What are the works of Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron)? Information about Lord Byron’s poems, dramas, works, career and letters.
Like most young poets, Byron began with imitative verses which nevertheless gave some promise of his later genius. Two opposite but complementary strains appear: a romantic and a realistic interpretation of the human propensity to seek ideal perfection in all the experiences of life. Nostalgia for the lost innocence of youth is a common theme of his early poems. But even when he was imitating the sentimental poetry of Thomas Moore, Byron displayed a preference for truth to the “cold compositions of art.” As one modern critic has said, he was “too romantic to refrain from blowing bubbles, and too realistic to refrain from pricking them.”
Byron came before the public with the volume Hours of Idleness (1807). When the Edinburgh Review published a sarcastic critique of that volume, Byron struck back with a Popean satire, English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers, attacking most contemporary poets for not following “Pope’s pure strain” and “great Dryden’s” moralizing song. This first attempt to emulate the Popean model, which he most admired, was followed by other, less successful efforts (notably Hints from Horace, which was published posthumously, and The Age of Bronze, 1823.) Byron had developed a dual concept of poetry. On the one hand, he wanted most to be a Juvenalian satirist turning his pungent wit against deviations from good sense and good taste and satirizing the errors of the age. On the other hand, he followed the romantic taste for what he considered a lesser genre, the poetry of the feelings, and used it as a safety valve for his emotions.
“Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.”
The first two cantos of Childe Harold take the pilgrim through Portugal, Spain, Albania, and Greece on a foredoomed search. Alternate longing for the ideal and disillusionment in the face of reality form the pattern and set the mood of Childe Harold. But in the early cantos the author’s zest for travel and new experiences shines through the melancholy. The “satanic pose” and the “lonely soul” themes are interspersed with descriptions of a bullfight in Spain, the kilted Albanians, and the wild Greek dances, or with expressions of sadness over Greece in decay and indignation over the removal to England of the Elgin marbles.
The third canto, which follows the pilgrim from the field of Waterloo up the Rhine to Switzerland, at once expresses the most aspiring and the most melancholy views. The lonely soul confesses that his brain is “A whirling gulf of phantasy and flame,” but at times he reaches a tranquillity beyond tragedy and feels that he can momentarily transcend the “clay-cold bond” of reality. It is in the creative process, the “bodiless thought,” that he finds escape from the “fleshly chain.” The glow of feeling that informs this canto lifts it to the highest reaches of poetic insight into the romantic ego. In his pictures of Waterloo, of Napoleon and Rousseau, of the lake and the mountains, it is evident that his lyre has gained a string. Byron himself said of the canto: “It is a fine indistinct piece of poetical desolation, and my favourite.”
The sic transit gloria mundi theme of the fourth canto, which follows the pilgrim (now no longer distinguishable from the poet) from Venice to Rome, is interspersed with some of Byron’s most poignant and most poetic statements of the romantic agony. The lush rhetoric of the description of the ruins of Rome is dramatic and spectacular, but it does not outshine the poetic brilliance of the evocation of the ineffable longings of the supersensitive romantic mind, “The unreached Paradise of our despair.”
Byron made the most of his knowledge of Eastern manners and landscapes in the melodramatic poetic tales that he wrote after the publication of Childe Harold. Their popularity was due in part to their picturesque descriptions of Greece, such as the passage in The Corsair (1814) describing the sun setting over the Morea as “one unclouded blaze of living light.” Autobiographical hints added to their interest for Byron’s contemporaries. The Giaour (1813) was supposed to be based on an episode in which Byron was involved in Athens. The Bride of Abydos (1813) hinted at incest in the too close relationship of the lovers. Conrad, the hero of The Corsair, that “man of loneliness and mystery,” possessed enough By-ronic traits to stimulate the suspicion that Byron was portraying himself. Lara (1814) was even more self-revealing.
Byron’s Faustian drama Manfred (1817) carries the romantic quandary to its logical extreme. In the complaint that man is “half dust, half deity,” he has reached the ultimate point in his uncompromising revolt against the conditions of life. Nothing less than the bodiless freedom of a deity could satisfy Manfred. But when he calls up the spirits, which are only projections of his own mind, they cannot satisfy him. He is their equal because he has created them. In its fiery protest against the limitations of the mind of man and in its equally fierce affirmation of its invincibility and integrity, Manfred goes beyond the personal problems of the poet to an embodiment of the universal inner conflict of the romantic ego.
The poetic drama Cain (1821) carries Byron’s Promethean defiance and speculative skepticism one step further. When Lucifer takes Cain through the spirit world and shows him things “Beyond all power of my born faculties,/ Although inferior still to my desires/And my conceptions,” Cain realizes that even deities might not be happy. The tree of knowledge was not necessarily the tree of happiness. Cain remains a three-dimensional character, one that is endowed with a tragic sense of man’s limitations yet capable of human sympathy.
Tired of the melancholy voice heard in earlier poems, Byron at last found the perfect medium for the expression of his lighter moods in the mock-heroic ottava rima of the Italian poets, which he employed in Beppo (1818), a rollicking satire on Italian life and love. The story itself is slight, but Byron digresses at will upon the absurdities of the carnival, upon Italian women, the cavalier servente, the contrast between Italy and England (“Our cloudy climate, and our chilly women”), and every subject that strikes his fancy. He uses facetious rhymes in the final couplets for comic relief in deflating sentiment.
The success of Beppo opened the way for Don Juan (1819-1824), a more ambitious project in the same vein, a mock-epic in picaresque form that would allow the freest range for digressive comment in every mood from the melancholy idealization of the sentiments to the satiric exposure of human frailty. Byron chose for his hero the legendary villainous rake, converting him into a well-meaning innocent, more pursued than pursuing, who would act as a norm against which to view the absurdities of the various societies into which he was thrust by his adventures. Byron carries his hero from his native Seville, where he was the victim of an adolescent seduction, to a Greek island where a shipwreck lands him in an idyllic love affair with a pirate’s daughter. Then, after Juan is sold in the slave market at Constantinople and carried into the harem for the pleasure of the sultana, he escapes to play an accidentally heroic part in the battle of Ismail. In consequence, he becomes the favorite of Catherine the Great, who finally sends him on a diplomatic mission to England, where he ends in a series of intrigues
In Don Juan, as in Beppo, the story is only a peg on which to hang the digressive commentary. Although Byron began with the statement that his purpose was only “to giggle and make giggle,” he later defended Don Juan as “the most moral of poems,” a serious satire on abuses in society. The comment runs the gamut in mood from the deepest melancholy of Childe Harold to the most hilarious of cynical truisms. The subject matter covers every field of Byronic interest: the vanity of ambition, the pretensions of poets, his distaste for Tory tyrants and the Holy Alliance, the absurdity of “ladies intellectual,” the hypocrisy of “Platonism” in love, the paradoxes of love and marriage, the basic savagery of men striving for self-preservation, the beauty of “natural love,” the hollowness of glory and the brutality of war, the frailty of women and the inconstancy of men, the hypocrisy and boredom of English society, the prevalence of cant in religion, politics, and education.
In Don Juan, Byron did not, as in Childe Harold, wholly identify himself with his hero, although there is something of the inner core of what he conceived to have been his innocent youth in the character of Juan. But since Byron reserved the right to step on the stage at will, to voice his comments on the action and to give his own views of life independent of the narrative, the author becomes the real protagonist of the poem.
The colloquial style of Don Juan is well suited to Byron’s satiric wit and often seems transcribed, in verse, from his vivacious and ironic letters. Although Byron threatened at various times to write 50 or 100 cantos for Don Juan, he finished only 16 cantos and 14 stanzas of a 17th before he left Italy for Greece. However, though unfinished, the work has a completeness in itself as a slice of life.
“The Vision of Judgement.”
Byron’s most unified satire is The Vision of Judgement (1822), a parody of Robert Southey’s laureate praise of King George III. The poem is a masterpiece of sharp wit and scathing irony. The angelic debate for the soul of the late king is turned into farce when Southey starts spouting his verses. The devils run howling back to hell, and St. Peter sends the poet hurtling to earth, while the king, in the confusion, slips into Heaven where he is left “practicing the hundredth psalm.”
Byron’s shorter poems enhanced his reputation almost as much as his longer ones, and some are better known. His most frequently quoted short poems (though not always his best) include Maid of Athens, The Isles of Greece (included in Don Juan), “There be none of beauty’s daughters,” The Prisoner of Chillon, She Walks in Beauty, The Destruction of Sennacherib, So We’ll Go No More A-roving, and On This Day I Complete My Thirty-sixth Year. Other short poems that deserve more attention include the Thyrza poems, Prometheus, Could I Remount the River of My Years, and Could Love for Ever. Many of the jeux d’esprit sent in letters to his friends also have a permanent place in his work. These pieces, written in the spirit of outrageous fun, display some of the same wit and exuberance as Don Juan. Among the best are Lines to Mr. Hodgson, Epistle from Mr. Murray to Dr. Polidori, and Epistle to Mr. Murray.
Historical Dramas and Dramatic Narratives.
Although much critical effort has been expended to raise Byron’s poetical dramas and dramatic narratives to a rank equal to that of his best work, there is little doubt that they will remain, with few exceptions, on a lower shelf than his satires or his most poignant expression of the romantic dilemma. The historical dramas Marino Faliero, The Two Foscari, and Sardanapalus (all published in 1821) never achieve historical objectivity and are written in an exalted rhetoric which is not Byron’s true voice. What merit they have lies in the depth and sincerity of a personal revelation rather than in any genuine dramatic realization of character. In some ways, Mazeppa (1819) comes the closest to objectivity, yet some of its finest touches are overtones of Byronic personal feeling. The same subjectivity obtrudes in The Island (1823), a dramatization of the “noble savage” life of the mutineers from the H. M. S. Bounty.
A great number of Byron’s letters, hitherto unknown, have been published in the 20th century, and his reputation has come to rest as much on them as on his poetry. Many of the letters are prose versions of Don Juan, with the same sparkling wit and the same willingness to tell the embarrassing truth about himself and others. The degree to which Byron tailored his letters to particular correspondents is strikingly evident. He wrote facetiously to his witty friends Hobhouse and Kinnaird. His epistles to Lady Melbourne, his confidante, were full of cynicism and charm as well as flattery. He could be both tender and witty in addressing his sister Augusta or Teresa Guiccioli. But in writing to his personal friends, Francis Hodgson and Robert C. Dallas, he did not refrain from the honest expression of his skeptical religious beliefs.
Some of Byron’s most amusing letters were written from Italy to Thomas Moore and to his publisher, John Murray. In these, however, Byron was writing for an audience, for he knew that they showed his letters to a select circle of friends. Whether writing a business letter or a casual note to a stranger, Byron had a directness and a colloquial ease that escapes entirely the artificialities and poses of many 19th century letters.
The Byronic Paradox.
The two sides of Byron’s character and poetry—the romantic and the realistic—are understandable in terms of his background and temperament. The central problem in all Byron’s work is his romantic concern for the disparity between the real and the ideal. Unlike the transcendental romantics, he saw this gap as essentially unbridgeable and perforce felt a deeper melancholy than other romantics, such as Shelley, who believed in the attainability of the ideal dream.
But Byron was too firmly grounded in 18th century rationalism and “common sense” not to see the comedy as well as the tragedy of the discrepancy between reality and appearance, between imperfections and pretensions. And he achieved poetic eminence in both areas. In his intense hatred of sham, as well as in his sense of ironic realism, he seems remarkably modern and congenial to the 20th century, a fact that accounts for the growth of critical esteem for Don Juan. Nevertheless, respect for the basic honesty of Byron’s exploration of the ineffable longings of the individual ego frustrated by its own human limitations increases with an impartial reading of the last two cantos of Childe Harold. Both moods must be recognized as equally important in the Byronic personality.