Byron and the "Satanic School"
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 17:56

Byron and the "Satanic School"

Published in Poetry

George Gordon Lord Byron was born in London on 22nd January 1788, and died 100 years ago, on 19th April, 1824. His father, an officer, died when the boy was three years old. His mother, of Scottish descent, then moved with him to Aberdeen. In 1794, he inherited the title Baron Byron on the death of his great uncle and was titled Lord Byron in 1798.

He attended Harrow and went on to study at Cambridge in 1805. Here he published his first volume of poetry, Hours of Idleness (1807) and his first satirical parody, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). After completing his studies, he travelled to Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey, a journey which he describes in the first two cantos of his early great verse epic Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) and which brought him overnight success.

Up until then, Walter Scott had been the most successful author of ‘exotic’ verse narratives. Now Byron shifted the setting of this type of tale from the Scottish past to the contemporary foreign East, and adopted a more subjective perspective than Scott. Scott had developed the historical novel through his experience of great historical upheaval, writing novels that were based on real historical conflicts and class interests – in contrast to costume dramas. Byron extended this to the to the ‘Orient’.

Following several scandalous affairs, Byron married a rich heiress in 1815. However, the marriage was unhappy, and Lady Byron obtained a separation, accusing Byron of cruelty, madness and an incestuous relationship with his half-sister. The scandal ruined his social and financial standing. He left England in April 1816, never to return.

The radicalism of the labourers

However, Byron did not only leave for private reasons. Despite personal arrogance and prejudices, the increasing misery and radicalism of the labourers in the countryside had not escaped his notice and had aroused his anger at the ruling classes, including the church and the urban bourgeoisie.

In 1812, when the Frame-Work Bill was being debated in the House of Lords, which provided for the death penalty for the destruction of power looms, Byron made his famous maiden speech in defence of the Luddites. He argued to the Lords:

These machines were to them an advantage, inasmuch as they superseded the necessity of employing a number of workmen, who were left in consequence to starve. By the adoption of one species of frame in particular, one man performed the work of many, and the superfluous labourers were thrown out of employment. Yet it is to be observed, that the work thus executed was inferior in quality, not marketable at home, and merely hurried over with a view to exportation.(…) In the foolishness of their hearts, they imagined that the maintenance and well doing of the industrious poor, were objects of greater consequence than the enrichment of a few individuals by any improvement in the implements of trade which threw the workmen out of employment, and rendered the labourer unworthy of his hire.

He warned:

I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.

Byron, like Shelley and Keats, became the victim of an aggressive smear campaign by state and church, which exercised enormous power over public opinion. Yet it was only after he had left Britain that Byron became increasingly politicized in the fight against oppression in England as well as on the European mainland. In this respect he was also influenced by Shelley, with whom he remained in close contact for the rest of both their lives.

The impression made on Byron by Italian and Greek revolutionaries and his personal experiences in the wars of the suffering and fighting by the people led to a new, socially critical awareness. This was increasingly reflected in his poetry and motivated him to become personally involved in the Greek freedom struggle. 

The reception of Byron’s work by the establishment tends to focus on personal aspects, often reducing his life and poetry to women, sex, “unnaturalness” and money, disregarding his political ideas. So how are his political convictions expressed in his work?

The Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope was much admired by Byron. Pope’s work reflects the rise of capitalism in Britain. He portrays the reality of eighteenth-century England as the best of all possible worlds. However, the revolutions of the late eighteenth century, the industrial revolution and its impact on the lives of working people had heralded a new time. This brought with it, in the eyes of the English bourgeoisie, the danger that their own people might model themselves on those of France.

The alienation of the capitalist world

So Pope’s projection of a seemingly eternal, unchanging ground was torn from under their feet. Suddenly change was possible and was feared by the ruling class. It joined forces with the state church and together they began an unprecedented witch-hunt of those pushing for change. This campaign against all who were considered radical unleashed religious rhetoric, which is why the poet laureate Robert Southey accused Byron and Shelley of forming an “incest league” and a “Satanic school”. These intimidatory campaigns targeted the publishers to such an extent that they feared for their livelihood and freedom. So, Byron could no longer write like Pope. Society had changed fundamentally.

Byron’s first great success, the first two cantos of Childe Harold, initially reflected the prevailing European mood of world-weariness, a feeling of powerlessness in a hostile world, linked to motifs of loneliness and isolation. Other poems published in 1812 express a clearer political stance, for example An Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill (published 2nd March 1812), in which Byron’s sympathy for the weavers is expressed, although he still believes that the parliamentary system can eliminate the grievances caused by individuals.

However, in the later cantos this loneliness turns into a growing awareness of the alienation of the capitalist world. Melancholy and world-weariness can have their roots in historical and social ills. In addition, the aristocratic outlaw, Byron’s lonely, proud hero, takes a stand against oppression in countries struggling for national independence.

This changed with Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (1815). After that, Byron advocated radical political change more clearly. It was now that the establishment turned vociferously against him, and in 1816, Byron separated from his wife and young daughter, and went into exile.

Some of the poetry written at this time still contains moments of gloom and escapism, but it also increasingly calls for resistance against the reactionary regimes in Europe. In the third canto of Childe Harold, the speaker searches more intensely for ways out of alienation, out of an oppressive existence. An escape into poetry or nature is ultimately rejected. In his poem Prometheus (1816), Byron emphasises the need to resist tyranny and in the fourth canto, stanza 98, of Childe Harold he writes:

Yet, Freedom! yet thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind;
Thy trumpet voice, though broken now and dying,
The loudest still the Tempest leaves behind;
Thy tree hath lost its blossoms, and the rind,
Chopped by the axe, looks rough and little worth,
But the sap lasts,—and still the seed we find
Sown deep, even in the bosom of the North;
So shall a better spring less bitter fruit bring forth.

Byron’s close collaboration with Shelley in exile in Italy and his personal experience of the liberation movement in Italy and Greece led to a better understanding of society and the revolutionary struggle of the people. In these countries struggling for national independence, including Poland, the Byronic hero was often seen as representing their quest for freedom and Byron became very well-known and celebrated.

Between 1816 and his death in 1824, he composed a large number of great satirical dramatic poems, including Manfred (1817), the unfinished Don Juan, Cantos III and IV of Childe Harold, Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice (1821), The Age of Bronze (1823) and The Deformed Transformed (1824).

The final victory of the allied powers in 1815 led to a Holy Alliance under the rule of Catholic Austria, Orthodox Russia and Protestant Prussia, whose declaration of principles was explicitly written in the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity and the divine Saviour. Dissent, non-Christian religions and natural religion were equally condemned, and the reactionary forces persecuted anything that smelled of French thought. In the context of English Romanticism, Coleridge's turning away from his earlier radical positions logically also included turning away from pantheism.

In Don Juan, Byron postulates that poetry can replace Christianity with new ways of understanding the world; John Keats did at the same time in Ode to Psyche, for example. Such a challenge was be understood as blasphemy of colossal proportions. A parallel to this is Goethe's Walpurgisnacht in his verse drama Faust, part I. Christianity is eliminated, and art is given central importance.

Postulating paganism as an alternative to the Christian religion was also deemed subversive. An inseparable part of this radical questioning of the existing Holy Alliance is the sensuality and this-worldliness inherent in ancient mythology. Sensuality is neither suppressed, spurned nor relegated to an afterlife.

Arising from his own experience of the national liberation movement in Italy, Byron’s point of view has clearly matured in Marino Faliero (1820). While the isolated, brooding hero was still at the centre of Manfred, now a repressive power opposes the people. As the Doge Marino Faliero joins the people in their struggle, Byron plays out his own conflict here with regard to alliances. The fact that he considers alliances at all and moves away from an individual struggle is a significant change. From the outsider position of Manfred, Byron now moves in a direction in which the alliance is conceived as a struggle against his own class; the strength of the movement lies in the alliance:

Should one survive,
He would be dangerous as the whole; it is not
Their number, be it tens or thousands, but
The spirit of this Aristocracy
Which must be rooted out; and if there were
A single shoot of the old tree in life,
'Twould fasten in the soil, and spring again
To gloomy verdure and to bitter fruit.
Bertram, we must be firm!

The character of Israel Bertuccio has the most developed political awareness. He involves Marino Faliero in the conspiracy, plans and leads its course. The rebel Bertuccio comes from the people and embodies their strengths. He fights selflessly for the freedom of Venice and its people. Byron has come to recognise that the leaders of such a liberation movement can, perhaps even must, come from the people. It is Faliero who joins the people, recognises their leadership role, and not the other way round.

In his new cantos of Don Juan Byron’s stories gain social significance, the dialectical relationship between the individual hero and the historical process emerge, and growing trust in the actions of the masses is felt:

50
But never mind;—‘God save the king and kings!
For if he don’t, I doubt if men will longer—
I think I hear a little bird, who sings
The people by and by will be the stronger:
(…)f,—and the mob
At last fall sick of imitating Job.

51
At first it grumbles, then it swears, and then,
Like David, flings smooth pebbles ’gainst a giant;
At last it takes to weapons such as men
Snatch when despair makes human hearts less pliant.
Then comes ‘the tug of war;’—’twill come again,
I rather doubt; and I would fain say ‘fie on ’t,’
If I had not perceived that revolution
Alone can save the earth from hell’s pollution.

The religion of rent, rent and more rent

For all that, Byron ultimately leaves private property – the basis of capital – untouched. He sees liberal state reform as the way to improve society and create more humane living conditions for the population. However, in one of his last poems, The Age of Bronze (1823), it is expressed that the greed for profit of the large landowners played a devastating role in politics and especially in the Napoleonic Wars:

Behold these inglorious Cincinnati swarm,
Peasants of war, dictators of the court;
Their ploughshare was the sword in the hands of hirelings,
Their fields fertilized with the blood of other lands;
Safe in their barns, these Sabine farmers sent
Their brothers to battle - why, for rent!
Year after year they voted for cent. after cent.
Blood, sweat and tears devoured millions - why? - For the rent!
They roared, they dined, they drank, they swore
To die for England - then why live? - For the rent!
Peace has made a general malcontent
Of these honoured patriots; the war was torn!
Their love of country, millions, all misspent,
How to reconcile? By reconciling rent!
And will they not repay the borrowed treasures?
No: down with everything, and up with the rent!
Their happiness, their unhappiness, their health, their wealth, their joy or dissatisfaction,
Being, purpose, goal, religion - rent - rent - rent!

In January 1824, Byron travelled to Greece, where he planned to take part in the struggle for liberation from the Ottoman Empire. He died of a “fever” in Missolonghi on 19th April before this could happen. Nevertheless, he became a national hero in Greece, which he still is to this day. His name – pronounced Veeron in Greek – is a popular name for boys; even an entire district of Athens (Vyronas, Βύρωνας, older: Vyron Βύρων) is named after him.