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“Rutherford”) “ nicely captures the problem of Byron™s sincerity, for that
view exactly ¬‚ew in the face of the dominant line of contemporary criticism.
The latter would have been able to say much the same thing that Lockhart
said, only for Don Juan it would have substituted Childe Harold.
±° Byron and Romanticism
 Lord Byron. The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome J. McGann, · vols. (Oxford,
±°“±) V, ±. All quotations from the poetry will be from this edition.
µ Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscienti¬c Postscript, trans. Walter Lowrie
(Princeton, ±±), ±·±.
 This is not to suggest that (say) The Prelude or “The Fall of Hyperion” are
not themselves just as involved in communicative exchanges as Byron™s work;
on the contrary, in fact. Byron™s work simply foregrounds these exchanges in
a clearer way.
· The annotations discussed here and below are to be found in the editorial
notes for the relevant passages from Don Juan, in Lord Byron. The Complete
Poetical Works.
 Byron extended an absurd textual situation by writing a ( prose) response to
Roberts which he signed “Wortley Clutterbuck” and published in the Liberal.
For further details see William H. Marshall, Byron, Shelley, Hunt and the Liberal
(Philadelphia, ±°), “, ±±“±±.
 Byron™s Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand (London, ±·“±)
V, . Hereafter cited as BLJ.
±° The text here is from Lord Byron. Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland E. Prothero
(London, ±“±°±), IV, ·µ.
±± See especially Byron™s Preface to Cantos I“II where he ridicules the Roman-
ticism of the chivalric order.
± See Canto V, sts. “.
± For details see Leslie A. Marchand, Byron. A Biography (New York, ±µ·),
I, ±“±.

Hero with a thousand faces: the rhetoric of Byronism


I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude
and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so
that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear.
(Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave)

And feeling, in a poet, is the source
Of others™ feeling; but they are such liars,
And take all colours”like the hands of dyers.
(Don Juan, III, st. ·)
I saw, that is, I dream™d myself
Here”here”even where we are, guests as we were,
Myself a host that deem™d himself but guest,
Willing to equal all in social freedom.
(Sardanapalus, IV, i, ·“±)

We think of Byron as the most personal of poets, recklessly candid, self-
revealing to a fault. Like most long-standing literary judgments, this one
still strikes home. Nevertheless, its truth involves a paradox best de¬ned
by a later English writer who is in many ways Byron™s avatar. “Man is
least himself,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “when he talks in his own person. Give
him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”± Perhaps no English writer,
not even Wilde himself, executed this theory of the mask so completely
as Byron. “Before Oscar Wilde was, I am.”
Many of Byron™s masks are famous, Childe Harold being, I suppose,
the most famous of them all “ and the prototype of those subsequent
masked men we call Byronic Heroes. But Byron was operating en masque
from his ¬rst appearances in print. His three early books of poetry, now
known collectively as his Hours of Idleness, construct a ¬ctional self for
establishing contact with his audience. When the role is attacked and
ridiculed in public by Henry Brougham, Byron rewrites his character
± Byron and Romanticism
in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Childe Harold, evolving from these
earlier ¬ctional selves, mutates quickly and repeatedly: the Giaour, the
Corsair, Lara, Manfred are all masks of Byron in the Childe Harold
line. But then so is the ¬gure of Napoleon in Byron™s famous Ode of
±±. Indeed, Napoleon is the ¬rst of Byron™s historical self-projections,
a collateral line which includes, among many others, Voltaire, Rousseau,
Dante, Tasso, Pulci, and a series of remarkable worldly characters who
lived during the Italian Renaissance.
The autobiographical aspects of Sardanapalus are equally plain and
need no rehearsing. But the work is not to be read simply as if Byron =
Sardanapalus, Zarina = Annabella, and Myrrha = Teresa. These his-
torical associations are invoked by indirection and only as special forms
of desire. “Sardanapalus” is recognizably “Byron” because we register
certain symmetries between constructs in the play and correspondences
in the world. Insofar as the play is an autobiographical work, it is carried
out in masquerade.
The symmetry between the triangle Byron / Annabella / Teresa and
Sardanapalus / Zarina / Myrrha, for example, acquires force because of
other, related symmetries. Crucial here are certain intertextual markers.
Myrrha is less a portrait of the historical Contessa Guiccioli than she is the
latest incarnation of the Byronic female known by various names, includ-
ing Leila, Zuleika, Gulnare, and Kaled. (At the most abstract political
level she represents the desire for freedom of those who feel themselves
in bondage.) She is, in short, the incarnation of Byronic dreams about
Romantic love and Romantic revolution “ highly equivocal dreams,
needless to say. For her part, the character of Zarina resembles Byron™s
wife only as she corresponds to certain of his more Romantic, post-
separation fantasies: Lady Byron not as the princess of parallelograms
or his moral Clytemnestra, but as an angel in the house. Zarina, Byron™s
imaginary portrait of the forgiving wife, recalls the woman addressed
in ±± by “Fare Thee Well!” and “Lines on Hearing that Lady Byron
was Ill.”
Such characters “ they are typically Byronic “ face in two direc-
tions, “referentially” toward certain socio-historical frameworks, and
“re¬‚exively” toward the poetical environments within which they are
aesthetically active. What is distinctive about Byron™s imaginative works,
including the dramas, is that they make the play of those double-faced
relationships their principal ¬eld of attention. Thus, we do not read “The
Lament of Tasso” as a study of the Italian poet, but as a poetical repre-
sentation of Byron in a contemporary act of imagining himself as Tasso.
Hero with a thousand faces
The subject of the poem is neither the Renaissance Italian poet nor the
Romantic English poet, it is the masquerade of their relations as they
get played out in the poem. The poetical subject is personal only in a
dramatically indirect way.
This important distinction has to be kept clearly in mind for those texts
that carry autobiographical references. Lord Byron-as-Sardanapalus is a
masquerade which gives Byron the power to expose and explore certain
interesting and important subjects. To stay for a moment with the evident
domestic salient of that masquerade, the play represents Zarina acting
out the role of the forgiving wife. This is a role in which Byron tried, quite
unsuccessfully, to cast his wife from the earliest period of their separation
in ±±µ. It is the role he offered, and she refused, most famously in “Fare
Thee Well!” But in the more elaborate ¬ctional world of Sardanapalus,
Byron “ for better and for worse “ gets his wish.
The key text here is Act IV of Byron™s play, which contains one of
Byron™s most elaborately coded examples of secret (or half-secret) writing.
At the level of the semi-private code, the text is addressed to the three
women who, in ±±, most dominated his conscious thoughts: that is
to say, Teresa Guiccioli, Augusta Leigh, and Lady Byron. A reading of
Act IV imagined from each of their very different points of view seems
to me a necessary reference point for any further acts of reading. In this
essay, however, I shall concentrate only on the interpretive horizon which
opens up when we think of the text in relation to that psychic ¬eld which
in Byron™s discourse is named “Lady Byron.”
This small drama of the king and queen is one of the play™s most fasci-
nating interludes. In the historically correlative events recalled through
the play, Lady Byron rebuffed all of Byron™s repentant confessions of error
and efforts at reconciliation. To her he was simply bad and untrustwor-
thy, and his overtures were seen as part of a cunning policy to regain
power over her. In Byron™s play, however, things appear, and turn out,
very differently. Lady Byron as Zarina does indeed, once again, rebuff
“her lord” and his professions of repentance, but this time she appears
not as cold and removed, but as sympathetic and benevolent.
The scene opens with an interchange between the king and queen
that is astonishing in its autobiographical directness:

Sar.: Your brother said,
It was your will to see me, ere you went
[he hesitates
From Nineveh with”
Zar.: Our children: it is true.
± Byron and Romanticism
I wish™d to thank you that you have not divided
My heart from all that™s left it now to love”
Those who are yours and mine, who look like you,
And look upon me as you look™d upon me
(IV, i, µ± “µ)

Lady Byron™s greatest fear, throughout the separation, was that Byron
would seek to gain custody of their child. This he did not try to do.
Through this text Byron has addressed his wife all but explicitly, recalling
to mind how he dealt with her about their daughter Ada. In the drama,
this interchange is important as an unmistakable cue to the intimate talk
that is going on just below the public level of the play.
Later in the scene Zarina listens to her husband catalogue his sins and
errors. The queen, however, brushes all such recriminations aside. She
refuses to think in such terms. Love, however wronged, conquers all: that
is her theme.

Sar.: Our annals draw perchance unto their close;
But at the least, whate™er the past, their end
Shall be like their beginning”memorable.
Zar.: Yet, be not rash”be careful of your life,
Live but for those who love.
Sar.: And who are they?
A slave, who loves from passion”I™ll not say
Ambition”she has seen thrones shake, and loves;
A few friends who have revell™d till we are
As one, for they are nothing if I fall;
A brother I have injured”children whom
I have neglected, and a spouse”
Zar.: Who loves.
Sar.: And pardons?
Zar. I have never thought of this,
I cannot pardon till I have condemn™d.
(IV, i, “°)

The text clearly exhibits Byron™s poetry of masquerade, where what
he liked to call “realities” are represented in the form of conscious
pseudodisguise. Byron wants his audience (and in particular certain of
his audiences) to see both the similarities and the differences between
Zarina, Sardanapalus, and their immediate life-originals. Seeing them,
however, exposes the text™s witty and wicked ironies. Zarina™s way of
refusing to pardon her husband amounts to a critical commentary upon
a similar resoluteness in Lady Byron toward her husband.
Hero with a thousand faces
But of course Zarina here functions “ as she does throughout the play “
not as “Lady Byron” but as Lord Byron™s emanation “ an imaginary
Lady Byron whom he conjures partly to reproach the real living woman
(even as the ¬ctional wife refuses to reproach Byron™s masquerade-¬gure,
the Assyrian king). The strength of the text emerges precisely from the
explicitness of the masquerading talk, from the evidently self-serving
character of Byron™s textual manipulations. But Byron™s ironies turn
back upon himself “ the ironies are perceived as self-serving “ because
the text as a masquerade is necessarily opened to points of view that
must and will see what is being said here in ways that do not correspond
to Byron™s ways.
Such a scene multiplies interesting complications. Most immediate “
at the simple level of the plot of the play “ is the problem of how to
separate the now-reconciled husband and wife. This is managed jointly
by Sardanapalus and Salemenes, Zarina™s brother and the king™s prin-
cipal supporter and advisor. Salemenes comes to drag the reluctant and
fainting queen from her husband because, he says, she and her children
must be saved from the impending disaster. The king ruefully agrees to
this policy, which he also translates into more personal terms:

Zarina, he hath spoken well, and we
Must yield awhile to this necessity.
Remaining here, you may lose all; departing,
You save the better part of what is left . . .
Go, then. If e™er we meet again, perhaps
I may be worthier of you”and, if not,
Remember that my faults, though not atoned for,
Are ended. Yet, I dread thy nature will
Grieve more above the blighted name and ashes
Which once were mightiest in Assyria”
(IV, i, “·, °“µ)

All this would translate into the merest claptrap were we not seeing
the text as a masquerade involving two ¬ctional characters who are
never named in the play, Lord and Lady Byron. When we register those
invisible presences, the texts turn deeply and even savagely comical.
Here, for example, the projection of Lady Byron in perpetual grief for
the “blighted name and ashes” of her estranged husband is grotesque,
set against the “realities.” But is that image any less grotesque than
Sardanapalus™ thought, repeated throughout this scene, that his wife is
too good for him?
± Byron and Romanticism
In handling his text as a masquerade, Byron is manipulating it for
certain personal ends “ in this case, as in the earlier “Fare Thee Well!”
to forge indirectly a sympathetic image of himself. Byron is of course
quite conscious of what he is doing. At a crucial point in this scene, as
Salemenes is attempting to force the queen away, she resists:

Zar.: I must remain”away! you shall not hold me.
What, shall he die alone”I live alone?
Sal.: He shall not die alone; but lonely you
Have lived for years.
Zar.: That™s false! I knew he lived,
And lived upon his image”let me go.
(IV.i. °“±°)

Salemenes does not mince words with his sister: the king is an adulterer
who has neglected his wife and who will die in the arms of his mistress.
To Zarina, however, all that is mere “reality,” for she is devoted to an
imaginary form of Sardanapalus, to a sublimed “image.”µ
Read literally, the text will appear clumsy and sentimental “ though
we shall also come to see that we cannot altogether dispense with this
literal reading, that it is a necessary feature of the poetical effect. As a
masquerade, however, the text is something different, and far more com-
plex. We probably respond ¬rst to the shocking aspect of the scene “ to
the exposure of an imagination of sexual and domestic relations which,
in the Romantic period, is most strongly revealed in the texts of Blake,
Mary Shelley, and Laetitia Elizabeth Landon. What is shocking here


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