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is not the simple fact of the illusionism of these Romantic ties, but the
darker truth that the victims of these illusions are also their conscious
constructors. Zarina is devoted to an “image” of Sardanapalus because
she is Lord Byron™s emanation in this text, the index of his illusory
This aspect of the scene emerges only when we observe Byron the
poet as the principal character in the text, the key ¬gure generating the
agon of his perceptions and misperceptions. Byron puts on a mask and
is able to tell the truth about himself “ a truth that comes across only
because the text at the literal level is an imaginary execution of the denial
of that truth. The text displays Byron, and perhaps his wife as well, as
¬gures who have been playing a masquerade of their domestic and am-
atory connections. In Sardanapalus Byron translates Zarina™s benevolent
posture toward her husband into a mordant re¬‚ection upon Lady Byron™s
coldness and intransigence. But this critical re¬‚ection necessarily reverses
Hero with a thousand faces
direction when it is situated in the aesthetic space of the play, where the
transformational laws of metaphor and metonymy rule.
Those laws, however, also reverse the cruelty of the text, and allow us
to glimpse one of its unguessed and more sympathetic horizons. Thus,
when we read the phrase “He shall not die alone” as a reference to Myrrha,
and a dramatic prolepsis of the play™s ¬nal immolation scene, the mas-
querading text (with its referential demands) also summons Lord Byron
and contemporary Greece into the play. Byron will not die in Missolonghi
until ±, and Sardanapalus was written in ±±. Nevertheless, by making
his historical self a character in his poem, Byron opens this passage to
the futurities which are so essential to this play™s desire. Those futurities
are most fully represented in the king™s ¬nal long soliloquy, at the end of
the ¬fth act. However we read that last, highly equivocal text, this much
is clear: that Byron™s poem is able to realize an imagination of its own
self-transcendence, a survival from the wreckage of its self-deceptions
and stupidities:
But there is that within me which shall tire
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;
Something unearthly, which they deem not of,
Like the remembered tone of a mute lyre.
(Childe Harold iv, st. ±·)

By representing itself in these heroic terms, such a survival seems, in
the Childe Harold context, at once splendid and ridiculous. Domestic
disorders, Byron™s middle-class sorrows, undermine his grand gestures.
But a play like Sardanapalus makes it very clear that the transcendence
here spoken can only be constructed on comic, even ridiculous, grounds.
The grotesque features of Childe Harold™s sublimities are essential to the
work, and ultimately function to satirize and deconstruct the reader™s
correspondently sublimed poetical expectations. Byron™s Sardanapalus
enters into his glory precisely because he is a fop, and because Byron™s
text is unembarrassed by that fact. The autobiographical equivalent of
the king™s absurdities are Byron™s petty self-justi¬cations and deceptions,
which are equally a subject of the text. In Sardanapalus, as in Manfred,
Byron sets his poetical house in a place of excrement, the foul rag-and-
bone shop of his cruel and ridiculous heart. That heart thereby exposes
its truth precisely by striking sympathetic poses, by putting on masks that
cover a will to power. An exorcism of the will to power follows upon these
cunning masquerades, and the possibility of a redemption that will not
merely disguise further enchantments.
± Byron and Romanticism


Let me try to generalize what Byron is doing in these kinds of texts before
I turn to a few more examples of the method. Brie¬‚y, Byron puts on the
mask of Sardanapalus in order to tell certain truths about the life he has
known and lived. From a structural point of view, the scene with Zarina
should be read not as if it were a drama, addressed to a large and gen-
eral audience, but as if it were a masquerade, a closet drama performed
by and for the actors involved. In the present instance I am imagining
it as it is addressed to Lady Byron by Lord Byron. Other interpretive
emphases are imaginable, and are anticipated in the text. For example,
though the ¬gure of Myrrha/Teresa does not appear in this scene, her
presence is strongly felt, so that the text is also imaginable as a mas-
querade in which she too is involved. Whatever the frame of reference,
Byron™s masquerades are requests (or perhaps temptations) for someone
to play a correspondent part in the imagined scene. Beppo and Don Juan
are full of these wicked and seductive invitations. The Sardanapalus/
Zarina relationship is a poetical ¬gure, a ¬ction disguising the correla-
tive relationship Lord Byron/Lady Byron.
As in the famous cases of Manfred and Don Juan, Byron makes per-
sonal allusions to his texts that he expects his audience(s) to register.
Unlike Wordsworth™s Lucy poems, where the personal elements are
forced to operate at an unconscious level, Byron™s work uses masquerade
as a device for breaking down the censors of consciousness. Particular
readers are called into the texts by Byron™s constructive imagination.
As a consequence, Byron “ or rather, Byron™s textual seductions and
manipulations “ becomes the principal subject of his own ¬ctions.
The best gloss on texts of this kind, therefore, is a passage like the
following, from Manfred:

There is a power upon me which withholds
And makes it my fatality to live;
If it be life to wear within myself
This barrenness of spirit, and to be
My own soul™s sepulchre, for I have ceased
To justify my deeds unto myself”
(±, , “)
The last in¬rmity of evil.

Byron, like Manfred, ceases to justify himself in his Romantic imagina-
tions only when he makes those imaginations the self-conscious subject
of his work. There is a power working upon Byron forcing him to display
Hero with a thousand faces
those aspects of the imagination that are seldom exposed to view: those
self-justifying desires and needs that constitute, according to this pene-
trating text, a person™s ultimate “barrenness of spirit.” In Byron, as in all
the Romantic poets, the “last in¬rmity of evil” is exactly the belief that
one can know one™s self, and hence be master of the (poetical) deeds that
are the (illusory) self ™s justi¬cation.
In Sardanapalus the imagination of Zarina (i.e., both Byron™s imag-
ination of her, and her imagination of her lord) is so arranged as to
move at the plot level outside the dynamics of justi¬cation and even
forgiveness. The two terms are closely related for Byron, of course,
as we know from the famous passage toward the end of Canto IV of
Childe Harold, where Byron “ now in acknowledged masquerade as Childe
Harold “ utters his thunderous forgiveness-curse upon his enemies and

a far hour shall wreak
The deep prophetic fullness of this verse,
And pile on human heads the mountain of my curse!
That curse shall be Forgiveness.”Have I not”
Hear me, my mother Earth! behold it, Heaven!”
Have I not had to wrestle with my lot?
Have I not suffered things to be forgiven?
(sts. ±“±µ)

The self-justi¬cation is one with the curse, and the equivocal words
descend alike on the just and the unjust, on the speaker and on all those
for whom, and to whom, he speaks.
Act I of Shelley™s Prometheus Unbound involves a conscious interpretive
replication of this text from Byron. As we would expect from Shelley, his
is a text that presages ultimate freedom through knowledge and the de-
liverance of mind. In Byron™s case, however, “The Tree of Knowledge is
not that of Life” (Manfred, I, i, ±), and it never is. Rather, as the same
text from Manfred declares, “Sorrow is knowledge” “ which is not at all
the same thing as to say “Knowledge is sorrow.”
In the Byronic world, if one is truly committed to an intellectual exis-
tence, then one must forgo all those resolutions whose ultimate ¬gura
is happiness. The intellectual life, as Blake also saw, is a perpetual
agon, and Byron™s Satan, at the end of Act II of Cain, gives the most
complete expression to Byron™s conception of a “spiritual” and intellec-
tual existence:
±µ° Byron and Romanticism
One good gift has the fatal apple given”
Your reason:”let it not be oversway™d
™Gainst all external sense and inward feeling:
Think and endure, and form an inner world
In your own bosom”where the outward fails;
So shall you nearer be the spiritual
Nature, and war triumphant with your own.
(II, ii, °“)

Satan here is explicitly Byron™s emblem of the spiritual life. His posture
and his words are magni¬cent, but they achieve that condition only
because they have consciously chosen the tree of knowledge over the
tree of life, and hence have chosen sorrow over happiness.
The greatness of this text, however, depends upon our seeing that it
is addressed to someone else “ most immediately to Cain, but ¬nally to
anyone, ourselves included. The speech is a challenge and a temptation
in which a great prize is offered to those who can choose it; but it is
a prize for which one must pay a terrible price: in the end, “all that a
man” or a woman hath. Satan™s great knowledge, his supreme conscious-
ness, may be had, presumably, by anyone. To acquire it, however, one
must consciously choose to share his consciousness, one must consciously
choose damnation and what damnation represents, the pain of ultimate
loss, an existence of perpetual suffering. Anything less “ anything more
resolved or synthetic “ is here, paradoxically, a departure from the life of
This discussion of Byron™s ideas about knowledge as suffering is rele-
vant to Sardanapalus and to Byron™s poetry of masquerade. Zarina™s benev-
olent posture toward her husband recalls, for example, Julia™s farewell
letter to Juan when she tells him simply “I™ve nothing to reproach, or to
request” (I, st. ±). In each case mildness descends upon the text like a
new vision of judgment. “Elle vous suit partout” is the sign under which
Juan™s life of emergent unhappiness and disaster unfolds, paradoxically,
under a comic and satirized horizon. In Sardanapalus Zarina™s love is the
spring that releases the king to his tragi-comical sorrows. To this point in
the play Sardanapalus has been relatively untouched by either sorrow or
knowledge, despite the fact that his entire world stands on the brink of ex-
tinction. The more he is judged (as good or bad or both) by those around
him “ by Salemenes, by the conspirators, even by Myrrha “ the more he
seems to gravitate to an amoral, Lucretian existence (“Eat, drink, and
love; the rest™s not worth a ¬llip” [I, ii, µ]). Zarina™s refusal to judge
him comes, therefore, as a redemptive sign, and opens for Sardanapalus
space for a vision of judgment:
Hero with a thousand faces
My gentle, wrong™d Zarina!
I am the very slave of circumstance
And impulse”borne away with every breath!
Misplaced upon the throne, misplaced in life.
I know not what I could have been, but feel
I am not what I should be”let it end . . .
I was not form™d
To prize a love like thine, a mind like thine,
Nor doat even on thy beauty”as I™ve doated
On lesser charms, for no cause save that such
Devotion was a duty, and I hated
All that looked like a chain for me or others.
(IV, i, “°)

Masquerading in public as Sardanapalus, Byron frees himself to deliver
this set of judgments on himself. Devoted to an image, Zarina now can
listen to that illusionary icon deliver up some of its melancholy truths,
like some new statue of Memnon.
Such a text pitches us back to Byron™s “[Epistle to Augusta]” of ±± “
but most emphatically not to the two other pieces he addressed to his
sister at that time. Those other two poems were published as part of his
domestic warfare, as part of his campaign to make a public triumph over
his wife and her supporters. In that campaign Augusta was to function
as the gentle foil to his ferocious wife, so that the two published pieces
“to” Augusta came as massive acts of public self-justi¬cation. Like “Fare
Thee Well!” the two sets of “Stanzas” to Augusta are duplicitous and
hypocritical works, and all the more wicked for the way they involved
Byron™s sister in their machinations.
The “[Epistle to Augusta]” is, by contrast, a private poem addressed
directly to Augusta and written to remain in manuscript. Not a poem in
masquerade, it is a personal meditation on the conditions that call out
the poetry of masquerade.

With false Ambition what had I to do?
Little with love, and least of all with fame!
And yet they came unsought and with me grew,
And made me all which they can make”a Name.

Byron wants to keep the poem in manuscript, addressed only to Augusta,
because he is struggling to imagine himself as something other than a
text, an “image,” a “name.” It is a vain and self-contradictory desire,
belied even as it is expressed, and when the “[Epistle to Augusta]” does
±µ Byron and Romanticism
¬nally appear “ when it is posthumously published “ it comes to its more
general audience as a ¬ction or masquerade of Byron™s desire for a pure
self and a poetry of sincerity.
By attempting to situate his poem in private, in a space imagined as
set apart from the murky and impure con¬‚icts of right and wrong, of
good and evil, Byron approaches his vision of judgment:
The fault was mine”nor do I seek to screen
My errors with defensive paradox”
I have been cunning in mine overthrow
The careful pilot of my proper woe.
(± “)

It is a splendid poem in which a person who has completely lost his
way seeks to make nothing from that loss. Candor and self-knowledge
come and go as untransformed and untransformative conditions. The
dialectics of loss and gain implode in an imagination that no longer tries
to draw illusory distinctions between them: “But now I fain would for a
time survive / If but to see what next can well arrive” (± “). This is the
wisdom that, according to Manfred, is “born from the knowledge of its
own desert” (Manfred, , , ). It is the wisdom that casts a cold eye on life
and death alike. Let life go on or, as Sardanapalus says, “let it end”: when
the illusionistic character of existence is Byronically constructed, either
event is equally imaginable, because existence is being imagined beyond
the dialectics of desire and indifference. The consummate expression
of such an intelligence appears as Don Juan, which is Byron™s Memoirs
written in the form of masquerade, and under the following thematic
sign: “In play, there are two pleasures for your choosing “ /The one is
winning, and the other losing” (DJ, XIV, st. ±).


After Yeats (and to a certain extent Pound), when we think of a theory of
masking we imagine it as a device toward “the heart™s discovery of itself.”·
In this view the mask is a vehicle for introspective revelation “ for that
Socratic self-understanding we commonly pair with science as one of the
two types of knowledge human beings have imagined for themselves.


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