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...
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