Lord Byron: Critical Essays on Poetry
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.
* 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.
M. G. Cooke (essay date 1969)
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...
(The entire section is 3530 words.)
Michael V. DePorte (essay date 1972)
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...
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David Parker (essay date 1974)
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...
(The entire section is 3341 words.)
Howard H. Hinkel (essay date 1974)
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...
(The entire section is 3773 words.)
Edward E. Bostetter (essay date 1974)
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,...
(The entire section is 4966 words.)
Gloria T. Hull (essay date 1978)
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,...
(The entire section is 4250 words.)
Candace Tate (essay date 1980)
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...
(The entire section is 7007 words.)
Daniel P. Watkins (essay date 1983)
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...
(The entire section is 3915 words.)
Edward Proffitt (essay date 1983)
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....
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Camille Paglia (essay date 1990)
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...
(The entire section is 7184 words.)
Paul M. Curtis (essay date 1993)
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]...
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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."...
(The entire section is 777 words.)