Sunday, January 24, 2010

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron AKA Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Although technically Bryon falls into the period known as the Romantic era, much of his work is actually more closely related to the satiric tradition of Alexander Pope and John Dryden. In fact, he drew upon Alexander Pope’s Horatian satires and Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy in developing his style for his epic survey of modern folly, Don Juan.
However, even though he drew from old-fashioned texts, Byron was still a product of his age. As such, he was increasingly skeptical of the established belief system, particularly in the ideas expressed by the intellectuals of the day. In much of his poetry, he too explored the internal dramas of the individual mind. However, he approached the development of personality quite differently than say, Wordsworth, whose auto-biographical poetry revealed his psychological development.
Perhaps then, it is best to call Byron an arch-Romantic because he gave to the age the Bryonic hero, a model that his contemporaries could both admire and pity. First found in the opening Canto of Childe Harold, this figure will appear in Byron’s later works in various forms. The Byronic hero is an idealized, but flawed character. He is both mysterious and pessimistic. He possesses great talent, superior passion, and distains society and social institutions. He has little or no respect for rank or privilege. Within the Byronic hero is the memory of some guilt or crime, often nameless, which drives him to his inevitable doom. He is attractive to others because of their terror of his obliviousness to ordinary concerns or values. The Byronic hero is a non-political rebel is infused with erotic overtones. The Byronic hero has been imitated in various forms and has its ancestry in Milton’s work.
Examples of literary descendants of the Byronic hero:
Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights
Captin Ahab in Moby-Dick
Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre

Contemporaries of Byron often equated the author with his literary progeny and read his works as autobiographical. However, his letters show that his characters inherited only propensity for depression. In fact, his own temperament could be seen as the opposite of his characters.

Noted characteristics of Byron’s writing style include speed, vehemence, and in his not-satiric poems, melodrama. The speed can be attributed to his clarity of both perception and phrase, which express the vigorous positivism of his mind. There is a relative scarcity of concrete, partial detail, which results in a boldness and of motion quite unlike the imagery used in Keats’s poetry.

There is an extensive use of clichés and stock phrases in Byron’s works. For example: Yet well thy soul hath brooked the turning tide” (The last phrase was clichéd even at that time. It is suggested that in order to get the full effect of each poem, the poem is to be read as quickly as possible. This rapidity implies a reliance on extreme emotion. In Byron’s works, one is dealing with poetry that carries all of the moods to an extreme pitch. The reader is confronted with theatrical or over-the-top emotions. In Byron’s works, emotion is to be enjoyed and even relished for its own sake. Byron’s poetry is known for its strength and masculinity.

Byron achieved great popularity and success during his life time. He was considered, through much of the 19th century to be the very epitome of literary Romanticism and he was rated as one of the greatest English poets. In fact, one French critic wrote of him as “the greatest and most English of these artists [the romantic poets]; he is so great and so English that from him alone we shall learn more truths of his country and of his age than from all the rest together.” His influence upon his contemporaries was great and varied. He influenced poets and novelists (Balzac and Stendhal in France, Pushkin and Dostoyevsky in Russia, and Melville in America). He also affected painters like Delacroix, and even composers like Beethoven.

However, despite his widespread popularity and influence, his literary status was challenged by Victorian critics who saw Byron as immoral and his aristocratic values classed with the values of the middle-class. Of Byron’s contemporaries, only Shelley openly thought highly of him.

Work Cited

"George Gordon, Lord Byron." The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume D The Romantic Period. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. 607-11. Print.

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