By Nicolas Silva
A rocky cliffside soars above a raging sea. Its stones silently endure the fiery lashes of the lightning above and the foaming crashes of the waves below. The pouring rains drown out the howling winds. No living thing exists—or ever could exist—within such a storm, save the lone individual standing at the cliffside in brooding silence. Their pitch-black cloak wildly drapes behind them in the tempest air, and their solemn brow bears the beating of the torrential rain. No winds are strong enough to push them down. No rains are hard enough to soak them through. The storms within are just as strong as those without.
The Byronic hero is among the most recognizable archetypes in literature. Even those who are unfamiliar with the hero’s “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” namesake can recall at least one encounter with their gloomy presence on the page. From early nineteenth-century Romantic poetry to twenty-first century realist novels, the Byronic hero remains the literary embodiment of torturous self-hatred, miserable solitude, and virulent melancholy. As readers, our own relationship with this archetype is difficult and elusive: the Byronic demands our attention, craves our sympathies, while simultaneously resisting our company. They speak to us with the language of solitude, preferring the cold dreariness of the stormy cliffsides over the warm comforts of human company. Their presence on the page is repellant yet enticing, devilish yet profoundly human. In the darkness of their shadows, we recognize the devastations of our own emotions and the self-destructive capabilities of our minds. Time after time, page after page, the Byronic hero tears open a chasm into the darkest depths of their own emotional agony. We see them in their solitude and feel them in their agony, but seldom do we hear them speak in their original language. Even less frequently do we revisit Byron’s poetry and analyze the formal dimensions—rhyme, meter, and language—involved in the archetype’s gradual development throughout his poetic career.
It’s time we re-think the Byronic hero. It’s time we withdraw ourselves from the seductions of the archetype’s visual elements, its aesthetic legacy of melancholic darkness, and instead force ourselves to listen. The Byronic hero may prefer the silence of solitude found in soaring mountaintops and distant seas, but this should not deter us from seeking out the audible elements of their interiority. Recognizing the lone figure standing atop the rocky cliffs and foaming seas for the pitch-blackness of their cloak and the solemnity of their brow does not bring us any closer to the inner turmoil of their thoughts.
Only by listening may we, as outsiders, explore the depths of their emotions and begin to uncover the secrets of their seclusion.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the Byronic Soul
Byron’s famous declaration that he “awoke one morning and found [himself] famous” after the publication of the Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’s first two cantos in 1812 suggests a rapid enthusiasm for the newly created Byronic hero. As the earliest iteration of the archetype, Childe Harold provides an effective introduction to the archetype’s recurring characteristics and motifs. The poem begins with its eponymous hero abandoning a dissolute and degenerative life in England to embark on a Continental voyage through Spain and Greece—a narrative suspiciously close to Byron’s own travels through the region in 1809. However, before undertaking the voyage, the speaker introduces the complexity of Harold’s troubled mental state:
Yet oft-times in his maddest mirthful mood
Strange pangs would flash along Childe Harold’s brow,
As if the memory of some deadly feud
Or disappointed passion lurk’d below:
But this none knew, nor haply cared to know;
For his was not that open, artless soul
That feels relief by bidding sorrow flow,
Nor sought he friend to counsel or condole,
Whate’er this grief mote be, which he could not control.
(Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto I, lines 46-54)
Byron’s use of the Spenserian stanza for Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage establishes an ababbcbcc rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter rhythm throughout the entire poem, with the exception of each stanza’s final line (called an alexandrine) having an additional iambic foot for dramatic emphasis. When hearing these lines aloud, however, it is difficult to discern the stanza’s exact rhyme scheme. Words like “know” and “soul” form slant rhymes with their similar long “o” vowel sound, generating a sense of accumulating disorder that undermines the structural order of Spenserian poetics. This refusal to adhere to hard rhymes further reinforces the emphasis of the final alexandrine line, connecting Harold’s lack of emotional self-control with the stanza’s inability to regulate strict patterns of rhyme.
Harold’s “strange pangs” are mysterious symptoms of some unknown interior grief, which plagues his “maddest mirthful mood” and isolates him socially. The language of social seclusion (“But this none knew…”) transitions into one of social exclusion (“…nor haply cared to know”), developing a crucial Byronic division between “knowable” exterior appearances and the unknowable mysteries of Harold’s soul. The stanza insists that Harold does not possess an “open, artless soul” that “[bids] sorrow flow,” but the over-flowing of the stanza’s rhymes suggests otherwise. The sorrows of Harold’s soul may be confined to his interior, but the disordered poetics externalizing these sorrows reveal a soul incapable of regulating itself. As such, it is no coincidence that the words “soul” and “flow” sound so similar. Both terms resist confinement. They are synonymous in the context of Harold’s emotional being and melancholic distress, pointing towards the uncontrollable nature of his interiority. More broadly, the stanza’s imperfect rhymes reveal a tension between self-awareness and self-contradiction, between the knowing recognition of emotional instability and the unknowing poetic expression of that same instability. Such tension is troubling for an archetypal figure whose existence demands isolation and concealment.
Manfred and the Byronic Mind
Written around 1816-1817, Manfred captures a later stage in the psychological development of the Byronic hero, this time in the form of the closet drama (or what Byron calls a “mental theatre”). Unlike Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the drama’s Byronic hero does not require a poetic speakerto speak on their behalf. Instead, the dramatic form enables direct access to Manfred’s own voice, language, and rhythms. In the opening lines of the drama, Manfred soliloquizes on his inability to sleep:
The lamp must be replenish’d, but even then
It will not burn so long as I must watch:
My slumbers—if I slumber—are not sleep,
But a continuance of enduring thought,
Which then I can resist not: in my heart
There is a vigil, and these eyes but close
To look within; and yet I live, and bear
The aspect and the form of breathing men…
(Manfred, Act I, lines 1-8)
Speaking in unrhymed blank verse, Manfred’s dialogue here generally follows the rhythm of iambic pentameter. The lines’ pauses and caesuras repeatedly interrupt the meter as Manfred spontaneously vocalizes the streams of his “enduring thought.” For instance, the dashes in line 3 (“My slumbers…”) force breaks into the line’s rhythm, serving as Manfred’s impulsive amendment or clarification of his own dramatic dialogue at the exact moment of its vocalization. The repeated use of semi-colons and commas achieves a similar dramatic effect. The semi-colon in line 7 (“To look within…”) bridges together his observations on internal and external, the inward “vigil” of his heart and his outward resemblance to the “aspect and form of breathing men.”
When spoken aloud, Manfred’s dialogue reveals an inability to complete a single thought without instinctively proceeding to the next one. The excessive punctuating of the lines attests to the restlessness of the Byronic hero’s “enduring” mind when left in the silence of their own contemplations. While the exact cause or event behind Manfred’s torturous guilt is never explicitly stated in the play (biographically, it potentially alludes to the guilt resulting from Byron’s incestual relationship with his half-sister, Augusta), its emotional damage is clear. The vigil situated in his heart carries the language and connotations of death, but its true darkness comes from the repressed memories it shelters. It exists not for mourning but rather for remembrance. In this way, the lamp Manfred knows “must be replenish’d” will perhaps never serve its purpose of producing light and warmth; the Byronic hero’s darkness is too powerful, too overwhelming for any sort of alleviation. Despite sharing “the form of breathing men,” their tortured existence shares the permanence of death. But unlike the dead, the Byronic hero never sleeps.
Byron and Mankind
The many biographical parallels found throughout Byron’s poetry suggest that his poetic imagination finds its inspiration from the events and calamities of his own life. In fact, much of the language Byron uses to describe his own personal being resembles the language of his heroes. In his Detached Thoughts, a personal journal kept between 1821-1822, Byron entertains the possibility of the human mind transcending mankind and touching the infinite universe:
Matter is eternal—always changing—but reproduced and as far as we can comprehend Eternity—Eternal—and why not Mind?—Why should not the Mind act with and upon the Universe?—as portions of it act upon and with the congregated dust—called Mankind?—See—how one man acts upon himself and others—or upon multitudes?—The same Agency in a higher and purer degree may act upon the Stars &c. ad infinitum.
(Detached Thoughts, Entry Number 97)
Byron’s grand aspirations of exerting “agency” in a “higher and purer degree” captures his belief in the immortality of the mind and the power derived from emotion and individual feeling. Such a belief almost sounds inspiring. However, in stretching the mind to “act with and upon the Universe,” it ultimately empowers the very thing that causes so much anguish for the Byronic hero. It enables their shadows to transcend the self, projecting its darkness across the infinite reaches of space for eternity.
If we heed Byron’s words and accept the mind as immortal, emotions as eternal, then our own understanding of the Byronic hero must exceed the physical, the material, and the visual world. We may be able to see and feel them—but doing so limits us to the bare surface of their interior lives. Heroes like Childe Harold and Manfred are creations made to wander alone through the unknown middle-space existing within the binaries of Mankind and Universe, Matter and Mind. The unceasing agonies of their emotions cannot be accessed without listening to their words and adopting the archetype’s original language and rhythms. Indeed, Byron’s formal poetics lay down the entire foundation for the Byronic hero’s legacy, creating an archetypal presence whose true motivations lay beneath the thin veil of poetic expression. Once we set aside this veil, our own relationship with the Byronic ceases to be difficult and elusive. In listening, we can discover echoes of the Byronic reverberate in our own “strange pangs” of “enduring thought.” Or better yet, in our profoundest moments of inescapable darkness, we might choose to take Manfred’s words to heart and remind ourselves that we, too, live and bear the “aspect and the form of breathing man.”
Passages from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Manfred taken from Byron’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Alice Levine, 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Company.
Passage from Detached Thoughts taken from Byron’s Letters and Journal, ed. Leslie Marchand, Vol. 9, Harvard University Press.