SUGGESTIONS FOR WEEKEND READING
Review: Poetry by Lord Byron and William Blake
When, to their airy hall, my father’s voice
Shall call my spirit, joyful in their choice;
When, poised upon the gale, my form shall ride,
Or, dark in mist, descend the mountains side;
Oh! may my shade behold no sculptured urns,
To mark the spot where earth to earth returns!
No lengthen’d scroll, no praise-encumber’d stone;
My epitaph shall be my name alone:
If that with honour fail to crown my clay,
Oh! may no other fame my deeds repay!
That, only that, shall single out the spot;
By that remember’d, or with that forgot.
— Lord Byron
Romanticism so defines the 19th century that it is hard to find examples of British culture from that era untouched by that philosophy. This reaction against the Enlightenment is in many ways best captured by the poetry the movement produced—a new kind of poetry that stressed intuition over reason and celebrated the pastoral over the urban. The six poets best known for Romantic poetry are Lord Byron, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Percy Shelley and John Keats.
Lord Byron (1788-1824) defined poetry as “the feeling of a Former world and Future,” explaining that poetry mirrors the juxtaposition felt by all of humanity of simultaneous hope and fear. In his introduction to the Folio Society edition, Johnathan Bate says, “Byron’s poetry wonderfully conjures back to life worlds that are lost: the ruins of Greece, the aesthetic glory (and the glory politics) of the Italian Renaissance, the wonders of the Orient, the exotic names of the Old Testament.” One of Byron’s most famous works which fully embodies this yearning is Child Harold’s Pilgrimage; in it, a jaded young man seeks distraction and stimulation by leaving England to travel the world. Written in Spenserian stanzas, this lengthy, narrative poem was dedicated to “lanthe,” a term of endearment for Lady Charlotte Harley who was 11 years old when the poem was published. While not strictly autobiographical, Byron reveals much of himself through the character of Childe Harold and laments his wasted early youth and, through the dedication to the child Lady Charlotte, shows his wish to have that innocence restored to him. Due to the self-revelation in the first two cantos of the poem, Byron was hesitant to have it published, but at the urging of friends did so in 1812. It brought him immediate acclaim, and by 1818 he had published the third and fourth cantos.
Child Harold’s Pilgrimage also provided the first archetype of the “Byronic Hero” which came to characterize many characters in Victorian Gothic literature (see Ex Libris: Wuthering Heights). Historian and critic Lord Macaulay described this type as “a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.” The Byronic hero is also found in contemporary literature, a demonstration of Byron’s continued influence in the modern era, and is considered to be the precursor of a commonly observed type of antihero.
William Blake (1757 –1827) was largely unrecognized in his time, in stark contrast to Lord Byron, and was not even considered to be one of the leading Romantic poets until after the 1970s. Although Blake was considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views, he is highly regarded today for his expressiveness and creativity. His work contains many philosophical and mystical undercurrents often characterized by his reverence of the Bible but hostility to the Church of England and to all forms of organized religion.
Blake published Songs of Innocence and of Experience, an illustrated collection of poems and arguably his defining work, in 1795. In them, Blake explores what he calls “the two contrary states of the human soul” and responds to Milton’s existential-mythic states of “Paradise” and “Fall” with his own definitions of consciousness—“Innocence” and “Experience.” Blake’s categories are modes of perception that would become standard in Romanticism: childhood as a state of protected innocence rather than original sin, but not immune to the fallen world and its institutions. “Experience,” then, becomes a state defined by the loss of childhood verve by fear, inhibition, social and political corruption, and most especially by the despotism of Church, State and aristocracy.
Perhaps most notable about the collection is that the poems are addressed to children, all the while exploring deep questions still debated by adults. The rhythms and rhyming patterns are simple and echo various forms of 18th-century children’s ballads, yet their meanings are often complex and ambiguous. The Folio Society has recently reproduced a facsimile of the finest extant copy, now kept in King’s College, Cambridge, which was printed and illustrated by Blake.
The Folio Society also has a fabulous collection of Lord Byron’s poems, which includes 23 of his most popular short poems as well as his great narrative poems. Byron’s own annotations are footnoted and provide a fascinating counterpart to his works. Twenty one wood engravings by Simon Brett ornament the pages and show a series of vignettes that are integrated throughout the volume.