Friday, January 27, 2012

Optimistic Pessimism

To go along with my sizable sample of the poetry of Byron this winter, I read a chapter on Byron by Chesterton in a book called Twelve Types, in which he says (1) that most critics think of Byron as a pessimist and (2) that those critics are wrong. In Chesterton’s inimitable style, he argues that no one writes from pure pessimism, since there would then be no purpose in writing: one must be optimistic about something, even if one is only optimistic about pessimism. This, he says, is Byron’s position. He may offer cynical critique of nearly everything in human life, but to write about it at all shows that he has some hope his views will make things better. And Byron seems to agree, if this stanza from Don Juan is any indication:

 'Not to admire is all the art I know
(Plain truth, dear Murray, needs few flowers of speech)
To make men happy, or to keep them so'
(So take it in the very words of Creech)—
Thus Horace wrote we all know long ago;
And thus Pope quotes the precept to re-teach
From his translation; but had none admired,
Would Pope have sung, or Horace been inspired?

Chesterton claims that Byron’s optimistic pessimism only runs through his early works. By the time he wrote Don Juan, according to Chesterton, he was so thoroughly cynical, he could only throw one last disdaining guffaw at the human race. But I haven’t found that to be true in my reading. As I mentioned in the previous post, Don Juan has a lot of humor. It also has a lot of affection for several of his characters. Sure, Byron reveals the brutal truth – as he sees it – behind the masks of love (either an illusion or an infatuation with self), marriage (the original interest always wanes), morals (he doesn’t regret his youthful indiscretions and in fact finds that the experience – even the experience of negative consequences – makes him wiser), Wellington (wouldn’t his pension be better spent on the poor?), kings (selfish tyrants, all), high society (it consists of only two groups: the boring and the bored), Wordsworth (inscrutable), fame (which lasts only as long as the paper or stone that tells the story), power (the jailer is bound to the jail as much as the prisoner), war (the gains are almost never worth the cost), and more. But he also claims to be writing for the purpose of improving the world: “My object is morality (whatever people say).”

One thing Byron consistently praises is the experience of old age, as shown in this exchange between the young Juan and an older man:

'You take things coolly, sir,' said Juan. 'Why,'
Replied the other, 'what can a man do?
There still are many rainbows in your sky,
But mine have vanish'd. All, when life is new,
Commence with feelings warm, and prospects high;
But time strips our illusions of their hue,
And one by one in turn, some grand mistake
Casts off its bright skin yearly like the snake.

And apparently the greatest lesson of experience is not to commit the passions.

The nightingale that sings with the deep thorn,
Which fable places in her breast of wail,
Is lighter far of heart and voice than those
Whose headlong passions form their proper woes.
And that 's the moral of this composition,
If people would but see its real drift.

Is this pessimistic? I prefer Bruce Catton’s characterization of Byron as melancholy. But better still would be to say that Byron, living in the Romantic age, had a view of the world distinctly unromantic. He admires the disillusionment of the old man Don Juan talks with (had Byron not admired, would he have sung?) and seeks the same for his audience. But, publishing the work bit by bit over time, Byron found as he went along that the romantic public wasn’t in the market for disillusionment. So he answered the public’s criticism of his poem by unclothing it himself to reveal its humble purpose and feeble reach.

O Love! O Glory! what are ye who fly
Around us ever, rarely to alight?
There 's not a meteor in the polar sky
Of such transcendent and more fleeting flight.
Chill, and chain'd to cold earth, we lift on high
Our eyes in search of either lovely light;
A thousand and a thousand colours they
Assume, then leave us on our freezing way.

And such as they are, such my present tale is,
A non-descript and ever-varying rhyme,
A versified Aurora Borealis,
Which flashes o'er a waste and icy clime.
When we know what all are, we must bewail us,
But ne'ertheless I hope it is no crime
To laugh at all things—for I wish to know
What, after all, are all things—but a show?

They accuse me—Me—the present writer of
The present poem—of—I know not what—
A tendency to under-rate and scoff
At human power and virtue, and all that;
And this they say in language rather rough.
Good God! I wonder what they would be at!
I say no more than hath been said in Dante's
Verse, and by Solomon and by Cervantes;

Ecclesiastes said, 'that all is vanity'-
Most modern preachers say the same, or show it
By their examples of true Christianity:
In short, all know, or very soon may know it;
And in this scene of all-confess'd inanity,
By saint, by sage, by preacher, and by poet,
Must I restrain me, through the fear of strife,
From holding up the nothingness of life?

In his attempt to strip man of his pride, I’m with Byron all the way. And of course I see the connection he highlights between his message and that of Ecclesiastes. And yet, does not the loveliness of Byron’s language speak to a somethingness of life? For, though quoting the most familiar phrase from the Preacher’s book, he neglected to quote the next-most familiar, which localizes the vanity with relation to the Sun.

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