham in Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers (1974), Simon Gray is wonderfully made up to resemble Rubens' portrait. David Harris Willson says [in King James VI and I, 1956]:
Buckingham was a seductive young man, with something of the allurements of both sexes. He was esteemed one of the handsomest men in the whole world. Tall, comely, and beautifully proportioned, he had great physical vigour and skill in bodily sports … The antiquarian and diarist, D'Ewes, recorded: "I saw everything in him full of delicacy and handsome features, yea, his hands and face seemed to me especially effeminate and curious."
As the man of beauty, Buckingham combined athleticism with feminine charm. Once again we find the contrast of dark hair and fine complexion. The political consequences of Buckingham's extraordinary beauty were severe and longlasting. Perez Zagorin states [in The Court and the Country: The Beginning of the English Revolution, 1970]:
He rose to the meridian of power, there to shine in blazing splendour until the knife of an assassin extinguished his light…. A golden shower of wealth and offices descended on him…. Buckingham's domination formed an epoch of critical importance in the pre-history of the revolution. It deformed the workings of the King's government and the patronage system. It sowed disaffection in the Court and was a prime cause of enmity on the political scene. It brought the royal regime into hatred and contempt. To the favourite's ascendancy must be ascribed in no small measure the decline of the crown's moral authority—an authority indispensable to government which, once lost, can hardly ever be recovered.
With all his sway over affairs, Buckingham had no real policy or extended aims. Unlike his contemporary ministers, Richelieu and Olivares, his predominant purpose in the use of power was to aggrandize himself and his dependents.
Alcibiades helped bring down the Athenian empire. Buckingham hastened England's regicidal revolution. Excess charisma is dangerous, to self and others.
Byron, the Romantic exile, did England a favor. Energy and beauty together are burning, godlike, destructive. Byron created the youth-cult that would sweep Elvis Presley to uncomfortable fame. In our affluent commercial culture, this man of beauty was able to ignore politics and build his empire elsewhere. A ritual function of contemporary popular culture: to parallel and purify government. The modern charismatic personality has access to movies, television, and music, with their enormous reach. Mass media act as a barrier protecting politics, which would otherwise be unbalanced by the entrance of men of epochal narcissistic glamour. Today's Byronic man of beauty is a Presley who dominates the imagination, not a Buckingham who disorders a state.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5139
SOURCE: "Byron's Beppo: Digression and Contingency," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 73, Spring, 1993, pp. 18-33.
[In the following examination of Beppo, Curtis concludes that Byron used digressions from the main plot or theme of his poems as a metaphor for life experience.]
You ask me for the plan of Donny Johnny—I have no plan—I had no plan—but I had or have materials….—Why Man the Soul of such writing is it's licence?—at least the liberty of that licence if one likes—not that one should abuse it.
[Byron, letter to John Murray, 12 August 1819]
The Romantics valued narrative uncertainty, and Byron certainly was the rule rather than the exception. His brand of uncertainty was of a different order, however. Whereas the Ancient Mariner had "strange power of speech" or Wordsworth's Prelude prophesied "Something evermore about to be," Byron understood narrative uncertainty more as rhetorical liberty than the groping of one's consciousness in the effort to create one's self. Keats pointed out that Byron cut a figure and was one too; but, as his correspondence reveals, consciousness for Byron was often claustrophobic. The narrative uncertainty Byron preferred was boundless or encyclopedic like that of Sterne's Tristram or Burton's Anatomy. The use Byron made of di gression—a relatively minor technique according to the classical rhetoricians—is essential to the mode of uncertainty Byron cultivated. Apart from great good fun, digression provided Byron with an alternative to the Romantic "monotony and mannerism" of which he had been guilty but later came to despise. In the pages following. I will examine as briefly as possible the history of digression as set forth by classical rhetoricians and then apply these findings to Byron's Beppo, the narrative experiment to be elaborated in Don Juan. As we shall see, Byronic digression departs from the narrative, of course, but in such a way that affirms the variability of living by means of the contingencies of language.
The genesis of Beppo is an interesting story, but it has been ably described elsewhere and need not be rehearsed here. Suffice it to say that the poem subscribes to a comic pattern. A disguised Beppo returns to Venice after an absence of more than six years, tracks down his wife whom he finds with her Cavalieri Servente, and then reveals himself in, of all places, a gondola. Unlike the practice in the "moral North" of Byron's forsaken England, marriage Italian style appreciates infidelity; and Beppo's return disturbs the delicate equilibrium of Venetian mores. The subscription to the comic pattern ends here, however. The poem's "plot" is more of a dodge than a design which is inherently meaningful. Beppo concludes with a ménage à trois rather than a wedding or even a reconciliation.
The extent of digression in the poem is unusual and much energy has been spent arguing what constitutes a digressive line, a digressive stanza or stanzas, or the manifold transitions between the modes of narration. The effort of fussing over the less evidently digressive segments outweighs the interpretative benefit. I believe that the poem's contingency has a lot to tell us about Byron's theory of language. For one, the poem is deliberately un-plotted as if to say that no story can account for the variability of life. Digression, in fact, has more fidelity to experience because life itself is a digression between birth and death.
Between two worlds life hovers like a star,
Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon's verge:
How little do we know that which we are!
How less what we may be! The eternal surge
Of time and tide rolls on, and bears afar
Our bubbles; as the old burst, new emerge,
Lash'd from the foam of ages; while the graves
Of Empires heave but like some passing waves.
(Don Juan, XV, 99)
Digression, as the important second point, shows up the contingency inherent in language. A word's representational value might trigger a deviation into symbol, allegory, myth, or the Morning Chronicle for that matter, at any time. Byron does not subscribe to a notion of truth in the phenomenal world. That a sentence describes a fact may be true, but it is still a sentence first and exists apart from an inherent truth. Digression holds up (and delights in) this discontinuity between world, where we perform, and words, where that performance is verbalized. Before we apply this perspective to Beppo, let us fill in the background and turn to digression as it was understood by the classical rhetoricians.
Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them (Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman).
Digression is usually a minor segment, a "dropped stitch" as Sir Walter Scott writes [in The Heart of Mid-Lothian], of a far greater design be it an oration or a text. While reading Beppo, the reader often forgets the premise that digressions must step away from some basis of plot. Etymologically, digression is a "stepping aside" from the narrative at hand. The Greek and Latin rhetoricians regard digression as part of a rigid oratorical method: however improvised a digression may seem to the auditor, it is a carefully conceived and artfully wrought element of a discourse. Our first landmark in the critical theory of digression, then, is oxymoronic: we may characterize digression as anticipated disorder, a momentary fracturing of narrative linearity that ultimately aids the intellectual direction of the whole.
Digression first appears in the performance art of classical theatre. Parekbasis is the technique in Greek Tragedy, whereas in the Greek Old Comedy of Aristophanes it goes by the name of parabasis. The older form of digression is ethical in import because parekbasis, within the context of tragedy, implies the moral transgression of some divine code. Such an infringement is in turn absorbed into literary theory, as Joel Black points out [in an unpublished dissertation], "where it comes to refer to a fault of style, or style which is carried to excess." Comic parabasis, however, is an interruption used by the author to insert his opinion by means of the chorus. The author speaks his mind on matters of a personal, a public, and often satirical nature. Two general types of indirection, therefore, make up the theory of digression: the idea of a fault or excess of style, which in the context of Greek Tragedy connotes an ethical fall from society; and the stylistic excursion or the stepping aside from a linear narrative progress. Byron employs both types: the one when he describes digression as a "sin," or the second when the narrator speaks of himself as a "broken Dandy." In the history of western literature, digression is coeval with drama. As a mode of narrative indirection, its origin is found in performance art.
Of the classical rhetoricians it is Quintilian who singles out digression for separate analysis. He discusses digression within the context of forensic rhetoric and the five part division of a speech into the exordium, the statement of facts, the proof, the refutation, and the peroration. Foremost in Quintilian's discussion is its effect of pleasing the auditor, especially when pleading a case which concerns some horrible crime. Digression offers the "pleasures of a more expansive eloquence"; and within the natural order of the speech it usually occurs between the statement of facts and the proof. "Pleasures" and "expansive" are the words to note here. The first suggests that the impact of digression is psychological; the second that the affective pleasure of digression is a function of comprehensiveness.
Using the Greek word, Quintilian defines the device as follows: "[Parekbasis] may, I think, be defined as the handling of some theme, which must however have some bearing on the case, in a passage that involves digression from the logical order of our speech" [The Institutio Oratoria of Quintilian, trans. H. E. Butler, 1921]. The "bearing on the case" of apparently unrelated matter is perhaps the most important function of digression: to bring a point to bear upon the auditor's mind by virtue of the pleasure of indirection. And so digression is not simply performative in essence, it is an eminently psychological technique that imparts additional information but under the guise of a pause, a rest, or a delay in the text.
Examples of digression in eighteenth and nineteenth-century English literature conform less and less to classical theory as we might expect, in part because of the figure's proliferation from genre to genre. Hugh Blair regarded it as an essential feature of primitive lyric poetry, as in the odes of Pindar which are "perpetually digressive" [Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Letters, 1965]. The psychological impact of the figure suited well the Romantic obsession with self and served to image the workings of the anti-rational imagination. Digression also became a figure of the heuristic activity of the creating mind. Coleridge, who was fascinated by theories of association, has his Biographia wander into surprising narrative modes such as the counterfeit epistle. What does the classical understanding of digression teach us about Byron's Beppo?
Byron often questions what a poem is supposed to be and to what canonical standard the reader might expect it to conform. Beginning at the beginning, we have the poem's title, for example. Beppo: a Venetian Story advertises and dissembles. It advertises a story—a sequence of events, in other words, presumably associated with or caused by Beppo. The colon in the title arranges a semiotic equivalence between Beppo and the story: man as a function of place. According to this line of thinking, our hero's name labels him as an individual, of course, with the nuance that this individual is the sum of a sequence of events. Beppo is synonymous with the story; moreover, he is a man who becomes a name thanks to his story. At issue here is more than lighthearted satire. Byron was suspicious of easy correspondences between language and reality; a synonymy between man and story presumes that language can represent the "facts" of a life or "truths" of human living. He uses Beppo to debunk such thinking. "I leave the thing a problem, like all things," runs the penultimate stanza of the fragment Don Juan. All that language and reality share, Byron seems to say, is contingency. By not buying into the teleological promises of plot, process, or progress, the marginality of digression represents better the stew of living.
According to such a view, the title of the poem dissembles rather than advertises. It holds out a paradigm for telic narration that is subsequently dashed. Instead of equivalence, the title hinges upon the grammatical discontinuity between a proper noun and a noun phrase. The title puts us on a first-name basis with the "hero" and appears ingenuous thanks to this informality. Imagine a title like "Joe: a Soho Story" for a similar effect. The informality, however, goes one step further. "Beppo," as Byron notes, is a nickname, a familiar form of the Christian Guiseppe. That Beppo's name has been nicked suggests a higher degree of linguistic play; indeed, the titular hero is largely absent from the poem that goes by his name. If the individual is synonymous with his story, both have been nicked by a rhetorical technique, digression.
Tales are told, narratives are narrated, and digressions are … performed. The resistance of the noun "digression" to a passive formulation is a morphological indication of its essentially active significance. Byron's biggest debt to the classical tradition of digression is its history as performative discourse. A Sophoclean chorus was not simply a lyrical or ethical device but a character in itself whose discourse expanded the fictive limits of the theatrical experience. Digressions in Beppo read as "impromptu" monologues sound. The affective success of either depends upon making the reader aware of the extent of the departure. We can treat the departure's magnitude in at least two ways. In the first case, we can treat the poem in a formalist fashion. Assuming the poem is centred upon its plot, the narrative jeopardy incurred by each departure is in proportion to the degree of that departure. And what departs the most radically from the narration should be the most valuable since its potential effect on the reader outweighs the "risk" of its communication. More pertinent to Byron's poetry is a second case, that of contingency: the magnitude of departure has no relation to the worth of what is imparted in the digression, the reason being that systemic thinking should not be the yardstick with which we measure the particular and discontinuous. Life has no unity, Byron implies, and the affect of digression is its claim to the particular—the bubbles of living—within a narrative context that might be general but remains unpatterned.
Beppo relies upon drama intertextually as in the case of Shakespeare whose As You Like it provides the poem's epigraph. Shakespeare's play, like Beppo, is replete with disguise: Rosalind disguises herself and goes by the mythological name Ganymede as she pursues and courts her lover Orlando. Rosalind is in disguise when she utters the lines Byron takes for Beppo's epigraph and so the poem subscribes to an allusive degree of dissembling before the poem actually begins. Rosalind addresses Jaques whose melancholia she denounces: "And your experience makes you sad. I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad; and to travel for it too!" (IV. 1.25). The nobleman Jaques—the "Monsieur Traveller" of the epigraph—is sentimental, cynical, a melancholy sensualist who echoes Byron and his self-imposed exile from a hostile society.
Byron's intertextuality goes beyond references to the dramatic tradition and yet remains performative. A case in point is allusion. In the poetry of Pope (much admired by Byron), allusion is the rhetorical mode of memory. Mnemosyne, and serves to approve tacitly artistic values of the past. Allusion, opposite to Pope's practice, is often the trigger for digression in Beppo. Byron's allusions fracture the progress of the verse in two ways. Firstly, the moral or allegorical expectation conjured by the allusion is negated by its treatment. The allusion is, in effect, a miniature digression. Take for example Ariadne who, for Pope, might imply labyrithine terrors and a progress to the light of day directed by the power of love. Myth in Beppo is not a structure of knowing for Byron and so he reduces the allusion by means of sonic excess:
'Tis said that their last parting was pathetic,
As partings often are, or ought to be,
And their presentiment was quite prophetic
That they should never more each other see,
(A sort of morbid feeling, half poetic,
Which I have known occur in two or three)
When kneeling on the shore upon her sad knee,
He left his Adriatic Ariadne.
(Beppo, Stanza 28, my emphasis)
The digression upsets the reader's expectations because Laura's apparent reverence for her husband Beppo finds no correlative in the concluding couplet. The redundancy of the pun is a grotesque of the human anatomy. Laura kneels on one knee only, and it is personified as being "sad." The effect is bathetic, of course, because Laura's body parts are mixed-up—her knee appears to have more feeling than her heart. Sonic excess such as this almost always implies the opposite of its literal statement: Laura's concept of marital fidelity exists only so far as it can satisfy her extra-marital appetite. The alliteration and ironic semioties of Laura's body language are clues to Byron's rhetoric throughout the poem. The "allusive digression" calls attention to itself in contradistinction to what it describes. As is the case with the "lost Pleiad" in Stanza 14, "Ariadne" is more a rhetorical jab at Romantic poetics than it is a description of Laura.
The second function of allusion in Beppo is to divide memory against itself. As we noted above, allusion is the mode of memory that presumes the knowledge of an entire culture's literary tradition as well as the wit to manipulate this tradition. The narrator's memory is unusually rich in material of a digressive nature such as Ariadne or the minute particulars of Venetian and English society. That part of his memory responsible for the narrative in progress, however, resorts to aleatoric accounting in Stanza 56. Or, the narrator forgets Beppo's response to Laura's questions which are recorded in detail (ll. 745-6), but remembers the Morning Chronicle's particulars of Mrs. Boehm's London masquerade. In this dilatory fashion, Beppo contains more than a linear plot could accommodate.
To this point we have examined the digressions of Beppo as a performative device within an allusive context. A second performative aspect of Beppo is linguistically based but still augments the affect of digression. The frequency in Beppo of what J. L. Austin [in How to Do Things with Words, 1962] calls "performative" words is high. Austin describes non-philosophical language as being either constative or performative. Constative language states a fact and refers outward to some thing or idea. Performative language is significantly different. When one uses such language, "… the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action—it is not normally thought of as just saying something." Austin gives the example of a wager; the clause "I bet you" signifies and performs the engagement between contestants. The narrator's utterances in Beppo are often performative—the words actually do what they state. The narrator and (willing?) reader, call Laura into poetic existence by making rhyme take priority over sense: "And so we'll call her Laura, if you please. / Because it slips into my verse with ease" (ll. 167-8 my emphasis). Performatives such as "I charge ye" (l. 24), "Dine, and be d—d!" (l. 71), the verbalization of prayers or bribes (l. 173) are ironic, and therefore truthful, examples of the "name and thing aggreeing." Byron's reliance upon per-formative language within digression, a performative rhetoric, augments the poem's affective impact.
What are the effects of digression as it is described above? For one, it affects time to a considerable degree in Beppo. Digression fractures the chronology of a linear sequence to the extent that it strains at a dimension of time that is beyond verbal representation.
Of all the places where the Carnival
Was most facetious in the days of yore,
For dance, and song, and serenade, and ball,
And masque, and mime, and mystery, and more
Than I have time to tell now, or at all,
Venice the bell from every city bore,
And at the moment when I fix my story,
That sea-born city was in all her glory.
(Stanza 10, my emphasis)
Time is understood as a random collection of discrete bits of memory rather than as an absolute of experience. By putting forward an image of time that is at odds with duration. Byron exaggerates the moment of each event described. The exaggeration of the moment of action gives the poem tremendous rhetorical momentum forward. The present tense of the narrator is overwhelming to the point that each digression suggests an experience of time far beyond the actual elapsed time of reading the digression or beyond the experience of time the digression entails. As readers we are taken hostage since we have little or no way of knowing what will come next. This experience of reading is exciting in that it strains our desire to know and challenges us to make connections between the digressions themselves, or between the poem's digressive and narrative modes.
Such associative attempts are hazardous in "nested" digressions. Take for example the fiftieth stanza. Numerically, it is very near the poem's centre—the forty-third stanza of eighty-four in the first edition, and fiftieth of ninety-nine in the final. (It is the "centre" if one counts Byron's appended stanza at l. 368). Punningly heavy-handed, it addresses the issue central to Beppo, digression.
The stanza begins with a return to the primary narrative (abandoned fourteen stanzas previously) only to digress yet again. The second concurrent digression lists the detrimental effects of digression for the narrator and reader; it is a digression upon the nature of digression. Whereas a series of digressions might appear pleasingly haphazard, a digression that attempts to define digression as "sin" is very much to Byron's ironic purpose. We are presented with a digression that argues in favor of narrative continuity or, with respect to ironic contingency, simply continuation.
The more nested the digressions are, the closer we seem to get to the poem's "core."
To turn,—and to return:—the devil take it!
This story slips forever through my fingers,
Because, just as the stanza likes to make it,
It needs must be—and so it rather lingers;
This form of verse began, I can't well break it,
But must keep time and tune like public singers;
But if I once get through my present measure,
I'll take another when I'm next at leisure.
The stanza is unusual for the reason that it is triply nested. It is the third digression in a series that begins at 58 and ceases at 64. The narrator's insistence upon the priority of narrative is delivered in the midst of conflicting signals, the chief of which is the stanza's pronominal ambiguity. The performative "the devil take it!" is a mild oath and refers to the previous part of this line: "To turn,—and to return…." Turning such as this epitomizes the poem as language folded atop itself; and since the "turn" is twinned within infinitive phrases, the impression of language as being contingent rather than representative is heightened. An infinitive phrase is neither verb nor noun, neither action nor thing, and yet the beginning of the stanza both describes and exemplifies digression. This coiling overlap of syntax and sense enacts the essential (and humorous) jeopardy of Beppo. The verbalization of what goes on in a poem creates more problems than it attempts to solve.
Exactly what is "it" by the time we get to the stanza's end? Of the five usages of the word, the first two take it / make it are direct objects. The next two It needs must be—and so it rather lingers are both subjects. The last example break it repeats the objective case. The duplication of "it" as object and subject is another example of the poem's rhetorical puzzle. Despite strongly transitive verbs, a meaningful carry-over from subject to object is lacking much as if the stanza occurs at a rhetorical still point. The ambiguity does not stop here. The intention to "keep time and tune" is heavily qualified by prosodic lapses. Each line surpasses the pentameter measure by one syllable, and the sylabic disharmony of feminine end rhymes diminishes the narrator's stated understanding of his chosen medium. "It" constitutes a list of a single word, not one of many discrete particulars, but a very full list nevertheless. In a digression on digression, subjects and objects tend to intrude upon each other's grammatical and conceptual territory. Byron's language gets us coming and going, as it were. If the object of the poem is to digress—to turn and return—its subject also digression.
Beppo concludes, or rather terminates itself, with:
Byron's deferral of closure is not surprising. His poem insists gleefully upon a self-reference that recognizes that it has gotten out of hand. A "poem" that consistently shifts between rhetorical abstractions and concrete particulars is terminated by a trivial economy of paper. The inevitable ordering principle of storytelling which Byron resists compels him to specify grammatically, at least, the story at its conclusion. Such a specificity is qualified, however, by an ambiguity regarding the story's physical composition—a page. The indefinite article. "My pen is at the bottom of a page," instead of the definite article the, is the final grammatical loophole through which Beppo concludes the story of digressive storytelling: "… here the story ends."
One can write a story by digressing on what that story will not contain or how it shouldn't be written, but it still requires some container for what is contained. Byron situates his poem within a frame-tale of sorts. Shrovetide provides the narrative frame for Beppo's story: and as the last blow-out before Lent, the excesses of Carnival are part of a cycle of redemption completed at Easter.
This feast is named the Carnival, which being
Interpreted, implies "farewell to flesh":
So call'd, because the name and thing agreeing.
Through Lent they live on fish both salt and fresh.
But why they usher Lent with so much glee in.
Is more than I can tell, although I guess
'Tis as we take a glass with friends at parting,
In the stage-coach or packet, just at starting.
Linguistically, the word Carnival is a happy congruence of reference. One can bid "farewell to flesh" only after having partaken of its pleasures. The Carnival in effect compensates for the rigors of the liturgical season it introduces. Name and thing agree, in this case. But the ironic point Byron makes here is that word and thing agree especially when we digress from the normal arbitrary standard of social behavior, hence the fidelity of the digressive mode to the (contingent) representation of life. Byron's frame-tale serves obviously as an ironic counterpoint. The poem's rhetorical insistence upon digression is Carnivalesque because it is sinning narratively.
Whereas Shrovetide is made sense of by Easter, Beppo concludes inconclusively. The text adroitly avoids a centre or a narrative telos. Once "inside" Beppo, therefore, the reader doesn't necessarily come to the middle of a poem from its beginning and then proceed to its end. A narrative construed in such sequential terms misses the point because such thinking reduces the story to its aboutness ("Oh that I had the art of easy writing / What should be easy reading!" ll. 401-2) rather than engaging the vitality of its language ("I love the language, that soft bastard Latin, … [Un]like our harsh northern whistling, grunting guttural. / Which we're oblig'd to hiss, and spit, and sputter all" ll. 345, 351-2). If one accepts that the subject of the poem is not the titular hero, then his "return" home is superfluous. Subjects, be they grammatical ("I am but a nameless sort of person" l. 409) or thematic ("This feast is named the Carnival, which being / Interpreted, implies 'farewell to flesh'" ll. 41-42) lose their usual discriminations. The I of the persona and the eye of the historical Byron merge; the Carnival exists not so much in time and space, in Venice or in London, as it does in the poem's rhetorical gamesmanship. Objectives, be they satiric ("England! with all thy faults I love thee still" l. 369) or narrative ("… stories somehow lengthen when begun," 1. 792) are achieved by indirection. Adultery is adultery whether in London or Venice; English hypocrisy, however, is damned by the frankness of Venetian carnality. The fact that narratives don't arrive at their conclusions matters less than the drive through their ideas. Byron's usage of digression transforms the cliché that narrative art as fiction must mislead us to truth into the proposition that art must mislead to be "real."
At the risk of appearing contradictory for the moment, one pleasure of Beppo resides in the reader's liminal awareness that the apparent chaos of the poem is nevertheless a product of a mind—the narrator's or Byron's, it doesn't matter which—that contains a multiplicity of orders. Only by perceiving digressively, at a rhetorical distance, can the nature of plot as con(ned) text be understood. The distance between digression and plot seen in this way accounts, perhaps, for the many mentions of the unsaid, the unremembered, or the unknown. Instead of resolving the knot of plot, uncertainty mounts at the poem's conclusion. The knowledge of such unarticulated particulars on the part of the reader is not necessary since they belong to a moral order of storytelling that dwells on how the story turns out and who gets the girl. One senses that particulars such as these are known at a remove more comprehensive than the already encyclopedic experience of the poem.
In his early favorable review. Francis Jeffrey defines Beppo as "absolutely a thing of nothing—without story, characters, sentiments, or intelligible object." If we take a moment and conclude by examining the comment more closely, it makes sense both as a paradox and as a pun. The original meaning of paradox still lurks behind our modern usage: that which goes against heterodox opinion. We might take the comment to mean that Beppo exists without antecedence, that it comes out of nothing in the Latin sense, that it is, perhaps, an anti-poem. In the second case, a pun is the product of sophisticated linguistic play and exhibits, simultaneously, a residual unease with that play as a form of persuasion. Beppo's thingness ("words are things, and a small drop of ink, / Falling like dew, upon a thought" Don Juan III, ll. 793-4) might exist as something distilled from the order of abstract poetics where ideas or no-things rule as opposed to events. Jeffrey's indefinite definition reveals the inadequacy of his (and my) vocabulary in coming to terms with Beppo as a narrative turned inside-out. Nevertheless, such readings reveal Jeffrey as trying to teach the "mere English reader" about Beppo's unprecedented originality.
If we look elsewhere for help regarding a poem as thing. Byron praised Don Juan because it was a thing of life. In a famous letter to Kinnaird from Venice. 26 October 1818, Byron cajoled,
confess—confess—you dog—and be candid—that it 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….
Experience is the key to poetic success especially if the experience lived is random, disjointed, even amoral. In most of Byron's later work, digression is the trope of lived experience. The arbitrary paths of life, Byron implies archly, are surveilled by the very people or institutions who stand most in need of their own counsel. Only by straying away from the arbitrary do we finally arrive at an understanding (however marginal) of life. A verbal act can only partially describe the variability of experience in that life (and can only come to terms partially with its own variability through time). But only through verbalization do we begin to approach an understanding of experience. The efficiency of digression lies in its variability. Through several editions and additions. Byron worked hard to make Beppo exist more as a function of its attenuated form and specific manner than as a function of its setting, characterization or satire. The discrepancy between the plot of the story and the gamesmanship of its rhetoric is to such a degree that the discrepancy, and not Beppo's story, consumes our attention, leaving the poem a thing of no formal thing.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777
Quennell, Peter. "Lord Byron: Man and Legend." The Critic XXXIII, No. 2 (January-February 1975): 36-43.
Reassesses Byron's life and reputation 150 years after his death.
Beatty, Bernard and Newey, Vincent, eds. Byron and the Limits of Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1988, 291 p.
Essays by various critics examining the narrative patterns in Byron's works.
Boker, Pamela A. "Byron's Psychic Prometheus: Narcissism and Self-Transformation in the Dramatic Poem Manfred." Literature and Psychology XXXVIII, Nos. 1-2 (1992): 1-37.
Applies theories of psychology to the Byronic hero Manfred, judging him a projection of the author.
Bold, Alan, ed. Byron: Wrath and Rhyme. London: Vision Press, 1983, 216 p.
Essays by various critics examining Byron's works and ideas.
Brisman, Leslie. "Byron: Troubled Stream from a Pure Source." English Literary History 42 (Winter 1975): 623-50.
Examines Byron's ideas about humanity's origin as they are presented in his poems.
Chew, Samuel C. Byron in England: His Fame and After-Fame. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965, 415 p.
Discusses Byron's critical and popular reception in England before and after his death. Includes a bibliography of Byroniana.
Cooke, M.G. The Blind Man Traces the Circle: On the Patterns and Philosophy of Byron's Poetry. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1969, 227 p.
Critical study that treats Byron's poetry as a coherent unit rather than simply as a collection of individual works.
Elton, Oliver. "The Present Value of Byron." The Review of English Studies I (January 1925): 24-39.
Written for the centenary of Byron's death, this essay positively assesses Byron's poetry.
Fischer, Hermann. "Metre and Narrative Rhetoric in Byron." The Byron Journal 10 (1982): 38-53.
Defines Romantic verse narrative and discusses Byron's use of it.
Fisher, James R. '"Here the Story Ends': Byron's Beppo, A a Broken Dante." The Byron Journal 21 (1993): 61-70.
Evaluates the extent to which Beppo imitates Dante's Divine Comedy.
Hall, Jean. "The Evolution of the Surface Self: Byron's Poetic Career." Keats-Shelley Journal XXXVI (1987): 134-57.
Demonstrates that Byron's works belong to the Romantic movement of English poetry.
Manning, Peter J. "Childe Harold in the Marketplace: From Romaunt to Handbook." Modern Language Quarterly 52, No. 2 (June 1991): 170-90.
Surveys the early reception of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.
McGann, Jerome J. Fiery Dust: Byron's Poetic Development. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968, 338 p.
Collection of essays illustrating a variety of critical approaches and focusing on Childe Harold as well as on previously neglected texts by Byron.
——. "The Significance of Biographical Context: Two Poems by Lord Byron." In The Author in His Work: Essays on a Problem in Criticism, edited by Louis L. Martz and Aubrey Williams, pp. 347-64. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1978.
Argues that an adequate interpretation of two of Byron's short poems depends upon knowledge about the poet's life.
——. "Byron and the Lyric of Sensibility." European Romantic Review 4, No. 1 (Summer 1993): 71-83.
Looks at eighteenth-century sentimental poetry for the origins of Byron's style of lyric verse.
Michasiw, Kim Ian. "The Social Other: Don Juan and the Genesis of the Self." Mosaic 22, No. 2 (Spring 1989): 29-48.
Uses deconstructive theory to examine the concept of self in Byron's Don Juan.
O'Neill, Michael. "Ά Being More Intense': Byron and Romantic Self-Consciousness." The Wordsworth Circle XXII, No. 3 (Summer 1991): 165-72.
Examines self-consciousness in Byron's poetry and how it compares to that of other Romantic poets.
Salvesen, Christopher. "Byron's 'Poetical System'—Revolutionary or Augustan?" Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters 20 (1990-91): 51-65.
Analyzes Byron's interest in both revolutionary causes and Augustan writers and assesses whether either influenced his ideas about poetry.
Shilstone, Frederick W. "The Dissipated Muse: Wine, Women, and Byronic Song." Colby Library Quarterly XX, No. 1 (March 1984): 36-46.
Asserts that Byron used aspects of his own life as metaphors in his poetry.
Stürzl, Erwin A. and Hogg, James, eds. Byron: Poetry and Politics. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 1981.
Collection of essays from a symposium on the poet.
Thomson, Alastair W. "Method and Decorum in Don Juan." In Literature and the Art of Creation, edited by Robert Welch and Suheil Badi Bushrui, pp. 186-203. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1988.
Examines Byron's poetic language in Don Juan and compares it to that of other Romantic poets.
Van Doren, Mark. "Don Juan." In his The Noble Voice: A Study of Ten Great Poems, pp. 283-302. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1946.
Surveys the comic elements of the poem.
Watkins, Daniel P. "Byron and the Poetics of Revolution." Keats-Shelley Journal XXXIV (1985): 95-130.
Discusses Byron's poetry after 1820, when he focused upon revolutionary politics and abandoned the figure of the Byronic hero.
Webb, Timothy. "Byron and the Heroic Syllables." The Keats-Shelley Review 5 (Autumn 1990): 41-74.
Examines Byron's conflicting attitudes to warfare.
Additional coverage of Byron's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 2, 12; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 96.