Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lord Byron as a Poet

Amongst the Romantic poets Byron is the only one who knows how to laugh and to make others giggle. The use of wit and satire, almost unknown to his great contem­poraries, is the very forte of Byron. In The Vision of Judg­ment, George III is brought pompously to the gate of Heaven and is seen to be nothing but.
'An old man
With an old soul and both extremely blind.'

Byron sums up Castlereagh's speeches:
"Nor even a sprightly blunder's spark can blaze
From that Ixion grindstone's ceaseless toil
That turns and turns to give the world a notion
of endless torment and perpetual motion."
In Don Juan, Byron terms Wellington (Villainton) as 'the best of cut-throats' he attacks the education system, the election system, the big parties and dinners, the 'epic renegade' like Bob Southey. the evils in Church, and the hypocrisy and vanity of the English Society. This all is done so humorously that not for once does Byron sound pungent.
But reading Byron's works put a doubt in my mind. Was the English Society always corrupt and degenerate? The reigns of Henry-VIII. Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria are talked of as the golden ages of the English Society. How far could it be true? Henry James, perceptive as he was. comes very near the truth when in The Portrait of a Lady he shows through the characters of Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood that the English Society has mere 'form' and no "moral' or 'content' whereas the American Society has no 'aesthetics' but is solid from within. This same English Society has been a source of awe and wonder for we Indians for more than two hundred years.
Is this English Society really great and sound or does it have only an outward glitter and is hollow from within? This question had been troubling my mind eversince I got interested in English Literature and especially in the works of Lord Byron. Within my mind I made a survey of Eng­lish Literature right from the age of Chaucer down to T.S. Eliot and what I could find out would, of course; interest my readers. It appears from my survey that the represen­tative authors of every age of English Literature have been disgusted with wretchedness in the English Society and have been attacking the English Church, the King­ship, the social and political values and the social and legal institutions : 'politics, piety and policy' were all corrupt as these authors could find. Finally, I decided to put the same survey of English Literature before my readers to give them a fairly good idea of what the great writers thought of their own society.
Geoffery Chaucer (1340-1400), who has rightly been called the father of English Literature, has ridiculed in his genial style, almost all the institutions of his age. His multifoliate experience in London, on Thames Street near the river where the world's commerce was continually com­ing and going at his father's wine shop, as page-boy to Princess Elizabeth, as the Comptroller of Customs at the port of London and finally as a member of Parliament from Kent helped him in knowing the English Society very closely.
In his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales Chaucer satirized the ecclesiastical figures in the Friar:
"A Frer there was. a wantown a merye,
A linutoiir a ful solempne man.
His tipet was ay farsed ful of knyves
And pinnes, for to yeven faire wyves
He was the beste beggere in his hous."
The Monk is presented as:
"Thus like monk leet olde thinges pace
And heeld after the newe world the space
He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen
The seith that hunters been nat hooly men,
He hadde of gold y-wrought a ful curious pin;
a love-knotte in the greater ende then was."
The pardoner who had a "voys as smal as hath a goot" and who had "heer as yellow as wax" seems to be suffering from a veneral disease as these are the symp­toms of syphlis.
The .Wife of Bath, who had five husbands at Church-door, represents corruption at the other end of life. The Sergeant of Law had earnel much money had and also robes. There was never such a great purchaser of lands as he. He appeared busier than he was. Even the Cook, who was an expert in his trade, had a sore on his 'shinne' which shows that he was a dirty man.
At the political front this was the age when King Richard II was beheaded by Henry Bolingbroke and the deputy anointed of God was changed by force; thus the chain of being was broken.
In the Elizabethan age, an age famous for its pat­riotism and learning, we notice that satire gives way to tragedy and the dominating genre of this age is drama. But still we hear the voices of Ben Jonson (1573-1637) and John Milton (1.608-1674) who lash at the evils in society and religion.
The three best known comedies of Jonson are Volpone, The Alchemist and The Silent Woman. Volpone is a keen and merciless analysis of a man governed by an over­whelming love of money for its own sake. The opening speech of Volpone in the first scene of the play is a key to the whole comedy:
Good morning to the day; and next my gold!
Open the shrine that I may see my saint;
Hail the worlds soul, and mine."
Hypocrisy and avarice are attacked in this play. The Alchemist is a study of quackery on one side and of gul­libility on the other, founded on the mediaeval idea of the philosopher's stone, and applies as well to the patent medi­cines and get-rich-quick schemes of our day as to the pe­culiar forms and quackery with which Jonson was more familiar.
As for Milton, besides many pamphlets he had writ­ten, we have his strong disgust for what was happening in the English Church, when in Lycidas he shouts;
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn'd ought else the least
That to the faithful herdman's art belongs"
Milton hated injustice and in his fiery zeal against injustice he was suddenly dominated by the soldier's spirit. In Paradise Lost Satan stands for liberty as against tyr­anny of God.
The age that follows next is the Restoration Age. John Dryden (1631-1700) is the greatest literary figure of this age and in his work we have the evil tendencies of the age in which he lived. The whole range of literature in this age as well as in the eighteenth century shows a tendency of personal attacks of authors on one another.
In Mac Flecknoe Dryden ridicules Shadwell:
"The rest to some meaning make pretence.
But Shadwell never deviates into sense.''
In Absalom and Achitophel he exposed the politics of Shaftesburry's intrigues, and Manmouth's disloyalty. In this satire Dryden also satirizes the multiplicity of religious sects :
"Gods they had tried of every shape and size
Because they cannot help believing right."
The scornful mention of priests, as Johnson noted, is characteristic of Dryden:
'In pious times ere priestcraft did begin'
And this dislike of priests results in sweeping genera­lization:
'Priests of all religions are the same'
Their greed is satirized thus:
"Which Hebrew priests the more unkindly took
Because the fleece accompanies the flock."
The whole range of Restoration Comedy shows ridi­culing of the English society. A galaxy of writers like Sir George Etherage, William Congreve, William Wycherley, to name a few. show such tendency. The finest example of this genre are of course The Man of Mode, The Way of the World and The Country Wife.
The Restoration age shows fickleness of the English people—which is attacked even by Shakespeare in his dif­ferent plays—when they restore Charles II to the throne.
In the Eighteenth Century, the age of prose and rea­son, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) voices his contempt against the social, literary and political trends in The Rape of the Lock, Dunciad and other poems. Pope is of course a dictator of the Literary world in the neo-classical age. He possesses no high opinion of either the character or intel­ligence of the courtiers nor any better opinion of the King whom the courtiers favoured. Pope's satire exposes the lives of the most eminent contemporaries like King George, Walpole and others. George II hardly knew the difference between prose and verse. The irony in the flattery of Pope's address to the uncultured King is amazingly clear when the says:
"Praise undeserved is scandal in disguise”
In the Imitations of Horace and the Epilogue to the Satire, political satire assumes growing importance. In Tlie Rape of the Lock his satire is quite pointed and marked. The following lines show his ridicule for toilet including:
'Here files of pins extend their shining rows Puffs. Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-daux.'
About women. Pope remarks:
With varying vanities, from every part
They shift the moving toyshop of their heart.'
He ridicules the levity and fickleness of fashionable ladies and their taking delight in keeping lap dogs and sleeping with them. The satire is felt in the famous pas­sage in which Belinda is described as commencing her toilet operations with prayer to the Cosmetic Powers.
In the Dunciad Pope attacks Colly Gibber "the Prince of Dullness", the Booksellers. Scandal-mongers, Critics, Educational system, Pedants, Royal Society and the age itself.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is the greatest writer of the classical age by the force of his genius; the concern for art and the care of form are not in his case the essential motive of creation. A Modest Proposal is the most repre­sentative of Swift's satires. In this satire of Swift the most horrible thoughts are concealed under innocent-looking statements. Thus for example, instead of saying that 85% of the Irish people are living on a starvation level. Swift insinuated: "From (200,000) I subtract thirty thou­sand couples, who are able to maintain their own chil­dren." When he wants to suggest that the English are as inhuman as the worst of savages, he makes the following insinuation: "I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young and healthy child is at a year old a most delicious wholesome food."
The English society had disgusted Swift to such an extent that in Gulliver's Travels he makes the King of the
Brobdingnags say: "I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives, to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to pernicious race of lit­tle odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon surface of the Earth''. He ridicules the English system by making the puny Liliputians do the same things which are done with great pride by the Englishmen. In A Tale of the Tub Swift satirizes different sects in religion. He compares "the true critics to dogs who bark if a bone is not thrown at them. The degressions in the Tale are immortal and have a lasting impact on human mind.
Henry Fielding's (1707-1754) work as the most pow­erful artistic expression of the social conscience of the age. He ridicules the vanities and hypocrisy of the eighteenth century in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones. Fielding, both as a novelist and magistrate, was a society for the reform of manners in himself, and it was only natural that when writing Joseph Andrews, he should not long be content with reforming Samuel Richardson's manners alone. J.H. Plumb, in his England in the 18th Century, has reminded us that in 1735 'there were 99, 380 actions taken out by the Society for the Reformation of Manners in the London area alone.' Through the characters of Parson Trulliber, the bookseller, Beau Didaper, Mrs. Slipslop, Blifil, Lady Bellaston, Square and Thwackum etc. Fielding attacks the evils in the English Society. He had a different and better code of morality to offer. He approves even the sexual adventures of Jones and Joseph Andrews but would never resist the temptation of attacking hypocrisy, pretence, van­ity and inhumanity prevalent in his age. For example, Joseph has been robbed, beaten up, stripped and left unconscious by the roadside. A coach comes by Joseph unwilling to enter until he is ''furnished with sufficient convering to prevent giving the least offence to decency…"
Nobody in the coach is ready to spare his/her coat for the wounded man; and these very people would go in the Church and Parliament and talk of high things in air. We must agree with the view that Fielding gave us the genu­ine picture of men and women of his own age without moralising over their vices and virtues.
In the Romantic Age, Shelley and Revolution seem to be synonyms. Shelley thinks that it is only the existing tyranny of State, Church and Society which keeps man from growth into perfect happiness. Shelley's greatness is that he looks forward into a Utopia (what Byron lacks) and not foolishly back for "a golden age." In his violent and reforming modds he seems to be overthrowing the present institutions. From such moods of Shelley have come out the poems like Queen Mob, Revolt of Islam, Hellas, and The witch of Atlas. His reformer's zeal is best repre­sented in Ode to the West Wind:
'Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of the mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, spirit fierce,
My Spirit! Be thou me, impetous one'.
In the Victorian Age, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) and W.M. Thackeray (1811-1863) voice their resentment against Victorian way of life. "In nothing is Dickens' al­most mediumistic relationship with his public more clearly seen than in his role of reformer. The word is not quite right for him: It suggests a Shaftesbury or a Plimsoll, which Dickens never was. He attacked the injustices of the poor law, delays in administration of justice, the cruelties of schoolmasters, imprisonment for debt, and so on." (Walter Allen). In The Bleak House Dickens attacks Lust for money and Chancery Court. Domby and Son satirized the com­mercial attitude to life and pride in this type of life. The under-world problem is well-dealt in Oliver Twist. "Oliver asking for more" has become an immortal scene. No nov­elist before Dickens had treated the lower middle class on such broad lines or in so frank a way. He studies them not as a detached superior kind of observer but as one of their own level: a sympathy, an immediate community of im­pressions, and. as it were, an instinctive fraternity, thus impregnate his study. In Dombey and Son the following passage shows the commercial attitude of the age: "Oh of course." said Mr. Bombay. 'I desire to make it a question of wages altogether. Now, Richards. (even the name of the servant is de-personalised)* if you nurse my bereaved child. I wish you to re­member this always. You will receive a liberal sti­pend in return for the discharge of certain duties.... When those duties cease to be required ani ren­dered, and the stipend ceases to be paid, there is an end of all relations between us…It is not at all in this bargain that you need become attached to my child, or that my child need become attached to you."
William Thackeray is the first novelist who. hating rank and privilege in his bones, sinks bull-dog teeth into every single abuse of rank and privilege: self-defeating miserliness in Sir Pitt Crawley; unearned privilege stu­pidly and criminally abused by Sir Francis Clavering; in Rawdon Crawley the prodigality of the bloods and dan­dies; the mediocrity of mind and talents that governed a great nation with a growing empire exemplified in Mr. Pitt Crawley; extreme brutality in Lord Steyne, trading on its prerogatives. In Thackeray's work we also see attack on the church, the army (in the unfinished Denis Dural, the Navy), the civil service, the government, the fashionable public schools, etc.
Thackeray portrays the world he knows best. The evils of self-interest, of parasitism, and of snobbery and vanity release in him a detached ferocity. Bagehot observes that in Thackeray's Vanity Fair "The tenth rate people were ever striving to be ninth-rate people."
In the early part of the twentieth century T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) is of course, the uncrowned king of English Literature. His disgust with the present day generation finds outlet in the poems like Gerontion, the Waste Land, and The. Hollow Men. In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Eliot makes1 fun of the pseudo women:
"In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michaelangelo.”
In Gerontion Eliot gives a description, concrete and elaborate, of Gerontions' situation and environment. The images of decay and sexual degeneracy of contemporary life can be seen in the following lines:
'The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
Rock, moss stone crop, iron, merd,
The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
Sneezes at evening, pocking the peevish gutter:
In The Waste Land Eliot presents a horrifying picture of the spiritual, sexual and social degeneracy in the society:
I think we are in rat's alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.'
The Hollow Men begins:
'We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Head piece filled with straw. Alas!
Shape without form, shade without colour, and ends
'This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.'
Thus we find that when Byron attacks English Soci­ety, he is not doing something new. He is only adding to a tradition. But what differentiates him from other mas­ters of English Literature is his zeal, his usage of the idiom and his passion for humanity.

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