GEORGE GORDON BYRON (1788-1824)

“L’eterno spirito dell’intelletto libero da catene non ebbe mai più splendida apparizione tra noi” (Giuseppe Mazzini)

byron

LIFE: Byron belongs to the Second Generation of the English Romantic Poets. He was born in London in 1788 into a noble old family. At the Age of ten he inherited the title of “Lord” from his grand-uncle who had died without heirs. Despite a disability, he was lame from birth, he was a man of great personal beauty, a perfect rider, an expert swimmer, boxer and cricket player as well. From his parents( his father was called “Mad Jack”) he inherited a tendency to instability and rebellion, while from his governess he derived the Calvinist idea of man predestined to sin and damnation  which was to influence all his life. As far as the governess, some say that she introduced him to sex when he was only ten. After taking a degree at Cambridge, he made a long tour in Europe and Asia Minor which provided lots of material for his literary production. When he went back to England he was introduced into the Whig Society of London and acquired vast notoriety both because of his handsomeness and romantic travels and because of his many love affairs. In 1815 he married a naive girl, Anna Isabel Milbank, who gave him a daughter. Their marriage broke down a year later, when she discovered that he was having an incestuous affair with his half-sister Augusta. There was a scandal and Byron became the talk of the town. He was rejected by the society and was obliged to live abroad. At first he settled in Switzerland, where there was his friend Shelley. Their relationship became bad when Shelley discovered that he had an affair with Mrs Shelley’s half-sister who bore him a daughter. He moved to Italy where he spent some years in Rome and above all in Venice. There he began an extravagant life with many love affairs involving over 200 women. The most lasting was the one he had with Countess Guiccioli, a young and beautiful married lady, who remained his mistress for about four years. In 1819 he settled to Ravenna where he took part in the Carbonari conspiracy against the Austrians and when the plot failed he was forced to move to Pisa and Genoa to avoid of being arrested. In 1823 he decided to leave Italy and went to Greece, joining the Greeks in their struggle for independence from Turkey. A year later, in 1824, he died of a fever at Missolonghi, at the age of 36.

WORKS: Byron’s literary production consists of lyrics, narrative verses, verse dramas and satirical verses. Hours of Idleness(1807) is an anthology of poetry on the theme of love and reminiscences of boyhood. His Oriental Tales, a collection of verse tales, was very popular at his own time because it satisfied the general taste for Orientalism and gothic stories. It includes The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair and The Siege of Corinth, all dealing with love, separation, death and revenge. The verse drama Manfred, Marino Faliero, Cain, The Two Foscari and Sardanapalus are made up of mysterious, metaphysical and historical elements. Among his satirical poems we can mention English Bards and Scotch Reviewers in heroic couplet, an epic satire in ottava rima, Don Juan  and Vision of Judgement. Don Juan is considered the most successful of Byron’s works. It is a humorous poem in 16 cantos  in which, pretending to tell the story of Don Juan’s love adventures, Byron attacks the false respectability and codes of behaviour of the England of his time. Another important poem is Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, an autobiographical poem in four cantos, written in Spenserian stanzas made up of nine lines, rhyming ABABBCBCC. It is based on Byron’s travels and contains the experiences and reflections on life of the pilgrim Childe Harold. It was written at different moments: the first two cantos after Byron’s long journey in the Near East, the third canto in Switzerland after his exile and the fourth in Italy. The setting of the first two cantos, Greece and the Middle East, appealed the tastes of exotics and were very popular in their own time. Childe Harold, who is the link of the four cantos, in canto three and four becomes Byron’s alter ego.

FEATURES-BYRONISM: Byron was the most famous of the Romantics in his own time. His poetry was as exciting as his life, full of drama, passion and torment. A myth developed around him and made him the central figure of a new romantic cult: Byronism. He represented for his admirers the personification of romantic values and a model to be imitated. People believed him to be like the heroes of his poetry: proud, passionate, isolated by his sensitivity and superiority from the rest of Mankind, sometimes cruel and almost satanic. The rebel outcast, stained with sin   was a new figure and his contemporary readers associated it to Byron. He also seemed burdened with a past stained by crime for having slept with his half-sister.He was bisexual and had numerous affairs with Italian and Greek men and women.

Byron can be regarded both as a Romantic and as a non romantic.He is a Romantic in his extravagant life, in his worship of liberty, in his rebellion against any form  of oppression , in his nationalism which led him to join the Carbonari in Italy and the Greek struggle for independence.Other romantic features are his descriptions of great natural phenomena, such as storms,oceans and high mountains, his taste for Gothic and exotics, his interest in   past ages.

He is a non-romantic in his sense of fun, in his ironic distrust of emotions, in his mock-heroic attitude, which led him to use the satirical couplet, in imitation of Pope, whom he admired, and the ottava rima. Unlike the other  Romantics, he was mainly concerned with man in society rather than with man in nature.

NATURE: He saw it as an ideal background in which to set the fantastic adventures of his heroes. Sometime his attitude towards nature was lyric, as in the long address To the Ocean contained in the fourth canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage . We can find in it the same feelings of admiration of other romantic poets for the powerful nature. What appealed to him was Nature upset by terrible storms, the night, moonlight, high mountains covered with snow

Unlike Wordsworth, who saw Nature in a pantheistic way and sought moral inspiration in it, Byron took nature as he found it; he did not look for a soul in it nor sought any special revelation through it. He had no sense of transcendental order behind reality, so he was persuaded that nature in itself was sufficient to inspire poetry and there was no need to look beyond it for something else.

THE GOTHIC TREND: He was incline to the sublime, typical of Gothic literature,  and had an interest in the occult. This trend emerges above all from his melodramatic verse tales which made some contemporaries to consider him the head of the satanic school of poets.Robert Southey in his Preface to A Vision of Judgment had  attacked Byron and those “Men of diseased hearts and depraved imaginations” who had set up a “Satanic School” of poetry, “characterized by a Satanic spirit of pride and audacious impiety”.

THE BYRONIC HERO: The Byronic Hero is Byron himself because he was the model of all his heroes and in portraying them he also gives a portrait of himself: handsome, licentious, moody and marked by destiny.

The Byronic hero descends from Milton’s Satan and from the heroes of the Gothic novels.In portraying them he was greatly influenced by the Calvinistic idea of predestination to sin and damnation: they consider themselves as victims of Fate and Nature or of a Will beyond their control. They are usually rebels struggling against everything and everybody, challenging the World and its  rules and even the Creator himself. They feel as strangers in the world they live in and are isolated from the rest of mankind.They have got boundless pride and are endowed with great courage. Sometime they may be violent mysterious men who have lived a stormy and wild life and who have had guilty secrets in their past.

The first Byronic hero was Childe Harold, followed by a series of others. In all the Oriental Tales the main male character was a Byronic hero. Conrad, the pirate chief of his verse tale Lara and Manfred,the protagonist of his verse drama with the same title, may be considered the best examples of the Byronic heroes. Manfred is proud and independent; he lives as in a perpetual exile, unable to conform to society and different from the others because he lives by his own values; unlike Faustus,he even rejects the offer of a pact with the Devil because he is totally autonomous and rejects Heaven, too, because he can do without God and the Devil.

As far as Childe Harold, let’s analyze two stanzas of the third canto.

“I Have Not Loved the World”  

(from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, stanzas 113-114)

I have not loved the world, nor the world me;

I have not flatter’d its rank breath, nor bow’d

To its idolatries a patient knee, —

Nor coin’d my cheek to smiles, — nor cried aloud

In worship of an echo; in the crowd

They could not deem me one of such; I stood

Among them, but not of them; in a shroud

Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could,

Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.

 

I have not loved the world, nor the world me, —

But let us part fair foes; I do believe,

Though I have found them not, that there may be

Words which are things, — hopes which will not deceive,

And virtues which are merciful, nor weave

Snares for the failing: I would also deem

O’er others’ griefs that some sincerely grieve;

That two, or one, are almost what they seem, —

That goodness is no name, and happiness no dream.

Non ho amato il mondo,né il mondo me;                                                                                     

Non ho adulato il suo disgustoso respiro,né piegato                                              

Un ginocchio paziente alle sue idolatrie,                                                    

Né  forgiato la mia guancia ai sorrisi,né pianto a gran voce              

In adorazione di un eco; nella folla                                                                                              

Non mi si poteva considerare uno di loro;stavo                                                                          

Fra loro ma senza esserlo; in un cortina                                                                                         

Di pensieri che non erano i loro pensieri, e tuttavia potevo,                                                      

Se non avessi addomesticato la mia mente così da sottometterla.

 

Non ho amato il mondo,né il mondo me;                                                                             

Ma separiamoci da leali nemici; io credo,                                                                                

Sebbene non le abbia trovate, che ci possano essere                                                             

Parole che siano cose,speranze che non ingannino,                                                                   

E virtù che siano misericordiose, e che non tessano                                                                  

Trappole per chi sbaglia; credo anche che                                                                             

Alcuni provino sinceramente dolore per i dolori degli altri;                                                    

Che due o uno siano quasi ciò che sembrano,                                                                            

Che la bontà non sia un nome e la felicità non sia un sogno.

The two stanzas belong to the third Canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,written in 1816.Byron was forced to leave England disappointed with the society who had rejected him after the rumours of  his affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh.They contain bitter meditations on the human condition. The poet says that he despises the world because it is full of hypocrisy: “I have not flattered its rank breath….. nor coined my cheek to smiles”. He talks of his solitude in a world he doesn’t like: “I have not loved the world nor the world me”. He is an independent soul in opposition to the world:”in the crowd/They could not deem me one of such; I stood/Among them, but not of them”. He challenges it, just as the Byronic hero does. The two stanzas start with the same line but they develop differently. The first stanza refers to the past; the verbs have got a negative connotation and the tone is pessimistic.  The negations are positive for the poet because they become a reason of pride.The second stanza refers to the present and the future; there is a moderate optimism that a society may exist without hypocrisy, a society where “there may be  Words which are things”, that is words that have the same consistency as concrete things have,   “where two or one are almost what they seem/ and goodness is no name and happiness no dream”. The poet is disillusioned but confident and hopeful.

TO THE OCEAN

CLXXXIV.

And I have loved thee, Ocean! and my joy
Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be
Borne like thy bubbles, onward: from a boy
I wantoned with thy breakers — they to me
Were a delight; and if the freshening sea
Made them a terror — ’twas a pleasing fear,
For I was as it were a child of thee,
And trusted to thy billows far and near,
And laid my hand upon thy mane — as I do here.

E io ti ho amato, Oceano,
e la gioia dei miei svaghi giovanili,
era di farmi trasportare dalle onde
come la tua schiuma;
fin da ragazzo mi sbizzarrivo con i tuoi flutti,
una vera delizia per me.
E se il mare freddo faceva paura agli altri,
a me dava gioia,
Perché ero come un figlio suo,
E mi fidavo delle sue onde, lontane e vicine,
E giuravo sul suo nome, come ora.

This stanza belongs to the fourth canto of Childe Harold Pilgrimage and is part of a longer address to the Ocean. The fourth canto is set in Italy and deals with impressions of some Italian towns, their beauty and their monuments. It contains beautiful descriptions of nature. The poet remembers when he was a boy and used to play with its waves and swim on its surface.It contains the same feelings of admiration of other romantic poets for the powerful nature and brings to the poet feelings of delight and pleasure. in ll. 5 and 6 we can find a connection with the sublime which inspires fear and delight:”they to me/Were a delight; and if the freshening sea/Made them a terror — ’twas a pleasing fear”.

So We’ll Go No More a Roving

So, we’ll go no more a roving                                                

So late into the night,  

Though the heart be still as loving, 

And the moon be still as bright.

 

For the sword outwears its sheath,

And the soul wears out the breast,                                                                                                

And the heart must pause to breathe,                                                                                          

And love itself have rest.

 

Though the night was made for loving,                                                                                       

And the day returns too soon,                                                                                                         

Yet we’ll go no more a roving                                                                                                            

By the light of the moon.

Così non andremo più vagando,                                                                                                  Tanto tardi nella notte,
Anche se il cuore vuole ancora amore
E la luna splende ancora luminosa.

Perché la spada logora il fodero,
e l’animo logora il petto:
il cuore deve fermarsi per respirare
E l’amore stesso riposare.

Sebbene la notte fu creata per amare,
E il giorno ritorni troppo presto,
Tuttavia non andremo più vagando
al chiarore lunare.

This short lyric was written in Italy in 1817 and reflects the poet’s regret at passing time and at lost love adventure. The general tone is melancholic: although everything is as it used to be before and nights are still there for lovers to enjoy, it is no longer time to go a-roving,to go wandering about, to have pleasure because human heart and love need a rest.Line 1 is repeated as a sort of refrain and stanza one has been rephrased in stanza three.

Saint Peter

XVI

1.Saint Peter sat by the celestial gate,

And nodded* o’er his keys;when, lo! there came             *sonnecchiava

A wondrous noise he had not heard of late

A rushing sound of wind, and stream, and flame;

In short, a roar of things extremely great,

Which would have made aught save a saint exclaim;*    *che avrebbe fatto gridare di meraviglia tutti tranne un santo

But he with first a start and then a wink,

8. Said, “There’s another star gone out, I think!”

XVII

But ere he could return to his repose,

A cherub flapp’d*his right wing o’er his eyes                  * sbattè

At which St. Peter yawn’d*, and rubb’d** his nose:      *sbadigliò **si strofinò

Saint Porter”, said the angel, “prithee rise!”

Waving a goodly wing, which glow’d*, as glows               *risplendeva

An earthly peacock’s tail*, with heavenly dyes**:     *la coda di un pavone terrestre ** tinte

To which the saint replied, “Well, what’s the matter?

16.“Is Lucifer come back with all this clatter?”*                *baccano

XVIII

“No” quoth the cherub; “George the Third is dead.”

“And who is George the Third?” replied the apostle:

“What George? what Third?” “The king of England, said

The angel. “Well! he won’t find kings to jostle*                     * che facciano a spintoni con lui

Him on his way;- but does he wear his head?

Because the last we saw here had a tustle,*                         * lite

And ne’er would have got into heaven’s good graces,

24.Had he not flung his head in all our faces*.  * se non ci avesse sbattuto la testa in faccia

XIX

“He was, if I remember, king of France;

That head of his which could not keep a crown

On earth, yet ventured in my face to advance

A claim to those of martyrs — like my own:

If I had had my sword, as I had once

When I cut ears off,I had cut him dowm

But having but my keys, and not my brand,

30.I only knock’d his head from out his hand.

XXII

The angel answer’d. “Peter! do not pout*:               * non fare il broncio

The king that comes has head and all entire.

And never knew much what it was about —

He did as doth the puppet — by its wire*,               * guidato dal filo

And will be judged like all the rest, no doubt:

My business and your own is not to inquire

Into such matters, but to mind our cue*                 * fare la nostra parte

38.Which is to act as we are bid to do.”

(from: The Vision of Judgment, 11. 121-152/169-166)

These stanzas are taken from The Vision of Judgement, which is considered Byron’s best satirical work.It  was a reply to a poem, A Vision of Judgement, by the Laureate Poet Robert Southey to celebrate the death of King George III.In the Preface to his work Southey had made a violent attack against Byron’s Don Juan and Byron replied with a parody of Southey’s work, ridiculing both Southey’s poem and the King and his admirers.In order to do that, Byron uses a particular technique of Deflation giving a funny vision of Heaven and  depriving it and characters of all their splendour.Saint Peter is shown as an irascible  grumbling old and asleep  man(“nodded o’er his keys”) who is doing his job of a porter(he “sat by the celestial gate” with his keys and the Cherub calls him “Saint Porter”).He speaks incorrectly (“another star gone out/l.8/…Is Lucifer come…/l.16/ I had cut him down/l. 30/line. The poem, in ottava rima, contains some religious references: line 16 refers to an episode of the Bible, the fall of the Angels ( Saint Peter thinks that Lucifer has come to claim Heaven again); line 30 refers to an episode of the Gospel when Saint Peter cut the ear of a soldier come to arrest  Jesus Christ.

To point out that earthly fame has no importance in Heaven, when the Cherub informs him of King George’s arrival giving him his name and number(“ George the third is dead”), Saint Peter pretends not to understand who he is(“…and who is George the third?…. What George?What third?”). Then he links George to Louis XVI of France who had lost his head on the scaffold, to mean that George III had lost his head going mad.

The last stanza contains Byron’s opinion of the King. He makes the Cherub say that George “ never knew much what it was about/ he did as doth the puppet by its wire”. Byron wants to say that George III was a mediocre man, a tool and a puppet in the hands of his ministers and politicians.


		

About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

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