Romantic Anger and Byron's Curse
Andrew M. Stauffer, University of Virginia
Between the years 1780 and 1830, two closely-related developments in Europe changed utterly the function and form of anger in public discourse, and so marked the advent of the modern political and cultural world. First, the French Revolution brought the issue of anger to the forefront of English consciousness, and inspired intense debate over the place of that emotion in (and in creating) the new forms of civil society. From its beginnings, the Revolution was centered in an assertion that the anger of the people deserved respect, and had a legitimacy of its own. Yet as it democratized anger, the Revolution (and the Terror) demonstrated the dangers of unbounded public rage, leaving conflict an ambiguous inheritance for English writers.(1) Second, the periodical press began a phase of rapid expansion that transformed the substance, style, and speed of public discourse. Printing technologies allowed for the dissemination of angry rhetoric across lines of class and nation, and helped establish the right of an outraged people to redress.(2) The democratization of anger meant that learning to marshal the outrage of the populace took on radically new urgency, and the periodicals were there to step into the breach. By way of anger, the new medium discovered its demagogic powers.
In England particularly, where large-scale revolutionary violence never took place, the printing press became the engine of a war of words. For writers of the time, anger was a vexed locus of rational justice and irrational savagery; and the importance and difficulty of writing anger make that emotion a key pressure point within the literary history of this revolutionary period. In the wake of Augustan satire, the Romantic poets developed their ambivalent attitudes toward angry art in concert with the multitude of outraged voices in the periodical press. (3) How to distinguish their rage from that of the Augustans on the one hand, and that of the propagandists on the other, became a crucial question. Romanticism in England can thus be seen as a chorus of responses to the crisis that was brought about by anger's prominence in public discourse.
Some of these responses were acts of negation: the poetry of Wordsworth and Keats, for example, defines itself by excluding anger from its precincts. One example from Wordsworth will have to suffice here pars pro toto, although more attention should be paid to his engagements with violence and outrage, and to how those engagements have influenced our reception of Romanticism. In a poem called "The Warning," written in 1833, the conservative Wordsworth laments over those agitating for the passage of the Reform Bill:
Lost people, trained to theoretic feud!
Lost above all, ye labouring multitude!
Bewildered whether ye, by slanderous tongues
Deceived, mistake calamities for wrongs;
And over fancied usurpations brood,
Oft snapping at revenge in sullen mood;
Or, from long stress of real injuries fly
To desperation for a remedy;
In burst of outrage spread your judgements wide,
And to your wrath cry out, "Be thou our guide."
(The Poems, 2: 739-40)
For Wordsworth, the tygers of wrath are clearly not wiser than the horses of instruction; and when the people allow themselves to be guided by anger, they become bewildered, deceived, mistaken, desperate, and lost. Such an attitude towards public wrath owes a great deal to Wordsworth's experience of the French Revolution and the Terror, and also to his disapproval of the angry rhetoric of the popular press, that "theoretic feud" of "scandalous tongues" leading the citizens astray. As Wordsworth wrote in response to what he saw as Carlyle's overly enthusiastic account of the French Revolution, "Hath it not long been said the wrath of Man / Works not the righteousness of God?" (The Poems, 2: 881).(4) The agitation surrounding the Reform Bill was England's version of the revolutionary conflicts in France, and Wordsworth saw in both only an outraged blindness dangerous to the people and the nation.
In Book 10 of The Prelude, Wordsworth recalls his experiences in Paris in 1792, just after the September Massacres and the declaration of the Republic, both of which put him at great unease:
But at best it seemed a place of fear, Unfit for the repose of night, Defenceless as a wood where tigers roam. (1805 Prelude, Book 10, lines 80-82)
Wordsworth's image of unfenced tigers prowling the civitas is meant to register his sense that the state should police the anger of citizens rather than encourage it. But even Wordsworth would have recognized that, like it or no, the Revolution had resulted in a new place for anger within the public sphere. How much had changed in regard to anger can be seen by comparing two passages that recall Wordsworth's from The Prelude. The first is from Edward Young's A Vindication of Providence, written in 1728, when the anger of the monarch was still the monarch of the political jungle:
It is elegantly said, the King's anger is as a roaring lion, which Description of it is confin'd to Kings, only as to its Efficacy; it is strong, though not as successful in other Men. By a King it is let loose into the large Field of Power; in others it bites the Bars that confine it. (Young 28)
Young recognizes that anger is our fundamental political emotion, the ferocity of which is equal in all men. By picturing the common man's anger as a caged lion that "bites the Bars that confine it," Young implies that instruments of control (i.e., chains and prisons) are the only things that separate the king -- both physically and ontologically -- from his subjects. Approximately one hundred years later, Sir Walter Scott looked back on the period leading up to the fateful meeting of the Estates-General (on May 5, 1789), and wondered at the provoking behavior of Louis XVI's government:
The conduct of the government . . . towards the nation whose representatives it was shortly to meet, resembled that of an insane person, who should by a hundred teazing and vexatious insults irritate into frenzy the lion, whose cage he was about to open, and to whose fury he must necessarily be exposed. (Scott, Life of Buonaparte, 1: 4)
The political role of the angry citizen had changed utterly between Young's era and Scott's; the enraged populace (one of the larger cats of history) had been let out of the bag, and had entered the "large Field of Power" as a legitimate force for political change. Like the unfenced tigers that Wordsworth imagines in Paris, the uncaged lion offers to tear apart the old order in the name of the people's wrath.
Even Edmund Burke, in the final sentence of his reactionary Reflections on the Revolution in France, admits the virtue of personal rage -- as if he recognizes that the events in Paris, however deplorable, have instituted a new relation between the anger of citizens and the conduct of the state. Burke concludes his great work by describing himself as "one in whose breast no anger durable or vehement has ever been kindled, but by what he considered as tyranny" (Reflections 376). So, despite his talk of the bestial madness of the French people, Burke avers that vehement anger is the appropriate response to tyranny after all. And although he would point to the tyranny of the mob rather than the monarch, the logic of outrage prevails. Burke's rhetoric obliquely approves the petition for redress of grievances, and the violent opposition to tyranny when that fails: that is, the stages of political anger that amount to revolution.
Of course, some expressions of anger have no immediate relation to the state; they are merely personal. Yet Blake's altercation with the soldier Scofield (like Achilles' with Agamemnon) demonstrates how, in wartime, such a division is almost impossible to maintain. Anger aims to have consequences; and it tends to expand to include all apparent targets, rapidly crossing lines towards public concerns. Achilles' private quarrel with his king has immediate political and martial repercussions; Blake's personal indignation at Scofield's invasion of his garden grows to an assertion that all soldiers are slaves, and then to a damning of the king. Whether Blake actually said these things matters less than their insertion (either by Blake or Scofield) into a private conflict between strangers, indicating the tendency of citizens' anger to implicate or involve the state in times of crisis.
Furthermore, private experiences of indignation and outrage establish the patterns by which the citizen will behave towards the indignities threatened by and to the state. We learn from our childhood experiences of tyranny how to respond to larger engines of oppression, be they kings or invading hordes. One of Shelley's schoolmates recalls the "Mad Shelley" of Eton:
I have seen him surrounded . . . hooted, baited like a maddened bull, and at this distance of time I seem to hear ringing within my ears the cry which Shelley was wont to utter in his paroxysm of revengeful anger. (qtd. in White, 1: 38)
Prometheus' curse of Jupiter echoes faintly behind this passage, and we can see here one of the sources of Shelley's image of himself as exile, cursing and accursed. That Shelley embraced pacifism -- that Prometheus recalls his curse -- does not negate the importance of anger to his imagination of structures of oppression. Surrounded by this mocking ring of boys, the young Shelley learned anger as the emotion of alienation from institutions and their members.
After all, anger is typically the sign of a mind in exile. The anger that Homer asks the muse to sing at the opening of the Iliad is not the rage that will inspire Achilles' vengeful aristeia against the Trojans, but rather the emotion that alienates Achilles from his compatriots. This war epic begins not with a battle hymn, but with the noise of a quarrel, the cause of an unnatural separation that "put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians," and sent their best warrior back to the domestic consolations of his tent (Iliad 1.2). Slighted by Agamemnon, Achilles enacts the exile that he feels -- partly as a way of punishing the king, but also as a literalization of Agamemnon's refusal to grant him his respect, his regard. Agamemnon chooses not to see him, so Achilles sees red, and makes himself scarce.
Similarly, when Shakespeare's Coriolanus, enraged at the Roman populace that has cast him out, exclaims, "I banish you!", he captures nicely anger's ambivalence about the origins of the exile it imposes (Coriolanus 3.3.133). Always a response to some perceived trauma -- some truncation of the self or severance from a social body -- anger still desires priority and will therefore deepen the wound. Thus the ex-employee retorts, "You can't fire me because I quit!", in a compensatory fantasy of agency which anger demands. Here the verb tense ("quit") balances nicely between past and present, deferring the issue of the trauma's origins. For the sake of pride, anger shoves the mind from that which is in the act of pushing it away. We call anger offensive -- that is what anger wants to be: a taking of (the) offense -- when in fact, it is a fundamentally defensive emotion.
The world elsewhere that anger inaugurates is thus, like Milton's Hell, a scene of punishment transformed into a kingdom. Having just acknowledged the departure of God's "ministers of vengeance" from Hell, Satan asserts to Beelzebub:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice To reign is worth ambition though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. (Paradise Lost 1.170; 261-63)(5)
Self-reliance is the order of the day, and Satan's trouble with his pronouns in this passage demonstrates the powerfully alienating drive of anger. "We may reign," Satan opines democratically to his equally outraged fellow, and yet he follows immediately with talk of "my choice / To reign," as if his anger were driving him constantly towards isolation and further forms of exile. When Satan announces later, "My self am Hell" (4:75), he confirms this drive, and makes it clear that, at one level, his angry rebellion against Heaven amounts only to a wish for personal sovereignty. In promoting Jesus, God alienates Satan; in rebelling against God, Satan confirms that alienation. In sending Satan to Hell, God makes the alienation permanent; and in claiming he chose to reign in Hell, Satan turns it into an industry of his own. At each moment, anger compels both parties to envision their doings as actions rather than reactions -- as products of an individual will, not as belated responses. Of course, God's omniscience makes belatedness on his part impossible -- and so his anger is really nothing but judgment expressed as punishment. Satan's rage, on the other hand, is always reactive, like our own -- an identity that William Blake deplored.
Alienating, defensive, reactive: such descriptions -- and they were the dominant ones in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries -- begin to explain why writing anger was such a problem for the Romantic poets, who, in an age of the ascendancy of lyricism, were to express their own emotions rather than creating dramatic or narrative characters to enact them. In most circumstances, angry rhetoric wards off readerly sympathy, the primary goal of the archetypal Romantic poet, and institutes a scene of distance and distrust. No emotion invites judgment from its audience so readily, because our experience of others' anger, unlike that of other strong passions, is always informed by rational measures. How much anger is justified under the circumstances? Is this particular pound of flesh too much or too little in the way of vengeance? Has this angry person gone too far? In Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon, John Kerrigan has shown that the deep connections between revenge and theater have a basis in our eagerness to make such evaluations.(6) For the lyric speaker whose art depends upon a sincere and sympathetic voice, anger invites the encroachment of the dramatic and the juridical, and thus threatens to break down lines of imagined communion between poet and reader.
What, though, of satiric poetry? Between the Augustans and the Romantics, Thomas Lockwood finds a widening split between satire and poetry: it is not that satire was not being written, but that critical canons were changing, dismissing wit, reason, and politics as components alien to "pure" poetry. In his influential study of Romantic theory, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), M.H. Abrams traces the Romantic substitution of internal for external verisimilitude as the end of poetry. The work of art, which before 1800 aimed to mirror nature, now aimed to project the artist's emotional state, without deceit or distortion. Primarily under Rousseau's influence, English poetry came to be governed by an aesthetic ideology of (authorial) sincerity and (readerly) sympathy that prohibited the essential theatricality and confrontational implications of angry satire. As the voice of poetry became more disembodied and more isolated in order to avoid imputations of theatricality, anger -- a violent passion that relies on tone, gesture, and facial expression for its communication to others -- necessarily grew problematic for lyric poets. How does one become angry without a body, a voice, or an established dramatic context? One answer is to write very strongly worded imprecations and curses. Yet such a strategy invites charges of overreaction and overacting, or madness and insincerity, as the career of Lord Byron demonstrates.
Indeed, when one considers the dialogue between Romantic lyricism and ill-tempered theatricality, Byron's poetic procedures come first to mind. However, studies of Byron's engagement with satire tend to downplay the importance of anger, probably because Don Juan bestrides his satiric poetry like a colossus, and most readers understand the modes and methods of that poem -- the digression, the lampoon, the sly wink, the humorous deflation of hypocrisy -- as paradigmatic for Byron's work as a whole.(7) Furthermore, a focus on the satires alone excludes a large portion of Byron's poetry of anger and revenge. Byron characteristically combines satiric impulses with a dramatic sense of himself as a figure of vengeance. As a result, he expresses anger most frequently and exuberantly as a curse: a ritualized declamation of ill will that performs his wrath. For Byron, the resulting angry poetry -- a combination of satire, dramatic curse, and confessional lyric -- opposes Romantic sincerity with its theatricality, Romantic sympathy with its alienating effects, and Romantic transcendence with its commitment to worldly cycles of retribution.
Of these aspects of Byron's poetry that challenge Romantic aesthetics, self-dramatization is the most familiar. Lockwood speaks of the "personal quality in post-Augustan satire," in which the satirist "makes personal references to himself as well as to the man he is satirizing" (p. 18). "Satiric rhyme first sprang from selfish spleen," Byron writes in a cancelled line of "Hints from Horace," and his poetic career shows him writing often in a spirit of personal revenge. Such intimacy reverses the policies of eighteenth-century satire, wherein the poet presents himself as a scourge of vice pro bono publico whose private enmities must be subordinated to the larger claims of society. As Steele put it in 1710:
When the sentence [of reproof] appears to arise from personal hatred or passion, it is not then made the cause of mankind but a misunderstanding between two persons. . . . No man thoroughly nettled can say a thing general enough, to pass off with the air of an opinion declared, and not a passion gratified. (qtd. in Lockwood, p. 36)
Byron explores the implications of Steele's comment by writing poems of "personal hatred" arising precisely from such misunderstandings, transforming his eighteenth-century satiric inheritance by making a spectacle of his personal rage. His angry poetry avoids mere satiric rhetoric by presenting his enmities as matters of public record and the world's evils as personal affronts -- as it were, dragging Europe across his bleeding heart.
The paradoxical combination of apparent rhetorical manipulation and a convincingly confessional, passionate style has kept the issue of Byron's sincerity at the forefront of criticism. Two observations by Jerome McGann capture this central paradox of reading Byron's poetry: first, Byron "is the one English Romantic who has been commonly charged with -- who has had his work charged with -- hypocrisy" (Towards a Literature of Knowledge 39);(8) and second, "We think of Byron as the most personal of poets, recklessly candid, self-revealing to a fault" ("Hero With A Thousand Faces" 295). Accounting for the utter fascination this figure exerts has long been the central task of Byron's critics: why is the Byronic personality so compelling? Romanticist scholarship generally assumes that Byron's antithetical position, and thus much of his appeal, involve his ironic masquerading in the face of Romantic ideals of sincerity and spontaneity. Yet this critical narrative tells only half of the story; the other half concerns how Byron undermines his own ironic stance, particularly by way of anger and hatred. Put another way, Byron's crucial revisionary move involves two steps: not merely the ironic interrogation of Romantic ideology, but also the importation of anger, an emotion often not productive of sympathy, into the sincere Romantic poem.
In a series of articles, McGann has emphasized the importance of "truth" to Byron's poetic procedures.(9) In his synoptic view, the contradictions of Byron's poetry are meant to expose false certainties, disrupting the orthodox by means of the paradox. Focusing on the rhetorical mobility and dialogic ethos that characterize Byron's work, McGann argues that the emergent truths of the Byronic perspective are thus negative, deconstructive truths that depend upon a process of contradiction. Irony is the most recognizable vehicle and accompaniment of such a perspective. Yet, as McGann explains, Byron's genius lies in his refusal to abide within a strictly ironic vision; his commitment to contradiction includes contradiction itself. This means that Byron sometimes grounds his work in sincere and consistent emotions, whose vehement certainty exempts them from the play of irony and contradiction. Not surprisingly, the first of these emotions are anger and hatred. As McGann says of Don Juan:
Romantic irony is not the work's ground of truth either. We glimpse this even through the example of Southey, who is not known in Don Juan through the plays of Romantic irony. He is known rather through hatred -- the same way Brougham and Castlereagh are known....Byron can be witty at his own expense, or at Southey's expense, but his wit is not engaged in the face of the Byron/Southey parallel....because Southey is not in the end a figure of fun for Byron, he is a figure of all that is hateful and despicable. (TLK 55)
Before turning to a closer examination of Byron's work, we should sort out the connections between Romantic sincerity and sympathy, and how anger cuts against them. Clearly, as dramatic action, anger can produce a powerful sympathetic response in an audience. From Oedipus forward, the history of tragedy has found its center in anger and revenge, as John Kerrigan has shown.(10) Because anger arises from the perception of unjust injury, we take great interest in the circumstances and consequences surrounding it; if we think that someone's anger is appropriate to the injury, we grant him our sympathy. The complex ethical economy of anger makes the stage its proper home, where the nuances of situation and response can be presented. Furthermore, since anger emerges most often from some dramatic relation, its artistic expression is typically most effective as dialogue; it takes two (or more) to make an argument. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the expression of anger depends on tone, gesture, and facial expression for its communication to others -- things available to actors but not to lyric poets.
Charles Lamb, in his "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare" (1811), sees anger as the most appropriate emotion for the stage, where the goal is the overt display of passion:
The glory of scenic art is to personate passion, and the turns of passion; and the more coarse and palpable the passion is, the more hold upon the eyes and ears of the spectators the performer obviously possesses. For this reason, scolding scenes, scenes where two persons talk themselves into a fit of fury...have always been the most popular on our stage. (qtd. in Romantics on Shakespeare 114)
Anger is "coarse and palpable," best represented in dialogue as a "scene," attractive to spectators who naturally prefer scenes full of sound and fury, regardless of what they signify. However, to express anger using pen and ink alone, the poet may feel obliged to resort to very strongly worded imprecations and curses. Yet, faced with such outbursts, the reader typically assumes the poet is either over-acting (and thus insincere) or overreacting (and thus unsympathetic). In either case, the sincerity effect is disabled and the poem becomes a spectacle, returning in effect to theater. Such readerly detachment opens a gap into which rush hermeneutic suspicions and judgments.
The "sincerity" that characterizes Wordsworthian Romanticism depends wholly on sympathy -- precisely that which the decontextualized anger of the lyric has trouble evoking, particularly when it appears spontaneous: that is, uncalled for. Robert Langbaum has written, "Einfühlung," or sympathy, "is the specifically Romantic way of knowing," and the Romantic speaker is "a pole of sympathy -- the means by which reader and writer project themselves into the poem" (Poetry of Experience 52). We call sincere the poetry that effectively provokes such sympathetic projection. Of course, as Langbaum and McGann both recognize, sincere poetry is, at one level, an oxymoron. Langbaum writes, "the anti-rhetorical style is itself a rhetoric. For there remains, between the sincere feeling in the heart and the effect of sincerity on the page, the art of communication"(p. 23), and McGann reminds us similarly, "Romantic sincerity only presents itself as unpremeditated verse; in fact it involves a rhetoric" (TLK, p. 42). However, these statements define sincerity at the level of the énoncé, as a truth-value of the poetry itself as a record of the poet's mind. Following Suzanne Guerlac, we may say that poetic sincerity can also be measured at the level of the énunciation, defined as an effect upon an audience (11); and that effect, particularly for the Romantic poets, is called sympathy.
In Byron's own time, and in the wake of the French Revolution, anger was most often a spectacle to be condemned, not an emotion with which to sympathize. In 1797, John Fawcett writes in his Essay on Anger:
What a frightful and odious spectacle is the man who delivers himself up to the tyranny of his violent and wrathful passions! . . . The man is transformed into a brute, or rather into a fiend and a fury. Detestable sight! Who can behold him without horror? Fly from him; he is a disgrace to human nature. He is now only a fit companion for devils, and ought to be shunned and dreaded by human beings. (Fawcett 45-6)
Similarly, Thomas Brown, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind (1820), maintains that the man whose
gloomy heart . . . preserves resentment . . . is like some dreadful being of another race, that walks the earth cursing and accursed; -- we shun him as we would fly from some malignant spirit who, by looking at us, could transfuse into us the venom which he feels;-- we have no sympathy for him. (Brown 435)
However, if anger alienates, it still may fascinate. Joanna Baillie's "Introductory Discourse" to her Plays on the Passions (1798) initiated an aesthetic ideology antithetical to the one articulated by Wordsworth the same year. Theater and spectatorship concern her here, as she considers the outward signs and bodily extroversions of anger that may captivate an audience even while estranging them:
Anger is a passion that attracts less sympathy than any other, yet the unpleasing and distorted features of an angry man will be more eagerly gazed upon by those who are in no wise concerned with his fury, or the objects of it, than the most amiable placid countenance in the world. Every eye is directed to him; every voice hushed to silence in his presence; even children will leave off their gambols as he passes, and gaze after him more eagerly than the gaudiest equipage. The wild tossings of despair; the gnashing of hatred and revenge...all the language of the agitated soul, which every age and nation understand, is never addressed to the dull or inattentive. (Series of Plays 10)
For Baillie the dramatist, "Every eye is directed" towards the face of anger, "unpleasing and distorted" though it is, because of the lurid spectacles that anger (and other violent passions) can produce. Byron enacts this theatrical dictum as lyric practice, compelling mystified fascination rather than sympathetic assent from his audiences, and exposing his poetry to charges of insincerity and sensationalism.
Anger brings down the lines of sympathetic connection. Recognizing the importance of alienation for the culture heroes of the modern, crowded world, Byron chose (and was chosen by) anger to separate himself from the herd and its sympathy. As Byron describes himself in his Childe Harold persona,
In the crowd They could not deem me one of such; I stood Among them, but not of them; in a shroud Of thoughts which were not their thoughts. (CHP III; Poetical Works [CPW] 2: Canto 3, ll. 1053-56)(12)
This "shroud of thoughts" that others cannot penetrate partakes of a Coriolanus-like contempt for the "rank breath" (line 1050) of the world, well-nourished by Byron's class-consciousness and sense of betrayal by his English audiences. "I have not loved the world, nor the world me" (line 1049), he writes, implying an underlying antipathy in his communications with that world, and placing anger at the heart of his poetic characters.
Yet as a poet seeking an audience, Byron must offset the alienating effects of his anger with sympathogenic strategies. When he neglects to do this, he writes a poem like "A Sketch from Private Life," an attack on Lady Byron's maid, Jane Clermont. "It was this poem," writes McGann, "that brought down the general public attack" on Byron in 1816, and led to his departure from England (CPW, vol. 3, p. 495). Reading the poem is still unpleasant:
If like a snake she steal within your walls, Till the black slime betray her as she crawls; If like a viper to the heart she wind, And leave the venom there she did not find; -- What marvel that this hag of hatred works Eternal evil latent as she lurks To make a Pandemonium where she dwells, And reign the Hecate of domestic Hells. (CPW, vol. 3, p. 384, lines 47-54)
By foregrounding his "Private Life" and "domestic Hells," Byron draws the reader into a realm of personal anger where the subject of poetry is Byron's enemy and the object is revenge. "A Sketch" is a disturbingly intimate poem, whose problem is not theatricality but its relentless sincerity.
By bringing his anger and hatred to the lyric, Byron reveals the dark side of the 'true voice of feeling' and the 'spontaneous overflow' of emotion that characterize Romanticism. Of this aspect of Byron's poetry McGann writes, "When feeling comes to the aid of feeling in the Byronic and Baudelairean world, the sympathetic event is not confined to a horizon of benevolence" ("BAL," p. 32). In other words, some emotions are hellish, and Byron's poetry based in those emotions can be malevolent indeed, particularly for the Romantic reader accustomed to engaging sympathetically with the speaker of the poem. Byron's angry curses rebuff sympathy and introduce a set of agonistic relations amongst himself, his poetry, his readers, and his victims. The resulting spectacle invites judgment, criticism, and uneasy voyeurism.
In fact, Byron's unique style emerges under direct pressure from his anger, as he develops ways to engage readers despite his spite. One favorite method is to portray himself as one who has patiently suffered many betrayals, who endures despite having been unreasonably provoked. McGann calls this role "the figure of the suffering poet, whose (audience) reciprocal is the sympathetic reader" ("BAL," p. 31). Yet the angry Byron frequently lets this mask slip, as he plays the role of poète maudit with strong overtones of vindictiveness. To this his audience typically responds not with sympathy, but with a disturbed fascination; by means of its angry moods, the Byronic personality compels attention.
A mysterious, deliberately provocative blend of confession and accusation fairly defines the Byronic curse. Perhaps the most famous example of this occurs in Canto IV of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, during the scene in the Roman Coliseum where Byron addresses "Time, the avenger!" (CPW 2: 167, Canto 4, l. 1169) He first asserts his patience, even as he hopes for revenge:
If calmly I have . . . Reserved my pride against the hate Which shall not whelm me, let me not have worn This iron in my soul in vain -- shall they not mourn? (lines 1176-79)
"Thou shalt take / The vengeance" (lines 1194-95), Byron declares to "great Nemesis" (line 1181); "I sleep, but thou shalt yet awake" (line 1197); the poet's emotional equivocation and displacement do not mask his outrage. As Peter Manning puts it, we can perceive "the vindictive impulses surviving beneath the proclamation of sincerity" (Manning 23); one might say 'thriving' and be closer to the poem's spirit.
Vindication (that is, revenge and its justification) remains central to Byron's poetry. By fusing anger and patience, or outburst and deferral, Byron creates a seductive mode of intense expression that opens up a space for readers' sympathy, even as it alienates them. We keep reading Byron in expectation of either catching him in outright evil or finding him to be a saint -- in a moment of unalloyed judgment or sympathy. His curse of forgiveness exemplifies this mode:
a far hour shall wreak The deep prophetic fulness of this verse, And pile on human heads the mountain of my curse!
That curse shall be Forgiveness.--Have I not-- Hear me, my mother Earth! behold it, Heaven!-- Have I not had to wrestle with my lot? Have I not suffered things to be forgiven? Have I not had my brain seared, my heart riven, Hopes sapp'd, name blighted, Life's life lied away? And only not to desperation driven, Because not altogether of such clay As rots into the souls of those whom I survey. (CHP IV, lines 1204-1215)
By "Forgiveness," Byron means the infliction of remorse, hoping in a cancelled stanza that "to forgive be 'heaping coals of fire' / . . . on the heads of foes" (CPW, vol. 2, p. 169n). Byron wants to "pile on human heads the mountain" of his forgiveness-curse, taking revenge by renouncing it. Furthermore, his litany of suffering, a bid for sympathy (if not martyrdom), concludes with another claim of his superhuman patience: "not to desperation driven, because not altogether of . . . clay." Simultaneously alienating and justifying himself, cursing and forgiving, Byron creates a poetry so grounded in contradiction that our response can be neither wholly sympathetic nor judgmental; by this road we approach the dramatic monologue.
The resulting deferral of conclusions on the reader's part feels like curiosity, just as Byron's own deferral of both violence and forgiveness results in a kind of mystification; this reciprocal relation lies at the heart of Byron's appeal. The conclusion to the forgiveness-curse, one of his best-known stanzas, shows this dynamic operating to its fullest:
But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:
My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,
And my frame perish even in conquering pain,
But there is that within me which shall tire
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;
Something unearthly, which they deem not of,
Like the remembered tone of a mute lyre,
Shall on their softened spirits sink, and move
In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love.
Here the "something unearthly" that represents Byron's alienating embrace of conflict is imagined as a force for sympathy, one that will sink on the "softened spirits" of his formerly rock-hearted enemies. By leaving this powerful force unspecified and postponing its arrival, Byron masks its foundation in his desire for revenge; and by ending the stanza with "love," he conceals its basis in hatred. The indeterminacy of Byron's anger -- here the emotion that dare not speak its name -- invites the reader to sympathize with alienation.
However, in a letter to his sister Augusta, written around the same time as this passage from Childe Harold, Byron lifts the veil of conciliatory emotions to frightening effect:
they had no business with anything previous to my marriage with that infernal fiend -- whose destruction I shall yet see.-- Do you suppose that I will rest--while any of their branch is unwithered? do you suppose that I will turn aside till they are trodden under foot? --do you suppose that I can breathe until they are uprooted?--Do you believe that time will alter them or me?--that I have suffered in vain--that I have been disgraced in vain--that I am reconciled to the sting of the scorpion--& the venom of the serpent? which stung me in my slumber?----If I did not believe--that Time & Nemesis--& circumstances would requite me for the delay--I would ere this have righted myself. --But "let them look to their bond"---- (Letters and Journals [BLJ] 5: 243). (13)
The repeated rhetorical questions, the idea that "time will [not] alter" the poet, and the belief that "Time & Nemesis" will "requite" him all find echoes in the Childe Harold passage, but here the emphasis is openly placed on destructive revenge. Clearly these two documents have sprung from the same bitterness and anger regarding Byron's broken marriage. As the more spontaneous and less public of the two, we could regard the letter to Augusta as the truer, more sincere record of Byron's feelings. Armed with the scholarship of Lovell, Marchand, and McGann, the modern reader of Byron confronts the poet at an unprecedented and sometimes disturbing level of intimacy; the poet's private letters, his manuscript fragments and revisions, and various detailed accounts of his life are all before us. It may not be quite fair to read Byron's letters into his poetry. On the other hand, the "Nemesis" passage from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage strongly implies what the "Time & Nemesis" letter to Augusta confirms: that Byron wants his wife and her allies to suffer for what he has convinced himself was treachery. As might be expected, Byron's angriest writing can be found in cancelled lines, fragments, personal letters, and private notations. However, these outbursts merely illuminate the larger patterns of anger and revenge that structure his more public works of art. In his communications to others, poetic and otherwise, Byron makes a spectacle of the conflicts of his intimate life.
Take, as another example, the letter that should be paired with "A Sketch from Private Life." Soon after composing that poem of abuse directed at Jane Clermont, Byron wrote of her to his wife:
she came as a guest--she remained as a spy--she departed as an informer--&reappeared as an evidence--if false--she belied--if true--she betrayed me----the worst of treacheries--a "bread and salt traitress" she ate & drank & slept & awoke to sting me.----The curse of my Soul light upon her & hers forever!--may my Spirit be deep upon her in her life &--in her death--may her thirst be unquenchable--&her wretchedness irrevocable--may she see herself only & eternally--may the fulfillment of her wishes become the destruction of her hopes--may she dwell in the darkness of her own heart & shudder--now & for existence-----Her last food will be the bread of her enemies.----I have said it. (BLJ, vol. 5, p. 64)
Byron presented a poetic version of this curse at least twice, once as "A Sketch from Private Life," and again as an "Incantation" or "Chorus in an unfinished Witch Drama" that later found its way into Manfred. As Daniel McVeigh observes, the two poems resemble one another so that "it seems reasonable to suspect with Marchand that the Incantation's vitriol came originally from the same reservoir of hate as this heartfelt curse against Clermont"; McVeigh also cites the letter to Lady Byron (McVeigh 603-4). Furthermore, McGann has exposed the wicked double-meaning of "unfinished Witch Drama" as a reference to Byron's tormenting marriage ("Truth in Masquerade" 16-17). It seems that a recurring accompaniment of Byronic anger is the transgression of boundaries between the public and the private: while this personal letter performs its anger self-consciously as a curse, the public poems (one, a drama) encode personal conflicts and outbursts at their foundations.
Combining the satirist's enthusiasm for punishment, the dramatist's sense of anger as spectacle, and the lyricist's confessional mode and matter, Byron creates poetry to stage his revenge. Particularly when he broods upon personal injuries and betrayals, the result is a strangely confessional and performative invective, filled with curses. In fact, the construction of the Byronic subject typically depends upon a curse, pronounced by or upon him, which enacts his alienation from the rest of humanity; one thinks of Childe Harold, of Manfred, of the Giaour, of Cain. In choosing the curse as vehicle, Byron situates his angry poetry between the precincts of sincerity and performance, since cursing performs its meaning (i.e., revenge) according to the authentic fervor of the curser. In other words, a curse is a dramatic attempt to compel the sympathy of the world, and it depends for its power on both sincerity and spectacle, or private emotion and public rage. Byron's poetic experiments with the angry curse thus provoke both sympathy and judgment, and help create the Byronic persona-- so alien to Wordsworthian Romanticism -- that prefigures the dramatic monologists of the Victorian era.
1. For a brief survey of the effects of revolutionary violence on the development of Romanticism, see Robert Maniquis, "Holy Savagery and Wild Justice," 365-95. As Maniquis puts it, "nineteenth-century writers never forgot the French Revolution -- both its hope and the challenge its violence posed to the imagination" (p. 394). Also important on this theme is John Kerrigan's "Revolution, Revenge, and Romantic Tragedy," 121-40. back
2. As Carlyle wrote later in Sartor Resartus: "He who first shortened the labour of Copyists by the device of Movable Types was disbanding hired Armies, and cashiering most Kings and Senates, and creating a whole new Democratic world" (Works, 1: 31). back
3. Useful studies of the intersections between Romanticism and the popular press include Jon Klancher's The Making of English Reading Audiences; Marcus Wood's Radical Satire and Print Culture; and two anthologies with their introductions: Betty Bennett's British War Poetry in the Age of Romanticism, and Michael Scrivener's Poetry and Reform. back
7. See for example Claude M. Fuess, Lord Byron as a Satirist in Verse; Frederick L. Beaty, Byron the Satirist; Thomas Lockwood, Post-Augustan Satire; and Jerome Christensen, "Marino Faliero and the Fault of Byron's Satire." The title of Robert Gleckner's important essay, "From Selfish Spleen to Equanimity: Byron's Satires," defines a trajectory of development towards Don Juan and away from Byron's angry poetry. back
9. "Byron and the Anonymous Lyric," 27-45, hereafter "BAL"; "Byron and 'the Truth in Masquerade'," 191-209; "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" 295-313; "Rethinking Romanticism," 735-54; "'My Brain is Feminine'," 26-51; and the chapter of TLK entitled "Lord Byron's Twin Opposites of Truth." back
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