Historical Analysis of Lord Byron

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Byron’s popularity has not always corresponded to his critical appraisal. He stands apart from his fellow Romantic poets— William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—in his stubborn reverence for the poetic style of Restoration and Augustan writers such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope. Indeed, it...

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Byron’s popularity has not always corresponded to his critical appraisal. He stands apart from his fellow Romantic poets— William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—in his stubborn reverence for the poetic style of Restoration and Augustan writers such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope. Indeed, it was the eighteenth century propensity for wit and satire that was also Byron’s forte. It is ironic, then, that Byron is in many ways considered to represent the epitome of the Romantic figure. Both personally and in many of his dark, tormented Romantic heroes, Byron created a cultural icon that had a significant impact on his society and the literary movement of his time, though it must be noted that, although the Byronic hero is certainly in part autobiographical, it represents only one aspect of a complex personality.

Perhaps the salient characteristic of Byron’s work that assures his label as a consummate Romantic is his creation of the so-called Byronic hero. This character type appears in many variations in Byron’s works but is generally based on such literary characters as Prometheus, John Milton’s Satan, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, and many popular sentimental heroes of the age—and, of course, on Byron himself. Though there are variations on this type—Harold, Cain, Manfred, the Giaour, Lara, Selim, and others—generally, the Byronic hero is a melancholy man of great and noble principles, with great courage of his convictions, and haunted by some secret past sin—usually a sin of illicit love, occasionally suggested to be incestuous. He is alienated, proud, and driven by his own turbulent passion.

Recurrent themes in Byron’s work can be said to be subsumed under the larger category of nature versus civilization. Political oppression, military aggression, sexual repression, even the superficial restraints of a frivolous, silly English society—all go against the Romantic aspiration that Byron sees as inherent in human nature, and such oppression always yields disastrous results.

Byron, who appears to have had an almost innate love of liberty, was exposed in his extensive travels to markedly diverse cultures and experiences, thus giving him a unique perspective (and certainly a broader one than his contemporaries) on human nature and civilization. Witnessing the ravages of war, the demoralization of political oppression, and the violence of prejudice and hypocrisy particularly afforded Byron a rare insight into the weaknesses of his own English society. These political and societal flaws Byron exposed in many of his works, particularly in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Don Juan, and The Vision of Judgment, at the risk of great public disapproval and alienation and at great personal cost. The extent and the exotic nature of Byron’s travels, in addition to his vivid descriptions of his experiences and his retelling of colorful folktales, additionally account for much of the popularity of Byron’s works. His accounts of the virtually unexplored, mysterious land of Albania, for example, captivated the imagination of his insular English readers.

A common theme in Byron’s work is certainly that of love in its many manifestations: illicit love, idyllic love, sexual repression, sexual decadence, thwarted love, marriage. Yet in all of its variations, this theme, too, is one of civilization and the discontentment it creates when it denies natural expressions of love. Probably the most touching of Byron’s love stories is that of Don Juan and Haidee in canto 1 of Don Juan. The affair is innocent, natural, primitive, and therefore by society’s standards immoral and unsanctified. Similarly, Don Juan’s lack of proper sex education, despite his mother’s otherwise vigorous intellectual rigors, in denying what is natural and inevitable, ironically destroys lives.

Byron also repeatedly rails against tyranny and political oppression of any kind. The recent turn of events resulting from the French Revolution and the despotic reign of Napoleon I, all of which in the beginning offered such promise, provided Byron with much fodder for condemning such acts of aggression. Yet in war Byron finds inspiration in those who fight to retain or protect their freedoms. His knowledge of political and military history—European, American, Asian, Mediterranean—was vast, his understanding profound.

Byron was a versatile poet, if not always an accomplished one. In addition to skillfully and poignantly handled romantic lyrics such as “She Walks in Beauty,” “When We Two Parted,” and the more famous epics, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan, Byron also completed lyrical dramas, a number of popular exotic and romantic tales, and satirical works on the literary and political foibles of his time. In terms of both style and structure, his indebtedness to his eighteenth century heroes Dryden and Pope has been given much critical attention. His philosophical and literary faith lay more in reason than in emotion; his preferred delivery was more often one of wit and satire than sentiment and self-indulgence.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

First published: Cantos 1 and 2, 1812; canto 3, 1816; canto 4, 1818; the four cantos published together, 1819

Type of work: Poem

Attempting to escape the pangs of guilt resulting from his mysterious past, self-exiled Childe Harold flees to Europe and witnesses the beauties and horrors of other cultures.

Byron began Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage on his first trip abroad, when he and Hobhouse toured Spain, Portugal, Albania, and Greece. It was originally titled “Childe Burun”; “Childe” refers to a young nobleman who has not yet officially taken his title, and “Burun” is an earlier form of Byron’s own name. Inspired by his recent reading of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), Byron chose to employ the nine-line Spenserian stanza for the major part of this work.

The first two cantos were published in 1812, and Byron’s ensuing popularity among the social and literary circles of London was unprecedented, in part because the public insisted—with some accuracy and despite Byron’s prefatory disclaimer to the contrary—upon identifying the intriguing Harold as Byron himself. Byron’s own confusion of the two, however, is evident in his frequent dropping of the story line of the work to engage in repeated authorial digressions, which themselves intrude on the almost gratuitous plot. Harold is a young, though not inexperienced, Englishman who is compelled to flee Britain, although, the reader is told, it is in fact his own psyche he is trying to escape. The young man has a mysterious background, an unspeakably painful secret in his past. Perhaps, it is suggested, the secret is of some illicit love. With Harold, Byron introduces the first of his many Byronic heroes.

In canto 1, Harold leaves England, having lived a life of sensuous indulgence. He bids farewell to no friends or family, not even to his mother and sister, although he loves them both deeply. Landing in Portugal, Harold proceeds to visit various battlegrounds across Europe, thus giving Byron as narrator the opportunity to digress on historical, political, and even moral issues of the recent Peninsular War in which England served to help the Spanish resist the French invasion, an event that portended the end of Napoleon I’s tyranny. As he looks upon the towns that were devastated by Napoleon’s army, Byron laments the loss of life and champions those who nobly fought for the preservation of liberty. Byron praises the courageous women of the Spanish province of Aragon who joined the men in resisting an invading French army. Though these women were not trained to be warriors, like the mythological Amazons, but were taught to love, they nevertheless proved themselves to be strong and brave; thus, Byron suggests, they emerge far more beautiful than the women of other countries such as England.

In Spain, Harold witnesses a Sunday bullfight in one of the most famous passages from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, in which Byron is clearly at the same time fascinated and repelled by this violent yet graceful sport. Though Harold is moved by the beauty and song of the festivities around him, he cannot participate, for his pain alienates him from the joys of human activity. He remains a spectator. Singing a ballad, “To Inez,” Harold mourns the futility of running away when it is his own “secret woe” that he is attempting to escape. Comparing himself to the “Wandering Jew” of medieval legend who, having mocked Christ, is doomed to roam the earth eternally, seeking the peace of death, Harold bemoans the “hell” that lies hidden in the human heart.

Canto 2 opens with a meditation upon the contributions of classical Greece, a salute prompted by Harold’s visit to the Acropolis. As Harold views the ruins of Greece’s high achievements, Byron interprets them as reflections of the present loss of Greek freedom, thus foreshadowing his later involvement in the cause of Greek independence. Descriptions of the mysterious land of Albania in this canto represent one of the earliest authentic representations of this exotic country by an Englishman.

Canto 3 begins with Byron sadly recalling his daughter, Ada, whom he has not seen since the breakup of his marriage. Byron returns to the story of Harold, first warning readers that the young hero has greatly changed since the publication of the first two cantos. During the interim, Byron has endured the painful separation and the scandal concerning his relationship with Augusta, all of which essentially forced him to leave England. His bitterness is evident in the far darker tone of canto 3, and the character of Harold and that of the narrator, never strikingly different in temperament, now are more clearly merged.

Still unable to completely detach himself from feeling the pangs of human compassion, Harold flees to the solitude of natural surroundings, finding nature to be the one true consoler. He feels a communication with the desert, the forest, the ocean, the mountains. Finding Harold at the site of the Battle of Waterloo, “the grave of France,” Byron resumes the theme of Napoleon’s despotism and takes the opportunity to examine tyranny in general. Praising the heroes of that fateful and momentous battle, Byron blames Napoleon’s extremism, arguing that moderation would have prevented the disastrous results of a once noble plan. Harold then travels to Germany, where he still is not immune to feelings of love and joy, however fleeting.

Visiting the Swiss Alps leads Harold to the sites of other battles. Lake Leman (Lake Geneva) recalls to Byron the great French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the forerunners of the Romantic movement. This section, it has often been noted, has a distinctly Shelleyan mood, and indeed Byron wrote it while visiting Percy Bysshe Shelley. Byron explores the pantheistic philosophies of William Wordsworth, Shelley, and Rousseau and expresses feelings of oneness with nature, though he ultimately rejects their ideas. These feelings, furthermore, lead him to consider his feelings of alienation in the world of humankind. Insisting that he is neither cynical nor completely disillusioned, Byron insists that he believes that there are one or two people who are “almost what they seem” and that happiness and goodness are possible. Byron concludes the canto as he begins it, lamenting his absence from Ada, imagining what it would be like to share in her development, to watch her grow.

Canto 4 takes Harold to Italy, at first to Venice, decaying yet still beautiful because its spirit is immortal. Byron confesses that he still has some love for his native country and that he hopes that he will be remembered there. If he dies on foreign soil, he confesses, his spirit will return to England. The canto concludes with Byron’s famous apostrophe, or address, to the ocean.

Don Juan

First published: Cantos 1 and 2, 1819; cantos 3 through 5, 1821; cantos 6 through 14, 1823; cantos 15 and 16, 1824; the 16 cantos published together, 1826

Type of work: Poem

Forced to flee his homeland, the ingenuous Spanish rogue finds love, tragedy, violence, hypocrisy, and wisdom on his world travels.

Don Juan is a unique approach to the already popular legend of the philandering womanizer immortalized in literary and operatic works. Byron’s Don Juan, the name comically anglicized to rhyme with “new one” and “true one,” is a passive character, in many ways a victim of predatory women, and more of a picaresque hero in his unwitting roguishness. Not only is he not the seductive, ruthless Don Juan of legend, he is also not a Byronic hero. That role falls more to the narrator of the comic epic, the two characters being more clearly distinguished than in Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

In Beppo: A Venetian Story, Byron discovered the appropriateness of ottava rima to his own particular style and literary needs. This Italian stanzaic form had been exploited in the burlesque tales of Luigi Pulci, Francesco Berni, and Giovanni Battista Casti, but it was John Hookham Frere’s (1817-1818) that revealed to Byron the seriocomic potential for this flexible form in the satirical piece he was planning. The colloquial, conversational style of ottava rima worked well with both the narrative line of Byron’s mock epic and the serious digressions in which Byron rails against tyranny, hypocrisy, cant, sexual repression, and literary mercenaries.

Byron opens Don Juan with a dedication to his old nemesis, Robert Southey, who was at the time poet laureate. Byron hated Southey for his turncoat politics, for his spreading of rumors about Byron, and for his weak verse. The publication of the first two cantos in 1818 created scandal and outrage for the author. Although the names of publisher and author did not appear on the title page, Byron’s identity was unmistakable. Even Byron’s friends—Hobhouse and others—though admiring the genius of the work, were shocked and concerned about its language and content. The invectives against contemporaneous writers and against Lady Byron smacked of slander; his comments on political and theological issues bordered on sedition and blasphemy. Byron, arguing that this was in fact “the most moral of poems,” remained steadfast against editing and censoring. The work, however, also received significant critical praise from such noteworthy giants as Percy Bysshe Shelley, German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and John Gibson Lockhart (Sir Walter Scott’s son-in-law, writing under the pen name of “John Bull”). Byron found much strength and determination in these encouragements.

Byron’s avowed purpose in Don Juan was to be “quietly facetious on everything.” The narrative opens with sixteen-year-old naïf Don Juan, who innocently falls in love with Dona Julia, the young wife of Don Alfonso, a gentleman of fifty who has been linked romantically with Juan’s mother, Dona Inez. Although Byron’s poem is “epic” and he promises to observe the epic conventions of Aristotle and the classical authors, his hero is modern, of ordinary proportions and weaknesses. The plot follows a line of at times almost stock farce, the lovers being discovered by Alfonso’s spotting Juan’s shoes under Julia’s bed. At the end of the canto, Juan must flee Spain, the divorced Julia enters a convent, and the picaresque adventures of the young hero begin. Byron’s narrator takes the opportunity during the story to comment on love, education, and marriage.

Juan is shipwrecked in canto 2 and, after a shocking encounter with cannibalism, is washed ashore in the Greek Cyclades and is rescued by the beautiful maiden, Haidee, with whom he shares an idyllic love in canto 3 until her pirate father, Lambro, returns in canto 4 and Juan is sold into Turkish slavery. Haidee dies of a broken heart. The Haidee passage is one of Byron’s most poignant, his depiction of innocent love thwarted by external, evil forces one of his most touching. Canto 5 finds Juan accompanied and befriended by Johnson, an English soldier of fortune, and the two are bought by a black eunuch who dresses Juan in women’s clothes and takes him to the harem queen, Gulbayez, whose advances Juan rejects in deference to Haidee’s memory. In canto 6, however, Juan spends a sensuous and loving night in the harem with Lolah, Katinka, Dudu, and the other odalisques but is unfortunately sentenced to death in the morning.

The epic takes on a more serious tone with cantos 7 and 8, in large part as a result of the significant changes in Byron’s own life since the publication of the previous cantos. Juan and Johnson, who have managed to escape, join the Russian army, and Byron vehemently condemns war and military aggression. In cantos 9 and 10, Juan, now a war hero, meets Catherine the Great, who sends him to England. In the remaining cantos, 11 to 16, Byron satirizes English society. As a guest at the country estate of Lord Henry Amundeville, Norman Abbey (based on Byron’s own Newstead Abbey), Juan is pursued by three women: Lord Henry’s wife, the sophisticated and intellectual but self-centered Lady Adeline; the mysterious, gracious, graceful Countess Fitz-Fulke; and the silent but emotionally deep Aurora Raby. Much of the final canto concerns a social gathering and the identity of the mysterious ghost of the Black Friar, whom Juan sees at night.

At the time of his death in 1824, Byron was still working on Don Juan but had completed only a fragment of canto 17, which does not continue the story line.

The Prisoner of Chillon

First published: 1816

Type of work: Poem

Imprisoned for religious and democratic sentiments, a priest watches his brothers die beside him but is inspired by a songbird and his own strong spirit.

The Prisoner of Chillon is a dramatic monologue written after Byron and Shelley visited the Castle of Chillon in Switzerland, where a priest, François Bonivard, was imprisoned for six years for expressing democratic ideals rooted in his religious doctrine. Impressed by Bonivard’s courageous and principled struggle against the cruelty and tyranny of his captors, Byron used the story to comment further on his already characteristic themes of isolation, liberty, oppression, and conviction.

The poem opens with the “Sonnet on Chillon,” which reveals, both in content and in style, the influence of Shelley on Byron’s work and thought at this time in his career. Byron celebrates the site of Bonivard’s imprisonment as consecrated ground, and he praises in exalted and idealistic tones the futility of attempts to constrict the true and free spirit.

The remainder of the poem is told from the first-person perspective of Bonivard himself. Although Byron deviates somewhat from the historical record, this poem represents the first example of Byron using a real person as his protagonist. Bonivard’s father and five of his brothers have already perished as a result of this persecution of their faith. Two of them were imprisoned with Bonivard: the youngest brother, sweet of disposition, with tears only for the pain of others; the older brother an active man, strong and courageous. Both of the brothers died while the three of them were chained to huge pillars in the dark Gothic dungeon. Alone and the last survivor of his family, Bonivard then fell into a deep despair, his senses dulled, losing any concept of time, unaware of darkness or light.

In an almost conventional Romantic moment, Bonivard’s despair is interrupted by the arrival of a songbird. The prisoner speculates, with the last vestiges of optimism, that the bird may also have been imprisoned in a cage and has managed to escape. Perhaps, he speculates, the bird might in fact be his brother’s soul visiting him with messages of hope. When the bird flies away, however, Bonivard feels more alone than ever. Yet miraculously, his captors begin to treat him with more compassion, allowing him to walk around in his cell unchained. He climbs up the wall, not to try to escape but merely to get a glimpse through the barred windows of the mountains once again. The beauty of this sight again makes his imprisonment seem even more unbearable. After an indeterminate length of time—days, months, even years—Bonivard is released. The freedom is a hollow victory, however, since he has lost all that is dear to him, and he had come to consider the prison his home. Even the chains and the spiders seemed to be his friends.

The Vision of Judgment

First published: 1822

Type of work: Poem

Upon the death of King George III, Satan and the Archangel Michael debate over possession of the tyrant’s soul.

Byron had already mocked Robert Southey in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809) and in his dedication to Don Juan, but his ridicule of Southey is at its pinnacle in The Vision of Judgment. Byron hated Southey for many reasons. He disapproved of the poetry of Southey and even the greater “Lake School” poets, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He also resented Southey’s turn to conservatism later in life, marked by his being made poet laureate in 1813. Moreover, Southey had spread vicious rumors about Byron’s personal life. Upon the death of King George III, Southey, in his role as poet laureate, wrote a sycophantic celebration of George’s glorious entry into heaven, A Vision of Judgment (1821). In this work, Southey lashed out at Byron, ascribing him to the “Satanic” school. Byron retorted with The Vision of Judgment. John Murray, Byron’s publisher, was becoming increasingly fearful of the British disapproval of Byron’s work, so Byron published the poem in the new literary journal The Liberal, edited by Byron and John Hunt, later Byron’s new publisher.

In Byron’s poem, Saint Peter waits, bored, by the gates of Heaven, his keys rusty and the lock dull with disuse. The angels have nothing to do but sing. Only the angel who records the names of souls lost to hell is overworked, even requesting additional help. Satan is so busy that his thirst for evil is almost quenched. The death of George III brings hypocritical mourning on earth, people drawn to the pomp without really caring about him. Upon hearing that King George III has died, Saint Peter recalls that the last royal entry into Heaven was by the beheaded King Louis XVI, who was admitted as a martyr by playing on the sympathy of the saints.

While the Archangel Michael and Satan debate over who will get the soul of George III, witnesses are called. These include one who praises George, obviously to flatter him, and the anonymous letter writer known as “Junius” who criticized George and who refuses to recant his writings. Then Southey arrives and starts to recite his A Vision of Judgment. By the fourth line, the angels and devils have fled in terror. At the fifth line, Saint Peter uses his keys to knock Southey into his lake. In the confusion, George slips unobserved into Heaven.

Discussion Topics

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Is Lord Byron more of a Romantic figure than a Romantic poet? Justify your response.

Consider the statement that Don Juan does not look as “immoral” today as it once was alleged to be.

Do you agree or disagree with the assertion that Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is more travelogue than character study? Why?

Byron was fond of difficult poetic stanzas, such as the ottava rima and the Spenserian stanza. How do his rhyming techniques contribute to his success at these forms?

Assess Percy Bysshe Shelley’s influence on Byron.

Show why Byron deserves to be called an iconoclast.

Other Literary Forms

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George Gordon, Lord Byron, is considerably better known as a poet than as a dramatist, and the relative importance of the poetry is quickly evident in any review of Byron’s literary career. His first book, Fugitive Pieces, was printed at his own expense in November of 1806, and though it consisted primarily of sentimental and mildly erotic verse, it also contained hints of the satiric wit that would be so important to Byron’s later reputation. The volume is also notable for having inspired the first accusations that Byron lacked poetic chastity; at the urging of some of his friends, he withdrew the book from private circulation and replaced it with the more morally upright Poems on Various Occasions, printed in Newark in January of 1807 by John Ridge, who had also printed Fugitive Pieces.

In his first attempt at public recognition as a man of letters, Byron published Hours of Idleness in June of 1807. The volume shows the obvious influence of a number of Augustan and Romantic poets, but despite its largely derivative nature, it received several favorable early reviews. Fortunately for Byron’s development as a poet, however, the praise was not universal, and subsequent critical attacks, notably by Henry Brougham of The Edinburgh Review, helped inspire the writing of Byron’s first poetic triumph, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). In the tradition of Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad (1728-1743) but written under the more direct influence of Baviad (1794) and Maeviad (1795), by William Gifford, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers is the earliest significant example of Byron’s satiric genius. Three more satiric poems soon followed, but none of these—Hints from Horace (1811), The Curse of Minerva (1812), and Waltz: An Apostrophic Hymn (1813)—attracted as much admiring attention as English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.

During this same period, Byron was composing the poem with which he would be most closely associated during his lifetime and which would make him the most lionized literary figure of his day, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I-IV (1812-1818, 1819). The first two cantos of the poem, an imaginative meditation loosely based on two years of travel on the Continent, were published on March 10, 1812, and produced an immediate sensation. In his own words, Byron “awoke one morning and found myself famous.” Cantos III and IV were greeted with equal excitement and confirmed the identification of Byron in the popular mind with his poem’s gloomy protagonist.

In the meantime, Byron published a series of poetic tales that further exploited the knowledge derived from his Eastern travels and that continued the development of the Byronic hero, the brooding, titanic figure whose prototype within Byron’s canon is Childe Harold. These tales include The Giaour (1813), The Bride of Abydos (1813), The Corsair (1814), Lara (1814), Parisina (1816), and The Siege of Corinth (1816). Illustrative of the diversity of Byron’s poetic output is the publication, during this same period, of Hebrew Melodies Ancient and Modern (1815), short lyrics based largely on passages from the Bible and accompanied by the music of Isaac Nathan. Although Byron lacked the lyric mastery of a number of his extraordinary contemporaries, he produced well-crafted lyrics throughout his literary career, none of which is more admired or more often quoted than the first poem of Hebrew Melodies Ancient and Modern, “She Walks in Beauty.”

Also published in 1816 was “The Prisoner of Chillon,” a dramatic monologue on the theme of human freedom, which Byron was inspired to write after a visit to the castle where François de Bonivard had been imprisoned during the sixteenth century. The Lament of Tasso (1817), written during the following year, is a less successful variation on the same theme and, more important, an early manifestation of Byron’s fascination with the literature and history of Italy. This fascination is also seen in The Prophecy of Dante (1821), “Francesca of Rimini” (inspired by Canto V of Dante’s Inferno), and the translation of Canto I of Luigi Pulci’s Morgante Maggiore (1483), which were produced in the years 1819 and 1820.

The importance of Pulci to Byron’s poetic career is immeasurable. Through Whistlecraft (1817-1818), by John Hookham Frere, Byron became indirectly acquainted with the casual, facetious manner of the Morgante Maggiore and adapted the Pulci/Frere style to his own purposes in his immensely successful tale of Venetian dalliance, Beppo: A Venetian Story. Written in 1817 and published in 1818, Beppo is the direct stylistic precursor of Don Juan, Cantos I-XVI (1819-1824, 1826), the seriocomic masterpiece whose composition occupied Byron at irregular intervals throughout the last six years of his life.

Although the final years of Byron’s literary career are important primarily for the writing of Don Juan, several of Byron’s other works deserve passing or prominent mention. Mazeppa (1819) is a verse tale in Byron’s earlier manner that treats heavy-handedly a theme that the first cantos of Don Juan address with an adroit lightness: the disastrous consequences of an illicit love. The Island (1823) is a romantic tale inspired by William Bligh’s account of the Bounty mutiny, a tale that possesses some affinities with the Haidée episode of Don Juan. The years from 1821 to 1823 produced three topical satires, The Blues: A Literary Eclogue (written in 1821 but first published in The Liberal in 1823), The Vision of Judgment (1822), and The Age of Bronze (1823), the second of which, a devastating response to Robert Southey’s obsequious A Vision of Judgment, is one of Byron’s undoubted masterworks.

Finally, no account of Byron’s nondramatic writings would be complete without making reference to his correspondence, among the finest in the English language, which has been given its definitive form in Leslie A. Marchand’s multivolume edition, Byron’s Letters and Journals (1973-1982).

Achievements in Drama

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In his The Dramas of Lord Byron: A Critical Study (1915), Samuel C. Chew, Jr., makes it abundantly clear that George Gordon, Lord Byron, was simultaneously fascinated with the theater and contemptuous of the accomplishments of contemporary dramatists. He was frequently to be found in the playhouses, especially during his days as a student and during the period immediately following his Eastern travels, and on at least two occasions, he acted, with considerable success, in amateur theatrical productions. His comments on the stage suggest, however, that he was appalled by the reliance of early nineteenth century playwrights on melodramatic sensationalism and visual spectacle. His letters mention the scarcity of fine plays, and his poetry castigates modern dramatists for their tastelessness. English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, for example, calls contemporary drama a “motley sight” and deplores the “degradation of our vaunted stage.” It cries out to George Colman and Richard Cumberland to “awake!” and implores Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who had achieved a recent success with Pizarro: A Tragedy in Five Acts (pr. 1799), an adaptation of a play by August von Kotzebue, to “Abjure the mummery of the German schools” and instead to “reform the stage.” It asks, in indignant mockery, “Shall sapient managers new scenes produce/ From Cherry, Skeffington, and Mother Goose?” and makes sneering reference to the extravagances of Matthew “Monk” Gregory Lewis’s The Castle Spectre (pr. 1797). It suggests, on the whole, that the once glorious English theater is in woeful decline.

Despite Byron’s sense of the theater’s decay, or perhaps because of it, evidence exists, in epistolary references to destroyed manuscripts and in a surviving fragment or two of attempted drama, that, as early as 1813-1814, he had ambitions of becoming a playwright, but he had completed nothing for the stage when, in 1815, he was appointed a member of the Drury Lane Committee of Management. Although he found his committee work “really good fun,” it did nothing to improve his opinion of the taste of contemporary dramatists and their audiences, and when he finally finished a dramatic work, it was not intended for popular presentation.

Like the rest of his completed drama, Manfred was written during Byron’s final, self-imposed exile from England. Begun in Switzerland and finished in Venice, the play is psychosymbolic rather than realistic and may have been inspired, as any number of commentators have pointed out, by Byron’s acquaintance with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (pb. 1808, pb. 1833; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823, 1828). Byron appears to have known of Goethe’s masterpiece through translated passages in Madame de Staël’s De l’Allemagne (1810) and through an extensive oral translation by Monk Lewis during a visit to the poet in August of 1816. Considerable controversy has occurred, however, over the extent of Faust’s influence on Manfred, the consensus now being that Faust is simply one of many sources of the play’s intricate materials, albeit an important one. Chew makes mention of Vicomte Françoise Auguste-René de Chateaubriand’s René (1802, 1805; English translation, 1813), Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and The Mysterious Mother (1768), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Remorse (1813), Charles Robert Maturin’s Bertram: Or, The Castle of St. Aldobrand (1816), William Beckford’s Vathek (1782), and Lewis’s The Monk (1796) as other works with which Manfred has affinities and from which borrowings may have occurred. More important, however, Manfred is a cathartic projection of Byron’s own troubled psyche, an attempt, which some critics have called Promethean rather than Faustian, to cope with the seemingly unconquerable presence of evil in the world, to deal with his frustrated aspirations toward an unattainable ideal, and, on a more mundane level, to come to terms with his confused feelings toward his half sister Augusta. With respect to Manfred’s place in theatrical history, Malcolm Kelsall, in The Byron Journal (1978), has made an excellent case for grouping Byron’s play both with Faust and with Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (pb. 1867; English translation, 1892). Kelsall states that “the new kind of stage envisaged” in these plays “is unfettered by any kind of limitation of place, and that assault, which is as much upon the conceived possibilities of stage allusion as upon unity of place, demands of the imagination that it supply constantly shifting visual correlatives for the inner turmoil of the hero’s mind.”

Byron’s next play, Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice, is of an entirely different sort and ushers in a period in which Byron attempted to return to classical dramatic principles to produce plays whose themes are essentially political. He sought to counteract the undisciplined bombast and sprawling display of the drama with which he had become familiar in England by making use, without becoming anyone’s slavish disciple, of theatrical techniques exploited by the ancient Greeks and Romans, the neoclassical French, and the contemporary Italians, notably Conte Vittorio Alfieri. Because he did this during a time when his involvement in Italian political intrigue was beginning to develop, Byron’s decision to center his play on Marino Faliero, the fourteenth century doge of Venice who was executed for conspiring to overthrow the oppressive aristocratic class to which he himself belonged, is hardly surprising. He wrote the play as a closet drama—to be read rather than staged—considering its classical regularity an impossible barrier to its popular success, and he was furious when he learned of Drury Lane’s intention of producing it. As he summarized the matter in a journal entry of January 12, 1821, how could anything please contemporary English theatergoers that contained “nothing melodramatic—no surprises, no starts, nor trap-doors, nor opportunities ‘for tossing of their heads and kicking their heels’—and no love—the grand ingredient of a modern play”?

In Sardanapalus, Byron extended his experimentation with classical regularity and continued his exploration of political themes while at the same time appealing in two particular ways to popular taste. The play’s setting, ancient Nineveh, accorded well with popular interest in Eastern exoticism, an interest that Byron’s own Eastern tales had intensified, and the devotion of the slave Myrrha to Nineveh’s troubled ruler satisfied the public’s desire to witness pure, selfless love.

The Two Foscari, the third of the classically constructed political plays, again makes use of Venice for its setting. Although generally considered to be less successful than the earlier of the Venetian dramas, The Two Foscari contains autobiographical elements, embodied in Jacopo Foscari, that give a certain fascination to the play. Jacopo, after a youth of aristocratic gaiety, has been unjustly exiled from his native land. He had been the boon companion of the city’s most promising young men, had been admired for his athletic vigor, particularly in swimming, and had drawn the attention of the city’s most beautiful young women. Then the powerful had intrigued against him, and his banishment had begun. Byron’s contemporaries could hardly have missed the personal significance of this situation or have overlooked the note of defiant anguish in such an exchange as the following:

Guard: And can you so much love the soil which hates you?Jac. Fos: The soil!—Oh no, it is the seed of the soilWhich persecutes me; but my native earthWill take me as a mother to her arms.

Jacopo’s persecution is carried out as an act of vengeance by an enemy of the Foscari family, an act that corrupts its perpetrator, but unlike Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci (pb. 1819), whose theme is much the same, The Two Foscari is not effective theater.

Cain was published as part of a volume that also contained Sardanapalus and The Two Foscari, but it ought instead to be grouped with Heaven and Earth, which was written at about the same time but whose publication was delayed because of the controversy inspired by Cain. In Cain and Heaven and Earth, Byron returned to the style of Manfred, but he derived his materials from biblical lore and from previous literary treatments of these same stories. He called the plays “mysteries,” a reference both to the medieval mystery plays and to the mystified response Byron was expecting from the general public. Cain is a reinterpretation of the tale of the primal murder, a reinterpretation in which Cain is clearly the superior of his brother Abel and kills his brother, as Chew observes, in an “instinctive assertion of freedom against the limitations of fate.” Heaven and Earth is based on the passage in Genesis that states that “the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.” Its plot culminates in the nearly total destruction of the flood, a destruction so general and arbitrary that the play becomes, in Chew’s summary, “a subtle attack on the justice of the Most High.”

Werner was much more in keeping with the literary tastes of the time than Byron’s other plays, a fact that can be at least partially explained by its having been begun in 1815, during the period of Byron’s closest association with Drury Lane. A surprisingly faithful rendering of “The German’s Tale” from Sophia and Harriet Lee’s The Canterbury Tales (1797-1805), Werner centers on the title character and his perfidious son, Ulric, an ambitious villain of the deepest dye. Making no pretense of adhering to the classical unities, the play moves with gothic ponderousness toward its dark conclusion, in which Ulric is revealed to be the cold-blooded murderer of his own fiancée’s father, Stralenheim, the one man who stood between Ulric’s family and their return to hereditary wealth and power.

The Deformed Transformed is one of Byron’s two dramatic fragments (the other being Heaven and Earth). As its prefatory “Advertisement” states, Byron based it on Joshua Pickersgill’s novel The Three Brothers (1803) and on Goethe’s Faust. Chew points out the autobiographical significance of Byron’s adding lameness to the other deformities from which his central character, Arnold, escapes by dealing with the Devil, but the play’s incompleteness and incoherence make it difficult to comment further on Byron’s dramatic intention. The fragment was composed in 1822 and published in February of 1824 by John Hunt.

The history of Byron’s plays in theatrical production appears largely to be a tale of creative misinterpretation in the twentieth century and commercial adaptation and exploitation in the nineteenth. Margaret Howell’s 1974 account in The Byron Journal of Charles Kean’s June 13, 1853, production of Sardanapalus is particularly instructive. Reduced from its full length of 2,835 lines to 1,563, the play was presented almost solely as spectacle and required the approval of the local fire inspectors, because of one of its more impressive effects, before it could be performed. The production seems to have embodied everything that most disgusted Byron about London theater.

Achievements in Poetry

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If poets can be judged by the intellectual and cultural myths which they inspire, then Lord Byron must be deemed the most broadly influential of the Romantic writers. Through his creation of a brooding and defiant persona known as the Byronic Hero—according to Peter L. Thorslev, Jr., a composite blend of the attributes of Cain, Ahasuerus, Satan, Prometheus, Rousseau’s Child of Nature, the Man of Feeling, the Gloomy Egoist, the Gothic Villain, and the Noble Outlaw—Byron exerted a profound impact on the entire nineteenth century and its conception of the archetypal Romantic sensibility. The essential trait that came to be associated with Byronism is what Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy (1945), identifies as “Titanic cosmic self-assertion.” Signifying less a specific stance than a generalized attitude, the phrase denotes a proud, often despairing, rebellion against any institutional or moral system that threatens to rob the self of its autonomy, centrality, and independence. Something of the extent to which this outlook captured the imagination of the age can be gauged from a brief list of artists and thinkers whose works reflect Byron’s influence: in Germany, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Friedrich Nietzsche; in France, Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, Hector Berlioz, and Eugène Delacroix; in Russia, Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoevski; and in America, Herman Melville. Even Matthew Arnold, that most Wordsworthian of Victorian critics, admitted in his 1850 poem “Memorial Verses” that the collective English soul “Had felt him like the thunder’s roll.” Thirty-one years later, Arnold’s view had not changed: “The power of Byron’s personality,” he wrote, approvingly quoting Algernon Charles Swinburne, “lies in . . . ’the excellence of sincerity and strength.’”

What fascinated nineteenth century audiences about Byron was not simply the larger-than-life character of the man transmuted into art but also the flinty integrity of his mind that penetrated all deception and constantly tested the limits of skepticism. In this respect Byron seems peculiarly modern. Although often considered a Romantic paradox because of various antitheses in his nature (he led the Romantic revolution toward “expression” in poetry, for example, but was thoroughly Augustan in his literary ideals and a lifelong admirer of Alexander Pope), he rarely succumbs to the temptation of believing his own fictions and always examines his experience with obsessive honesty. In conversations with his friend and confidante Lady Blessington, Byron thus confessed to being “so changeable . . . such a strange mèlange of good and evil, that it would be difficult to describe me,” but he goes on to say: “There are but two sentiments to which I am constant—a strong love of liberty, and a detestation of cant.” These last qualities undoubtedly explain why the vein of satire was so congenial to him as a poet. In both the barbed heroic couplets of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, the scathing burlesque that launched his career, and the seriocomic use of ottava rima in Don Juan, the epic satire that he did not live to complete, Byron sought to expose the smug complacencies and absurd pretensions of his time and, if possible, to restore to it the ability to see itself objectively. The dark Weltschmerz of poems such as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage may attest his personal despair over whether that goal could ever be accomplished, but in all his variegated moods he writes with energetic conviction born of “sincerity and strength.” Byron’s seminal achievement, therefore, may be his capacity for embodying the strivings of a deeply restless age, for articulating those longings and doing what all great poets do—namely, to return the imagination to the world.

Bibliography

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Brewer, William D., ed. Contemporary Studies on Lord Byron. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. A collection of essays on the works of Byron. Bibliography and index.

Brisman, Leslie. “Troubled Stream from a Pure Source.” In George Gordon, Lord Byron, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A readable and pithy examination of the Romantic origins of Byron’s major drama that places Cain within the context of the Romantic task of returning fallen man to his original state of innocence. The volume contains a brief chronology of Byron’s life as well as a useful select bibliography.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Byron. Edited by Jerome J. McGann. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. The most comprehensive one-volume edition of Byron’s poetry and prose. Includes complete text of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan, as well as other poems and plays, and also includes selections from Byron’s incomparable letters.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Byron’s Letters and Journals. Edited by Leslie A. Marchand, 12 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1973-1982. Byron’s letters were always witty, irreverent, and highly entertaining, written quickly and without inhibitions. They mirror his many-sided personality and the charm of his conversation.

Chew, Samuel C., Jr. The Dramas of Lord Byron: A Critical Study. 1915. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964. The first sustained analysis of Byron’s plays, Chew’s book remains the best single introductory examination of Byron’s dramatic works and his career as a dramatist. Although methodologically dated, Chew offers a sensible investigation of Byron’s development of dramatic structure in the light of the larger context of Romantic drama, in addition to some solid insights into the connections between Byron’s poems and plays. The volume includes appendices that examine Byron’s use of the dramatic unities and compares Byron’s Manfred with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (pb. 1808, 1833).

Crane, David. The Kindness of Sisters. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. A study of Byron’s reputation after death, exploring bitter and conflicting accounts by the wife he divorced and the sister he seduced.

Eisler, Benita. Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. A narrative biography that does justice to the love affairs that made Byron notorious while giving ample coverage of the reasons Byron is an influential and important poet. Includes bibliographic references.

Franklin, Caroline. Byron: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A study of Byron’s career, with some attention to the poet’s neglected playwriting.

Garrett, Martin. George Gordon, Lord Byron. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. This brief, well-illustrated biography, designed for students in grades nine and above, is a good introduction to Byron. Replete with choice quotations and primary source references. Includes an index.

Graham, Peter W. Don Juan and Regency England. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. Six self-contained but interrelated essays that explore Byron’s comic masterpiece in the context of various aspects of the culture of Regency England. Graham argues that in Don Juan, Byron continually advocated a cosmopolitan point of view, satirizing traditional English insularity. Readers should have some familiarity with Don Juan before tackling this volume, but Graham writes jargon-free prose, and each essay is highly illuminating.

MacCarthy, Fiona. Byron: Life and Legend. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. A biography that re-examines the life of the poet in the light of MacCarthy’s assertion that Byron was bisexual, a victim of early abuse by his nurse.

Marchand, Leslie A. Byron: A Portrait. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. The best biography for the general reader. It is based on Marchand’s definitive three-volume biography published in 1957 but includes research done in the 1960’s. Marchand’s portrait of Byron is balanced and free of bias. Includes fifty-six illustrations, genealogical tables, and two maps showing Byron’s travels from 1809 to 1811, and Byron’s Greece.

Martin, Philip. Byron: A Poet Before His Public. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982. This biographical-historical analysis of Byron’s plays, with chapters on Manfred, Cain, and Sardanapalus, places Byron’s work within the context of his contemporaries of the second generation of Romantic poets. The analyses of the plays include an excellent discussion of the placement of Byron’s plays within the dramaturgical context of the time, particularly the mannered expressionism of Edmund Kean, Sarah Siddons, and Charles Kemble. Contains a number of illustrations and a complete bibliography.

Peters, Catherine. Byron. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2000. A concise biography of Byron that covers his life and works. Bibliography.

Wilson, Frances. Byromania: Portraits of the Artist in Nineteenth-and Twentieth-Century Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. These eleven essays shed light on the scandalous nature of Byron’s fame, including his carefully wrought self-presentation, as well as the extraordinary popularity of his work and persona. The poet is viewed through multiple, if sometimes contradictory perspectives, the essays varying in tone from academic to humorous.

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