Complaint and Byron
Dear Unknown Friends:
The 1966 lecture by Eli Siegel that we’re in the midst of serializing is important and immensely kind. It’s on a subject so much a part of people’s days, thoughts, and utterances: complaint. The lecture is about complaint in poetry. And in the section we’ve reached, Mr. Siegel comments on passages from Byron’s poem Childe Harold.
He spoke on Byron many times. And I have said that Eli Siegel is the critic who understood Byron, both as poet and human being. This is not the place for me to give with any fullness my reasons for saying that (though I have great pleasure in doing so). But since Byron is part of the present lecture as a person illustrating complaint in poetry, I want to point to other statements of Mr. Siegel about him in relation to this particular subject.
His Unprecedented Effect
No poet has ever been more popular—and widely popular—during his or her own lifetime than George Gordon Lord Byron (1788-1824). The first two cantos of Childe Harold were published in 1812 and Byron wrote, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” He was not exaggerating. Soon, his work was stirring, in an unprecedented way, people not only in England but America, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Russia, and beyond. He was writing poetry but he was a best-seller, and the interest in him was not “literary” in a narrow sense. In a 1961 lecture, Aesthetic Realism on Byron, Eli Siegel said:
There was something hardly paralleled about his effect, which was more subtle than even the persons who underwent it knew; and it is still going on. [TRO 772]
Of all the critics and scholars of Byron for the last two centuries, it is Mr. Siegel who has explained why he did so much to people. And the reason has to do with this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
The two biggest opposites in everyone’s life are self and world. The huge tendency in people is to see these as apart: to make what goes on in us separate from the outside world in its wideness and otherness. The tendency—even as we go about our activities and interact with people—is to make a world that is just our own under our skin, apart, unseen, precious, and often miserable. The poetry of Byron opposed that. Mr. Siegel explained in 1961: “Byron placed together the self and the external world more closely than others had.”
Byron’s poetry seemed to say, Look—I can write about my own confusions, angers, hopes, complaints, in such a way that they sound like a world matter. He gave personal turmoil a certain importance it hadn’t been given before. And a large means of that was: as he described himself within, he described too the outside world in its grandeur—the Alps, the ruins of Rome, the ocean with its might and kindness. Byron brought people the world in its might, with detail—and simultaneously the self in its sorrow, hopes, confusions, with those mighty too. Mr. Siegel explained that in Byron people saw the troubles, the discontents they themselves had, “accompanied by magnificence.”
This has to do with the ethics of our present subject: complaint.
What is unethical, ugly, dangerous about the way most people complain (both to others and, inwardly, to themselves) is: they use their own woes to cheapen the meaning of other things and people. Their own grievances are important—other people’s feelings are not. And they use their pain to expunge the value and beauty of outside things: to have contempt. That is exactly what Byron does not do. He described his inner turbulence with a certain fullness, but he was always interested in the world, excitedly, thrillingly interested. And to be interested, Mr. Siegel once said, is the first thing in respect. The fundamental test of our own complaint is: are we using it to respect the world or to have contempt for the world?
Byron, though monumentally popular, was attacked by various critics, during his short life and after. One of the things said frequently of him was that he “posed.” The accusation meant that he had a conceited insincerity, an egotistic fakery as he described himself—presenting himself as broodingly mighty beside a mountain, say; or as proud yet woeful near an ocean; or as “a ruin amidst ruins” in Italy. Mr. Siegel passionately, and with scholarship, disagreed. In the 1961 class he said of Byron:
He never posed. I deny it; I have read it, but I deny it! Even when Byron was famous, he had the feeling, as in [his play] Manfred, of being lost among the crags....The sense that Byron wasn’t as close to things as he wanted to be, and couldn’t be, tormented him. If he shows himself as a person against the shadows of a rock, that is his mode; but he never posed. If you really feel your personal problem takes in mountains, lakes, and time, you seem to be posing. But if a human being is related to everything in this world, he should put that among his infinite heirlooms.
Byron’s sense of woe said, “Look at it: it takes in all the Mediterranean!”
Well, that is great as literary criticism; as understanding of a particular person; as understanding of a need in every person. Mr. Siegel was speaking extemporaneously, as he always did in his lectures. And his spoken prose was some of the most beautiful and powerful of all English prose. What I just quoted is an instance of that beauty and power. And I am sure Byron would have loved it.
Now We Can Learn
Matthew Arnold, in a poem of 1855, has a stanza about Byron. Arnold was born in 1822, two years before Byron’s death. And in “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” he says that people haven’t learned from writers of the past generation—they haven’t learned how to have lives they can like. In the midst of saying this, he writes of Byron’s tremendous effect:
What helps it now, that Byron bore,
With haughty scorn which mock’d the smart,
Through Europe to the Aetolian shore
The pageant of his bleeding heart?
That thousands counted every groan,
And Europe made his woe her own?
In 1881, Arnold, as literary critic, wrote an important essay on Byron. Yet he did not understand why that grand complaining of Byron, “the pageant of his bleeding heart,” meant so much to people. Nor, as I said earlier, has any critic except Eli Siegel. And so, as a prelude to the section of the 1966 lecture included here, I state this: Every person wants, most deeply, to see what goes on in us as mattering, as having might; and to see at the same time, and inseparably, the outside world as magnificent. Unless we can do that, we will have contempt for the world and, as a result, feel pervasively ashamed. Through Byron people got a sense, without being clear about it, that those all-important two—care for self and care for the world—could actually be one.
I have certainly not described all of what Mr. Siegel explained about Byron and his effect; I’ve written here, a little, about one aspect of it. But through Aesthetic Realism what Matthew Arnold complained about—the not benefitting from Byron and other writers in terms of life as such—no longer has to be. Aesthetic Realism enables people really to use the past, and art, and the world itself—including Byron, Arnold, and others—to see justly, grandly, and have lives we truly like.