<<

. 5
( 50 .)



>>

Satanic, and the measure of his judgment upon them is taken in his
lyric “Prometheus.” Like Shelley, Byron distinguished between the di-
vine rebellions of Satan on the one hand and Prometheus on the other.
His Satanic heroes, all “errant on dark ways diverse,” are properly self-
destroyed. But Prometheus is the innocent victim of an arbitrary exter-
nal power. Far from making war on man, as Byron™s Satanic heroes do,
Prometheus is marvellously humanitarian. In Byron™s terms he is not a
tragic ¬gure at all.
 Byron and Romanticism
But while this distinction between the Promethean and the Satanic
in Byron is necessary, the poems quite clearly represent even the most
reprobate of Byron™s heroes in a sympathetic way. The following remarks
of Byron to Lady Blessington explain the reason for his sympathetic
portraits of bad men.

It is my respect for morals that makes me so indignant against its vile substitute cant, with
which I wage war, and this the good-natured world chooses to consider as a sign
of my wickedness. We are all the creatures of circumstance, the greater part of our
errors are caused, if not excused, by events and situations over which we have
had little control; the world see the faults, but they see not what led to them:
therefore I am always lenient to crimes that have brought their own punishment,
while I am a little disposed to pity those who think they atone for their own sins
by exposing those of others, and add cant and hypocrisy to the catalogue of their vices.

Thus speaks Byron the genteel reformer. His famous tales of guilty ad-
venturers are all exercises in which sympathy is evoked for the hero by
forcing the reader to consider all the circumstances of the case. The
reader is asked not to excuse but to seek understanding.

There was in him a vital scorn of all;
As if the worst had fall™n which could befall,
He stood a stranger in this breathing world,
An erring spirit from another hurl™d;
A thing of dark imaginings, that shaped
By choice the perils he by chance escaped;
But ™scaped in vain, for in their memory yet
His mind would half exult and half regret.
With more capacity for love than earth
Bestows on most of mortal mould and birth,
His early dreams of good outstripp™d the truth,
And troubled manhood follow™d baf¬‚ed youth;
with thought of years in phantom chase misspent,
And wasted powers for better purpose lent;
And ¬ery passions that had pour™d their wrath
In hurried desolation o™er his path,
And left the better feelings all at strife
In wild re¬‚ection o™er his stormy life;
But haughty still and loth himself to blame,
He call™d on Nature™s self to share the shame,
And charged all faults upon the ¬‚eshly form
She gave to clog the soul, and feast the worm;
Till he at last confounded good and ill,
And half mistook for fate the acts of will.
(Lara I, ±“)
µ
Milton and Byron
Such men are vital because they are so problematic. The verse runs us
through a series of paradoxes and contradictory circumstances. Indeed,
the rushing movement of these portraits is essential to their effect, for the
reader is meant to be struck with a sense that, though one may understand
the nature and causes of the detailed situation, one must always remain
behindhand with solutions. Too many factors are inevitably involved in
human affairs, something crucial is always beyond one™s control. Just as
the Byronic hero™s life is confounded equally in his will and in his fate,
so the reader™s schemes for moral order “ whatever they may be “ are
confounded by Byron™s presentation. Our sympathy for such a man is
the melancholy sign of human ineffectuality. Indeed, the Byronic hero
illustrates in his life what the reader, meeting him, discovers in himself.
They “prove nothing”; rather, they raise questions.±°
To instil in the reader a dislocated and melancholy intelligence is
the primary function of the Byronic hero, who is, therefore, another of
Byron™s devices for making war on “cant.” All Byronic heroes are almost
hypnotically fascinating. The monks in The Giaour fear to look upon the
hero of that tale because his very appearance troubles their consciences.
The effect he produces is typical of the whole species.

With all that chilling mystery of mien,
And seeming gladness to remain unseen,
He sad (if ™twere not nature™s boon) an art
Of ¬xing memory on another™s heart:
It was not love perchance, nor hate, nor aught
That words can image to express the thought;
But they who saw him did not see in vain,
And once beheld, would ask of him again:
And those to whom he spake remember™d well,
And on the words, however light, would dwell:
None knew, nor how, nor why, but he entwined
Himself perforce around the hearer™s mind;
There he was stamp™d, in liking, or in hate,
If greeted once; however brief the date
That friendship, pity, or aversion knew,
Still there within the inmost thought he grew.
You could not penetrate his soul, but found,
Despite your wonder, to your own he wound;
His presence haunted still; and from the breast
He forced an all unwilling interest:
Vain was the struggle in that mental net,
His spirit seem™d to dare you to forget!
(Lara, I, ± “)
 Byron and Romanticism
One dares not forget the sight of such a man because he is a living
challenge to the comforts of undemanding and conventional ethics. To
have known the Byronic hero is to have discovered a new and terrifying
problematics of morality.
For in¬nite as boundless space
The thought that Conscience must embrace,
Which in itself can comprehend
Woe without name, or hope, or end.
(The Giaour, ·“·)

Sorrows and disasters hunt the Byronic hero because he remains, in some
radical way, unprotected. Ordinary men are ordinary not merely because
they do not suffer in the nets of circumstance which have trapped these
heroes, but even more because they do not see the true complexities of
good and evil. Ordinary men are protected by their ordinary mortalities,
by cant.
He knew himself a villain, but he deem™d
The rest no better than the thing he seem™d;
And scorn™d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
(The Corsair, I, µ“)

As Marino Faliero observes: “I am not innocent “ but are these guiltless?”
(V, iii, °). His question illustrates the re¬‚exive purpose of the Byronic
hero™s life. Meditating on the obscure complexities of this ¬gure, the
reader is thrown back on himself. The Corsair is a fearful object of
scrutiny not because of what he reveals about himself but because he
threatens to expose to the observer his own hidden heart.
Though smooth his voice, and calm his general mien,
Still seems there something he would not have seen:
His features™ deepening lines and varying hue
At times attracted, yet perplex™d the view,
As if within that murkiness of mind
Word™d feelings fearful and yet unde¬n™d;
Such might it be”that none could truly tell”
Too close inquiry his stern glance would quell.
There breathe but few whose aspect might defy
The full encounter of his searching eye:
He had the skill, when Cunning™s gaze would seek
To probe his heart and watch his changing cheek,
At once the observer™s purpose to espy,
·
Milton and Byron
And on himself roll back his scrutiny,
Lest he to Conrad rather should betray
Some secret thought, than drag that chief ™s to day.
(The Corsair, I, °·“)


The inscrutable appearance of Conrad is a mirror in which the observer
sees his own life in a clari¬ed extreme. To the reader the Byronic hero
whispers, threatens a self-revelation.
This special quality of the Byronic hero sets him apart from most
Gothic villains, who served, however, as Byron™s immediate inspiration.
For the typical Gothic villain does not set out to promote a radical cri-
tique of established moral issues. Circumstances have indeed warped
Ambrosio™s character, as they have warped Karl Moor, but in both cases
we never doubt the rightness of an essential, and discoverable, code of
values. A sense of prevenient order is always present in the pre-Byronic
treatment of the hero-villain. But Byron™s tales and plays achieved their
enormous in¬‚uence, and sometimes bad reputation, because their heroes
forced the reader to a more searching inquiry into norms for order and
value. We say that they are skeptical, and problematic, for they do not
allow things to come out right in the end. We are always left wondering
about the events and puzzling over their signi¬cance.
This quality in, for example, The Giaour, or Lara, or Cain, is the neces-
sary consequence of Byron™s “existential” reading of Aristotle on tragic
effect. The “end” of tragedy, Byron remarked, is pity and fear, but he
says nothing about the purgation of these emotions and the restoration
of a ¬nal sense of order. Byron™s reading of Aristotle stays in medias res just
as his tales and plays characteristically refuse to set the problems they
raise within a context of comfort, understanding, and government.
Pre-Byronic hero-villains are sentimental ¬gures because they ¬nally
set aside the intellectual issues which they themselves have raised for
us. But the Byronic hero carries out his skeptical programs. This is why
Byron™s tales and plays are actively intellectual works, whereas The Monk
and The Italian and Die R¨ uber at some point rein in their questionings
a
and set the reader™s consciousness at rest.
Byron seems to have sensed this moderating quality in most Gothic
treatments of the hero-villain. Milton, however, the unwitting father of
these ¬gures, he speci¬cally excepted. Milton™s mind, Byron says, is as
searching and unsettled as his own. Indeed, Milton™s mind is not only not
made up, it positively avoids “argument” on a system or “proof ” for a set
of ¬xed ideas. He too provokes one to wonder about the issues involved
 Byron and Romanticism
in his epics by his non-dogmatic handling of certain very dogmatically
conditioned materials. Most modern scholars would agree with Leigh
Hunt, and disagree with Byron, about the belief structure of Milton™s
epics. That is another scholarly issue altogether. What is certain is that
Milton was a signal in¬‚uence not only upon the details which make
up a portrait of the Byronic hero, but upon Byron™s peculiarly skeptical
treatment of that hero and his milieu. The intellectual freedom which
Milton championed assumed a new and wilder form when it rose again,
under Milton™s own in¬‚uence, in Byron. One is probably safe in assuming
that Milton would not have approved “ would probably have disavowed “
his wayward offspring. But then fathers from at least the time of Jahweh
have always fallen out with those children most fashioned in their own
image and likeness.
In April ±± “ less than a year before his marriage and just two years
before he was to leave England for good “ Byron composed a poem
on one of his greatest heroes. The Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, at once a
lament and a denunciation, was soon to acquire a weirdly self-re¬‚exive
dimension. Of the fallen Emperor Byron writes:
Since he, miscall™d the Morning Star,
Nor man nor ¬end hath fallen so far.
(Stanza ±)

Byron™s own fall from society, via his falling out with his wife, was a
descent of similar notoriety, and “ so it came to seem for Byron “ of
equal signi¬cance and magnitude. Of the Giaour Byron had written, in
remembrance of Milton, that nothing “could quell / Thy soul, till from
itself it fell.” Napoleon too, the Ode tells us, is another hero fallen from
himself. Byron was quick to see in his own life this pattern of eminence
and degradation when the appropriate time came. In exile in Switzerland
he writes to his sister:
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.
(“[Epistle to Augusta],” ± “)

The last two lines draw Byron into the Miltonic company of the self-
fallen and self-condemned. But the ¬rst two lines of the passage, though
not themselves Miltonic, distinctly echo an important Miltonic passage
in Manfred.

Milton and Byron
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”
(I, ii, “)
The last in¬rmity of evil.
The allusion to “Lycidas”±± (“Fame is the spur . . . That last in¬rmity of
noble minds”) occurs in a passage full of signi¬cance for Byron. Manfred
is a nakedly autobiographical piece in which Byron tries to represent
what sort of life can remain for a man once he knows not only that his
soul is a sepulchre, but that he himself has made it so. In the “[Epistle to
Augusta],” where he says that “The world is all before me,”± the way
he ¬nally takes is at least as solitary and problematic as Adam and Eve™s.
But in Manfred, if the circumstances are equivocal and lonely throughout,
the hero comes not only to accept his own barrenness of spirit, but even
to ¬nd in such desolation an unexpected gift (see the pun on “desert” in
Manfred, III, iv, ±, quoted below). Echoing Milton once again, Byron
establishes Satan as Manfred™s ancestor: “on his brow / The thunder-
scars are graven” (III, iv, ·“··).± But Byron™s Satanic hero takes the
famous dictum of Milton™s fallen angel
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
(P.L., I, µ“µµ)

and alters its signi¬cance as radically as he had altered the signi¬cance
of the “Lycidas” passage. Twice Byron echoes Satan™s famous remark
(III, i, ·°ff., and III, iv, ±ff.) and in each case we are given a glimpse of
the state of mind of a man who has freed himself of the last in¬rmity of
his own confessed evil. Gone is the possibility of any “defensive paradox”
or self-justi¬cation; if Manfred is to be born again, it will have to be from
the knowledge of his own desert. And so it is.
The mind which is immortal makes itself
Requital for its good or evil thoughts,
Is its own origin of ill and end,
And its own place and time; its innate sense,
When stripp™d of this mortality, derives
No colour from the ¬‚eeting things without,
But is absorb™d in sufferance or in joy,
Born from the knowledge of its own desert.
(III, iv, ±·“±)

<<

. 5
( 50 .)



>>