Friday, January 16, 2015

On reading Byron

Harold Bloom on page 242 of The Visionary Company, A Reading of English Romantic Poetry writes, “The Fire stolen from Heaven both kindles and blasts, and in Rousseau, human love is one with the stolen flame and in turn becomes existence itself.  Byron praises Rousseau as inspired, but dismisses him as ‘phrensied by disease or woe,’ an anticipation of modern Babbitry toward Rousseau’s genius.  Byron’s ambivalence is a necessary consequence of the extraordinary view of the natural world that Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage develops.  Every element given to man is simultaneously a way to moral greatness and divine blessing, and also a quicker way to self-deception and damnation.  Every human act that widens consciousness increases both exaltation and despair.  No other poet has insisted on maintaining both views with equal vigor . . . .”

Childe Harold in Cantos I and II is a poetic narration of Byron’s abandoning of England for Europe but as Bloom indicates, it rises much above that.  Moving from place to place he engagingly discusses his progress.  The Promethean fire consists of reaching into oneself and finding that which is incumbent upon the poet to flesh out and write. Byron is measuring the places he passes through; one sees his beliefs and prejudices but with evidence of introspective maturity.  This doesn’t mean he’s right but it does mean he strives to be honest; which ought to be capable of being said about any poet.

Perhaps because Byron’s most notable poems are long they have been neglected in this age of the personal short-lyric.  I plowed through Don Juan forty or fifty years ago but I passed over many of the details because the edition I was reading wasn’t annotated.  The edition in which I’m reading Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is the “Delphi.”  I’m using a Kindle Fire 8.9 which allows me to click on strange terms or places and see definitions or descriptions. 

I wonder if Byron would have seen the effect of Rousseau on T.S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and the Robert Lowell clique.  We have had them for most of our lives and accept them as normal, but Byron wouldn’t have.  He would probably have seen them as likewise “phrensied by disease or woe,” and perhaps he would have considered Ezra Pound to have been the worst of the lot.  Other poets, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Carlos Williams for aren’t “phrensied” perhaps, but perhaps they don’t escape Rousseau’s disease.  Stevens used humor and playfulness in his alternatives to religion, but he was serious at the same time.  It was a great loss to him to no longer believe the Christianity he was raised with, but he was a successful businessman and poet.  He was neither phrensied nor diseased – although he did die of stomach cancer: a metaphor of the internalizing of the conflict he wrote about in his poetry.  

I seem to have burned myself out on the “Moderns” for the present, with their phrensied disease or woe.  Byron is a move in a more healthful direction, at least for the present – maybe he won’t be if I tackle his “Cain,” which was roundly condemned by many of his contemporaries.   Aside from the Modernistic phrensy my old eyes paid the price of reading the small print in too many books of criticism.  I’m better off reading from the eye-friendly Kindle Fire when possible. 

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