Byron, Blake, and Heaven
University of Minnesota
Romantic discussions of labor and leisure are often tied to descriptions of the afterlife. In the depictions of heavenly leisure and labor with which this essay is concerned—Blake's "The Little Black Boy" and "The Chimney Sweeper" of Innocence, Byron's Don Juan Canto II and Cain, and The Ghost of Abel, which is Blake's response to Cain—Blake derives his visions of the afterlife partially from the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, while Byron draws on Lucretius' version of Epicureanism. Despite their irreconcilable sources, however, the poets converge on a single idea. If heaven is to relieve us of the distinction between labor and leisure, thus lifting Adam's curse while overcoming a merely conventional division of human activity, it will also have to erase the boundary between physical and mental work. In these poems, Byron and Blake each stage acts of phronesis, of moral judgment unregulated by statute or decree, in order to bring their theories of heaven in contact with the facts of life.
Romantic discussions of labor and leisure are often tied to descriptions of the afterlife. It's easy to see why. "Toil" may be Adam's punishment for original sin, but too much rest is as unattractive as too much activity, and paradise, it follows, must offer an "antiphony" of both (Zaleski 76). Similarly, Romantic writing moves between indolence and effort in its search for what Willard Spiegelman, who prefers indolence, describes as Kantian "freedom" (18). In the Romantic depictions of heavenly labor and leisure with which I am concerned—Blake's "The Little Black Boy" and "The Chimney Sweeper" of Innocence, Byron's Don Juan Canto II and Cain, and The Ghost of Abel, which is Blake's response to Cain—Blake derives his visions of the afterlife partially from the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, while Byron draws on Lucretius' version of Epicureanism. Despite their irreconcilable sources, the poets converge on a single idea. If heaven is to relieve us of the distinction between labor and leisure, thus lifting Adam's curse while overcoming a merely conventional division of human activity, it will also have to erase the boundary between physical and mental work. As a subject for poetry, though, the interrelatedness of mind and body, labor and leisure, heaven and earth, must be revealed through detail as well as treated as an abstraction, and Byron and Blake each stage acts of phronesis, of moral judgment unregulated by statute or decree, in order to bring their theories of heaven in contact with the facts of life.
Figurations of heaven are always embedded in broader debates about the nature of happiness. In Heaven: A History, Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang describe how Christian conceptions of the afterlife fluctuate between "theocentric" and "anthropocentric" versions. In theocentric accounts, the virtuous dead undergo beatific union with the divine. Earthly relationships, and perhaps earthly identities, are eradicated by the pure, perpetual worship of God that defines activity in the hereafter. In anthropocentric versions, on the other hand, personal identities are retained after death. The prospect of familial reunion in this scheme is among heaven's main attractions, and human activity there is likely to resemble work and play on earth. These conceptions of the afterlife are associated with different social milieus. Christianity's anthropocentric heaven, which McDannell and Lang trace back to the writing of Irenaeus, is the product of a Roman, urban experience shaped by the luxuries of commercial life and the countervailing injustices of religious oppression, and it comes to preeminence in the bourgeois nineteenth century (48-59; 228). The theocentric afterlife of the New Testament and of Augustine's early Platonism, which has for its most persistent trait a thoroughgoing asceticism, seems always to belong to the monks, scholars, and philosophers. It is for the most part an academic vision, not a popular one (68).
All versions of heaven must at some point confront the nature of "pleasure," if only because the seemingly parallel question of "pain" in hell is so straightforward. Physical pain is simple, and it is easy to extend the experience of it in order to imagine the promised torments of the damned. Hell's psychological terrors, such as jealousy and remorse, are readily derived from earthly analogues. But just as heavenly pleasure cannot be defined as "physical pleasure" (the "sensuous paradise" of the "Mahometans" is a reoccurring counterexample for the eighteenth-century English cleric), "mental" or "spiritual" pleasure can only make sense within a theological framework. Thus, while Robert South's 1678 sermon on the pleasures of religion is silent on the matter of the afterlife, it clarifies how a practicing Christian should define the Good in language that is highly relevant to the nature of the eternal reward:
The Providence of God has so ordered the course of things, that there is no action, whose usefulness has made it the matter of Duty and of a Profession, but a man may bear the continual pursuit of it, without loathing or Satiety: The same shop and Trade, that employs a man in his Youth, employs him also in his Age. Every morning he rises fresh to his Hammer and his Anvil; he passes the day Singing: Custom has naturalized his Labour to him: His shop is his Element, and he cannot with any enjoyment of himself live out of it. Whereas, no Custom can make the painfulness of a Debauch easy, or pleasing to a man.
This ode to work is meant to elucidate, by analogy, the greater pleasures of religious duty. Operating in a rational tradition that is tentative about specifying the delights of heaven, South does not conclude that the pleasurable duty of work will be eternally pursued there, but given his rhetoric about the relationship of human happiness to worship, he might easily do so. At the same time, as an argument for social control these lines are astonishingly self-revealing. The workman sings at his anvil not because his labor is automatically pleasing but because duty has become "naturalized" by way of "custom," and the laborer can no longer tell the difference between being at work and being at home—"His shop is his Element." In other places, South's view of duty is even more obviously pessimistic, and he suggests that the threat of hell might well be necessary to maintain social order (Almond 158). Nonetheless, happiness remains determined by work and duty, even if they have to be forced on people, and this structure is likely to be repeated in a finer tone in heaven, as South's refusal of hedonism illustrates. Thus he implies, not least through the figure of the angelic laborer, that heaven is both anthropocentric and theocentric. Eternity will be spent in praise and worship, but these duties are prefigured by our labor on earth and are in some ways continuous with it.
It is left to Emanuel Swedenborg, ninety years later, to insist on these continuities and inaugurate what McDannell and Lang refer to as the "modern" heaven. As work on this earth is the means of our mortal education, of our ongoing "self-realization," so too will there be work in heaven, which is pleasure in heaven, that continues humanity's spiritual improvement:
What have joys and delights and the happiness therefrom in common with idleness? By idleness the mind collapses, not expands, and a man is depressed, not enlivened. [. . .] What keeps the whole bodily system expanded and intent but intentness of mind? And whence comes intentness of mind but from administrations and labors, done with delight? Let me therefore tell you news from heaven,—That there are administrations and ministries there, and courts of justice, higher and lower, and also mechanical arts and employments.
Delights of Wisdom 248
Swedenborg's views are derived from the same kind of reasoning about duty and utility that frame South's. He argues that communities in heaven are devoted to "service," and it is clear that such work is not just ritualistic. Because these communities are infinite and complex, administrative efforts in particular take up a lot of everyone's time (Heaven and Hell 155). This is one of the aspects of Swedenborg's teachings that enraged his more orthodox opponents—"Heaven is made so much like this world that we hardly know which is which," the minister G. Beaumont complained in 1824—but what South's worldview suggests, Swedenborg's visions confirm—absolute leisure is not the same as absolute pleasure, and heavenly work may well share important characteristics with work on earth.
South's desire to portray the habitual duties of manual work as an expression of Providential order and Swedenborg's belief that heavenly life is filled with "administrations and ministries" each present social divisions of labor as divinely ordained ones. But these divisions, assumed by classical economics to be inherently efficient even if they have other, undesirable outcomes, are not the products of necessity or law. In The Moral Economy of Labor, James Bernard Murphy argues that the division of labor should be re-conceptualized in ways that acknowledge the deeply customary nature even of purportedly technical divisions. Starting out from the observation that technical efficiency does not demand a one-to-one correlation of laborers and tasks, Murphy revises Aristotle's description of phronesis and techne, which he translates as "moral" and "technical" reasoning. Instead of treating phronesis and techne as distinct spheres of knowledge, as Aristotle does, Murphy proposes an all-encompassing phronesis which applies to means as well as ends, conception as well as execution, and so subsumes techne; he opposes this kind of phronesis to Aristotle's "natural teleology" so as to denaturalize the division of labor and argue that there is, or should be, a morality of production as well as of "action," remuneration, or consumption (97-98; 111-12). Applying himself particularly to the question of physical and mental labor, Murphy concludes, in the tradition of Ruskin, that "meaningful work" can be defined "in terms of the unity of conception and execution because this unity is rooted in the natural structure of the human personality"; while the argument is grounded in a universalistic account of "human personality," Murphy emphasizes that "meaning" can only be defined through "particular customs and stipulations" (227).
Usually derived from Marx, the idea that conception and execution should not be divided has been of enduring significance to Blake studies in particular. My first example of a poem in which labor and leisure are examined from the angle of heaven is Blake's "The Little Black Boy." Central aspects of the poem's debt to Swedenborg have been identified by Kathleen Raine in Blake and Tradition. Raine traces to Swedenborg the image of the sun's heat as the love of God, and Blake discovers in Swedenborg the idea that "African" worship of "God as a man" is truer than European religious doctrine (11-13). More recently, critics have become alert to the racial politics of the poem, which appears to distinguish between "white" and "black" in heaven even while claiming that such distinctions will disappear in the heavenly framework:
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:
Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear,
To lean in joy upon our father's knee.
And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.
One way around this embarrassment has been to emphasize the complexities of the boy's subjectivity rather than treating his monologue as the unmediated expression of Blake's beliefs (Richardson 161). Because the boy has apparently been pre-educated along colonialist, racist lines, his theology is "innocent" in certain ways but corrupt in others. As Alan Richardson concludes, the final stanza of the poem merges Christian and what Blake presents as African teachings in order for the boy to arrive at a resistant "myth of his own devising" (164). Further, Nicholas Williams points out that the mother has been educated at the hands of colonialists, partially influencing or infecting the child, so that the poem becomes a critique of "the logic of reproductive education"; the cycle of "colonial education" must be "disrupt[ed]" and literacy put to "different purposes" so that alternatives to colonial practices can emerge (67).
Accepting these analyses, I would like to go a step further. One of the bitter pills offered by "The Little Black Boy" is that although both boys have gone to their heavenly rest, the child of color still has to work. Next to the disturbing fact of the boy's desire for his oppressor's "love," this is probably the poem's most troubling detail. But a Swedenborgian re-evaluation of posthumous work suggests that, without knowing it, the boy has discovered one of the central rules of heavenly life—education will continue there, and it will be the job of the more spiritually advanced to aid new arrivals. As Richardson in particular indicates, it is by now too facile to explain away the racial dynamics of the poem simply by absorbing them into a different, "Christian" argument. But there is nothing simple in the way the poem reads a purely physical "shielding" out of the largely intellectual activities of Swedenborg's angels. When a writer like Beaumont observes that Swedenborg's heaven is too much like "this world," he is alluding to a learned, middle-class system of administrators, journalists, and lawyers as well as educators; although Swedenborg briefly mentions "manufacturing" in the passage quoted above and elsewhere, the primary joyful activities of the angels are "ecclesiastical, civil, and domestic" (Heaven and Hell 300). This is the class sorting Blake rejects in the apotheosis of "The Little Black Boy." For Blake, to work is to produce language, and in English culture, the equation of language with work and prayer has had a long-standing Dissenting resonance (Peterfreund 181-85). When "The Little Black Boy" transforms Swedenborg's bureaucratic afterlife into a world of hot physical exertion, it reverses these equations, re-interpreting education and prayer as a physical "bearing."
One of the things that keeps the Songs from becoming sentimental is their skepticism about family relationships. It is pretty clear that their obsession with the neglectful father refracts some aspect of Revolutionary politics, but this thematic concern also ensures against a vision of the afterlife in which contemporary errors of thought and organization are simply repeated. In the move from life to death, more than one kind of reproduction must be disrupted, and at the same time that Blake is subversive he proves to be a tough-minded and a conservative, even an ascetic, theologian regarding the function of the family unit. In heaven, it is noteworthy, the little black boy is not reunited with the mother who tutored him. Instead, he is joined with the little white boy and the heavenly "father," thus reproducing in posthumous life an ecclesiastical community that would have at least to this extent answered the requirements of Augustine and Swedenborg both. (The prophetic books, with their architectural preoccupations, tend to recur to the language of the "tabernacle.") "To Tirzah," with its anti-familial refrain "What have I to do with thee?," is an exaggerated statement of this aspect of Blake's theology.
Similarly, although the opening lines of the Innocent "Chimney Sweeper" offer a dead mother whose removal from the scene has made possible the father's act of exploitation, the poem's redemptive vision, in some distinction to a poem such as "The Little Boy Found," does not promise heavenly reunion. Instead, it replaces both the absent parent and the abusive one with a presumably more kindly God-the-Father. For the chimney-sweeps, work is transcended in heaven (in a way it is not, for example, in the "Eternity" of Milton), and Blake moves as close as he will come, until the final movements of Jerusalem, to describing beatitude:
Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm.
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
At the same time, the poem retains an interest in corporal/spiritual continuities. Its illustration shows the chimney-sweeps, newly released from their coffins, embracing each other in an immediately posthumous experience of reunion. The basis of this heavenly reunion is vocational, not familial, and work remains the factor that joins people in "sport," in the afterlife as well as on earth. Further, when the poem retreats from its vision, it does so in order to re-energize the language of "duty." At one level, of course, this is a Blakean joke at the expense of conservative ministers and street evangelists working in South's tradition of social control. But while imposed, South-an duty is the ideological trap into which the sweeps seem from the point of view of experience to have fallen, the brotherhood of the chimney sweeps also prefigures the ecclesia of heaven. "Duty" is a legitimate value under the proper circumstances, or from an innocent perspective.
Duty can be horizontal as well as vertical, and the chimney sweepers' embrace denotes not just a common identity but a common interest and a set of mutually implicating responsibilities. It is, in short, an expression of artisanal affiliation, which in turn implies a very particular kind of perpetuity. To have "property" in one's skill is to have an enduring relationship beyond the point of sale to the products of one's labor, and so artisans experience something like personal continuity in their work, an afterlife on earth (Rule 104). Chimney sweepers are not artisans, though, and neither are the colonized and the enslaved, which may be why the little black boy remains trapped in a vertical attachment that "The Little Black Boy" never transcends. Both "The Little Black Boy" and "The Chimney Sweeper" are centered on characters whose work has never, by providence or custom, become natural to them. The poems long for relationships that are produced by certain kinds of work, and in this display of longing, they argue that heaven will reproduce the logic of earthly work in its ideal, artisanal form rather than its alienating, bourgeois one.
Byron shares with Blake the expectation that heaven, if it is as good as it's supposed to be, will recuperate the fallen idea of work, but unlike Blake, Byron's reflections emerge out of a self-consciously classicist, aristocratic framework. Since the poets' intellectual roots are so disparate, it is significant that some of the important ideas they do share should group themselves around the question of heaven. Theories of heaven are speculative insofar as there is little or no phenomenal evidence that pertains to them; they have facts as their objects insofar as they are, in principle, testable; but that test will only come in the future, and in the absence of immediate substantiation they are porous regarding secular arguments about happiness and hierarchy. This is probably why so many orthodoxies are reluctant to specify exactly what heaven will be like. On this basis, one might expect Byron and Blake to be divided on the question of heaven, since the facts of life are at first glance so different for each of them, but the speculative structure here is also what holds the poets together. For Byron and for Blake, heaven is theory, or "the generality of principles," but only insofar as it is hedged in or threatened by the "singularity of events" (Caputo 97). It is the antagonism between what we think we know and what we think we believe that makes heaven a properly literary subject for both of these writers.
Theories of heaven depend on beliefs about human fulfillment, but complete human fulfillment is also a matter of speculation and debate. Because it is a practical faculty that aims at fulfillment (eudaimonia) as a theoretical end, phronesis is thus relevant to heaven in the same way, as we have seen Murphy argue, that it is relevant to work. Moral reasoning, or practical wisdom, or prudence, as phronesis is variously translated, is the faculty which allows us to "know what is good for human beings" even if we can't adequately theorize about it; it is, according to Aristotle, a power that addresses "particular facts even more than general principles," and it rejects the mechanical application of rules (345, 347). In his discussion of work, therefore, Murphy finds in Aristotelian phronesis not only a way out of Aristotle's "opa[que . . .] circle of metaphors" regarding nature, custom, and stipulation, but also, more broadly, a way to insist that there are, essentially, good and bad kinds of labor (134). On the other hand, the "non-scientific" nature of phronesis has raised for some readers the objection that Aristotle's conceptions do "too little." Worse, phronesis might deliver us straight into the kind of hermeneutic circle Murphy wants it to deliver us out of. Lyotard, for example, while distinguishing the "just" from the "true," argues that Aristotelian phronesis "consists in producing justice without models" and so functions according to "opinion" alone (25-26). More positively, Gadamer finds in the relationship of techne to phronesis a "model of the problems of hermeneutics," that is, of the productive circularity whereby details and wholes are mutually defining (324; 291). Murphy's own description of phronesis implicitly shrinks the distance between deliberation and behavior, thus broadening its potential application to visionary speech and to spontaneous action while making all of these terms even harder to define. If knowing what to do without thinking about it is as much a matter of phronesis as techne, of evaluating ends as well as means, action proves to be thought just as conception, theoretically, may be joined with execution. This is one of the senses in which literary expression and literary interpretation may be conceived of as kinds of action.
The most sympathetic treatments of the concept of phronesis emphasize that agents can behave in really virtuous ways whether or not their judgments are actually the primary source of "virtue"; phronesis presumes an appropriate interpreter, a phronimos, who is qualified by talent and experience to deliberate, speak, or act so as to achieve "the good." Aristotle (like Gadamer) is confident that we'll know prudence when we see it (one trusts "culture," the other, "prejudice"), but as John D. Caputo puts it, correcting Lyotard's claim that phronesis proceeds without models, in a world "where there is no general agreement about the schemata" to be applied to events which require acts of judgment, the problem is a multiplicity of competing ones: "Events will bring forth too many phronimoi, conflicting and incommensurable phronimoi, which will throw us into an amorphous, or rather heteromorphic confusion" (102). Because it is impossible to achieve any consensus about virtue by observing the "conflicting and incommensurable" actions of others, Caputo defines the resulting confusion as an example of "heteromorphic difference," the theory of difference, according to his account, which assumes that "all action is ab intra, from within" (57). Even acts of love, solidarity, and charity are from this point of view products of a subjective "overflow," not of imitation or external obligation.
Because they believe in goodness and fulfillment but not in consensus, and because heaven remains theoretical, Byron and Blake produce dramatized poetic interpreters, "phronimoi," whose deliberations and actions cannot be reduced to the application of rules and whose interactions with tradition must be idiosyncratic and self-justifying. The chimney sweeper, the little black boy, and the mother all provide ethics-based accounts of their circumstances which are most powerful insofar as they are most local. The chimney sweeper's homiletics, for example, are visionary inside that poem but quietist outside of it, and the little black boy, as has been discussed, is something other than self-effacing largely because of the implied details of the poem's dramatic situation. Caputo's attempt to reconstruct a "poetics of obligations," that is, his insistence that phronesis without metaphysics is still phronesis, depends on his regard for the irreducibility of events, which he follows Heidegger in terming their "facticity" (35). His argument underscores the point that in one way or another, Byron and Blake, or their stand-ins, as speculators, as actors, as interpreters, as heteromorphic thinkers, will always orient themselves towards certain repeatedly observable facts of human character and human labor and leisure.
Nonetheless, the differences in factical life that divide the two poets are striking. When Lady Oxford whispers of heavenly delights during pleasant days at Eywood, the Oxfords' country home, the other world she has in mind is not one that would be immediately meaningful to Swedenborg's commercial/industrial, radically Protestant audience or, more specifically, to Blake. She asks Byron, "Have we not passed our last month like the gods of Lucretius?" (Byron, Letters 3: 210) As Martin Priestman notes in his study of Romantic Atheism, Oxford's is an image of "choice spirits placed outside of the mortal and moral fray" (239). The Gods of Lucretius, so different in kind from the post-human "angels" who inhabit Swedenborg's heaven and the dutiful dead who, one expects, inhabit South's, live in a "flimsy," ethereal universe that "can have no contact with anything that is tangible to us" (Lucretius 175). (Swedenborg's angels are nearly as insubstantial, but far more apprehensible.) As a consequence, there will be no joining the gods after death, which is to say, there is no life after death at all: "When the union of body and spirit that engenders us has been disrupted—to us, who shall then be nothing, nothing by any hazard will happen any more" (Lucretius 121). Lady Oxford's languorous remembrance combines the pleasures of the aristocrat gods with those of a strictly materialist mortality. This cool separation of human beings from any particular imperative, categorical or otherwise, marks Byron's tone even when he is rejecting it as an intellectual position, and it makes for one of the main differences between his heavenly writing and Blake's.
Byron denied the Epicurean element in his own writing, whether received from Lucretius or otherwise. "I am no Atheist," he asserted in self-defense when charged with being "the systematic reviver of the dogmata of Epicurus" (Byron, Letters 4: 81,82). As Priestman speculates, Byron's resistance responds both to the divine distance of Lucretius' gods—an aspect of Epicureanism that had become associated with an un-Byronic political quietism—and to the unacceptable hypothesis that man is only matter and that death brings total annihilation (239-240). Still, a smattering of quotations throughout his journals demonstrate Byron's attraction to On the Nature of the Universe, and at least on the matter of the afterlife Byron appears to have absorbed some of its lessons. His own agnosticism about the afterlife is well known, but one of its more detailed expressions is worth examining:
Of the Immortality of the Soul—it appears to me that there can be little doubt—if we attend for a moment to the action of Mind. [. . .] How far our future life will be individual—or rather—how far it will at all resemble our present existence is another question—but that the Mind is eternal—seems as possible as that the body is not so .[ . . .] A material resurrection seems strange and even absurd except for purposes of punishment—and all punishment which is to revenge rather than correct—must be morally wrong—and when the World is at an end—what moral or warning purpose can eternal tortures answer?
Byron, Letters 9: 45
Ranging over popular arguments in the philosophy of the afterlife, Byron combines a Lockean emphasis on consciousness (although he is prepared to give up posthumous continuity) with the Humean argument that eternal punishment is morally indefensible (Hume 137). Thus, while Priestman emphasizes that Lucretius removed the fear of damnation but replaced it with the fear of annihilation, the reverse of this formulation is equally important for Byron (239). Byron rejects Lucretius in stern moments, and when strictly equating Epicureanism with atheism, but elsewhere, for example in Don Juan Canto II, he shows that he is conscious of, and attracted to, the Lucretian idea that religious authorities "conjure" the "phantoms" of eternal punishment in order "to overturn the tenor of your life and wreck your happiness with fear" (Lucretius 30). Byron follows Lucretius in being fiercely protective of the idea of happiness, on earth if not elsewhere.
Although it would be difficult to construct a precise allegory about death and eternal life from the disparate materials of Don Juan Canto II, the text demonstrates a repeated concern with these issues. In doing so, it presents Juan, more or less systematically, as the phronimos of the piece. It begins where Canto I leaves off, making fun of Donna Julia's attempts to give Juan a formal education (1-24), and the poem repeatedly demonstrates that Juan's ethical tact, which is exercised spontaneously and without justification, elevates him above other characters in the poem. Often, this tact is connected to that most Aristotelian of concerns, courage. During the shipwreck, his behavior is better than his tutor's, and his nearly Stoic insistence that the crew die sober, "like men" (284), is so dramatically convincing that it can be surprising to realize no systematic philosophy underwrites it. Juan's special goodness is contrasted to the merely technical knowledge of other characters in the poem—not only Pedrillo's, but the narrator's (whose description of the wreck borders on the pedantic) and Zoe's (whose worldly knowledge of love is diminished in contrast to Haidee's divine ignorance) (1081-88). Perhaps the most important comparison is between Juan's phronesis and what the narrator calls Lambro's nous (1037). Byron follows a vernacular reduction in treating classical "knowledge" as mere pragmatism, but of course Lambro's pragmatism is something worse, the slaver's ability to recognize and seize the main chance.
Andrew Cooper treats the canto's pattern of anti-religious images as evidence for Byron's "skepticism" in the face of randomness, a shifting attitude that allows Juan to "make the crucial distinctions between the moral and the sentimental, the human and the merely animal" (149). Noting that the shipwreck "defines the Stygian nadir" of Juan's life abroad, just as "the Haidee idyll defines its paradisal apex," Cooper refers in passing to the epistemological limits placed on Byron's universe in terms highly relevant to my own discussion; human life "can never trespass those bounds beyond which lies the merely unimaginable: gods and dust" (137). But despite this epistemological pose, Byron's repeated assertions of reticence regarding the afterlife cannot be taken at face value. In fact, they are neurotically revealing, as in this comment from Canto III: "The future states [of marriage and death] are left to faith,/for authors fear description might disparage/the worlds to come of both, or fall beneath" (67-69). Byron protests too much about his own fears and silence. He is unwilling to speculate directly about the details of heaven and hell, but he is very interested in what the possibilities of eternal happiness are. His ambivalence throws into relief the outlines of his Lucretian thinking—about the absence of an afterlife, as a pragmatic guide to earthly action, but also about what an afterlife might be like, as a necessary corollary to his meditation on human pleasure.
Juan's reward for his proper behavior during the crisis of the shipwreck is an island heaven-on-earth, depicted as a union of labor and leisure. Occasionally, Byron denies the coexistence of work and play and defines the island in strictly Elysian terms: "Health and idleness to passion's flame/Are oil and gunpowder," his narrator observes, suggesting, not for the first time in Don Juan, that aristocratic "idleness" is the necessary precondition for Juan's adventures (1349-50). At other times, though, the merger of the two is more discernible. Juan's swimming in "his native stream, the Guadalquivir" is a leisurely activity and the crossing of the Hellespont is offered up as an idle achievement (833; 838-840), but Juan's prior training has the great utility of enabling him to survive the shipwreck. Later on, when "bathing in the sea" proves to be one of Juan's island habits, his swimming contributes both to the comically erotic tension of the scenario and to the characterization of Juan as essentially active (and, all things considered, brave!), not indolent. Juan's linguistic studies, which are part of his extended flirtation with Haidee, collapse not only the distinction between work and play but between physical and mental labor: "Juan learned his alpha beta better/From Haidee's glance than any graven letter" (1303-04). The brainwork of learning is joined to the physical pleasure of Haidee's company, and as the division and redistribution of "glance"'s initial phoneme shows, the "graven letter" is not so much replaced by the "glance" as the glance is the origin of language's technological manifestations. In Lucretius, the existence of the tongue precedes its use in speech (156). Here, the responsiveness of bodies leads to the linguistic exercise of minds.
Lucretius' presence in Canto II is most obvious in the way it wraps up the question of final things with which it has been preoccupied all along:
Alas! they were so young, so beautiful,
So lonely, loving, helpless, and the hour
Was that in which the heart is always full
And, having o'er itself no further power,
Prompts deeds eternity can not annul,
But pays off moments in an endless shower
Of hell-fire—all prepared for people giving
Pleasure or pain to one another living.
Byron cites another Humean argument against eternal damnation, this time regarding the matter of "proportionate punishment"—why an "endless shower" of pain for "moments" of human activity?—as well as acknowledging the Lucretian despite of clerical guilt-mongering (Hume 137). The narrator is coy when he names "Epicurus/And Aristippus, a material crew!" as "immoral" but practical thinkers who would be even more appealing "if only from the devil they would insure us" (1649-56). Nothing in the canto, or in Byron's thought, suggests that "the devil" or damnation are credible deterrents against "pleasant" actions, moral or otherwise; although canto XI repeats the Byronic disclaimer that the narrator never doubted "Divinity" or "the Devil," as far as one can tell, these entities operate on human history at a great distance if at all (41-42). Byron remains committed to heaven's ineffability as well as its fairness. At the conclusion of Canto II heaven and nature are compressed—"each was an angel, and earth paradise"—and the end of Byronic skepticism is to remind us that Haidee's island is the closest thing to paradise his narrator can contemplate, the worst thing for paradise the encroachment of fake moral threats.
As Lucretius' anti-clericalism provides Byron with a vocabulary of skepticism, his materialism provides the basis and the limits of Canto II's extended thought-experiment about activity in the afterlife. Living like the gods of Lucretius remains an aristocratic prerogative, and to define Juan's activities as "labor" is to run roughshod over some of the term's customary applications, particularly those emphasizing that "labor," as opposed to simple "activity," involves the laborer in a system of exchange. Juan's martial and linguistic attainments may be useful, but they are a far cry from South's duty-driven "shop and Trade," the unspecified preposthumous labor of the little black boy, or the work of the chimney sweepers. Further, Haidee's maid Zoe does all of the cooking and the real work of the island is probably handled by Haidee's retinue of "old slaves" (1102). Even worse, Haidee's leisure is dependent on Lambro's labor as a slaver and a pirate. But these facts, which separate the leisurely activities of Juan and Haidee even from the genteel ministrations of Zoe, serve to frame Byron's theoretical position. Juan is in something very much like heaven, but heaven on earth always requires an apparatus of servitude, and, as the disastrous conclusion of the episode in Canto IV demonstrates, it will always be brought to ruin one way or another. For Byron the materialist, Haidee's island is the best of places, and his reminder that human life is sustained by pernicious divisions of labor and that Edens of any kind will not last long adumbrates a problem that can have no political or economic solution in a world made of atoms. In this way, Byronic fatalism has Lucretian cosmology as one of its main ingredients. But in its utopian conjecture, Canto II demonstrates how Byron's dualism parts company from his atomism. The "hour" in which the heart has "no further power" over itself is, as everybody knows, the hour in which body and mind are separated and joined at once. It is the moment in which "hell and purgatory," and duties and distinctions, are alike "forgot" (143-44). Like Blake, Byron is forced to reject an anthropocentric afterlife, but he can only depict the good in bodily terms that require mental or spiritual glosses. Like the paradisial visions of the chimney sweeper and the little black boy, the failed Eden of Canto II testifies to a purposeful, necessary "forgetting," but Byron's allegiance to Lucretian distance means that his entire project must be mounted not as a vision or a song but as kind of a deep joke.
As I have been arguing, Blake and Byron are joined in their desire to describe heavenly perfection in the language of labor and leisure. For Blake, the artisan is at least potentially the most utopian of figures insofar as he both conceives of and executes his own projects. Byron, philosophically disadvantaged by his title and his credit line, is nonetheless equally aware that leisure may be to labor as mind is to body—apparently separate principles that in the best of circumstances become indistinguishable. Heaven or its earthly facsimiles must function according to the most benign possible forms of an "interactionism" that presupposes both a body and a mind and assumes that their operations are mutual and intimate. In Canto II, the relationships of body to mind and of work to play are rewardingly, if temporarily, in balance, so much so that we can at least imagine their reunion. The distinctions are dissolved by events, and Byron's interactionism emerges, in the figure of "fiery dust," as a temporarily inspired form of materialism (1696). When events reinstate these distinctions, the constitutional limits on Byron's eschatology are revealed, as is the poem's utopian longing for an afterlife that will function more successfully than Byron can dream. But the full dimensions of Byron's position are clearest when the relationships fail completely, as in the closet drama Cain.
Cain is concerned with the afterlife and closely links this matter to the question of work. The play's opening scene, in which Cain criticizes the activities of his parents and his brother, may demonstrate his adolescent "petulance" and deflate the "mythic" gravity of the tale (Eggenschweiler 236), but it does not diminish the sting of Cain's critique. His parents and his do-good sibling are involved in rote, unreflecting work which pleases Jehovah not because it serves a purpose or realizes a vision but because, especially when it is performed with the appropriate degree of affectlessness, it institutionalizes obedience. Cain is the "victim of a repressive 'state' religion whose laws were established, interpreted, and enforced by Adam and Abel" (McKeever 619); but further, Adam and Abel, as well as Eve, are equally the victims of this apparatus. As the opening of the play serves to emphasize, all the really important work in the universe has already been done. "God, the Eternal" is praised by Adam, Eve, and Zillah in turn for his work as the creator, but while, at least according to Adam, "the earth is young, and yields us kindly/her fruits with little labour," even a little of this kind of labor is too much for Cain, who wonders, "[W]herefore should I toil"? and feels keenly that he has had no role in determining the direction or provenance of his own activities (I: 1-69). The play's thematic structure, articulated in Cain's ongoing double complaint, follows popular readings of Genesis by conflating work and death, but Byron inverts the standard priority. Although it often appears that Cain's main complaint is that he is mortal despite his "innate clinging,/a loathsome and yet all-invincible/instinct of life" (I: 111-13), Lucifer assures him, very early on, that he "has an immortal part" and argues throughout that "death leads to the highest knowledge" (I: 105; II: 164). Cain's new awareness of this saving dualism does not bring an end to his dissatisfaction because work is an even greater problem for him. His is the play's central dilemma, the fear that one must "choose betwixt love and knowledge," between phronesis and techne (429).
Another way of putting this is that the tragic failure of Cain is phronesis' wholesale breakdown. The theoretical distinction of love and knowledge originates with Lucifer, and he misapplies it. He equates love with the unreflecting obedience of Adam and Abel, whose "worship is but fear" (431), but events demonstrate that the term refers more properly to a Byronic coupling of attachment and will and results in an unruly yet consistent series of decisions about the proper and good. That these decisions are based in love does not mean that they cannot be destructive. Cain's outrage at Enoch's projected end, and his anger at a tyrant-God who demands blood sacrifice, together lead him to murder Abel. This act is unthinkable but original. It stands in opposition to Adam and Eve's merely technical "love" of God, which amounts to a simple calculation of force and effect. (God "didst permit the serpent to creep in/And drive my father forth from Paradise," Zillah notes, before mildly requesting that he "Keep us from further evil" [19-21]). The murder of Abel demonstrates Cain's "love" but also his inability to move from love to knowledge, from a prerational binding to an ordered control over his circumstances. Ends, a just universe, and means, in this case homicide, are radically opposed, a point figured throughout the play in Cain's restless abstinence from work and the sacrifice.
At the tragic center of the play is the necessity of love and knowledge both, and the balm for Cain's ills might well have been more of each. One of Satan's tricks is that he has been silent on an important part of eternity's "double mystery" and omitted a crucial, technical aspect of final things. To put it plainly, even in the worst-case scenario not everyone goes to hell—not all of Adam and Eve's descendants will populate the "Hades" Lucifer shows Cain, although, at least metaphorically, it is intimated that all of Cain's descendants will. In other words, the plot turns on a Luciferian withholding of the relevant evidence. The audience recognizes the devil's allusions to a future "sacrifice," but Lucifer toys with the still-ignorant Cain, encouraging him to believe half-truths about the fate of humanity and the scope of the divine plan. Lucifer thus acts as something like a false phronimos as Cain is eventually a failed one. By misrepresenting certain details and withholding the narrative context that would redeem them, he obscures the potentially utopian conclusion that love and knowledge, labor and peace, will in heaven or at the end of time be merged. On the contrary, his plan to "depress" Cain (as Byron puts it) aims to deepen Cain's sense that he can never control the effects of his actions, an attitude ironically fulfilled by the impulsive murder of Abel, which negates the work of the farmer and the shepherd (qtd. in Steffan 9).
Peter A. Schock has examined the strategic, radical ambiguities of Cain, demonstrating how the play can be read both conservatively and as "blasphemy" (135). A particularly percipient local reading of these ambiguities is Blake's play The Ghost of Abel, which is dedicated to "Lord Byron in the wilderness" and responds directly to Cain (Plate I). Critics have been inclined to see The Ghost of Abel as a qualified endorsement of Cain's theology. As Martin Bidney observes, "Cain, from a Blakean standpoint, constitutes a searching and penetrating examination of the psychology of the state of 'Generation'"(148), but it is not quite "prophetic" enough in Blake's sense of the word. Blake adjusts Byron's treatment of work in order to write a happier ending for Adam and Eve, and in this way, Blake's reading of Byron is another exercise in phronesis. In his particular attention to the facts of staging, facts with which Byron's closet drama is ironically unconcerned, Blake reinterprets the context, Genesis, which he and Byron share.
The central parallel between the plays involves not only Adam and Eve's attitudes but their means of expression, which in both plays develop out of their inability to work meaningfully. Byron's Adam and Eve never become capable of genuine, forgiving worship, and they leave the stage for the last time in varying degrees of outrage. Tellingly, their exit is marked by their refusal to do the one task left to them that might join love and work: the tending of Abel's body will be left until "he is gone/Who hath provided us with this dread office" (452). In their refusal of the one ceremony they need, the ceremony of mourning, and in their commitment to remembering Cain's crime, Adam and Eve fall victim to the same rural malady Michele Sharp locates in The Excursion: the curse of "pathological and excessive memory" (398). Work is equally the subject in Blake's re-telling, where Adam and Eve's conversion is signaled, appropriately enough, not just with language but with gesture. For Blake, ghosts are a matter for the mere "bodily eye," and in The Ghost of Abel, the eponymous figure proves to be a revenge-seeking Satan. Adam and Eve must abandon their vegetable vision and "believe Vision/With all our might & strength tho we are fallen and lost" before they can tell the difference between the ghost and the real Abel, who is absolutely continuous with his pre-dead self (Plate 2: 1-2). Once Blake's Adam and Eve give themselves over to Vision, they are prepared to worship Jehovah, the forgiving God, instead of gnosticism's bloodthirsty Elohim, and at this moment the false distinction between physical and mental labor is overturned. As the stage direction reads, "They Kneel before Jehovah" (Plate 2: 4). This ritual act is particularly profound. Significantly, it corrects the opening tableau, which finds both characters ensnared by the material and the familial: Eve has "fainted over" Abel's body and Adam "kneels by her" (Plate 1). Adam and Eve, in kneeling together at the end of the play, rise-by-way-of-descent, an action which captures in a single moment the entire paradoxical tradition of the "fortunate fall" and amounts in itself to visionary, productive work. Oriented towards a forgiving Jehovah, the act of kneeling is the informed, experienced analogue of the black boy's heavenly bearing, and with it, the distinction between life and death is overcome. Once the real Abel is perceived as really "living," not "a "ghost" of himself, Cain's crime is metaphorically erased and truly forgiven (Plate 1: 37). This overcoming, along with the true worship it makes possible, eliminates the distinction between action and imagination to which Byron's Adam and Eve remain tied. Blake overcomes the limits of Byron's skeptical critique, but his own interpretive gestures are also focused on the physical details suggested by their common mythical sources.
One might tell a slightly different story about these poets and their treatment of heaven using other examples. In The Vision of Judgment, Byron finds a ready-to-hand vehicle for political and literary satire in the narrative apparatus of St. Peter at the gates; in a different vein, his play Heaven and Earth defines the catastrophic flood of Genesis, literally and metaphorically, as the "mingling" of the two title elements. The play thus suggests, perhaps blasphemously, that it is bad news whenever earth and heaven meet, and this is the cunning flip-side of Don Juan's Epicurean distance (795). Blake's prophetic treatments of Eternity are as concerned as his earlier Songs with the problems of heavenly representation, but the artisan-hero Los obviously participates in a different kind of allegory than the chimney sweepers or the little black boy. Everywhere, though, we find the question of labor and leisure. Even the Judgment of George III is a judgment about whether he has done a good job as a monarch, and so heaven, work, and phronesis are joined once more. In fact, the resolution of that plot hinges on a comically poor example of ethical deliberation. On the question of whether George III should be admitted to heaven or hell, Byron's caricature of Southey declares that "you shall/Judge with my judgment. [. . .] I settle all these things by intuition" (802-03). Then he drives away his heavenly audience by letting out a "torrent" of didactic verse (805). "Southey" proves to be another false phronimos, and in his pious, politically interested, self-asserting "intuition" he is, even more that the "Prince of Air," heaven's consummate villain.
Gerard Reedy claims that in his habit of "unit[ing] disparate aspects of his experience by means of analogies," South was "not a modern" (5). The predilection to analogize, which according to Reedy is indebted to a hierarchical world picture, makes it particularly plausible to extrapolate from South's vision of good on earth to his understanding of good in heaven.
Famously, the New Church's social conservatism was likely to be one of the reasons Blake lost interest in it, or opposed himself to it, in the 1790's. See Howard, 30-33.
Beaumont's publishers seemed to be more interested in Swedenborg than in Beaumont. The volume The Anti-Swedenborg contains more excerpts from the baron than it does argument from the minister, and the front-plate features a portrait of the visionary himself.
Not incidentally, in his language of providential design South also alludes to a theistic solution to the mind/body problem. See Yolton, Chapter VII: "The Concept of Action," esp. his discussion of Malebranche, 128-131.
Murphy's main criticism of Marx is that he "abandons the quest for humanization of work and pins his hopes on automation [. . . and] reverts to the Aristotelian view that whereas production is the realm of necessity, leisure alone is the realm of moral freedom" (164).
Alfred Sohn-Rethel argues that any worldview that entails "the possibility of a knowledge of nature from sources other than manual labor" is inherently "capitalist"; "With a technology dependent on the knowledge of the workers the capitalist mode of production would be an impossibility" (122-23). An analysis like Murphy's, with its empirical commitments and its lack of totalizing nostalgia, encourages us to respond practically to the details of a given situation—however, Sohn-Rethel's argument has the virtue of reiterating the Blakean desire for the union of ends and means.
Robert Essick directly argues that "the unity of conception and execution" is "Blake's central aesthetic and epistemological doctrine" (161). See also Morris Eaves' The Counter-Art Conspiracy, esp. 177-82.
Nelson Hilton argues that "To Tirzah" is "dramatic" and mocks a speaker whose rejection of Generation is a sign of hypocrisy or ignorance (110).
Kant refers to such porousness, with regret, as a matter of "pathological influence": If "practical reason [. . .] minist[ered] to the concerns of the inclinations, under the governance of the principle of happiness [. . .] it would then be things such as Mohamed's paradise [. . .] each man describing things under the direction of his own fancy, which imposed their monstrosities upon reason" (152). Kant's point is that practical reason does not give in to these kinds of inclinations.
For a more extended discussion of phronesis, hermeneutics, and the intersection of ethics and literary theory, see Haney, Chapter Two, "Ethics and Art: Problems of Phronesis and Techne."
The language here is Martha Nussbaum's. Nussbaum is one of those for whom Aristotelian "circularity" is inevitable and undismaying insofar as his account provides us with an adequate account of moral "complexity" (312).
Haney, for example, makes the "restricted" but relevant claim that "the structure of the reader's interpretive relationship to a literary text has affinities with the person's ethical relations to others" (45).
Caputo's counter-term, which also names his preferred stance toward the question of phronesis, is "heteronomism," the recognition of "an unencompassable other which throws the same into confusion, so that the same and the other cannot fold into a unity" (59) and which therefore recognizes various kinds of obligations that come from other people.
Priestman demonstrates at length that Lucretius' rendition of Epicureanism was a touchstone for British "freethought" in the Romantic period (Chapter Two: "Masters of the Universe").
Laurence S. Lockridge argues that Epicureanism as embodied in the writings of Aristippus and Epicurus as well as Lucretius "is the principle heuristic of Byron's life and poetry," and he cites several approving journal entries in support of this observation (437). Lockridge's main emphasis is on Byron's interest in the difference between "kinetic" (appetite-driven) and "catastematic" (temperate and enduring) pleasures (439-49).
Alternatively, Robert Ryan interprets this pattern as "challenging the easy refuge offered by conventional religion from the pain and mystery of human existence" (134). For Ryan, Byron is a "problematic prophet" (150) whose Humean skepticism "acknowledge[s] the limits of skepticism as well as those of belief" (129).
The canto's obsession with cannibalism and other kinds of appetite is continuous with Byron's objection to physical resurrection "except as punishment," since hypotheses involving cannibalism had been used to object to the idea of bodily resurrection from the middle ages through Voltaire (Bynum 243-44; Edwards, "Introduction" 55).
So Michael Ferber writes that "Blake, who certainly knew real sensuous activity as such quite intimately, goes beyond Hegel in presenting intellectual activity as labor [. . .] Such labor is portrayed, concretely if metaphorically, as pounding on anvils and weighing on scales, and finally perhaps more than metaphorically" (138).
Andrew Elfenbein points out that the mind/body "duality does not quite work the way that it is supposed to" in Byron; rather than "body" hindering the "lofty ideals" of the spirit, "the problem with the body [. . .] is its treatment by other people. Bodies are physical objects that can be [. . .] compelled in ways that prevent them from being mastered by the mind" (271). Cantos II-IV, on my reading, illustrate the point. These bodies and their minds would be truly in heaven if not for the intervention of Lambro. But such interventions are exactly what delimit the possibilities of an Epicurean universe.
For a lucid account of "interactionism," see Dennett, 33-42. Dennett rules non-materialist solutions to the problem of consciousness out of court; but for an alternative view, see Swinburne, 147-60.
Jerome McGann outlines the Byronic "fusion" of matter and spirit and the "paradoxical coordination of his liberal Socinian thought with his Catholicism" in Fiery Dust (252). The question of Byron's "Catholicism" aside, it is this quartet of concerns to which my own reading also responds. Examining Cain from these premises, McGann concludes that "being a composite of [mind and body], man alone has the power to love truly" (261). I am prepared to find a more orthodox Byron here—at least within the flexible definition of orthodoxy that Robert Ryan has illuminated—and the point of my reading is that love, like work, requires practical definition.
In addition to the critics named in the text, a lucid reading of The Ghost of Abel is Moskal's (136-43).
On Blake and ghosts, see "The Final Illuminated Works: Introduction," in William Blake, Milton a Poem and the Final Illuminated Works (221).
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|Auteur :||Brian Goldberg|
|Titre :||Byron, Blake, and Heaven|
|Revue :||Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 27, 2002|
Copyright © Michael Eberle-Sinatra 1996-2002 — All rights reserved