Thursday, March 16, 2006

Weeks 07-08, Byron

Notes on Byron’s Manfred

596. Manfred rejects reconciliation with nature; humanity may be a microcosm, but we are not a harmonious mixture of elements. Instead, discord reigns. In this play, Manfred seems to dismiss any response to nature as irrelevant—at least, he rejects contact with nature when it doesn’t mirror or otherwise reflect his own internal discord. He dismisses equally the Chamois Hunter, or natural man.

598. Manfred envisions Astarte. Love here seems almost like narcissism—seeking oneself. But perhaps that’s an unfair reading—see, for instance, page 602, where Astarte is said to complement him.

599. No wonder Nietzsche respected Byron—on this page we can find something like a reference to “eternal recurrence” and “amor fati,” or acceptance of one’s fate as struggle, with no wish to make things easier. Manfred has come by some forbidden knowledge at great cost. But this isn’t “sin” in the Christian sense, even though Manfred’s language of despair and alientation is haunted by biblical cadences and parallels.

601. Here’s the Byronic Pose—the hero is elevated and remains aloof. He rejects his society and politics generally, instead seeking solitude and those extremes in nature that suit his own extreme states. Astarte a kindred soul in this sense as in every other way, it seems. One thing to emphasize is the potential for parody—for example, there’s Manfred at the top of a mountain asking why he didn’t go and stand under Mount Rosenberg when the landslide happened. And it’s a good thing for him that the down-to-earth Chamois Hunter happens to be up there rather than some jaded tourist from New York City. “Jump! Jump!”

604ff. Manfred refuses to pay homage to the spirit ministers. He won’t make Faust’s bargain with any infernal powers, and rejects the Christian framework that points to “the banality of sin.” Manfred never becomes spiritually dead due to such a repetitive pattern of sin; rather, there’s something almost “Greek” in his character—his greatest strength is also the source of his problems. He’s a tragic hero who never accepts the Cosmos as something he must bow down to and worship. Part of Manfred’s heroism, then, consists in his ability to bear the consequences of his prior deeds—his willingness to suffer without calling on supernatural powers to aid him in his final struggle.

Notes on Byron’s Don Juan

Canto 1

The plot is simple enough—it follows romance conventions. The questions might have to do with how the hero is chosen and how he behaves passively. But mainly, the poet-narrator’s intrusions, which are the real story anyhow. His assiduous and flippant cultivation of his readership, and his antagonistic remarks about Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey the laureate from 1813-43. Wordsworth was appointed as Southey’s successor, and then came Tennyson in 1850. I find that Byron has a tightrope to walk with his audience, and he does it with insouciance—they’re both “gentle consumers” and “in on the joke.” Byron, even by 1818, sees (along with Jane Austen) that romanticism is already a school that demands parody for its pretensions to epic status and messianic mission. Byron is being a romantic, we might say—a fiery individualist—in the sense that he has come to realize his own bent is C18-style satire and that he enjoys working with the stuff of old legends like that of Don Juan. The poem is “romantic” in its scope and methods, but the content makes fun of romantic passions and purposes. The feeling gives meaning to events, but that feeling is C18 whim, Shandean associationism. The legend itself seems to be watered down from the earlier ones by Tirso de Molina, Thomas Shadwell, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It was a well-worn legend graced by the versions of some famous artists, including a comic version by Moliere. The narrator is much like Byron, who—in spite of his own career and exile—still takes an interest in the young Don Juan.

Canto 2

Interesting how the ottava rima works well to convey disastrous events like Juan’s shipwreck—it both gives us a sense of the sweep of events, and reduces them to typicality. Reminds me of Candide in dealing with disaster epigrammatically. This canto revels in reduction to the primal level—cannibalism makes its entrance, with Julia’s letter as paper for the lots. Juan swims ashore alone, like Odysseus washing up on the Island of King Alcinous (Phaeacia) in The Odyssey. He meets Haidee after landing, and she is morality-free: no shame here, though she “blushes” innocently enough. Around stanza 186-87, the lovers kiss, and move beyond mere narrative’s power to describe. Here things focus at last in this wandering story. “First love” (189.1511) is the ultimate theme—not the Miltonic echoes throughout this love scene—no “shows, mere shows, of seeming pure,” as Milton would say. The narrator almost ruins it all with his bringing in of damnation, but then he returns to the primitivist and archetypal strain, redeeming time when we think least he will: Haidee watches the sleeping Juan, and this is the sum of all raptures. Byron has been schooled in erotic poetry by John Donne, it seems—“this cave” becomes an everywhere. In the end, the narrator waxes philosophical about “inconstancy,” declaring that admiration for the real, the flesh, is merely a “heightening of the beau ideal.” The narrative is as capricious as Juan, who seems to have forgotten his Donna Julia already in favor of Haidee.

Canto 3

The pirate-father returns, and much of the canto is about the tragic qualities of love. Long digression on the vulgarity of public taste—the penchant for romanticism, that is. Byron turns the tables on his fellow romantic poets—they are now the authors whose works signal the nadir of public taste’s degeneracy, taking the place of the “gaudy and inane phraseology of many modern writers” Wordsworth had identified in his “Preface.”

Canto 4

Much of the pathos in this “innocence will be crushed by the world” canto lies in the need to get rid of the noble and pure Haidee, whose innocent sexuality can hardly be other than charming. But the narrator himself is devoted to forging ahead, and he must follow his own whims and be true at least to the erotic adventurism of the original Don Juan legend. So in a sense, his narrative is one with the hypocritical and shallow world that it condemns, giving the narrator a feeling of guilt.

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