Thursday, December 18, 2014

His volume heretofore was Man - Byron's Byronic 1814

1814 was an important year for Byronism, a Romantic text-transmitted disease that infected a number of the greatest writers of Europe.  Symptoms included melancholy, handsomeness, and conformity-smashing free-spiritedness.

George Gordon Byron’s immense celebrity began with Child Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812, a travel poem in which a Byronic fellow wanders about the Mediterranean – exotic Spain, exotic Albania.  Understanding the appeal of the character, Byron began to write silly best-selling adventure stories (“Turkish Tales”) starring an Orientalized version of the character, mostly in rhyming couplets, a form of which Byron was one of the few great masters in English.  Meanwhile, Byron increased his celebrity by behaving scandalously.  This formula has been successful for two hundred years now.

With Byron the difference between self-parody and self-mythologizing can be hard to see.  Some examples from The Corsair, canto and line numbers in parentheses:

Sun-burnt his cheek, his forehead high and pale
The sable curls in wild profusion veil  (I.203-4)

There was a laughing Devil in his sneer,
That raised emotions both of rage and fear;
And where his frown of hatred darkly fell,
Hope withering fled – and Mercy sigh’d farewell!  (I.223-6)

Lone, wild and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt  (l.272-3)

I would need a specialist in the transmission of Byronism to demonstrate the case, but I think the two cleverly linked verse romances of 1814, The Corsair and Lara, perfect the character.  The first is about a pirate captain who fights a Turkish Pasha for wealth and power.  It features a sea battle, disguises, a beautiful harem girl in distress, a prison escape.  All of what I would now call the usual nonsense.

So this is why in Chapter 17 of Jane Eyre the chic, repellent Miss Ingram wants to hear “’a Corsair-song’” – “’Know that I doat on Corsairs.’”   These stories, and this character, have been copied so often and so thoroughly that it is quite hard to see anything original, but there was a time when everyone thought they were the most daring, innovative, shocking poems anyone had ever seen.

Obviously, the pirate captain is not Byron, but a reader is allowed to imagine Byron as the hero, the image of Byron, the celebrity.  Thus, Byronism.

The preface to The Corsair declares that it will be Byron’s “last production,” but within the same year followed Lara, a meta-adventure.  Not only is the hero much like Byron, but also much like the Corsair. 

The chief of Lara is return’d again:
And why had Lara cross’d the bounding main?  (I.11-12)

But the case cannot be proved.  He has a page who turns out to be a woman, a foreigner, devoted to his life – the woman from The Corsair’s harem?  Maybe!  The home to which the chief has returned – a footnote simultaneously implies that the setting is Spain and not Spain (“the country is not Spain, but the Moon,” Byron wrote in a letter to his publisher).  It is all quite clever, a kind of inside-out parody of the Turkish tales.

Regardless, I would not recommend these adventure poems to anyone who does not savor Byron’s verse, who is not happy to read 1,270 lines of this:

Books, for his volume heretofore was Man,
With eye more curious he appear’d to scan,
And oft, in sudden mood, for many a day,
From all communion he would start away:
And then, his rarely call’d attendants said,
Through night's long hours would sound his hurried tread
O'er the dark gallery, where his fathers frown’d
In rude but antique portraiture around (I.131-8)

And who is not willing to take cheap thrills where he can get them, and laugh along with Byron at the silliness of the whole thing.


  1. In The Eustace Diamonds, Trollope also has an ambitious but silly character who keeps fantasizing about "her Corsair."

  2. Oh, that's great, I did not know that. "She was in her Corsair state of mind, divided between her jewels and her poetry," etc. A longing for Byronism, which tells you a lot about the character, the kind of reader who finds Heathcliff dreamy.