Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Quintesential Byron: The Gist of Byron

With a personality so mercurial, a mind so vola­tile, and expression so often governed by flippancy, Byron tends to slip through the fingers of those who attempt to grasp his central character and essential ideas. How do we arrive at the quintessential Byron? The best way, it seems to me, is to examine his fun­damental and persistent attitudes, whether expressed with the seriousness of Childe Harold and Manfred the facetiousness of his letters, or the banter and irony of Don Juan.
I would put first his realistic view of Roman­tic aspirations. He had a liberal mind, and his love of liberty went beyond politics and encompassed the basic human condition. His love of truth was uncompromis­ing. His hatred of cant and hypocrisy was perennial. His spontaneity and honesty continually surprise us because they are so uncommon in common life. His genuine hatred of war did not prevent him from engag­ing in ‘Freedom’s Battle’. His tough-mindedness per­mitted a realistic recognition of his wide limitations. His willingness to speculate far and wide opened the way to his independence of judgement. His perception of uncertainty in the large matters of human destiny justified the slight value he placed on consistency: He was suspicious of systems and formalities in literature, philosophy, and religion. His healthy cynicism did not lead to misanthropy but to a balanced view of human nature. His alternate romantic and realistic concept of love often transcends the prejudices of his day. His sense of humour and sense of fun rescued him from an obsessive concern with life’s seriousness.
But perhaps we can get to the heart of the matter by concentrating on two attitudes which Byron by his own statement considered paramount. He told Lady Blessigton: “There are but two sentiments to which I am constant, a strong love of liberty, and a detestation of cant, and neither is calculated to gain me friends.”
His love of liberty allied him with the oppressed people under despotic governments, and drove him to champion the stocking-weavers of Nottingham, the Neapolitans and the Romagnuolas under the yoke of Austria, and to join the Greeks in their war for inde­pendence. But it also caused him to chafe at the res­traints placed upon individuals by social custom. It even extended to a protest, recognised as futile, against the limitations ordained by nature on the human con­dition. 1 can see Nothing to loathe in Nature’, he wrote, ‘save to be A link reluctant in a fleshly chain.’ This longing for liberty of the spirit which was part of the Romantic aspiration, carried him further in Manfred and Cain to a complaint that we, ‘Half dust, half deity, alike unfit To sink or soar, with our mixed essence make A conflict of its elements, and breath/The breath of degradation and of pride. Contending with low wants and lofty will/Till our Mortality predominates And men are-what they name not to themselves... This foredoomed longing for freedom from the fleshly chain’ never left him even after in Don Juan the ‘said truth’ of human limitations and imperfections turned’ what was once romantic to burlesque.’
Cain’s journey with Lucifer to unknown realms whetted his appetite for things beyond my power Be­yond all power of my born faculties’, Although inferior still to my desires And rny conceptions.’ Cain, Intoxi­cated with eternity’ exclaimed:
Oh God: Oh Gods: or whatsoe’er ye are:
How beautiful ye are: how beautiful
Your works, or accidents whatsoe’er
They may be: Let me die, as atoms die
(If that they die), or knows ye in your might
And knowledge: My thoughts are not in this hour
Unworthy what I see, though my dust is...
Byron’s love of liberty in a time of Tory oppression impelled him to the political left. He was a liberal in the dictionary definition of the word: ‘1. giving freely, gen­erous. 2. tolerant of views differing from one’s own; broad-minded. 3. favouring political reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom, for the indi­vidual.’ Here let us recognise at once that Byron de­parts in one respect from the liberal creed of our day in that he distrusted democracy as did most of the aristocratic, liberals of his time, having been frightened by the unreason of mob rule in the French Revolution. And yet, unlike many of his contemporaries, he was able to see that the Revolution was in its total effects beneficial to mankind.
They made themselves a fearful monument:
The wreck of old opinions-things which grew,
Breath from the birth of Time: the veil they rent,
And what behind, it lay, all earth shall view....
But while he recognised that “good with ill they also overthrew, Leaving but ruins”, and that what re­sulted was a return to despotism in all of Europe under the shield of the Holy Alliance, he did not stop there. He added:
But this will not endure, nor be endure:
Mankind have felt their strength and made it felt
By their new vigour, sternly have they dealt
On one another……But they,
Who in oppression’s darkness caved had dwelt,
They were not eagles, nourished with the day;
What marvel then, at times, if they mistook their prey?
He proclaimed his “plain sworn, downright detes­tation/Of every despotism in every nation.” But he added:
It is not that I adulate the people:
Without me there are demagogues enough....
I wish men to be free
As much from mobs as kings-from you as me.
The consequence is, being of no party,
I shall offend all parties: never mind!
My words, at least, are more sincere and hearty
Than if I sought to sail before the wind.
In contemplating the European scene in 1814, he wrote in his journal: “I have simplified my politics into utter detestation of all existing governments… The fact is riches is power, and poverty is slavery all over the earth, and one sort of establishment is no better, nor worse, for a people than another.” Here Byron comes close to Pope’s lines in the Essay on Man:
For forms of Government let fools contest:
Whate’er is best administered is best.
But he may well have had in mind Pope’s later apology: The author of these lines was far from mean­ing that no one form of Government is, in itself, better than another but than no form administered with integrity.” For Byron did emphatically denounce monarchy and express his preference for a republic at a time when that idea, even in the Whiggish society he frequented, must have appeared dangerously radical.
As to the second sentiment to which he professed constancy, the hatred of cant, it permeates his poems, both romantic and burlesque. His ridicule of cant, political, religious, sexual and social, is the most persistent theme in Don Juan. To Hoppuer he wrote: In England the only homage which they pay to Virtue-is hypocrisy: And in his defense of the frankness of the poem he wrote to his friends in England: ‘As to the cant of the day-! despise it-as I have ever done all its other finical fashions... If you admit this prudery-you must omit half Ariost-la Fontaine-Shakespeare-Beaumont-Fletcher-Massiriger-Ford-all the Charles the second writers-in short, Something of most who have written before Pope-and are worth reading-and much of Pope himself.’ And again: “Don Juan shall be an entire horse or one.... I will not give way to all the cant in Christendom.” He succeeded in his attack on the cant of his day by treating it lightly and with irony.
But now I’m going to be immoral; now
I mean to show things as they are,
Not as they ought to be…
The best mode of conquering cant, he said, was to expose it to ridicule, the only weapon that the English climate cannot rust’.
In that battle he was not intimidated by conven­tional views. He wrote in his journal in 1813: “If I valued fame, I should flatter received opinions, which have gathered strength by time, and will yet wear longer than any living works to the contrary. But for the soul of me, I cannot and will not give the lie to my own thoughts and doubts, come what may.”
The cant of patriotism equated with the ‘glories of war’ stimulated his satiric pen. Byron’s hatred of war was founded on his deep-seated and steadfast humani­tarian impulses, and his realistic recognition of its horrors as well as the unreason of its origins and motivations. His savage satire is often couched in light-hearted banter. But the description of the battle of Ismail in Don Juan is sufficient evidence of the strength of his feeling about the senseless slaughter commanded by ambitious monarchs and generals like Suwarrow, “who loved blood as an alderman loves narrow.” The heroism of thousands who perished did not alter the fact that “War’s a brain-spattering, windpipe-slitting art,” and he was not taken in by the effort to make it appear glittering and noble.
Medals, rank, ribands, lace, embroidery, scarlet,
Are things immortal to immortal man,
As purple to the Babylonian harlot:
An uniform to body is like a fan
To women; there is scarce a crimson varlet
But deems himself the first in Glory’s van.
But deserting satire for the plain statement of his convictions, he concludes:
The drying up a single tear has more
Of honest fame, than shedding seas of gore.
What then did he go to Missolonghi and prepare to capture a Turkish fort with his Suliote soldiers? The reason, he told himself, was that there was a difference between battles for freedom when people were fighting against tyranny and for their rights, and wars of con­quest when soldiers and civilians are sacrificed to the ambitions of rulers and military leaders. But in the end his most noble deed was sending Turkish prison­ers home and pleading for more humane treatment on both sides.
His tough-mindedness will not allow him to deceive himself and is tied to his hatred of hypocritical pretensions that the real is ideal, or the romantic fic­tion that the transcendental dream is achievable. This is part of that ‘desperate integrity’ which Professor Fairchild said should command our respect. Byron’s realistic sense always came to the rescue. He followed Lucifer’s advice:
One good gift has fatal apple given-
Your reason:-let it not be overway’d
By tyrannous threats to force you into faith
Gainst all external sense and inward feeling.
He was not a profound thinker, but his willing­ness to speculate knew no bonds. He loved the play of ideas. He confessed: I always knock my head against some angle/About the present, past or future state.’ And his championship of freedom of thought was con­stant. Speaking in his own person in Don Juan, he said:
And I will war, at least in words (and should
My chance so happen-deeds), with all who war
With thought:-and of Thought’s foes by far the most rude
Tyrants and sycophants have been and are.
Byron was not troubled too much when his specu­lation led to uncertainties. If that in turn let to scepticism, so be it. He was auspicious of all who were “hot for certainties.”
He approached all the orthodoxies of his day with an open mind. His journal is filled with the uninhibited free-thinking on religious beliefs. Is there anything beyond? Who knows? He who can’t tell. Who tells that there is? He who don’t know. He denied being and atheist, but he defended uncertainty and doubt. And he was unsparing in his attack on doctrinal absurdi­ties in the fundamentalism of his day. ‘A material res­urrection seems strange and even absurd except for purpose of punishment-and all punishment which is to revenge rather than correct-must be morally wrong-and when the world is at an end-what moral or warn­ing purpose can eternal tortures answer?’ And he added: 1 cannot help thinking that the mence of Hell makes as many devils as the severe penal codes’ of inhuman humanity make villains.’
His speculations took curious turns. They were intellectual rather than religious, cosmic rather than theological ‘.... why I came here-I know not-where I shall go it is useless to inquire-in the midst of myriads of the living & the dead words-stars-systems-infinity-why should I be anxious about an atom?’ In the face of these uncertainties he was willing to question his own doubts, even that concerning immortality which he had so often ridiculed. But it is clear that it was tentative speculation. He wrote in his ‘Detached Thoughts’ in 1821: “If we attend for a moment to the action of Mind. It is in perpetual activity It also acts so very independent of the body-in dreams for instance incoherently and madly Now-that this should not act separatebj-as well as jointly-who can pronounce?-.. How far our future life will be individuaL-or rather-how far it will at all resemble our present existence is another question-but that Mind is eternaZ-seems as possible as that the body is not so’. After this specu­lation he concluded: ‘but the whole thing is inscruta­ble-It is useless to tell one not to reason but to be­lieve.... and then to bully with torments!.... But God help us all!-it is present a sad jar cf atoms.”
We may at this point wish that a record had been kept of those conversations Byron had with Shelly in their midnight sessions at Diodati or at Ravenna. And we may wonder how much of Shellyrs depiction of the immortality of Keats in Adoncis grew out of that inter-change.
Byron’s amiable cynicism led him to ridicule the self-deceptions and hypocrisies he saw in the prevailing conventions of love and the relations of the sexes. His cynicism was of a mild nature, usually lightened with humour and based on a recognition of human frailties, including his own. His irony was leaved with charity and he usually ended with a forgiving quip. He wrote to Lady Melbourne: “We are all selfish and I no more” trust myself than others with a good motive       
But the disillusioned Romantic never died in By­ron. Although under Italian skies and with a new and calmer love he conceded in the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold that ‘Existence may be borne.... ,’ and an exu­berant love of living found expression in Beppo and Don Juan, he never abandoned his conviction of the tragedy of human existence, as he expressed it in ‘prometheus’, written at Diodati in 1816:
Thy God like crime was to be kind.
To render with thy precepts less
The sum of human wretchedness…
Thou art a symbol and a sign
To Mortals of their fate and force;
Like thee, Man is in part divine
A trouble stream from a pure source;
And man in portions can foresee
His own funereal destiny;
His wretchedness, and his resistance,
And his sad unallied existence.
His longing for the ineffable dream, for the perfec­tion which he did not find in life and love, never left him, and in Cain and Heaven and Earth he contem­plated again the tragedy of human limitations, as poign­ant as the vision of Egeria in Childe Harold. But these moods, sincere as they were, did not govern his life.
Byron’s genial tentativeness disturbs some people, particularly those who cling to systems and formalism in life and literature. His contempt for the cant of lit­erary systems is illustrated in his comment on Leigh Hunt’s poetry: “When I saw ‘Rimini’ in MSS. I told him that I deemed it good poetry at bottom, disfigured only by a strange style. His answer was that his style was a system, or upon system, or some such cant; and when a man talks of system, his case is hopeless.” Byron probably would have found Robert Graves’s criterion congenial. Graves wrote that “The only possible test of this or that method of poetry is the practical one, the question, “Did the mountain stir?”
Throughout his last years Byron’s enormous en­ergy, his sharp wit, and zest for living found vent in Don Juan, whose broad panoramic view gives us a clear picture of the world we know as well as his own. Even though it was filtered through the vagaries of his own temperament, his view is a sane and healthy one, and that “versified Aurora Borealis” illuminates our way. The mountain did stir, and will continue to stir for free spirits of the future who read and respond to this freest spirit of their past.

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