Lord Byron: Literary Contribution to Romanticism

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      George Gordon, sixth Lord Byron (1788-1824) was born in 1788 at London. He was the son of John Byron, a captain in the army, and Catherine Gordon of Giglet, an Aberdeenshire heiress. He inherited from his uncle the title of Baron at the early age of ten. Educated at Harrow and Cambridge, he made many friends and indulged in all kinds of dissipation. In 1807 he published Poems on Various Occasions and Hours of Idleness. The latter was ferociously criticised by Lord Brougham in the Edinburgh Review. Byron replied in 1809 in his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers It was an immediate success and laid the foundation of his reputation. But his fame came to him instantly with the publication of the two cantos of Childe Harold (1912) on his return to England after journey in Spain and the East. A series of verse tales followed in quick succession: The Ginour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, Lara, The Siege of Corinth, Hebreaw Melodies and Parisina.

George Gordon, sixth Lord Byron (1788-1824) was born in London. He was the son of John Byron, a captain in the army, and Catherine Gordon of Giglet, an Aberdeenshire heiress.
Lord Byron

      Lord Byron was the son of a profligate father and of a foolish undisciplined mother. Byron was proud self-conscious, and passionate: added to which he was lame—a misfortune that embittered him. In 1815 he married; the marriage proved utterly unhappy, and Byron left England for good, plunging into many kinds of excesses as a solace to his offended pride and sharp disappointment. He died in 1824 at Missolonghi, in Greece, whither he had gone to aid the Greeks in their efforts to free themselves from Turkish tyranny.

      In order to understand Byron’s literary career fully, it is essential to probe into his character and the idiosyncrasies of his temperament. As Prof. Cazamian remarks: “At the very center of his being, there lies an element of morbidity; the inner life built up on the indulgence of emotion and desire reveals one of the current forms of its possible disintegration; dispersion of the personality through the absence of an organic discipline among the motives and the acts. It would be hard to find a character of more energy than that of Byron, but he was never completely master of himself; his life and work offer us the picture of an essential duality.” Because of his personality, he is considered as the representative of his age in Europe. To quote Bowra: “When the French Revolution broke the equilibrium on which the civilization of the eighteenth century had rested, a new type of man came into existence, and Byron was the supreme example of it in his rejection of established ties; his cult of the self, his love of adventure and his ironical distrust of his own emotions and beliefs. He was an aristocratic rebel when aristocrats were leaders of new movements and new ideas; in him the poet became a man of action because the creative spirit, long discouraged and constricted, found that words alone were not enough for it and that it must display itself in generous gesture and gallant risk.”

      In 1816, Byron's wife Hannah Isabella Mibanke left him on account of his immorality and he became the object of scandal and condemnation. He exiled himself for ever from England. During his journey he wrote The Prisoner of Chilian and published the third canto of Childe Harold in 1816. The Lament of Tasso was published in 1817, the fourth canto of Childe Harold in 1818, and the first fifteen cantos of Don Juan were written during the next two years. Manfred, Sardanapolus, Cain and the Two Foscari - all dramas were written in Italy. He, however, found his true bent in the poetry, now lyrical or passionate, now careless or satirical, of his Don Juan (1819-1824). He met a premature and glorious death from illness at Missolonghi where he had gone to fight for the independence of Greece.

      As a poet Byron's position is a peculiar one. It has been said of him that he is a romantic poet only on the other fringe of his consciousness. He was deeply influenced by the ancients and still more by Pope and his school. Matthew Arnold says of him: "His instincts are fundamentally classical in form without an adequate precision and sacrifices nothing to suggestion." He affected to disdain the stylistic innovations of the lake poets and to admire Pope and the English classical school. He used satire and wit. His Don Juan was written in the eight-line stanza (Ottava rima) of the Italian mock-heroic poets. At a time when wit was divorced from poetry, he gave a rich feast of witty sallies, puns and jokes in his poetry.

      Yet a powerful romanticism is the core of Byron's poetry. In the words of Prof. Cazamian, "his passion for freedom, his vanity and egoism, his love of nature, his fierce indignation at and discontent with the present mark him as a romanticist". With Childe Harold Byron introduced into English literature the figure of the disillusioned man, the hero satiated with pleasures and debauchery despising mankind and revolting against the laws of the society. All his writings are pervaded by his personality which is a complex one. His life was wayward, passionate, wilful and profligate and embodied the very spirit of romantic rebellion against all conventions of society, religion and poetry. His militant and passionate personality was writ large on all his writings and lent a romantic charm to his works in the eye of all his readers, English and continental. All his heroes are the veiled representations of himself - Cain, Manfred, Childe Harold who were distinguished by pride and scorn, but they always kept a tender place in their hearts for some woman, who was gentle, loving and impassioned. It is because of these essential romantic characteristics of revolt, passion and ego-centric consciousness which distinguish Byron's poetry that he has been incontestably the most popular of the English romantic poets in Europe and his influence, particularly in France was immense. He, however, wrote some poems of love and liberty which are characterised by classical poise and balance. His All for Love and On the Castle of Chillon combine romantic passion for love and liberty with the classical restraint of expressions.

Lord Byron Poetical Works:

      (i) Hours of Idleness (1807). “One who wishes to understand the whole scope of Byron’s genius and poetry will do well to begin with his first work, Hours of Idleness, written when he was a young man at the university. There is very little poetry in the volume, only a striking facility in rime, brightened by the devil-may-care spirit of the Cavalier poets; but as a revelation of the man himself, it is remarkable. In a vain and sophomoric preface, he declares that poetry is to him an idle experiment, and that this is his first and last attempt to amuse himself in that line. Curiously enough, as he starts for Greece on his last, fatal journey, he again ridicules literature, and says that the poet is a ‘mere babbler’. It is this despising of the art which alone makes him famous that occasions our deepest disappointment. Even in his magnificent passages, in a glowing description of nature or of a Hindu woman’s exquisite Jove, his work is frequently marred by a wretched pun, or by some of buffoonery, which ruins our first splendid impression of his poetry.”

      (ii) English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. It is a vigorous and satirical reply to the criticisms in the Edinburgh Review on his first book Hours of Idleness. “He composed a satire in the style of Pope. The poem
is immature, being often crudely expressed, and it throws abuse recklessly upon good writers and bad; but in the handling of the couplet it already shows some of the Byronic force and pungency. The poem is also to interest in that it lets us see how much he is influenced by the preceding age.”

      (iii) Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812). This poem is written in Spenserian stanzas. Byron started this work in Albania in 1809. The first two cantos appeared in 1812. The canto III was published in 1816 and canto IV in 1818 The poem purports to describe the travels and reflections of a pilgrim who was disgusted with a life of pleasure and revelry, seeks distraction in foreign lands. The first two cantos take the reader to Portugal, Spain, the Ionian Isles, and Albania, and end with a lament on the bondage of Greece. In the third canto, the pilgrim passes to Belgium, the Rhine, the Alps, and the Jura. The historical associations of each place are made the poet’s theme, the Spanish war, the eve of Waterloo and Napoleon, and.” more especially Rousseau and Julie. In the fourth canto, the poet abandons his imaginary pilgrim and speaks in his own person, of Venice, Arqua and Petrarch, Ferrara and Tasso, Florence and Roccaccio, Rome and her great men, from the Scipios to Rienzi.

      The hero of the poem is a romantic youth, and is very clearly Byron himself He is very grand and terrible, and sinister with the stain of a dark and awful past. He visits some of the popular beauty-spots of the Continent which he describes in Spenserian stanzas of mode-rate skill and attractiveness. The poem is diffuse, but sometimes it can be terse and energetic; the style is halfheartedly old-fashioned, in difference to the stanza. Byron is to do much better things, but, already he shows a real appreciation of nature, and considerable dexterity in the handling of his meter.

      Regarding the greatness of this poem, H. F. Tozer remarks: “Childe Harold is the greatest of Byron’s works. He speaks of himself, in the dedication prefixed to the fourth Canto, as the longest and the most thoughtful and comprehensive of his compositions, and this judgment he would hardly have recalled at a later time. Its style is rich, highly colored, and full of metaphors, the result of teeming fancy...few poems of the same length are so sustained in interest as Childe Harold. This arises partly from the mode of treatment and partly from the subject itself. It contains elements drawn from all the different branches of poetry. Its continuity is epic, at least in the style of an episodical epic poem like the Odyssey, or the Orlando Furioso of Ariosto. Its descriptions of scenery and sketches of life and manners are idyllic. A
lyric element is contributed by its outbursts of personal feeling. Its rhetorical passages and soliloquies, and the introduction of a supposed auditor, and apostrophizing the personages mentioned, are dramatic Childe Harold is also an eminently suggestive poem from the numerous subjects topographical, historical, biographical, artistic, and literary— which it introduces, and places in the most attractive light. Every point that is touched on, is invested with romance.”

      (iv) Poems between 1813-1815. Byron wrote various poems in 1813-1815 such as Giaour, Lara, Siege of Corinth the Hebrew Melodies, and Occasional onal Pieces, the most famous being The Destruction of Sennacherib. Moreover, his tale Parisina published in 1811 was written in 1815. “These tales deal with the romantic scenes of the East; they almost uniformly reproduce the young Byronic hero of Childe Herold; and to a great extent, they are mannered and stagy. Written in the couplet form, the verse is founded on that of the metrical tales of Scott, whom Byron was not long in supplanting in popular favor, although the masculine action of Scott’s poems is lacking from his work. Instead, there are vehement passions, which give his stories an impetuosity and speed quite different from the easy lucidity of Scott’s narrative poems. A vividness of description, based on Byron’s own experience of Mediterranean countries, fills them with patches of striking color, but though The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, and Parisina are written in a more natural style than The Corsair and Larci, all reveal the lack of melody, the unevenness, and, in varying degrees, the artificiality which are typical of Byron’s work at this period.”

      (v) His other Longer Poems. In 1816 Byron was hounded out of England. During his wanderings, he wrote III and IV cantos of Childe Harold s Pilgrimage which are already commented on. His other longer
poems are The Prisoner of Chillon (1816), Mazeppa (1819), and also several great satirical poems, the most notable of which arc Beppo (1818), published (1819), The Vision of Judgment (1822), and the longest of all, Don Juan. Among these poems, The Prisoner of Chillon, The Vision of Judgement and Don Juan are necessary to be examined critically.

      The Prisoner of Chillon: was published in 1816, when Byron had finally left England and joined the Shelleyan in Switzerland. “It is finer in workmanship than the Eastern tales he had already published, and indicates a getting away from the influence of Scott, and coming under the sway, especially in style and diction, of Wordsworth and Coleridge, she ley was himself passing through a Wordsworthian phase at this period. The tale shows power rather than art, strength in the utterance of passionate sensation without any subtle touches of psychological or dramatic portrayal of strong human emotions There is plenty of action and color; the narrative rushes on or lingers accordingly as the poet wishes to rouse our imagination or to move us with pathos. Closely considered, The Prisoner is less a tale than a monologue in which the poet himself speaks in reminiscence. His imagination is moved at the mere sight of the prison, facts are invented, and “the high temper and lofty tenderness” of the poet creates a tale tinged with his own emotion. The story is supposed to be founded on historical facts, but the poet was not familiar with them till the composition of the poem.

      The Vision of Judgement: is one of the finest of English political satires. Underlying the attack on Southey there is a bitter indignation, hidden beneath a mask of humorous burlesque and a sparkling vivacious wit. The poem, which is written in ottava rime, shows a mastery of satirical portraiture only rivaled by that of Dryden and Pope.

      In range, in vigor, and in effectiveness Don Juan ranks as one of the greatest of satirical poems. It was issued in portions during the years 1819-24, just as Byron composed it. It is a kind of picaresque novel cast into verse. The hero, as in picaresque novel, has many wanderings and adventures, the narration of which might go on interminably. At the time of its publication, it was denounced by a shocked world as vile and immoral, and to a great extent, it deserves the censure. In it Byron expresses the wrath that consumes him, and all the human race comes under the lash. The strength and flexibility of the satire are beyond question, and are freely revealed in bitter mockery, in caustic comment, and in burning rage. However, the mood of anger is but one of the many widely differing moods in this work, which is the fullest revelation of Byron’s complex personality. The stanzas, written in ottava rime, are as keen and supple as a tempered steel blade. The style is a kind of sublimated, half-colloquial prose, showing a disdainful abrogation of the finer poetical trappings; but in places it rises into passages not rare and lovely tenderness. When affliction came upon him. in the words of Lear, he had vowed:

a vow: No, I’ll not weep; I have full cause of weeping, but this heart Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws Or ere I’ll weep.

      But sometimes the poet prevails over the satirist, and the mocking laughter is stifled with the sound of bitter weeping.” (E. Albert)

      Byron's dramas are blank verse tragedies that were composed during the later stages of his career. The chief are Manfred (1817), Marino Faliero (1821), The Two Foscari and Cain (1821) and The Deformed Transformed (1824). The heroes are of the Byronic type.

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