The philosopher, Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy, has devoted a chapter to Byron, not because he was a systematic thinker, but because “Byronism” established an outlook and a way of feeling that entered 19th Century philosophy and eventually helped to form Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman, the great hero who stands outside the jurisdiction of the ordinary criteria of good and evil. Russell calls Byronism the attitude of “Titanic cosmic self-assertion”. He goes on to say that the when the great men of the 19th Century are considered as forces, as causes of change in the social structure, in values, or in the worldview, Byron occupies a high place. Indeed, the course of events in recent times has necessitated much revision in our historical estimates, making some men less important than they had seemed, and others more so. As among those whose importance is greater than we realized in the history of ideas, Byron is prominent, Russell assures us.
In continental Europe this assessment does not appear surprising, but in the English-speaking world Byron was not always fully appreciated. His verse was influenced by the 18th century canon and made him difficult to classify as a Romantic. But on the continent his way of feeling and his outlook on life were assimilated and continually transformed until they became so widespread as to be factors in great events.
The French critic, Hippolyte Taine, in his History of English Literature, gave only a few pages to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats, and then devoted a long enthusiastic chapter to Lord Byron whom he called “the greatest and most English of these artists”. Taine went on to say: “He is so great and so English that from him alone shall we learn more truths of his country and of his age than from all the rest together”. Byron had achieved an immense European reputation during his own lifetime, while his great English contemporaries were admired only by small coteries in England and America. Byron was viewed as the very prototype of literary romanticism. For Byron provided his age with what Hyppolyte Taine called its “ruling personage”, which he defines as “the model that contemporaries invest with their admiration and sympathy”. This personage is the “Byronic hero”.
The central characteristic of the Byronic hero is that of a melancholy, passionate, moody sinner who is both torn with remorse yet unrepentant. In proud moral isolation he relies on his absolute self against all moral or social limitations on the expression of his individuality. This rebellious figure is non-political and erotic. It embodies elements of Byron’s personality and, more importantly, the yearnings of Byron’s time. It was imitated in life as well as in art, and helped shape the intellectual as well as the cultural history of the later 19th Century.
Russell points out that this figure of the arch-rebel is basically the aristocratic rebel, of whom Byron was in his day the exemplar. The aristocratic rebel is a very different type from the leader of a peasant revolt or proletarian uprising. The aristocratic rebel has enough to eat, therefore he must have other causes of discontent. Russell thinks that love of power may be the unconscious cause of his discontent, but that in his conscious thought the aristocratic rebel is critical of the way the world is governed. Taken to an extreme this becomes the standpoint of the superman with perhaps an element of Satanism. Both tendencies are to be found in Byron. Both tendencies, Russell argues, largely through men that Byron influenced, became common in large sections of society which were not aristocratic. Russell avers that the aristocratic philosophy of rebellion, as it evolved, inspired a long series of revolutionary movements from the Carbonari after the fall of Napoleon to Hitler’s coup in 1933. And at each of these stages it has inspired a corresponding philosophy.
Russell states that for Nietzsche the great man is godlike and for Byron he is usually a Titan at war with himself. Byron’s portrayal of the Corsair in his dealings with others is like Zarathustra. Byron writes:
“Still sways their souls with that commanding art
That dazzles, leads, yet chills the vulgar heart.”
The Corsair is a hero that in Byron’s words: “hated man too much to feel remorse.” But for Byron this trait was true to human nature since similar traits, Byron tells us, were exhibited by Genseric, the King of the Vandals, by the Ghibelline tyrant, Ezzelino, and by a certain Louisiana pirate. Byron not only looked to the Middle Ages and the Levant for heroes. He invested Napoleon with a romantic mantle. Napoleon’s influence on 19th century Europe was profound. He inspired Hegel, Fichte, Nietzsche, Beethoven, Heine, Stendhal, Clausewitz, and the acts of Italian patriots. Russell states that Napoleon’s “ghost stalks through the age, the only force which is strong enough to stand up against industrialism and commerce, pouring scorn on pacifism and shopkeeping.”
Byron had proclaimed his wish for Napoleon’s victory and when he heard of Waterloo he said: “I’m damned sorry for it.” Only once did Byron turn against his hero: in 1814 when he thought suicide would have been more honorable than abdication, but Napoleon’s return from Elba mad up for it. Andre Maurois has written, in his Life of Byron about the French reaction to Byron’s death: “it was remarked in many newspapers that that the two greatest men of the century, Napoleon and Byron, had disappeared almost at the same time.” Carlyle called Byron the “noblest spirit in Europe” and felt as if he had “lost a brother”. He later came to prefer Goethe, but always coupled Byron with Napoleon. Carlyle wrote comparing the two: “Your Byron publishes his Sorrows of Lord George, in verse and in prose, and copiously otherwise: your Bonaparte presents his Sorrows of Napoleon Opera, in an all-too-stupendous style; with music of cannon-volleys, and murder-shrieks of a world; his stage lights are the fires of conflagration; his rhyme and recitative are the tramp of embattled Hosts and the sound of falling cities.” Carlyle goes on to say: “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe”. He says this because he sees Byron and Goethe as antitheses, Byron as melancholy and Goethe as cheerful. Most French poets have found Byronic unhappiness the best material for their verses. The poet Alfred de Musset considered Napoleon, Byron and Goethe as the greatest geniuses of the century.
In Germany the attitude toward Napoleon was divided. There were those who like Heinrich Heine saw him as the mighty apostle of liberalism, the man who made princes tremble, the enemy of the establishment, the destroyer of feudalism. And there were others who saw him as the Antichrist, the destroyer of the noble German nation, the powerful immoralist. Napoleon was an Antichrist but an Antichrist to be imitated as much as to be hated and feared. Nietzsche had remarked that the classical age of war is coming and that this is desirable and that we owe this not to the French Revolution but to Napoleon. In this way, nationalism, Satanism, and hero-worship, the legacy of Byron, became part of the mind-set of Germany.
Satan plays a role in the concept of the Byronic hero. The tradition begins with Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Byron’s time some readers of Milton had begun to take the side of Satan in the war between Heaven and Hell, admiring him as the archrebel who had taken on no less of an antagonist than omnipotence itself. In his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake claimed that Milton had unconsciously but correctly taken the part of the Devil, who represents rebellious energy, against Jehovah, who represents the oppressive power of limitation. Thirty years later, Shelley similarly maintained that Satan is morally superior to Milton’s tyrannical God, except for the fact that he is flawed by vengefulness and pride. But it was precisely this aspect of flawed grandeur that made Satan so appealing to Byron. The sinister and terrifying aspects of Milton’s Satan were combined in Byron with the towering historical figure of Napoleon Bonaparte who in the imagination of that time combined moral culpability with superhuman power and grandeur.
Byron first sketched out his figure in 1812 in the opening stanzas of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto I. At this stage he is rather crudely depicted as a young man, prematurely sick of sinning who wanders about in an attempt to escape society and his own memories. Late Conrad, the hero of Corsair, has become more isolated, darker, more complex in his inner conflict, and therefore more frightening and appealing to the reader. The hero of Lara represents the complete figure of the Byronic hero and he reappears in Canto III of Childe Harold and again as the hero of Byron’s poetic drama, Manfred. Lara is the assumed name of the hero, Conrad, in The Corsair who has given up piracy and returned to his ancestral home. Lady Byron related that Byron once said with respect to Lara; “There’s more of me in that than any of them”. Saying this he shuddered and avoided her eye.
The Byronic hero harbors an inner demon, a torturing sense of guilt, which drives him toward an inevitable doom. The Byronic hero is alien, mysterious and gloomy. His powers and his passions are immensely greater than the common run of mankind, whom he regards with contempt as inferior to him. He lives according to a simple code of his own: he is faithful unto death to the one he truly loves, and he will not betray a trust. He is totally self-reliant and relentlessly pursues his own ends against any opposition, human or superhuman. He is oblivious to ordinary human concerns and values and he therefore exerts on men and women alike an irresistible attraction as well as a sense of terror.
Coleridge recognized the dangerous elements of the Satanic-Napoleonic-Byronic figure and warned against it, but in vain. It had become the ruling personage of the age. This personage affected the life, the art, and even the philosophy of the 19th Century. It becomes the model for the behavior of young men and the yearnings of young women of the age. The Byronic hero appears in hundreds of European novels. It has become the protagonist of masterpieces, including Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Ahab in Moby Dick, and the hero of Pushkin’s great poem Eugene Oniegin.
Coleridge perceptively notes that Milton has “sublimely embodied” in Satan the characteristics of despotic will, absolute pride and rebellious self-idolatry. And too often, he says, it has been embodied in real life. Too often, says Coleridge, “has it given a fiery grandeur to the historic page. » These are the marks that characterize the masters of mischief, the hunters of men “from Nimrod to Bonaparte”, as he puts it. These men surpass their fellow creatures in one act of courage only, that of daring to say with their whole heart; “Evil, be thou my good.”
Bertrand Russell states: “Byron is not gentle, but violent like a thunderstorm. Byron praises Rousseau and Russell states that what Byron says of Rousseau applies to Byron himself. Rousseau was, he says:
He who threw
Enchantment over passion, and from woe
Wrung overwhelming eloquence.
Yet he knew
How to make madness beautiful and cast
O’er erring deeds and thoughts a heavenly hue.
But there is a profound difference between the two men, Russell notes: “Rousseau is pathetic, Byron is fierce. Rousseau’s timidity is obvious, Byron’s is concealed. Rousseau admires virtue provided it is simple, while Byron admires sin provided it is elemental.”
For an aristocrat to become a rebel his temperament and circumstances must have been peculiar. In Byron’s case his strict Calvinist background played a significant role. Byron described himself to Shelley in 1816 as Methodist, Calvinist, Augustinian. This made him feel that his manner of life was wicked. But wickedness, he told himself, was a hereditary curse in his blood, an evil fate to which he was predestined by the Almighty. If that were indeed the case, since he must be remarkable, he would be remarkable as a sinner. And he would dare to commit transgressions beyond the courage of the fashionable libertines of his day. In his incestuous relationship with his sister he would feel himself the equal of the greatest sinners. He would be the peer of Manfred, of Lara, of Satan himself. The Calvinist in him, the aristocrat, and the rebel were all equally satisfied. And so was the romantic lover whose heart was broken. Thus was the gloomy and misanthropic Byronic and Satanic hero formed.
By Dr. Stanley Sfekas
Presented to: The Byron Society