Contemporary discussions of English Romantic philosophers and their theories often include such names as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, Thomas DeQuincey, and Charles Lamb, but rarely do they treat of George Gordon, Lord Byron. While Byron’s reputation was not built upon complex philosophical explications of literary theory, the passion of his life did not preclude that of his mind. He has left us with no overtly philosophical work, and yet, many of the digressions in Don Juan are directed at the poets and philosophers of his time and some others seem to point us to a coherent system of thought about literature and how it works. Specifically, Juan’s voyage at sea contains several passages which parody Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Some of these similarities have been explored, but are frequently treated as if Byron were simply creating a pastiche of contemporary literature. However, Coleridge had used the Rime to elucidate a portion of his understanding of how literature works. It seems possible that Byron is purposely answering Coleridge in the second canto of Don Juan. Thus, we may be able to use Byron’s natural imagery and poetic technique to piece together a philosophical statement from that most unphilosophical of Romantics, Lord Byron.
Corps de l’article
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was originally published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, its opening line heralding a new age of literature. In 1817, Coleridge published a revised version of the poem in Sibylline Leaves. Less than a year later, Lord Byron began writing his comic epic, Don Juan. In its dedication the narrator criticizes contemporary poets including Wordsworth and Coleridge claiming that he despises the “air” of “mystery” which modern “poets prize,” a thinly veiled reference to the supernatural elements of Coleridge’s Rime. While Byron is rarely treated as a literary theorist, Jerome McGann claims that “by the time he was ready to write Don Juan, Byron was seriously questioning [Coleridge’s] idea that creative artists can only work under laws of their own origination” (36). Instead, Byron subscribed to Horace’s theories, especially those found in the Ars Poetica in which form is not something which springs from nature or the poet but is something imposed upon a work through the use of rhetorical figures, hence an art, in the classical sense of the word. Byron’s imagery is therefore less organic and his symbolism less comprehensive than Coleridge’s, which makes a gleaning of his poetic theory difficult, but not impossible, particularly if we begin with obvious similarities, such as those between Juan’s ill-fated sea voyage and the Mariner’s strange adventure.
Both Canto II of Don Juan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner involve an exotic sea voyage that takes a disastrous turn. In both works, crimes against nature are committed and subsequently punished. In both, forces of nature are portrayed as, at best, whimsical and, at worst, uncontrollable, and in both poems, seemingly miraculous forces of nature give the crew some kind of hope. The dead bodies of crew mates remain on board the ship in both works and in each only one character survives, but perhaps the most obvious similarity between Byron’s work and Coleridge’s is the “beautiful white bird” which Juan’s sailors first take as a “better omen” than even the fleeting rainbow of the previous stanzas (2.94.1, 8).
Although the image of a white bird has a long literary and symbolic history and Byron alludes to Noah in the next stanza, this does not preclude the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that he is also referring to the albatross of the Rime, but the allusion also illustrates Byron’s deviation from Coleridge’s method. Byron’s description of the bird shies from mystery and focuses instead on detail. The bird is “Webfooted, not unlike a dove in size / And plumage, (probably it might have err’d / Upon its course)” (2.94.2-4). Not only is the bird described in prosaic terms, but also in the next stanza, Byron’s narrator argues rather practically that had the bird remained hovering around the ship, it most likely would have been killed for food. While this reference is, like most of the poem, sardonic and humorous, there is more here than irony. Jerome McGann has suggested that “the vexed question about the form of Don Juan is closely related to Byron’s critical ideas about contemporary poetry” (35), and this symbol reveals Byron’s understanding of the poet’s relationship to the world and the fact that he is responding to Coleridge’s philosophical musings on poetry. Byron emphasizes the physicality, the reality, and therefore the superiority of the natural world and defines the poet as one who has intense life experience and the education to describe it. Coleridge characterizes the world as a mirror reflecting that which is otherworldly. The poet reads his experience within the world symbolically and interprets it to reveal the supernatural to his readers. The two poets, therefore, make radically different uses of natural imagery in their poems, particularly those images that often represent inspiration—wind and light.
Coleridge personifies such natural forces, assigning them feelings and motives. After the Mariner’s ship reaches the equator, for example, it is driven by a “storm-blast,” “tyrannous and strong” to the South Pole (41, 42). The wind therefore appears to be a decidedly negative force at odds with the ship and her crew. The blast “pursue”s the Mariner and his ship with a “yell and blow” and treats them as its enemy (46, 47). The negative impression created early in the poem by the wind is unusual for Coleridge, since for both he and Wordsworth the wind is frequently a metaphor for poetic or creative ability—the breath of life, the breath of language, and the breath of nature conjoined; however, the poem and its gloss suggest that the negative impression, the description of the wind as “tyrannous,” may be the Mariner’s interpretation rather than the poet’s. The presence of the gloss indicates that the Mariner’s account conveys the action of the journey but requires interpretation to clarify its meaning. The Mariner is apparently unsettled by the intensity of the wind, just as he is unnerved by the power of his tale. The strangeness of the experience is also conveyed by the place to which the strong wind has taken the crew, an isolated and frightening place, a place where there is no human or animal contact, a place of cold sterility. Although the Pole possesses great beauty with “ice […] / As green as emerald” (53-54), it is also a locus for fear and danger, since the ice “cracked and growled, and roared and howled, / Like noises in a swound!” (61-62). Creative energies, particularly in young artists, can likewise cause such conflicting emotions. “Tintern Abbey” is perhaps an appropriate correlative.
Coleridge continues to use the wind to symbolize language. Upon the appearance of the albatross, “a good south wind sprung up behind” (71), supporting the crew’s initial interpretation of the bird as a good omen or the harbinger of the wind that is going to help them “return northward” (71 gloss). However, there is no exact correlation between the bird and the wind, since even after the Mariner shoots it, a “good south wind still blew behind” (87). The wind does not cease until they reach the equator again on the other side of South America. While the storm-blast that drove them to the Pole was dangerous and frightening because of its intensity, the breeze that returns them to the equator is described always as “good” or “fair.” When it ceases at the equator, long after the Mariner shoots the bird,
The sails dropt down,
‘Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!
Even more so than the albatross, the wind symbolizes the crew’s escape from misfortune. Without it, the crew possesses “nor breath nor motion” (116), and in its lack, the language of the crew ceases. The only role that speech now has in the absence of the wind is to “break the silence,” a violent metaphor for language without purpose, and language soon becomes impossible as “every tongue” is “withered at the root” (136). Language, coordinate with the wind, stagnates, and it is at this point that the Mariner must endure the penance of the albatross being hung around his neck. The Mariner will not become capable of speech again until he performs an extraordinary act of self-sacrifice sucking his own blood, renewing himself with his own life forces, the first of many sacrifices the Mariner makes to language.
The joy of the crew at hearing his news is translated into breath, which they “drew in, / As they were drinking all” (165-166), but is short-lived. The Mariner is soon alone on the wide sea, and he describes his attempts to pray, saying that “A wicked whisper came, and made / My heart as dry as dust” (246-247). In the midst of the still-becalmed sea, he is not capable of issuing the breath of a prayer. Instead, the effort further desiccates him. It is only when he acknowledges the insufficiency of language that the wind begins again. The Mariner for two stanzas of the poem describes the beauty of the water snakes swimming by the ship and then claims that “no tongue / their beauty might declare” (282-283). At that moment the albatross drops from his neck, he falls into a swoon, and, according to the gloss, “The spell begins to break” (288). Through the image of the wind, the Mariner thus presents the Wedding Guest and the reader with a complicated view of language. He claims that human linguistic ability could not adequately convey the beauty of the living creatures, yet he attempts to do so in a lengthy description of his experience. Similarly, he describes his penance as a blessing and a prayer, which are linguistic constructions, but both he and the gloss emphasize the fact that they are heartfelt thoughts and not utterances. Even so, their repetition in both the language of the poem and the Mariner’s recitation to the Wedding Guest solidifies their status as language-bound formulae. Language is thus both inadequate as a symbolic system and unavoidable for practical or abstract communication.
These linguistic complications are soon transferred to creative energies. The storm-blast of the first section returns in Part V as a “roaring wind” (309), but through its motion “the upper air burst into life,” making even the “stars dance” (313, 317). The Mariner connects the wind with new life and motion, even though he indicates that “the loud wind never reached the ship” (327), reiterating this fact with “never a breeze up-blew” (336) and “never a breeze did breathe” (374). The wind therefore is present, but is not the motive force for the ship, and thus must be the harbinger of something more than motion. The explanation for the phenomenon of the ship’s movement “Without or wave or wind” (423) is provided by one of two spirits, akin to the polar spirit who has been exacting his revenge, and that explanation is a supernatural one—it is an “angelic power” which is moving the ship (gloss, 422). Thus, Coleridge forces us to accept supernatural explanations for what would otherwise be natural phenomenon, which accords with his final description of the spell breaking, since, with little explanation, the Mariner claims “And now this spell was snapt” (442). The revelation is accompanied again with a silent wind that blows only on the Mariner, “rais[ing] his hair, fann[ing] his cheek” (456). He says further that it had a calming influence. “It mingled strangely with my fears, / Yet it felt like a welcoming” (458-459), although again emphasizing that the breeze he feels is not what is moving the ship since it blows on him alone (463). The importance of the breeze appears to lie not in the effect that it has on the natural world, but rather in the way it allows the Mariner to interpret that world’s events. While it is possible that the wind reanimates the dead bodies of the crew in order to work the ship, since the Wedding Guest interrupts reminding us of the narrative structure of the poem (345), it is more likely that the wind is functioning to give the Mariner power to remember and tell his tale. Coleridge implies that the creative force, the muse, is an ever-present factor in the poet’s life, often filtered through natural forces. The natural world is part of that environment which facilitates creation, but also requires interpretation.
The first mention of the operation of the wind in Don Juan is at the ship’s departure when “the wind sung” (2.13.2). In the midst of the ship’s destruction, the noise of the wind joins with the waves and the drunken sounds of its sailors, thus orchestrating the chaos of the physical destruction of the ship and the moral corruption of its crew. The wind propels the ship upon its voyage and bestows a terrible seasickness upon our hero. The first night at sea it increases to a gale which frightens the passengers and soon after throws “the ship right into the trough of the sea, / Which […] shatter’d the / Whole of her stern-frame,” tore the rudder off, and swamped the lower decks (2.26, 2.27.2-3, 5). The wind, then, while an unseen force, is still capable of real physical destruction as opposed to Coleridge’s wind, which he insists is not the force moving the ship. The wind is less the next day, but it quickly increases and soon another gale comes upon them (2.42). After three days and much loss of life, the wind does cease, which causes the crew to fall “all ravenously on their provision” (2.68.6-7). Apparently, the temporary calm has eased both their fears and their stomachs, the result of which is that they exhaust their stores while stagnating on the ocean. The wind does not return until they near the coast and is described as a “freshness [… which] / wave[s] in forest tops, and smooth[es] the air” (2.103.3-4). Its function then is not devoid of symbolism, but neither is it able to be reduced to mere symbol. The wind has a metaphoric purpose, but also propels the action of the epic.
Coleridge’s Mariner keenly feels the wind and is well aware of its natural force and power, but it is only Coleridge’s reader who sees the symbolic meaning of the wind as the driving force for creative energies. Byron rejects this notion of creativity’s supernatural origins and forces the reader to focus on the reality of the natural world. Ernest Lovell accurately ascribes the natural forces in Canto II as indifferent and states that according to Byron, “man reads his own moods into her at his peril” (205). This attitude is also seen in the Rime when the crew is uncertain how to interpret the Mariner’s slaying of the albatross. However, Lovell claims that Byron’s description of the sea “calls forth a great impersonal natural force which man must combat and subdue in order to live” (204), perhaps misreading Byron’s poem. Certainly, the communion that is advocated in the Rime, the cooperation and recognition of the divinity in both nature and man, is not present in Byron’s work, but neither is the message of subduing nature. At most, Byron suggests we thwart it with pleasure or drink. Lovell, however, is correct in assuming that according to Byron, the sea is not something to be revered and is not the backdrop for philosophical speculation or allegory. Instead, it has a frightening reality which Juan and the sailors can never forget and a seeming will to destruction that operates outside any law of logic or justice. According to Ernest Lovell, the cannibalism of the tutor was an instance of the “horror of inhumanity which nature, aided by man’s folly, may bring man to” (205). What Lovell does not appear to notice is that it is the combination of nature and man’s folly that is important to Byron. If nature is an impersonal force, as Byron clearly felt it was, then everything—down to survival on earth but also including our cultural or aesthetic sense—depends upon our own right reason, our ability to see things clearly in their unmixed states, an ability that can only be reached through a proper transmutation of physical experiences and sensations into mental activity, but that mental activity must refuse to diminish their quality as physical experiences.
Byron’s emphasis on sound rather than Coleridge’s light or color imagery lead us to some of his suppositions about the relationship between language and experience. While the fate of the ship is being decided, the crew abandon themselves to despair, at which point the winds become a “treble” and the waves a “bass” which together create the melody to which the crew members contribute “Strange sounds of wailing, blasphemy, devotion, / […] in chorus to the roaring ocean” (2.34.4, 7-8). Their emotional distress, along with a bit of rum and grog, has rendered them incapable of coherent expression, thus linking them to the noises of nature. When Juan is finally rescued, his benefactor’s voice is described as sweet music which can create an emotion, “The sort of sound we echo with a tear, / Without knowing why—an overpowering tone, / Whence Melody descends as from a throne” (2.151.6-8). Thus musical sounds that can be created by man or nature, abstract physical sensations but physical nonetheless, are capable of evoking emotional responses made manifest physically, in this case, the “echo” of “a tear.”
As this scene illustrates, there are methods other than language of expressing abstractions, methods of communication which are more intangible and therefore more suited to the conveyance of abstract emotions. Juan and Haidée for example speak different languages and might therefore have difficulty communicating. However, the narrator informs us that
though their speech
Was broken words, they thought a language there,
And all the burning tongues the passions teach
Found in one sigh the best interpreter
Of nature’s oracle.
Through looks, through touches, through sighs, through physical sensations, the two lovers communicate the abstract and elusive idea, love. Communication, the function of language, is most certainly taking place, but it is a matter of debate as to which of these forms of communication—Juan and Haidée’s unspoken amor, or the language of the narrator—is a more physical, tangible form. If Byron had a weakness as a poet, it is this refusal to accept language as a form of physical sensation. It is only through our diaphragm, lungs, vocal chords, and the complicated set of muscles in our throats and mouths that we are able to utter any idea, no matter how abstract it may be. Are the acts of listening, writing, or reading any less physical? Why do we therefore assume that language is some esoteric function, incapable of description, inadequate to the moment? Yet, this is what Byron believed. Elizabeth Boyd has noted that “though he dabbled unceasingly in metaphysical speculation, he postponed defining and elaborating abstractions, from a hard-headed conviction that he could know only what came to him through his senses”(98). The definition and elaboration of which Boyd speaks are nothing more than articulations, physical reactions to a thought. However, for Byron, the physical is always more important than the intellectual. Physical sensations can be trusted, whereas emotional or philosophical speculations cannot.
Byron’s second canto begins by contrasting the merits of book learning with physical experience. The first stanza of Canto II recommends that we flog the “ingeneous youth,” the second that we place them in a colder rather than warmer climate (1). A note in the Variorum edition of Don Juan indicates that “one of the main contrasting themes of the canto [is] the dominance of animal man over aesthetic and spiritual man” (67). This theme assumes that in man’s fallen state physical means of instruction or communication are far better suited than linguistic. Byron not only believed in man’s fallen state, he reveled in it. Byron frankly rejoices that poetry will never take the place of physical beauty. In stanza six in his description of the ladies of Cadiz, he exploits the fact that he doesn’t have a metaphor suited to explaining their beauty, saying, enraptured, “their feet and ankles—well, thank heaven, I’ve got no metaphor quite ready” (2.6.6). If physical beauty could be adequately conveyed through metaphor, perhaps it could not be as fully enjoyed physically. It is not so much the physicality of Byron’s world, therefore, but the quality of that physicality, which distinguishes him from his contemporaries, especially in his refusal to accept natural beauty and solitude as the answers to the corruption of civilization (Lovell 49). Byron’s attitude in Don Juan is that “it is unprofitable in the midst of the spiritual and poetic to forget the physical” (Lovell 54) and yet his remembrance does not attempt to glean harmony and solitude from the natural world, as Wordsworth for example would have done, but is instead an attempt to maintain a realistic perspective on an abstraction.
Byron’s use of the light in his poem is likewise realistic rather than inspirational. As the ship sinks finally into the ocean, “there was no light in heaven but a few stars” (2.51.5). The sun is later described “burning,” “blister[ing],” and “scorch[ing] the crew” (2.72.1,2). Finally, as they approach the shore, “twilight” is followed with a few “stars” which “shone out,” and land appears to have risen “with the sun’s ray” (2.96.1,2, 2.97.3). These descriptions, like those of the wind, are natural rather than symbolic, although they do mirror the crew’s response to outward circumstances.
Light within The Rime of the Ancient Mariner possesses a much clearer symbolic function than it has in Don Juan. At the ship’s first entrance to the sea,
The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.
The description supports the merriment of the sailors with its brightness, but also their ignorance of their fate since the vague references to left and right give no indication of direction. It continues to rise “Higher and higher every day, / Till over the mast at noon—“ (29-30), at which the Wedding Guest grieves, not for the fate of the crew but at the sounds of the joyful merrymaking he is missing within the Wedding Hall. Part 2 is introduced by the sun “still hid in mist” (85) rising upon the right to indicate the geography of the ship, showing that they have switched hemispheres. Yet, the sun is not necessarily a benevolent force as it generally is in poetry, but rises “nor dim nor red” (97). The neither/nor structure robs the sun of its benevolent power and instead suggests to the reader its malicious potential. Again it stands above the mast, although “no bigger than the Moon” (114). Thus, the sun serves as a geographical marker; however, the sun is generally a symbol for light, life, regeneration, warmth, etc. In its simplicity, Coleridge is robbing the image of its power, but he uses that void to suggest something more salient.
The sun undergoes a transformation in the latter half of Part 2. The light at this point in the narrative becomes a burning, nighttime light in the form of “death-fires” (128). It is unnatural—indeed the comparison to “witch’s oils” suggests that it is nearly supernatural—and like the lack of wind which dries “every tongue” (135), the eerie light precedes the Mariner’s punishment by the crew. Light then returns as flame reflected upon the waters from a “broad bright Sun” (174) as the sailors begin to hope that the ship containing Death and Life-in-Death will rescue them. The ship, however, comes between them and their source of light, making the sun appear to be a prisoner “peer”ing at them “as if through a dungeon-grate” (179). Nature, specifically the sun, is being thwarted, or held captive, a warning sign at which the Mariner is forced to question his own perceptions. He wonders if “those” are the ship’s sails (183), “those her ribs” (185) and proves incapable of articulating a description of this boat, instead interrogating himself. When Life-in-Death wins the game of dice, the sun disappears and is replaced immediately by stars: “The Sun’s rim dips; the stars rush out: / At one stride comes the dark” (199-200), and beneath the “hornéd,” “star-dogged Moon” (210, 212) the crew falls dead, cursing the Mariner. The sun, which had previously appeared merely as a geographical marker, indifferent to the fate of the crew, is replaced by the pale night reflections representing the fearful and the unknown.
Although “seven days, seven nights” pass in a state of stagnation (261), the light the Mariner describes is not that of the sun, its movement a typical marker of the passage of time, but rather the “moving Moon” (263), under which, “where the ship’s huge shadow lay, / The charméd water burnt always / A still and awful red” (269-71). The gloss indicates that the Mariner longs to be moving as the moon does through the sky, and, strangely, expresses what is almost a hymn of praise, to the
stars that still sojourn, yet still move onward; and every where the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed rest, and their native country and their own natural homes, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival.263
The lights of the night have a greater symbolic significance than the sun, which merely serves to mark the ship’s location on the earth. The moon is supernatural and otherworldly, yet the stars represent things that are in motion, that travel, and yet which always remain at home. Within this context, emphasized by the gloss’s statement that it is “by the light of the moon” that he sees them (272), the Mariner praises the beauty of the water snakes and begins to enact his penance. The storm that ensues and allows the ship to begin movement again is faithfully followed by the moon, who “was at its edge,” “and still / The Moon was at its side” (321, 322-23). Through the supernatural elements of the two additional spirits, companions per the gloss of the polar spirit, the movement of the ship is explained as the movement of the ocean when instructed by the moon, “For she guides him smooth or grim” (419), a lesson the Mariner has yet to learn.
The sun seems to fix the boat to the ocean, symbolizing that the strong, bright light of the day, a possible metaphor for reason, is a stagnating force. The moon, on the one hand, in allowing the Mariner to experience supernatural events reveals the poet’s imitative capacity as a force capable of guiding a stranded ship home and allowing reflection resulting in revelation. The moon, however, is silent, as the Mariner’s return to shore indicates. When he finally sees his harbor once more, “The moonlight steeped in silentness / The steady weathercock. / And the bay was white with silent light” (481-81). This is one among many lessons that the Mariner fails to learn. His revelations that have appeared to him by the light of the silent moon do not remain unspoken. Instead, he feels the burning need to share them with the Hermit who “loves to talk with mariners / That come from a far countree” (517-8). The Mariner, still under the moon’s spell, “heard them [the hermit, the pilot and his boy] talk” but himself “nor spake nor stirred” (523, 543), a spell which the Mariner breaks as soon as his feet touch land and his senses return to him.
Coleridge seeks to abstract physical experience, locating its meaning and import in the truth which it imparts; therefore, in Coleridge’s text the physicality is frequently more global, of the earth rather than of man. The argument to the poem, present in the 1798 edition, describes the physical voyage that the Mariner took, explaining that he crosses the line of the equator to the South Pole, returns to the line and from there back to his homeland. The only reference to the more mystical or supernatural events is the phrase “and of the strange things that befell.” Arguments serving as literary prefaces generally summarize not only the action of the segment but its meaning. For Coleridge, however, knowing that the narrative action of the tale is rather hard to follow, the geographic focus of the argument frees him from too rigid a specification within the poem itself while he attempts to work out themes of “guilt, punishment and redemption” and the primary and secondary imaginations (Boulger 8, Bloom Samuel Taylor Coleridge 5), revealing in the process his idea of the roles shared by nature and the poet in inspiration and understanding.
The Rime’s opening line, “It is an Ancient Mariner and he stoppeth one of three” is quite vague as to both the time and the place of the action. The “it” avoids all reference to physical or spatial context. The “is” places the action in the present tense, which lends a sense of immediacy to the narrative. Finally the use of the indefinite article “an” works together with the “it” and the “is” to create the sense for the reader that this action could be taking place at any place, at any time, perhaps even here and now. The Mariner’s description of the journey is likewise vague. He relies on simple, common nouns, such as “harbour,” “ship,” and “kirk” (21, 23), all used with a definite article, assuming a familiarity with the objects, a prior knowledge of the places and things to which he is referring, without any adjectives which would disqualify those harbors, ships, and kirks with which we are all familiar, either through personal experience or through other narratives. The Mariner also refers to east and west as “left” and “right” (25, 27), which indicates that our physical location is fixed, but also that we have been removed from the world with which we are familiar through the lack of specific direction.
Although H.W. Piper has argued that the natural imagery in the Rime accords with natural phenomenon as understood by scientists in Coleridge’s day, so that the poem is actually more rooted in the physical than has previously been thought (187), many other critics agree that Coleridge either avoids too specific a description of the natural, or forces us to see it as supernatural. Warren Stevenson has argued that even the gloss assists in this process of abstraction since Coleridge’s multiple narrative personas, including both the Mariner and the narrator of the gloss, perform the function of rescuing the poet from too direct or base a connection with his subject by forcing the process of interpretation to occur even within the world of the poem (104). Newton Stallknecht in his “The Moral of the Ancient Mariner” claims that both Wordsworth and Coleridge at the time of writing the Rime believed that creativity sparked a love of nature and man as a result of its relationship with the divine spirit. He says that according to Coleridge, “the world that we apprehend solely through the lower faculty of reason is a ‘universe of death,’ and if we devote ourselves exclusively to the study of this universe, as Coleridge has put it, we ‘bring death into our own souls’” (Stallknecht 149). Thus, the purpose of this abstraction is to allow both the reader and the poet a temporary escape from the death, decay, and corruption of the physical, functioning as a sort of poetic fountain of youth.
Byron, however, is no escapist. He refuses to recognize a division between the spiritual, the mental, and the physical activities of man—for him they are always one. As an example, when the ship begins to come under such duress that the crew members commence preparing the life boat, when they realize that the ship will not survive and that their lives may be in danger, the narrator claims that “worst of all was that in their condition / […] / ’Twas difficult to get out provision / As now might render their long suffering less” (2.46.1, 3-4). This claim would at first appear to be an exaggerated excuse for their cannibalism, but the stanza indicates, “Men, even when dying, dislike ‘inanition’” (2.46.5), the state of being empty or void, both physically and mentally. The implication is that a physical emptiness, a loss of food, a lack of nourishment, a lack of sufficient provisions, is the forerunner to a mental emptiness, thoughtlessness, or void in the brain. Byron thus foresees the development of Maslow’s hierarchy, arguing that man’s physical needs must be met before he can enjoy intellectual or even significant emotional activity.
For Byron, the question becomes how to make language less abstract. He employs a variety of methods, many of which have been identified as weaknesses by his critics—cacophony, juxtaposition, digression, irony, inclusivity, and especially content. Don Juan repeatedly returns to the most base physical states through descriptions of seasickness, drunkenness, and cannibalism, specifically refusing philosophical speculation and rarely allowing us to interpret an event through the abstract alone. This is not mere comic effect. According to Andrew Rutherford, Byron’s method was “rejecting the false principle of selection which makes literature falsify life” (56). His lewd and base content is part of his philosophical stance that man is primarily a physical being. It is surprising, then, that even in the latter half of the twentieth century, Byron’s physicality is still being condemned. Harold Bloom, for example, claims that Byron is at times limited by his own grosser passions, arguing that he is so bodily that although he can glimpse abstractions, he cannot fully achieve them, which makes his more sublime poetry his worst. Bloom claims “the Muse of Byron was too lively to accommodate the grosser of his private apprehensions” (Lord Byron 10) thus in effect arguing that this physical nature of his verse is one of his prime defects. In Byron’s own experience, both the emotions and the intellectual processes were so readily affected by the physical sensations of the surroundings that to trust those as independent activities was futile. Byron was once quoted as saying, “what nonsense to talk of soul, […] when wine makes it mad and a cloud makes it melancholy” (Lovell 224). He illustrates this in Juan in stanza twenty-one, which compares the activity of the heart to the stomach, arguing that there is little difference between the two, or that our emotions are generally ruled by our physical state.
If man’s experience is rooted in the physical, then perception is the primary mode of knowledge, yet in a masterful series of narrative turns, Byron allows us to see how those perceptions can be skewed. In stanzas eleven and twelve, Juan is on a ship leaving Spain. Both the past tense and the third person provide narrative distance between this telling of the story and the action of the tale itself, a distance that is both reinforced and undermined by the subsequent descriptions. First, the narrator changes to the present tense when he says, “A devil of a sea rolls in that Bay” (2.11.3), making the action more immediate. He relates Juan’s experience to his own, claiming, “As I, who’ve cross’d it oft, know well enough” (2.11.4), lessening the distance between himself and Juan. He then extrapolates these experiences to all of us by saying that “standing upon deck, the dashing spray / Flies in one’s face” including us all potentially in the narrative’s action (2.11.5-6). Through the phrase “I recollect” the narrator again includes himself in the action, but also increases his narrative distance, since the verb implies a lengthy span of time. Finally, the reader is included with the collective pronoun of the last line: “mystified by distance, / We enter on our nautical existence” (2.12.7-8). The reader has now been pulled into the narrative, a new metaphysical state, a nautical existence, along with Juan and the narrator, and is warned not to trust his or her perceptions since time and space both render them untrustworthy. At the canto’s close, when the nautical state is about to end, the crewmen are so confused at the sight of land that they are incapable of interpreting what they see:
Some fancied they saw land, and some said ‘No!’
The frequent fog-banks gave them cause to doubt—
Some swore that they heard breakers, others guns,
And all mistook about the latter once.
Their perceptions have been so skewed by their experiences at sea that they are incapable of interpreting the information that comes to them through their senses.
In part due to humanity’s inadequate understanding, most clearly exemplified in an inability to interpret physical perceptions accurately, Byron’s narrator laments that he is incapable of controlling either the events of the poem or his conveyance of these to the reader, claiming that the action is something “which all descriptive power transcends” (2.30.7). This is in sharp contrast to Coleridge whose Mariner controls the narrative, whether or not he fully understands its message. This control is manifest in the way the Mariner restrains the Wedding Guest, compelling him to listen. The Guest is held captive by the Mariner, first by his “skinny hand” (9); second, “with his glittering eye” (13); until finally, “he cannot choose but hear” (18). The first of these restraints is physical. The next is intangible, and the final is linguistic, which illustrates that Coleridge believed strongly in the power of narrative. Coleridge’s Mariner in fact represents the poet’s belief in the power of narrative to cleanse and instruct, a power that the Mariner himself does not possess but which is present in the poem through the gloss.
Byron’s emphasis on the physical and his distrust of abstractions as abstractions cause him some anxiety over his ability to convey experience through language adequately, an anxiety which manifests in his poetry. Byron’s narrator acknowledges that the use of metaphor fails him and that both space and time are limited within the narrative. He attempts to compare the women of Cadiz to a “an Arab horse, a stately stag, a barb / New broke, a camelopard, a gazelle, / No—none of these will do” (2.6.1-3). His anxiety at not being able to find a metaphor that will adequately describe the women of Cadiz leads him to complain that “to dwell / Upon such things would very near absorb / A canto” (2.6.4-6), showing that he is aware that within the confines of poetry both space and time are limited. In the next stanza, he invokes the Muse to assist him, but describes her as “Chaste,” and she inspires a rather cryptic description:
Chaste Muse!—well, if you must, you must)—the veil
Thrown back a moment with the glancing hand,
While the o’erpowering eye, that turns you pale,
Flashes into the heart.
“The glancing hand’ and “the o’erpowering eye” are both reminiscent of the Mariner’s “skinny hand” and “glittering eye” (9, 13), reminding us of the power narrative has to captivate and control, a power here transferred to a group of helpless young women. In Don Juan, narrative power is overthrown, since it is clear that the physical beauty of the women overshadows any effect the muse can create, rendering her impotent, and thus “chaste.”
This contrasts with Byron’s anxiety over the abstract nature of language, perhaps best exemplified in the infamous scene of barbarity in which the crew murders Juan’s tutor Pedrillo for food. The primitive nature of the crew is first indicated by a look “in their wolfish eyes” (2.72.8). The narrative places special emphasis on the fact that the longing is unspoken. It almost immediately though becomes a “whisper’d” communication, which turns “wild” or unnatural (2.73.1, 4). This thought, made manifest through speech, becomes communal, thus illustrating the natural persuasive power of language which rhetoricians have long noted, particularly among primitive people. The crew’s first act is to “distribut”e Julia’s letter to Juan, “Lull[ing] even the savage hunger which demanded, / Like the Promethean vulture, this pollution” (2.75.2, 3-4). Byron’s narrator emphasizes that what is shocking or offensive in the barbaric description of the crew members' cannibalism is that the product of language, the letter, becomes the first sacrifice, a dissemination which temporarily assuages their hunger. For a moment, the language they have stolen substitutes for the meat that they crave. The horror that they then experience is “silent” (2.75.2) because of the violence that has been committed on language, the crew’s first crime. Likewise, the first instance of their madness from having fed on another human being is a linguistic one. They “blaspheme” and make inhuman and unintelligible sounds including “howling, screeching, swearing / And […] hyaena laughter” (2.79.4, 7-8). The crew has rejected the form of language, language disciplined and made exact by an authorial hand, and are justly punished for such an offense. We will leave to our audience’s imagination the fate Byron envisioned for those of his contemporaries who advocated a mystical origin rather than an artistic one to the beauty and complexity of language.
References are to the Variorum, indicating Canto, stanza, and line numbers.
References are to line numbers in The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
References to the gloss are so noted. Line numbers refer to the first poetic line corresponding to the gloss wherein the reference appears.
- Bloom, Harold. “Introduction.” Bloom Lord Byron. 1-14.
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