LORD BYRON - ΛΌΡΔΟΣ ΒΎΡΩΝ

web analytics
LORD BYRON - ΛOΡΔΟΣ ΒYΡΩΝ

HellenicGods.org

HOME               GLOSSARY               RESOURCE                ART              LOGOS               CONTACT

(UNDER CONSTRUCTION)

Lord Byron - (Gr. Λόρδος Βύρων, ΛOΡΔΟΣ ΒYΡΩΝ) [22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824] Lord Byron is the great Romantic poet, the exemplar of all the Philhellenes, who, by his love and dedication to their country, won the hearts of the people of Greece, who accept him as one of their own, and who is perceived by them to be a true and mighty HERO (Írohs; Gr. Ἥρως) of Ællás (Hellas = Greece; Gr. Ἑλλάς).



BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH: LORD BYRON 

by Paul Elmer More, 1905.

 

The main events of our poet's life are so well known that they may be rehearsed here with the utmost brevity. George Gordon was born in London, January 22, 1788. His mother's family, the Gordons, whose name he took owing to the will of a maternal ancestor, was Scottish but of French extraction. His father, Captain Byron, belonged to an ancient noble family which came to England with William the Conqueror. The poet's pride of ancestry was always one of the strongest traits of his character, mingled as it was, as in his hero Marino Faliero, with sincere republican feelings. The boy was born with a club foot, and this slight deformity had much to do with the waywardness of his disposition. Captain Byron soon dissipated most of his wife's fortune and then left her in liberty. In 1790 she removed to Aberdeen with her child, and the poet's early recollections were thus colored by his life in the Scottish Highlands. His first schooling was at Aberdeen, and later he was sent to Harrow. Meanwhile, the death of the old Lord Byron

at Newstead Abbey gave him the title, at the age of ten, in default of nearer heirs. This fifth Lord Byron, whom the poet succeeded, left him, besides the title, a disagreeable family feud. He had, under suspicious circumstances, killed his neighbor and kinsman, Mr. Chaworth, in a duel. The poet afterwards was to fall in love with Chaworth's grand-niece, the Mary whose name occurs so often throughout the poems. The brother of the fifth baron was the poet's grandfather, the celebrated Admiral John Byron, a bold but unfortunate seaman whose narrative of a shipwreck formed the groundwork of the great description in the second canto of Don Juan.


From Harrow Byron went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he led a reckless and defiant life. Like many a better man and worse poet, he left without taking a degree.  His drinking cup, made of a human skull, and his savage pets were notorious. His days were now passed chiefly at Newstead and in London. On coming of age he presented

himself at the House of Lords, and even thought of taking up a political career. The report of his speeches later on and his cleverness as a pamphleteer suggest that, had he persisted, he might have made his mark in this field. But the spirit of adventure seized him. June 11, 1809, he left London with his friend Hobhouse and for two years traveled, passing through Portugal and Spain, where he was much impressed by the results of the Peninsular War, and wandering extensively in Greece and the Levant. He returned to England in July of 1811, with his head full of romantic notions. The first two cantos of Childe Harold and the Oriental Tales were the product of his travels, and

immediately raised him into astonishing popularity. His life in London was now a union of social dissipation and feverish work. January 2, 1815, came his unfortunate marriage with Miss Milbaiike, who, after the lapse of a year, separated from him, taking with her their infant daughter, Augusta Ada. Into the causes and mysteries of the divorce we may

not enter. Byron was wild and his wife was a prude; it would seem that nothing more should need be said.


The public violently, and to a certain extent rightly, sided with Lady Byron, and the poet found it necessary to quit England. He sailed April 25, 1816, never to see his native land again. His greatest comfort seems to have been the loyal affection of his half-sister, Lady Augusta Leigh. Byron journeyed to Switzerland by way of the Rhine, and there,

on the banks of Lake Geneva, joined Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, with whom he was associated at intervals for a number of years. With the Shelleys was Jane Clairmont, a relative of Mary's, who became the mother of Byron's natural daughter Allegra. In the autumn of 1816 Byron made a tour through the Alps and then went down to Venice. Here his life for a while assumed a character of mad dissipation which is only too faithfully reflected in his letters. His salvation, if satiety and innate repugnance were not sufficient, came from an alliance formed after the Italian fashion of the day with the Countess Guiccioli, who remained a faithful companion to him during all the rest of his stay in Italy. Very soon, however, Byron began to interest himself in the revolutionary movements then stirring in Greece. At last he resolved to stake his fortune (the large income from his pen) and his life on that cause. On the 14th of July,

1823, he sailed for Greece, and at Missolonghi put himself at the head of the republican forces. Death seemed to envy the noblest of his acts. April 19, 1824, he died, honored and lamented by those about him. His body was carried to England and buried near Newstead, in the church of Hucknall-Torkard.


Much that might throw light on Byron's works is here omitted, and, despite all that has been written on the subject, there is still room and need for a sympathetic study of his character. For one thing the basis of his character was undoubtedly a proud sincerity, yet his acts and words wore often the appearance of sham. To discriminate between that

sincerity and that sham, and to show how they were related, would be as rich an exercise of psychology as a man might desire. But for an introduction to Byron's works there would seem to be still greater need of some discussion of the poems themselves and of the qualities which have made them, for almost a century, the object of opprobrium and of

equally extravagant laudation. Manifestly the elements of his genius are diverse, to a certain extent even contradictory; and to this fact are due in part the extraordinary unevenness of his own work and the curious divergence of opinion regarding him. 


In a word, the two master traits of Byron's genius are the revolutionary spirit and classical art. He was both of his age and apart from it, and if, in the following pages, an attempt is made to throw the composite nature of his genius into relief by contrasting him with the men who were more purely the product of the times, with Shelley in particular, this is not done through a feeling of narrow rivalry, but because in no other way may we so easily prepare ourselves for a right understanding, and hence a right enjoyment, of his work. On one side of his character he was drawn toward the romantic spirit of the day, but on the other side his sympathies, conscious and unconscious, threw him back upon the

more classical models of the past. By classical is meant a certain predominance of the intellect over the emotions, and a reliance on broad effects rather than on subtle impressions ; these two characteristics working harmoniously together and being subservient to human interest. And here straightway we may seem to run counter to a well-established

criticism of Byron. It will be remembered that Matthew Arnold has quoted and judiciously enlarged upon Goethe's saying, ' The moment he reflects, he is a child.' The dictum is perfectly true, but more often he is a child because he fails to reflect at all.  Predominance of intellect does not necessarily imply true wisdom; for in reality an impulsive, restless activity of mind seems often to militate against calm reflection. It implies in Byron rather keenness of wit, pungency of criticism whether sound or false, precision and unity of conception. So, in the English Bards, the ruinous criticism of Wordsworth, ' that mild apostate from poetic rule,'  is the expression of an irresistible mental impulse,

but it is hardly reflection. When the poet came to reflect on his satire, he wisely added the comment, ' unjust.'  When in Childe Harold he describes Gibbon as sapping a solemn creed with solemn sneer,' he displays astonishing intellectual force in summing up the effect of a huge work in one sharp memorable phrase, such as can scarcely be paralleled from the poetry of his age. And in this case he is by chance right; reflection could not modify or improve the judgment. 


In its larger effect this predominance of intellect causes simplicity and tangibility of design. Thus, on reading Manfred, we feel that a single and very definite idea has been grasped and held throughout; and we in turn receive a single and definite impression which we readily carry away and reproduce in memory. But turn to Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and mark the difference. However much the ordinary reader may admire this drama, it is doubtful whether he could give any satisfactory account of its central idea, for the reason that this idea has been diverted and refracted through the medium of a wayward imagination and is after all an illusion of the senses. Love, all-embracing victorious love, is in a sense the motive of the poem; yet the most superficial analysis will show this to be an emotion or vague state of feeling, rather than a distinct conception of the intellect. The inconsistencies bewilder the reader, although, on a rapid perusal, they may escape his critical detection. Love is the theme, yet the speeches are full of the gall of hatred: in words Prometheus may forgive his enemy, but the animus of the poem is unrelenting bitterness.


Yet the predominance of intellect, which forms so important a factor in classical art, is far from excluding all emotion. On the contrary, the simple elemental passions naturally provoke intense activity of mind. They almost inevitably, moreover, lead to an art that  depends on broad effects instead of subtle and vague impressions. The passion of Byron

is good evidence of this tendency. He himself somewhere remarks that his genius was eloquent rather than poetical, and in a sense this observation is true. His language has a marvelous sweep and force that carry the reader on through a sustained emotion, but in detail it is prosaic in comparison with the iridescent style of Shelley or of Keats.  Marino Faliero, one of Byron's less important works, may be cited as a fair example of his eloquence and concentrated passion. The theme of the drama is perfectly simple, the conflict in Marino's breast between aristocratic pride and the love of liberty (pre-dominant characteristics, be it observed, of the poet himself); and about this conflict the whole action of the play revolves, without any minor issues to dissipate the effect. The mind is held gripped to one emotion and one thought; we seem to hear the mighty pleading of a Demosthenes. There is no poem of Shelley's (with the possible exception of The Cenci, where he resorts to monstrous and illegitimate means) which begins to leave on the mind so distinct and powerful an impression as this, yet the whole drama contains perhaps not a single line of the illusive charm to be found in passages on every page of Shelley's works. We know from Byron's letters and prefaces that he made a conscious effort to be, as he himself calls it, classical in this respect. Had his genius possessed also the subtle grace of the more romantic writers, he would have been classical in a still higher and broader sense; for the greatest poets, the true classics, Homer as well as Shakespeare, have embraced both gifts. As it is, we are left to contrast the vigorous, though incomplete, art of Byron with the wayward and often effeminate style of his rivals. And in this we are justified by the known hostility of Byron to the tendencies of his age and by the utterances of the romantic writers, from whom a volume of quotations might be culled showing that they deliberately look on poetry as a vehicle for the emotions and imaginations of the heart alone. 


It was in no mood of mere carping at the present that Byron condemned the romantic spirit, and waged continuous, if often indiscreet, warfare for Milton and Dryden and Pope. His indifference to Shakespeare (if we may believe his critical statements; in reality no writer was ever more steeped in Shakespearian language) proves the sincerity of his opinion, however it may expose the narrowness of his judgment. He perceived clearly a real kinship, on one side of his genius, with the writers of Queen Anne, and was unflagging in his efforts to follow them as models. He was saved from their aridity by the revolutionary spirit, which was equally strong within him, and which he acknowledged by partially condemning himself with his contemporaries. 


Were the subject not too technical, the radical difference between these two classes of poets might be shown by a study of their respective use of metaphor. Poetry hardly exists without metaphor. Besides the formal simile, there is in verse the more pervasive use of metaphorical language, by which the whole world of animate and inanimate nature is brought into kinship with the human soul, so that our inner life is enlarged and exalted by a feeling of universal dominion. The classical metaphor is simple and intellectual; through its means the vague is fixed and presented clearly to the mind by comparison with the more definite, the more complex by comparison with the simple, the abstract with the concrete, the emotional with the sensuous. Its rival, the romantic metaphor, appeals to the fancy by the very opposite method. It would be easy to take the Prometheus Unbound and show how Shelley persistently relaxes the mind by vague and abstract similes. The moments are said to crawl like ' death-worms ; ' spring is compared with the 'memory of a dream,' with 'genius,' or 'joy which riseth up as from the earth;' the rushing avalanche is likened to ' thought by thought . . . piled up, till some great truth is loosened, and the nations echo round.' In the famous and exquisitely beautiful singing-metaphor of that poem we have in miniature a complete picture of the romantic poet's art: 


    ' Meanwhile thy spirit lifts its pinions

    In music's most serene dominions ;

Catching the winds that fan that happy heaven.

    And we sail on, away, afar,

    Without a course, without a star,

But by the instinct of sweet music driven.'


Perhaps nowhere could a more perfect expression of this wayward and delicate spirit of romance be found, unless in that brief phrase of A Winter's Tale: ---

 

    ' a wild dedication of yourselves

To unpath'd waters, undream'd shores.'


Take away this subtle and baffling overgrowth of reverie, and the sturdier metaphor of the classical poets remains. Individual comparisons of this vague character may no doubt be cited from Byron (they are not altogether wanting even in Homer), but they are in him distinctly exceptions. In general the poetic medium in which he works has an intellectual solidity akin to the older masters. 


Poetry is the most perfect instrument of expression granted us in our need of self-utterance, and it is something to have learned in what way this instrument is shaped to the hand of a strong poet. But this is not all. How does he deal with the great themes of literature? How does he stand toward nature and man? And here too we shall find a real contrast between Byron and his contemporaries.


There is a scene in Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford which to me has always seemed to set forth one of the aims of the romantic nature-poet in a charming light. It is the bewitching chapter where the ladies visit old Mr. Holbrook, the bachelor, and he, musing after dinner in the garden, quotes and comments on Tennyson: ---

 

' “ ‘The cedar spreads his dark-green layers of shade.’

 

Capital term---layers! Wonderful man! . . . Why, when I saw the review of his poems in Blackwood, I set off within an hour, and walked seven miles to Misselton (for the horses were not in the way) and ordered them. Now, what colour are ash-buds in March?"

 

' Is the man going mad ? thought I. He is very like Don Quixote.

 

' " What colour are they, I say ? " repeated he vehemently.

 

" I am sure I don't know, sir," said I, with the meekness of ignorance.

 

" I knew you did n't. No more did I --- an old fool that I am ! --- till this young man comes and tells me. Black as ash-buds in March. And I've lived all my life in the country; more shame for me not to know. Black: they are jet-black, madam." ' 


Excellent botany, no doubt, and very dainty verse; but I cannot think the fame of the great masters of song depends on such trivialities as this. Black as ash-buds in March, --- one might read all the famous epics of history without acquiring this curious bit of information. There is a good deal of this petty, prying nature-cult hi Keats and Shelley, along with inspiration of a more solid or mystical quality. And it is Wordsworth who chants over the small celandine: ---

 

' Since the day I found thee out,

Little flower ! --- I’ll make a stir,

Like a great astronomer.'


Some kinship of spirit, some haunting echo of the revolutionary cry, binds us very close to the singers of that age, and we are perforce influenced by their attitude toward the outer world. It would be a matter of curious inquiry to search out the advent of this nature-worship into poetry, and to trace it down through succeeding writers. Its growth and culmination are in a way coincident with the revolutionary period to which Byron belongs, and, like most innovations of the kind, it denotes both an enlargement and a loss of spiritual life. The peculiar form of religious enthusiasm developed in the Middle Ages had wrought out its own idealism. The soul of the individual man seemed to the Christian of that day, as it were, the centre of the world, about which the divine drama of salvation revolved; and on the stand taken by the individual in this drama depended his eternal life. A man's personality became of vast importance in the universal scheme of things, and a new and justifiable egotism of intense activity was born. There was necessarily an element of anguish in this thought of personal importance and insecurity, but on the whole, while faith lasted, it was overbalanced by feelings of joy and peace; for, after all. salvation was within reach. The idealism of such a period found its aim in the perfecting of a man's soul, and humanity in the life of its individual members was the one theme of surpassing interest. The new humanism which came in with the Renaissance modified, but did not entirely displant, this ideal ; the faith of the earlier ages remained for a long time intact. But by the closing years of the eighteenth century the ancient illusion of

man's personal value in the universe had been rudely shattered; his anchor of faith had been rent away. Then began the readjustment, which is still in progress and is still the cause of so much unrest and tribulation. In place of the individual there arose a new ideal of humanity as a whole, --- a very pretty theory for philosophers, but in no wise comforting for the homeless soul of man trained by centuries of introspection to deem himself the chosen vessel of grace. There was a season of revolt. The individual, still bearing his burden of self-importance, and seeing now no restrictive laws to bind him, gave himself to all the wild vagaries of the revolutionary period. Nor is it a matter of chance  that Voltaire, the father of modern scepticism, and Rousseau, the first of romantic nature-worshipers, had worked together to this end. It was under this stimulus that those who were unable to silence the inner need amidst the turmoil of action turned to the visible world, seeking there the comfort of an idealism not attainable in the vague abstraction of humanity. The individual found a new solace in reverie, which seemed to make him one with the wide and beneficent realm of nature. The flattering trust in his own eternal personality was undermined, the unsubdued egotism born of the old faith left him solitary amid mankind; he turned for companionship to the new world whose kinship to himself was so newly discovered: ---


    ‘Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt

    In solitude where we are least alone;

    A truth, which through our being then doth melt

    And purifies from self: it is a tone,

     The soul and source of music, which makes known

    Eternal harmony, and sheds a charm,

    Like to the fabled Cytherea's zone,

    Binding all things with beauty ; --- 't would disarm

The spectre Death, had he substantial power to harm.'

 

An eternal harmony did indeed spring from this new source of music; it was a calculable gain, a new created idealism in poetry. But we should not shut our eyes to the concomitant danger and loss. In this soothing absorption into nature the poet was too apt to forget that, after all, the highest and noblest theme must forever be the struggle of the human soul; he was too ready to substitute vague reverie for honest thought, or to lose his deeper sympathy with man in the eager pursuit of minute phenomena. We are all familiar with the travestied nature-cult that is sapping the vitals of literature to-day.  Wordsworth has made a stir over the small celandine, and Tennyson has discovered that ash-buds are black in March; the present generation must, for originality, examine the fields with a botanist's lens, while the poor reader, who retains any use of his intellect, is too often reminded of the poet Gray's shrewd witticism, that he learned botany to save

himself the labor of thinking. If for no other reason, it is wholesome to point out how Byron in his treatment of nature shows the same breadth and mental scope, the same human sympathy, as characterize his classical use of metaphor.


There is a curious passage in one of Franklin's letters, where the philosopher attempts to prove by experiment that the perception of form is remembered more distinctly than the perception of color. It may very well be that his explanation of this phenomenon is not strictly scientific, but the fact is indisputable. Form and motion of form are clearly defined, intelligible, so to speak; color is illusive and impressionistic. So, it will be remembered, the Greeks were preeminent in their imitation of form; the Renaissance artists excelled in color. Distinctions of this kind are, to be sure, a matter of degree only, but none the less significant for that. Now there are descriptions in Byron of gorgeous coloring, notably in certain stanzas of the Haidée episode; but even here the colors are sharply defined, and there is little of the blending, iridescent light of romance.  In general he dwells on form and action in his representation of nature, whereas his con-

temporaries, and notably Shelley, revel in various colors and shifting tints.


It is curious, in fact, that many who are prone to dignify emotional reverie as thought would ascribe such predominance of intellect to shallowness, just as they would deem the breadth of Byron's natural description to be due to narrowness of observation. You will indeed find in Byron no poems on the small celandine, or the daisy, or the cuckoo,

or the nightingale, or the west wind; but you may find pictures of mountains reared like the palaces of nature, of the free bounding ocean, of tempest on sea and storm among the Alps, of the solitary pine woods, of placid Lake Leman, --- of all the greater, sublimer aspects of nature, such as can hardly be paralleled elsewhere in English literature.


Byron was too much a child of his age to escape the longing for mystic fellowship with nature which came in with the century and still in milder form troubles mankind. But even here there are in him a firmness and a directness of utterance which distinguish his work from the rhapsodies of the purely romantic writers. Let us by all means retain as

a precious and late-won possession this sense of communion with the fair outlying world, but let us at the same time beware of loosening our grip on realities. There is no better palliative for the insidious relaxing sentimentality that lurks in this brooding contemplation than certain well-known passages of Childe Harold, such as ---


'I live not in myself, but I become

Portion of that around me;'  


or,

 

'There is a pleasure in the pathless woods;'


or,

 

'Clear, placid Leman ! thy contrasted lake.'

 

Here again it is the classic element in Byron's art that saves him from shadowy, meaningless words ; and he is assisted also by his intense human passions and personality. It has been said that the preponderance of human interest is an essential feature of the classical spirit; and it would have been easy to show that, along with predominance of intellect and breadth, this human interest is everywhere present in Byron's work. But the human element --- the egotism, if you choose --- is so universally recognized in his character that any detailed exposition of its presence in his poetry may seem superfluous.  Only in his treatment of nature, perhaps, ought special attention to be called to this trait, for here most of all he differs from certain of the romantic writers. It is well to remember that now and always ' the proper study of mankind is man.' We need still to reflect on the wise admonition of St. Augustine: 'And men go abroad to gaze at the lofty mountains, and the great waves of the sea, and the wide flowing rivers, and the circle of ocean, and the revolutions of the stars, --- and pass themselves, the crowning wonder, by.'  This genuine human interest distinguished Byron from the pseudo-classical writers as well, who would etherealize predominance of intellect into inanimate abstractions, --- from those thin-blooded poets of the eighteenth century whose art depended on a liberal distribution of capital letters. 


At bottom Byron's sympathy is not with nature, but with man, and in the expression of this sympathy he displays the sturdy strength of classical art. Théophile Gautier, in his study of Villon, has a clever appeal for the minor bards. 'The most highly vaunted passages of the poets,' he says, ' are ordinarily commonplaces. Ten verses of Byron on love, on the brevity of life, or on some other subject equally new, will find more admirers than the strangest vision of Jean Paul or of Hoffmann. This is because very many have been or are in love, and a still greater number are fearful of death ; but very few, even in dreams, have beheld the fantastic images of the German story-tellers pass before them.'  Gautier himself, as one of the ' fantastics,' may be prejudiced in their favor, but his characterization of Byron is eminently right. It is a fact that the great poets, the classic poets, deal very much with commonplaces, but Gautier should know his Horace well enough to remember that nothing is more difficult than the art of giving to these commonplaces an individual stamp.


Here again it may be wise to turn for a while from the romantic poets who search out the wayward, obscure emotions of the heart to one who treated almost exclusively those simple, fundamental passions which are most compatible with predominance of intellect and breadth of expression. It is said that Byron could never get outside of himself; and this, to a certain extent, is true. He lacked the dramatic art; but, on the other hand, his own human passions were so strong, his life was so vigorous, that from personal experience he was able to accomplish more than most others whose sympathies might be wider.  His range is by no means universal, and yet what masterly pictures he has drawn of love

and hate, of patriotism, honor, disdain, sarcasm, revenge, remorse, despair, awe, and mockery ! If he had touched the passion of love alone, he would still be worthy of study.  It is wholesome now and then to descend from the breathless heights where Cythna dwells, and linger by the sea with Haidée, the pure and innocent child of nature. Love in Byron

is commonly the beast that enslaves and degrades, or it is the instinctive attraction of youth uncorrupted by the world, that simple self-surrender, unquestioning and unpolluted, which to the aged sight of the wise Goethe and the subtle Renan seemed, after all was said, the best and truest thing in life. Other poets in search of love's mystic shadow have philosophized with Plato or scaled the empyrean with Dante; but rarely in these excursions have they avoided the perils of unreality or self-deception, of inanity or morbidness. There is at least a certain safety in seeing in love the simple animal passion, pure or perverted as the case may be. 


And this brings us to the vexed question of Byron's morality. It is not necessary to extenuate his shortcomings in this matter, and yet the evil of his work has been much exaggerated. His aggressive free-thinking, which so shocked his contemporaries, can scarcely do more than elicit a smile to-day; the grossly sensual passages in his poems are few, and these are more outspoken than seductive; his sneers are mostly for cant and hypocrisy, which, God knows, deserved such lashing then even as they do now. And withal his mind was right; he never deceived himself. Many times he alludes to the ruin of his own life, and always he puts his finger upon the real source of the evil, his lack of self-restraint and his revolt from conventions. There is something manly and pathetic at once, not without strange foreboding of what was to come, in these lines from Childe Harold: --- 


    ' If my fame should be, as my fortunes are,

Of hasty growth and blight, and dull Oblivion bar

 

    ' My name from out the temple where the dead

    Are honour'd by the nations --- let it be,

    And light the laurels on a loftier head !

    And he the Spartan's epitaph on me,

    "Sparta hath many a worthier son than he."

    Meantime I seek no sympathies, nor need ;

    The thorns which I have reap'd are of the tree

    I planted, they have torn me --- and I bleed :

I should have known what fruit would spring from such a seed.'

 

In his Epistle to Augusta, perhaps the noblest of all his shorter poems, he more explicitly

mentions the evil that brought about his ruin: ---

 

' I have been cunning in mine overthrow,

The careful pilot of my proper woe.

 

'Mine were my faults, and mine he their reward.

    My whole life was a contest, since the day

That gave me being, gave me that which marr'd

    The gift, --- a fate, or will, that walk'd astray.'

 

One cannot but recall, by way of contrast, the words of Mrs. Shelley in regard to her exalted companion. ' In all Shelley did,' she says, ' he, at the time of doing it, believed himself justified to his own conscience.'  This, surely, is the inner falsehood, more deadly, as Plato affirmed, than the spoken lie; and one needs but a little of the Platonic doctrine

to believe that in this glozing of evil lies the veritable danger to morals. There is no such insidious disease in Byron's mind.


The errors of Byron, both in conduct and in art, were in fact largely due to the revolutionary spirit which so easily passes into licentiousness. Classical art should result in self-restraint and harmony of form, but to this Byron never attained except spasmodically, almost by accident it should seem. So far he is classical that he almost universally displays predominance of intellect, breadth of treatment, and human interest; but side by side with this principle of limitation runs the other spirit of revolt, producing at times that extraordinary incongruity of effect which has so baffled his later audience. The world, after manifold struggles, had begun to throw off the medieval ideals. Faith in the infinite and eternal value of the human person, with all its earthly desires and ambitions, with its responsibility to a jealous God, had been rudely shaken; nor had that deeper faith taken hold of the mind wherein this laboring, grasping earthly self is seen to be but a shadow, an obscuration, of something vastly greater hidden in the secret places of the heart. Belief in the divine right of rulers had been burst as an insubstantial bubble, but in the late-born ideal of a humanity bound in brotherhood and striving upward together the individual was very slow to feel the drawing of the new ties; he had revolted from

the past, and still felt himself homeless and unattached in the shadowy ideals of the future. In such an age Byron was born, a man of superabundant physical vigor which at any time would have ill brooked restraint, and of mental impetuosity which had by nature something of the tiger in it. He was led at first by the very spirit of the age to glory in physical and mental license and to exaggerate his impatience of restraint; and only by the hard experience of life did he learn, or partly learn, the lesson of moderation.  Inevitably his poetry too often reflected his temperament in its lack of discipline.


No one can be more conscious of these deficiencies than the present writer, whose task it has been to read through Byron's works with an editor's questioning eye. His language is often --- very often --- slipshod, made obscure by interminable anacoluthons, disfigured by frequent lapses into bad grammar. The thought and style of certain poems --- The Prophecy of Dante, for instance --- are so cheap as to render the reading of them a labor of necessity. Yet all this hardly affects his importance for us. We are not likely to learn bad grammar from him, and his dull poems are easily passed over. He wrote, to use his own words, as the tiger leaps; and if he missed his aim, there was no retrieving the

failure. We call this lack of artistic conscience, and so it is; but in this at least he followed only too well the guidance of his age. And then, if he often failed, he sometimes hit the mark. There are passages --- more than that, there are whole poems --- wherein his classical method has dominated the license of revolt sufficiently to achieve almost perfect harmony of form, while retaining the full vigor of his imperious inspiration. 


But the inner character of his work was affected even more than his art by the new leaven, and this free expression of the revolutionary spirit lends to some of his poems a psychological interest even beyond their intrinsic value. It is curious, for instance, to compare the effect on the mature mind of Manfred's eloquence and sombre misanthropy with the impression left from a first reading of that drama many years ago. What carried away the young enthusiast with passionate sympathy now leaves the reader cold or even provokes a smile. Such platitudes as this: ---

 

                 'They who know the most

Must mourn the deepest o'er the fatal truth,

The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life ;'

 

such profundities as ' the gulf of my unfathomed thought,' do not now seem quite the utterances of apocalyptic wisdom. A more critical taste, too, while feeling the superb rush and abandon of the lyrical stanzas, cannot pass lightly over a tame conclusion like 'now wither !'  But, however cold Manfred's rhetoric may leave us, we are compelled to admit another and perhaps more enduring value in the poem. Its psychological interest is not easily exaggerated and becomes clear only as we pass out of immediate sympathy with the writer.


Much has been said concerning the relation between Manfred and Faust, and Byron has more than once been accused of plagiarizing the idea of his poem from the great German.  As a matter of fact certain ideas of a philosophical cast were probably inspired directly by a recollection of Faust. This talk of the ' tree of Knowledge and the tree of Life,' this pretension to profundities of ineffable science, have about them all the insincerity of borrowed inspiration. But the true theme of Manfred is not a philosophical question; the real poem, as Byron himself asserted, came not from reading, but was the immediate outcome of his own life, and Byron's life was the very impersonation of the revolutionary idea, the idea of reckless individual revolt which we have hardly yet outgrown.  It is because Manfred more than almost any other English poem expresses the longings and ambitions, the revolt and the tragic failure of this idea, that its interest is still so great and must always remain great in any historical survey of literature. Where better can we read the desire of detachment, the longing of the individual to throw off the bonds of social law and make for himself a life apart from the world's life, than in Manfred's boastful words:

 

' My pang shall find a voice. From my youth upwards

My spirit walk'd not with the souls of men' ?

 

Equally strong is the expression of self-centred pride. When Manfred rebukes the Spirit

who claims dominion over his soul, he cries out scornfully :

 

                      ' Back to thy hell !

Thou hast no power upon me, that I feel ;

Thou never shalt possess me, that I know :

What I have done is done.' 


It is in such words as these that we recognize the vast difference between Manfred and Faust, not to mention Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. Of similar nature and growing directly from the revolutionary ideal of personal unrestraint is the longing for union with one kindred soul, --- a longing which seems at once impossible and impious, yet inevitable.  This is Manfred's love for Astarte, the love of a soul that has violated common human attachments in its loneliness and throws itself with guilty passionateness into one sacrilegious desire of union. And the same loneliness, self-created and still intolerable, speaks in the yearning cry after a more intimate absorption into nature: ---

 

' I said, with men, and with the thoughts of men,

I held but slight communion ; but instead,

My joy was in the Wilderness, to breathe

The difficult air of the iced mountain's top,' etc.

 

And at the last comes the inevitable despair, the necessary failure, expressed in Manfred by the vain prayer of oblivion from self. In the end this solitary pride and isolation, this morbid exaltation of our personal existence, become a creation of Frankenstein, from whose oppression we long for deliverance. To the Spirits who offer him dominion and all the joys of the senses the smitten and defiant soul can only cry out for forgetfulness: ---

 

                   ' Oblivion, self-oblivion ---

Can ye not wring from out the hidden realms

Ye offer so profusely what I ask ?'

 

It is the perfect and ever memorable tragedy of the spirit of revolution, of individual isolation, of unrestraint, of limitless desires, which found in Byron side by side with his classic intelligence its most authentic utterance.


But to do anything like justice to the psychology of Byron would require a separate study in itself; and if the subject is here passed lightly over, this is because it seems, on the whole, less important to-day than the analysis of his art.  Every one recognizes at a glance the tormented personality and the revolutionary leaven in Byron's spirit; not every

one, perhaps, would comprehend immediately the extraordinary result produced by the union of these with his classical method, --- a result so peculiar as alone to lend permanent interest to his work. And this interest is heightened by the rapid change and development in his character. 


There are, in fact, four pretty clearly defined periods in his life, although as always these overlap one another to a certain extent. First we see the youthful satirist lashing friend and foe with savage bitterness, as if his egregious egotism could find relief only in baying at the world. Then follows a second phase of revolt, taking pleasure in melodramatic isolation from society, exulting in moody revenge and unutterable mysteries, stalking before the world in gorgeous Oriental disguise. Out of this extravagance grows the Byron of the later Childe Harold, who would unburden his soul of its self-engendered torture in solitary communion with nature, and would find relief from the vulgar cant of the present in pensive reflection on the grandeurs of the older days. And last of all, when even these

fail him, the self-mocking Don Juan, with his strange mingling of sweet and bitter, infinitely heavy-hearted at bottom, who cries out in the end: ---

 

    ‘Now . . . Imagination droops her pinion,

And the sad truth that hovers o'er my desk

Turns what was once romantic to burlesque.

 

'And if I laugh at any mortal thing,

    'T is that I may not weep ; and if I weep,

'T is that our nature cannot always bring

    Itself to apathy.'

 

He was saved, indeed, from the final silence of apathy by an early death. Yet it may at least be said that for one brief moment, --- when, after escaping the vexations of his ruined domestic life, he wrote his Epistle to Augusta from the solitudes of Switzerland, --- Byron caught, dim and distorted it may be, a glimpse of divine wisdom, which, if pursued, might have rendered him great among the wisest. But some Nemesis of fate, some error of will, swept him back into the bondage from which he never entirely escaped.  As it was he wrung from the tragedy of his own life the irony and pathos of Don Juana poem which in its own sphere is so easily supreme that this achievement alone would rank him great among the strongest, if not among the wisest.

 

P. E. M.



We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.
Introduction to the Thæí (the Gods): The Nature of the Gods.



The logo to the left is the principle symbol of this website.  It is called the 
CESS logoi.e. the Children of the Earth and the Starry Sky.  The Petelia and other golden tablets having this phrase are the inspiration for the symbol. The image represents this idea: Earth (divisible substance) and the Sky (continuous substance) are the two Kosmogonic substances.  The twelve stars represent the Natural Laws, the dominions of the Olympian Gods.  In front of these symbols is the seven-stringed kithara, the 
lyre of Apollohn (Apollo).  It (here) represents the bond between Gods and mortals and is representative that we are the children of Orphefs (Orpheus). 



PLEASE NOTE:  Throughout the pages of this website, you will find fascinating stories about our Gods.  These narratives are known as mythology, the traditional stories of the Gods and Heroes.  While these tales are great mystical vehicles containing transcendent truth, they are symbolic and should not be taken literally.  A literal reading will frequently yield an erroneous result.  The meaning of the myths is concealed in code.  To understand them requires a key.  For instance, when a God kills someone, this usually means a transformation of the soul to a higher level.  Similarly, sexual union with a God is a transformation.


The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony.
We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.

SPELLING:  HellenicGods.org uses the Reuchlinian method of pronouncing ancient Greek, the system preferred by scholars from Greece itself.  An approach was developed to enable the student to easily approximate the Greek words. Consequently, the way we spell words is unique, as this method of transliteration is exclusive to this website.  For more information, visit these three pages: 

Pronunciation of Ancient Greek        

 

PHOTO COPYRIGHT INFORMATION:  The many pages of this website incorporate images, some created by the author, but many obtained from outside sources.  To find out more information about these images and why this website can use them, visit this link:  Photo Copyright Information

DISCLAIMER:  The inclusion of images, quotations, and links from outside sources does not in any way imply agreement (or disagreement), approval (or disapproval) with the views of HellenicGods.org by the external sources from which they were obtained.

Further, the inclusion of images, quotations, and links from outside sources does not in any way imply agreement (or disagreement), approval (or disapproval) by HellenicGods.org of the contents or views of any external sources from which they were obtained.


For more information: Inquire.hellenicgods@gmail.com

For answers to many questions: Hellenismos FAQ

© 2010 by HellenicGods.org.  All Rights Reserved.


HOME              GLOSSARY              RESOURCE                ART              LOGOS               CONTACT

Comments