The speaker begins his poem as a “dream” but “not all a dream” (line 1), immediately casting doubt upon the narrative to follow. The poet then imagines the end of the world through a series of natural, social, and possibly supernatural events.
The gloomy, cold earth wanes for weeks or months, long enough for men to “forget their passions” (line 7) and turn their hearts only to survival or despair. To stave off the darkness, they burn everything they can, including their homes. Both palaces and huts are burned to give light and warmth. Around the fires, men are at first glad to see other faces—but then they see in those faces such despair that they begin to weep, smile cynically, or fall into madness. The animals of the earth are affected as well, with birds falling from the sky to die helpless on the ground, wild beasts becoming timid, and poisonous snakes losing their venomous bites—the animals become food for the human beings, the people no longer hunters, but scavengers.
Once the animal food supply runs out, people turn on one another. The darkness brought a temporary ceasefire across the world, but no peace; as soon as survival became the only goal, “No love was left” (line 41). Humans become capable of cannibalism. Even the formerly faithful dogs turn on their masters, save for one noble canine who defends his master’s corpse from scavengers (both human and animal) until the dog itself dies from hunger.
Soon all the world is dead from the famine, with the exception of two men—and they are in some way enemies. They pitifully approach an altar wherein holy artifacts were used in unholy rites (such as burning spiritual things not meant to be burned), there to stoke the embers of a nearly extinct fire for a few moments’ more light. Once the fire is bright enough, the two men look at one another, seeing each other’s horrid, starving visage; what each man sees frightens him to death, thus ending the human race.
With mankind extinct, the earth becomes a lifeless rock. The moon, long since destroyed, no longer moves the waves or wind, so all is motionless upon the planet. Darkness conquers all: “She was the Universe” (line 82).
Byron wrote “Darkness” in July-August 1816. The poem is at least partly influenced by the mass hysteria of the time brought about by an Italian astronomer’s prediction that the sun would burn itself out on July 18th, thus destroying the world. The prophecy gained adherents due to the increase in sunspot activity at the time and the so-called “year without a summer” of 1816—an ongoing overcast sky which was a result (unknown at the time) of the eruption of Mount Tambora, an Indonesian volcano, in 1815. During this gloomy time, the sun was pale and the sky clouded and hazy. Temperatures dropped and thunderstorms dominated the weather. During the solar eclipse of June 9th-10th, the sun actually seemed to vanish from the sky.
All these natural phenomena combined to put the more sensitive observers into a state of panic. Byron composed his poem after the sun’s alleged death date, emphasizing that the end of days had not arrived but that the specter of complete destruction may still lie ahead one day. Whatever Byron’s view, he certainly managed to capitalize on the previous hysteria by evoking that dark summer in “Darkness.”
The poem begins with the speaker’s insistence that what follows is a dream “which was not all a dream” (line 1). This paradoxical start allows the reader to see Byron’s experience during the “lost” summer as something real (and something which his contemporaries would have experienced as well) while also taking his more apocalyptic statements as predictive, like a dream, rather than historical. The sun is “extinguish’d” (line 2), the days are “rayless, and pathless,” and the earth is “icy” (line 4), just as they were during the summer of 1816. Morning comes regularly, but it “brought no day” (line 6)—time passes, but not like before. Byron then shifts the poem into prophetic language as he writes that “men forgot their passions in the dread / Of this their desolation” (lines 7-8), while prayers all turn selfishly toward requests for daylight (line 9).
This darkness becomes a great equalizer, as both “the palaces of crowned kings” and “the habitations of all things” (lines 11-2) are burnt as beacons and watch fires, with entire cities being consumed to warm and brighten the lives of people suffering this doom. The fear of endless gloom is so great that Byron considers those who live near volcanoes “Happy” (line 16) since they have, for a while, a natural source of light and heat; meanwhile, the less fortunate people of the world set entire forests ablaze in their anxious efforts to fend off the cold darkness. The end of the world can only lead in one direction as culture, civilization, and nature are burned.
The lack of light brings a need for companionship as people commiserate: “men were gather’d round their blazing himes / To look once more into each other’s face” (lines 14-15), but what they see in one another’s countenance is “an unearthly aspect” (lines 23-24). Firelight is no substitute for the pure, bright light of the sun, such that men’s faces take on frightening hues in the flickering flames. They are losing their humanity, becoming ghoulish or fiendish.
Reactions to the state of the world vary: some men weep, others smile, while still others stay active and committed to survival, piling wood upon the fires against all odds, since the fires will soon become “their funeral piles” (line 28). These latter men are the ones who are still fighting, searching the sky with insanity-twisted faces, finally casting themselves upon the ground to curse, gnash their teeth, and howl. This reaction calls to mind the words of Jesus in the Gospels, where those who are cast away from God are cast “into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:11-12). The biblical allusion to an afterlife of punishment for the “wicked” increases the apocalyptic tone of the poem, making this darkness a curse of Biblical proportions.
But what about the cynics, who rested “their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled” (line 26)? The philosophers, unlike the men of action and the prophets and those who mourn their fate, simply accept their situation of suffering and smile. One wonders what kind of life they led before the calamity; did they smile at everything, watching but not taking part in the world? Has their life really changed just because external circumstances are changed? After all, everyone does die.
In line 32, Byron turns from mankind to the animals of the earth. The birds shriek in fear and fall to the ground, their wings now useless; wild animals become fearful and tame; vipers come from their nests and hiss, but have no venom in their bites—they end up being killed for food. The natural world has undergone a severe change, becoming less “red in tooth and claw” as prelude to its own destruction. Here Byron draws a contradictory parallel to the “kingdom of God” presented in several prophetic books of the Bible: in Scripture, the animals being at peace with each other and with mankind is a sign of paradise; here it is a primal desolation which leads only to the animals’ death as a food source for doomed men.
Line 38 introduces the figure of War, “which for a moment was no more” (line 38)—ironically the widespread despair has led to a cessation of fighting. However, War is able to “glut himself” (line 39) on the ensuing bloodshed when mankind turns from political warfare to fighting and killing out of a desire to survive. Every person looks out for his own safety, for “No love was left” (line 41). Here it seems that human nature also is waning. Hints of cannibalism culminate in the image of the dead, whose “bones were tombless as their flesh” (line 45) while “the meagre by the meagre were devour’d” (line 46).
For Byron, a lifelong dog lover, the next passage marks the true despair this darkness has wrought upon the world: “Even dogs assail’d their masters” (line 47)—except for one faithful dog who refuses to look for food, because to do so would mean abandoning his post: guarding his master’s corpse. Finally this true companion howls in hunger, licks his master’s cold hand, and dies (line 54). Just like the men of action who could not keep themselves or civilization alive, the dog fails in its task, yet nobly does its duty till the end.
As Byron envisions the very end of the human world, famine has killed all but two men, “and they were enemies” (line 57). It is not clear whether they were enemies beforehand or if they are only enemies now because they must compete for the very last useful resources. These last two survivors of a dead world meet by accident at a place where other horrors have been perpetrated: “a mass of holy things / For an unholy usage” (lines 59-60). The blasphemers, who sacrificed morality for a little temporary safety, are now dead. In the small flames the two enemies cooperate, not thinking of themselves as enemies: they are just two humans trying to survive. Yet, when they manage to stoke the flames back into existence, they see one another’s faces in horror. What they behold leads to pure terror: they “saw, and shriek’d, and died” (line 66). The men die not really knowing one another, but only able to see the “fiend” written upon each other’s brow by famine (lines 68-69). They see the utter horror of the end and can no longer take it.
With the death of the last two human beings, what is left is the end of both the natural and the artifical. The earth thus becomes “a lump of death—a chaos of hard clay” (line 72). All waterways stand still, and ships without crew rot upon the sea. All that mankind has achieved has been destroyed or sits putrefying. Finally, even the motions of the world stop, since even the moon “expired” (line 79), ending the waves of the sea. The very winds stop, and clouds vanish. The end of the world is complete with these lines: “Darkness had no need / Of aid from them [the waves, wind, or clouds]—She was the Universe” (lines 81-82). The darkness rules and is the universe.
The iambic pentameter of the poem also survives through the poem, persisting all the way into the last line. These have not been heroic couplets, however, where one expects rhymes. No, here the poem has all been blank verse, expressing the blackness of its world, unrhymed, the loose ends everywhere as darkness swallows all.
This bleak poem reflects an extremely pessimistic view, not only of life, but of the universe. There is no moral to the story—darkness and famine take all people, regardless of their religious or moral persuasions. There seems to be no afterlife. Although Byron alludes to the Bible, this is no Day of Judgment where the good and the bad are distinguished; instead, the temporarily ordered world—ordered by frail and selfish mankind—disintegrates into the dust and chaos from which it arose. There is no hope of a bright future or a perfect society in this poem—only the fatalism that insists on death coming to everyone in the end.
The history of the poetic development of Lord Byron intersects at every stage with the saga of his life; yet it is only one of many paradoxes that he valued the writing of poetry primarily for the opportunity it afforded him to escape what he termed “my own wretched identity.” More than anything else, poetry for Byron was a means both of sublimation and, ultimately, of self-realization. In his letters he thus suggests the former function when he speaks of poetry as “the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake,” the volcanic metaphor signifying the cathartic release that the process of writing afforded him. The precise way in which it fulfilled the second function, however, is less obvious. Through the dynamics of self-projection, of investing much of his own multifaceted character in his personae, Byron strives to transcend the narrow limits of “personality” and achieve a more comprehensive perspective on himself and his experience. The essential goal of this artistic quest, which constitutes a progressive ontology, is delineated in canto 3 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “’Tis to create, and in creating live/ A being more intense.” To trace Byron’s growth as a poet, therefore, is to witness him reaching beyond subjectivism and attempting to realize that intensity of being that comes about through the continuous act of self-creation.
Hours of Idleness
Any account of Byron’s achievement must begin with the poems collected in Hours of Idleness and the early satires. In the preface to the 1807 miscellany, the nineteen-year-old Byron calls attention to himself by posing as an unlikely author (one “accustomed, in my younger days, to rove a careless mountaineer on the Highlands of Scotland”), by minimizing the merits of his literary endeavor (“to divert the dull moments of indisposition, or the monotony of a vacant hour, urged me ’to his sin’”), and by passing preemptive judgment on his work (“little can be expected from so unpromising a muse”). Such ingenuous posturing is clearly meant to invite, under the guise of dismissing, public recognition and acclaim. Despite the transparency of the subterfuge, the poems within Hours of Idleness form a revealing self-portrait in which Byron, while paraphrasing past idioms in poetry and exploiting eighteenth century literary conventions, obliquely seeks to discover a mythologized pattern for his emerging sense of himself. The one theme sounded repeatedly is what Robert F. Gleckner designates “the ruins of paradise,” or the fall from youthful innocence. As he explores the experience of spiritual loss and shattered illusions, Byron can be seen moving toward this latter belief that “the great object of life is Sensation—to feel that we exist—even though in pain.”
Admittedly imitative in style, often to the point of mannerism, Hours of Idleness revolves around several episodes of separation and disenchantment that, for the speaker, spell the end of an idealized, prelapsarian past. The short poem “Remembrance,” composed in 1806 but not published until 1832, epitomizes both the tone and outlook of the volume as a whole:
My days of happiness are few:Chill’d by misfortune’s wintry blast,My dawn of life is overcast,Love, Hope, and Joy, alike adieu!—Would I could add Remembrance too!
Although the lines verge on doggerel, the same mood of melancholic nostalgia informs such other generally more successful poems as “On Leaving Newstead Abbey,” “The First Kiss of Love,” “On a Distant View of the Village and School of Harrow on the Hill,” and “Lachin y Gair.” In all these works Byron cannot disown the power of memory because, though denounced as a curse, it alone provides glimpses of what in “Childish Recollections” he refers to as “the progress of my youthful dream,” the foundation for his concept of self. This tension gives rise in other lyrics to a plangent wish to escape the “dark’ning shades” of maturity, regaining the uncompromised or “freeborn soul.” Knowing the fatuity of the desire, however, the poet resorts at last to a kind of protective cynicism. In “To Romance,” for example, abandoning what he derides as the “motley court” of “Affectation” and “sickly Sensibility,” he admits that “’tis hard to quit the dreams,/ Which haunt the unsuspicious soul” but abjures the past as illusory and refuses any longer to be the dupe of his romantic fancy. Embittered by his early discovery, as Byron was later to write in canto 3 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, that “life’s enchanted cup but sparkles near the brim,” the poet in Hours of Idleness fluctuates between moments of elegiac regret and tenacious hope, the ambivalent response itself prefiguring the skeptical idealist of the major poems to follow.
The Popean satires, which were composed shortly after the 1807 collection, disclose Byron’s reaction to his disillusionment and punctured faith. In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, Hints from Horace, and The Curse of Minerva—all written during the next four years—Byron lashes out at various individuals whom he regarded as typifying the literary and moral shortcomings of his age. The motto of “these degenerate days,” he announces in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, is “Care not for feeling,” and so in arraigning nearly all his contemporaries except Samuel Rogers and Thomas Campbell he poses as the hardened realist determined to expose error on every hand: “But now, so callous grown, so changed since youth,/ I’ve learned to think, and sternly speak the truth.” In the diatribe Byron often vents his anger indiscriminately, but the acrimony of his attack stems from a keen sense of embarrassment and outrage at the reception accorded Hours of Idleness by such critics as Henry Brougham in the Edinburgh Review. Thus, before indicating all those “afflicted,” as his preface charges, “with the present prevalent and distressing rabies for rhyming,” Byron debunks himself as well:
I, too, can scrawl, and once upon a timeI poured along the town a flood of rhyme,A school-boy freak, unworthy praise or blame;I printed—older children do the same.’Tis pleasant, sure, to see one’s name in print;A Book’s a Book, altho’ there’s nothing in’t.
The same irreverent or iconoclastic spirit pervades Hints from Horace, a mocking jab at contemporary literary practice from the vantage point of Horace’s Ars Poetica(13-8 b.c.e., The Art of Poetry), and The Curse of Minerva, a Swiftian condemnation of Lord Elgin for his despoiling Greek sculpture. In these strident satires Byron alters his earlier poetic stance through two mechanisms: by adopting the voice of savage indignation and by spurning the accepted standards of his age. The detachment that he tries to win through both devices is another step toward his large aesthetic goal of self-realization.
A crucial phase in that ongoing process involves the composition, spanning the period from 1809 to 1817, of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and, to a lesser extent, of the exotic Oriental tales that include The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, and Lara. These verse narratives are significant because in them two sides of Byron’s complexity as an artist are counterbalanced—the usually antithetical modes that Keats, in his letters, conceptualizes as the “egotistical sublime” and “the camelion [sic] Poet.” Though Keats associated the first quality with William Wordsworth, the element of the “egotistical sublime” in Byron reveals itself in the highly developed reflexivity of his semiautobiographical poems and in his tendency to concentrate on his own immediate thoughts and emotions. At the same time, however, there emerges an equal but opposite impulse that reflects Byron’s essentially centrifugal rather than centripetal habit of mind. This is his characteristic propensity for employing a gamut of masks or personae through which he endeavors to escape the restrictive confines of self-consciousness, especially as molded by memory, and to achieve the intensity of being that comes with self-transcendence. Together, these intertwined modalities, the “egotistical” and the “chameleonic,” make up the unique “strength” of Byron’s imagination.
Readers of the time were nevertheless inclined to recognize only the former tendency in his works and so to find him guilty of facile exhibitionism. Certainly when Byronism was rampant, no one impersonated Byron better than Byron himself; yet, if one allows for this susceptibility, the earnestness with which the poet responded to his detractors is instructive. Echoing the well-known protest lodged in his 1820 “Reply to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine,” he expostulated a year later to Thomas Moore that “a man’s poetry is a distinct faculty, or soul, and has no more to do with the every-day individual than the Inspiration with the Pythoness when removed from her tripod.” Similarly, in the privacy of his journal for 1813, while writing the very poems that incurred the charge, he remarks: “To withdraw myself from myself (oh that cursed selfishness!) has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all; and publishing is also the continuance of the same object, by the action it affords to the mind, which else recoils upon itself.” The vehemence of these statements should not be allowed to obscure Byron’s clear point regarding the psychology of composition. The vicarious world of poetry, as he views it, makes possible a release from the concentricity of the mind that otherwise, to borrow two of his favorite images in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, would sting itself to death like the scorpion ringed by fire or consume its scabbard like a rusting sword.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
Byron first expands upon this aesthetic in cantos 3-4 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, but some attention to the earlier cantos is prerequisite to understanding the later two. When he began the travelogue in 1809 while touring Europe and the Levant, Byron conceived of a work in Spenserian stanza form which would depict, in the eighteenth century tradition of topographical or “locodescriptive” poetry, his vivid impressions of the scenes and peoples he visited, intermixed with meditative reflections. “For the sake of giving some connection to the piece,” which otherwise, according to the preface, “makes no pretension to regularity,” Byron introduces the “fictitious character” of Harold, who serves as the nominal hero-protagonist, although this syntactical function is about all that can be claimed for him. Out of “the fulness [sic] of satiety,” it is true, Harold “resolve[s]” to leave England behind, having run through “Sin’s long labyrinth”; yet in his wandering pilgrimage through Spain, Portugal, Albania, and Greece he remains a curiously static, one-dimensional figure and is little more than a partial projection of Byron’s darker moods (for example, misanthropy, remorse, cynicism, and forced stoicism). As such, he adumbrates the explicit theme of cantos 1-2: that is, “Consciousness awaking to her woes.” Neither Harold nor Byron, however, has yet learned “what he might be, or he ought,” and it is somehow fitting that canto 2 should close in a Greece stripped of its ancient grandeur and heroes.
Throughout this half of the poem, Byron’s protagonist bears a marked resemblance to the poet himself, but it is well not to overlook the punning assertion made in the 1812 preface that Harold is “the child of imagination.” Shortly before the publication of cantos 1-2, in a letter to Robert Charles Dallas, Byron reinforces the distinction between himself and his central character: “If in parts I may be thought to have drawn from myself, believe me it is but in parts, and I shall not own even to that . . . I would not be such a fellow as I have made my hero for all the world.” The disclaimer has not won wide acceptance, largely because in the holograph copy of the poem Byron initially christened his protagonist “Childe Burun”; yet the first two cantos themselves substantiate the dissociation which Byron’s comment to Dallas emphasizes. On one hand, they dramatize the alienated figure of Harold, who, like the tortured hero of Lara, is portrayed as “a stranger in this breathing world,/ An erring spirit from another hurled;/ A thing of dark imaginings”; on the other hand, they are mediated by a separate narrator who, distanced from the foreground, objectively recognizes that “the blight of life” that overtakes men like Harold is “the demon Thought,” or the canker of self-consciousness. In...
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