The Poet-Hero in the Work of Byron and Shelley

The Poet-Hero in the Work of Byron and Shelley

by Madeleine Callaghan

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Byron’s and Shelley’s experimentation with the possibilities and pitfalls of poetic heroism unites their work. The Poet-Hero in the Work of Byron and Shelley traces the evolution of the poet-hero in the work of both poets, revealing that the struggle to find words adequate to the poet’s imaginative vision and historical circumstance is their central poetic achievement. Madeleine Callaghan explores the different types of poetic heroism that evolve in Byron’s and Shelley’s poetry and drama. Both poets experiment with, challenge and embrace a variety of poetic forms and genres, and this book discusses such generic exploration in the light of their developing versions of the poet-hero. The heroism of the poet, as an idea, an ideal and an illusion, undergoes many different incarnations and definitions as both poets shape distinctive and changing conceptions of the hero throughout their careers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783088997
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 02/28/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 800 KB

About the Author

Madeleine Callaghan is a senior lecturer in Romantic Literature at the University of Sheffield, UK. She has published various articles and chapters on Romantic and post-Romantic poetry. Callaghan is the author of Shelley’s Living Artistry: Letters, Poems, Plays (2017), co-author of The Romantic Poetry Handbook (2018) and co-editor of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry: Hardy to Mahon (2011).

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Providing the critic with no equivalent to Wordsworth's 'Preface to Lyrical Ballads' or Shelley's A Defence of Poetry, it would seem that Byron is more poet than thinker, more lord than poet. However, Byron's heroic poetics are developed in his poetry rather than through expositionary prose. Byron's poet-heroes reflect on one another, suggestive of the way in which his poetry is 'a medium for thinking', and specifically, a medium for thinking about the status of the poet-hero as it develops from text to text throughout his body of work. Focusing on Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Manfred and Beppo, this chapter shows how poetic heroism in Byron's work grows out of separateness from others fraught by complex awareness of the danger of the solitude. Though Harold is distinguished by being 'the most unfit / Of men to herd with Man' (CHP III, 12: 100– 101), Byron, the poet who styled himself as 'born for opposition' (BLJ 4: 82), both magisterially asserts and criticizes such an instinct to be apart from others. In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Byron's development of his poet-hero sees him develop his speaker in a manner that responds to the 'I' of Wordsworth's lyrics poems, particularly 'Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey' (hereafter 'Tintern Abbey'). Byron shapes an independent voice drawn from his differences from the older poet with whom Shelley, in the summer of 1816, 'used to dose [Byron] with Wordsworth physic even to nausea'. Harold and the speaker can both lay claim to the status of 'masterful, moody outlaws', but it is the speaker, the poethero, who edges Harold out of the poem in a move that anticipates its comic restaging in Don Juan. In Manfred, Byron marries 'glamorous aesthetics' of Satanism with the despair of Milton's anti-hero, testing the possibilities of the will in the post-Revolutionary age to communicate 'moral and political angst' as opposed to 'ideological certitude'. Manfred is distinguished by his mastery of language and rejection of community, supernatural or human, becoming a poet-hero that Byron refuses to lionize or condemn. Beppo's archly knowing poetry builds on Manfred's nihilistic power, where Manfred's self-assertion is remade into the distanced and entertaining performance of Beppo's speaker. Here, the poet-hero becomes a figure of depth and experience whose outsider quality and detachment earns him his right and cements his ethical duty to pronounce upon society. The evolution of the poet-hero is at the heart of Byron's poetry and drama. This chapter will trace how Byron rendered his poetry the proving ground for the heroism of the poet, a heroism exposed to doubt, challenge and refiguring, but one that refuses to be denied.

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, the work that prompted Byron's claim, 'I awoke one morning and found myself famous', is a central poem for Byron's exploration of the poethero. Not merely a vehicle for 'a poet with a penchant for self-promotion'10 to forward idealized self-images, Cantos III and IV, in particular, show Byron shaping a theory of poetry bound up with the articulation of the self in the world. Comparison between Wordsworth and Byron, those 'corporeal enemies', illuminates the nature of Byron's heroic poetics in the poem. Despite their many antagonisms, Wordsworth and Byron were united by their preoccupation with what it is to write poetry, and the distinguishing characteristics of the poet. In large part, the polarization of Wordsworth and Byron issues from their frequently opposed theories of poetry. John Wilson had heralded Canto III with this appraisal of Byron's worth in comparison with Wordsworth: 'He came into competition with Wordsworth upon his own ground, and with his own weapons; and in the first encounter he vanquished and overthrew him.' Accordingly, when Wordsworth refers darkly to Byron 'poaching on my Manor' in a letter to Henry Crabb Robinson, Byron's approach to nature in Canto III is likely on his mind. Thomas Moore recalls Wordsworth speaking of 'the feeling of natural objects which is there expressed, not caught by B[yron] from nature herself, but from him [Wordsworth] and spoiled in the transmission'. Byron, the so-called spoiler of Wordsworth's art, does not spoil but rather he recalibrates Wordsworth's treatment of nature in Canto III, and by Canto IV, Byron's difference from Wordsworth is clearly elucidated. By the time of his address to the Ocean in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Canto IV, stanzas praised by Shelley as rescuing the canto from 'contempt & despair' (Letters: PBSII, 58), Byron had approached a similar topic to that contained in Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey', but the younger poet fundamentally alters the substance of Wordsworth's nature poetry. Byron heroizes where Wordsworth humanizes, stamping the poet-speaker as the poet-hero:

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean – roll! Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain; Man marks the earth with ruin – his control Stops with the shore; – upon the watery plain The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain A shadow of man's ravage, save his own, When, for a moment, like a drop of rain, He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan, Without a grave, unknell'd, uncoffin'd, and unknown. (CHPIV, 179: 1603– 11)

Byron's stanza retains a tone of mastery, one at odds with the apparent contrast between the power of the ocean and human powerlessness, through his choice of rhyme. He wields the Spenserian stanza in two ways: one, to indicate his immersion in tradition and his natural place in the canon, and the other, to demonstrate his singularity by twisting the traditional pilgrimage ideal. His presentation of the speaker's relationship with Nature is to stage two equal entities engaged in a dramatic encounter. Each shares an absolute otherness where any similarities are used to indicate the power both hold over their native elements. The poet-hero controls the verse, and the reader's perception of the scene. The ocean holds a strong power, and the elemental potency of nature mirrors the strength of the poet. The drama of Byron's poetic personality takes centre-stage in the stanza with the final couplet displaying his dramatic use of negatives. The speaker twice commands the ocean to roll, and his admiration for the control that the ocean possesses mirrors his control of the rhyme. The ocean is almost personified, as the shipwrecks are 'all thy deed', as the apostrophe seems to view ocean as less an element than a responsive being, in turn suggesting that the poet is more element than man at this climactic moment. There is no crossing of boundaries, nor mingling of man and nature. The poet speaks, but neither attempts nor manages any communion with ocean. They remain separate and powerful in their own roles. Unlike abstract 'man' and the civilizations that Byron shows to be variously crushed by the ocean, the poet-hero's position is somewhere beyond time-bound humanity. The ocean, which Byron reminds us is 'Unchangeable save to thy wild waves' play – / Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow – ' (IV, 182: 1636–37), becomes the poethero's analogue as he writes himself into a perpetual present tense by his insistence on the physicality of the event:

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. (IV, 184: 1654– 56)

The reader's imagination enacts the movement of laying his hand upon the ocean's mane. The line not only describes Byron's activity in the poem; it also represents how the reader repeats that activity in the process of imaginative response. Byron's speaker dramatically retains control of the poem by continually drawing the reader's eye to his individual character as the opposition of man and Nature creates the existential drama. Though retaining his separation from his reader, Byron never forgets that he has an audience. Nor does he let his reader forget the submissive quality of their relationship with the poet-hero. The poet becomes hero by his solitary apartness from the mass of men, from his control over the lines and his separation from the reader, where the reader is subordinated to the status of passive audience rather than participant in the poetry.

Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey' operates in a fundamentally different way. Whereas Byron's strong presentation of man and nature focuses on the otherness of the two, with the poet-hero mirroring the ocean not humanity, Wordsworth, as Beth Lau points out, witnesses and effects a blurring between the individual and Nature, and the endless cycle of 'loss' and 'recompense' involved in such blurring. The essence of the narrator's youth centres on his evolvingly complex identification with Nature:

[...] For nature then [...] To me was all in all. – I cannot paint What then I was. The sounding cataract Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock, The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood, Their colours and their forms, were then to me An appetite: a feeling and a love, That had no need of a remoter charm, By thought supplied, or any interest Unborrowed from the eye. ('Tintern Abbey', 74 and 76– 84)18

Nature and the self are or were one, and the past state that Wordsworth laments is separate from thought. Instinctive 'feeling and a love' offer naturalness free of the intellectual self. His separation from Nature after this 'thoughtless youth' (91) accompanies a deeper, more morally aware engagement with the solace offered by memory that, in affectingly evoked ways, awakens the poet's consciousness of the human condition, allowing him, in lines of the most exquisitely attuned sympathy, to hear 'The still, sad music of humanity' (92). Nature seems to have become part of the speaker, separate from the self, but inextricably part of the speaker's identity. Nature is the guide of the speaker's moral being, and this transition, while perhaps less intense, affords a different kind of pleasure for the speaker. The blurring between the self and Nature has moved from being an unconscious merging of the two to Nature understood as an internalized moral presence. Wordsworth individuates his exploration of the relationship between man and Nature by his early ability to become a part of Nature, not by the will-driven power of his poetic self. The subtlety of Wordsworth's avowal, 'To me was all in all' (76) illustrates the depth of his engagement with Nature and the bareness of the diction does not overpower the reader. Instead, the simplicity of the lines creates a sense of melancholic authenticity, where the reader communes with Wordsworth's solitary meditation. Rather than being overpowered by the speaker, as in Byron's address to the ocean, the reader joins with Wordsworth, entering into his feeling by the expansive empathy encouraged by the poem. After Wordsworth recounts the 'din' (26) of urban life, his elongating rhythmic patterns 'gently lead us on' to a 'blessed mood', in which a potent blend of memory and imagination restores the communion between man and nature.

[...] Nor less, I trust, To them I may have owed another gift, Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood, In which the burthen of the mystery, In which the heavy and the weary weight Of all this unintelligible world Is lightened: – that serene and blessed mood, In which the affections gently lead us on, [...] Almost suspended, we are laid asleep In body, and become a living soul: While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things. (36– 43 and 46– 50)

Stripped from the constraints of the body yet still allowing for its visitations to be experienced corporeally, Nature allows attuned humanity 'almost' to transcend the physical, and, through Nature's harmony and joy, to 'see into the life of things'. That formulation bears witness to Wordsworth's vision of Nature, one in which an active perceiver who can 'see' needs also to see with 'an eye made quiet' (48) and has as a reward a vision, not simply 'of things', but of their 'life' (50). Byron's vision of Nature is altogether more 'random and contingent' in contrast to Wordsworth's hard-won affirmative understanding. Calm and expansive, the quoted lines speak to a shared human possibility, where Wordsworth is more representative man than a solitary exception.

Wordsworth's transition from 'I' to 'we' reveals the generosity of his poetic practice. The 'I' owes gratitude to 'forms of beauty' (24), yet the movement to 'we' emphasizes the possibility of his tranquil mood being extended to the whole spectrum of humanity. These lines move from the 'din' and the burdensome nature of the mundane to an affirmation of the transforming power of 'that serene and blessed mood' (42). The 'we' promises a certain parity among people. Unlike Byron's Carlylean emphasis on the poet as Great Man, Wordsworth offers a more democratic vision of the relationship between man and nature, where access will be granted to those who are sensitive and yielding to Nature's beauty. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage also makes recourse to 'we', but Byron's movement between the first-person singular and the plural is markedly different in its formulation:

'Tis to create, and in creating live A being more intense, that we endow With form our fancy, gaining as we give The life we image, even as I do now. What am I? Nothing; but not so art thou, Soul of my thought! with whom I traverse earth, Invisible but gazing, as I glow Mix'd with thy spirit, blended with thy birth, And feeling still with thee in my crush'd feelings' dearth. (CHPIII, 6: 46– 54)

Byron emphasizes the poet's creative ability, an ability that magnifies, complicates and intensifies his identity. The relationship between creator and creation is complex in its symbiotic nature. The poet is both creator of his creation and created by it, 'gaining as we give / The life we image'. Byron amplifies the intensity of this concept by his stress on the poem's use of the present tense. 'Even as I do now' wrenches the act of creation into performance with every reading of the poem. The subsequent question lends urgency to the stanza. The poet is half-created by the creation he has wrought and must question what he becomes by the act of creation. He is no longer a discrete individual. Byron directly links the role of the poet with both self-mastery and the birth of a new self through poetry. Intensity of feeling and a powerful and almost incommunicable violence are found within the self as Byron compares his thought to lightning that cannot be expressed and must be sheathed as a sword (III, 97: 905– 13). Intensity and self-mastery define the poet, and the poet becomes almost more than human through this creative power. If Byron's is an 'action poetry: ink drops, link forms', it is also a poetry alert to everything that separates it from everyday life, where the Byronic poet-hero earns his dangerously amoral significance from his alienation from the 'we'.

To encounter nature becomes a means of revealing the nature of the speaker as poet in the work of Wordsworth and Byron. Wordsworth hymns his changed and changing self in 'Tintern Abbey', where Nature's role as guide alters but remains affectingly present in his life. Byron uses Nature to stage an encounter with an equal, an equal that never blurs into the self, but one that retains its singularity and force just as the poet does. The self as poet-hero, dramatized and performed before the reader, endures and evolves throughout Byron's poetry. Manfred, written in the summer of 1816, while Byron worked on Canto III of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, sees Byron shape a protagonist that is both the apotheosis and a near condemnation of a hero type that he had explored throughout his earlier Tales. The influence of Shelley, whose Queen Mab and Alastor form vital connections to Byron's dramatic poem, is significant for the specifically satanic quality of Manfred as hero. Peter A. Schock claims that 'Shelley was in advance of Byron, establishing modes of blaspheming Satanism which the other poet went on to adapt (despite the remarks of both men that deprecate the influence of Shelley's irreligion on Byron)'23 If Shelley was ahead, Byron's refinement of Queen Mab's defiant Ahasuerus into Manfred and his iron will reveals the specific nature of his poetic individuality. For Byron, in Manfred, asks his audience to scrutinize the problem of Manfred's will. Manfred, styled in an image that had come to be associated with Byron himself, suggests to Jerome McGann that 'Manfred is a nakedly autobiographical piece in which Byron tries to represent what sort of life can remain for a man once he knows not only that his soul is a sepulchre, but that he himself has made it so'. Though discerning in discovering Byron's presence in the poetry, McGann overplays the autobiographical; it is the artistic element of the self that forms the basis of Manfred's resemblance to his author. Byron's heroic poetics come into ascendency, not his personal circumstances. Language's dangerous potency, its power of enchantment and potentially delusory ability to set the limits of the universe, is carefully displayed throughout Manfred. Manfred's power is linguistic, where heroism is earned and claimed via the self's power over language. But the self in solitude and its pyrrhic victory form the central fascination of this self-questioning dramatic poem.


Excerpted from "The Poet-Hero in the Work of Byron and Shelley"
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Copyright © 2019 Madeleine Callaghan.
Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; Note on Texts and Abbreviations; Introduction: The Poet- Hero: ‘Who shall trace the void?’; Part I Byron; Chapter One ‘A tyrant- spell’: The Byronic (Poet- )Hero in Manfred , Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Beppo; Chapter Two ‘Degraded to a Doge’: Inappropriate Poetic Heroism in Marino Faliero; Chapter Three ‘Thoughts unspeakable’: Poetic Heroism under Pressure in Cain and The Deformed Transformed; Chapter Four Poetic Heroism and Authority: Don Juan and ‘Epistle to Augusta’; Interchapter: Chapter Five ‘As we wish our souls to be’: Julian and Maddalo and The Island; Part II Shelley; Chapter Six ‘The Highest Idealism of Passion and of Power’: Shelley’s Heroic Poetics in A Defence of Poetry, The Mask of Anarchy and Prometheus Unbound; Chapter Seven ‘Holy and Heroic Verse’: The Revolutionary Poet- Heroes of Laon and Cythna; Chapter Eight ‘This soul out of my soul’: The Trial of the Poet- Hero in Shelley’s Epipsychidion; Chapter Nine ‘His mute voice’: The Two Heroes of Adonais; Conclusion; The Byronic and the Shelleyan Poet- Hero; Bibliography; Index.

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‘Recognising the Romantic Period’s fascination with heroism, Madeleine Callaghan’s strikingly original account explores the imaginative interchanges between Byron and Shelley over their aspirations and anxieties about casting the poet as hero. Paying close critical attention to questions of genre, Callaghan’s study significantly revises our understanding of the poet-hero within Romanticism.’

—Mark Sandy, Professor, Department of English Studies, Durham University, UK

‘Dr Callaghan’s [...] study will be the first examination of the formal ramifications of combative creative energy in the works of Lord Byron and P. B. Shelley for over four decades, tracing the ways in which their allied but opposed poetic voices responded to traditional and contemporary constructions of heroism.’

—Jane Stabler, Professor, School of English, University of St Andrews, UK

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