Renoir Young Girl Reading

George Gordon, Lord Byron

In both his personal life and his poetry, Byron was a mass of contradictions. He was incredibly handsome, but also lame. His Don Juan gave him a reputation as a great lover, and his sexual exploits with women were numerous and infamous, but he was fundamentally homosexual. He was a political radical, but was skeptical about the effectiveness of reform or revolution. He yearned for the immortality of fame, but saw its pitfalls; he wrote to a friend, who was urging him to think of his reputation, "I will have nothing to do with your immortality; we are miserable enough in this life, without the absurdity of speculating upon another." He ranted and railed against the critics' negative assessments of his work but he loathed himself more than any of them. He wrote to a good friend that too much of his work was mere "lava of the imagination" that he had spewed forth to prevent himself from going insane: "I have lately begun to think my things have been strangely over-rated; and, at any rate, whether or not, I have done with them forever. I may say to you, what I would not say to everybody, that the last two were written, The Bride in four days, and The Corsair in ten days,--which I take to be a most humiliating confession, as it proves my own want of judgment in publishing, and in the public's in reading things, which cannot have a stamina for permanent attention." His masterpiece, Don Juan, was something completely new, but at the same time, typical of the Romantic Age.

In his essay on Byron, T.S. Eliot says, "Of Byron one can say, as of no other English poet of his eminence, that he added nothing to the language, that he discovered nothing in the sounds, and developed nothing in the meaning, of individual words." Eliot accuses Byron of having a "schoolboy command of the language," although he does allow that Byron was a good storyteller. Byron's strength, he believes, is that he is unparalleled as a satirist of the hypocrisy he saw everywhere in English society, and which he lampoons masterfully in Don Juan.

Not every critic agrees with Eliot, of course; many find great value and mastery in short Byron's poems. Byron felt that "poetry is the expression of excited passion..." He also points out a parallel between poetic creation and childbirth: the poem is at once separate from the poet and part of him.

Readers soon discovered that Byron's heroes reflected an aspect of Byron's own demonic personality, and many believed that if they read Byron's poetry, they would know Byron. But the man himself was much more complicated (as is always the case) than his public persona. Byron acknowledged that much of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage was self-revealing. But, as he wrote to a good friend, "I by no means intend to identify myself with Harold, but to deny all connection with him...I would not be such a fellow as I have made my hero for all the world."

Yet, Byron admitted that the third canto of Childe Harold was one of his favorite pieces because his hero reflected the frame of mind he'd been in while writing it: " is a fine piece of poetical desolation, and my favourite. I was half mad during the time of its composition, between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love unextinguishable, thoughts unutterable, and the nightmare of my own delinquencies. I should, many a good day, have blown my brains out, but for the recollection that it would give great pleasure to my mother-in-law..."

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley said that "Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be 'the expression of the imagination.'"

In "Defence of Poetry," he wrote,

Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them."

Shelley was extremely radical in both his religious, political and sexual views. He was expelled from his university at Oxford after writing a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism; he advocated revolution and his politics were always to the far Left; he left his pregnant wife, Harriet, and their young child, to elope with 17-year-old Mary Godwin (who later, as Mary Shelley, wrote Frankenstein).

His poetry was as passionate as his life, and as idealistic. His poems often take the form of quests; in them, Shelley searches for Utopia, persisting even as he fails. As George Ridenour puts it, "His hopes are infinite, but he is sober in expectation."

Shelley was an atheist, but ironically, his poems often address the question of divinity. He seems most often to find divinity in human beings. In Prometheus Unbound, especially, he wrestles with the contradiction between his belief that human potential is unlimited, and his conviction that we are doomed to disappointment if we expect perfection. In "Mutability," he writes,

We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly!--yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost forever.

Yet, he refuses to accept defeat. In a letter to a friend, he writes, "You say that equality is unattainable, so will I observe is perfection; yet they both symbolize in their nature, they both demand that an unremitting tendency toward themselves should be made, and the nearer Society approaches towards this point the happier it will be."

Harold Bloom calls Shelley a "visionary skeptic, who found he could not reconcile head and heart, and could not bear to deceive either." This conflict is one of the predominant themes of "Mont Blanc."

In the summer of 1816, Mary and Percy Shelley arrived in Chamonix, Switzerland, where he first saw Mont Blanc. He wrote to his friend, Thomas Peacock, "Pinnacles of snow, intolerably bright, part of the chain connected with Mont Blanc shone through the clouds at intervals on high. I never knew I never imagined what mountains were before. The immensity of these ariel summits excited, when they suddenly burst upon the sight, a sentiment of extatic wonder, not unallied to madness...One would think that Mont Blanc, like the god of the Stoics, was a vast animal, and the frozen blood forever circulated through his stony veins." Coleridge, who had previously visited Chamonix and written about it ("Hymn Before Sunrise in the Vale of Chamouni") perceived the sight as proof of God's existence. Shelley, by contrast, was convinced by this experience of the non-existence of God. As Richard Holmes points out,

The River Arve, the glaciers and the mountain are loosely organized into a system of images to represent three levels of the human consciousness as it speculates on, respectively, human imagination, material phenomena, and on a hypothetical divinity...the tone has a grimness, and a sense of disruptive uncontrollable forces...Both at the beginning and the end of the poem, it is this sense of baffled, fearful, and yet heroic confrontation between sensitive mind and brutal matter which is dominant."

In "Mont Blanc," Shelley clearly argues that the human imagination can be inspired by natural phenomena to an intuitive understanding of a greater "Power." This "Power" is the indefinable source of all artistic accomplishment--is, in fact, the source of Truth. Shelley was influenced by the Platonic notion of the Ideal, and some critics liken his beliefs to the later theory proposed by Carl Jung, of the collective unconscious.

But Shelley diverges from their ideas in an important way. In "Mont Blanc," he states that "nothing exists but as it is perceived," arguing that the mountain and other natural phenomena had no meaning until they were given one by the creative imagination. In other words, the source of that "power" is the creative imagination, which is not a God, but is within all of us. Thus, Shelley felt, the potential for divinity is within all of us, as well.

John Keats

Keats's reputation as a poet has remained better than that of either Byron or Shelley; modern readers and critics tend to like "Ode on a Grecian Urn" better than "Mont Blanc," possibly because of its brevity and its structure. In his work, he emphasized both as a means to achieve intensity: "...the excellence of every art is its intensity." In a letter to his publisher, he wrote,

1st. I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity--it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance. 2nd. Its touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless rather than content...and this leads me to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.

Keats did not believe that it was the poet's function to have a moral or social purpose, but only to create beauty. Yet he was always aware of the power and social force that poetry could (and should, in his opinion) have. As M. H. Abrams points out, "He is the first great poet to exhibit that peculiarly modern malady--a conscious and persistent conflict between the requirements of social responsibility and of aesthetic detachment."

Keats wrote most of his greatest poetry in 1819, when he was 23. He wrote "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Ode to a Nightingale" in May of that year ("Ode to a Nightingale" was, in fact, written in the space of 2 or 3 hours one morning); he died in February 1821, at the age of 25 years and 4 months.

Of these odes, Douglas Bush says,

At first sight Keats's theme in the Ode to a Nightingale and the Ode on a Grecian the belief that whereas the momentary experience is beauty is fleeting, the ideal embodiment of that moment in art, in song, or in marble, is an imperishable source of joy. If that were all, these odes should be hymns of triumph, and they are not. It is the very acme of melancholy that the joy he celebrates is joy in beauty that must die.

Like many of the Romantic poets, Keats was fascinated with the irreconcilable contradictions of life, and in these odes, he examines the idea that the beauty of an object or a moment is rooted in the fact of its impermanence. In other words, a rose is precious because its beauty will fade very soon, just as youth is precious because it will age, or time is precious because it passes away so quickly. One can only know that one has had a moment of intense feeling or imagination because that moment will pass away. Only by being aware of sorrow can the poet understand and feel joy, knowing even while he feels it that it is fleeting.

Keats never forgot that we are physical beings in a physical world. Yet, one cannot separate the temporal from the eternal, because the eternal is rooted in the temporal. In other words, the "Ruth" in "Ode to a Nightingale" died long ago, but she is now made eternal in poetry. The beauty portrayed on the Grecian Urn is deathless because it is lifeless. In much the same way, Keats is writing about a moment of intense feeling, which will be over in another moment, but which will exist forever because he has recorded it in this poem.

If you'd like more information on any of the topics covered in this lecture, go to the Links page. Enjoy!

Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Romantic Poetry and Prose, eds. Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling
2. "Byron," T. S. Eliot, in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams
3. "Don Juan," Helen Gardner, in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams
4. Byron: A Portrait, Leslie A. Marchand
5. "Shelley," F. R. Leavis, in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams
6. "The Case of Shelley," Frederick A. Pottle, in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams
7. "Shelley's Optimism," George M. Ridenour, in Shelley: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. George M. Ridenour
8. "The Poet of Adolescence," Humphry House, in Shelley: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. George M. Ridenour
9. "Mont Blanc," Earl R. Wasserman, in Shelley: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. George M. Ridenour
10. Shelley and Byron: The Snake and Eagle Wreathed in Light, Charles E. Robinson
11. Shelley: The Pursuit, Richard Holmes
12. "Keats's Sylvan Historian," Cleanth Brooks, in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams
13. "A Note on 'Ode to a Nightingale,'" Richard H. Fogle, in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams
14. John Keats, W. Jackson Bate
15. The Mirror and the Lamp, M. H. Abrams