This essay reads Byron’s personal and historical reflections in Manfred and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage through Nietzsche’s meditations on memory and forgetting in Untimely Meditations. These poetic recollections are explored as moments of wilful erasure. Central to Nietzsche’s thoughts “On the Use and Disadvantages of History for Life” is how single moments are forgotten only to be unwillingly recalled at some future present historical moment. Byron’s desire to forget biography and history, paradoxically, produces a capacity to remember. Byron’s meditations on historical ruins become his own imaginative reflections on both the impulse to, and impossibility of, recovering historical and personal origins or securing an authorial posthumous reputation.
Corps de l’article
In the spring of 1880, when Friedrich Nietzsche took up lodgings in the Venetian quarter of Castello, which looks northwards to the island of San Michelle, he requested a trunk of urgently required books which included a hefty volume concerned with Lord Byron. This hasty biographical sketch provides a sense of the extent that the posthumous reception of Byron and his poetry have been entwined with the life and work of Nietzsche. Although often ambivalent, Nietzsche’s life-long fascination with the Byronic self-styled hero and its foreshadowing of Nietzschean nihilism has yielded insightful commentaries on Byron and Romanticism from Jerome McGann and David Thatcher. These critics often read Byron’s treatment of subjectivity as influencing a Nietzschean model of a titanic self-styled ethical perspective beyond good and evil. James Soderholm has also rightly recognised that what is central to Byron’s and Nietzsche’s model of subjectivity is what he has termed a “mystery of forgetting.”
This mystery of forgetting, which operates for Byron and Nietzsche on both personal and communal levels, is inextricable from an individual’s awareness of the past and their wider historical sense. Nietzsche’s primary inquiry is into the purposes and value of the ways in which a community might recollect and reconstruct the historical past to provide both edifying and redemptive models for the present. Within Nietzsche’s taxonomy of “The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” the idea of history as a treasure-trove of heroic templates and the historical past as a means of consolation fall, respectively, into the categories of “monumental” and “antiquarian” history. Nietzsche’s third and final category of “critical” history admonishes against living too much in the past and advocates the necessity of a wilful forgetting already implicitly present within those first two categories of “monumental” and “antiquarian” history. Nietzsche’s powerful inscription of his own name as “dynamite” into the future and its subsequent appropriation by the atrocities committed in the name of fascism raise important questions about the significance attributed to wilful forgetting in Nietzsche’s thought.
From our own vantage-point in history, these moral dilemmas often centre on who should determine what is forgotten and why, how and when something is forgotten, and the extent to which an event should be expunged from an individual or collective historical memory. The centrality afforded forgetting by Nietzsche’s post-Romantic reflections on subjectivity and history, in the second of the Untimely Meditations (1874), provides an instructive paradigm through which to read how Byron’s tragic personal circumstances imaginatively inform his recollections of historical ruins and past civilisations to model and remodel subjectivity and history.
Byron’s poetical and historical reflections, in this sense, embody what, for Nietzsche, was that rare “species of suffering that one must take to be the most singular exception in the world; an extra- and supra-personal sensibility attuned to a nation, to mankind, to a whole culture, to all suffering existence.” Nietzsche’s own school-boy attachment to Byron’s Manfred persisted into his mature philosophy and, as late as Daybreak in 1881, Nietzsche connected Byron’s lyrical drama with both the significance and difficulties of the mode of forgetting he had outlined some seven years earlier:
Yes, if only forgetting was not so difficult! There was once a very proud man [Manfred] who would accept nothing good or bad, but what came from himself: but when he needed forgetfulness he found he could not give it to himself and had to summon the spirits three times, they came, they listened to his demand, and at length they said: ‘this alone stands not within our power!’
Manfred’s inability to give forgetfulness to himself envisages Nietzsche’s account, in Untimely Meditations, of how single moments are forgotten through our desire to live, poetically, in what he describes as the “unhistorical,” only for them to be unwillingly recalled at some future historical point. Acts of remembrance become moments of wilful erasure and the desire to forget, paradoxically, produces the often unwelcome capacity to remember. Such painful moments of unexpected recollection are described by Nietzsche as those episodes when:
A leaf flutters from the scroll of time, floats away—and suddenly floats back again and falls into the man’s lap. Then the man says “I remember” and envies the animal, who at once forgets and for whom every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished for ever.UM 61
A wilfully forgotten moment such as this, Nietzsche reminds us, “returns as a ghost and disturbs the peace of a later moment” (UM 61). Nietzsche’s imagery of the detached single page or leaf from the parchment leaves of history gestures backwards to the repressed, yet central, disturbance of Astarte’s presence in Byron’s Manfred. A younger Nietzsche had discovered in Byron’s psychodrama a subject that “spellbinds the reader with its magic power and can plunge him into the deepest melancholy” and even inspired Nietzsche’s musical composition “Manfred Meditation.”
When, in the depths of despair of his own consciousness, Byron’s Manfred demands that Astarte (an ever-real presence to his mind) is made manifest in the external world. Manfred describes her spectral form not as a loose leaf from the “scroll” of memory and history, but in terms that are perishable and organic:
Can this be death? there’s bloom upon her cheek;
But now I see it is no living hue,
But a strange hectic—like the unnatural red
Which Autumn plants upon the perish'd leaf.
Manfred’s rendering of Astarte as a preternaturally “red” autumnal—soon to be wind-fallen—leaf is an agonising moment of realisation that encapsulates Nietzsche’s sense of the inter-play between active forgetting and the actual return of a repressed memory. Reminiscent of King Lear’s mistakenly optimistic but, finally, heart-breaking recognition of life on the lips of his deceased Cordelia, Manfred’s figuration of Astarte as a leaf, in his own mind, at least, ascribes to her both vernal and autumnal qualities.
Manfred’s mental conviction that Astarte is a continuing presence—within his own interior world—means that he counters each autumnal image by implying, at every turn, the life-giving powers of spring with its “bloom” and “living hue.” Life and death intermingle, through Manfred’s words, even when the sense of planting new life is, finally, suggestive of the genesis of disease. His foregrounding of vernal vitality against encroaching autumnal decay is a Nietzschean act of wilful forgetfulness, on Manfred’s part, that gives way to the gradual and tragic remembrance of the actual materiality of Astarte’s death. Those, like Manfred, who are capable of deliberately forgetting the past to this extent possess, what Nietzsche clarifies, as the “plastic power”:
I mean by the plastic power the capacity to develop out of oneself in one’s own way [eigernertig], to transform and incorporate into oneself what is past and foreign, to heal wounds, to replace what has been lost, to recreate broken moulds. There are people who possess so little of this power that they can perish from a single experience, from a single painful event.UM 62
At other points in Byron’s lyrical drama, Manfred’s encounters with the natural world—through his solitary vigils amidst the Alps―testify to his imaginative ability to transform and remould the externalities of the world around him to reflect the anxieties of his ever-increasingly tormented mind. This is exemplified by Manfred’s fleeting glimpse of the soaring eagle, whose “wingéd and cloud-cleaving minister” (I, 1, 30), does not offer Manfred any hopeful model of transcendence. Instead Manfred is sent on a mentally (and visually) downward spiral that triggers the recognition that as “half dust, half deity” (I, 1, 40) we are unfit self-appointed “sovereigns” of the beauty of “all this natural world” (I, 1, 37). Nature does not provide Manfred with solace or help to affirm his position in the universe, but serves only to remind him of the impossibility of ever fully realising his wilful desire to forget his tormented and tormenting past.
Nietzsche perfectly expresses both this human impulse to forget, so that “every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished forever” (UM 61), and the significance of remembering, if life is not to be a childish “blissful blindness between the hedges of the past and future”:
If death at last brings the desired forgetting, by that act it at the same time extinguishes the present and all being and therewith sets the seal on the knowledge that being is only an uninterrupted has-been, a thing that lives by negating, consuming and contradicting itself.UM 61
Fictions of forgetfulness are a vital reminder of what is supposed to have been forgotten, because without this ability to recollect the contradictory nature of existence will fail to be noticed. Towards the end of Canto III of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron voices his own fears that existence is “a thing that lives by negating, consuming and contradicting itself.” These fears about the nature of existence as self-contradictory and self-consuming mirror Byron’s own self-doubts about the essence of poetic language and creation. In this remarkable passage, the anxieties of Byron’s poetic persona, Childe Harold, and Byron as poet collide to voice one another’s fears that neither historical nor poetical legacies bequeath anything of worth to posterity:
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, III, stanza 97
Could I embody and unbosom now
That which is most within me,—could I wreak
My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
Soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or weak,
All that I would have sought, and all I seek,
Bear, know, feel, and yet breathe—into one word,
And that one word were Lightning, I would speak;
But as it is, I live and die unheard,
With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword.
This anxiety over a posthumous existence or legacy desires, as Byron’s Manfred so often does, to “embody” (and preserve) its innermost spirit, feeling, and thoughts in a tangible exterior form. For Childe Harold, the fictional travelogue writer, and Byron, the creator of poetic fictions, the fragile evanescence of words is the only medium they have to “embody” their deepest feelings and thoughts for posterity. The precarious nature of this investment can be determined by the comparison drawn between the “one word” and the streak of “lightning.” Byron’s analogy anticipates Shelley’s more optimistic claim, in A Defence of Poetry, that “poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.” Here, however, the transitory brightness of the lightning fails barely before it has made a mark and the “voiceless thought”—denied a lasting embodiment in language—is sheathed “as a sword.” As Shelley observes, in Adonais, poetry is “a Power/ Girt round with weakness” (282-3) and Byron is all too well aware of these linguistic shortcomings and his own poetic failings.
Lurking behind Byron’s image of words as a defenceless, ineffective, sheathed sword and vengeful aspiration to “wreak my thoughts upon expression” is, as Vincent Newey notes, a particular frustration with the inadequacy of language to exact revenge against his detractors of 1816. Writing in that particularly difficult year, Byron strains after the state which Nietzsche diagnoses as a “desired forgetting”—or obliteration—of the self in the face of life’s wretched circumstances. “Forgetting,” as Nietzsche notes, “is essential to action of any kind, just as not only light but darkness is essential for the life of everything organic” (UM 62). Byron explicitly states, in a journal entry from September 1816, that “recollections of bitterness” have hampered his capacity to “lose my own wretched identity.” This facility for “active forgetting” Nietzsche instructs us is a necessary survival strategy, which “resembles that of a concierge preserving order, calm and decorum.”
Manfred’s own frustrated, in Nietzsche’s words, “active forgetting” (UM 62) resonates all too poignantly with Byron’s own troubled personal life. Yet these thematic anxieties are regularly legitimised by modern critics through those contemporary biographical and historical circumstances surrounding Manfred’s composition. These include concerns over the ineffectuality of the aristocracy in the wake of the French Revolution 1789; Napoleon’s temporary escape from Elba and subsequent internment on St Helena after the defeat at Waterloo in 1815; and Byron’s banishment from polite English society, after rumours of the Augusta Leigh affair began to spread in the spring of 1816. Even as a finished dramatic form, Manfred’s broken monuments of Rome can only find completion in the closed hermeneutic circle of historical models and critical paradigms that reassert the significance of these political, social, cultural, and biographical crises at the precise moment they are forcibly evaded. Byron’s lyrical drama plays out the paradoxical tension of Nietzsche’s observation that “with an excess of history man…ceases to exist, and without that envelope of the unhistorical he would never have begun or dared to begin” (UM 64).
Nietzsche’s thought enhances our appreciation of how and why Byron’s poetry dares to live imaginatively in the a-temporal and “unhistorical” to meditate on its own anxiety of posterity. Byron’s Manfred images its central anxieties over posthumous reputation through the fragmentary ruins of the historical past. Through Manfred, Byron in Faustian mode—although Nietzsche, at his most enthusiastic, felt that Byron far exceeded Goethe—fantasises about surviving a-historically beyond the recorded events that determine those figures and events which become monumentalised as public history. Manfred rarely speaks in the present tense and when he does so his words often quickly turn immediate experience into imagined past reflection. Befallen by an “[i]nexplicable stillness” (8) of mood, Manfred’s soliloquy, in Act 3, momentarily dwells on the presence of this “new sense” before giving in to a desire to historically record the moment as a past event: “And I within my tablets would note down/ That there is such a feeling” (2, 16-17). In the opening scene of the third and final act, Manfred’s intensely solitary recollections of a youthful night’s rambling moves freely between the present, past, and future tense in a bid to evade historical reality and exist a-temporally.
Manfred’s starlit perception of the Coliseum’s “rents of ruin” (3, 4, 15) anticipates the demise of Roman civilisation envisaged in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Byron’s description of the ruined Coliseum, as “[d]espoiled yet perfect” (CH IV, 147), echoes Manfred’s ambivalence about the crumbling form as “[a] noble wreck in ruinous perfection” (Manfred, 3, 4, 28). In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, this ruined form survives in the memory as a “magic circle” in, and through, the transformative power of the moonlight:
IV, stanza 144
But when the rising moon begins to climb
Its topmost arch, and gently pauses there—
When the stars twinkle through the loops of Time,
And the low-night breeze waves along the air
The garland-forest, which the gray walls wear,
Like laurels on the bald first Caesar’s head—
When the light shines serene but doth not glare—
Then in the magic circle raise the dead;—
Heroes have trod this spot—‘tis on their dust ye tread.
Both Byron’s poetic night-time visitations to this “Colossal fabric’s form” (CH IV, 143, 1285) are reminiscent of Coleridge’s passage, in the Biographia Literaria, which liken the “modifying colours of the imagination” to the accidental, albeit transmogrifying, effects of moonlight playing diffusively over a “known and familiar scene.” In quieter times, Byron had recollected more familiar ruins in less continental climes. Byron’s “Newstead Abbey,” written 26 August 1811, draws on the same transformative qualities of moonlight to, albeit temporarily, restore “the glories of old” of his ancestral home when “[i]n the dome of my Sires as the clear moonbeam falls/ Through Silence and Shade o’er its desolate walls” (3; 1-2). Shimmers of moonlight faintly recall past glories, yet its “dazzling, but cold” (4) effect is a salient reminder that the warmth of the sun’s “brightness of old” (14) which illuminated the “younger of days” (5) is irretrievably lost. Byron’s final stanza dwells on the derelict ruins of the abbey to speculate about the dereliction of duty of those to whom its care was entrusted:
And Ruin is fixed on my tower and my wall,
Too hoary to fade, and too massy to fall;
It tells not of Time’s or the tempest’s decay,
But the wreck of the line that have held it in sway.
Byron’s playful use of the word “line” with its multivalent sense of genealogical, structural and poetic models resonate with (especially as the noun “wreck” anticipates Manfred’s own nocturnal reminiscences) those later anxieties present in his recollection of the Coliseum in Manfred and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Byron’s moonlit “magic circle” does not belong to a specific or static moment of history, but instead is a continually re-experienced and re-invented past event that exists in the present and is projected into the future for an uncertain reception by subsequent generations of readers. Yet the inability of these ruins to “bear the brightness of the day” (CH IV, 143, 1286) indicates that the Coliseum’s grotesque past cannot be entirely elided by the transformative power of imagination. As in Manfred, a moonlit retrospective of the Coliseum (Manfred, 3, 4, 9-28) becomes a wilful act of forgetting and historical remembrance in which Rome and all her accomplishments are honourably monumentalised and her bloody deeds erased.
Remembering and forgetting are closely akin to one another, as Søren Kierkegaard recognises, prefiguring Nietzsche and Byron, with the observation that “[r]emembering poetically is really just an expression of forgetfulness.” Nietzsche upholds such a conviction but, ingeniously, inverts Kierkegaard’s sentiment with the observation that there is no “such thing as forgetting; all we know is that the act of recollection does not lie within our power” (D, 126). For Byron, the fate of Rome and her Coliseum correlate with Manfred’s anxieties over whether those succeeding generations will associate his name with honour or disgrace.  Whether Byron’s posthumous reputation will be remembered or forgotten is equally at stake; hinted at by Manfred’s description of “the ivy [that] usurps the laurel’s place of growth” (3, 4, 265). The “laurel” recalls the victorious yet ambivalent posthumous honour of the warrior (and by extension the deceased poet), in “Elegy on Newstead Abbey,” whose “self-gathered laurels” mark a “self-sought grave” (70). The restoration of the heroic or poetic laurel, Rome’s reputation, Manfred’s name and Byron’s life and work reside with the interpretative decisions that a reader or historian make in their reconstruction of those ambivalent episodes and figures of history’s “ruinous” scene.
These tensions in Byron’s poetic recollections between whole and ruin; between memory and history; between nature and cultural artifice are at the heart of Childe Harold’s praise, in Canto IV, of Venice as the majestic “ruler of the waters and their powers” (IV, 2, 13) and queen of all cities. The focus, as in Canto III, is on how the observing self is absorbed by the surrounding world, but struggles to resist the self-dissolution of Keats’s Negatively Capable poet, so that in Byron’s words: “I live not in myself, but I become/ Portion of that around me” (III, 72, 680-1). Yet the Byronic poetic self is as much “absorb’d” in life (III, 73, 689) as it is reflective of all its myriad goings-on: “Even as a broken mirror, which the glass/ In every fragment multiplies; and makes/ A thousand images as of one that was” (III, 33, 289-91). Ironically, the fragmented condition of the subject both sustains this endless process of representing the self in a “portion of that around me” and―looking forward to the increasingly fragmented sense of self depicted in Canto IV―questions whether self-knowledge can ever be fully possessed or a point of personal or historical origin ever be recovered through memory. Yet Byron recognises with Nietzsche that it is always the most “single painful event” (UM 62) which, even though we desire to forget, can unexpectedly return to us and “[w]hen least we deem of such, calls up to view/ The spectres whom no exorcism can bind” (IV, 24, 213-14).
Published in 1818, Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage returns to meditate on issues of personal sorrow, grief, and tragedy, all of which are concerns “darkly bound” (23, 207) to both the poetic mood and mind-set that governs Manfred. Canto IV embodies its darkly fascinating realisation that “[a]ll suffering doth destroy, or is destroy’d/ Even by the sufferer; and in each event/ Ends” (IV, 22, 190). Through his reflections on Italy’s architectural, literary, and other cultural legacies, Byron tests and questions the correlation that Manfred perceives between self and the moonlit Coliseum, by examining the idea that an individual’s life can be rendered meaningful through the imposition of ordered design. Such a process is analogous to a model of artistic creation in which the form and meaning of an artwork is inextricably linked to the cultural achievements of civilisation. Yet the narrator’s description of Venice, for all of his extolling of her architectural wonders, recognises as does those earlier recollections of the Coliseum—in Childe Harold and Manfred—the ambiguous strengths and shortcomings of the social structures that permit an artistic culture to flourish. From the first stanza of this Canto these ambiguities are evident:
CH IV, stanza 1
I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs,
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, a dying Glory smiles
O’er the far times, when many a subject land
Looked to the winged Lions marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!
Arising from the natural action of the ocean’s waves, it is as if Venice’s physical and institutional “structures” were cast themselves as organic extensions of the sea, itself modelled by a divine creator. Venice with its “dying Glory” exists in and outside of nature and history. Byron captures the city in a permanent state of “ruinous decay,” floating as an insubstantial conjuring of an “enchanter’s wand” and an idealised—if not immortalised—centre of political and cultural power, whose enfolding “cloudy wings” miraculously resist, through a poetic sleight of hand, being reduced to “marble piles.” In Nietzsche’s sense Venice is both historical and “unhistorical”: she is a regal yet usurped presence amidst the waves of history, simultaneously, at one with nature and yet divided from her, with a reputation that is remembered and yet forgotten at the moment of her supposed poetic recovery:
IV, 3, 19-25
In Venice Tasso’s echoes are no more,
And silent rows the songless gondolier;
Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone—but Beauty still is here.
States fall, arts fade—but Nature doth not die,
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear…
If poetic remembering, for Byron and Nietzsche, is a form of forgetting then wilful forgetting becomes an act of remembering. The speaker’s assured metaphysical confidence in the continuance of a “Nature [that] doth not die” is only met by a plea that we, as much as Nature, should not “forget how Venice once was dear.” Such a plea may be desperate in the face of the certain statement that such halcyon “days are gone,” but this assuredness is militated against by the preceding line where “music meets not always now the ear” (emphasis added). Venice and her music is not quite vanquished into the historical past for, so long as the city’s music intermittently finds an “ear,” she persists in the here and present now of the moment. As in Byron’s invocative opening to his “Ode on Venice”―“Oh Venice! Venice! when thy marble walls/ Are level with the waters” (emphasis added, 1)―these shifts in tense between past, present, and future work hard to preserve Venice from becoming those ruined historical “marble piles.” Byron’s celebration of Venice―who “hath a spell beyond/ Her name in story” (IV, 4, 28-9)―bemoans the subdued wonders, riches, and powers of the city only to remember her splendours, poetically at least, for posterity through a deliberate means of self-forgetting and evasion of history.
Byron’s poetic reflections on memory, identity, and historical monuments, in Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, also question and refine his earlier Byronic model, in Manfred, which equated the physical ruins of history with the existential fate of the self:
CH IV, stanza 25
But my Soul wanders; I demand it back
To meditate amongst decay, and stand
A ruin amidst ruins; there to track
Fall’n states and buried greatness, o’er a land
Which was the mightiest in its old command,
And is the loveliest, and must ever be
The master-mould of Nature’s heavenly hand;
Wherein were cast the heroic and the free,—
The beautiful—the brave—the Lords of earth and sea.
After a moment of existential angst, the narrator’s roaming “soul” returns to the subject of the ruins of Rome. This withdrawal of the wandering “soul” from immortalised Venetian delights marks both a moment of return and an inward turn in the poetry which is, increasingly, alert to the fragmentary condition of the perceiving subject as it is to the fragmented state of the world observed. In a literal sense, the narrator’s “soul” returns “[t]o meditate amongst decay” and contemplate the impossibility of recovering the past in its totality. The narrator’s inability to recover—or “track”—the wholeness of those “[f]all’n states and buried greatness” serves as a reminder of the predicament of the fragmented observing subject to whom the past is irretrievably lost and the future utterly unknowable. Byron’s image of “[t]he master-mould of Nature’s heavenly hand” may, at first, suggest a god-like cast in which all things are modelled in their completeness and perfection, but this poetic fiction unravels to reveal the fragmented experience of the self—itself “[a] ruin amidst ruins”—and frustrates this impulse towards completion and totality. More playfully, but no less darkly, Byron acknowledges in Don Juan these difficulties with either attaining or recovering posthumous “‘Glory’: ‘Tis something, nothing, words, illusion, wind—/ Depending more upon the historian’s style/ Than on the name a person leaves behind” (III, 90, 810-12).
Much later and to lighter comic effect in Canto XI, Don Juan’s satiric eye fixes upon the recently deceased Keats. Byron satirically picks up on and fuels the mythology of Keats dying young as a result of a delicate temperament unable to endure the critics. Such a mythology is inextricably bound up with the reception of Keats’s earlier poetry and the publication of Hyperion. Keats’s fragment first appeared with an advertisement from the publishers, Taylor and Hessey, which stated that “the poem was intended to have been of equal length to Endymion, but the reception given to that work discouraged the author from proceeding.” Byron’s satirically biting passage reinforced those charges, levelled at Keats, by his harshest reviewers that he was of lowly origin, poorly educated, inexperienced, feminine, and socially inept:
John Keats, who was killed off by one critique,
Just as he really promised something great,
If not intelligible,—without Greek
Contrived to talk about the Gods of late,
Much as they might have been supposed to speak.
Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate:—
‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article.
Despite Byron’s comic sense that Hyperion was unintelligible he does, at least, recognise Keats’s attempt at epic poetry as a sign of the young poet’s creative potential with the promise of “something great” if not quite fully realised or arrived at. This, however, is not the whole story of Byron’s less comic and more serious reaction to Keats’s long poem. In a less satiric and more reflective mood, Byron wrote, in “Some Observations upon an Article in Blackwood’s Magazine August 1819,” that Keats’s “‘Hyperion’ seems actually inspired by the Titans, and is as sublime as Aeschylus” and recognises Keats’s demise as “a loss to our literature.” For Byron, then, Keats’s posterity abides tellingly not with the biographic reputation of the man, but, ultimately, with Keats’s contribution—potential and actual—to literature. No matter how precariously, only the materiality of literature—of ink qua paper—posthumously outlives a deceased author’s standing, name, and self-identity.
For Byron both the posthumous reputations of cities or poetic selves are conditioned by a past that can never be fully known and are solely reliant on the whim of the historian to determine their glorious or inglorious legacies. Returning to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Venice’s cultural legacy, ultimately, resides not with the city’s architectural buildings but in the literature written about her for, as Byron’s narrator tells us, “[o]urs is a trophy which will not decay/ With the Rialto; Shylock and the Moor/ and Pierre can not be swept or worn away” (IV, 4, 33-4). Here Byron empowers the fragility of the written word to preserve the cultural riches of Venice and, in turn, commends his own poetic writings about historical cities as a form of immortalising memory. But to remember poetically is inevitably to shape, change, and (re)-create the recollected object, subject, or event. Not, then, to remember historically, but to forget—“unhistorically”— the past as a means to restore a crumbled artifice or tarnished reputation for a future time that has not yet been envisaged.
Such a predicament, Nietzsche suggests, makes the man enviable of the child’s forgetful state, who “having as yet nothing of the past to shake off, plays in blissful blindness between the hedges of the past and future”:
Yet its play must be disturbed; all too soon it will be called out of its state of forgetfulness. Then it [the child] will learn the phrase “it was”: the password which gives conflict, suffering, and satiety access to man so as to remind him what his existence fundamentally is—an imperfect tense that can never become a perfect one.UM 61
Rather surprisingly—given his numerous protestations against Romanticism—and nearly some ten years later, Nietzsche returns to a similar Romantic figure of the child, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where he writes that a “child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes.”
Byron’s closing valedictory stanzas of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’s Canto IV are tellingly introduced with the phrase, “But I forget” (175, 1567). At the outset of this poetic movement, we retreat from the past into a recollected present instance of sporting in a child-like state of “innocence and forgetfulness” amongst the waves, safe from “the loud roar of foaming calumny” (IV, 136, 1218):
IV, stanza 184
And I have loved thee, Ocean! And my joy
Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be
Borne, like thy bubbles, onward: from a boy
I wantoned with thy breakers—they to me
Were a delight; and if the freshening sea
Made them a terror—’twas a pleasing fear,
For I was as it were a child of thee,
And trusted to thy billows far and near,
And laid my hand upon thy mane—as I do here.
United as a “child of thee,” boy and sea, man and nature, are reconciled to one another without consciousness of the past, present, and future to demarcate the timeless vastness of the Ocean on which “Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow” (IV, 182, 1637). Almost an elemental part of the “freshening sea[’s]” tremendously powerful billows, the boy now gently (if not seductively) caresses the undulating body of the Ocean’s distinctly feminised body. Previously the sea had embodied a specifically masculine power and earlier, in Canto III, Byron had found himself “as a weed / flung from the rock” subject to its “surge” and buffeted wherever “the tempest’s breath prevail” (2, 17-19). But now there is no terror only a “pleasing fear,” as the boy without question trusts to the feminine Ocean’s “billows far and near.” Yet Byron’s image of the “hand upon the mane” also recalls, from Canto III, those wilful and capricious masculine “waves that bound beneath…as a steed” (2, 11) and intimates that this forgetful innocence of the sporting child’s play amidst the Ocean must be disturbed.
These calmer seas of tranquil restoration obscure darker and more turbulent waters and times. Byron’s drive towards reconciliation and forgetfulness, echoing again Manfred’s dilemma, becomes a painful reminder of those circumstances and feelings of irreconcilable loss that gave rise to the impulse and entreaty to “forget” and retreat from society in the first place: “Oh! that the Desert were my dwelling place,/ With one fair spirit for my minister,/ That I might forget the human race,/ And, hating no one, love but only her!” (IV, 177, 1585-8) Perhaps, a Byronic poetic self so utterly absorbed in and bodied forth into being through the numerous goings on of life would find respite from the torment of subjectivity and memory in a desolation populated only by the one he loved. This image of the loved one is endlessly reflected and refracted through the “broken mirror” of the self to produce a thousand images of the one that is. Yet Byron’s account of this subjective condition almost borders on a parody of Shelley’s Alastor (1815) and acknowledges such a state as mere fantasy, for Byron knows all too well that the self is like the “heated mind” that, at best, wrests “[f]orms from the floating wreck which Ruin leaves behind” (IV, 104, 936).
By the close of the fourth Canto, we sense, at least for now, that self, memory, and hope have been exhausted and that, as Byron tells us, “my theme/ Has died into an echo” (IV, 185, 1657):
IV, 185, 1658-65
…it is fit
The spell should break of this protracted dream.
The torch shall be extinguished which hath lit
My midnight lamp—and what is writ, is writ,—
Would it were worthier! but I am not now
That which I have been—and my visions flit
Less palpably before me—and the glow
Which in my spirit dwelt, is fluttering, faint, and low.
Once again Byron breaks his own charmed circle to return us to a midnight scene that recalls both in setting and imagery Manfred’s opening remark that “[t]he lamp must be replenished, but even then/ It will not burn so long as I must watch” (Manfred, 1, 1, 1-2). Whereas Manfred’s “lamp” will be refuelled to light his nocturnal vigil of “enduring thought” (4), the “midnight lamp” of Childe Harold will be “extinguished” as Byron’s “spirit” burns “fluttering, faint, and low.” This revised image of the “midnight lamp” (which, unlike the poetic self that burns low, is actively expunged), indicates Byron’s exhaustion with the poetic model of brooding, inexplicable, suffering he has adopted in Manfred and the latter two Cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
As Byron illuminates the scene of writing, he obliterates—extinguishes—that point of origin and, theatrically, gestures towards the need for a new poetic model in the form of Don Juan and Beppo. Given the previous elisions of personal and historical circumstance, this new poetic experimentation deflects his readers into the life outside of poetic fiction and the, as of yet, unspoken origins of his suffering (Bone 156). Imploring readers to remember and returning them to the world beyond “this protracted dream,” Byron’s final stanza self-consciously delights in its own theatrical fictions and rehearses some of those later strategies of deflection and deferral so often incorporated into the poetic texture of Don Juan:
CH IV, 186, 1667-74
A sound which makes us linger—yet—farewell!
Ye! Who have traced the Pilgrim to the scene
Which is his last, if in memories dwell
A thought which once was his, if on ye swell
A single recollection, not in vain
He wore his sandal-shoon and scallop-shell;
Farewell! with him alone may rest the pain,
If such there were—with you, the moral of his strain!
In this valediction, Byron glimpses the poetic impulses that drive Don Juan, as he delights in multiple possibilities; simultaneously, opening-up and suspending interpretative choices; deferring moral and aesthetic judgement to a future reader outside of his poetic creations. Here the twice repeated conditional of “if in memories dwell/ A thought which once was his” and “if on ye swell/ a single recollection” tentatively hopes that something of this final (and all other previous) scenes, which have impinged upon the narrator’s subjectivity, will also have left a lasting, memorable, impression on the mind of the reader. Yet the further (treble) repetition of “if” in the last line makes the hopeful assertion even less certain and even more vulnerable to a reader’s interpretative choices, which might interpret a very different “moral” from Byron’s “strain” about the Pilgrim’s suffering and “pain” with recourse to biography and history.
Byron’s personal sorrowful preoccupations are, undoubtedly, behind the poetic encounters with actual suffering in Cantos III and IV but, paradoxically, Byron’s efforts to imaginatively remodel a new and nobler self-image evade the very biographical and historical causes of the suffering that his poetry so readily exhibits. For Byron, as Peter Manning observes, “inquiry into history is an extension of inquiry into self” (97). Like those historical ruins strewn around the worlds of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Manfred, the Byronic poetic self, at this moment, remains indeterminately caught between “[w]hat I can ne’er express, yet can not all conceal” (IV, 178, 1602). Byron’s tragicomic delight in the indeterminate fate of historical ruins from the past create a decisive break with temporality which strain after a posthumous reputation and existence outside of the author’s historical moment of writing. Byron’s tragicomic poetic recollections of “ruinous perfection” (Manfred, 3, 4, 28) and “[t]he Colossal fabric’s form” (CH IV, 143, 1285) belong neither strictly to history’s past or present moment, nor to those tragic or comic modes, as their decaying incompletion heightens a consciousness of historicity and the impossibility of possessing a total historical knowledge. Unable to recover these ruins of the past or imagine those ruins of the future, Byron and his readers are left fascinated and terrified by the “pleasing fear” (CH IV, 184, 1653) which forms the delightful and dreadful impossibility of grasping our historical origins or destination.
Mark Sandy is a Senior Lecturer in English Studies at Durham University and author of Poetics of Self and Form in Keats and Shelley (Ashgate, 2005). He is also co-editor with Michael O'Neill (Durham University) of four volumes on Romanticism: Critical Concepts in Cultural and Literary Studies (Routledge, 2006). More recently, he co-edited with Andrew Radford (University of Glasgow) a critical collection of essays on Romantic Echoes in the Victorian Era (Ashgate, 2008). He is currently researching a project, provisionally entitled Romantic Forms of Grief: Romanticism, Memory, and Mourning.
The precise title or nature of the volume is unknown. See Curtis Cate, Friedrich Nietzsche 298.
My own approach does not offer a comparative analysis of the treatment of forgetting in Nietzsche and Byron, but interprets Byron’s personal and historical reflections through Nietzsche’s understanding of memory and forgetting. For a comparative approach, see Soderholm and Thatcher. For the significance of Nietzsche for McGann’s approach to Romantic literature see McGann 1-2; 10-12. Elsewhere McGann connects Byron with Nietzsche’s nihilism; see also “Private Poetry, Public Deception” 136.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecco Homo 126. Hereafter EH. For a discussion of the issues raised by Nietzsche’s foregrounding of “forgetting” by subsequent historical events see R. J. Hollingdale, trans. and J. P. Stern intro. Untimely Meditations xv-xvi. Hereafter UM. See also Séan Burke on Nietzsche’s “posthumous fate” (490), “The Responsibilities of the Writer,” Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide, ed. Patricia Waugh 486-96.
Nietzsche, Human, All To Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale and intro. Richard Schact 84.
See Nietzsche, EH. 58 and see also Frank Erik and Achim Geisenhanslüke, “The Reception of Byron in German-Speaking Lands,” The Reception of Byron in Europe, ed. Richard Cardwell, vol. 2, 266-8.
Nietzsche, Daybreak, trans R. J. Hollingdale and intro. Michael Tanner 102. Hereafter D.
I detect a similar Nietzschean inter-play between forgetting and remembering in Shelley’s Adonais; see my Poetics of Self and Form in Keats and Shelley 95-107.
Quoted in Cate, Friedrich Nietzsche 29; 298. Nietzsche’s composition inspired by Byron’s Manfred has been described as “a potpourri of advanced and conservative practice, of the banal and the inspired, of the noisy and the delicate, all strung together as illustrating a text which is not supplied.” Quoted by Soderholm, “Byron, Nietzsche, and the Mystery of Forgetting” 58; see also Frederick Love, Young Nietzsche and the Wagnerian Experience 70, 72.
George Gordon Byron, Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, eds. Jerome J. McGann and Barry Weller, 7 vols, 1986, vol. 4, Act 2, 4, 98-101. All quotations from this edition.
Frederick Garber reads, in Self, Text, and Romantic Irony, this image as a sign that Astarte cannot be “diminished by death” (171-2) for Manfred. Lear mistakenly believes Cordelia is alive. King Lear, 5, 3, 309-10.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose: The Authoritative Texts, eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat 520. See also Tom Mole who, in Byron’s Romantic Celebrity, picks up the creative-destructive aspect of electricity and the sexual implications of Byron’s imagery in this stanza (122).
Lord Byron, Byron’s Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand, vol. 5, 104-5. See also Vincent Newey, “Authoring the Self: Child Harold III and IV,” Byron and the Limits of Fiction, eds. Bernard Beatty and Vincent Newey 152-65.
Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Douglas Smith, 39; 40. This passage has been read as one of Nietzsche’s most proto-Freudian moments; see Soderholm, “Byron, Nietzsche, and the Mystery of Forgetting” 57-8.
These Marxist and Foucauldian studies of authorial construction, personal, and political history include Jerome J. McGann, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation; Malcolm Kelsall, Byron’s Politics; Richard Lansdown, Byron’s Historical Dramas; Daniel P. Watkins, A Materialist Critique of English Romantic Drama. See also Moyra Haslett, Don Juan and the Don Juan Legend; and Jane Stabler, Byron, Poetics and History.
Watkins regards Byron’s drama as inextricable from social and historical processes (149-62). See also Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, for his views concerning Byron and Goethe (174-8).
I am grateful to Bernard Beatty for his observations about Manfred’s use of present tense in response to part of this essay given as a paper at the 34th International Byron Conference, St Andrews, 14-21 July 2008.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria: Or Biographical Sketches of My Life and Work, 2 parts, vol. 7, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, eds. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate 5.
Peter Manning argues, in Byron and His Fictions, that Byron, in Childe Harold, rejects a static model of history for a “past that is to be directly re-experienced” (202).
For a more detailed discussion of memory and history in Manfred see Sandy, “‘Ruinous Perfection:’ Reading and Writing Romantic Fragments,” Romanticism and Form, ed. Alan Rawes.
Soderholm notes this Kierkegaardian echo in Nietzsche; see “Byron, Nietzsche, and the Mystery of Forgetting” 55-6.
Newey similarly detects private and public “levels of response” in the Coliseum episode of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (172).
Drummond Bone notes this kind of (re-)modelling in Byron’s poetry in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage IV, Don Juan and Beppo,” The Cambridge Companion to Byron, ed. Drummond Bone 151; 151-70. On Byron’s poetic strategies to move away from the Byronic hero’s “distinctive tragic world” of Manfred in a bid to return to the comic mode of Don Juan see Alan Rawes, Byron’s Poetic Experimentation 117-38. See also Catherine Addison, “Narrator’s Identity and Stanza Form in the Venetian Sections of Childe Harold IV and ‘Beppo,’” Societe Française des Etudes Byroniennes 14.2 (2007), 47-56.
Vitana Kostadinova usefully suggests, in “The Rise of the Sublime and the Fall of History,” that “Byron’s metaphysical writings and the interpretation of history in Canto 4 are indicative of a tendency which is to lead to Nietzsche’s superhistorical people” (197).
See William Galperin, “The Postmodernism of Childe Harold,” Byron, ed. Jane Stabler 144; 138-51.
John Keats. The Poems of John Keats, ed. Jack Stillinger 736-7.
George Gordon Byron. “Some Observations upon an Article in Blackwood’s Magazine 29 August 1819,” The Works of Lord Byron, ed. Thomas Moore 92 n2.
For a discussion of literary posterity see Andrew Bennett, Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity 197, 195-99.
Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. and intro. R. J. Hollingdale. 55. Soderholm notes this Nietzschean fascination with the Romantic figure of the child; see “Byron, Nietzsche, and the Mystery of Forgetting” 62.
Manning notes this contrast between the masculine and feminine qualities ascribed to the ocean in Canto III and Canto IV of Childe Harold 97.
Bone reads the closing movement of Childe Harold as ushering in the comic modes of both Don Juan and Beppo 155-6.
Sophie Thomas explores, in “Assembling History: Fragments and Ruins,” what she terms “the paradox of the ruin as a site of preservation in decay” (181).
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