07 April 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/15

Continuing the National Poetry Month theme of poets writing about poets: Byron on Milton

In his long comic epic, Don Juan,* Byron shows himself the heir of Alexander Pope: with technical skills as dazzling as their wit, both poets release their intense moral fervor (as well as the generally contentious nature of a born outsider) in scathing satirical attacks on the moral, political, and personal failings of their contemporaries (many of whom, as with the enemies whom Dante consigned to various tortures in his Inferno, are preserved for us like flies in amber only because they were abused by a great poet). Don Juan opens with an insolent and hilarious "dedication" that is really an attack on the Lake poets, including Wordsworth but particularly the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey. Like Wordsworth, and like many others who grew up in the shadow of the French Revolution and watched as an idealistic attempt to forge a new social contract based on equality and justice degenerated into tyranny and terror, Southey had (rather understandably) pulled away from the radical beliefs of his youth. But instead of turning away from politics, Southey espoused (not consistently, but regularly) reactionary opinions that were a far cry from his youthful feelings. There was some suspicion that being made Laureate was his reward for giving the Tories what they wanted: in short, that he had "sold out."

Byron assures the Laureate that future ages will think even less of him than his contemporaries do, contrasting Southey the turncoat Tory with Milton the rejected regicide, whose posthumous reputation was strengthened by an unshakable integrity of the sort Southey lacks:

If fallen in evil days on evil tongues
   Milton appealed to the avenger, Time,
If Time, the avenger, execrates his wrongs
   And makes the word Miltonic mean sublime;
He deigned not to belie his soul in songs,
   Nor turn his very talent to a crime.
He did not loathe the sire to laud the son,
But closed the tyrant-hater he begun.

Think'st thou, could he, the blind old man, arise
   Like Samuel from the grave to freeze once more
The blood of monarchs with his prophecies,
   Or be alive again – again all hoar
With time and trials, and those helpless eyes
   And heartless daughters – worn and pale and poor,
Would he adore a sultan? He obey
The intellectual eunuch Castlereagh?

stanzas 10 - 11 from the Dedication to Don Juan,  by George Gordon, Lord Byron

Byron begins by playing off the opening of Book VII of Paradise Lost, in which Milton (now blind, poor, very much on the losing political side, and actually in danger of execution) calls on heavenly inspiration (personified by the muse Urania) to see him through his epic task, hoping for at least a few readers in the future who will appreciate and understand his work:

. . . though fall'n on evil days,
On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compast round,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visit'st my slumbers Nightly, or when Morn
Purples the East: still govern thou my song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.

Paradise Lost, Book VII, ll 25 - 31

Byron not only quotes Milton's words, he subtly echoes his rhetorical and musical flourishes; just as Milton has "fall'n on evil days / On evil days though fall'n," Byron has "the avenger, Time / If Time, the avenger. . . ." Milton's political beliefs, so closely allied with his religious beliefs, have often been stumbling blocks even for (maybe especially for) those who share the latter: it's difficult to read critical remarks on Milton by Samuel Johnson or T S Eliot without feeling that their real problem with him is his radical rejection of royal authority. Byron of course had no problem rejecting authority and embraces this aspect of the older poet, particularly in the striking image of Milton rising up "to freeze once more / The blood of monarchs. . . ." Byron is here referencing 1 Samuel, Chapter 28, in which Saul, the King of Israel, contravenes his own orders against witchcraft by visiting in disguise the Witch of Endor and asking her to summon up Samuel, the dead prophet and leader of Israel, who informs Saul that God has abandoned him and will take his kingdom from him. It's a fitting tribute to Milton, who wrote so much based on the Old Testament, including a major work on another judge of Israel, Samson, that Byron here compares him to one of the ancient Hebrew prophets, particularly one who informed a king that he was divinely doomed.

The "intellectual eunuch Castlereagh" refers to Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, who was the foreign secretary of England from 1812 to 1822, when he committed suicide. The footnote to my edition** gives a sympathetic and measured brief account of the man and his career; we don't really read Byron for sympathetic and measured accounts of political figures, but it's good to have scholars smudging our black and white pictures into various grays.

* Dazzle your friends (not the English majors, they already know this) by giving the title its correct pronunciation, Don Jew-wun. Someone will inevitably think you're an idiot (such is the price one pays for being correct!), at which point you can condescendingly explain that Byron and his contemporaries anglicized the pronunciation of the Spanish name. We know this because unless you pronounce Juan as two syllables, the lines don't scan correctly. Also Byron rhymes it with things like "new one."

** I used Don Juan by Lord Byron, edited by T G Steffan, E Steffan, and W W Pratt.


Sibyl said...

Byron is one of my all time favorites because of that almost alarming ability to make words leap and dance to his meaning. And the hudibrastic rhymes he could pull off? Astounding. My favorite is at a different place in Don Juan when he rhymes "intellectual" with "hen-pecked you all." He could be really lazy in the way of someone for whom it all comes rather easily (for example I am almost screaming for a caesura or inversion by the end of The Destruction of Sennacharib, which really suffers from a surfeit of rumty-tumty, in that way that Donzetti sometimes does). Too bad Byron's private life was so fascinating his poetry seems to get dismissed. But about the only way I am willing to deal with Milton is filtered through someone else, so go Byron, go. It's a failing in my nature, but I cannot help it.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I think there's also that sort of aristocratic sense that one dashes these things off, one does not labor over them. Achieving such an effect can take quite a bit of hidden labor, though, depending on one's facility. But in The Destruction of Sennacharib, I think that effect is very deliberate, though I can see why it would bother you -- you get that sense of the inevitable fate, kind of like Ravel's Bolero.

Last summer I decided I would buy myself all 12 volumes of Byron's letters and journals. I found used copies on line of all of them, but it's still fairly expensive, and of course I haven't read any of them yet. But I will! Maybe even soon!

I think there's always been some mixed feelings about Byron's poetry -- a sense that he was too bizarre, too extreme, too emotional (too Romantic, in short), too lacking in emotional and moral depth. The life gets him noticed, but as you point out can also detract from what he's doing. And I think many critics underestimate the intellectual and moral value of comedy. Maybe he seems glib.

By the way for next week I was going to continue the chain by using Auden's Letter to Lord Byron, but I read it last night and realized it's much longer than I thought and doesn't really lend itself to excerpts -- but if you enjoy Don Juan, take a look at it, if you're not already familiar with it. Reading it in one sitting was one of the more entertaining things I've done recently.

It breaks my heart that you dislike Milton, since as you've probably figured out I love him so. Is there anything I can do to help?

Unknown said...

Just between you and me, I will pronounce Don Juan correctly only while eating asparagus with my fingers.

Patrick J. Vaz said...


Patrick J. Vaz said...

and don't forget to refer to it as "sparrow grass"