Friday, November 11, 2011

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 8: Bad Boy, Super Poet, and Greek Patriot, Lord Byron: Part II: Brooding Poetic Heroes and Dissing Your Contemporaries

Welcome to my eighth  post on late Georgian/Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.

This is the second part of a three part series on Lord Bryon. If you want an overview of his life, please see this post.


There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar;
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Stanza 178, Lord Byron.

Last week, I discussed Lord Byron's scandalous life and his many confirmed and rumored affairs. Though his behavior undoubtedly fueled some of his early scandalous allure for his contemporaries, we primarily remember him today not for his attempt to the Wilt Chamberlain of the Regency but instead for his literary accomplishments.

It is important to remember that Bryon worked and created in the backdrop of the Romantic movement, a movement that started roughly in the mid-18th century. In order to avoid spiraling off to another length sub-series, I'll just summarize the Romantic movement by noting it was a general reaction to unease over a number of cultural factors that had gained strength during the Enlightenment, in particular the ideas the scientists/natural philosophers had advanced that were starting to demystify nature and placed a premium on intellectual engagement with the world over emotional engagement. It was also linked in with the spread of the Industrial Revolution and related sociological factors. Distilled to its essence, the Romantic movement was about appreciating nature and existence in an allegedly more natural, and therefore, to their line of thinking, more authentic way. Although this philosophy influenced many spheres of existence in Europe and England, it was particularly pronounced in the arts. Also embodied in Romanticism was a sort of staunch idealism.

So how does Lord Byron fit into all of this? Well, he was a Romantic poet (he did try his hand at writing plays, but his success was firmly in the real of poetry) He showed talent from a young age and published his book of poetry, Hours of Idleness, in 1807 at the age of 19. He would follow that up with the critically acclaimed Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. This four-part narrative poem basically recounts the travels of an intelligent young man inflicted with ennui through the exotic lands. Considering that Lord Byron spent several years traveling abroad prior to publishing Pilgrimage, it is likely at least partially autobiographical. After his success with Pilgrimage, he published a number of other works, many of which focused on aristocratic Bryonic Heroes who traveled the world.

Though Pilgrimage is full of pathos, explorations of the meaning of freedom and existence, plus assorted other thematic meat that is nutritious to various English majors, it also helped to strengthen and fully define a literary archetype: what we now refer to as the Byronic Hero. Now, to be fair, it isn't as if Lord Byron was the first writer to ever use the archetype in English literature or poetry, but he did a considerable amount to popularize it.

Typically, a Bryonic Hero is fiercely intelligent, handsome, passionate, and idealistic, yet also flawed in some fundamental way such as given to intense brooding, being overly self-involved, cynical, arrogant, self-destructive, or a number of other such similar traits--much like Byron himself. 

The influence of the Bryonic Hero extends throughout literature from poetry to modern horror fiction. Besides hosting the literary circle that led to the creation of the first modern vampire story, the influence of the Bryonic Hero helped ensure that the vampire in that story lead to an aristocratic, but obviously very flawed being, even though to be clear, the vampire in that story is not the protagonist. Though, amusingly enough, the name of the vampire was used in another work by one of Byron's ex-lover as a thinly veiled, and rather negatively portrayed, version of Byron himself (now that's getting even with your ex). Skip forward to the 20th-century, and you also start getting the aristocratic, intelligent brooding vampires of authors like Anne Rice. So, arguably, a early 19th-century poet helped set the stage for Interview with the Vampire.

This is not to say that all his works necessarily included a Byronic Hero (or Bryonic-influenced antagonists). The short poem, She Walks In Beauty, published in 1815 and very well received, focuses on the beauty of a woman and does little to explore or define the poem's narrator:

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

Just to link this back to some of the things I discussed last week, though Byron claimed his inspiration was a beautiful cousin he saw at a party, some tried to claim the poem was about half-sister, Augusta, whom some had tried to suggest he had a sexual relationship with (just to reiterate, I find the evidence unpersuasive on the particular point).

Though many of his works were well received, his arguable magnum opus would be the lengthy epic poem, Don Juan published over the period of 1819 to 1824 (he would die before finishing the last section). Now, just to be clear. Byron was adapting from an existing story that preceded him by at least two centuries. He did invert the expectations a bit though by portraying Don Juan as a man who more easily ensnared by women than the inverse and Byron himself described it as satire. Though many found the poetry worthy of praise, there was some concern over some of the content, which, by the standards of the time was somewhat controversial both for the behavior of the poem's main character and the mutli-layered critiques of many aspect of then current life offered by Byron. Indeed, despite the respect many people paid to Lord Bryon's work, in his native England, his tendency toward challenging certain aspects of conventional mores, views, and the inclusion of sexually charged themes in some of his work left many disturbed by his work.

In Don Juan, he even has the 19th-century equivalent of a modern Rap "diss" song, in which an entire subsection (a canto) is basically devoted to him trashing other poets such as in the following example stanza:

All are not moralists, like Southey, when
He prated to the world of "Pantisocracy;"
Or Wordsworth unexcised, unhired, who then
Season'd his pedlar poems with democracy;
Or Coleridge, long before his flighty pen
Let to the Morning Post its aristocracy;
When he and Southey, following the same path,
Espoused two partners (milliners of Bath).
Stanza 93, Third Canto, Don Juan

Unlike the modern rappers, to the best of my knowledge Lord Byron didn't start any West Coast/East Coast conflicts with his insults (though some satirical responses to critics for earlier work did score him a few dueling challenges).

Though I've only highlighted these three works, he wrote large numbers of long- and short-form poetry. His "superstar" status at the time both from the acceptance of his work and his own self-promotion would lead to his work having a tremendous influence on other poets, other authors, and artists across Europe (including even Russia). Ironically, despite his obvious influence in England on many on contemporaries and later English authors both positive and negative (positive, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre; negative, Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights; and, yes, I'm making a subjective literary judgment), his greater legacy may have arguably have been outside of Europe. This may partially have been because his scandalous life in England that I talked about last week ended up damaging some of his influence in England (though it was still quite extensive) and, arguably, also the more culturally reserved English just were always going to be somewhat more scandalized by the boldness (at least at the time) of some of themes he explored in his poetry.


Debra Brown said...

Thank you. I have so much to learn, and enjoyed this very much.

J.A. Beard said...

Thank you stopping by, Debra.

Sophia Rose said...

I have enjoyed both parts of your expose on Byron. My knowledge of poetry is- to be generous- weak. I appreciated the break down you gave and for the reveal of more about Byron's thoughts on those about him.

He didn't have much use or tolerance for some people it seems. (-;

J.A. Beard said...

My knowledge of poetry is pretty much limited to some poets from this period and a few mid-20th century Americans myself.