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Byron and Romanticism

Southey andWordsworth may be off and flying on their time-serving and


pompous steeds just as they are free to seek their fortunes in the world
of Lord Castlereagh, Poet-Laureateships, and places “in the Excise.” To
let them have their way is to let them condemn themselves.

For me, who, wandering with pedestrian Muses,


Contend not with you on the winged steed,
I wish your fate may yield ye, when she chooses,
The fame you envy, and the skill you need;
And recollect a poet nothing loses
In giving to his brethren their full meed
Of merit, and complaint of present days
Is not the certain path to future praise.
(“Dedication” to Don Juan stanza VIII)

Meantime, while these bastard children of Milton soar in their illusory


poetic heavens, Byron will gather himself back to his father and begin
Don Juan under the aegis of the human books of Paradise Lost.

Return me to my Native Element:


Least from this flying Steed enrein’d (as once
Bellerophon, though from a lower Clime)
Dismounted, on th’ Aleian Field I fall
Erroneus there to wander and forlorne.
Half yet remaines unsung, but narrower bound
Within the visible Diurnal Spheare;
Standing on Earth, not rapt above the Pole
More safe I Sing with mortal voice, unchang’d
To hoarce or mute, though fall’n on evil dayes,
On evil dayes though fall’n and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compast round,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visit’st my slumbers Nightly, or when Morn
Purples the East: still govern thou my Song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.
(P.L., VII, –)

Byron and Romanticism


which Manfred is a far bolder and more forward-thinking work than Don
Juan – just as we can see that Wordsworth’s linguistic experiments in
Lyrical Ballads engaged more prescient and profound stylistic issues
than his clear masterpiece The Prelude. For Manfred is the acme of his
“spoiler’s art.” No other work of his dares to bring so much to judgment.
It is all very well – and it is very well indeed – to essay the candor of
the “[Epistle to Augusta]” with its admission that “I have been cunning
in mine overthrow, / The careful pilot of my proper woe” (–). It is
quite another matter to demand that your art take up literally unspeakable
matters – Byron’s “home desolation” as well as his love for his sister
Augusta – and force them into a public sphere of discussion. The move
involves far more than a breach of aesthetic decorum, it sets a whole new
agenda for what we think about the limits of art. Which is precisely what
Byron’s great nineteenth-century European inheritors thought it did.
The contrivance of Byron’s move spans, and requires, the entire work.
This fact is nicely illustrated in the full dramatic management of that
curse and judgment pronounced in the play’s great “Incantation.” Not
many writers have found the courage, or the stylistic means, to unleash
their conscience upon themselves, in public, in this way:
Though thou seest me not pass by,
Thou shalt feel me with thine eye
As a thing that, though unseen,
Must be near thee, and hath been . . . .
And a magic voice and verse
Hath baptized thee with a curse;
And a spirit of the air
Hath begirt thee with a snare;
In the wind there is a voice
Shall forbid thee to rejoice;
And to thee shall Night deny
All the quiet of her sky . . .
By thy cold breast and serpent smile,
By thy unfathom’d gulfs of guile,
By that most seeming virtuous eye,
By thy shut soul’s hypocrisy;
By the perfection of thine art
Which pass’d for human thine own heart;
By thy delight in others’ pain,
And by thy brotherhood of Cain,
I call upon thee and compel
Thyself to be thy proper Hell!
(I, , –, –, –)

Poetry, – 


When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lambmake thee?
Blake’s starry spears of  broke across the earlier sky of  in another
Satanic text, Burns’s great “Address to the Deil.” The second line of Blake’s
verse is an English translation of Burns’s Scots:
Ae dreary, windy, winter night,
The stars shot down wi’ sklentan light,
Wi’ you, mysel, I gat a fright.
Blake’s “smile” – like the high-spirited comedy of that associated text
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell () – is a memorial tribute to Burns,
who also liked to treat his gods and demons with familiarity. Like Blake,
he knew that all deities reside in the human breast, as the very next lines
of his address to the “deil” show:
Ayont the lough;
Ye, like a rash-buss, stood in sight,
Wi’ waving sugh.
The cudgel in my neive did shake,
Each bristl’d hair stood like a stake,
When wi’ an eldritch, stoor quaick, quaick,
Amang the springs,
Awa ye squatter’d like a drake,
On whistling wings.
From Blake back to Burns; and from Burns on toWordsworth, who learns
to take spiritual instruction from the quotidian orders of nature out of texts
like Burns’s:
O’er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
And whistles in the wind.
(“Lucy Gray,” )
XX. Where did Keats take his lessons, from Burns or from Wordsworth?
Mortal, that thou may’st understand aright,
I humanize my sayings to thine ear,
Making comparisons of earthly things;
Or thou might’st better listen to the wind,

Poetry, – 


Howdowe get to knowit, then? people sometimes ask. And I want to say,
simply by looking at it. “If the doors of perception were cleansed . . .” – you
know the rest. Even when we think we’re following that great Romantic
star, the imagination, we often close ourselves up and see only through
the narrow chinks of our caverned brains. Take Blake and his Songs and
“The Tyger,” for instance. Turn your view away from Burns for a moment
and observe the Songs from the vantage of children’s literature, or against
the background of that related and overlapping phenomenon, the tradition
of emblematic writing. A whole new world of realities suddenly rises to your
sight. And it is endlessly interesting, we could wander in this new world for
a long time.
It is aworld inhabited, for example, by that famous and highly influential
family, the Taylors of Ongar. The highfalutin imaginations of Coleridge
and Southey and Wordsworth shook their heads in melancholy dismay
at what they saw as the failed and mad magnificence of Blake’s writings.
Jane Taylor had no such problems. Just as Blake incorporated (and thereby
reinterpreted) Burns’s “Address to the Deil” in “The Tyger,” Jane Taylor
(–) did the same to Blake’s poem. She answered the famous
theological
questions of “The Tyger” with the augury of an innocence we have
all but forgotten, so serious do we often get, so far do we wander from the
pleasure principles laid down in the fields of childhood:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.
(“The Star” [])
In effect, Taylor is reading Blake’s “Tyger” through Blake’s “Dream,”
another text recollected in Taylor’s “Star.” It is a crucial literary-historical
move – whether we are passing through remote areas of our histories or
through nearby (and perhaps academic) regions. When Blake added the
Songs of Experience (in ) to the Songs of Innocence (), he established
a
critical model for Romantic dialectics that would proliferate and endure.
Taylor’s poem is important because it reminds us that the dialectic is reversible,
that the world of experience might be undone by entering it through
Blake’s “Lamb” or Taylor’s “Star” or as it would later continue to be by
works like Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” (). For this is a long
and complex history that has been adopted by both parties to the dialectic.
XX. And as Blake said, the parties are and should be enemies. Wordsworthian
recollection, the determinative model forRomanticmemory, stands forever

Byron and Romanticism


AA. . . . and to the simplicities pursued by Taylor. It is crucial to be clear about
the differential shining out in poems like “The Star” – a work that stands
far closer, in ethos and history if not in time and style, to Burns’s and Blake’s
poems and songs than to the secondary imaginations of Wordsworth and
Coleridge. Certain of Wordsworth’s most splendid poems, so hateful to
Blake, define the difference with great exactness. A guiding and protective
star presides over the landscape of Wordsworth’s “Michael” (), for
instance, but the history that Wordsworth sees throws it into eclipse:
The Cottage which was nam’d The Evening Star
Is gone, the ploughshare has been through the ground
On which it stood; great changes have been wrought
In all the neighbourhood.
The cottage and its symbolic name have “slip[ped] in a moment out of life”
into the care of a memorializing imagination (“To H. C. Six Years Old”).
As in “The Solitary Reaper,” Wordsworth accepts – triumphs in – the
imaginative displacement of primary experience: “The music in my heart
I bore / Long after it was heard no more.” That displacement is unnatural
to Burns, for example, whose song voice is inseparable from the voice of
the girl known toWordsworth only at two removes. So in Blake and Burns
and Taylor, “the melancholy slackening” so characteristic of one strain of
Romanticism does not (typically) “ensue” (Prelude, VI []). Sorrow and
happiness do not run in alternating currents, their relations are direct and
immediate. All is “naive.” The Wordsworthian model –
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof come i’ th’ end despondency and madness
(“Resolution and Independence” [])
– is applied to this other Romantic strain only with difficulty because
the logic of Wordsworth’s “thereof ” is refused. This happens because the
dialectic of gladness and despondency, pleasure and pain, is not imagined
as a conceptual relation but as an existential one. We see the situation
clearly in much of Burns’s work, not least of all in his masterpiece “Love
and Liberty – A Cantata” (commonly called “The Jolly Beggars” []).
The Caird prevail’d—th’ unblushing fair
In his embraces sunk;
Partly wi’ LOVE o’ercome sae sair,
And partly she was drunk:
Sir VIOLINO with an air,
That show’d a man o’ spunk,
Wish’d UNISON between the PAIR,
An’ made the bottle clunk
To their health that night.

Moon

Byron and Romanticism


JJM:It’s not his malaise, the stanza reflects a general condition of culture.
“Byron” is its representative figure in this case, as “Byronism” is one of
its strains. Nor is the condition adequately represented as a “malaise,” any
more than (say) Wordsworth’s famous language “reforms” are adequately
characterized as such. Those reforms doomed, for example, whole ranges
of important poetical work to a long period of cultural invisibility and exile.
Here Crabbe is the exemplary case, an artist of immense skill and power.
But he speaks an alien tongue to our Romantically trained ears. And so do
a number of important women writers who have recently swum into our
ken. Byron’s “malaise” is a prophetic diagnosis of his own culture and its
Romanticism. That’s why it still speaks to us so directly.
JS: I think – I hope – what also speaks to us directly is the opposite of this
malaise: what I would call Byron’s “gay science” or his “joyful wisdom.”
I refer again to those lovely apples.
Man fell with apples, and with apples rose,
If this be true, for we must deem the mode
In which Sir Isaac Newton could disclose
Through the then unpaved stars the turnpike road,
A thing to counterbalance human woes;
For ever since immortal man hath glowed
With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon
Steam-engines will conduct him to the Moon.
And wherefore this exordium?—Why, just now,
In taking up this paltry sheet of paper,
My bosom underwent a glorious glow,
And my internal Spirit cut a caper:
And though so much inferior, as I know,
To those who, by the dint of glass and vapour,
Discover stars, and sail in the wind’s eye,
I wish to do as much by Poesy.
A more delightful, self-delighting dialectic of gravity and levity, of gravitation
and levitation, is hard to imagine. It’s Byron Unbound, no?
JJM: Indeed, as Shelley thought:
These are the spells by which to reassume
An empire o’er the disentangled Doom.
NOTES
 Cf. McGann, Byron and Wordsworth (Nottingham: The Byron Foundation,
). By “consciously debased” I mean what Madame de Sta¨el meant when
she described Goethe’s art in the first part of Faust in the same terms. Her
explication of Goethe had a signal impact on Byron’s view of his own writing

– 
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lambmake thee?
Blake’s starry spears of  broke across the earlier sky of  in another
Satanic text, Burns’s great “Address to the Deil.” The second line of Blake’s
verse is an English translation of Burns’s Scots:
Ae dreary, windy, winter night,
The stars shot down wi’ sklentan light,
Wi’ you, mysel, I gat a fright.
Blake’s “smile” – like the high-spirited comedy of that associated text
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell () – is a memorial tribute to Burns,
who also liked to treat his gods and demons with familiarity. Like Blake,
he knew that all deities reside in the human breast, as the very next lines
of his address to the “deil” show:
Ayont the lough;
Ye, like a rash-buss, stood in sight,
Wi’ waving sugh.
The cudgel in my neive did shake,
Each bristl’d hair stood like a stake,
When wi’ an eldritch, stoor quaick, quaick,
Amang the springs,
Awa ye squatter’d like a drake,
On whistling wings.
From Blake back to Burns; and from Burns on toWordsworth, who learns
to take spiritual instruction from the quotidian orders of nature out of texts
like Burns’s:
O’er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
And whistles in the wind.
(“Lucy Gray,” )
XX. Where did Keats take his lessons, from Burns or from Wordsworth?
Mortal, that thou may’st understand aright,
I humanize my sayings to thine ear,
Making comparisons of earthly things;
Or thou might’st better listen to the wind,

Byron and Romanticism


JJM: It’s not his malaise, the stanza reflects a general condition of culture.
“Byron” is its representative figure in this case, as “Byronism” is one of
its strains. Nor is the condition adequately represented as a “malaise,” any
more than (say) Wordsworth’s famous language “reforms” are adequately
characterized as such. Those reforms doomed, for example, whole ranges
of important poetical work to a long period of cultural invisibility and exile.
Here Crabbe is the exemplary case, an artist of immense skill and power.
But he speaks an alien tongue to our Romantically trained ears. And so do
a number of important women writers who have recently swum into our
ken. Byron’s “malaise” is a prophetic diagnosis of his own culture and its
Romanticism. That’s why it still speaks to us so directly.
JS: I think – I hope – what also speaks to us directly is the opposite of this
malaise: what I would call Byron’s “gay science” or his “joyful wisdom.”
I refer again to those lovely apples.
Man fell with apples, and with apples rose,
If this be true, for we must deem the mode
In which Sir Isaac Newton could disclose
Through the then unpaved stars the turnpike road,
A thing to counterbalance human woes;
For ever since immortal man hath glowed
With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon
Steam-engines will conduct him to the Moon.
And wherefore this exordium?—Why, just now,
In taking up this paltry sheet of paper,
My bosom underwent a glorious glow,
And my internal Spirit cut a caper:
And though so much inferior, as I know,
To those who, by the dint of glass and vapour,
Discover stars, and sail in the wind’s eye,
I wish to do as much by Poesy.
A more delightful, self-delighting dialectic of gravity and levity, of gravitation
and levitation, is hard to imagine. It’s Byron Unbound, no?
JJM: Indeed, as Shelley thought:
These are the spells by which to reassume
An empire o’er the disentangled Doom.
NOTES
 Cf. McGann, Byron and Wordsworth (Nottingham: The Byron Foundation,
). By “consciously debased” I mean what Madame de Sta¨el meant when
she described Goethe’s art in the first part of Faust in the same terms. Her
explication of Goethe had a signal impact on Byron’s view of his own writing,
and specifically on Manfred.