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The type of masking that Wilde both theorized and executed, and
that we see displayed throughout Byron™s work, is quite different. Not
that their masks could not be used for introspective exercises. Byron
certainly meant to use the mask of Childe Harold in order to objectify
±µ
Hero with a thousand faces
himself to himself, in order to know himself more clearly; and the same
is true of those many other masks he fashioned, particularly in the years
±±“±±µ. Nevertheless, even as Byron employed this type of masking
he clearly found the method unsatisfactory:

Could I embody and unbosom now
That which is most within me,”could I wreak
My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
Soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or weak,
All that I would have sought, and all I seek,
Bear, know, feel, and yet breathe”into one word,
And that one word were Lightning, I would speak;
But as it is, I live and die unheard,
With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword.
(Childe Harold III, st. ·)

Mask after mask is fashioned but to no redemptive avail. Worse, as
Manfred and the “[Epistle to Augusta]” show, the masks rise up to re-
proach Byron as mere nominal and imaginary forms: names, images,
illusions. They are his circus animals, the creatures of his cunning
schemes of self-baf¬‚ement, because they are, after all, only his constructs,
only his self-imaginings. They perform according to his poetical orders,
whether he is aware of those orders or not. At best they give him only
further ¬gurae of what he is, further ranges of desire he, by himself, might
imagine.
It seems clear to me that in ±± Byron ¬nally grasped the problem
of the self-limits of imagination. The Separation Poems, Childe Harold
Canto III, and especially Manfred are the texts through which Byron
moved his poetry beyond the device of masks and into the dangerous
scenarios of masquerade. Where masking is personal and introspective
(or, as on the Greek stage, impersonal and mythic), masquerade is inter-
personal and social. In the masquerade Byron™s creative or constructive
self moves into a space where he can no longer imagine or control the
range of interactive relations that the masquerade makes possible. Byron
writes and directs the intimate dramas of his work, but he ¬nds himself,
as writer and director, taking part in the action, and therefore falling subject
to the action: as participant in the interpersonal exchange, and as the
spectacular focus of a more generalized attention. The knowledge that
emerges from this dynamic is neither subjective nor objective, it is social:
an objective display of interpersonal relations lying open to an inde¬nite
range of alterations from within and from without.
±µ Byron and Romanticism
Of course, because Byron “ unlike Wilde “ operates out of a Romantic
ideology, these masquerades in his work come to us in a subjective mode.
Wilde is not a character in The Importance of Being Earnest or The Picture
of Dorian Gray as Byron is a character in the Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte
and Manfred and The Lament of Tasso. Sardanapalus, for its part, makes a
gruesome and pitiless comedy of Byron™s domestic and erotic relations.
The play licenses Byron to imagine those relations in a series of connected
masquerades that call out to certain speci¬c persons, and invite them to
assume certain roles. In making those invitations, however, Byron has
brought imaginations into his texts that are not his in any sense, and
that may wield their own authority, including authority over his own
imaginations. At least three (but usually four) individuals are needed if
one is to play at masquerade.
Besides one™s conscious self, there is, in addition, the mask one assumes.
The mask has a life of its own and cannot simply be manipulated by
the poetical mind. In Canto III of Don Juan, for example, Byron stages
a complex masquerade with his famous “The Isles of Greece” lyric.
Lambro™s court poet is represented as Robert Southey in a revealing
costume. But this masked ¬gure is also the emanation of the poet himself,
who enters the text under its double disguise. As the satiric exposure of
Southey unfolds in this text, therefore, it also turns back upon its maker,
and the poem creates an extraordinary identi¬cation of Byron with his
most hated “self,” the Poet Laureate. The costume which Byron had
fashioned for Southey becomes, for Byron, a kind of Nessus-shirt.
A similar kind of double-disguise operates in the ¬rst two acts of
Sardanapalus. In this case we have to register one of the play™s witty top-
ical allusions. It comes at the ¬rst entrance of the king who appears,
according to the stage direction, “Effeminately dressed, his Head crowned with
Flowers, and his Robe negligently ¬‚owing, attended by a Train of Women and young
Slaves”:

Let the pavilion over the Euphrates
Be garlanded, and lit, and furnish™d forth
For an especial banquet; at the hour
Of midnight we will sup there: see nought wanting,
And bid the galley be prepared. There is
A cooling breeze which crisps the broad clear river:
(I, ii, ± “·)
We will embark anon.

This pavilion is the play™s principal emblem of the king™s despotic oriental
voluptuousness. It is not, however, exactly what it appears to be. Through
±µµ
Hero with a thousand faces
it Byron is glancing satirically at George IV, who spent millions furbishing
the Brighton Pavilion as his exotic pleasure dome. The “Paradise of
Pleasure and Ennui ” (DJ, XIV, st. ±·) that, for Byron, summed up the
world of the Regency is recalled to our attention in the sybaritic scenery
of Byron™s play.
In Canto XIV of Don Juan Byron refers directly to the Brighton
Pavilion, which he properly identi¬es with King George. “Shut up “ no,
not the King, but the Pavilion, / Or else ™twill cost us all another million”
(st. ). The satire of this text helps to explain the more equivocal
function of the pavilion in Sardanapalus. If the Assyrian king is in
one obvious respect a mask of Byron, he is, in another, a mask of
George IV. As a mask of the English king, Sardanapalus becomes a
double-disguise in exactly the same way that Lambro™s court poet does
in Don Juan. Playing masquerades of this kind forces Byron to become
what he beholds, to re¬‚ect himself in the guise of the last, and most
contemptible, of the English Georges.±°
To write in this way is to be cunning in one™s own overthrow. In these
cases we are astonished at the boldness of Byron™s self-exposures, at the
self-conscious level of his critical moves. Byron puts on a mask, or a
double-mask, and seems to invite it to exert its own power over him.
By plunging his desires and consciousness into his poetical medium, he
surrenders his imagination and authority to alien orders, both malign
and benevolent. The masking texts are summoned to speak the truths
the poet in propria persona might not otherwise be able to tell.±±
Three times in his work Byron donned the mask of Napoleon “ in
the ±± Ode, in Canto III of Childe Harold (±±), and ¬nally in Don Juan,
Canto XI.± Although in each case the tone shifts with the poetical genre,
in all three the mask asserts its independent authority. Each time the text
passes a judgment upon the ¬gure of Napoleon, a translation occurs:
An empire thou couldst crush, command, rebuild,
But govern not thy pettiest passion, nor,
However deeply in men™s spirits skill™d,
Look through thine own, nor curb the lust of war.
(Childe Harold III, st. )

In poetic privacy to his sister, Byron will say the same things of himself.
Here the mask of Napoleon becomes Byron™s occasion of making the
truth public.
But quiet to quick bosoms is a hell,
And there hath been thy bane; there is a ¬re
±µ Byron and Romanticism
And motion of the soul which will not dwell
In its own narrow being, but aspire
Beyond the ¬tting medium of desire.
(st. )

Of this “fever at the core” the text will say that it is “Fatal to him who
bears, to all who ever bore.” Yet this fatality, though in one sense a “bane”
and malignant condition, is in another a redemption, for it springs the
self free from “its own narrow being” and from every “¬tting medium
of desire.” The mask of Napoleon is what Blake would have called “the
death” of Lord Byron.
The autonomy of the mask, so far as the poetry of masquerade is con-
cerned, is matched by the integrity of the individual masquers. Byron
cannot play these deceptive games alone, his texts necessarily draw
others into the ¬ctional spaces he invents. The poetry invites others
to play a part in its action, and if the masks Byron assumes have set
limits on those that can be assumed in turn by others, the outcome of
these textual interactions stands beyond anyone™s, including the author™s,
control.
Manfred is a good index of the dangerous freedom offered through these
masquerades.± In its original context at least three speci¬c women could
have been seen, or could have seen themselves, in the role of Astarte:
Lady Byron, Augusta, and Mary Chaworth-Musters. We know that the
¬rst two did assume the role: Augusta saw herself as Astarte and was ¬lled
with anxiety, whereas when Lady Byron ¬rst identi¬ed with that ¬gment,
she registered a kind of satisfaction.± In each case the text becomes a
kind of precipice that draws one on “ like Manfred, like Byron “ either
to the self or to the destruction of the self.
Canto XIV of Don Juan opens as an exercise in negotiating these pre-
cipitous kinds of text. The passage addresses the reader directly on the
problem of meaning, but in doing so it casts the reader in the role of
an interpreter, and speci¬cally an interpreter of poetical texts “ most
immediately this text. The passage represents its mysteries as an abyss of
the self, “our own abyss / Of thought” (st. ±), so that knowledge appears
as the possibility of ultimate self-revelation.
You look down o™er the precipice, and drear
The gulf of rock yawns,”you can™t gaze a minute
Without an awful wish to plunge within it.
™Tis true, you don™t”but, pale and struck with terror,
Retire: but look into your past impression!
±µ·
Hero with a thousand faces
And you will ¬nd, though shuddering at the mirror
Of your own thoughts, in all their self-confession,
That lurking bias, be it truth or error,
To the unknown; a secret prepossession,
To plunge with all your fears”but where? You know not,
And that™s the reason why you do”or do not.
(DJ, XIV, sts. µ“)


A text of this kind does not have a meaning, cannot be solved. It is rather
temptation and threat, promise and invitation. More, it declares that
poetry is of such an order, and that its signi¬cance unfolds as a dynamic
of how its players do or do not choose to act in its terms. Byron™s readers
may succumb to, play with, or resist his spectacular intimacies. The
history of his work™s reception is a complex and fascinating story of
responses that have been as widespread as they are diverse. By the law
(or lawlessness) of these texts, every reader becomes, like “Every Poet,”
“his own Aristotle” (DJ, ±, st. °).
Being released into such a freedom, however, will prove as problematic
for the reader as for Byron. This is the point of the admonitory passage
from Canto XIV of Don Juan. Byron™s intimates and family connections
are not the only ones who come to play a part in Manfred. The notorious
secrecies of that drama are the sign under which the general reader
gets enlisted in the masquerade as spectator and interpreter. This is
the role, or mask, that Byron™s work always prepares for us. Of course
a poem™s interpreter “ like those “attendant Lord and Ladies” of the
play, or the audience in the theater “ can seem safely removed not so
much from the work™s complications, but from any dangers that might be
imagined a part of those complications. But in Byron, as the passage from
Canto XIV of Don Juan makes plain, one is required to assume those roles
at a risk. Indeed, a major function of this work is to remind readers that
they do not stand at a remove from the action. Like Brecht™s audience,
they are forced to play a role, and hence to confront themselves in the
objectivity that their role constructs. Baudelaire, one of Byron™s greatest
readers, understood perfectly the dynamics of the process: “Hypocrite
lecteur, mon semblable, mon fr` re.”
e
We think of ±± as a watershed moment in Byron™s career, and we
are right to think so. In ±± he was forced by “circumstance, that un-
spiritual god” (CHP, IV, st. ±µ) to confront the hypocrisies of Romantic
imagination “ its hypo-crises and its hypo-criticisms alike; in general
(and in terms of a contemporary idiom), its “hyped” condition. But we
±µ Byron and Romanticism
should not forget that the poetry of ±±“± is in certain important
ways only an extension of the earlier work. The Byronic Hero, fash-
ioned (in every sense) between ±± and ±±µ, is a hero with a thousand
faces “ what William Burroughs in our own day called a “soft machine.”
Sardanapalus, Satan and Cain both, Mazeppa, Tasso, Fletcher Christian
and Torquil, Juan and his narrator: like the Byronic Heroes of ±±“±±µ,
these are all ¬gures of the same order, poetical constructions designed to
summon their rhetorical doubles, Baudelaire™s hypocritical readers. Now
we tend to privilege the later ¬gures and works, but certain of the earlier
texts “ The Giaour and Parisina especially “ yield nothing to the poetry of
Byron™s exile. Both of those tales “ does this even need to be said? “ are
evident masquerades.


NOTES

± See “The Critic as Artist,” in The Artist as Critic. Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde,
ed. Richard Ellmann (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ±), .
 For a good related discussion of Byron™s treatment of such ¬gures see
Cheryl Fallon Giuliano, “Gulnare/Kaled™s ˜Untold™ Feminization of Byron™s
Oriental Tales,” in Studies in English Literature,  (±), ·µ“°·.
 The text of Byron™s poems, including Sardanapalus, is taken from Lord Byron.
The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome J. McGann (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, ±°“±), in seven volumes. Sardanapalus is in vol. VI, jointly edited by
McGann and Barry Weller. Prose references are to Byron™s Letters and Journals,
ed. Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray, ±·“±), here cited as
BLJ.
 See Byron™s comments upon The Bride of Abydos, where he spoke of it as
running too close to realities in Poetical Works, III, µ.
µ For an extended discussion of these sublime imaginary dialectics between
Byron and Lady Byron “ and, in general, between Byron and various women
who were attached to him in his life “ see James Soderholm™s important
study Fantasy, Forgery, and the Byron Legend (University of Kentuckey Press,
±).
 For Sardanapalus/Byron to speak of himself as “the . . . slave of circumstance”
(my emphasis) underscores the problematic nature of the masquerade here.
Byron was an abolitionist at a time when the slave trade was an important
issue in England (one recalls his famous aphorism that “There is no free-
dom, even for masters, in the midst of slaves” [BLJ, X, ±]); and of course
Sardanapalus is a monarch in a slave-holding society. It is, in other words,
the presence of Byron in the character of the king (and of the king in the
character of Byron) that gives such an edge to the word “slave” in the poetical
context.
· See Per Amica Silentia Lunae in Essays (London: Macmillan, ±), µ.
±µ
Hero with a thousand faces
 For a full discussion of this text see my “The Book of Byron and the Book of a
World,” in Social Values and Poetic Acts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, ±).
 Byron told John Murray that his play had no contemporary references to
“politics or personalities” (BLJ, VIII, ±µ), but his disclaimer can hardly be
taken seriously “ indeed, his remarks were probably meant to be seen as

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