Lord Byron
Lord Byron; drawing by David Levine

Of the poets whom histories of English literature indiscriminately lump together as the Romantics, the three who enjoyed great and immediate success in their own lifetime were Scott, Byron, and, some way behind, Tom Moore. Between 1812 and 1817, for example, Byron’s poems brought him in about two thousand pounds a year, a formidable sum for those days.

The extent to which taste has changed can be roughly gauged from looking at the courses devoted to this period by the average College English Department. Today, the poet most lectured upon is, I should guess, the one who was virtually unknown in his own time, William Blake, followed by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley, in that order. Scott the novelist is still widely read, Scott the poet by few. Moore, aside from a few songs in anthologies, is hardly read at all. And Byron? I wonder. I have no idea how many readers he still has, but, as one of them, I find the poems which made his reputation among his contemporaries, Childe Harold and the Tales, unreadable. Had he died in the first half of 1817, I should now be seconding his own verdict on his work up till that date, when he wrote to Moore:

If I live ten years longer, you will see, however, that all is not over with me—I don’t mean in literature, for that is nothing: and it may seem odd enough to say I do not think it is my vocation.

IF I HAD TO INTRODUCE BYRON to a student who knew nothing of his work, I would tell him: “Before you attempt to read any of the poetry, read all of the prose, his letters, and journals. Once you have read these, you will be able, when you come to the poems, to recognize immediately which are authentic and which are bogus. You will find, I think, that only three are of major importance, Beppo, The Vision of Judgement, and Don Juan, all of them written, incidentally, in the same metre.”

It does not matter where one opens the prose; from the earliest years till the end, the tone of voice rings true and utterly unlike anybody else’s.

This place is wretched enough—a villainous chaos of din and drunkenness, nothing but hazard and burgundy, hunting, mathematics, and Newmarket, riot and racing. Yet it is a paradise compared with the eternal dulness of Southwell. Oh! the misery of doing nothing but make love, enemies, and verses. [1807]

Dined versus six o’ the clock. Forgot that there was a plum-pudding (I have added, lately, eating to my “family of vices”) and had dined before I knew it. Drank half a bottle of some sort of spirits—probably spirits of wine; for what they call brandy, rum, etc., etc., here is nothing but spirits of wine, coloured accordingly. Did not eat two apples, which were placed by way of dessert. Fed the two cats, the hawk, and the tame (but not tamed) crow. Read Mitford’s History of Greece—Xenophon’s Retreat of the Ten Thousand. Up to this present moment, writing, 6 minutes before 8 o’ the clock—French hours, not Italian.

Hear the carriage—order pistols and great coat—necessary articles. Weather cold—carriage open, and inhabitants rather savage—rather treacherous and highly inflamed by politics. Fine fellows though—good materials for a nation. Out of chaos God made a world, and out of high passions come a people.

Clock strikes—going out to make love. Somewhat perilous but not disagreeable. Memorandum—a new screen put up to-day. It is rather antique but will do with a little repair. [1821]

In the poems and plays, on the other hand, even the later ones, at any moment the voice may go off-key. It is instructive, and sad, to compare the journal of 1816, which he kept for Augusta while traveling through the Alps, with the alpine scenes in Manfred, written the following year in which he also wrote his first major poem, Beppo. The scenes are based upon the Journal—sometimes whole phrases are repeated word for word, but while the Journal is vital and exciting, the play is dead and a big bore.

IF A ROMANTIC POET is one who believes, and writes in accordance with the belief, that Imagination is a power of vision which enables man to perceive the sacred truth behind sensory phenomena and, therefore, the noblest of all the mental faculties, then Byron was, both by profession and in practice, one of the least romantic poets who ever lived.

Long before he was able to make his poetry conform to them, he had arrived at very definite convictions about the nature of poetry, and was well aware that they were at odds with those prevalent among his contemporaries. Nearly all of the poetry being written in his time, including his own, was, he felt, on the wrong track. The only poets on the right track were those still writing in the Augustan tradition, Crabbe and Rogers, and they, compared with their masters, Dryden and Pope, were but epigones.


Byron’s aesthetic theories, like those of any poet, were in part a set of working rules to help him write the kind of poetry it was in him to write, and in part an attempt to justify himself for not writing the kind of poetry for which he lacked the talent. When at last he found himself as a poet, one understands why he had always admired Dryden and Pope. Like him, they were “realists” who instead of creating imaginary characters and landscapes, described living people and existing things, and, like him, they were “worldly,” that is to say, their primary poetic concern was neither with non-human nature nor with their own personal emotions, but with man as a social-political animal, with how men and women behave to each other, with the motives behind and the rationalized excuses they give for their actions. At first Byron’s admiration for them led him astray because he imagined that their sort of poetry could only be written in the medium they employed, the heroic couplet. This, he was to discover, was not the case, but of that more later.

AS FOR HIS LIMITATIONS, no other English poet, probably, has been so utterly deficient in the power of invention, and therefore so incapable of appreciating it.

I hate all things fiction: and therefore the Merchant and Othello have no great associations to me.

I detest [painting] unless it reminds me of something I have seen, or think it possible to see, for which reason I spew upon and abhor all the Saints—subjects of one half of the impostures I see in the churches and palaces.

To be unable to invent is to be unable to dramatize, even to dramatize oneself. Byron’s poetry only sounds authentic when he speaks directly in the first person as Byron. When, as in Childe Harold or The Corsair or Manfred, he attempts to create a hero who is a projection of himself, he fails because, as in a bad portrait, the reader cannot help noticing both the resemblance and the failure to resemble.

With the exception of Don Juan, all the “byronic” heroes are melancholics. From his letters and journals, it is evident that Byron himself suffered deeply all his life from depressions. It would have been surprising if he had not. A strain of violence and erratic behavior in both the Byrons and the Gordons, a childhood of genteel poverty spent with a hysterical mother and no father, a deformed foot and, evidently, some kind of glandular dysfunction which made him prone to obesity—though short, at the age of eighteen he weighed 194 pounds—all must have been a burden difficult for any boy to bear. In addition he hints at extraordinary happenings, probably sexual, of which he dare not speak openly.

His letters and journals, however, also make it clear that, from the beginning, the riposte of his imagination, reason and moral courage to his depressions, was to make a joke of them. “A joke,” said Nietzsche, “is an epitaph on an emotion,” and it is probable that all great comedians suffer from melancholia; a poet who can successfully express tragic and sad emotions need not be sad himself: Indeed, he may quite possibly be temperamentally cheerful.

BYRON’S GENIUS WAS ESSENTIALLY a comic one, and his poetic history is a quest, finally successful, to discover the right verse vehicle for a comic poet in his time. His admiration of Dryden and Pope initially misled him into thinking that, like them, he was intended to be a satirist. Satire and comedy overlap—satirists are often funny and comedians satirical—but their goals are essentially different. The goal of satire is reform, the goal of comedy acceptance. Satire attempts to show that the behavior of an individual or a group within society violates the laws of ethics or common sense, on the assumption that, once the majority are aware of the facts, they will become morally indignant and either compel the violaters to mend their ways or render them socially and politically impotent. Comedy, on the other hand, is concerned with the illusions and selfdeceptions which all men indulge in as to what they and the world they live in are really like, and cannot, so long as they remain human, help being. The object of the comic exposure is not a special individual or a special social group, but everyman or human society as a whole. Satire is angry and optimistic—it believes that the evil it attacks can be abolished: Comedy is good-tempered and pessimistic—it believes that, however much we may wish we could, we cannot change human nature, and must make the best of a bad job.


Now and again, as in his attacks on Southey and the Duke of Wellington, Byron writes as a satirist.

You are “the best of cut-throats”:—do not start;
The phrase is Shakespeare’s, and not misapplied:
War’s a brain-spattering, windpipe- slitting art,
Unless her cause by right be sancti- field.
If you have acted once a generous part,
The world, not the world’s masters, will decide,
And I shall be delighted to learn who,
Save you and yours, have gain’d by Waterloo.

But his predominant and constant concern is, in his own words, “to giggle and make giggle.”

Poor Julia’s heart was in an awk- ward state,
She felt it going and resolved to make
The noblest effort for herself and make,
For honor’s, pride’s, religion’s, virtue’s sake;
Her resolutions were most truly great;
And almost might have made a Tarquin quake:
She prayed the Virgin Mary for her grace
As being the best judge in a lady’s case.
She vowed she never would see Juan more
And next day paid a visit to his mother;
And looked extremely at the open- ing door,
Which, by the Virgin’s grace, let in another;
Grateful she was, and yet a little sore—
Again it opens—it can be no other.
Tis surely Juan now—No! I’m a- fraid
That night the Virgin was no long- er prayed.

Byron is not holding Julia up to ridicule as either a hypocrite or a slut. The conflict between her conscience and her desire, between the demands of the Virgin and those of Aphrodite, is perfectly genuine. Byron does not pass judgment on this; he simply states that human nature is like that and that, in his experience, if Aphrodite has opportunity on her side, the Madonna is seldom victorious, so that, in sexual matters, we ought to be tolerant of human frailty.

IN THE WORK OF NO OTHER POET, I think, is the success or failure of a poem so closely bound up with the choice of metre and stanza form. His first successful poems are occasional verses, many of them written in anapaestic quatrains, a form introduced into English poetry by “Monk” Lewis, who had learned it from German, and perfected by Scott and Moore. This is a good vehicle for “light” verse but only on a small scale: a long poem with a wide range of subject matter cannot be written in it. His poems in octosyllabic couplets, “To a Lady” and “Sam Rogers,” for example, are also always successful. A long comic poem can be written in this metre, as we know from Hudibras, and I believe that his two satires, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers and Hints from Horace, might have been triumphant, instead of only moderate successes, if he had chosen to write them in octosyllabics instead of heroic couplets. For any poet of his generation it would have been impossible to write a heroic couplet without all the time hearing the personal “tune” and the aphoristic stamp which Pope had given it and, in consequence, producing a copy which could not hope to be as good as the original. Long before he discovered the mock-heroic ottava rima, Byron realized the comic possibilities of feminine rhymes but, in his heroic couplets, the masculine ending of the typical Popean line is too much in his ear to allow him to use them freely. There are only three couplets with feminine rhymes in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers and only one in Hints from Horace. Lastly, though funny things can be said in it, the Popean couplet is not a comic form, i.e., it does not itself make what it says funny, and is therefore not the ideal medium for a poet like Byron who is primarily not a satirist but a comedian.

When Byron writes anapaests, he is sure of himself but in heroic couplets he becomes self-conscious and stiff. For example:

Men are more easily made than machinery—Stockings fetch better prices than lives—
Gibbets in Sherwood will heighten the scenery, Showing how Commerce and Liberty thrives.

* * *

The landed interest (you may under- stand
The phrase much better leaving out the land)—
The land self-interest groans from shore to shore
For fear that plenty should attain the poor.

The trouble with the Tales is that Byron is trying to write a kind of poetry for which he was unsuited. Metrically, they are always adequate and in The Siege of Corinth his handling of the “sprung” rhythm of Cristabel is sometimes very exciting.

As the spring-tides, with heavy plash,
From the cliff’s invading dash
Huge fragments, sapped by the ceaseless flow
Till white and thundering down they go,
Like the avalanche’s snow
On the Alpine vales below;
Thus at length, outbreathed and worn,
Corinth’s sons were downward borne
By the long and oft renewed
Charge of the Moslem multitude
In firmness they stood, and in Masses they fell,
Heaped by the host of the infidel,
Hand to hand, and foot to foot,
Nothing there, save death, was mute…

In the case of Childe Harold, on the other hand, one does not know which was the most disastrous, his choice of hero, or his choice of metre. At the time he had only read a short extract from The Faerie Queene, and one is not surprised to learn that when, some years later, Leigh Hunt tried to make him read the whole poem he hated it. The Spenserian stanza is essentially slow in tempo, but Byron is only at his ease with rapid tempi. Consequently, he failed completely to understand its mechanics. As George Saintsbury says1 :

Over and over again [in The Faerie Queene] you will find stanzas where no two consecutive lines have the same pause; and very often there is no pause very strongly marked, so that the verses are punctuated only by the rhyme. Further, there is constant enjambement between the lines. In the final alexandrines Spenser suceeded in varying largely, though he does not deliberately avoid, that strict middle pause which the metre invites in most modern languages, and especially in English…

Byron is prodigal of strong and generally centripetal breaks. The Byronic line is almost always neither more nor less than a half-couplet of very fair, sometimes excellent quality, more or less middle-paused. Childe Harold is couplets with their rhymes wrenched into Spenserian order, and with a Drydenian, not a Spenserian, Alexandrine thrust in at regular (and therefore hopelessly unDrydenian) intervals. As a general rule, he does not know how to fit on the Alexandrine so as to make it an organic part of the stanza.

A comparison of a stanza from The Faerie Queene and a stanza from Childe Harold, picked at random, will show the truth of Saintsbury’s remarks.

They to him hearken, as beseemeth meete,
And pass on forward: so their way does ly,
That one of those same islands, which doe fleet
In the wide sea, they needes must passen by,
Which seemed so sweet and pleas- aunt to the eye,
That it would tempt a man to touchen there:
Upon the banck they sitting did espy
A daintie damsell, dressing of her heare,
By whom a little skippet floting did appeare.
Faerie Queene, Canto XII, stanza 14
Yet are thy skies as blue, thy crags as wild;
Sweet are thy groves, and verdant are thy fields,
Thine olive ripe as when Minerva smiled,
And still his honied wealth Hyme- tus yields;
There the blithe bee his fragrant fortress builds,
The freeborn wanderer of thy mountain-air;
Apollo still thy long, long summer gilds,
Still in his beam Mendeli’s marbles glare;
Art, Glory, Freedom fail, but Na- ture still is fair.
Childe Harold, Canto II, stanza 87

CHILDE HAROLD, that gloomy young man with independent means, that rebel without a cause, who wanders about the earth misanthroping among ruins and desolate places, has little heroic appeal to us, but with young persons in 1812, on the Continent as well as in England, he was a smashing hit, and, before considering the poetry of Byron’s last and greatest period, we might pause to examine why this should have been so. No explanation can be more than partial and tentative, but it seems to me that one important factor must have been a feeling among liberal-minded people of political despair. In his youth Byron had been a passionate admirer of Napoleon, and in this he certainly was not alone. With our advantages of hindsight, it seems extraordinary that anyone should have thought of Napoleon as a liberator—to us he looks more like a prototype of Hitler—but we must remember what the social and political conditions were of which a liberal-minded Englishman in the period between 1790 and 1820 had first-hand knowledge. In the annals of English literature and English military history, this period is one of glory, but to a political or social historian it is very grim indeed. Political power was entirely in the hands of a tiny group of great land owners who were able to ignore all interests but their own, and whose only method of dealing with social distress was to imprison or hang those who complained. The criminal law was the most savage in Europe, conditions in the mines and factories were of a concentration-camp-like horror, freedom of speech and assembly were frequently suspended.

Nor, with the coming of peace in 1815, was there any improvement. On the contrary, Reaction seemed more securely in the saddle than ever. Childe Harold, one guesses, appealed to those who, like his creator, were sufficiently comfortably situated not to suffer personally from social injustice, idealistic enough to desire a juster society, but unwilling or unable to engage in political action to secure one. Byron’s maiden speech in the House of Lords was an attack on the Frame-Maker’s Bill, a piece of savagely repressive legislation, and it is interesting to speculate as to what his political career might have been had the scandal caused by the break-up of his marriage not persuaded him to leave England. Would he have been able to overcome his natural inclination to act alone and learn to work with others? Would he have modified his view that liberty is a gift to be graciously bestowed on the masses by their betters? Could he ever have conquered his besetting sin, impatience, which is a grave defect in a poet, but quite fatal in a politician? “When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,” he wrote in 1820, but was this really so? To be sure, the Tories were still all powerful, and the Whigs were not to form a government before 1830, but there were men in Parliament, including his friend Hobhouse, who did not despair but continued to fight for Reform, and their patient efforts did in time compel the Tories against their will to enact liberal measures. The Criminal Law was reformed and the Corn Laws modified in 1827, and in 1829 the Catholics were emancipated. Such questions, and the criticism they imply, would not arise had Byron been content, like Pope, to devote his life to perfecting his poetry, instead of desiring to win fame as an effective man of action as well. The two desires are incompatible; making and acting are both full-time occupations.

FROM THIS DIGRESSION let us return to the poetry. Byron’s three major poems are all written in an ottava rima which differs from the conventional form of that stanza in English by imitating more exactly its form in Italian. Byron knew Italian well and had read Casti and Pulci, but he does not seem to have realized the comic possibilities of such an imitation until he read Frere’s The Monks and the Giants.

Italian is a polysyllabic language, most of its words end on an unaccented syllable, and rhymes are easy to find. Italian ottava rima, therefore, is usually hendecasyllabic with feminine rhymes. The stanza has great structural advantages. As a unit, eight lines give space enough to describe a single event or elaborate upon a single idea without having to run on to the next stanza. If, on the other hand, a poet wishes to make several short statements, the arrangement of the rhymes allows him to pause at will without fragmentizing the stanza, for his statements will always be linked by a rhyme. In Italian, therefore, ottava rima became a maid-of-all-work stanza which would fit any subject, comic or tragic.

When English poets first took it over, they instinctively shortened the lines to decasyllabics with masculine rhymes.

All suddenly dismaid, and hartless quite
He fled abacke and catching hastie holde
Of a young alder hard behinde him pight,
It rent, and streight aboute him gan beholde
What God or Fortune would assist his might.
But whether God or Fortune made him bold
It’s hard to read; yet hardie will he had
To oveercome, that made him less adrad.
—Spenser, Vergil’s Gnat

The almost insuperable obstacle to this stanza in English as a vehicle for serious poetry lies in the paucity of rhymes in our language. It is almost impossible to write a poem of any length in it without having to use banal rhymes, or to pad the line or distort the natural order of words in order to get a rhyme. Yeats, who wrote some of his finest poems in it, circumvented this problem by a liberal use of half-rhymes and by ending lines with words that are almost dactyls, so that the rhyming syllable is only slightly accented. In the opening stanza of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” for example, only two of the lines rhyme exactly.

Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
Protected from the circle of the moon
That pitches common things about. There stood
Amid the ornamental bronze and stone
An ancient image made of olive wood—
And gone are Phidias’ famous ivories
And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.

But in Byron’s day half-rhymes were still considered illegitimate. One of his few good “serious” poems, “Epistle to Augusta,” is written in the standard English form of the stanza, but the difficulties it presents prevent the poem from achieving perfection.

And for that remnant which may be to come
I am content; and for the past I feel
Not thankless,—for within the crowded sum
Of struggles, happiness at times would steal;
And for the present, I would not benumb
My feelings further.—Nor shall I conceal
That with all this I still can look around,
And worship Nature with a thought profound.

The words sum and steal, the phrase Nor shall I conceal, and the inversion thought profound are more dictated by the necessity to rhyme than by the thought.

THE SECRET FRERE DISCOVERED, and communicated to Byron, was that the very qualities which make ottava rima unsuited in English to serious poetry, make it an ideal comic vehicle, particularly if its difficulties are apparently increased by following the Italian original more closely in the use of double and triple rhymes, for in English, unlike Italian, nearly all of these are comic. In the process of composition, as every poet knows, the relation between experience and language is always dialectical, but in the finished product it must always appear to the reader to be a oneway relationship. In serious poetry thought, emotion, event must always appear to dictate the diction, metre, and rhyme in which they are embodied; vice versa, in comic poetry it is the words, metre, rhyme which must appear to create the thoughts, emotions, events they require. Speaking of the reputed cause of Keats’s death, Byron writes:

‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery Particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article.

(Incidentally, his first draft of the couplet ran: ” ‘Tis strange the mind should let such phrases quell its/Chief impulse with a few frail paper pellets.”) The reader cannot help observing that if, instead of a fiery particle, Keats’s mind had been, let us say, “an organ made for thinking,” then the Edinburgh Review could never have hurt his feelings, and he would have died, not of consumption but of over-drinking.

Again, while in serious poetry detectable padding of lines is fatal, the comic poet should appear openly and unashamedly to pad.

An Arab horse, a stately stag, a barb
New broke, a camelopard, a gazelle.
No—none of these will do—and then their garb!
Their veil and petticoat—Alas! to dwell
Upon such things would very near absorb
A canto—then their feet and ankles—well,
Thank heaven I’ve got no metaphor quite ready,
(And so, my sober Muse—come, let’s be steady.)

In Beppo and Don Juan, the form itself obliges Byron to keep interrupting the narrative to comment upon it and affairs in general in his own person, and these digressions are the true heart of the poems. The real hero of both is Byron himself. Speaking of Don Juan, Mr. M. K. Joseph writes2 :

The actual amount of digression varies surprisingly in different parts of the poem…The average of the whole poem is about one-third; but in the earlier cantos (1-VIII—up to Ismail) he seems to have aimed at something like a quarter. Sometimes it goes well below this, in particularly active cantos, such as II (the shipwreck) and V (the seraglios); only once does it rise well above it, in Canto III (Juan and Haidee), where it amounts to almost forty per cent. But when Juan reaches St. Petersburg, the percentage increases immediately, shooting up to nearly sixty per cent; Canto XII, with its elaborate comments on women and the marriage market, carries over seventy per cent on a slender thread of narrative—the highest in the whole poem. None of the later cantos go below forty per cent, except for XIII (about thirty per cent) and the last, XVI, which drops suddenly below twenty per cent again; but in these two, much of the material centered on Juan is concerned to broaden the social picture—Norman Abbey, the house-party, meals, Lord Henry as magistrate—rather than to advance the actual story.

DON JUAN HIMSELF, unlike previous byronic heroes, is not, thank goodness, gloomy. Far from being a defiant rebel against the laws of God and man, his most conspicious traits are his good temper and his social adaptability. Wherever Chance takes him, to a pirate’s lair, a harem in Mohammedan Constantinople, a court in Greek Orthodox Russia, a country house in Protestant England, he immediately adapts himself and is accepted as an agreeable fellow. Though by birth a Spaniard and a Catholic, and therefore an outsider from an Englishman’s point of view, he is the perfect embodiment of that very British notion that a gentleman should succeed at everything he does without appearing to make an effort. In his sexual life, especially when one remembers the mythical monster of depravity after whom he is named, his most striking quality is passivity. Not only is he not very promiscuous—in the course of two years he sleeps with five women, a poor showing by comparison with the 1,003 Spanish ladies of Leporello’s Catalogue Aria or even Byron’s “200 odd Venetian pieces”—but he seduces none of them. In three cases he is seduced—by Julia, Catherine, the Dutchess of Fitz-Fulk—and in the other two, circumstances outside his control bring him together with Haidee and Dudu, and no persuasion on his part is needed. The Don Juan of the myth is by definition incapable of love, but Byron’s hero, though he cannot quite play Tristan to her Isolde and commit suicide when he is parted from Haidee, has been genuinely in love with her.

When one compares him with what we know of his creator, he seems to be a daydream of what Byron would have liked to be but wasn’t. Physically he is unblemished and one cannot imagine him having to diet to keep his figure; socially he is always at his ease and his behavior in perfect taste. In the adventures ascribed to him, Byron seems also to be offering a self-defense for his own life. Aware that he was believed by many to be the heartless seducer and atheist of the legend, Byron says, as it were, to his accusers: “The legendary Don Juan does not exist. I will show you what the life of a man who gets the reputation for being a Don Juan is really like.”

Though not as great a bore as Childe Harold, Don Juan cannot be called a very interesting character; fortunately, though, Byron has discovered a genre of poetry in which the character of its official hero does not matter.

There is a passage in Walter Bagehot which would make an excellent epigraph for Don Juan.

There seems to be an unalterable contradiction between the human mind and its employments. How can a soul be a merchant? What relation to an immortal being have the price of linseed, the tare on tallow, or the brokerage on hemp? Can an undying creature debit petty expenses and charge for carriage paid? The soul ties its shoes; the mind washes its hands in a basin. All is incongruous.

AS A BIOLOGICAL ORGANISM, man is subject like all living creatures to the impersonal drives like hunger and sex, as a social political individual much of his behavior, thinking, and morality is conditioned by the particular social group or groups in which the accident of birth or economic necessity have placed him, and as a unique person who can say I in response to the thou’s of other persons, he transcends his time and his place, can choose to think and act for himself, accept personal responsibility for the consequences, and is capable alike of heroism or baseness, sanctity or corruption. These three aspects of human nature, the biological, the social, and the personal are seldom in complete accord, which is why man is essentially a comic creature. While praying, his thoughts of God are suddenly distracted by a pretty face, while courting, his thoughts of the beloved are suddenly encroached upon by the desire for a beefsteak, half of the statements he makes in the first person singular, his I-know, or I-believe, though uttered with passionate conviction are not really his but the unexamined pre-suppositions of the nation or class to which he happens to belong. It is such contradictions which, in Don Juan, Byron is continually delighted to expose. He is not a cynic; he does not say, for instance, that all love is only lust, all goodness a sham, a mask assumed in order to cut a good figure in society, or all heroism only ambition. What he does attack is what he calls cant, the proneness of human beings, in order to think well of themselves, to pretend that their motives and feelings are always of the noblest and purest character, that lust, greed, social climbing, desire for fame, etc., are vices which beset other people, not themselves.

To cite one minor example, his criticism of Wordsworth, which is less a criticism of Wordsworth, I think, than of those who were making a sacred cult of the Lake Poet. Byron certainly did not deny that the contemplation of Nature can arouse feelings of awe, joy, dread, and wonder—in several poems he describes similar experiences—but he knew that the cause of such feelings is not as self-evident as the contemplator imagines.

Young Juan wandered by the glassy brooks,
Thinking unutterable things, he threw
Himself at length within the leafy nooks
Where the wild branch of the cork forest grew:
There poets find materials for their books,
And every now and then we read them through,
So that their plan and prosody are eligible,
Unless, like Wordsworth, they prove unintelligible…

He thought about himself and the whole earth,
Of man the wonderful, and of the stars,
And how the deuce they ever could have birth;
And then he thought of earthquakes, and of wars,
How many miles the moon might have in girth,
Of air-balloons, and of the many bars
To perfect knowledge of the boundless skies;—
And then he thought of Donna Julia’s eyes.

In thoughts like these true wisdom may discern
Longings sublime, and aspirations high,
Which some are born with, but the most part learn
To plague themselves withall, they know not why:
‘Twas strange that one so young should thus concern
His brain about the action of the sky;
If you think ’twas philosophy that this did,
I can’t help thinking puberty as- sisted.

HIS OTHER OBJECTION to the Wordsworthian cult of Nature is his conviction that, fascinating as the study of Nature may be, this should, at least in a poet, take second place; his first concern should be the study of man. The poet who ignores man will soon falsify even his descriptions of natural landscape by omitting the human elements which are almost always present. In his own description of a “sublime” landscape, Byron is careful to include the profanely human.

A green field is a sight which makes him pardon
The absence of that more sublime construction,
Which mixes up vines, olives, pre- cipices,
Glaciers, volcanoes, oranges and ices.

In the history of English poetry before the so-called Romantic Age, comic poetry is comparatively rare: some of Chaucer, some of Dunbar, Skelton, Samuel (Hudibras) Butler. Dryden and Pope, though they often write funny lines, cannot be classified as comic poets. But, from 1800 onwards comic poetry has flourished. Byron, Moore (especially in his political poems), Praed, Hood, Barham, Lear and Carroll (slightly to one side), W.S. Gilbert, J.K. Stephen, Calverly, and in this century the best of Chesterton and Belloc, not to mention the anonymous host of limerick writers, represent a tradition without which English poetry would be very much the poorer, and of them all, Byron is by far the greatest. Whatever its faults, Don Juan is the most original poem in English; nothing like it had ever been written before. Speaking for myself, I don’t feel like reading it very often, but when I do, it is the only poem I want to read: no other will do.

Copyright © 1966, by W. H. Auden.

This Issue

August 18, 1966