Lord Byrons Poems
Tortured Knights: Eliot, Byron, and Browning
Though they come from the shores of different eras and the minds of different authors, the protagonists of Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” are all knights in their own way. One can go even further: they are, basically, all the very same man. Childe Harold and the Byron narrator, Childe Roland, and J. Alfred Prufrock are all tortured men on a kind of a search; they are each of them haunted by thoughts of their past. Their goals overlap and blend with one another; each man finds himself hopeless, facing his own doubt, and he seeks a relief that he doesn’t believe in. And though their methods are admittedly different, each one of them ultimately self-destructs. Within the context of their respective eras, each hero ends up at a tragic dead-end; these poems capture the moments before they attain it, caught up in small seconds that reach towards an ending. “In a minute there is time,” says Prufrock, “For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” (47-8). His “love song” spans the minutes he’s too scared to undo. Childe Harold wanders sadly forth and keeps no track of time; and Childe Roland is left standing, remembering his past, paralyzed in “one moment [that] knelled the woe of years” (198). These men summarize their destinies in matters of mere moments, and go on to fulfill them. If their struggles and answers seem to meld as one, it is perhaps because the authors who created them each strove in his own time to overcome the same issues—issues of worry, of doubt, of fleeting success and lasting regret—looking back at the works come before them and then finding release in a fictional knight on an actual quest. When Childe Harold begins his quest he is already jaded, having spent his days overindulging in pleasures that have grown stale. The opportunity to live in unbounded hedonism might initially appear a blessing, but to Harold it has become a malediction. His well-fed appetite becomes “worse than adversity,”—perhaps because it eventually leads him to seek adversity as others would enjoyment, and adversity’s possibilities become therefore limitless (Canto I, 33). The repetition of the “er” vowel sound, first in worse and then in adversity, subtly links the two words together—so that when the reader reads “adversity,” he or she hears a faint echo of “worse” still resounding. Besides being euphonious, this effect underscores the impact of “worse” since it’s almost as if we are hearing it twice—and the word’s carrying power in this stanza suggests, in its own way, the effect that this pleasure-driven “adversity” will have on Harold’s life. It is worse than conventional oppression because like “worse,” it extends its grasp to reoccur without limit. “With pleasure drugg’d,” Harold actively seeks its opposite; he “almost long’d for woe,/ And e’en for change of scene would seek the shades below” (I 54-5). The word “drugged” gives a concise picture of Harold’s torpor as he floats from one locale to the other with little lucidity or any real desire for it. And the assertion that Harold would seek the underworld itself—like the hellish landscape faced by Roland, or the inner torment endured by Prufrock—merely for new scenery is effective for its shock value. Yet Byron’s claims that Harold (who might just as well have been called Byron, by the poet’s later admission) fled his home merely from an excess of pleasure are dubious at best, especially considering that this comes just after a stanza describing Harold’s (or, again, Byron’s) own lost love. Having “sigh’d to many though he lov’d but one, /And that lov’d one, alas! Could ne’er be his” (I, 39-40). In what is probably a reference to Byron’s doomed relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, Byron here reveals that Harold has certainly known something other than amusement. He has known loss, perhaps the greatest hurt of all, and it has driven him to roam the world in search of nothing. Byron’s narrator alter-ego welcomes the aimlessness of the ocean at the start of III, just before he plunges back in to the saga of Harold: Once more upon the waters! yet once more! And the waves bound beneath me as a steed That knows his rider. Welcome, to their roar! Swift be their guidance, wheresoe’er it lead! (III, 10-13)The multiple exclamation points and energetic rhythm give the lines a sense of reckless exhilaration that is perhaps natural to someone who is willing to trust his fate to the ocean’s untamed waters. Byron’s narrator has just emerged from a wistful reverie about his distant daughter, Ada (Byron’s own daughter was named Augusta Ada), in which he hopes against hope that he will see her again. Awakened very suddenly, he immediately immerses himself in the danger and uncertainty around him—almost as a kind of emboldened antidote to the private loss that he suffers. When Byron returns officially to Harold a few stanzas later, he describes the changes that Harold’s quest has wreaked on him: He, who grown aged in this world of woe, In deeds, not years, piercing the depths of life, So that no wonder waits him. (III 37-9)This is Harold’s fate, the one he chose for himself. He has “pierced” life like a warrior, but it holds no passion for him. He wanders from one end to another, caring little which one is his true final end. At heart he is nothing less than the Byronic hero—that emblem of Romanticism who, so wasted by life’s fierce emotion and anguish, wallows just outside it but never escapes it. Though admittedly different from Harold’s background, Childe Roland’s own past has a similarly self-destructive effect on him. Unlike Harold, Roland (whose very name, curiously, is a near-annagramic inversion of the name “Harold”) has had less than his share of pleasure–which distinction might always have been intentional on Browning’s part. Perhaps Roland, Harold’s backwards cousin/brother, is fated to pay for the many visits to “Sin’s long labyrinth” for which Harold never atoned (I, 37). It is revealed through Roland’s inner monologue that he once formed part of a brave company, and has watched it diminish one friend at a time. The memory of his fallen comrades comes back to Roland repeatedly in this his final journey, ringing in his ears like an immutable doom—most forcefully towards the end of the poem, when Roland faces the Dark Tower at last. Not hear? When noise was everywhere! it tolled Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears Of all the lost adventurers my peers— How such a one was strong, and such was bold, And such was fortunate, yet each of old Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years. (193-8) It is important to note that we don’t know where this sound is actually coming from, or if the sound is actual at all. Roland gives no indication that a bell or anything like it is really ringing; though this is always possible, it is not clearly stated. Yet to him the idea of not hearing the noise is unfathomable, even ludicrous: “Not hear?” he says. “When noise was everywhere!” This is his defensive anticipation of a question that hasn’t been asked, and cannot be asked since he is completely alone—yet he feels instinctively that someone, somewhere, is insulting him with the suggestion that he cannot hear this incredible sound. His vehement but unsupported explanation that “noise was everywhere!” suggests that on some level he is beyond reason. In all likelihood the noise’s origins are in Roland’s own tortured mind, where the names of his fellows resound unceasingly. He remembers only their good qualities—one was strong, another bold, and a third, bizarrely, was “fortunate;” this is strange since all of these men clearly met sad ends, to the point that Roland cannot turn to their memories for comfort anymore. At a point, earlier in the poem, when he tries to find strength in thoughts of his friends, he finds himself overwhelmed with visions of tragedy and death. “Better this present than a past like that;” he says. “Back therefore to my darkening path again!” (103-4) The fact that he later remembers some of them as “fortunate” is deeply disturbing; one possible explanation is that, amazed by the toll of imagined bells, Roland has simply lost his wits at this point. Perhaps he decides, subconsciously or not, to revise the past—delude himself, if necessary—in order to make it bearable and find the comfort he needs at this final rallying point. Thus all the men were bold, all were strong, and all were somehow fortunate. Another rationale, perhaps even more unsettling, is that Roland is lucid when he thinks of one as fortunate—that, given the horror he now finds himself faced with, he considers him lucky who is already dead. If this is the case then his attitude at the beginning of the poem makes lamentable sense; like Harold’s narrator, who lets the ocean’s waves take him where they will, Roland has long ceased to care where his journey ends. When he is directed, at the poem’s, by a “hoary cripple” (2) whom Roland suspects of dishonesty, he follows the man’s direction not out of trust but out of weary indifference: ….Yet acquiescingly I did turn as he pointed: neither pride Nor hope rekindling at the end descried, So much as gladness that some end might be. (15-18)He speaks of hope “rekindling,” evoking an image of hope as a light or flame that contrasts poignantly with the “darkening path” that he returns to later (104). Above all he wishes not for the end, but any end—or, as he puts it, “some” end. Having “so long suffered in this quest” (37), feeling old with “hope dwindled” (20-21), his sole wish now is to find the failure that found his friends—but also to feel worthy of it. With a thought that strongly anticipates J. Alfred Prufrock’s cries of “Do I dare? and, Do I dare?” (38), Roland’s ultimate worry is: “And all the doubt was now—should I be fit?” (42)The difference between Roland and Prufrock, as we will soon see, is that Roland meets his end in the hope that he is fit; Prufrock faces his still convinced that he isn’t. The fact that Roland raises his slug-horn and flings himself forward might seem anti-Victorian in its daring and boldness but for Browning, who defined himself by flaunting codes of tact, this end is exactly what we would expect. J. Alfred Prufrock doesn’t need a Dark Tower to unveil his future; that much he discovered a long time ago. The only quest he undertakes is one of memory, of regretful revising and unwishful thinking. In this case, however, it is extremely difficult to pin down precisely what in his past motivates him–or, at a more basic level, to even pin down what is in his past. Time is treated very ambiguously in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and the lines memory and imagination are often deliberately blurred. We are left to infer a life told through omission; forced to follow Prufrock’s thoughts, we necessarily dwell not on what he has done, but on what he has not. More than this, even, we look at what he could do—what he might have done (but will never do.) Thus when Prufrock asks, Would it have been worth while, To have bitten off the matter with a smile, To have squeezed the universe into a ball To roll it toward some overwhelming question To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’—(90-5)he in this way admits that he never did this—that he never did roll the universe into a ball, never did roll it toward some overwhelming question. And when he continues with the condition that had he done so it could only be If one, settling a pillow by her head, Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.’ (96-8)he confides to us his reasoning, the fears that held him back. At the same time Prufrock attempts to justify his choice—as, indeed, the entire poem is a kind of justification—when he suggests that attacking life as he might have would in fact have been something callous, something glib and aggressive. He equates the facing of life and love with “bit[ing] off the matter with a smile”—suggesting with the word “bite” a kind of casual savagery, and with “smile” an unfitting levity. The question of whether Prufrock ought to have lived life, to live life more fully—as Prince Hamlet say, and not merely “an attendant lord”—is clearly one that torments him to the extreme (111-12). He holds for life a kind of reverence that perhaps only the true timids understand, because only they are willing to sacrifice their own lives for an unshattered ideal of it. So for Prufrock, whose lust for life is stronger than anyone’s but whose fear of it grows in direct correlation, biting off the matter with a smile is simultaneously something he longs for and something he scoffs at. If had had been bold enough to “force the moment to its crisis,” as he says earlier, he would doubtless look on the idea differently (80). But since he is not bold enough he suggests that such boldness is somehow distasteful and generally pointless. For even if he had been bold—even if he had found his own revelation and spread it around—he feels a sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere, would have contradicted him anyhow. Much like the imagined naysayers that Roland scorns with his “sound everywhere,” Prufrock envisages “one” who will tell him that he has been wrong—who ‘should say,/ ‘That is not it at all, /That is not what I meant, at all’” (109-110). It is easier for Prufrock to assume that any effort he made would be repulsed by someone stronger, and the fear of this disgrace is enough to keep him from trying—although deep down he knows that the fact that he needs proof is proof in itself that he can’t quite believe it. Secretly he realizes that convincing yourself is an impossible task, and the very act of trying means you cannot be convinced. In his own way, then, Prufrock is just as self-destructive as either Harold, Byron, or Roland; within the Modernist perspective, especially Eliot’s own anti-Romantic subset of it, self-destruction has by this point come to mean something different. Prufrock’s fate is his choice, but at the same time it’s the ultimate punishment. Trapped in his own private torment, like Montefeltro in the quote from Dante’s Inferno that prefaces the poem, Prufrock confesses his regret only because he knows that it will go nowhere—because just as he tries to convince only himself, he tries so to confess only to himself. “‘Do I dare?’” he asks himself–“and, ‘Do I dare?’” (38) The answer, of course, is no; the consuming torture of his situation is that, cursed with a removed perspective on his own pain, Prufrock knows exactly what he’s suffered and exactly what he’s going to suffer. Yet he does nothing about it, because recognizing his paralysis is the only indulgence he will allow himself. Thus his love song, though full of hidden sadness that he can’t quite repress, is designed at least to be more like an anti-love song—a lost love song. It mourns emotions that it will not allow for itself. And so like Childe Harold, “grown aged in this world of woe” (III 37), and like Childe Roland, whose hope “dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope/ With that obstreperous joy success would bring” (21-2), Prufrock ages–becomes an old man who lives his whole life in a day, so that each day becomes a whole lifetime of waste. For I have known them all already, known them all— Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons, I know the voices dying with a dying fall Beneath the music from a further room. (49-53)These lines are full of repetition, repetition that trips and falls over itself to emphasize how unfairly this life has already been lived. Prufrock has “known them all,” “known them all” [much like Roland who, defiantly facing the hillsides who frame his last end, says that “ I saw them and I knew them all” (202)] and it all has been measured with the mundane and minute unite of a coffee spoon. The coffee spoon evokes at once the drudgery of day to day life, and with its smallness the futility of measuring it out; it also connotes morning, just after Prufrock has actually said “mornings” in the previous line. “Dying” echoes in the fourth line like “worse” for Childe Harold, and like the fallen friends of Childe Roland—a dismal, tolling idea that cannot be rubbed out. It is under the pressure of this planned future that Prufrock feels himself aging: “I grow old…I grow old…/ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” (120-1), again latching onto diurnal practicalities with a self-contained terror. Prufrock is like Roland, “quiet as despair” as he turns from the cripple towards the Dark Tower (43). He is like Harold, who has grown “secure in guarded coldness” (III 82), so cut off from his fellow men that he has nothing left to feel— …So that no wonder waits him; nor below Can love, or sorrow, fame, ambition, strife, Cut to his heart again with the keen knife Of silent, sharp endurance: he can tell Why thought seeks refuge in lone caves, yet rife With airy images, and shapes which dwell Still unimpair’d, though old, in the soul’s haunted cell (III 40-45).The last words in particular—“the soul’s haunted cell”—are painfully accurate for Prufrock, who is unique for the fact that unlike Harold and Roland, he has nothing—and, therefore, everything—to regret. He is not haunted by a forbidden love, or a lost band of men, but by simply—nothing. One can say that he speaks of lost love, but only because it’s so overwhelmingly, thoroughly lost that it never even took place. Prufrock dreams of mermaids singing, but he cannot believe they are within his grasp. “I do not think,” he says, “that they will sing to me” (125). So while Harold rides the waves and Roland passes through the flames, Prufrock “lingers in the chambers of the sea” and ultimately drowns (129). Though each knight and each author struggles with much the same problem, it is only Byron—the first—who clearly states a solution. More similar to Harold than perhaps anybody on earth, Harold’s problems were his own; and, paradoxically, Byron solved both sets of problems by inventing the latter. His creation of a fictional character in Harold was his great consolation and only solution; “ ‘Tis to create, and in creating live…gaining as we give/ The life we image, even as I do now. What am I?” he says. “Nothing; but not so art thou, /Soul of my thought!” (III 46-51) In Harold he found the “One” who could soothe the worries of a restless soul, the One who lent purpose to a frustrated life: In my youth’s summer I did sing of One, The wandering outlaw of his own dark mind…(III, 19-20) …in that Tale I find The furrows of long thought, and dried-up tears, Which, ebbing, leave a sterile track behind, O’er which all heavily the journeying years Plod the last sands of life,–where not a flower appears. (III, 23-7)His use of natural imagery vividly contrasts the exterior of his “youth’s summer,” like the bright “hope rekindling” (17) that Roland gave up on, with the frightening interior of “his own dark mind.” Harold came to embody Byron’s inner doubts—just as Roland’s dark path and Prufrock’s dark sadness served the same function for Browning and Eliot. The sterile track made by tears, where no flowers grow, rises before us not just in “Childe Harold” but again in “Childe Roland,” where Roland think[s] I never saw Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve: For flowers—as well expect a cedar grove! (55-7)–trapped in a landscape where hope has long died. And the One comes to us not uniquely with Harold, but also with Prufrock—who imagines “one” who, “settling a pillow by her head,/ Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all’” (96-7). This one for Prufrock, this “wandering outlaw of his own dark mind” (III, 19-20), is as much a curse as a comfort—taunting his ambition before he acts on it–but in either case it displays to us the vital importance, for all writers, in creating a person outside of themselves to endow with the worry that they cannot live with. If the great quest at hand is to corner despair, to live with regret and to conquer self-doubt, for these writers the answer was very simple: if you’re no knight yourself you can always create one, to keep on with fighting once you’ve finished writing. And even if these knights do not win their battles, their presence—for authors—marks a quest fulfilled.
Napolean as a Byronic Hero
Romantic poetry can be said to have emerged as a counter-current to the 18th century intellectual and philosophical movement, the Enlightenment, which believed reason to be the predominating signifier of human greatness while completely shoving aside everything which can fall within the scope of emotions. On this very note, Geoffery Hartman states that the poetry of Wordsworth, which can imply the Romantic poets who fall into the same thematic bracket, nurtured a ‘culture of feeling’. The almost-autocratic ideal of reason reigning over everything else, created a sense of discontent laying down the germs of Counter-Enlightenment that tried to dissolve this barrier in order to allow man to return to his authentic self. Romantic poets are said to have gone the extra mile in this counter current, possessing Rousseauistic traits – identification of the intellect with desire; dominance of emotion over reason; and the assertion of the Ego above the claims of the society. Romantic literature can be characterized as possessing a meditative immersion (where the poet has an internal affinity and understanding of his subject where his individuality dissolves in order to become one with it), expressing subjectivity (emphasis on the inner life of the individual accompanied by an evidence of aspiration and longing of the write), sublime (trying to negotiate states of consciousness and cognition by trying to grasp infinity i.e. that which is beyond reason, a quest for perfection, and a love of the picturesque (an element of strangeness added to beauty).
Although this thematic consistency with similar styles and ideas overlapped his other contemporaries, Byron is said to have run against them in his insistence in adhering to archaic vocabulary. With no social duties controlling him and no belief systems guiding him, his assertion of the individual will is emphasized through his poetry. However, he wavered and between respect for tradition and revolution; fluctuated between allegiance to the antique style of classicism and promotion of new styles of poetry. Helen Richter in “Byron, Klassizimus und Romantik” says that there are satiric elements in his romantic poems; and, conversely, there are romantic passages in his satires. However, despite the differences between Lord Byron and the arch romantics, however, he was chiefly representative of the Romantic period.
His contributions to Romanticism center on ‘Childe Harold’ and ‘Manfred’. To some extent it is the creation of a tragic, highly perceptive character whose tragedy envelops him, and goes around observing the beauty of forests, streams and ruined civilizations, in his secret shame. So full of perception about the world and tragedy in his own nature, him as an architect of the literary movement has created the ‘Byronic Hero’. Substantially said to be based upon himself, Byron ascribes traits such as rebelliousness against rules, laws, and conventions prevailing in society, isolation, moodiness, passionate nature, arrogance, charisma and pangs of remorse. Deborah Lutz defines the Byronic hero as “…the tormented melancholy failure who nears success and fails and experiences the eternal loss, the repetition of the impossibility of bliss.” And as suggested by Childe Harold, Napoleon too was depicted as this Byronic hero.
Since his days in Harrow, Byron was a loyal Bonapartist for in Napoleon, he saw the person he wanted to be. John Nicol in Byron says that even then “he himself believed that his real qualities would emerge…in the life of action.” Byron thought of helping the revolution by using his pen, but all throughout it he believed that he was destined to achieve greatness through his actions and not his writings. Having always regarded himself as a soldier despite being stopped from the life that was intended for him due to physical limitations, Bonaparte’s successes were taken as his own. Psychologically speaking, this personality transference influenced Byron so much, that numerous evidences suggest that Byron is said to have become Napoleon. Much of Byron’s admiration for Napoleon sprang from his own adherence to the cause of liberty.
The seven poems that center around Napoleon were written by Byron in 1814-1816 i.e. after his downfall. Several issues are addressed sporadically where confusion, reprimand, and glorification are woven into these tapestries where one thread of thought predominates the other from time to time. The deepest impression that manifests itself in his poems is confusion as he is perplexed and fails to comprehend the reason and the factors that led to the rapid downfall of such an elevated figure. After the first abdication, Byron’s evaluation of Napoleon is dual in nature, as his idolization is coupled with admonition. However, this very vacillation between reprimand and admiration in much of his poems which helps one connect the dots between the emperor and the Byronic hero. The trajectory of Napoleon’s tendencies throughout his military career can be captured by the characteristics of Byronic hero who essentially creates himself, personifying the evolution of the individual, and his eventual self-destruction due to his egotistical sense of self superiority. A tragic figure, an historical embodiment of contradictions, Napoleon for Byron represents both a figure of heroic aspiration and someone who has been shamefully mastered by his own passions – both a conqueror and a captive.
In “Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte” Byron expresses his view about how Napoleon was a promethean giant above all humans and despite the fact that he was dethroned, he supposedly deserved to be placed besides other great historical figures. The typical duality of the Byronic hero is dramatized in the story of Napoleon’s bold rise and graceless fall as Napoleon loses his titanic status and becoming a ‘mortal human’. Napoleon acted as the epitome of individualism and will for Byron, opening up new possibilities for the human spirit. A liberator and a man of action, Byron, contrary to Wordsworth did not see Napoleon as a tyrant and oppressor but rather an iconic and unique character. However, his disillusionment towards Napoleon is evident as he realizes the ordinary in the emperor. Along the historical dimension, Byron creates a Napoleonic myth as he compares him to the fallen angel, Lucifer, who for Byron symbolized light and change. The Byronic hero is evident in his myths as he creates the image of this individual who was bold enough to defy authority, fight against fate, and wanted to reach heights.
The world weary Childe Harold in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which evokes Napoleon in Cantos III, is said to have personified the Byronic hero. This semi-autobiographical poem talks about a dark and brooding individual’s travels. Byron sees Napoleon as a deeply ambiguous heroic figure which made him rise above the ordinary ranks of human beings but questions the goals pursued by the Emperor. Condemning Napoleon for his unbridled ambition, Byron wonders whether Napoleon covets after the petty honors than ordinary men do. The dualistic nature of the Byronic hero is evident as the canto explores the contradictory aspirations and inclinations of Napoleon as one was supposed to respond to ‘the greatest, nor the worst of men.’ His ‘lust of war’ coupled with his inability to govern his ‘pettiest of passions’, shows the darker side of the Byronic hero. Fascinated by this military figure, he conceptualized him as of true heroic capability destroyed by his own ego and relentless desire. In the latter half of the poem, Byron attempts to extract what he believed to be the driving impulse, which has a twofold aspect, in Napoleon. In the face of vanquish, this tendency is marked by an indifferent and resigned, rather a stoic recognition, ‘which be it wisdom, coldness or deep pride’. The other aspect characterized by Byron is an aspiration which wishes, ‘‘Beyond the fitting medium of desire’, whose inexhaustible restlessness of spirit further isolates the person and conceives hate as once given impetus it tricks you into chasing a higher sense of adventure. He eventually points out about how this desire may escalate one to mountaintops yet he would have to bear witness to the hate brewing of those below.
According to T.S. Elliot, “Byron’s diabolism… was of a mixed type. He shared, to some extent, Shelley’s Promethean attitude, and the Romantic passion for liberty; and this passion …merges into a Satanic (Miltonic) attitude. The romantic conception of Milton’s Satan is semi-Promethean, and also contemplates Pride as a ‘virtue’…But I’ve come to find in him certain qualities, besides his abundance, that are too uncommon in English poetry…absence of some vices that are too common…With his charlatanism, he has also an unusual frankness; with his humbug and self-deception he has also a reckless raffish honesty, he is at once a vulgar patrician and a dignified toss-pot; …he is genuinely superstitious and disreputable.” Despite this remark from Eliot one cannot deny the influence of the Byronic hero throughout the later Romantic and early Victorian periods. Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and David Copperfield have characters depicting the Byronic hero who Lord Byron may have molded upon his idol, Napoleon Bonaparte, or may have a figure Byron uses for purposes of both self-revelation and self-concealment.
Byron, Lord George Gordon Noel, “Childe Harold”. And “Ode to Napolean”. Poems.
Cantor, Paul. The Politics of the Epic: Wordsworth, Byron and the Romantic Redefinition of Heroism.
Gupta, Kanav. “Introduction” Romantic Poets. Delhi. Worldview Publications, 2016. Print.
Lutz, Deborah. The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative. 2006. 52-53. Unabridged. Print.
Riehtar. Halone. Byron, Klassizismus und Romantik, Anglia, XLVIII (1924), 209-257. Print.
The Ideal Reader in Don Juan and Tristram Shandy
Byron called Don Juan ‘the poetical Tristram Shandy’, and both works appear consciously intertextual in their attempts to question held beliefs about storytelling. They both define an ideal reader by everything that they should not be, and attempt to create an atmosphere of uncertainty through the satirical contradictions of their own works. Their differences, however, appear to be in method: Byron attempts to fulfill his target of formal perfection and moral uncertainty, whereas Sterne experimentally portrays and then subverts different approaches to storytelling throughout, leaving readers constantly uncertain about his sincerity.
Laurence Sterne’s style in Tristram Shandy pushes the ‘shaggy dog’ method of storytelling to its logical extreme, creating a narrative that interrupts itself constantly and explores tangents with little consideration to the linear plot. As Melvyn New observes, however, Sterne has created an irrational narrator through purposeful and intricately planned style: a ‘carefully crafted impression of carelessness and abandon.’ The illogical series of events and confused chronology is begun by his promise to start from the beginning, and ‘to go on tracing every thing in it, as Horace says, ab Ovo’, and this incorrect reference to classical literature (as Horace in fact praises Homer for beginning in the middle) demonstrates the relationship with an informed reader that Sterne wishes to have. The ideal reader should be able to see through commonly held beliefs about literature and any false claims to classical knowledge, as that hypocrisy is what he satirizes, but he also insults the reader who assumes that sharing an inside joke would lead to sharing all subtext or intent later in Chapter Four of Book I: ‘I know there are readers in the world, as well as many other good people in it, who are no readers at all, -who find themselves ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last, of every thing which concerns you.’ The shift from the impersonal third person ‘themselves’ and ‘they’ to ‘every thing which concerns you’ shows how changeable the targets of Sterne’s satire are.
Fawcett connects this shifting of target to all different types of reader to the visually experimental transformations of the page through punctuation and the changing contradictions throughout the story, and compares these short-lived changes to Johnston’s Dictionary of the English Language (written four years before Shandy): his experimentations ‘resist promises … that the printed word was somehow more stable or more legible than the spoken word … that printed books develop more stable selves than performance.’ By including illegitimate versions of his work into the heart of his story and by using asterisks, ambiguities and euphemisms as forms of blanks that the reader must fill in, Sterne invites his fans and critics to help create his work only to shift again and chastise them later for the choices they have made.
Although Byron, like Sterne, is using a wandering narrative to directly discuss his personal thoughts on the state of literature and literary discussion in Britain, his outlook on literature seems far more fixed. In actually starting the 16 and a half cantos, he seems to have been fuelled by Coleridge’s criticism of Bertram, and in his formalist approach to verse, the point of Don Juan, as Jerome J. McGann remarks, seems to be ‘to clarify the nature of poetry in an age where obscurity on the subject, both in theory and practice, was becoming rampant.’ In Don Juan he claims that ‘Good workmen never quarrel with their tools’ (1.201), which supports this conservative, formalist view of rhyme and meter as necessary ‘tools’ with undeniable material significance through his own adherence to their rules. Byron’s use of ottova rima was influenced by Beppo, and an attempt to anglicize the same form as Pulci, Berni and Casti. Italian lends itself far easier to the form (which demands six lines of alternating rhymes and a closing couplet), due to an abundance of easily-rhymed words ending in vowel sounds unlike English, but Byron’s incredibly long exercise within such challenging restrictions exists as proof that his specifications can be fulfilled, and that readers should demand that standard of inventiveness. It also serves the thematic point of juxtaposing a constrictive verse style against the free flow of poem’s narrative and the transgressive nature of its actual content. He comments on other literature through the premise itself, by subverting the Don Juan mythology and making him the pursued neophyte who is easily seduced rather than the seducer, but also makes direct reference to other writers. He calls Wordsworth unintelligible (Dedication IV), Coleridge misguided (II), Bob Southey insolent and untalented (III), and concludes that they are ‘shabby fellows’ (VI). The reader is being advised as to what their standards for poetry should be, and while he has a fixed answer that he claims to be exhibiting unlike the self-conscious satire of Sterne’s easily distracted storyteller, both writers are engaging with their contemporary literary circles through trying to construct the ideal reader by teaching them to question the received wisdom of authors.
Part of both writers’ self-conscious commentary on story-telling and the state of literature throughout their respective pieces is their consideration of the female reader. Barbara M. Benedict comments on the gendered nature of Sterne’s addresses to the reader: ‘The readers of the novel are segregated by gender: whereas the term “Sir” solicits a sympathetic reader, “Madam” evokes a bad one-and the division indicates the painful separation of interests that divides ‘modern’ audiences. This characterization works rhetorically to associate debased modern culture, both literary and by implication political, with female values and audiences.’ This dichotomy reflects and perpetuates a societal view of women readers, as he mocks the dedications of other authors when he uses the obsequious ‘My Dear Lord’ or ‘Sir’, and the man addressed grows from ‘a perfect stranger’ to ‘my dear friend and companion’ in a manner perhaps satirizing the confessional format of novels like Moll Flanders, but appears to mock the reader themselves when using ‘Madam’. When he addresses his female reader about the truth of his and Jenny’s relationship, for example, he provides her hypothetical responses as scandalized exclamations: ‘Friend!—My friend.—Surely, Madam, a friendship between the two sexes may subsist, and be supported without—Fy! Mr. Shandy:—Without any thing, Madam, but that tender and delicious sentiment which ever mixes in friendship, where there is a difference of sex. Let me intreat you to study the pure and sentimental parts of the best French Romances;—it will really, Madam, astonish you to see with what a variety of chaste expressions this delicious sentiment, which I have the honour to speak of, is dress’d out.’ The irony of recommending a French Romance to find ‘pure and sentimental’ chaste friendship between men and women casts doubt on the pure intentions of any reader familiar enough with the genre to understand the joke. The specifically female reader is recommended a genre that with the past popularity of novels like Richardson’s Pamela has gained a reputation for female readership, and mocked for the implication that she may already be familiar. Romances themselves are cast in a hypocritical light through Sterne’s sarcastic praise of their ‘pure and sentimental parts’: since the implication here is that they are purely written for titillation, any attempt by the author to present a romance as otherwise must be a knowing falsehood that the reader also coyly engages with.
Byron acknowledges the importance of a female readership in the fourth canto by addressing women directly: ‘Oh ye, who make the fortunes of all books, | Benign ceruleans of the second sex!’ (IV, 108–9) The reference to ‘benign ceruleans’ does not indicate a fear or reverence of their opinion as potential critics, however, as he emphasizes the harmlessness of those hypothetical female readers by referring to them as inanimate representations of abstract color. He also boasted of The Corsair that it was ‘shining in boudoirs’, demonstrating an awareness of the upper-class women who accounted for a significant amount of his success. There was more concern from critics around Don Juan specifically entering boudoirs, however, as the subject matter (especially within the context of Byron’s scandals and self-imposed exile) was inherently sexual and the narrator very sympathetic to his protagonist. As Haslett observes, his reputation increased the perceived danger: ‘The choice of Don Juan dictated that the categories of character (Don Juan), text (Don Juan), Don Juan-like author (‘Byron’), and libertine style (the voice of the poem’s Don Juan-like narrator) were not only blurred but mutually contaminating.’ Byron did not attempt to distance himself or his reputation from the poem, or to sincerely construct the ‘hero’ he calls for in the first stanza, but through reference to female writers suggests that they have created Don Juan through their desire-fueled imagination:’And as romantic heads are pretty painters,And above all an Englishwoman’s rovesInto the excursive, breaking the indenturesOf sober reason, wheresoe’er it moves,He found himself extremely in the fashion,Which serves our thinking people for a passion.’ (XI, 33)‘Sober reason’ is rejected when it comes to Byron’s portrait of morality, and the hypocrisy of society women who could disguise desire for military men as admiration for their accomplishments is exposed here through claiming that a very unaccomplished protagonist is the creation of women’s imagination. For women to ‘think’ is then synonymous with their having sexual ideas – a suggestion which Byron had previously made in The Waltz.
Sterne’s presence within the text in Tristram Shandy is also found in a specific character as well as through his writing voice as Tristram: a real sermon of his is presented as Yorick’s, and that character is made notable through the reader being given almost his whole linear biography from birth to death. In chapters ten to twelve of the first book, his life’s events are recounted, ending with the fact that he died as a direct consequence of a misunderstood prank; and that he “lies buried in a corner of his church-yard, in the parish of ——, under a plain marble slab, […] with no more than these three words of inscription serving both for his epitaph and elegy. Alas, Poor Yorick” (35). This recounting of his death is soon followed by the completely black page, cementing him in the readers’ memories: this association of popular character with author proved financially adroit for Sterne, as he later published sermons under Yorick’s name, but the literary associations of his name with Hamlet is another example of Sterne’s intertextuality, satirizing his own storytelling by connecting to previous works which possess more dignity. He casts himself as the jester, and through the contrast of the reference tells the informed reader not to take death as seriously in this text as in others.
Both Sterne and Byron convey their thoughts on the literary world’s failings through demonstrating a reader’s potential flaws. Although Sterne’s targets appear to be always shifting, and Byron sets out with a fixed ideal of formal perfection, if not moral, they appear to share and be motivated by a primary hatred of hypocrisy: poets who speak about poetry but cannot master technical approaches, readers who hide their reason for reading, and the ‘gravity’ of British society itself. By exposing these falsehoods, they both try to fulfill their goal of changing their literary environment by creating sharper, more cynical readers.
The Faces of Nature by Byron and Wordsworth
Nature was a parent to mankind in Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality, but a rival in Byron’s Darkness. Through Wordsworth’s word choice, structure, and metaphors, Ode paralleled the human lifespan with one day, which portrayed nature as a phase for the human soul. Nature would outlast humans in a world that could be a dream, while humans would transcend to heaven: their true home and reality.
Moreover, Wordsworth focused more on the journey, whereas Byron explored the final destination. The setting in Ode was in May and described a youth heading towards death, whereas Darkness had strong imagery such as the “icy earth” (Byron, line 4) associated with winter—the season often linked with death. Darkness merged human and natural destruction after death, but with heavy natural personification, instilled the major distinguishing factor of humans, the soul, into nature. This effect paralleled the immortality of the soul with nature’s longevity. Both poets advocated human superiority to nature; Wordsworth implied that nature reflected heaven—where humans belonged, and Byron praised human passions and endeavors which distinguished humans from nature.
To begin, a major similarity of Byron and Wordsworth was the portrayal of the human body and the natural surroundings as portals for the soul to act. Byron illustrated nature as shaped and driven by human activities; in every description of a natural setting, nature was teemed with human establishments such as palaces and boats. Nature and humans were inevitably interlocked and—towards the end—Darkness’s heavy natural personification depicted human influence ingrained into their surroundings. The destruction of one would lose a part of the other. Nature would lose one of its identities without humans and would exist without recognition. Despite that the dilemma of being forgotten was mostly relevant to humans, Byron posed the same consequences of death to nature; darkness was described to have enclosed Earth into a coffin as the word “pall” (Byron, line 29) suggested and both the clouds and winds ceased to exist.
On the other hand, Wordsworth paralleled nature with humans, but ultimately depicted the latter as a higher being—one that was originally part of heaven. Death was also drastically different in Ode and cleansed humans from their experiences. Furthermore, the scale of Nature’s existence compared to mans’ was established in the metaphor in stanza five, when the lifetime of a boy was compared to a single day: “The Youth, who daily farther from the east.” (Wordsworth, line 71). Expanding more on nature in relation to heaven, the first stanza established that nature was not a part of heaven, but a simulation. The natural surroundings were described to be “appareled” in the light from the heavens; perhaps this detail implied that nature reflected the image of the heavens, but was not one with the realm above.
Furthermore, Wordsworth could be issuing a play of words by the similarity of “appareled” to “paralleled” and how nature was touched by and mirrored the celestial world. The structure of the poem also placed humans and nature in parallel as humans journeyed towards their ultimate destination. Life on earth was therefore a dream if the true reality for humans resided in heaven.
Secondly, the structures of both poems revealed the intimacy between man and nature. The illusionary relationship was a similarity in Ode and Darkness. Byron’s poem began with “I” and ended with Darkness, addressed as “She. This set-up created a direct correspondence between man and nature; the setting of this poem occurred in the narrator’s mind, and aspects of nature—such as darkness—manifested its work directly in response to the narrator’s vision. This elevated the surreal, illusionary state of mans’ natural surroundings due to their fleeting appearance before the end of a human lifespan. While Ode spoke to nature personally, in capitalized names towards the end and the second-person address “ye” (Wordsworth, line 187), nature did not respond directly; the hills and meadows continued existing without changing their routine. This detail established that in this current phase, man and nature were peers—both containing aspects of heaven and coexisting briefly before humans progressed to the next stage: death and ultimately heaven. Nature’s personification was also drastically different in Ode and Darkness. In Ode, nature adopted a maternal form that overlooked the journey of humans back to heaven.
However, Darkness portrayed a ruthless competitor, which was spited by human endeavors towards eternity such as their palaces and religious establishments. Furthermore, death in relation to nature also manifested differently in both poems. While Darkness categorized the human body as a part of nature, all subject to an end, the narrator never mentioned the decay of the soul. This could be seen in the imagery of the stars in the beginning, which did not perish, rather wandered aimlessly. The surreal and temporary surroundings and materials, even the human body, were only portals for the soul to act. “[Men] Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh.” (line 45, Byron). The soul was absent in that description and was perhaps immune to natural decay. However, the soul was confined to a body that was no different from a beast’s, or any part of nature; this was Byron’s contradiction which bound mankind to nature. When deprived of basic necessities, humans were indistinguishable to animals. In times of starvation, Darkness predicted a horrifying image of men indistinguishably fighting to consume a corpse alongside “The birds and beasts” (Byron, line 49). Once again, this hindrance defined humankind as a part of nature instead of heaven, grounded by animalistic needs of the body.
In contrary, with human passions and ideologies derived from the soul, Darkness distinguished humans from animals by their capabilities to express and create. The establishment of palaces and religious ideologies that strived to prevail one lifetime was spited by nature, as seen in the indifference of the sky when human civilization burned in flames. The sky was described as “dull” as men gazed upon it with despair. “[the men] look’d up With mad disquietude on the dull sky.” (Wordsworth lines 27-28). The imagery of the flames also invoked association with Hell, as though humans would be punished for their efforts of eternity on Earth. In Darkness, human endeavors to persevere were indispensable, portraying a meaningless world without the beauty in art and human passions. Hence, due to the heavy personification of nature, Byron’s poem could imply that all physical forms of nature were portals for souls to manifest. In contrast, Ode expressed the frivolity and ephemeral value of societal goals or complications such as “love, business, and strife” (Wordsworth, line 98). The ultimate goal was to return to nature and innocence by forgetting experience—that which was only possible through death.
In stanza four, the narrator divided sensory feelings from knowledge. He experienced nature with diction such as “feel” and “hear”, but in stanza two, at the introduction of the word “know” (Wordsworth, line 17), his happiness vanished and the narrator’s focus shifted away from his surroundings, and perhaps away from innocence. Stanza four also alluded to the tree of knowledge that catalyzed the fall of man. The capitalization of “Tree” along with, “Doth the same tale repeat.” (Wordsworth, line 55), could allude to the tale of Adam and Eve.
In conclusion, Ode perceived human passions on Earth as corrupted and nature as pure, whereas Darkness depicted human passions as derived from the soul: differentiating humans from animals and physical natural objects. Hence, as seen from the degrees of incorporation of humans with nature in Ode and Darkness, Wordsworth treated nature as an aid to the human journey towards heaven, whereas Byron illustrated the competitive struggle of nature and man against the same inevitable end.
Manfred’s Struggle for Redemption
Manfred, in the dramatic poem of the same name, written by Lord Byron, is a character that possesses many flaws. As Manfred mourns the loss of his beloved sister, it is revealed that their incestuous relationship was deemed illegal by and disgusted their society. As a result of this as well as his sister’s passing, Manfred attempts to commit more social and legal crimes such as suicide, witchcraft and the conjuration of spirits. Although Manfred is depicted as a man void of righteousness and morality, he also portrays qualities that justify and negate some of his actions. These choices prove that he is not made of pure darkness and attempts to redeem himself. Despite having committed acts that alienated him from society, Manfred demonstrates the redemption of his true character through his guilt for his sister’s death, his determination to attain justice for her and his overall courage expressed through the arc of his redemption.
In inadvertent contribution to his atonement, Manfred demonstrates guilt and regret. Being part of this forbidden relationship, the story’s protagonist understands that he too had a role in his sister’s death. Unfortunately, he understands this far too well and is overcome with guilt throughout the entirety of the play. Feeling responsible, he attempts several times to expel these feelings to no avail. Manfred is left nearly hopeless and unable to live with the pain he has caused to both his love and himself. “But grief should be the instructor of the wise; Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most Must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth” (Act I, Scene I, 10-12) Here, Manfred explains that he becomes increasingly troubled the more he lingers on the issue. As he thinks and understands more, his guilt and sorrow are only amplified. Among these feelings are regret. An emotion that does not appeal to his negative actions but instead combats them. Although Manfred has already committed these crimes and social injustices, he demonstrates the newfound good in him though his disagreement with his previous actions. Being incapable of undoing what has already been done, he is determined to negate these actions and redeem himself.
As a result of his guilt, Manfred attempts tirelessly to attain justice for what he believes he caused or punish himself as a result. His determination is generated by a self-induced moral obligation he feels to satisfy his newly adopted sense of righteousness and humanity. The first instance of this is shown in the first scene of the play. When Manfred summons the seven spirits, he demonstrates just how desperate he is for closure. Even after failing at this, his perseverance is shown in his refusal to back down. Arguably his most effective attempt involves his suicide. As Manfred is on the verge of jumping to his death off a cliff, even then, he validates this as an act of redemption. “For the wind’s pastime – as thus – thus they should be – In this one plunge – Farewell ye opening heavens! Look not upon me this reproachfully-” (Act I, Scene I, 112-114) As Manfred is about to end his life, he expresses his idea to both end his suffering and serve justice for his wrongs, an act even some of the best people would refuse to engage in. The most important line here is the last. He begs the heavens to not look on him so reproachfully, meaning Manfred understands that he himself has changed. He uses the word “reproachfully” here as a way to exhibit the good in him, thus veiling the bad. Manfred tells the heavens to regard him as the man he so desperately tries to become and not who he had previously been.
In order to commit many of the acts necessary to prove his redemption, Manfred has expressed a great deal of courage and bravery. Two of the most prominent here are his attempted suicide and his death. Proving Manfred’s redemption involved tasks most would not even consider. His willingness to jump to his death for example, demonstrated just how dedicated he was and that no amount of fear could dissuade him from pursuing justice. This bravery can be seen on an even larger scale during the final scene. As Manfred defends his integrity against a literal demon, denies the Abbot’s urges to save his soul and ultimately his own death, Manfred’s bravery is truly shown as one of his outstanding qualities. “Old man! ‘Tis not so difficult to die.” (Act III, Scene III, 173) Accepting his demise was a bitter yet crucial step in his journey to show his redeeming bravery. In Manfred’s last sentence, he uses his final breath to embrace death instead of running from it, proving that his courage truly has no limits.
Although Manfred has been involved in acts society find atrocious, he ultimately proves that he his, as a whole, good. This can be shown, in a way, though Manfred’s sincere guilt for his sister’s death. Due to this grief, his sheer dedication is justified by his desperation to attain righteousness. Through this perseverance, the protagonist exposes his courage through even the most horrifying scenarios. In order to make both himself as well as society believe that he is in fact a good man, Manfred exhibits these redeeming qualities, some only dream of embodying.
Incompatible Imagery in Byron’s The Destruction of Semnacherib
In The Destruction of Semnacherib, Byron uses different types of imagery to illustrate contradictory feelings about victory in war. In this poem, the complete demolition of the Assyrian people is described in both a horrific and peaceful way, demonstrating how success in war is always tainted with the atrocities of death on the other side. By striking the visual, auditory, and tactile senses with images of both destruction and peace, Byron captures the conflicting feelings of devastation at the destruction of the defeated side and contrasts it with the joy of triumph over the enemy. The interweaving of peaceful and devastating imagery in this poem conveys the bittersweet feeling of rejoicing in victory while experiencing the horror of death on the other side.
Visual imagery in this poem shows the atrocity of death in war but also uses simile as a reminder that after the war there is a bright future to look forward to. The haunting image of death is conveyed through “the rider distorted and pale/ With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail” (17-18). The image of a mangled and lifeless body on the ground shocks the visual sense and leaves one with a traumatic image of death, even if it is the enemy’s body. The detail of the dew on the rider’s brow conveys a strange stillness that feels cruel. However, this image is contrasted with a peaceful image of the enemy “melt[ing] like snow in the glance of the Lord” (24). Melting snow is a gradual process and a tranquil image, a reminder that even though they are all dead, there is now peace. Snow melting is also an indicator that the winter is over and spring, a time of renewal and fruitfulness, is on the horizon. The parallel of spring to the end of war gives one hope that even after this devastation and mass death, a new and better time lies ahead. The clashing visual imagery of melting snow and a mangled dead body exemplifies feelings of peacefulness at the destruction of the enemy tainted with traumatic images of dead bodies. This contrast is confusing and evokes a strange mix of feelings about victory in war.
Auditory imagery in this poem adds to the mixed feelings, creating intense sounds of terror and contrasting it with peaceful silence to show happiness mingled with pain. As all the males of the Assyrian nation are killed, “the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,” and their screams pierce the auditory senses with horror (21). The immense loss of these women and their mournful cries is a tragic auditory image that serves as a reminder that even though they are the enemy, they, too, have families of their own who are left broken. This tragedy evokes feelings of extreme pity for the other side. Much like with visual imagery, there is auditory imagery representative of peace amidst the destruction as “the trumphet [is] unblown,” signifying that there is no call to battle (20). The effect of mentioning the unblown trumpet emphasizes the absence of war and in turn the presence of peace. The clashing imagery of the wailing widows with the peaceful silence in the battlefield mirrors the bittersweetness of victory in war.
The contradictory visual and auditory imagery create an uneasy feeling about victory in war, which is intensified with tactile imagery that demonstrates the chilling feeling of death but simultaneously portrays a swift passing. The body of a dead horse lying on the ground is “cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf” (16). The feeling of cold ocean spray water runs chills down one’s body and evokes the chilling feeling of death. This is the harsh part about the victory of war: the enemy is left cold and dead, tainting the success of the victor. Then, there is the gentle image of the Angel of Death “breath[ing] in the face of the foe,” which serves as a reminder that now there is peace (10). The serene touch of the Angel’s breath brings upon a calm feeling amidst the devastation of the people, allowing the victor to rejoice in the peace that the death of the enemy brings. A direct contrast to this tranquil breathing, are the breathless men whose “hearts but once heaved, forever [growing] still” (12). The breath of the Angel of Death takes away the breath of the Assyrian. This contrast perfectly reflects the problem with victory in war because the success is costly. The tactile imagery Byron uses proves a difficult conflict that is hard to reconcile. While one is grateful for the peace and success over the enemy, one is also surrounded by destruction. The interweaving of the imagery emphasizes this conflict.
The visual, auditory, and tactile imagery in this poem severely clash; this poem is a roller coaster of destruction and peacefulness. From one perspective, there are the visuals of mangled bodies, horrifying cries of mournful women, and the bitter feeling of a cold lifeless body. These images represent the grief of war as there must be death and devastation for one side to succeed. From the other perspective, this devastation is necessary to achieve peace and avoid more death. The imagery here is descriptive of tranquility, like the melting snow, the silence, and the Angel breathing. This juxtaposition demonstrates the complex issue with war as being sometimes necessary for peace while causing horrifying deaths on an immeasurable scale. Byron’s intertwining of the awfulness and the peacefulness through imagery presents an interesting problem: if victory over the enemy involves so much terror and destruction, is this then truly considered a victory?
“Darkness” by Lord Byron: Humanity’s Self-Annihilation
Written during The Year Without Summer of 1816, Lord Byron’s apocalyptic poem “Darkness” reveals a world of chaos and pervading death due to the unremitting darkness and cold from the blocked out sun, the result of the dust in the air from a volcanic eruption. In the poem, society has collapsed and the human population is fighting for life by burning wood and feeding on wildlife. Men die by the masses, and the last two individuals perish by looking each other in the eyes. The world is left barren and devoid of life, with only darkness left. With his poem, Byron depicts the penultimate scene of man’s existence after its selfish exploitation of nature. This paper will explore how in “Darkness”, Byron uses the speaker’s prophetic dream to depict the self-destructiveness of man’s selfishness and his frailty in comparison to nature.
The poem’s loose blank verse structure creates a steady, rhythmic pace to its progression, reflecting the permeating darkness. Iambic pentameter echoes the steadiness and monotony of religious sermons. Ironically, in the poem, “darkness” is personified and she herself has become the ruling, omnipotent force of “the universe” (82). Byron begins the poem by transporting the apocalypse from the safety of dreams into reality. In the first line, the speaker makes the assertion that his “dream was not all a dream” (1), indicating that the content of it is more significant than it is in the dream world. The next few lines fuses prophecy with reality, as images of natural elements associated with nighttime and dreams such as “stars” (2), “rayless[ness]” (4), “blind[ness]”, and “black[ness]” (5) become part of day and transform day into night. The lucidity of the speaker’s intuition and certainty sets an eerie, dream-like tone for the rest of the poem.
Man’s suffering is the core of this poem, and Byron spends much of it portraying the extent of the darkness and cold’s effects on society using fire as a motif. The people are constantly seeking fire. The “thrones, / the palaces of crowned kings” (10) are both metonyms for social order, and the burning of these structures reflects the social chaos caused by fear. The people are “living by watchfires” (10), and “[dwelling] within the eye / of the volcanos” (16) for heat. The desperation for fire is further exemplified by alliteration as forests are “burnt for beacons” (13) in “fearful hope” (18) for help. The emphasis on beacons suggests the hopelessness of man’s situation, for the same trees used as beacons are also needed for warmth and therefore survival, even if temporary. The actions of humans here are self-destructing, and Byron begins to imply that humans have brought their own fate upon themselves.
As the poem progresses, humans are depicted increasingly less as pitiable beings and more as selfish creatures that have destroyed nature and subsequently destroyed themselves. Alliteration once again emphasizes the self-consuming nature of man, as some “[feed] / their funeral piles with fuel” (27). With funeral piles serving as a symbol for death, Byron presents man as essentially fueling their own demise. Humans are then contrasted with animals of the natural world as they “gnash’d their teeth and howl’d” (32), while birds, “terrified,… flutter on the ground, / and flap their useless wings” (33). Even the “wildest brutes / [are] tame and tremulous” (34), and vipers “stingless” and slain by humans for food (37). The animalistic characteristics of “gnash” and “howl” ascribed to the humans present them as savage. In contrast, the real animals are depicted as helpless and innocent. Such reversal of the roles of nature is indicative of the selfishness of the men, and parallels the beginning of man’s exploitive relationship with nature in Byron’s time.
Byron’s extensive use of fire also portrays the disintegration of man’s humanity. In the desolation of darkness, men had “[forgotten] their passions” (7) for others. Fire signifies passion, a unique and key element of the human spirit. Having found no passion inside of them, men have turned to another source – nature – to burn and make up for their own lack of humanity. Man’s degradation is also reflected – literally – in the faces of the two remaining enemies who, in the light of the “mockery” (64) flame, “beheld / each other’s aspects… and died… of their mutual hideousness” (65). This startling portrayal of man’s death by his own corruption is accompanied by the depiction of man’s frailty in comparison to nature.
Unlike many other poems of the Romantic era, “Darkness” depicts the natural world as not a realm of solace or creative inspiration but as the antithesis of humanity that, despite all of man’s savageness and exploitation, can always destroy him. In scene with the self-destructive enemies, the descriptions of the men reveal their true place in comparison to the forces of nature. In contrast to the fierceness of the wolf-like men at the beginning of the poem, these two men have “cold skeleton hands” (61) and “feeble breath” (62), and while “shivering” (61), try to gather “feeble ashes” from remains of their civilization (62) to create a fire which is only a “mockery” of the fire of nature. The repetition of “feeble” and the extra foot in line 61 that draws attention to the pathetic state of the men sheds light on the consequences of man’s disharmony with nature: man’s own destruction.
Although in “Darkness”, nature is depicted as a victims of man’s selfishness, Byron suggests that the natural world is ultimately the force of destruction, and that man’s disregard for it will result in his own downfall due to his dependence on it. By the time humans are obliterated, the world is “seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless” (71). The use of asyndeton and the rapid progression from lack of life in nature to humanity is parallel to the power of the two; humanity is essentially nothing without nature’s cooperation. Nature, above all, is portrayed as eternal, unlike man, who is mortal. The “rivers, lakes, and ocean [are] still” (73), and the “tides in their [own] grave” (78). The personification of nature’s elements in lines 78-81, accompanied by the steady rhythm created by anaphora, illuminates in nature a sense of perpetuity despite its current stasis. Nature is once again put in opposition with humans; while man’s activity was largely associated with fire, the essence of nature is captured by water and other natural forms often seen as tranquil, such as the “sea” (75), “waves” (78), “moon” (79), “air” (80), and “clouds” (81), in addition to those previously mentioned. Man, on the other hand, is fiery and savage, doomed to self-destruction when challenging the serenity of nature.
Byron’s “prophecy” perhaps involves a third force, however, as nature itself has been silenced. This is Darkness herself, who has “no need / of aid from [nature]” (81), for “she [is] the universe” (83). Whether such powerful darkness is of the corrupt human mind or greater societal development or neither is the subject of another paper, as are the many Biblical references. The Industrial Revolution backdrop during which the poem was written brought about many new changes in the society that were threatening to man’s relationship with nature and the spirit and morals of man himself. Although “Darkness” is dramatic and somewhat fantastic in Byron’s depiction of the nature and the perishing men, it captures the increasingly self-centered and exploitative mentality of man during that era of furious economic development well, and how destructive the feeling of using others and nature to gain power likely is.
To Love, or Not to Love: Lord Byron’s ‘She walks in beauty’?
Lord Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’ was inspired by Mrs Wilmot, his cousin, Robert Wilmot’s wife. Byron’s glimpse of Mrs Wilmot, as well as the environment that surrounded them, contributed to the images of darkness in ‘She Walks in Beauty,’ from the mourning clothes she and others worn, correlating to themes of spiritual darkness which can be interpreted in the poem. Throughout, Lord Byron displays an unrealistic love, as he creates an idealistic image of her beauty that could be seen as incomparable. We can see that the speaker is physically attracted to the woman; however, we are not made aware of some of his deeper emotions, which are not directly described.
The speaker’s feelings are merely wistful than anything else as the main aspect described in this poem is the woman’s profound beauty; we know that her appearance is an important concept as her beauty is mentioned in the title. In the first stanza the woman is compared to the beauty of the night which can be seen as unconventional as beauty is usually compared to a summer’s day, the light of the sun, however Byron uses the dark of the night to emphasise the comparison ‘starry skies’ that she is as bright as the stars in the blackness of the night. We can also see that the speaker has treasured every detail of her exquisiteness as he even distinguishes the emotion behind her eyes as the ‘best of dark and bright’.
Byron’s use of juxtaposition with adjectives and similes can be seen as a perfect balance towards the woman’s beauty, and any alterations could ruin her perfection ‘dark and bright’ and ‘one shade the more, one ray the less’ are both in contrast from a shade to ray as well as more and less, yet again showing how balanced her beauty is. The speaker also portrays a sense of wonder, although it is not directly expressed in the poem we can interpret his comparisons with the woman and the natural world as him idolising her physical attributes; his perceptions of her can be seen as transcendental. His constant contradiction of adjectives can also be viewed as confusion is the speaker’s mind as he is trying to describe her overpowering attractiveness (in which he demonstrated to be beyond words).
In the third stanza, Byron uses her exterior beauty to highlight her interior beauty ‘The smiles that win, the tints that glow’ her smile and blushing can be seen as her inner innocence and goodness as well as showing that the woman is facially expressive of her emotions ‘eloquent’ which can also been seen as innocent. This can be seen as innocent as young children express their emotions through their facial features. Byron also links her smile with representing her inner goodness as it ‘tells of days in goodness spent’ reflecting that the woman has spent time doing good deeds.
The structure of the poem is iambic tetrameter, which allows the poem to flow smoothly; the consistent rhythm of the poem could also link to the consistent faultless perfection of the woman that is described throughout. Byron’s use of enjambment could portray the speaker’s impatience, as if the speaker doesn’t want to stop expressing his bewilderment to her beauty. Byron also uses alliteration and assonance, in the first stanza ‘cloudless climes’ and ‘starry skies’ as well as ending each line of this stanza with words with an ‘I’ sounding vowel; this allows the poem to sound smoother and flow into each other. The ‘I’ vowel can also be considered as a high sounding vowel, high sounding vowels can also be associated with light, elegant or sophisticated things, this gives the poem a pleasant tone.
A feminist could criticize this poem for its objectification towards the woman, as in each stanza he comments and focuses on different aspects of the woman’s physical attributes. However although the woman doesn’t speak in the poem, therefore her views can’t be expressed, Byron acknowledges that she has thoughts ‘where thoughts serenely sweet express’ showing that she is not an object and he cannot access her inner mind. A feminist might also be interested in the allusion of sexual purity presented in this poem as her ‘innocence’ can be linked to virginity; this could be seen as being subjective as women in the 1800’s were encouraged to keep their virginity until marriage to stay pure; however men were more inclined to spread their ‘wild oats’ (reference to Philip Larkin’s Wild Oats).
Overall, although the speaker is praising the woman physically, Byron’s poem doesn’t portray any feelings of love towards her. It is possible, therefore, that ‘love’ is not in fact presented in this poem. His feelings for the woman are more longings on the level of desire than romantic attachments.
Nature, Spirituality and Individuality in Don Juan
The Romantic Era was a period in which poets and intellectuals challenged the emphasis on reason and science espoused by the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Lord Byron, or George Gordon Byron, was a leading romantic poet who lived during the nineteenth century and was best known for his epic poem Don Juan. Byron’s poem follows the life of a young man, Don Juan, as he is exiled from his home and journeys across the Mediterranean. Don Juan is a satire whose purpose is to critique nineteenth-century societal norms and conventions. At one point during Juan’s journey, his ship sinks in the middle of the Mediterranean. Stranded in the middle of the ocean with no hope of rescue and with ravenous hunger ensuing a number of the men aboard Juan’s ship resort to cannibalism. Those that partake in consuming the man chosen, Pedrillo the priest, eventually go mad and die. Juan is the only survivor of the shipwreck and the only man who does not succumb to cannibalism. This cannibalistic episode challenges pre-romantic concepts of nature, spirituality and individuality. When life and death hang in the balance reason, religion, science and god no longer matter. This cannibalistic episode is but one of many instances in which Byron seeks to challenge societal norms throughout the epic. These episodes, coupled with an extensive characterization of Juan, powerfully satirize and censure society’s control of the individual.
Revolutionary thinkers like Byron abstracted and complicated nature beyond the confines of science and reason. Nature is not described in scientific terms, instead, Byron describes nature in a metaphorical and symbolic way. Byron writes describing the ocean, “And the sea yawned around her like a hell, And down she sucked with her the whirling wave / Like one who grapples with his enemy / and strive to strangle him before he dies”(Wordsworth, 231). Here, the ocean is described like a man fighting to defeat an enemy, in this way, nature is presented as a force to be reckoned with and not just as a scientific reality. Byron therefore introduces nature as the dominating force of the episode alluding to the fact that it will cause a lot of the action that ensues. Nature produced both the storm that caused the ship to sink, and the hunger that caused the men to kill and eat another human being. As Byron writes, “’Twas Nature [that] gnawed them to this resolution / By which none were permitted to be neuter / And the lot fell on Juan’s luckless tutor”(Wordsworth, 232). Byron states that it was nature that aggravated the sailors to a point that allowed them to consider cannibalism. While polite society and religion would deem cannibalism unthinkable and unforgivable, nature dominates with its unrelenting hunger. Byron is clearly constructing a vision of nature that goes beyond theory, equations and reason. The nature at work here is mysterious, elusive and omniscient; it cannot be reduced to a single interpretation and it cannot be tamed by society. Nature dictates that the sailors do everything and anything in their power to survive, which meant killing and eating another human being. Byron is constructing a world in which nature, and not god or humanity, rules. It is a world in which nature should take the place of religion.
Byron sought a retreat not only from a rational interpretation of nature, but also from an adherence to organized religion and its institutions. Before Pedrillo is killed and eaten, Byron writes, “He [Pedrillo] died as born, a Catholic in faith, / Like most in the belief in which they’re bred, / And first a little crucifix he kissed, / And then held out his jugular and wrist” (Wordsworth, 232). Byron emphasizes Pedrillo’s religiosity; he is born Catholic and clings to his religion up until his last breath. It is no coincidence that Byron chooses to murder the only religious figure on board. Pedrillo’s position as a priest should have barred the men from choosing him as their victim, but it does not because they no longer care about religion and its precepts. In this moment these men are overcome by nature and are slaves to its will. While society upholds a clear distinction between that which is sacred and that which is animal, in the struggle for survival this distinction holds no weight. The blurring of these boundaries challenges organized religion and its control of culture and society. Byron asserts that human beings must shape nature in order to survive because nature, not god, controls the universe.
Similar to the shift in focus from god to nature, Byron’s Don Juan also introduces a shift in focus from the soul to the self. While it is riveting to read the tale of a sea voyage gone awry, the true task of the piece is to focus attention on the inner dialogue of the characters. Byron ends this section of Don Juan by saying, “If foes be food in Hell, at sea / ‘Tis surely fair to dine upon our friends, / When shipwreck’s short allowance grows too scanty, / Without being much more horrible than Dante” (Wordsworth, 234). In referencing Dante’s Inferno, which details an allegorical journey through hell and deals with the afterlife and the existence of god, Byron challenges the relevance and existence of god on earth. He is making a pointed statement that god and religion could not prevent the cannibalism that took place here and that the actions taking place are consequences of individuals and their needs. The poem deals with Juan’s particular reactions to the cannibalism and his actions in response to it. While the ship is in the midst of sinking Juan attempts to save all those dear to him. He helps Pedrillo onto the lifeboat, saves his dog and unsuccessfully attempts to save his servant Pedro, even before worrying about saving himself. Prior to Pedrillo’s gruesome end Byron writes, “Twas not to be expected that he should, / Even in extremity of the their disaster, / Dine with them on his pastor and his master”(Wordsworth, 233). Juan was not successful in saving Pedrillo, but the least he could do was abstain from eating his own priest. Juan is the only character who has enough of a moral compass to not only prevent him from eating another human being, but to cause him to try and save others. Juan adheres to polite society’s conception of what is morally acceptable, and yet he is considered a social outcast. At a young age Juan is cast away from home because of the illicit sexual relationship he has with a married woman. Polite society rejected Juan for his infractions, and yet, when it matters most he is courageous, generous, loyal and moral. Byron therefore exposes the hypocrisy of society’s control of the individual. Byron humorously and ironically critiques society. In the middle of the second canto which tells the story of the shipwreck, Byron writes, “’Tis said that persons living on annuities / Are longer-lived than others- God knows why, / Unless to plague the grantors – yet so true it is / That some, I really think, do never die! /”(Wordsworth, 229). In the middle of the poem describing a dramatic shipwreck Byron inserts a seemingly unrelated anecdote about moneylenders and borrowers. With the inclusion of ‘God knows why’ Byron is mocking the prevalence of god in day-to-day matters, he is commenting that all too often god is inappropriately brought into the mix. These insertions of Byron’s knowledge and opinions from his own life reflect the nature of the entire epic. He is quick, witty and sharp in his admonishment of many of the functions of society. Similarly, instead of punishing Juan for his promiscuous nature, Byron celebrates his sexual pursuits. Not all human beings are created the same, which makes adhering to a specific set of guidelines for behavior extremely difficult. Juan is an example of a person who cannot adhere to a set of guidelines dictating how to behave. In response to sexual advancements Juan will often fall prey to temptation, but when it comes to issues of life and death he will make the moral decision. Yet society only judges Juan for the decisions he makes in the realm of sexuality. Byron implores his reader to assess people and situations in a vacuum, isolated from social conventions and rules. Society unjustly controls people’s behavior, topics of discussion and even writing, and Byron exposes these hypocrisies and shortcomings in a humorous and exaggerated way. Byron’s epic seeks to not only redefine the definitions of concepts such as individuality, spirituality and nature, but also to criticize society’s rigid control of the individual.
The section of the epic poem labeled “Shipwreck” exhibits the lengths man will go to in the struggle for survival. The shipwreck and the events surrounding it provide Byron with a way of critiquing his society’s preoccupation with god, religion and science. The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment would seek to explain the sinking of the ship in terms of logic, researching the climactic and atmospheric conditions that lead to this occurrence. After studying the scientific reasoning for the occurrence most would look to a religious explanation for why this happened, explaining that sin and retribution were involved. Then finally, the act of cannibalism would be attributed to the fact that these men were no doubt sinners. Byron seeks to change the perspective regarding events like the shipwreck.
In place of a reliance on god, science and religion, Byron advocates for a focus on nature and the individual. Nature, not god, shapes and determines the actions of the individual. Rather than adhering to society and its preconceived notions of morality, Byron advocates that individuals seek out morality based on nature and experience. Furthermore, he exposes the futility of seeing people and their actions solely through the prism of what society deems appropriate. Byron gives his reader a character that subverts, albeit in a humorous and exaggerated way, concepts of a moral and honorable man and functions instead based on his personal brand of morality, courage, loyalty and honor. All too often, even today, people function based on what others dictate, Byron instead implores his counterparts to pave a new way for themselves not just in their writing, behavior and speech, but also in their entire way of life.
Wordsworth, Jonathon and Jessica, editors. The Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry. London: Penguin, 2005. Print.
Byron, Lord. “Shipwreck.” The Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry, edited by Jonathon and Jessica Wordsworth, Penguin, 2005, 228-234.
Loneliness Without Solitude
Lord Byron’s poem Solitude, is at its core a piece about true solitude; showing that it is not something achieved in nature but within the chaos of society. But it goes beyond this, becoming a criticism of those who find comfort within in society. Throughout the poem, the narrator contradicts common belief, stating his own opinions as fact, and holding himself higher than his fellow man. Solitude is a poem with many sides; it shows that there is glory in nature, but that true solitude is found within society. It also shows that those who live and think mundanely are inferior to the alleged freethinkers. However, the poem does not begin on such a note; rather it starts out with a series of vivid descriptions about nature. This imagery acts as a base for points to be made later in the poem.
The first lines of Solitude read “To sit on rocks, to muse o’er flood and fell / To slowly trace the forest’s shady scene,” (Byron 1-2) These lines provide a starting point for the poem, as the narrator describes the actions one might take within the seclusion of a natural scene. He uses words with artistic connotations, such as muse and trace, to show the thoughtful perspective expected to accompany someone who views nature in its unperturbed state. He goes on to add, in the third line, “where things that own not man’s dominion dwell,” (Byron) This stresses the fact that there is some type of isolation in nature; just not the kind which would qualify as solitude.
This an idea that is reiterated with the next four lines of the stanza. The first two read “And mortal foot hath ne’er or rarely been; / To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,” (Byron 4-5) The narrator again addresses the lack of human interface within a particular scene. It is a place out of the grasp of society, where other people can not view or disrupt; however, this does not mean it is a place of solitude. This can be seen as the narrator goes on to write “With the wild flock that never needs a fold; / Alone o’er steeps and foaming falls to lean; / This is not solitude…” (Byron 6-8) Which shows that seclusion from society is not solitude, even in the most secluded of places.
This is supported by the use of alone in line seven; a word that is by definition quite similar to solitude. However, it is used in contrast with the word solitude, giving it a different meaning and connotation. Using alone in this way also shows a disregard for the general consensus of society; regardless of official definitions, the narrator uses words in accordance with what he believes them to mean. This is the first of several instances in the poems where the narrator holds his beliefs or ideas above those of others. This also further accentuates the fact that the absence of other people is not akin to solitude.
With lines eight and nine, the narrator reiterates the point he had made with the first several lines.“This is not solitude, ’tis but to hold / Converse with Nature’s charms, and view her stores unrolled.” (Byron) Another notable feature present in these lines is the use of enjambment, which gives them a special emphasis, as the rest of the stanza is punctuated. It is also emphasized by the use of a direct claim, in contrast to the flowery descriptions that had comprised the poem up until the final two lines. These two factors combined draw the reader’s attention to this part of the poem, and give it more of an impact; true solitude cannot be found in the isolation of nature, as even though one is away from society, all they are doing is witnessing something beautiful without the presence of others. It also raises the question of where true solitude can be found if it is not present when an individual is alone, far away from society. The fact that the first stanza ends by raising this question in the reader’s mind suggests that an answer can be found in the second stanza. A change in stanzas often means there will be a shift in the ideas presented in the poem.
There are several notable changes in the first two lines of the next stanza, “But midst the crowd, the hurry, the shock of men, / To hear, to see, to feel and to possess,” (Byron 10-11) There is a distinct syntactical change; while the first stanza was composed primarily of intricate, unbroken lines, the following lines contain several commas each, giving them a stark choppiness that contrasts the first stanza. They are also less complex in regards to language, with short, easily understood words in place of more vivid ones.
There is also repetition of sensation words; line eleven is devoted entirely to the use of these words, where they are listed without further context. This is in essence, a barrage of sensations, showing that the city is alive with chaos but little else. The elegance present in the lines describing nature is clearly lacking in those describing life within society. This shows the narrator’s differing beliefs about those two places; he believes the natural world is a place of beauty and complexity, while society is simple and chaotic.
The change in syntax remains present in the next several lines “And roam alone, the world’s tired denizen, / With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;” (Byron 12-13) There is an element from earlier in the poem here; the narrator’s belief in his superiority over others, seen in the use of the term “world’s tired denizen…” (Byron 12) The narrator isolates him from the rest of the world around him; he is alone and weary traveler in the world, despite the fact that he exists within the same society as everyone else. He further isolates himself with the use of the word alone, with the same unusual context as earlier in the poem; a loneliness reiterated with the inability to communicate or be communicated that is presented in line thirteen.
The next line, “Minions of splendor shrinking from distress!” (Byron 14) provides further, support for this idea. Minions, in this context, can only refer to people who are not the narrator or do not think like him, as it follows the lines describing how the narrator exists isolated in society. The use of splendor suggests that these individuals are essentially slaves to the excitement and social nature of society. The narrator uses them together, along with the rest of the line, to suggest that the idea of loneliness without society would result in terror in most of these people.
There is also an exclamation point used at the end of line fourteen, which is used only one other time in the poem. It emphasizes the claim, showing how the narrator believes that a lack of contact with others would not just cause fear in most members of society, buy an extreme level of panic. It also adds a level of mockery to the narrator’s claim, as exclamation points are used to express feelings of excitement, and often in instances where humor is involved.
The next line reads “None that, with kindred consciousness endued,” (Byron 15) continuing on a similar train of thought as the rest of the stanza. The “kindred consciousness…” (Byron 15) or in other words, the state of thought in which the narrator is accustomed to existing would make him immune to such panic; something which would plague the other members of society as suggested by the narrator. The poem continues with the lines “If we were not, would seem to smile the less / of all the flattered, followed, sought and sued;” (Byron 16-17) Another claim by the narrator, which suggests that if he lacked that consciousness he was familiar with, he would be far more miserable than the rest of those within society.
Lines sixteen and seventeen provide another use of enjambment, again emphasizing the claim of the narrator, this time in reference to the necessity of his own believed thoughtfulness. Line seventeen also uses a similar pattern of repetition to that seen in line eleven; however rather than sensations, it used to stress the mediocre nature of other people within society. They are defined by being “flattered, followed, sought and sued,” (Byron) or nothing more than objects in the eyes of other people.
The poem ends in a similar manner to the first stanza, this time declaring “This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!” (Byron 18) which acts as a summary for the purpose of the poem. There is also an exclamation point, stressing both the correctness of the narrator and the truthfulness of his claim. Oddly, the word alone is used again, but rather as something synonymous with solitude then something opposing it. This makes the meaning of language itself in this poem seems dependent upon the feelings of the author.
Solitude is a poem where the conventional is defied; alone is not alone, and solitude is anywhere but where solitude is found. It is a poem about being isolated within society, interwoven with feelings of superiority, as well as a deep appreciation of nature. And throughout the poem, a myriad of tools and techniques were used to show this.