Monday, 21 January 2013

Reading Group Report: 'All hearts were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light' - The Byronic Hero, Aspiration, and the Post-Revolutionary Decade

Led by Dr. Leanne Stokoe
Newcastle University, 17 January 2013

At this month’s meeting, Dr. Leanne Stokoe presented us with two excerpts from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage alongside his famous and accessible short poem, Darkness, with an aim to explore Byron’s political awareness and its presence in his poetry that may have been heretofore overlooked. Discussion began with Darkness, which Leanne noted demonstrates Byron’s natural aptitude for verse and his visionary power. We all observed both the religious thematic content stemming from Byron’s Calvinistic upbringing and also his rebellion from that tradition in the way that he placed less emphasis on the inherent sinfulness of man. The Miltonic approach to the pervading dark within the poem also drew our focus to the historical context of the poem--Byron wrote it during his stay with the Shelleys in Geneva during the stormy and darkened summer of 1816, caused by a volcanic eruption in Indonesia which blotted out the sun over most of Europe. The larger political context of the poem was also brought in at this point, with the chaos of post-Napoleonic Europe resonating at the heart of the poem’s imagery and central narrative. 
 
We also noted that Byron’s vision of fallen empires and mankind’s destructiveness was reminiscent of the imagery and sentiment in Shelley’s Ozymandias, which gave us opportunity to move discussion to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which also shares that thematic concern. In Childe Harold we discussed the warring interpretations of Byron’s work--where Victorian criticism had often favoured Byron’s self-destruction and egotism when interpreting his work, it became increasingly clear that he was far more outward-reaching and politically aware in his poetry than he was given credit for. 
 
We also observed with interest the various points of critique and homage to Wordsworth which we were able to find. We questioned the melodrama and cliche of Byron’s prose during his meditations on the Battle of Waterloo, wondering whether he was making an affectionate dig at The Prelude, or perhaps whether he was making a reference to a specific type of battle eulogy that we were unfamiliar with. Additionally, we took interest in his interpretation of the Wordsworthian moment of Romantic epiphany, noting that, in fact, both he and Wordsworth were in some form critical of the idealised notion of the event. We posited that perhaps while Wordsworth was willing to selectively manage and curate such events through memory, Byron eschewed them entirely in favour of looking back towards civilisation.
 
Along related lines, we were particularly struck by Byron’s choice to bookend Book V of Childe Harold with dedications to his daughter Ada, which seemed to tie his more solitary feelings firmly back to feelings of family and nationhood. This led us to consider why Byron might have been so intent upon including Ada so prominently within his work--was this a matter of guilt, a ploy for sympathy given his exile, or a carefully posed framework upon which he could place his feelings of both estrangement and connection to mankind? Those conflicting feelings of kinship and inability to dwell among man lay at the heart of discussion, leading us to feel that even if Byron’s own motivations had been cynical, Victorian scholars were, in focusing their criticism on the construction of the Byronic hero, were only accessing part of the Byron’s intent.
 
Overall, we were most engaged by the complicated legacy of Byron’s works as presented by the problematic lens of Romantic periodicity, and by the end of the session,
we appreciated the need for a more nuanced approach to his legend when studying his works.  
 

Kate Katigbak
Durham University
 

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