Sunday, September 19, 2010

Byron and the Great Romantics

Byrons Attitude towards Imagination
Byrons differs from his great contemporaries: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats—not merely in his low estimate of imagination but in the peculiar quality and power of his wit. Indeed his wit rises largely from his loss of belief in the imagination. He seems to say that all these fine ideas are rather ridiculous: we have only to look at them in practice to see what they mean and how unlike the reality is to the dream.
Of course, such a point of view was a natural product of the high society in which Byron had lived. The world of the Regency pursued its pleasures in an atmosphere of malice and mockery, and Byron had a fair share of both. But there was some thing else deep in his nature. His emotions and his intelligence were at war, and through wit he found some sort of reconciliation between them. If one side of him was given to wild dreams, another side saw that these could not be realised, and he resolved the discord with mockery. Indeed, the conflict was deeper than this. Even his emotions were at war with one another, and he w-ould pass by sudden leaps from love to hatred and from admiration to contempt. He was a true child of his age in the uncertainty of his temperament and its wayward responses to experience. But since he was extremely intelligent and observant, he did not deceive himself into thinking that all his responses were right. He marked their inconsistencies and treated them with ironi­cal disdain as part of our human imperfection. According to C.M. Bowra "Don -Juan is a criticism of the Romantic outlook because it says that human beings may have beau­tiful dreams but fail to live upto them."*
In embarking on this realistic and satirical task, Byron was careful not to exaggerate on certain matters which concerned him. He saw that though he had largely outlived his wilder notions or seen their limitations in actual life, they still counted for something and could not altogether be rejected. His aim was to put them in a true setting, to show- both their strength and their weakness, to assess them at their right worth. So his poem Don Juan moves, as it were on two lines. On the one hand he gives an abundance of delightful poetry to some subjects which the romantics would approve and which still appealed to him. On the other hand he stresses with wit and irony the defects and contradictions and pretence; which belong to these subjects. "If the special successes of Wordworth and Shelley were possible because humour never raised its head in the sacred places of their imagination, Byron's success comes from the opposite cause, that through humour he gave a new dimension and a greater truth to his creations. His poetry comes closer to the common man because it is more mixed and more complex than was allowed by his great contemporaries in their austere devotion to ideal world." (C.M. Bowra)
Byron differed from his Romantic contemporaries in the complex character of his response to experience. In his earlier poetry he had tried to look at things from almost a single point of view, but in Don Juan he abandoned this and explained the whole range of feelings. Whereas the other romantics tended to follow a single principle in their approach to life. Byron followed his own wayward, chang­ing moods. Just as the Romantics were in their own way perfectly true to themselves, so was Byron in his, but his nature was more complicated than their and could not be confined to a single channel. If he lacks their simplicity and the special power which comes with it. he makes up for this by the range of his tastes and the wonderful va­riety of his responses. Of course, the result it that he misses the peculiar intensity of the great Romantics, but he makes much of many themes which are beyond their reach, and gives in Don Juan a panoramic picture of contemporary life which is much richer than any thing they could have produced.
Though Byron abandoned the romantic view of the imagination and practised a new realistic art. he did not altogether abandon some themes and ideas which meant much to romantics. Rather he felt that matters like nature and love were sufficient in themselves to inspire poetry, and that he need not look beyond them for something else. "Though he had little interest in the works of Wordsworth. Coleridge and Keats, and had a genuine admiration for Pope and Dryden. he was in fact a child of his time, and his poetical powers were brought into action not by the refined sentiment and economical fancy of the Augustans, but by wild and vaulting ideas which came from the French Revolution." (C.M. Bowra) He was more typical of his time than either Wordsworth or Shelley; for while their out­looks were limited by their private philosophies. Byron absorbed the life around him and expressed what thou­sands of his contemporaries felt. Indeed, so wide was his understanding that he is a poet not merely of England but of all Europe.
Byron's Attitude towards Nature
Byron's position with regard to the other romantics can be seen in his attitude towards nature. He loved it beyond question, and was perhaps happiest when he was alone with it. But his conception of nature lacked the mystery which Wordsworth. Coleridge and Keats found in it. Or rather he found a different mystery, more immediate and more homely, which absorbed his being and engaged his powers without opening doors into some unknown world. In his own way perhaps he had a religion of nature and we need not disbelieve him when he says :
My altars are the mountains and the Ocean. Earth—air—stars—all that springs from the great Whole Who hath produced, and will receive the Soul.
Don Juan (III, civ, 6-8)
But though Byron might hold such a belief, it was not what inspired his poetry of nature. His genius was set to work not by a sense of immanent divinity but simply by what he saw and by the appeal which it had for him. His knowledge of nature was different from Wordsworth's, and in some ways wider. He certainly responded to it in a different way. While Wordsworth sought vision or moral inspiration. Byron took nature as he found it and appre­ciated much that Wordworth missed. The helplessness of man before nature was a subject from which the Roman­tics shrank, but Byron saw it and spoke sincerely about it, and his words come with a sudden fresh breath at a time when nature was too often seen in its gentler moods:
'T was twilight, and the sunless day went down
Over the waste of waters; like a veil,
Which, if withdrawn, would but disclose the frown
Of one whose hate is masked but to assail!
Thus to their hopeless eyes the night was shown.
And grimly darkled o'er the faces pale,
And the dim desolate deep : twelve days had Fear
Been their familiar, and now Death was here.
Don Juan (II. xlix)
The storm in Don Juan stands in marked contrast to the storm in The Ancient Mariner. While Coleridge catches the alluring magic of a wild moon and dancing stars. Byron dwells on the sullen, brooding atmosphere before the storm comes, as is apparent from the stanza quoted above.
Byron's Attitude towards Love
A second Romantic subject to which Byron gave great attention is love. In this he was far more adventurous than Wordsworth and more experienced than Keats. If he had an equal in the importance which he attached to love, it was Shelley but Shelley's view was quite different. For Shelley love is a union of souls, foreordained in some ce­lestial scheme of predestination, and guided by the powers which move the universe. Byron saw nothing in such specu­lations. He lacked Shelley's gift of thinking that every woman with whom he fell in love was an incarnation of heavenly virtues. Nor is it clear that Byron ever fell com­pletely in love with any one. When he dealt with love in Don Juan, Byron despite his realism, could not but de­scribe something which he had never actually known, an ideal condition which he was always seeking but never found.
The love of an older woman for a young man is sketched in Julia's love for Juan. Despite the elements of mockery and farce, Byron puts into Julia's passion his ideal of what such a thing should be. Byron, in his most engag­ing manner, sums up her surrender:
"A little still she strove, and much repented.
And whispering "I will ne'er consent"—consented."
Don Juan, (I. cxvii, 7-8)
Byron's other haunting obsession of an ideal first love is presented in the love of Juan and Haidee on a Greek island.
Byron was representative of his generation in his belief in individual liberty and his hatred of tyranny and con­straint whether exercised by individuals or by societies. While Blake wished for an unimpeded freedom in the ac­tivity of the imagination; Byron wished for something similar in the familiar world. Much more than Wordsworth and Coleridge, who after their first enthusiasm for the French Revolution surrendered to caution and scepticism, more even than Keats, whose love of liberty was hardly devel­oped to its full range. Byron wished to he free and insisted that other men must be free too.
This ideal Byron shared with Shelley, but though he shared Shelley's passion, he did not share his vision of an ideal future, he was content to do his best for the moment by attacking tyrants wherever they existed and pleading the cause of oppressed humanity. He tries to stir the peo­ple to revolt, to make them get rid of their monarchs and he says frankly:
For I will teach, if possible, the stones
To rise against Earth's tyrants. Never let it
Be said that we still tuckle into thrones;—
But ye—our children's children! think how we
Showed ichat tilings were before the
World was free!
Done Juan (VIII. cxxxv. 4-8)
He attacks the Holy Alliance and George IV. He was not afraid even to attack so popular a hero as the Duke of Wellington as the "best of our cut-throats":
Shut up the bald-coot bully Alexander'
Ship off the Holy Three to
Teach them that "Sauce for goose is sauce for ganders,"
And ask them how they like to be in thrall
Don Juan (XIV. Ixxxiii;  1-4)
We can conclude with C.M. Bowra that "though By­ron rejected the Romantic belief in the imagination, he was true to the Romantic outlook in his devotion to an ideal of man which may have been no more than a dream, but none the less kept his devotion despite the ordeal of facts and his own corroding scepticism."

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!