Byron: Life and Work (1)

Rocco Falconer, an undergraduate student, makes a case that to understand Byron's poems you need to understand Byron - and that to understand Byron, you need to recognise how his poems register the consequences of his exile. His two major works - Don Juan and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage – are both seen to yearn for home, even amid the pleasures of travel.

The way to get the most out of reading Byron is to understand a little of what he was like as a man, and what he thought of himself as a man. His personality and attitude were so singular that reading his poetry without understanding him at all misses so much that is superb. Almost all of it is full of his unique blend of comedy and tragedy, sentimentality and farce, scorn and delight, longing and shunning, that the real meaning, or part of the meaning, is easily lost without his incomparable personality guiding you just a little.

One of the significant things about Byron was that he was a great traveller. He certainly saw himself as one, perhaps because the notion of the restless traveller fitted so well with his notion of himself as a Romantic hero and great man (he famously declared 'there are three great men of our age: myself, and ). In 1816, Byron was dishonourably exiled from England after his affair with his half-sister, Augusta, was discovered. He never returned to England again, and the poetry that he wrote in response to this, privately and publicly, can really give us a sense of what he really felt, and what he was really like. It also, crucially, gives us a phenomenal insight into his relationship with poetry: what he tried to do, and what he thought he could do with it, both privately and publicly.

Amongst the first things that Byron did when he was exiled from England was compose the third Canto of the poem that had made him famous, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. The poem is about travelling, and mixes a response to what he sees in the external world with his responses to his internal world. Byron refers to himself as a 'wanderer' or 'roamer' and 'restless', and compares himself to a bird that was always kept in a cage by society. Now he has a chance to be 'free', because as an individual he was 'unfit... to herd with man'. Many people think that it is the best example of Byron as a quintessentially Romantic poet, melancholy, brooding and alone.

After two years, Byron began to work on Don Juan, his great poem that contains all the complexities - as sentimental, as absurd - that he contained as a man. In both the characters of Harold and Juan, and in the journeys that they go on, there is so much of Byron that often we can look closely at his responses and state of mind through the actions and thoughts of the two characters. Whether or not this injection of his personality was intended or not, he wrote so much poetry after his exile, some private, some public, that by looking at some of the recurrent preoccupations we can get a sense of sincerity, however insincere some stanzas may be.

But the picture that we start to gather is far from the Romantic 'Byronic hero' that Childe Harold's Pilgrimage may seek to present. Instead, Byron can seem a man made melancholy by exile. Although he undoubtedly has moments of humour, comedy, and reconciliation to the lot he has been forced to accept, he cannot quite rid himself of feelings of loss, bitterness, and yearning. The narrative of Don Juan reflects a bit on how Byron saw his life. The pattern of mad love, followed by discovery and exile, was one in which Byron was experienced, and the subsequent unsuccessful search for a contented, settled life - a quest for a home - is one that mirrored Byron's frequent changes. In all the detail of Juan's thoughts, the narrative's progress, and in the continuous asides, we start to get a picture of how Byron is making sense of his exile, and how he is really responding to it.

Like Byron, Juan is reluctantly forced from his loved ones into a raging storm that he cannot control. In the Haidee episode, he discovers peace, innocence, love and happiness, and most importantly, a place where he is settled. Anne Barton describes this episode as almost pre-lapsarian, that is, it has a perfect quality to it that is like the life of Adam and Eve before the Fall and the expulsion from paradise. But soon the perfection is destroyed when Lambro, Haidee's pirate father, returns to disrupt their marital harmony and bliss. Juan is set upon the waters: like in Canto III of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, he is once more 'as a weed / flung... on the ocean's foam to sail / where'er the surge may sweep'.

Before he subjects Juan to this fate, Byron seems to put Lambro's return off for as long as he can, with long, rambling asides. This serves to create suspense, but it also could demonstrate Byron's reluctance to separate the lovers and force Juan from the place where he is settled. He uses the momentum of his verse to go anywhere but the scene of destruction, and in doing so demonstrates that his apparent delight in adventure, travel, movement and solitude is a cover for a much more profound desire to find a home, to find love, and remain.

In Epistle to Augusta, a letter sent to his lover, Byron classes his two desires as 'a world to roam through, and a home with thee'. I think this is crucial to understanding what Byron's real attitude to his exile was. This sentence gives his 'roaming' an objective: a 'home'. The next line: 'The first were nothing - had I still the last / It were the haven of my happiness' confirms the order of his priorities. This poignant recognition of the home he had, and loved, and lost, is amongst the most sentimental things in Byron's poetry. It gives the early cantos of Don Juan an added poignancy to think of Byron's melancholy: he describes Juan as 'forlorn... sobbing often' when he is forced to leave his love. But to say of Don Juan that Juan, or Byron, was either depressed about his lot, or exalted by his freedom, would be to oversimplify an immensely complex range of different meanings. I don't think even Byron knew what he was thinking: much more important is to realise that he was thinking something, and that that thought is his poetry.

It is not coincidence that both in Don Juan and Canto III of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, when Byron thinks about his exile, he thinks about the nature of his poetry, why he is doing it, and what it can achieve. In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage he justifies poetry as the way he 'live[s] / A being more intense...gaining as we give / The life we imagine'. At the end of Canto IV, as Juan sets forth once more, Byron stops to consider poetry's birth: 'the unquiet feelings, which first woke / song in the world, will seek what then they sought... poetry, which is but passion'. Both of these quotations portray poetry as some sort of quest, and as a result of 'intense' emotion or 'passion'. They suggest it is some sort of balm to the excesses of 'unquiet feelings', and make poetry seem like a journey through imagination and experience to allay the 'storm' of intense sadness. And it is only this poetic journey that Byron really travels without any doubt. Unable to reconcile himself fully to the journeys he was forced to make in exile with equal moments of relief and despair, it seems that Byron explored and travelled unquestioningly only in the realms of verse. He sought to soothe his mind, and also to find some life which he could make sense of, and, as much as he could, control.

Further Reading

If you enjoyed thinking about these issues, try going on to Josh Farrington's companion article on Byron's Life and Work. At the end of that article we offer some suggestions for further reading that are equally relevant to this one.

Further Thinking

Rocco Falconer read the poems in order to get at Byron's innermost thoughts. Some critics might worry about this - can we really be sure what is 'sincere' and what is not? Is it safe to infer such things from literature? What do you think? What do you think are the key reasons why Byron's poems in particular (despite all their wit) might seem to offer us hints of his sincere thoughts?

Rocco identifies the Haidee episode as a place where Byron does not want the poem to continue - he digresses in order to hold on to a special moment. What do you think the reader makes of this? Do we want the poem to end happily, or to continue excitingly?

Napoleon Bonaparte (born 1867, died 1821, was a great military leader and Emperor of France.
George 'Beau' Brummell (born 1778, died 1840) was the style guru of Regency England. A well-known high-society 'Dandy', he had a great influence on what fashionable people wore.

Comments are closed.