BYRON- An Introduction
by A. S. B. GLOVER ( taken from
Selected Poetry-The Penguin)
BYRON'S life and work is like a book which seems at first
sight to be dominated by its highly coloured plates. First there
is the standard portrait - a magnificently turbaned profile
posed against a stormy sky - Byron dressed up as a Byronic Hero.
Then comes a picture of Newstead Abbey, a suitably`Gothic'
retreat for Byron and his friends, sitting up late in `friars'
dresses, drinking burgundy, claret, champagne, and what not out
of the skull-cup'. Byron is seen at Cambridge, sharing his
college rooms with a bear; and on his entry into
society - the pale /homme fatale of the drawing-rooms:
`mad, bad, and dangerous to know'. Women come into the picture:
Annabella Milbanke, whom he so unaccountably and un-fortunately
married; Caroline Lamb, who made a public scandal of her love
for him; Augusta Leigh, his half-sister, with
whom he was more in love than with any other woman, and one of
whose many children he considered to be his.
Byron is next seen leaving England on
account of the moral indignation aroused by his private life.
The scene shifts to the Mediterranean. The colours become
brighter: Byron swimming the Hellespont; Byron travelling
through Italy with the Countess Guiccioli, and a caravan of
monkeys, dogs, and peacocks; finally, Byron dead in the cause of
Greek liberation. 'My God,' .wrote Jane Welsh to Thomas Carlyle,
`if they had said that the sun or the moon was gone out of the
heavens, it could not have struck me with the idea of a more
awful and dreary blank in the creation than the words, "Byron is
That was how Byron appeared to the majority of his
contemporaries: as a luminary, a dynamic force. His works were
translated into all the languages of Europe, the literary scene
was thronged with `Byronic' young poets, and the progeny of his
Heroes multiplied yearly.
Today the flamboyant aspects of his personality have not only
ceased to dazzle, they even tend to detract from our
appreciation of Byron's work, seeming to be simply the
successful poses of a man playing to the gallery of his own day.
They do not, however, represent the whole of Byron. He had many
other facets. He was an aristocrat who rebelled against social
injustice; a man who not only spoke about
liberty but worked for it; an affectionate and loyal friend; an
immensely lively correspondent; a trenchant satirist.
Byron was born in 1788. His early
childhood was spent in Scotland in an atmosphere of disorder and
poverty, dominated by an hysterical mother and a dissolute
nurse. These years left by an hysterical mother and a dissolute
nurse. These years left by an hysterical mother and a dissolute
nurse. These years left their legacy of nervous insecurity, only
partly concealed by the aristocratic facade provided by his
title and his handsome patrician features. In 1800 he went to
Harrow and in 1805 to Trinity College, Cambridge. Unlike Milton
and Words- worth, Byron did not regard his studies at Cambridge
of the discipline essential to becoming a great poet. He did not
draft out plans for any new English epic or record the progress
of a poet's mind. He made friends, went to parties,
and swam at Grantchester:
We have several parties here, and this evening a large
assortment of jockeys, gamblers, boxers, authors, parsons, and
poets, sup with me, -a precious mixture but they go on well
and for me, I am a spice of everything...
But he goes on to say that he has 380 lines of a satire written
and that his published verses have just been `praised to the
skies' in one review and `abused greatly' in another.
In 1807, when this letter was written, Byron had brought out two
volumes of poetry : Hours of Idleness and Poems on Various
Occasions. The interest of these early poems is largely
biographical. Though they showed that Byron wrote verse with
great facility, they did not seem to hold out much promise for
the future. Yet the very next year he wrote a lyric, `When we
two parted in silence and tears' (p. 82), which had all the
qualities of his best work in this kind. It is quite simple both
in thought and expression, but beneath the quiet rhythm there is
a strong current of feeling.
The satire also mentioned above was `English Bards and Scotch
Reviewers'. It was Byron's first long poem. Byron was a great
admirer both of Dryden and of Pope, and saw himself as their
successor, the satirist of the English literary scene. `I `he
poetasters of Grub Street were replaced as the butts of
satire by the `troubadours' of the Lake District, Words-worth,
Coleridge, and Southey. Byron's attack has vitality and punch,
though it has nothing of the polish and subtlety of Pope's
mature work. Today the part of the work which deals with the
Scotch reviewers is of limited interest, as the subjects of the
satire are little read, but what Byron writes of Wordsworth and
Coleridge (p. 58) provides a refreshing antidote to a too solemn
regard for these poets. Byron was not, however, a discriminating
judge of literature; his pronouncements on it are often no more
than sweeping generalizations of little value, and taken as a
whole his criticism of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats was
singularly lacking in
In 1817 Byron, now living in London, published the first two
cantos of `Childe Harold's Pilgrimage'. His name was made: he
awoke to find his book on every table and `to be made the
greatest fuss of'. A contemporary commented; Language can hardly
exaggerate the folly that prevailed in 1817, when waltzing and
Lord Byron came into fashion.' His readers identified him with
his hero and watched for like
symptoms of melancholy.
Yet off-times in his maddest mirthful mood
Strange pangs would flash along Childe Harold's brow
As if the memory of some deadly feud
Or disappointed passion lurked below,
though he protested that such identification was not intended.
`Instruct Mr Murray not to allow his shopman to call the
`Instruct Mr Murray not to allow his shopman to call the work
`Child of Harrow's Pilgrimage'! ! ! ! as he has done to some of
my astonished friends, who wrote to inquire after my sanity on
the occasion, as well they might.'
Childe Harold was the first of the long
line of Byronic Heroes. Byron's heroes met the requirements of a
public brought up on the novels of the `all-horrid' pens of Mrs
Radcliffe and her followers. They dominate his poems. The other
characters are of importance only in so far as they affect them.
The settings are carefully chosen to intensify the impression
they will make. Byron standardized his heroes to such an extent
that they lack individuality; and the unity of their conception
is so complete that it is enough for one characteristic trait to
be mentioned for the whole man to come immediately to mind. By
making their monologues resemble his expressions of personal
feeling in his lyric poetry, Byron was responsible for the fact
that his readers always thought they saw him masquerading in his
The settings of Byron's poems were entirely suited to the taste
of the age. His descriptive writing is at its best in the fourth
canto of `Childe Harold', in which he writes of Italy, for in a
few words he could make his page alight with its atmosphere:
Venice, `a fairy city of the heart, rising like water-columns
from the sea'; Ferrara with its `wide and grass-grown streets';
and the Capitol under `the deep blue
sky of Rome'.
The third and fourth cantos of `Childe Harold' were written when
Byron was already in exile from England. The four years which
separated them from the first two cantos had been marked by his
complicated love-affairs and his unhappy marriage. His feelings
had found expression in the angry lines he wrote to Caroline
Lamb (`Remember thee! Remember thee!'-p. 44) and in a series of
very emotional poems to his sister.
Byron's poetic activity during these
years, however, was not confined to pieces occasioned by his
personal life. lie had embarked in 1812 on the series of tales
which acted like heady wine on his public. Of this group of
poems `The Giaour' and `Mazeppa' are fully representative. All
the characteristic in-gredients of the genre are present. The
Giaour's face bears the necessary imprint of past grief:
Dark and unearthly is the scowl
That glares beneath his dusky cowl.
The flash of that dilating eye
Reveals too much of times gone by...
while the ruined cloister he sweeps through and the distant
sounds of chanting bring suitable Gothic associations. Both
poems are written in the first person, which brings the reader
into the closest possible touch with the heroes. In both the
action is very dramatic.
In 1815 Byron had published another collection of lyrics, the
Hebrew Melodies. The ease with which he wrote was not always to
his advantage. Like Shelley, he tended to flow on - there seemed
no reason to stop - so that far too often excellent lines were
lost in the stream of mediocrity. But these short pieces gain by
it. There is no straining after effect. The words
move with ease to the measure.
In 1815 Byron also published his `Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte'.
History had presented him with a Hero ready made. There was in
this a curious anomaly. Politically Byron could not but hate the
tyranny of Napoleon's rule. All his life he spoke, wrote, and
worked on behalf of the politically oppressed. His maiden speech
hr the House of Lords had been in support of the claims of
Nottingham frame workers; he
celebrated Bonnivard's martyrdom with a thetorical trumpetblast
(p. 55); he worked with the Carbonari in Italy and in the cause
of Greek independence. The direction of his political endeavours
remained constant. But when he writes of Napoleon, one feels
beneath the condemnation of the `Pagod with
the feet of clay', this `Dark Spirit', the contrary pull of
And Monarchs bowed the trembling limb,
And thanked him for a throne!
This attitude to Napoleon, compounded as it was of contrary
emotions, became one of the characteristic features of the
Byronic movement in Europe.
In 1816 Byron had settled in Italy and was enjoying it. The
emotional temperature of his letters, which had run very high at
the time of leaving England, had dropped. They were now full of
amusing gossip, lit by the carnival lanterns of an end less
succession of masked balls, visits to the opera, and con-
versaziones. And always they were spiced by a light, mocking
irony - Byron laughing at himself, at the figure he was cutting:
I am going out this evening in my cloak and Gondola-there are
two nice Mrs Radcliffe words for you.
Byron captured the froth and frivolity of this atmosphere in `Beppo',
which was a curtain-raiser to his greatest poem, `Don Juan'.
At this time Byron also tried his hand at poetic drama. His
plays were written to be read not acted. This is a hybrid
form of literature which, with a few notable exceptions, has
form of literature which, with a few notable exceptions, has
always proved unsatisfactory. The very fact that the plays were
not intended for the stage led him to neglect the essential
conditions of good drama: the interplay of contrasted characters
and the compelling forward movement of the plot. The Russian
poet Pushkin put his finger on Byron's limitations as a
Byron created only one character Ehis own~ and in his tragedies
he handed out the different traits and peculiarities of that
character to his dramatis personae, giving to one his pride, to
another his hatred, to a third his melancholy, and so on. In
this way, from one powerful, sombre, and energetic personality
he created several insignificant ones.
Hazlitt went further:
`Lord Byron's tragedies . . . have neither action, character,
nor interest, but are a sort of gossamer tragedies, spun out and
glittering, and spreading a flimsy veil over the face of nature.
Yet he spins them on.' In 1818 Shelley visited Byron in Venice.
He has left an impression of one of their rides together in his
poem `Julian and Maddalo', in which with the gentlest irony he
striking an attitude:
The sense that he was greater than his kind
Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind
By gazing on its own exceeding light.
Shelley and Byron understood each other well, and their
friendship was firmly grounded in mutual affection. There was
much to draw them together. They were both in exile from
England. They had certain political ideals in common, though
Byron's attitude to politics was far more practical and
realistic than Shelley's. Also, unlike, for example, that of the
Lake Poets and Keats, the focus of their interests was not
primarily literary. They were both at the same time aristocrats
and rebels against convention. Byron wrote to John Murray after
Alas! poor Shelley! how he would have laughed had he lived,
and how we used to laugh now and then, at various things,
which are grave in the Suburbs!
You are mistaken about Shelley. You do not know how mild,
how tolerant, how good he was in Society; and as perfect a
Gentleman as ever crossed a drawing-room..
All his egalitarian principles did not prevent Byron from
despising Keats's middle-class milieu. He failed to grasp the
full measure of Keats's quality. He allowed himself to be side-
tracked by secondary considerations - for instance, his anger at
Keats's abuse of Pope - and was only too ready finally to
dismiss him as having been `snuffed out by an article'.
Shelley's death, on the other hand, hit Byron very hard. `(He)
was, without exception, the best and least selfish man I ever
knew,' he wrote to Murray.
Shelley died in 1822, the year in which Byron published `The
Vision of Judgement'. In this poem Byron is at his most witty
and lighthearted. It is a well-sustained political jest in a
lightly blasphemous framework, sparkling in the manner of a
mock-heroic. It deals with the arrival of George III at the
gates of heaven, where
The angels all were singing out of tune,
And hoarse with having little else to do,
Excepting to wind up the sun and moon,
Or curb a runaway young star or two.
It soon becomes clear that the inmates of heaven are, if
anything, even more ridiculous than George III, so that there is
nothing incongruous in his seeking admission. Satan, however,
appears, claiming him as his subject, and a lengthy debate is
embarked on. This is interrupted by the arrival of Southey, who
drives everyone to distraction by his monstrous speech.
Meanwhile George III has slipped in unperceived, and is left,
well installed, `practicing the hundredth psalm'. When he wrote
`The Vision of Judgement' Byron was already well away with `Don
All Byron's best qualities are contained in `Don Juan': his
magnificent, ironic detachment, his humour, his iconoclasm, his
vitality, and his zest for life. When he writes of love he makes
one aware of its physical immediacy, and there are few poets,
apart from Chaucer and Donne, who can convey this sense so
forcibly. When he writes of society it is clear that though he
had joined in the dance himself, he remained sufficiently
detached from the whirling throng to observe its petty
preoccupations, its self-delusions, its peccadilloes. The
balloon of pretension is puffed up and then, very neatly,
pricked. For this Byron was well served by his mastery of
bathos, which in his hands, as in Pope's, became a most
effective instrument of satire. The book takes in the whole of
European society. Byron leads his picaresque hero through a
series of adventures, ranging from Spain to Turkey and from
England. The scene shifts from a desert island to a harem, from
a battlefield to the court of Catherine the Great, and from a
battlefield to the court of Catherine the Great, and Don Juan,
the most adaptable and resilient hero in English literature,
takes whatever comes his way cheerfully in his
stride. In 1819 Byron had written to a friend:
As to `Don Juan', confess, confess-you dog
and be candid-that it is the sublime of that there sort of
writing- it may be bawdy but is it not good English? It may be
profligate but is it not life, is it not the thing? Could
any man have written it who has not
lived in the world?
The final cantos of `Don Juan' were published in 1824; in the
same year Byron died of fever at Missolonghi; and the European
literary scene lost one of its giants.
Many years later Matthew Arnold wrote:
When Byron's eyes were shut in
We bow'd our head and held our breath.
He taught us little: but our soul
Had felt him like the thunder's roll.
In these lines there is an acknowledgement of greatness, but
there is a reservation- `he taught us little'. That is typical
of the English attitude to Byron. There has always been
reluctance for one reason or another to allow him a place on the
highest levels of poetic fame. This is not because much of
what he wrote is second-rate, for that is equally true of
Wordsworth and Coleridge. Nor is it because even in his best
works there is much that is slap-dash and unfinished (for Byron
hated working over his poetry), for there is a great deal of
equally loose writing in Shelley's work. It appears that the
reason lies not in what Byron wrote but in what he failed to
write. He never looked beyond this world. He never
aspired to the heights of metaphysics or mysticism. His poetry
was devoid of spirituality. This was his fatal flaw, and it was
one which he shared with Pope - a circumstance from which
he would have derived much comfort.
In Europe his reputation was immeasurably higher. He was judged
among English poets to be second only to Shakespeare. The
reasons for this are clear. He stood for all the aspirations of
the European Romantic movement, both as a man and as a poet. He
was cast in a large mould and surveyed the social scene with an
ironical detachment comparable to that of Voltaire. The
subject-matter of his poetry
was of universal interest and application: and, as his language
was almost devoid of imagery, his poetry lost comparatively
little in translation.
After his death, Pushkin, speaking of some of his lost memoirs,
remarked that he was glad they were lost. He felt that whereas
in his poems Byron had revealed himself unconsciously, carried
away by poetic enthusiasm, in cold-blooded prose he would have
lied and posed and ranted against his enemies. That is true of
Byron's best poetry: in it he dispensed with lies and pose and
rant. `Here at last,' wrote John Ruskin, and his words can serve
as a final spur to reading Byron, `I had found a man who spoke
only of what he had seen and known; and spoke without
exaggeration, without mystery, without enmity, and without
mercy. "That is so; - make what you will of it!"