Byron has probably had more influence outside England than any other English poet except Shakespeare. In English literature, though he is always classified with the Romantic poets, he is Romantic only because the Byronic hero is a Romantic figure: as we have seen, he has little technically in common with other English Romantics. But on the Continent Byron has been the arch-romantic of modern literature, and European nineteenth-century culture is as unthinkable without Byron as its history would be without Napoleon. From the painting of Delacroix to the music of Berlioz, from the poetry of Pushkin to the philosophy of Nietzsche, the spell of Byron is everywhere. Modern fiction would be miserably impoverished without the Byronic hero: Balzac, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, have all used him in crucial roles. In the more advanced political atmosphere of England, Byron was only a Whig intellectual, whereas in Greece and Italy he was a revolutionary fighter for freedom, a poetic Mazzini or Bolivar, though, like them, not a class leveler. As he said:
I wish men to be free
As much from mobs as kings — from you as me.
Among English readers the reputation of the Romantic and sentimental Byron has not kept pace with his reputation as a satirist, but it would be wrong to accept the assertion, so often made today, that Byron is of little importance apart from his satires and letters. An immense amount of imitation and use of Byron, conscious or unconscious, direct or indirect, has taken place in English literature, too, and nearly all of it is of the Romantic Byron. Melville (whose Ishmael is in the line of Cain), Conrad, Hemingway, A. E. Housman, Thomas Wolfe, D. H. Lawrence, W. H. Auden — these writers have little in common except that they all Byronize.
The most important reason for Byron’s great influence is that he was a portent of a new kind of sensibility. For many centuries poets had assumed a hierarchy of nature with a moral principle built into it. For Dante, for Shakespeare, for Milton, there was a top level of divine providence; a level of distinctively human nature which included education, reason and law; a level of physical nature, which was morally neutral and which man could not, like the animals, adjust to; and a bottom level of sin and corruption. This hierarchy corresponded to the teachings of religion and science alike. But from Rousseau’s time on a profound change in the cultural framework of the arts takes place. Man is now thought of as a product of the energy of physical nature, and as this nature is subhuman in morality and intelligence and capacity for pleasure, the origin of art is morally ambivalent, and may even be demonic. The Byronic hero, for whom, as for Manfred, pride, lack of sympathy with humanity and a destructive influence even in love are inseparable from genius, dramatizes this new conception of art and life alike more vividly than anything else in the culture of the time. Hence it is no exaggeration to say that Byron released a mainspring of creative energy in modern culture.
Byron’s immediate influence in his own country, on the other hand, though certainly very great, was qualified in many ways, by queasiness about his morality, by a refusal to separate him from his posing heroes, by a feeling that he lacked the sterner virtues and wrote with too much pleasure and too few pains. The first canto of Don Juan centers on the nervous prudery of Donna Inez, who is, not surprisingly, modeled on Byron’s wife. But Donna Inez was Britannia as well. The sands of the Regency aristocracy were running out, the tide of middle-class morality had already set in, and the age that we think of as Victorian, with its circulating libraries, its custom of reading aloud to large family circles, and its tendency not to be amused, at any rate by anything approaching the ribald, was on the way. As Byron admitted ruefully of the opening cantos:
… the publisher declares, in sooth,
Through needles’ eyes it easier for the camel is
To pass, than those two cantos into families.
A more important barrier was raised by the lack of any sense of moral involvement in Don Juan, already mentioned. With the British Empire developing, and a greater number of poets and intellectuals issuing stentorian calls to duty, such detachment seemed inadequate, except for the fact that Byron himself took matters out of Don Juan’s hands and died for a cause in Greece. In Sartor Resartus Carlyle summed up the later view of Byron as a poet who had gone through a gloomy stage of denial and defiance, an “Everlasting No,” had then moved into a “Centre of Indifference,” but had never gone on to the final “Everlasting Yea.” For this final stage, Carlyle recommended: “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe.”
However, Carlyle himself hardly succeeded in closing his Byron, as when he went on to work out his conception of the Great Man what he actually produced was a vulgarization of the Byronic hero. The author of The Corsair would have raised a quizzical eyebrow at Carlyle’s hero journeying forward “escorted by the Terrors and the Splendours, the Archdemons and Archangels.” This tendency to underestimate Byron without surpassing him has recurred more than once. Bernard Shaw, in the preface to his Don Juan play, Man and Superman, dismissed Byron’s Don Juan as a mere “libertine vagabond.” Yet Byron had certainly anticipated Shaw’s central idea, that woman takes the lead in sexual relations and that Don Juan is consequently as much a victim as a pursuer. No, Byron will not stay closed. It is a better idea to open Goethe, and when we do we find a more liberal view of Byron. Goethe in fact was fascinated by Byron, who dedicated Sardanapalus to him, and he referred to him in the second part of Faust as Euphorion, a kind of Eros-figure whose passion for liberty, if self-destructive, is also an acceptance of life simply because it is there, and has nothing of the compulsion to justify existence that is often close to a distrust of its worth.
We have not yet shaken off our nineteenth-century inhibitions about Byron. A frequent twentieth-century jargon term for him is “immature,” which endorses the Carlyle view that Byron is a poet to be outgrown. One thinks of Yeats’s penetrating remark that we are never satisfied with the maturity of those whom we have admired in boyhood. Even those who have not admired Byron in boyhood have gone through a good deal of Byronism at that stage. There is certainly something youthful about the Byronic hero, and for some reason we feel more defensive about youth than about childhood, and more shamefaced about liking a poet who has captured a youthful imagination. If we replace “youthful” with the loaded term “adolescent” we can see how deeply ingrained this feeling is.
Among intellectuals the Southey type, who makes a few liberal gestures in youth to quiet his conscience and then plunges into a rapturous authoritarianism for the rest of his life, is much more common than the Byron type, who continues to be baffled by unanswered questions and simple anomalies, to make irresponsible jokes, to set his face against society, to respect the authority of his own mood — in short, to retain the rebellious or irreverent qualities of youth. Perhaps it is as dangerous to eliminate the adolescent in us as it is to eliminate the child. In any case the kind of poetic experience that Byronism represents should be obtained young, and in Byron. It may later be absorbed into more complex experiences, but to miss or renounce it is to impoverish whatever else we may attain.