Holding the Mirror up to the “Spirit of the Age”: Byron, His Hero, and Celebrity Culture
8th International Student Byron Conference
Messolonghi, May 2013
Lord Byron was heralded
as a newborn celebrity at a time of rapid development in
The early nineteenth century witnessed the disruption of order and experienced serious tensions as an inevitable result of deep socio-political and ideological changes destined to leave scars that would never be totally healed. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 had spread its nets of influence throughout Europe, implanting the promise of a new millennium – a promise captured in William Wordsworth’s famous line from the Prelude, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very Heaven!” (Prelude ll. 108-109) - only to tear it down with the Terror of the 1790s and the imperial designs of Napoleon in the early 1800s, who represented both the liberty-cause of the Revolution, and the despotic ambitions of the new ruler in the place of the old ones. William Hazlitt successfully rendered the shattering of a generation’s dream when he wrote in The Spirit of the Age that “[t]he volcano of the French Revolution was seen expiring in its own flames, like a bonfire made of straw: the principles of Reform were scattered in all directions, like chaff before the keen northern blast” (215).
When in 1812 Byron woke up to greet his fame, England was still torn between a conservatism that suppressed liberal ideas because of lingering fear and suspicion, especially after France’s declaration of war against England in 1793, and an equally restless yearning for change. If anything, there was urgent need for national affirmation and solidification, combined nevertheless with intrinsic unrest. The emergence of the power-hungry middle classes, the dissatisfaction among the underprivileged because of poverty and lack of parliamentary representation, enclosures of land, questioning of religious dogmas, scepticism towards ideologies that voted for what Percy Shelley termed in his Defence of Poetry (1821) the “calculating principle” (1243), all inaugurated a period of disillusionment and despondency. Byron lived in a time of changes, “changes in thought, religion, manners, fashions, communications, technology, and in the whole pattern of social and economic organization” (10) according to Gilbert Phelps. It is natural, then, that such a restless society would leave people in need for something that would stir their sensibilities and satisfy their jaded palates.
With the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Cantos I and II the celebrity of Lord Byron became an unprecedented reality. The word “celebrity” resonates with our contemporary world of celebrity culture, but it is crucial to bear in mind that the characteristics of celebrity world originated during Byron’s era, and evolved around the construction of Byron’s poetic image. Tom Mole insightfully sums up the prerequisites for the emergence of the phenomenon: “an individual, an industry and an audience. Modern celebrity culture begins when these three components routinely work together to render an individual personality fascinating” (1). Essentially interwoven, these three components moulded a well set mechanism that would affect the notion of celebrity throughout the Romantic period; Mole mentions some of the developments that promoted the apparatus: industrial progress in print, the development of the periodicals, the growth of “infrastructure” which made easier the dissemination of information to an ever-increasing, literate population, and the transition from “subscription publication to unmediated commercial publication” (9). One should add to the list a demand for new poetic talents. In the middle of all this abundance, the readers felt isolated and with good cause; with the development of industrial culture, as Barbara Benedict claims, the eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of “a growing class of writers who considered themselves professionals” (1), and who, together with “printers, publishers, booksellers, [...] readers” succeeded in rendering literature a product for consumption that cast away its former definition as a pleasure accessible only to the elite (1-2). What the readers felt alienated from was an intimate link with a truly affecting literary experience; they were bombarded instead with ever-increasing new poetical voices; Lord Byron’s Byronic hero-model offered something novel, namely a new ground for self-projection and speculation upon the concerns of the divided reader; Lord Byron’s poetry would effect “a powerful, emotive response” (26) as Jason Goldsmith argues.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Cantos I and II, published in March 1812, together with the subsequent Eastern Tales published throughout Byron’s years of fame, revolve around the Romantic axis of the unfamiliar, the sensational, the fascinatingly exotic, the paradoxical, and, above all, the subjective. Rather than yielding solutions to the contradictions of the age, Romanticism responded variously to the new, pervasive changes of the late-eighteenth-early nineteenth century: Peter Thorslev acknowledges this when he argues that “the Romantic movement was a rebellion in the name of individualism” (189), coupled with the humanistic and the rebellious Satanic, and juxtaposed with belief in the god-head and the orderly on the other side of the question (189). In an age of heroes and an eager belief in the capacities of the self, as well as of an instinctive resistance to oppressive conventions, Byron handed down to the anxious reader a hero that was, in fact, an anti-hero: as Jerome McGann claims, in such occasions the hero became a “destructive force,” inevitably warring with corruption and being turned into an “anti-hero” (18). In essence, characteristics of an age of change, despair, melancholy, liberal callings, fear were combined to render the fascinatingly alluring and contradictory character of Byron’s hero, who sceptically lingers upon a chaotic universe.
The first description of the Byronic hero is unfolded in the first
Canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage;
with the full character of his origins pointedly concealed, the Childe is a
descendant of a noble, possibly famous, but also alluringly gloomy family line;
the narrator refuses to expose the details - “whence his name / And lineage
long, it suits me not to say; / Suffice it, that perchance they were of fame, /
And had been glorious in another day” - but he goes on to hint at a shadowy act
haunting their past: “nor honied lies of rhyme / Can blazon evil deeds, or consecrate
a crime” (1.3.19-22, 26-27). Later on, more concrete features of the Byronic
hero are introduced which would certainly persist and even become intensified
in descriptions of him; in his self-exile, he is alienated both from his
homeland, loathingly unwilling “in his native land to dwell, / Which seem’d to
him more lone than Eremite’s sad cell” (1.4.35-36), and from his fellow beings – “Still he beheld, nor mingled
with the throng” (1.84.828); according to Thorslev, like a typical Romantic
poetic figure, he is destined to live in isolation from society, in which he
would otherwise love to participate (137). Incessantly tormented by some
lurking sin, an “unrequited love” (Thorslev 137) that denies him any peace and
rest, he often exhibits something hidden deep within; “oft-times in his maddest
mirthful mood / Strange pangs would flash upon Childe Harold’s brow / As if the
memory of some deadly feud / Or disappointed passion lurk’d below” (1.8.64-67).
Restless and mysterious, disdainful and yet courted by a sensitivity that
hovers in his temperament but is halted by his persistent pride - as the
narrator explains, “’Tis said at times the sullen tear would start, / But Pride
congeal’d the drop within his ee” (1.6.48-49) – the Byronic hero is both free in
his self-reliance and enslaved by his own despondency. Experiencing the same
inner division between desire and despair, the Childe seems to internalize the
tensions that divide and confuse early nineteenth-century
Childe Harold’s self-exile from his country led to
speculation upon a series of country-monuments that survived as proof of
shattered glory and present wretchedness. As Caroline Franklin postulates, the
narrator puts himself in mind and body “on the stage of European history” (86).
His pilgrimage is not an ordinary Grand Tour realized by aristocrats during
their youthful years; rather, it is a journey of the soul, a pilgrimage that
allows the Childe commentary upon the contemporary state of
This comparison permeates the poem in a way that definitely
accounts for the disdainful and melancholic mood of the Byronic hero. Unable to
forget, he wanders around with “that settled, ceaseless gloom / The fabled
Hebrew wanderer bore” (To Inez 5.853-854)
characteristic of the mythical Wandering Jew who is condemned in an endless
journey vainly waiting for salvation from his sins. The juxtaposition of the
ideal and timeless image of the past with the painful reality of the present is
more elaborately emphasized when Harold arrives in the capital of
Elizabeth, Duchess of
True, the image of the Byronic hero is indeed controversial, yet it is an immediate offspring of an age full of ambivalences in itself, and succeeds in alarming the readers into a potent reflection of the self, enabling them, as Mole says, “to project ideas and emotions connected with the author onto his characters” (20); this points to the readers’ crucial role in shaping back the literary text. In essence, while Byron questions contemporary efforts for national consolidation, he also offers opportunities for “fostering national consciousness” (Goldsmith 29) by constructing a kind of community of selected readers who would identify with an English personality, within the apparatus of “an age of personality” (Mole 12), that slaked their thirst for something new and intimate. It is especially the mysteriousness of the Byronic hero that offers a free space for the projection of the reader’s thoughts and feelings. In line with this idea, Ghislaine McDayter correctly points out that we must “dig out” from inside the Byronic hero, “imaginatively trailing him into his closet and midnight chamber” (12). An active reader is urgently required if one is to grasp the full implications of Byron’s poetry. The Byronic hero is further developed in Byron’s later Eastern Tales; it is to Byron’s famous Tale The Giaour, an indicative one as it were, that I shall now turn.
Although it is interesting to observe the way in which the hero of Byron’s 1813 fragmentary poem The Giaour exhibits the characteristic temperament of the Byronic hero, and even develops them further (being a darker and more active persona than the Childe), what I am chiefly interested in is how he internalizes tensions inherent in the notion of heroism. The Giaour is heroic in his intention to avenge Leila’s death by killing the man who halted their freedom to experience their love; he raves under the pain, and what torments him is a love long lost but impossible to be forgotten; “She died – I dare not tell thee how,” the Giaour confesses, “But look – ’tis written on my brow! / There read of Cain the curse and crime” (ll. 1056-1058). Instead of passively accepting his fate, he becomes an active agent of destruction, since, living in exile and isolation from his own country, he hurries to disrupt the established state; “the Giaour,” McGann remarks, “is a hero without a country – an enemy to every surrounding social order and, as a result, an enemy to himself” (19).
This fits well with the conditions of the age that gave birth
to this type of anti-hero, and it is useful to note his relationship to the
notion of freedom in the poem. The revolutionary element frames The Giaour from the very beginning, when
it opens with a meditation on the state of
The poems analyzed reveal with characteristic energy the double face of freedom and heroism, and hold up their tensions in inexhaustible dialectic. They manage to “expose to the observer his own hidden heart” (29) as McGann maintains; Byron and his hero, being inextricably bound together and promoted to the public through the ever growing apparatus of celebrity culture, hold the mirror up to an age of change felt deeply by everyone. Byron, a newly emergent literary phenomenon that spoke to the heart of his audience, weaved a personal relationship with his devoted readers through literary creations that invited reflection on personal feelings and anxieties.
Barbara M. “Readers, writers, reviewers, and the professionalization of
George Gordon, Lord. “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” The
George Gordon, Lord. “The Giaour.” Lord
Byron: The Complete Poetical Works. 3 vols. Ed. Jerome J. McGann.
Franklin, Caroline. “Byron and History.” Palgrave Advances in Byron Studies. Ed. Jane Stabler. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 81-105. Print.
Jason. “Celebrity and the spectacle of nation.” Romanticism and Celebrity Culture: 1750-1850. Ed. Tom
H.D. English Poetry in a Changing Society.
William. The Spirit of the Age; or,
Contemporary Portraits. 2nd ed.
John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Romanticism:
an Anthology. 4th ed. Ed. Duncan Wu.
Philip W. “Heroism and history: Childe
Harold I & II, the Tales.” The
Ghislaine. Byromania and the birth of
Jerome J. Don Juan in Context.
Mole, Tom. Byron’s Romantic Celebrity. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.
Gilbert. The Byronic Byron.
Peter. Byron: The Years of Fame.
Andrew, ed. Byron: The Critical Heritage.
Peter Jr. The Byronic Hero.
William. “The Prelude.” The Norton Anthology
of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. 2. Ed. Stephen
 Peter Quennel suggests that “although the poet often baggled at the part he was obliged to play, his presentation revealed an instinctive grasp of showmanship” (189).
 In a note to Canto II of Childe Harold Byron wrote about the vanity of man when “Drest in a little brief authority”: “never did the littleness of man, and the vanity of his very best virtues, of patriotism to exalt, and of valour to defend his country appear more conspicuous in the record of what Athens was, and the certainty of what she now is” (85).
Vere Foster, The Two Duchesses,
1898, 375-6. All extracts from reviews and opinions about Byron’s fame and
poetry used in this paper are taken from Rutherford, Andrew, ed. Byron: The Critical Heritage.
 McDayter maintains that the “repression” of desire allows the void – which has to be kept free from a despotic filling by desire - to remain empty so that democracy can be preserved (84).