Monday, July 11, 2011

Byron, Byronism, Romanticism

Handsome, witty, brilliant, proud and, unfortunately, entitled (literally) to the privileges of a noble Lord, Byron was tumbled out into the world in 1788 without a father or any other close male relatives to teach him how to become a man; much less a nobleman. He had to figure it out and, often, fight it out, for himself. The personality he invented for himself (in the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, 1812) was one that is now hard to admire, but it fascinated Europe for almost 100 years. No other English poet was more widely read or admired in Europe than Byron. No other  English poet or writer created his own personal ideology—Byronism—or for that matter would have wanted to. For it was not very nice being Byron or Byronic: he was a man beset by demons of his own creating. While he had immense charisma he did not always use it wisely or well. Sexually precocious and predatory, he despised women, especially those who were so unfortunate as to fall in love with him; these he treated badly. Though he fathered a few children, he essentially abandoned them. Lady Caroline Lamb nailed him with the phrase, "mad, bad and dangerous to know." Charlotte Brontë got the point and put him into her novel, Wuthering Heights, as Heathcliffe.

 No one but nuts like me reads Childe Harold today or any of the others—like The Giaour (1813), The Corsair (1814) or Lara (1814)that made him famous; they're mostly unreadable now with the notable exception of Don Juan (1819-24) which made him infamous when it first appeared. 

I've been reading Byron's poetry out of curiosity, for it was in his poetry that Byron created his own myth, which we now refer to as Byronism: the story of a passionate man of artistic genius who though he is of high social rank—and lets everyone know it—nevertheless prides himself on belonging nowhere; a terrific snob like Coriolanus who thinks he can stand as if he were the creator of himself, apart from and superior to the reactionary and corrupt societies of the world. The story of Coriolanus ends tragically and it seems to me that Byron's story is tragic as well. It is a story of talents wasted and energies misused; unlike Coriolanus who knows at the end that he is only a fallible human being, I don't think Byron ever understands that his pursuit of fame, glory and sex had led him into a life of futility and loss. Though Byron understood the uses of irony, he never turns that tool of self analysis upon himself; irony, for Byron, was never anything but a weapon to be used on those he thought of as his enemies.

As W. H. Auden pointed out almost fifty years ago, Don Juan is Byron's one great achievement—a poem in which Byron re-invents himself—not as another romantic personality but as an ironic observer, speaking in an absolutely new anti-poetic style; Don Juan is a modern, comic, anti-romantic poem and the only poem of Byron's that can still be read with pleasure.

Here is how it begins:

I want a hero: an uncommon want,
  When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
  The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
  I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan,
We all have seen him in the pantomime
Sent to the devil, somewhat ere his time.

The choice of a hero for this poem is, perhaps, not as arbitrary as the poet subtly implies; Byron was himself a sort of Don Juan and a pretty destructive one at that. Does that mean that he is—as usual—putting himself in his poem? If he is, it is as an extraordinarily innocent and harmless person: this Don Juan is a handsome as well as innocent young man who never learns anything; things happen to him but he almost never makes things happen. He is, thus, a glamorous vehicle for Byron's mockery of cant and hypocrisy in others. He is not, however, a mirror in which Byron can examine his own imperfections. That would have been too much to expect; poetic ironies are never, or hardly ever, directed inward, toward the poet. There are a few of Shakespeare's sonnets that seem to be exceptions to this rule, and possibly a few of Donne's but for the most part the kind of irony I am talking about is a modern, 20th century trope. For example? Well, how about Eliot? The voices we encounter in Preludes, Prufrock, Portrait Of A Lady, Sweeney Among The Nightingales strike me (though I couldn't prove it) as ironic stand-ins for the man Hugh Kenner calls the invisible poet.

Though Byron never saw himself ironically, others did: the theatrical persona he had invented and taken on as his very own, as well as the the ideology that went with it—Byronism—had obviously become a joke by the time Shaw wrote Arms And The Man (1894) in which an upper-class dolt who imagines himself to be a great soldier—and likes to strike Byronic attitudes— is compared to a real professional soldier who knows his business—and is in fact a middle-class business-man—and never pretends to be anything but what he is, a modern man.

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