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Designing Byron’s Dasein: The Anticipation of Existentialist Despair
in Lord Byron’s Poetry
Jason Pauly
Department of English
McGill University, Montreal
June 2008
A thesis submitted to McGill University in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the
degree of Master of Arts
Jason Pauly 2008
Table of Contents
Citations and Abbreviations
Introduction: From Affect to Mood
Chapter One: Wanting Being: Lacking and Longing for
Selfhood in Don Juan
Chapter Two: “’Tis not so difficult to sigh”: Manfred
and Bonnivard’s Anguish Before Themselves
Chapter Three: Childe Harold’s “being-there more intense”
Conclusion: Byron’s Dasein Designed
In the broadest sense this paper exhibits an existentialist impulse in Byron’s poetry.
More particularly, I examine four of Byron’s major works to analyze the similar ways in
which his characters become alert to their being through the emotion of despair, and as a
result I contend that Byron can be read anticipating the existentialist aim to explore being
in terms of angst. Achieving awareness of being through despair means that Byron’s
characters fall back on nothing but themselves, that is to say, on the presence of their
being, which suggests that an embedded ontology is at work in Byron’s poetical thinking.
This ontology is best understood in terms of his Dasein, which similarly conceives of
being by virtue of its presence, its thereness.
Au sens le plus large cette thèse expose une impulsion existentialiste dans la poésie
de Lord Byron. De façon plus particulière, j’examine quatre des principales oeuvres de
Lord Byron afin d’analyser les similitudes entre les manières qu’ont ses personnages de
réaliser pleinement leur propre existence à travers l’émotion du désespoir. Je soutiens
donc que Lord Byron peut être lu comme anticipant le désir existentialiste d’explorer
l’être en termes d’angoisse. En prenant conscience de l’être à travers le désespoir, les
personnages de Byron se rabbattent sur eux-mêmes, en d’autres mots, sur la présence de
leur être. Cela me permet de proposer la présence d’une ontologie incrustée dans la
pensée poétique de l’auteur. Cette ontologie se comprend le plus aisément par le terme
Dasein, qui de façon similaire conçoit l’être simplement en vertu de sa présence.
This thesis was written under the direction of Professor Tom Mole, whose guidance
and expertise in the field of Byron scholarship have been absolutely indispensable to this
study. I would not have been able to move its “big furniture” around without his keen
insight. I also want to thank my parents for being there, and the Turner Broadcasting
Station for airing reruns of Sanford & Son, which, when needed, took my mind off of
Byron and being. Last, but certainly not least, I thank Noumia Cloutier-Gill for her help
in translating my French abstract; but most important of all I want to thank her for having
taught me how to appreciate “la carcasse supurbe / Comme une fleur s’épanouir” –
Et pourtant vous serez semblable à cette ordure,
A cette horrible infection,
Étoile de mes yeux, soleil de ma nature,
Vous, mon ange et ma passion!
Parenthetical Citations and Abbreviated Titles
Byron’s longer poems divided into cantos will be cited by canto and stanza (canto and
line number for Shelley’s Queen Mab). All other poetry will be cited by line number.
Byron’s dramas will be cited by act, scene, and line number. The following titles will
appear parenthetically in abbreviated form throughout this thesis:
Works by Byron:
BLJ. Byron’s Letters and Journals
CHP. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Childe Harold)
CPW. Lord Byron: Complete Poetical Works
DJ. Don Juan
PC. The Prisoner of Chillon (Prisoner)
Other Works:
BN. Being and Nothingness (Sartre)
BT. Being and Time (Heidegger)
BR. Byron and Romanticism (McGann)
E/O. Either/Or (Kierkegaard)
FI. The Family Idiot (Sartre)
FD. Fiery Dust (McGann)
SUD. The Sickness Unto Death (Sickness, Kierkegaard)
This thesis is the product of my interest in the literatures of both existentialism and
romanticism. I was encouraged to pursue a crossover between these two discourses after
reading Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism, but I soon became weary of the broad
philosophical assumptions behind his claim that romanticism and existentialism operate
according to a common “sermon.” In order to understand and therefore discuss this
“sermon,” a precise methodology is needed, one that makes use of existentialist theory to
interpret romanticism and its representations. This thesis tries out this methodology.
Jean-Paul Sartre thinks about imagination not as “an empirical and superadded power
of consciousness,” but rather as “the whole of consciousness as it realizes its freedom;
every concrete and real situation of consciousness in the world is big with imagination in
as much as it always presents itself as a withdrawing from the real” (Freedom 19). In the
pages that follow I will try to establish how a romantic imagination such as Byron’s
might work “as it realizes its freedom.” The upshot will see Byron’s characters straddling
the line between fleeing and facing up to the world, confronting the real and withdrawing
from it. This is what Jerome McGann has identified as the basic theme of Byron’s Childe
Harold’s Pilgrimage: “how to remain in the world and yet keep free of the world, how to
wed imagination with objective reality” (FD 85). On both sides of the line, between his
most imaginative and his most political works, several of Byron’s characters will be read
displaying not “Consciousness awaking to her woes,” but rather consciousness realizing
its freedom (CHP 1.92).
Introduction: From Affect to Mood
“Despair defies even despotism: there is / That in my heart would make its way through
hosts / With levell’d spears” – Lord Byron, The Two Foscari (1.1.267-69).
These are the words that Marina Foscari utters upon learning that her husband, Jacopo
Foscari, has been put to The Question. To challenge a political system actively and with
violence certainly seems an odd way to despair. That her “Despair defies,” however, is
neither unique to this particular drama, nor is it the only instance in which Byron
describes despair counter-intuitively. In The Corsair there is a “common courage which
with brutes we share, / That owes its deadliest efforts to despair” (1.13). This thesis takes
as its point of departure the counter-intuitive nature of Byron’s description of despair
throughout his work. Specifically, the recurrence of the emotion of despair in its capacity
to tend toward activity rather than apathy, vigor rather than languor, can be accounted for
in terms of existentialist angst.1 Key to this existentialist reading is the way existence and
This term requires some attention given the wide range of languages in which it has been
discussed. In English it has been translated using a number of different terms, including despair,
but I will use the term angst throughout this study. Although Kierkegaard initiates the concept of
angst using the Danish Fortvivlelse and Angest, it is perhaps best known and thus widely used in
its Germanic form Angst, which Heidegger is chiefly responsible for formulating. Sartre uses the
French angoisse and désespoir. With the rare exceptions of dread and anguish, Byron makes use
of the word despair throughout his body of work in a way that corresponds to what all three
philosophers have in mind when writing about angst. There are variations in meaning between
these philosophers’ employment of angst, which might be helpful to point out. Kierkegaard’s use
of the Danish term Fortvivlelse corresponds to English despair, while his Angest corresponds
either to anxiety or dread. For the purpose of this paper I will be concerned with despair as
Fortvivlelse, which is a “sickness” that an individual must necessarily undergo to become a self.
Kierkegaard himself differentiated between these two terms, yet never explicitly addressed (the
significance of) their connection. Gregor Malantschuk’s work on Kierkegaard offers a thorough
investigation into the relation between these forms of anxiety; and see also John Tanner’s Anxiety
in Eden for the similar ground Milton and Kierkegaard share in terms of Angest in its relation to
hereditary and original sin. Heidegger uses the word Angst in Being and Time, which is translated
selfhood are engaged and achieved through despair. In Søren Kierkegaard’s writing, for
instance, there is a kind of “conscious” despair that enables an individual to “rebel
against all existence” (SUD 105), which will feed into what 20th century French
existentialism calls engagement that stresses the “primacy of action” (Cooper 178).
Therefore, by reading the emotion of despair in Byron’s characters not as romantic
melancholy but as existentialist angst, I will demonstrate that Byron anticipates the
existentialist impulse to write about being2 in terms of despair. Exposing the peculiar way
despair enables his characters to become alert to their existence, that is to say, the way in
which they fall back on nothing but themselves in the moment, reveals in Byron’s
poetical thinking an embedded ontology best understood as his Dasein, or Being-there,
which conceives of being “as that never-ending ensnarement in a perpetual present”
(Brombert, Prison 197).
To be clear, that the ontology in Byron’s poetical thinking plays out existentially in
his characters can only be understood fully by distinguishing the way they move about
the world in despair from the way they mope about. In both cases the role of despair
stakes out a larger division at the discursive level. In other words, differentiating
Marina’s defiant despair from that which the hero of Elegy on Newstead Abbey feels as
as anxiety, and elsewhere as dread, to mean the very specific “mood” that presents Dasein with
its possibility for Being-in-the-world and rescues it from its inauthentic “falling.” Throughout his
work Heidegger shows Angst in this capacity by differentiating it from and strictly opposing it to
things like Aengstlichkeit (a form of “inauthentic” anxiety), Furcht (fear) and Grauen (dread).
Sartre uses the French angoisse in Being and Nothingness, always translated as anguish, to posit
the role it plays in defining human freedom. Elsewhere Sartre distinguishes angoisse from
désespoir (despair) and délaissment (abandonment). At bottom, Fortvivlelse, Angst, angoisse and
despair all point to the same mood that these writers use to explore the nature of existence.
Throughout this thesis this term will remain in lower case, though in no way diminutive, to
mean existence in its broadest ontological understanding. It will be capitalized only when a more
specific, existentialist understanding is warranted, as in the case of the English form of
Heidegger’s term Dasein, or Being-there, which Heidegger has defined thus: “Dasein is not only
close to us – even that which is closest: we are it, each of us, we ourselves” (BT 36).
he “roam[s] a dreary world in deep despair” is a problem of existentialist mood versus
literary affect (47). Despair as an emotion in Byron’s poetry works, on the one hand, as a
method or structure inherent to literary writing, namely as a gloomy torpor in Byron’s
verse, and on the other hand as a mood that signals, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, a “return
of consciousness,” which, as angoisse, leads not to “quietism or inaction” but rather is “a
condition of action itself” (Sketch 61; Humanism 27). I term this twofold nature of
despair in Byron’s poetry both a dealing-with and a dwelling-in the emotional content of
his poetical language.3
I take the former term from Wimsatt and Beardsley in their well-known essay on the
role of affect in poetic diction. Here emotion in New Criticism remains an object within
the poem itself:
Poetry is characteristically a discourse about both emotions and objects […]. An
emotion felt for one object is identified by reference to its analogue felt for
another […]. The emotions correlative to the objects of poetry become a part of
the matter dealt with – not communicated to the reader like an infection or disease
In her “Phenomenology and Romantic Theory: Hegel and the Subversion of Aesthetics,”
Tilottama Rajan has already gestured toward a similar differentiation, which, in her language,
discriminates the “mode” from the “mood” of aesthetic perception. Compare: “The modern
equivalent of Stimmung [mood] would be the Geneva school notion of ‘inscape’: the inner
essence of a work of art grasped through a critical epoché that brackets off the text’s formal and
structural features, and that completely dissolves what Schleiermacher calls the ‘technical’ in the
‘psychological’ reading. Whereas a mood […] would not be accessible to any kind of formalist
description, a mode would describe a state of consciousness through a correlative domain of
stylistic and structural features. Thus it is important to note that Schiller does not foreground the
word Stimmung as Heidegger does, and that his discussion blurs the boundary between mood and
what I am designating by the English term mode, or between feelings (such as anxiety and dread
[…]), and neogeneric categories such as the elegiac and the idyllic” (166). At bottom, critics like
Rajan and Thomas Pfau (see below), who both follow Heidegger’s translators, use the term mood
to write about and refer to angst’s “emotional” quality in order to distinguish it from the emotion
of despair as a “mode” of literary affect.
[…], but presented in their objects and contemplated as a pattern of knowledge.
(1401-2, my emphasis)
Emotion dealt-with in this formalist sense is an act of performing literary criticism that
shows how language is bracketed-off so that a text’s emotions can stand independent of
the creator as a larger “pattern of knowledge.” This act of “contemplating” emotion,
perhaps similar to how poets of the 18th century “cultivated” their emotions, therefore lies
in opposition to romantic poetics where emotion find its way onto the page, according to
Wordsworth, through the poet’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” M. H.
Abrams’s assessment of the role of emotion in romantic theory circulates around the
assertion that “poetry is the expression of feeling,” using Byron’s volcanic imagery to
show how romantic poetry “is a release of the affects in words, affording relief from
threatening inner pressures” (Mirror 70, 146). In romantic poetics, therefore, the
overflow of emotion shows the poet’s necessity in having to deal with, or come to terms
with his emotions by erupting them, or as Byron says: “if I don’t write to empty my
mind, I go mad. […] I feel it as a torture, which I must get rid of, but never as a pleasure”
(BLJ 8:55). Therefore, dealing-with despair, like any other emotion in Byron’s verse, not
only works within the field of literary writing that is founded on the production of some
sort of transference of emotion through language into the text – whether it comes from
within the poet or from within the text’s formal structure – but it also signifies more
generally an entire literary history and tradition occupied with resolving the antagonism
between romantic and formalist theories of emotion in poetry.
Dwelling-in Byron’s poetry, on the other hand, is informed by Martin Heidegger’s
view of how language speaks man. Language, in belonging to “the closest neighborhood
of man’s being,” contains a “presencing element,” one that provides a dwelling place for
humans in a way that “first brings man about, brings him into existence” (Poetry 189194). Heidegger’s work on Friedrich Hölderlin also calls attention to how poetry
constitutes a sort of “measuring” where the poet writes not to “surmount the earth in
order to escape it,” but rather in a way that “brings him into dwelling” (Poetry 218). It is
then through this dwelling as measuring that Heidegger reads Hölderlin having “before
his eyes the basic character of human existence” (Poetry 215). Dwelling-in Byron’s work
will show the poet concerned not with the substance of poetry and its proper language,
form and diction as affect, but rather the substance of being, the character of existence.
Since emotion “is not an accident, it is a mode of our conscious existence,” analyzing
Byron’s account of despair according to this existentialist theory permits us to view his
characters’ emotion as “one of the ways on which consciousness understands […] its
Being-in-the-World” (Sartre, Sketch 61).
At bottom, I turn away from emotion understood in terms of 18th century
sentimentalism where “tears are the proper emblem [that] mark out a special population
who live and move and have their being by affect” (McGann, Poetics 7); away from the
18th century notion of sensibility where “spontaneous responses such as sighing, blushing,
weeping, and fainting [are] revered as physical embodiments of [an] innate moral sense”
(Stabler, “Literary” 29); and instead turn toward reading Byron’s emotion of despair in
terms of the Heideggerian Stimmung of angst as it “discloses the world as world” and
brings Byron’s characters “face to face” with their Being-there, thereby prefiguring the
existentialist project of defining being through angst (BT 232-233).
Translating Byron’s despair as romantic melancholy into the philosophical language
of existentialism is vindicated given the way a critic like Thomas Pfau has approached
Keats’s melancholy, for instance, both in terms of pre-Enlightenment epistemology and
Heideggerian existentialism. Pfau insists that while representations of melancholy in the
16th century can be understood as “the distinctive affective undercurrent of modern
knowing,” modernity adds to these representations “the experience of thinking as a
process accompanied by a feeling of disorientation at once integral to and hence
uncontainable by thought” (315-16). With Sartre’s disorienting, nauseous angoisse in
mind as well, Pfau explores how Keats’s melancholy “gesture[s] toward a Heideggerian
‘mood,’ an eruption of a melancholia that originates neither expressively from within a
discrete subject nor intrudes upon it from without” (317). Working with a definition of
melancholy that shows romantic poets in love with being depressed since it is through
“depression and subsequent introspection that they realized the important truths,” I want
to offer a reading of Byron’s verse that explains existentially how his romantic
melancholy “becomes a pleasurable and enjoyable experience” (Laird 370). This will
involve seeing Byron and his despair not as a “byword of ‘gloom intense’” (McGann,
Poetics 162), but rather through what Kierkegaard claims to be the nature of Fortvivlelse:
“it is not gloomy; on the contrary it tries to shed light on what one generally banishes to a
certain obscurity. It is not discouraging; on the contrary it is uplifting, since it views
every man with regard to the highest demand that can be made of him: to be spirit,” that
is, to be a self (SUD 52). Though poems like Keats’ Ode on Melancholy and Shelley’s
Stanzas: Written in Dejection “all testify to the poetic riches despair bequeaths,” it will be
my task to explore how Byron’s characters’ despair endows the poet with greater means
to contemplate existence (Laird 371). For Edward Bostetter, “the full extent of Byron’s
despair, his Angst” is revealed in poems like “Darkness” where Byron sees “his own
lonely desolation […] as the ultimate nature of things” – a desolation that “will end in
affirmation” in Manfred and Childe Harold (275-277). In short, Byron’s characters in
despair are not engaged in bemoaning, but are engaging being.
Applying existentialist theory to works of English literature is not a new practice.
While Lorraine Clark has examined William Blake’s poetry in light of Kierkegaard’s
analysis of despair, William J. Sowder has undertaken an existential-phenomenological
reading of William Faulkner to find that the two sides “were made for each other” (xiii).
Concerning Byron, there exists already a line of criticism interested in examining the
meaning of the term Byronic as it “spreads out from the purely literary context to wider
‘existential’ fields” (Blackstone 13). Edward Bostetter’s chapter on Byron shows his
poetry pervaded by and implicitly anticipating “an existentialist attitude” (254), and Mark
Kipperman goes as far as to call Childe Harold “the romance of the first existential hero
in English literature” based on an alignment with Kierkegaard’s work (185). And John
Watkins initiates Byron’s overlap with Heidegger’s existentialism by examining how
Byron “confronts the nothing that is the matrix of individual beings to discover their
vulnerability to the eventual and certain negation that is part of the truth of being. For
Byron, too, Angst in the face of nihilation engenders freedom” (404).
Additionally, that the concept of despair even warrants its own critical analysis in
English literature is evident in Gary Adelman’s reading of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the
Obscure. His larger aim of dealing-with the novel’s despair in terms of its “haunting
pathos, complexity of narrative voice and perspective” does briefly gesture at how
Hardy’s “metaphysical pessimism” nonetheless “portrays the existential absurdity of life”
(12, 11). Even more, Robert Gleckner’s study of Byron is of course interested in “the
poet and his pervading despair,” and at one point it even admits to seeing Byron “in
agony over his own fall, fragmentation, and disunity, creating out of his despair his own
being” (74, 252). And it is well known to scholars of British romanticism how “Byronic
Despair” is “the structure which governs [his] ideological commitments” (McGann,
Ideology 127). Therefore, my aim throughout this paper will be to read Byron’s
description of despair extending from the “purely literary context” to the “wider
existential fields,” thereby establishing a critical method with which to interpret Byron’s
romantic despair in terms of a philosophical framework, affording him the capability to
be read anticipating 19th and 20th century conceptions of existentialist angst.
A brief consideration of the larger critical relationship between romanticism and
existentialist philosophy will help us to see not only why these aforementioned critics
have already begun discussing Byron within an existentialist context, but also how
Byron’s emotion of despair is better understood outside the boundaries of literary affect
as a gloomy, “haunting pathos.” In the most general way, “the romantic emphasis on
personal self-expression [and] individual freedom […] contributed importantly to the
mental climate out of which existentialism emerged” (Woelfel 7). Therefore, an
existentialist reading of Byron’s poetry must begin with his individual characters. Like
existentialism, one of the “outstanding marks” of romanticism, Michael Cooke explains,
is the period’s “realization that the seat of value is in the self” (61). One element of the
romantic self that becomes existentially relevant for us, yet one that also must be
challenged (as we will see in Chapter Two), is its attempt at stabilization in the face of
having to grapple with what Peter Thorslev has called a “renewed sense of destiny” in the
“organic universe,” and on the other hand, the “dreadful freedom” of the “open universe”
(Contraries 102, 143). It is in this latter universe that “the existentialist hero finds
himself: his values having as sanction only the naked assertion of his own will. This is
the ‘dreadful freedom’ which the Romantics discovered” (Contraries 17-18). With
respect to Byron, the basis for all existentialist inquiry is adumbrated precisely in his
individual characters’ attempts to navigate this “open,” and in Cooke’s terms, “difficult”
universe, in which “self-assertion counts more than self-regulation” in the face of a sort
of meaninglessness to the world (61-62). Therefore, we will want to make way for seeing
how, for example, Manfred is able “to look for no aid or comfort beyond himself” as he
rejects the Spirits and is “forced more consciously back upon himself, and the
inevitability of his self-responsibility is revealed” (Bostetter 281). This falling back upon
oneself is the presencing element by which existentialist inquiry defines being.
More broadly, scholars of both romanticism and existentialism seem to agree that a
certain meaninglessness and emptiness to the world forced poets and philosophers
associated with both camps back upon themselves, which resulted in them having put pen
to paper. Under Byron’s pen this is “vacancy absorbing space” in Bonnivard’s prison cell
(PC 243). Bostetter reads Byron in a way that “man ha[s] nothing to turn to beyond
himself, [is] responsible solely to himself,” and along with his “disgust” for being at the
mercy of his sexual passions Bostetter sees Byron denying “the benevolence of God and
any ultimate purpose or meaning to human existence” (266). For Isaiah Berlin “the
central sermon of existentialism is essentially a romantic one, namely, that there is in the
world nothing to lean on” (142). Ultimately for Berlin, the sermon of existentialism is a
“stoic” one that “derives directly from romanticism,” where the individual attempted “to
shuffle off responsibility and to blind oneself, unnecessarily, to the fact that the universe
is in reality a kind of void” (143). Falling back on oneself caught up in the void of a
“perpetual present,” then, will be a movement that all of Byron’s characters experience to
some degree in their despair, which makes up Byron’s existentialist impulse.
Additionally, Berlin expresses the literary and philosophical roots of romanticism in
an existentially Byronic language. He names two fundamental attributes that comprise the
entire romantic movement: one is the prominence of the der Wille across all continental
Europe and England, while the second attribute, which he calls the “Byronic syndrome,”
corresponds to “the absence of a structure of the world to which one must adjust oneself”
(133). Here Byron covers just as much ground as Arthur Schopenhauer, as man is “tossed
in a kind of frail bark upon a vast ocean of the will, which has no purpose, no end, no
direction, which man can resist only at his own peril, with which man can come to terms
only if he manages to rid himself of this unnecessary desire to order, to tidy himself up,
to create a cosy home for himself in this wild and unpredictable element” (134). But
Byron fails to follow Schopenhauer as a radical pessimist because, in spite of the “allinclusive” and “universal” position despair holds in Gleckner’s reading of Byron’s verse,
there is a kind of optimism that comes as “we are led to acknowledge the paradox of
celebration rising out of Byron’s despair” (Beatty 655). The bottom line here for Berlin is
that certain poets during the romantic period like Byron were able to experience a certain
liberating joy in experiencing this void, which anticipates the uniquely Nietzschean brand
of existentialism.
An existentialist critic like William Barrett approaches the two discourses by
foregrounding the inherent similarities between individuals in each. The significance of
the individual in existentialist thought is for Barrett a strong derivative of romanticism,
which “posed the problem of the individual as it had never been posed before in human
history. Considered from this point of view, Heidegger’s philosophy represents the
scholasticism, the final anatomy, of the Romantic individual” (Existentialism 104). For
Barrett, Coleridge is the initializing member of this anatomy finalized by Heidegger. His
reading of Coleridge’s angst begins to create some stake in distinguishing despair as
melancholic affect from despair as an existential mood in terms of angst’s unheimlich
quality that is at work, for instance, in Childe Harold IV where a “dread power” roams
“nameless,” which Byron, like Coleridge, is unable to pin down.4 More generally, Barrett
views romanticism and existentialism in terms of their reaction against their respective
contemporary modernisms. Both represent “a drive toward that fullness and naturalness
of Being that the modern world threatens to let sink into oblivion” (Irrational 123).
Barrett concludes that every fundamental problem of existence with which existentialist
philosophy attempts to grapple returns to the “historical context” of romanticism, and by
Barrett points to Coleridge’s Dejection: An Ode anticipating Heidegger’s notion of the Worum
and Wovor of Angst: “The ode is a lament on his failing powers as a poet, powers that have dried
up because Coleridge is no longer able to find joy in nature,” and thus he was “the first to explore
this thoroughly modern mood from the inside. What happens to man when he is thus severed
from nature? Here Coleridge encounters, in thoroughly existential fashion, anxiety itself. He
cannot pin this anxiety, cannot attach it to any definite object, event, or person; it is the revelation
of void or non-being” (Irrational 127). This tendency in Coleridge’s poetry is then “nothing less
than man’s discovery of his own estrangement from Being” (Irrational 130). See also Herbert
Read’s view that Coleridge before Kierkegaard “had already formulated the terms of an
existentialist philosophy – the Angst or sacred horror of nothingness, the Abyss or ‘chasm, which
the moral being only…can fill up’ […]” (161-162, 181). It should be noted that Read very clearly
does not share the same sentiments about Byron that I advance: “the philosophical reaction to
Nihilism at the beginning of the nineteenth century was to be various forms of Existentialism, but
though we can make out a case for regarding Coleridge and Wordsworth as existentialists of this
kind, Byron remains obstinately cynical, gaily – but not confidently – superficial” (304).
“questioning this historical context for its meaning, we are brought back in turn to the
problem of our own existence” (Existentialism 107).
In sum, I argue that Byron prefigures the existentialist impulse to write about being in
terms of despair. Thus, an embedded ontology is located in Byron’s poetical thinking,
and the peculiar way his characters become alert to being and fall back upon themselves
through despair will signal how that ontology is best understood as Byron’s Dasein. With
this said, reading his verse cannot adequately be guided by the antagonistic structure of
dealing-with an emotion that ultimately translates as literary affect. At the heart of this
thesis, then, is the problem of searching for a method with which to understand Byron’s
anticipation of existentialist angst. The solution ultimately lies in overlapping Byron’s
verse with existentialist theory. In short, only by reading Byron back through the
existentialists’ theoretical work can we see him anticipating their understanding of angst.
The relation between despair and being in Byron’s poetry bears a seamless resemblance
to that described in existentialist theory, which thus warrants this particular method of
reading Byron “back through” its theory. However, this theoretical method is also a
necessary one since direct references made by the existentialists to Byron do not put him
in a favorable existentialist position. As we will see, Kierkegaard might condemn Byron
just as he does Friedrich Schlegel for being an aesthete who conducts himself
“impersonally” through his irony (E/O 2:212). With this said, in Chapter One I argue that
Haidée’s defiant despair demonstrates how the embedded ontology in Byron’s thinking
wants to face up to selfhood through despair, despite Kierkegaard’s own understanding
that irony in Don Juan leads to self-evasion. Chapter Two will read Manfred’s power that
“withholds” and Bonnivard’s sigh back through Sartre’s theoretical work to show them
falling back on themselves in ways that erase any confusion concerning Byron’s romantic
and existentialist impulses that come from both Sartre’s references to Byron and
Nietzsche’s view of Manfred. In the final chapter, I will read Childe Harold back through
Heidegger’s theory that “anxiety individualizes.” Using Heidegger’s theoretical tools is
the most effective method for interpreting the dynamic characterization of the poem
existentially, revealing Byron’s ability to cast off Harold and the voice of the narrator to
search for “a being more intense,” which is located in an un-resigned, vivifying “electric
chain” of despair.
Chapter One
Wanting Being: Lacking and Longing for Selfhood in Don Juan
“das Leid beuget gewaltiger” (“sorrow bends with greater power”; 2, my translation) –
Friedrich Hölderlin, “Lebenslauf.”
My interest in the mechanics of Byron’s “famous despair” goes as far as to unpack
how his characters are, rather than to obtain in it “a clear view of how a language of
affective meanings – of how language as affective thought – functions” (McGann,
Poetics 6). The main objective of this chapter will be to expose Haidée’s existentially
defiant despair in Don Juan using Kierkegaard’s notion of Fortvivlelse. I undertake this
task in spite of two obstacles: critical use of Kierkegaard’s thoughts on irony to facilitate
reading the “affective meaning” of Byron’s despair in terms of his break from literary
tradition, and Kierkegaard’s own reading of Don Juan that interprets its despair as
boredom rather than Fortvivlelse. At stake here is a shift in the focus on Byron’s irony5 –
from his use of it to escape certain modes of literary tradition toward its use for selfevasion. By navigating this shift we will see that despite Kierkegaard’s attempt to read
the poem’s narrator evading, thus lacking selfhood as a bored, ironic aesthete, Haidée’s
defiant despair demonstrates how the embedded ontology in Byron’s thinking faces up to
selfhood and actually wants it through despair.
There already exists a critical dialogue that takes issue with the sheer legitimacy of Byron’s
romantic irony. M. H. Abrams writes candidly about it: “the hero among the English Romantics
will be Byron […] who speaks with an ironic counter-voice and deliberately opens a satirical
perspective on the vatic stance of his Romantic contemporaries’” (“Rationality” 459). For a critic
like René Wellek, this form of irony remains a German literary device and, as Peter Thorslev
summarizes, is “never used by the English Romantics – ‘with the possible exception of Byron’”
(Contraries 157).
It is curious that no attention has been given to the odd way that Haidée, in the
moments following Juan’s capture at her father’s hands, “had held till now her soft and
milky way, / But overwrought with passion and despair, / The fire burst forth from her
Numidian veins, / Even as the simoom sweeps the blasted plains” (4.57). How can one be
overwrought with despair? And why has Byron described despair – an emotion signifying
lassitude and fatigue – by using words and imagery suggesting tension, excitement and
excess? In the days preceding her death Haidée goes from a state in which there is “No
sign, save breath, of having left the grave” (4.63) to one where “thought […] whirled her
brain to madness” (4.67), while Byron inexplicably matches words like despair with fire
(57), drooped with defied (58) in favor of drawing explicit attention to the anger and rage
that the scene clearly exhibits. In general, despair in this scene, which might normally
signal stasis and deficit, instead points towards Haidée’s vitality and fullness. Though she
lay in a state “chill / With nothing livid, still her lips were red,” and though she had no
pulse, we learn that: “To look upon her sweet face bred / New thoughts of life, for it
seemed full of soul” (4.60). Though Byron appears to be handling despair with
existentialist precision here in Don Juan in a way that favors life, activity, renewal, and is
generally “uplifting” in the words of Kierkegaard, critics’ handling of Byron’s despair
remains to be measured by other standards – ones that use Kierkegaard’s theoretical tools
to show Byron distancing himself from different forms of literary tradition.
Jerome McGann handles Byron’s sentimental despair as a supplementary tool to draw
out his primary interest in establishing Byron’s version of romantic irony, namely his
“hypocrisy.” To get there, McGann traces Byron’s “famous despair” beginning with his
18th century sentimental poetry where it signals a “loss from which there is no
redemption,” gladly incarcerating the poet’s despair as miserably and with as much
suffering as possible in what McGann calls his “waste places” (Poetics 156, 158).
Byron’s early verse essentially takes much of its craft from sources like Charlotte Smith
whose “poetic vocation entails a special knowledge of sorrow,” and displays “simply
bleak insight” (BR 165). The despair in Byron’s sentimental verse only ever calls upon
“the feeling heart, the coeur sensible” (Poetics 4). McGann then shows Byron’s romantic
verse continually “struggling to break wholly free from his sentimental sufferings –
ultimately, to break wholly free from the doomed poetry that expresses and discovers
those sufferings” (Poetics 159).
Yet the role that irony plays in this break is key for McGann. While Byron will
“adopt the conventions of Romanticism he inherited – spontaneous overflow, internal
colloquy” in order “to break them apart,” Byron’s chief virtues are ultimately located in
the “asymmetrical” way contradiction stands at odds with romantic irony and in the
“hypocritical” way he breaks from the conventions of romanticism, both of which are
virtues that tend to destabilize the entire foundation of what McGann calls “Romantic
sincerity” (BR 95). This sincerity, McGann points out, is a display of “Romantic truth
[as] inner vision, and Romantic knowledge is the unfolding of the truths of that inner
vision”; and Byron’s hypocrisy recognizes that the “deeply felt relation binding the poetic
Subject to the poetic subject, the speaking voice to the matter being addressed,” is itself a
rhetorical convention, or “artifice” of language (BR 115). Therefore, Byron did not so
much do away with his romantic inheritance as he did “trace out the logic of its internal
contradictions – what Baudelaire later saw as its hypocrisies” (BR 96), not only allowing
Byron’s “anonymous” lyric to call into question the entire romantic enterprise of sincerity
that poets like Wordsworth had established by recollecting emotions in tranquility, but
come closer to being more “sincere” than Wordsworth’s desire to “have at all times
endeavored to look steadily at my subject.”
Problematic, however, is the way McGann reads Byron using irony hypocritically to
challenge romantic irony and sincerity, drawing out a contradiction in its claims to inner
vision and truth by prefacing it with Kierkegaard’s “either/or” that questions the nature of
contradiction itself in terms of subjective experience (BR 116). In doing so, the role that
despair plays in Kierkegaard’s exploration of romantic irony is lost, which explains why
McGann only deals-with despair in terms of Byron’s sentimental “waste places,” and
later constitutes his “romantic ideology.” I must emphasize that it remains my wish only
to point out how McGann has unintentionally fragmented a set of terms that ultimately
grants access to a facet of Byron’s ontology. That goes to say, different ways of reading
Byron’s despair necessarily result from any number of different approaches to handling
Byron’s irony. Thus, in light of Kierkegaard’s condemnation of romantic ironic poets due
to their inability to “go through with” what he calls “necessary despair,” the two terms
should be taken together. What I propose, then, is to use McGann’s appropriation of
Kierkegaard as a springboard for restoring the relation that irony and despair share in his
philosophy to read Don Juan’s ironic narrator escaping his self, as Kierkegaard would
have it.
That McGann uses Kierkegaard to locate in Don Juan its “signs of a collapse of its
integrity,” and its “rupture in its pretensions to truth” could be important in establishing
Byron’s Kierkegaardian existentialism (BR 131). We could, for instance, take all of this
“collapsing” and “rupturing” of truth in a way that postures the narrator in fear of boring
his muse: “This tale / However doth require some slight refection / Just to relieve her
spirits from dejection” (15.64). What for the narrator is an attempt to use irony to refresh
and renew his thoughts is for Kierkegaard self-damaging: here relief is not merely “from
dejection,” but more importantly relief from the self. Such “refection,” such need for the
renewal of experience and sensation, then, is symptomatic of poets who thirst for more
sensation having employed irony only to relieve themselves of their selves. This is how
an ironic poet “loses” or lacks his self, according to Kierkegaard. But McGann sidesteps
this and claims to summarize Kierkegaard’s famous “either/or problematic” because it
helps “clarify the import and structure of Byron’s work,” which is to say his work that
demonstrates a subversion of “truth-functions” and his hypocrisy that enacts moments of
self-contradiction in Don Juan specifically (BR 127, 116). McGann has Kierkegaard pose
the same stance that Byron makes in his claim to “truth” in Don Juan: “either the truth
that is achieved is identical with consciousness, or it is not truth. If the process is the
truth, the process is solipsistic (it involves mere tautologies); if it is not solipsistic,
contradiction – untruth – remains part of the process” (BR 116).6 Yet Byron’s verse,
McGann states, “far surpasses the Danish philosopher’s arguments” in Canto 15, stanza
88, where “the lines enact the contradictions they confront,” and Byron “at once asserts
and denies his self-integrity” (Byron 117). As a result, McGann concludes:
Although I am trying to drive a wedge between McGann’s reading of truth in Don Juan and the
method he employs to do so, there nonetheless remains that Thorslevian common element that
seems to want to suture this cleavage. Both Don Juan and existentialism make no final claim to
“truth,” where a deeper more meaningful relevance can be found. Brian Wilkie captures this
sentiment rather nicely: with Don Juan, “Byron seems to be saying [that] fact is all we have and
we must live with it. It is this stubborn insistence that in spite of the temptation to dream we are
dupes if we go beyond isolated phenomena to a systematic belief in a ‘Truth’ behind the
phenomena that makes Don Juan a sad and frightening poem; clearly, fact is all that Byron will
admit, but it is not always enough for him. In this respect he is similar to many twentieth-century
existentialist” (83).
Don Juan does something more than set in motion Byron’s version of
Kierkegaard’s either/or problematic. The poem’s contradictions deconstruct all
truth-functions which are founded either in (metaphysical) Identity or
(psychological) Integrity […]. In their place is set a truth-function founded
(negatively) in contradiction itself and (positively) in metonymy: to the negative
either/or dialectic Don Juan adds the procedural rule of “both/and.” That
procedural rule is Byron’s version of what Hegel called “the negation of
negations.” The latter, in its Byronic form, means that the terms of all
contradictions are neither idealistically transcended nor nihilistically cancelled
out. They simply remain in contradiction. (Byron 127)
Poaching only what he needs from Kierkegaard’s theoretical inventory, McGann locates
in Byron’s poetry an “existential equivalent” to Kierkegaard’s method of exploring a
similar problem with contradiction in romantic self-integrity and subjectivity in general
(BR 117). Using Kierkegaard in this way that supports Byron’s hypocrisy, which more
generally shows the poet resisting certain literary traditions (“the whole point of Don
Juan was to attack the ‘Romantic’ position [that] poetical language is mere convention
which the poets follow, and to which they subject their [inner, subjective] vision”) seems
inadequate given the high stakes Kierkegaard places on irony and despair (McGann,
Context 156).
Although I think McGann is somewhat correct to align Kierkegaard with Byron as
conspirators of existentialism on the grounds that “the ‘process’ of subjectivity is an
existential and not a logical (or dialectic) process,” we are left with no knowledge of how
despair also fits into this “process” – an essential aspect in Kierkegaard’s exploration (BR
117). Depending on which critical work we look at in McGann’s oeuvre, despair either
stands for Byron’s “waste places” in his sentimental verse, or it is caught up in the web of
his overriding hypocrisy since its placement in a code of sincere emotions would indicate
an investment in romantic “truth,” so to speak rebalancing the asymmetric scales, or it is
“the reflex of an Ideal attachment” (Ideology 127). Therefore, the illogical and
irrational/existential process we find at work in Byron and Kierkegaard’s account of
irony, and more generally in their mutual denial of systems,7 which McGann sees Byron
specifically using as a tool to escape literary history and his contemporaries, must begin
to be understood by a more satisfactory form of existentialist escape from his self. This
becomes key in any alignment of Byron with Kierkegaard. With all of this said, dwellingin Don Juan’s “emblems of Emotions” (15.2) is an attempt to resuscitate the relation
between irony and despair as distinct, yet inseparable terms in Kierkegaard’s thought in
Byron’s hesitant stance toward systematic ways of thinking is well known. For example, Don
Juan’s narrator embodies his mistrust of systematic thinking with references to the fourth-century
Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic, “of whom half [his] philosophy the progeny is” (15.73);
and whose “lack of written philosophical system,” according to some editors of Don Juan,
“appealed to Byron” (Pratt, Steffan 742). And T. A. Hoagwood’s work on Byron’s skepticism
offers a fairly comprehensive account of Byron’s anti-systematic stance: “Byron mentions
philosophies only to disown them […]. For his poems especially, Byron disclaims any doctrinal
or didactic coherence […]. Nowhere does Byron suggest that poetry is for him a medium for
logical discourse” (26). Kierkegaard too was weary of systems, namely Hegel’s rational system
of dialectics, which tried to explain fully the totality of all human existence in spite of man’s
limited, temporal, finite and changing existence. Fear and Trembling and Sickness are works that
generally demonstrate apprehension toward doing philosophy systematically, and the beginning
of the latter work is often held by critics as a mockery not only of this rational way of doing
philosophy, but also of Hegel’s difficult style of writing, which Kierkegaard in fact goes on to
diagnose as an acute symptom of his system of dialectics. Therefore, Byron would likely follow
Kierkegaard’s claim that individual agency is passed over in systematic inquiry, thus grounding
individual existence in a teleological world order rather than its temporal condition (Kosch 92).
Yet despite the similar ground Byron and Kierkegaard might cover here, this idea of “system”
poses a potential problem when using Heidegger to read Byron. Because Heidegger is working
more closely within the traditions of phenomenology and western metaphysics, it might seem
antithetical to read Byron’s despair against Heidegger’s systematic method of using Angst to
investigate Dasein. Therefore, reading Byron back through Heidegger, or Sartre for that matter,
does not mean to implant a logical system upon Byron’s thought; rather his thoughts on being
remain at best imbedded for critical retrieval.
order to show how the poem’s characters use irony to despair, and how selfhood can be
both wanted and wanting.8
Other critics’ fragmented use of Kierkegaard rests on similar readings that sidestep
the role of despair in irony, and instead bear witness to Byron’s break from tradition.
Frederick Shilstone locates a polarity in Byron’s consciousness dominated equally, on
one end, by “the myth of tradition,” which signals Byron’s “awareness of external, social,
and comprehensive systems of value inherited from the past and sanctioned by the ages”
(xii), and on the other end by “the concept of the free and autonomous self,” which
conflicts with and opposes the system of the “myth of tradition” that Byron had inherited.
Suffice it to say that Shilstone uses the form of Kierkegaard’s thoughts on romantic irony
in an insufficient way since Byron’s adherence to the “autonomous self” is incompatible
with the content of Kierkegaard’s model of romantic irony, one which admits no positive
room for self-sufficient, individual freedom in the romantic poet’s consciousness.
Therefore, the fact that Shilstone uses Kierkegaard to view Conrad in The Corsair as an
“existential hero” based upon a “tone of freedom from restricting traditions,” as well as
all the pirates’ ability in the opening stanzas to “contrast their life of limitless wandering
with that of the ‘luxurious slave’ who is bound by society and its stifling traditions,”
seems to mistake, as we will discuss next chapter, elements of romanticism and
Nietzscheanism for existentialism, all of which struggle in their own ways to define an
individual’s freedom in terms of constricting conditions like those of tradition and society
(75). Frederick Garber comes no closer to using Kierkegaard to point out Byron’s
While my focus is on Byron’s characters, it must be admitted that Kierkegaard devised his
philosophy to attack real poets like K.W.F. Solger, Ludwig Tieck and Friedrich Schlegel, and
those “German philosophers” who “divert themselves by objective thinking,” conducting
themselves “as impersonally as possible” (E/O 2:212).
mastery of his self, instead demonstrating the success of Don Juan by showing Byron
conquering irony to master his past:
At the end of The Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard proposes as the ideal form what
he calls the irony of the mastered moment. That sort of irony finds equilibrium in
its poems by controlling and mastering “those spirits [of opposition] which
obstinately seek to storm forth” in the work. […] The fallen and humanized
consciousness whose epic is Don Juan shows a related sort of mastery, mastering,
for the moment, moments of opposition but, finally and most significantly,
mastering itself and its own past. (312)
Even more, in his ecocritical work on Manfred, Timothy Morton stops to consider briefly
the impact McGann and Jane Stabler have had in elucidating “the extent to which
Byron’s irony involves a perilous, Kierkegaardian dance on the volcano of nothingness”
(167). While he points out that McGann and Stabler “usefully read Byronic irony as a
putting-into-play of all possible subject positions, or places,” I enthusiastically align
myself with Morton’s question: “how much irony will this Kierkegaardian reading really
tolerate?” (167).
As I have stated Byron’s more adequate “existential equivalency” to Kierkegaard is
available through the way Haidée defiantly despairs in Don Juan. However, what again
resists this interpretation is the way Kierkegaard himself sees the poem’s narrator using
irony to avoid “actuality.” The narrator’s ironic digressions, for instance, symbolize his
retreat from existence, or his desire merely to occupy existence rather than to commit to
it. As Anne Mellor clarifies, “the romantic-ironic self that ‘hovers’ midway between selfcreation and self-destruction comes to seem to [the] existentialist thinkers to be a self
without reality. Its ontological lack of being, they argue, is psychologically experienced
as free-floating anxiety […]” (183). This anxiety must be “gone through with,” according
to Kierkegaard, and in order to do this, that is, to despair properly, “becoming must
finally yield to being: ‘true actuality becomes what it is, whereas the actuality of
romanticism merely becomes. […] the higher actuality of spirit is not merely becoming
[vordende], but present while yet becoming [vorder]’” (Mellor 181-182). This lack of
being present during one’s ironic becoming is to lack a self and to lack despairing over
being a self, and results in a bored attitude, what Kierkegaard calls the aesthetic life.
In short, Kierkegaard’s specific reference to Byron, although brief, shows how Byron
might fit into this aesthetic life since his narrator is on par with Kierkegaard’s own bored
aesthete A: both of whom are in despair through their “reflectivity” and their use of irony
to stave off actuality. Kierkegaard owned Lord Byron’s sämmtliche Werke, from which A
– the principal character of E/O Part 1 – assesses the “failure” of Byron’s Don Juan:
That Byron was in many ways particularly endowed to present a Don Juan is
certain enough, and therefore one can be sure that when that undertaking failed,
the reason was not in Byron but in something far deeper. Byron has ventured to
bring Don Juan into existence for us, to tell us of his childhood and youth, to
construct him out of the context of his finite life-relationships. But Don Juan
thereby became a reflective personality who loses the ideality he has in the
traditional picture. […] As soon as Don Juan is interpreted as a reflective
individual, an ideality corresponding to the musical ideality [i.e. the “traditional
picture” above] can be attained only when the matter is shifted into the
psychological realm. What is achieved, then, is the ideality of intensity.
Therefore, Byron’s Don Juan must be regarded as a failure because it stretches out
epically. The immediate Don Juan must seduce 1,003; the reflective Don Juan
needs to seduce only one, and how he does it is what occupies us. The reflective
Don Juan’s seduction is a tour de force in which every particular little episode has
its special significance; the musical Don Juan’s seduction is a turn of the hand, a
matter of a moment, more quickly done than said. (E/O 1:106-108)
Important here for Kierkegaard is not A’s qualitative assessment of the aesthetic merits of
Byron’s verse or Don Juan’s actions, but the fact that this character A is engaging in the
very same activity of which he accuses Byron and his Don Juan: that of being en
reflekteret Personlighed. Kierkegaard here, and throughout E/O 1, is more concerned
with A’s reflectivity as an aesthete engaging in this critique of Don Juan and later Don
Giovanni, than the conclusions his character draws from reading Byron, Molière or
Mozart. This activity of reflection, Kierkegaard will want to conclude, is the activity par
excellence of romantic poets, as it cultivates their boredom to escape necessary despair,
which is essential in confronting reality, thus selfhood.
The bottom line, then, is that the romantic ironic aesthete is in a state of continual
becoming,9 and his boredom for Kierkegaard signals his sickness. Though his becoming
is an “absolute synthesis of absolute antithesis, the continual self-creating interchange of
two conflicting thoughts” – a simultaneous desire for “commitment” and “skepticism” –
However detrimental this “becoming” might be in Kierkegaard’s existentialism, it could prove
to be one place that begins to distinguish Byron’s “open” existentialism from Coleridge’s
romantic organicism. As Richard McGhee points out, “ironic openness to experience” led
Coleridge to search for a “solution,” to continuously reexamine every detail of it to find his place
“in the cosmic unity,” whereas Byron’s “openness to irony meant the end of contentment,” but it
also meant being content with “becoming as endless means,” and therefore Byron uses irony to
make a character like Childe Harold be “satisfied with insatiability” as “neither art nor life can be
complete in an incomplete world” (291).
in Mellor’s summary of Friedrich Schlegel, it is one that sidesteps existence for
Kierkegaard, and boredom is thus symptomatic evidence of this evasion (Mellor 55, 31).
The boredom that results from Don Juan’s narrator’s use of romantic irony is in no way
different from that expressed by Kierkegaard’s “reflective” aesthete A. In fact, McGann
posits boredom as one of the “competing authorities” in Don Juan (BR 130). Mellor
confirms this, pointing out that the lines in which the narrator and Juan “psychologically
move closer together [and] physically meet at Lord Henry Amundeville’s electioneering
banquet,” coincide with the lines describing English society as “one polished horde, /
Formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored” (13.95). Yet Northrop Frye is far
more explicit in placing Don Juan’s boredom not only in the hands of Heidegger and
Sartre (albeit somewhat awkwardly if not incorrectly), but also positing it as a recurring
thorn in the side of western literature. Since there is “hardly any characterization in the
poem,” there emerges a “shoddier but more terrifying evil – boredom, the sense of the
inner emptiness of life that is one of Byron’s most powerfully compelling moods, and has
haunted literature ever since, from the ennui of Baudelaire to the Angst and nausée of our
own day” (66).
Near the end of Don Juan, the irony that allows the narrator to engage in his
digressions enables him to recognize the boredom that pervades his society as a social
symptom of Kierkegaard’s diagnosis:
When we have made our love and gamed our gaming,
Drest, voted, shone, and maybe something more;
With dandies dined, heard senators declaiming,
Seen beauties brought to market by the score,
Sad rakes to sadder husbands chastely taming,
There’s little left but to be bored or bore. (14.18)
Yet irony also allows the narrator himself to relapse completely into a state where
boredom and satisfaction in fact become conflated, as the narrator celebrates a “paradise
of pleasure and ennui” (14.17). This is due to the fact that, as Kierkegaard writes,
“boredom is precisely the negative unity admitted into a personal consciousness, wherein
the opposites vanish” (Concept 285). The irony that permits the narrator to digress into
comments about the production of his own writing and poetry is built on a series of “ors”
that vanquishes its opposites through ambivalence:
But ‘why then publish?’ There are no rewards
Of fame or profit when the world grows weary.
I ask in turn, why do you play at cards?
Why drink? Why read? To make some hour less dreary.
It occupies me to turn back regards
On what I’ve seen or pondered, sad or cheery,
And what I write I cast upon the stream
To swim or sink. I have had at least my dream. (14.11)
These ironic indicators of indifference the narrator uses are then transferred onto the
vastness of his being in the world: “The world is all before me or behind” (14.9), while
his apparent reason for having all this ennui stems from a lassitude of mind: “in youth I
wrote because my mind was full, / And now because I feel it growing dull” (14.10).
Existence, then, is something that “occupies” the narrator, hovering in a pococurante
impassivity between “sad or cheery” moods, while boredom merely, and with minimal
effort, keeps him conscious for this occupation. Since “for the ironist, everything is
possible,” boredom acts as a crutch and “is the only continuity the ironist has. Boredom,
this eternity devoid of content, this salvation devoid of joy, this superficial profundity,
this hungry glut” (Kierkegaard, Concept 282, 285). Again, by Canto 15 the narrator’s
ironic aside in which he posits his desire for “some slight refection” is an attempt to
renew continually a self which is permanently on leave from itself.
What Kierkegaard wants to demonstrate with his character A is the worst possible
version of an already bad situation we see in Don Juan’s narrator: an aesthete who
typifies his boredom as an inherent emotion and way of life. This is perhaps Byron
himself admitting, “the more violent the fatigue, the better my spirits for the rest of the
day; and then, my evenings have that calm nothingness of languor, which I most delight
in” (BLJ 3:257). Kierkegaard’s A repeatedly expresses his boredom in Byronically
similar ways, writing: “how dreadful boredom is – how dreadfully boring; […] I lie
prostrate, inert; the only thing I see is emptiness, the only thing I live on is emptiness, the
only thing I move in is emptiness” (E/O 1:37). As a result of his boredom the aesthete is
“able to play shuttlecock with all existence” (E/O 1:294). Like Schlegel who
“didacticizes,” turning “directly against actuality,” Byron’s romantic narrator and
Kierkegaard’s aesthete engage in the negated actuality of irony: life is “abandoned to
imaginative intuition” whereby “fantasy […] exhausts and anesthetizes the soul, robs it of
all moral tension, makes life a dream” (Concept 301, 292). When Catherine sends Juan
through Europe toward England the narrator similarly reflects on the “castellated Rhine,”
imaginatively detached from actuality: “Ye glorious Gothic scenes! how much ye strike /
All phantasies […]. Make my soul pass the equinoctial line / Between the present and
past worlds and hover / Upon their airy confine […] (10.61).
Yet Kierkegaard is even more specific in diagnosing the consequences of the
boredom that springs from ironic actuality-negation: “as the ironist poetically composes
himself and his environment with the greatest possible poetic license, as he lives in this
totally hypothetical and subjunctive way, his life loses all continuity. He succumbs
completely to mood. His life is nothing but moods” (Concept 284). Pure investment in
mood and a complete loss of continuity and actuality go hand in hand for the ironist, not
only hovering between the gravity of finitude and the boundlessness of infinitude, but
wanting wholly to invest himself in infinitude as well; which, according to Michael
Cooke, took place specifically in emerging conceptions of selfhood during the romantic
period as the “Self Infinite” (61). In this way, Byron’s narrator seems to be a hand puppet
to Schlegel’s irony since “Between two worlds life hovers like a star” (15.99). That this
statement should follow from an embellishment and over-determination of a gothic mood
(a “darkening darkness” in 16.117) to set up the appearance of the apparition of the Black
Friar fits Kierkegaard’s model, given the narrator’s ironic digressions are entrenched in
“nothing but moods.” Earlier in the poem the narrator was willing to implicate himself
fully as the site where the process of playing out his moods took place: “I pass my
evenings in long galleries solely, / And that’s the reason I’m so melancholy” (5.58). Like
Schlegel and Tieck, Byron’s narrator is just as apt to be “nothing but moods” given his
retreat into irony – an irony that very explicitly calls attention to how the epic form itself
is not only a writing form engaged in boredom, but is defined by it: “but ‘twould not be
hard to bring / Some fine examples of the épopée, / To prove its grand ingredient is
ennui” (3.97). Thus, through irony the narrator’s “unresolved melancholy” (McCarthy
115) can now be an opportunity to wear these “emblems of Emotions” – his syncopes and
singultus – as “the grand antithesis to great Ennui” (15.2).
In short, Don Juan’s narrator is in the “despair of infinitude” (Kierkegaard, SUD 60).
As aesthetes living the “poet’s existence,” the despair experienced by Kierkegaard’s A
and Byron’s narrator constitutes an “evasion of choice” – the choice to be a self
(McCarthy 93, 87). This necessary choice is not made because these romantic figures use
irony “to wallow in their negation of all actuality, preferred to make life into an
engrossing drama in which each Romantic is both actor and spectator” (McCarthy 26).
He is a spectator to the extent that he uses irony to be “outside” life and is “not a
participant in life,” thereby conducting himself “as impersonally as possible” (E/O 2:171172, 212). Rather than engaging irony as “a stage which one must supercede and advance
beyond,” Byron’s narrator assumes it as a “mood,” and as part of his infinite becoming
(McCarthy 22, 30). As a result of this inherent ironic stance toward life, there persists an
ignorance that the self has to be actively declared, an “obliviousness to the ethical task of
becoming a concrete individual, [thus the narrator] lives in his infinite possibilities which
imagination conveniently varies for him in the battle to stave off boredom” (McCarthy
104). This is Don Juan’s narrator wanting selfhood.
However, what is lacking in Don Juan’s narrator (as he tries to shuffle off life in his
preoccupation with infinite becoming, boredom and mood) is what Haidée longs for. At
bottom, working with Kierkegaard’s notion of Fortvivlelse we find Haidée violently
recognizing in her defiant despair “what she was and is” (4.66). Though the narrator too
can engage existence: “What are we and whence came we, what shall be / Our ultimate
existence, what’s our present” (6.63), it is done in a way that deflects existence away
from both himself (e.g. “we,” “our”) and the primacy of its there-ness, its presence (e.g.
indecisively stuck between the “present” and the Platonic “ultimate”). Therefore, what
differentiates Haidée’s despair from the narrator’s is based on what Kierkegaard works
out between unconscious and conscious forms of despair, and irony’s relation to the self.
Kierkegaard begins Sickness like this: “The human being is spirit. But what is spirit?
Spirit is the self. […] The self is a relation which relates to itself […]. The self is not the
relation but the relation’s relating to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite
and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity” (43). In short,
the self is a process: it is the act of relating (“the relation’s relating”) between these
poles, not the terms of the relation itself, nor an infinite becoming or passing back and
forth between these poles. He goes on to conclude that “despair is the imbalance in a
relation of synthesis,” meaning that despair comes about simply because the human being
is spirit, that is, a relation, and not simply because there is an imbalance in this relation
(SUD 45, 47). This “imbalance,” then, turns out to be positive and necessary, making
despair unavoidable since “the relation to himself is something a human being cannot be
rid of, just as little as he can be rid of himself,” and with this, one must “go through with
this despair of the self to get to the self” (SUD 47, 96). Kierkegaard then devotes much
energy investigating the different ways individuals put themselves into these relations
with their selves, detailing the specific types of despair that accompany these relations.
The narrator’s despair in Don Juan is a sort of negative hypochondria, or “imagined
health” and lies in the individual’s “unconsciousness of being characterized as spirit”
(SUD 53, 55). Therefore, Kierkegaard posits that romantic ironists like A and Don Juan’s
narrator are in an “unconscious” despair not only because they don’t regard their selves
as spirit, that is, they don’t regard the necessity in having to be a self that must actively
do the relating of the infinite with the finite, but also their particular despair (Kierkegaard
calls it “infinitude’s despair is to lack finitude” and “possibility’s despair is to lack
necessity”) remains too heavily invested in their infinite becoming, in their rejection of
actuality to attain pure “possibility,” what Kierkegaard diagnosis as “the fantastic” (SUD
61). In the end, the narrator “loses himself more and more” based on “how he represents
himself to himself, that is, upon imagination” (SUD 61). At stake for these ironyexploiting aesthetes is the loss of the self. The “biggest danger,” Kierkegaard warns, is
“that of losing oneself [which] can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing”
(SUD 62-63); and for the ironist who regards his “spirit” as comprised only of “the
infinite,” “the eternal” and “the possible,” Kierkegaard claims that the “lostness” of this
self in despair “leads a fantastic existence in abstract infinitization or in abstract isolation,
constantly lacking its self, from which it simply gets further and further away” (SUD 62).
So what exactly is despair? Kierkegaard puts it like this: “in his ignorance of his own
despair a person is furthest from being conscious of himself as spirit. But precisely this –
not being conscious of oneself as spirit – is despair, that is to say, spiritlessness” (SUD
75). In this manner, Haidée’s despair is much like the narrator’s in terms of an
unconscious self- or spirit-evasion. Here, Haidée “loses herself” by despairing over
something external, that is, over herself:
A young girl despairs of love, she despairs over losing the loved one, because he
died […]. This despair is not declared. No, she despairs over herself. This self of
hers, which if it had become “his” beloved, she would have been rid of it, or lost,
in the most blissful manner – this self, since it is destined to be a self without
“him,” is now an embarrassment; this self, which should have been her richesse –
though in another sense just as much in despair – has become, now that “he” is
dead, a loathsome void […]. (SUD 50)
Preceding his capture, Haidée and Juan pass off as a single unit: “Love was born with
them, in them, so intense, / It was their very spirit – not a sense” (4.27), thus creating the
conditions for Haidée to despair over herself in the wake of the “void” created in Juan’s
capture, and not to despair over her self, which is manifest when one is conscious of
having a self independent of all external things. In the aftermath, Haidée’s despair over
herself is what allows for an affective moping about: “her head drooped as when the lily
lies / O’ercharged with rain” (4.59), a “heavy ache /Lay at her heart” (4.62), while for
“Days lay she in that state unchanged; though chill / With nothing livid, still her lips were
red. / She had no pulse, but death seemed absent still” (4.60). Haidée’s self, her despair,
are contingently perched on a condition: Juan’s health. And thus their being, which Anne
Barton locates in the “splendours of Nature,” confirms “for Haidée and Juan the
separateness of their own existence” (35). Moreover, Haidée overlaps with Kierkegaard’s
example of a man who “considers himself dead, a shadow of himself. None the less he is
not dead; there is, if you will, still some life in the character” (82). Here, again, is Haidée
who “had no pulse, but death seemed absent still,” and though “the Furies made a pause”
(4.62), “The ruling passion […] still lay there” (4.61). Ultimately for this man, like
Haidée, “if everything suddenly changed, all the external circumstances, and his wish
were fulfilled, then life would return to him” since all he knows, like Haidée, is “to
despair and swoon […] and then lies quite still as though lifeless” (SUD 82-83). In short,
Haidée’s “unconscious” despair lies in her capability to avoid her self by passing it off
like the narrator does onto his mood – only in her case it is passed off onto the “us-ness”
of her relationship with Juan.
Yet Kierkegaard goes on to explore how this “undeclared,” unconscious despair can
become “conscious,” which manifests either as weak or defiant despair. In short, the
consciousness of this despair resides in an individual who, in recognizing the self as
spirit, chooses either not to be a self (weak) or to be a self (defiance): if the self is
established and fully assumed, understood, it is how one responds that determines
whether the individual flees the self in weak despair or dwells in it through defiance. If
we see Haidée in conscious despair, Kierkegaard would surely diagnose hers as weak,
since it lies externally. That is, “something happens to [the] self; it runs up against
something (or something runs up against it) which brings it to despair. […] Whatever
brings it to despair must come from outside, and the despair is mere passivity” (82). But I
argue, rather, for reading her conscious despair as “defiant,” which “involves inner
conflict” in a “cosmic” way (May 42). Again, this conflict is based upon the fact that if
the self as spirit, as relation, is conscious, then the only question that remains is whether
or not she wants this self in despair. The proof for this, I think, is in the counter-intuitive
way Haidée manifests her defiant despair in Don Juan.10 Yet, its counter-intuitive quality
It will be essential to point out that the counter-intuitive despair evinced here, elsewhere in Don
Juan, and throughout Byron’s poetry should be differentiated from the Burkean Sublime, where
dread “at certain distances, and with certain modifications” becomes “delightful” (Burke 36-37).
Thus, the “dread of death” in the fourth stanza of Canto 14 prefaces the fifth stanza’s Sublime
“courageous fear,” not Kierkegaard’s Fortvivlelse: “’Tis round him, near him, here, there,
everywhere; / And there’s courage which grows out of fear, / […] When the mountains rear /
Their peaks beneath your human foot, and there / You look down o’er the precipice, and drear /
The gulf of rock yawns, you can’t gaze a minute / Without an awful wish to plunge within it.” We
might notice that a similar confusion takes place in Byron’s description of the ocean at the end of
Childe Harold. As I will point out in Chapter Three, although Byron seems to be summoning an
is different from despair expressed during the siege of Ismail where it becomes warlike:
“At last it takes to weapons such as men / Snatch when despair makes human hearts less
pliant. / Then comes the tug of war; ‘twill come again (8.51). Haidée’s despair, rather, is
a defiantly burning despair.
Haidée’s conscious despair begins just after Juan is captured in Canto 4 and signals a
shift from her despondent moping about to a stormy, fiery burst of passion. Haidée’s
despair lies in her genetic inheritance of “Afric,” where her “Moorish blood” is “full of
power / For good or evil, burning from its birth” (4.56). As daughter of her “mother’s
dower,” her emotions at this point still ambivalently straddle an ethics suspended by the
conjunction “or.” Yet her nascent burning signals the decisive moment as Haidée “had
held till now her soft and milky way, / But overwrought with passion and despair, / The
fire burst forth from her Numidian veins, / Even as the simoom sweeps the blasted
plains” (4.57). Like Goethe’s Werther, Haidée’s “sorrows are not merely those of [lost]
love, they have taken on something cosmic in significance” (Thorslev, Byronic 42) which
take form in her “soft and milky way,”11 yet become localized in more terrestrial imagery,
such as the “summer clouds,” which “slowly charged with thunder they display / Terror
to earth and tempest to the air” (4.57). Here Bernard Blackstone’s comments on Byron’s
image of the ocean with Burke’s language explicitly in mind: “Dark-heaving; – boundless,
endless, and sublime –” (4.183), I will want to draw our attention to how this thought of the ocean
as it “goest forth, dread, fathomless, alone” (4.183) might instead line up with Heidegger’s
existentialist language. Similarly, in Chapter Two I will want to point out how the “awful wish to
plunge within it” in Don Juan becomes relevant beyond Burke’s Sublime in our discussion of
Manfred’s “power upon [him] which withholds” in terms of Sartre’s notion of angoisse.
Other moments in Byron’s writing display his awareness of this term in its cosmological
significance. See Byron’s letter to Richard Belgrave Hoppner: “The Girl is not so well off as with
you – but far better than with them; – the fact is she is spoilt – being a great favorite with every
body on account of the fairness of her Skin – which shines among their dusky children like the
milky way […]” (BLJ 7:80). See also Childe Harold IV, stanza 151, where the narrator more
explicitly acknowledges the “sire” (Hercules) and “holiest nurse” (Hera) of the “starry fable of
the milky way.”
overlap with Kierkegaard are very appropriate. When we attend to Byron’s “sense of
human limitation,” his sense of man’s “intuition of the extreme waywardness of destiny”
and of his incapacity to confront it, there proceeds from this “a kind of despair”
analogous to “Kierkegaardian angst, microcosmic analogue of those ‘black holes’ in
space which Cambridge scientists are identifying […] as enormous concentrations of
force forever devouring themselves” (275). Yet rather than “devouring” herself and
collapsing back in on herself to become a black nothingness, Haidée’s wayward angst
results in her active confrontation with all of existence. Though she might be difficult to
control or predict because of her wild despair, the one thing that Byron does disclose for
certain is that in this overwrought despair, “on her flashed the dream / Of what she was
and is” (4.66). Despair’s ability to grant this level of intimate access to being is the first
sign of an individual in conscious despair – conscious because her “spirit” at the very
least retreats not into “the eternal” or “the infinite,” but goes through with despair.
What ultimately begins to differentiate this conflagrant power of Haidée’s conscious
despair from the narrator’s infinitizing despair of negated actuality comes down to the
manner by which an individual wants in despair to be oneself: defiance. Sitting dolefully,
giving “No sign, save breath, of having left the grave” (4.63), the overwrought passion of
despair in stanza 57 is again let loose in a paroxysm of temporary rage. Again, despite her
“frenzy which disdained to rave” (4.67), all relief remains vain, as “thought […] whirled
her brain to madness” and Haidée “flew at all she met, as on her foes” (4.67).
Kierkegaard would phrase her defiant despair like this:
the more consciousness there is in such a sufferer who wants in despair to be
himself, the more the despair intensifies and becomes demonic. […] A self which
in despair wants to be himself, suffers some kind of pain which cannot be
removed or separated from his concrete self. He then heaps upon this torment all
his passion, which then becomes a demonic rage. […] [H]e prefers to rage against
everything and be the one whom the whole world, all existence, has wronged, the
one for whom it is especially important to ensure that he has his agony on hand,
so that no one will take it from him – for then he would not be able to convince
others and himself that he is right. (SUD 103)
In wanting in this “demonic” despair to be a self the individual fosters “hatred” and
“rebellion” towards existence, “protests” and “acquires evidence” against “the whole of
existence” (SUD 105). Kierkegaard adds that this kind of despair is rare, “really to be
found in the poets” (104). Haidée’s despair, just such an example, cannot then merely be
reduced to a comatose state as Anne Barton suggests (34), but rather displays a similar
raging despair through which selfhood is “declared,” that is, where in her burning and
whirling despair Haidée realizes her self as “what she was and is, if ye could call / To be
so being” (4.66). In fact, her attention is so geared toward this “so being” that her
perception qualifies everything in terms of it: “She recognized no being […]” in
regarding the objects around her (4.64). Here, despair finally creates the existentialist
conditions whereby Haidée gains “conscious” insight into her being a self.
But wanting to be this self in despair?12 The “defiant” nature of her despair to access
this moment of being a self is used, in Haidée’s case as in Kierkegaard’s model, as
See Kierkegaard’s description of “wanting” selfhood in terms of “choosing despair” for
perhaps a clearer explication: “Choose despair, then, because despair itself is a choice, because
one can doubt [tvivle] without choosing it, but one cannot despair [fortvivle] without choosing it.
And in despairing a person chooses again, and what then does he choose? He chooses himself”
(E/O 2:211). Thus, “despair is an expression of the total personality, doubt only of thought”; and
evidence leveled against existence (SUD 105). “Nothing,” we are told, “could make her
meet her father’s face” (4.68), and after her overwrought, cosmic despair is complete,
having gained the power to defy her father through despair, Haidée can then pass her
remaining days “withering” without “a groan or sigh or glance to show / A parting pang”
(4.69). Moreover, in her despair Haidée “has acquired evidence against existence, against
its goodness” and as a despairer she “thinks that she is the evidence”; and thus she carries
on for the remainder of the scene in a lethargic state having already become the
embodiment of this evidence “to protest with this agony against all existence” (SUD
105). To want to be this self means to acknowledge herself as “spirit” in a way that must,
again, “go through with this despair of the self to get to the self.” In a word, Haidée goes
through with her despair to recognize her “so being” and take control over her self –
control over whether or not it is “lost” as Kierkegaard warns. And like Manfred’s “not so
difficult” end, she puts herself at ease in the face of death, dying in a way that signals
merely an uneventful and unremarkable “change that cast / Her sweet face into shadow,
dull and slow” (4.69). This is Haidée’s “uplifting” despair, set “at ease in despair” (E/O
2:213) having realized “what she was and is.”
This is Byron’s demonstration of the self “set apart in its time” by what Michael
Cooke calls “starkness”: the “frustrating interaction of circumstances and personality” in
his characters that can strip “the self of armor, integument, and salve leads to a minor
metaphysical insight in Byron’s work” (61). Ultimately, Haidée’s wanting to be a self in
protest against existence can be seen, if not succeeding, then at the very least struggling
in the same way Manfred does, that is, in the starkness of the “interested self,” working
Kierkegaard concludes that this personality is set “at ease in despair” having chosen itself in its
absolute, “eternal validity” (E/O 2:212-213).
“as a rectified will, not aiming toward (or away from) objects, but purely sustaining the
integrity of the existential self” (Cooke 70). In Bertrand Russell’s words, when Byron’s
“discontent” and his criticism of the world “goes deep enough, [it] takes the form of
Titanic cosmic self-assertion” (152). Here, in her cosmic, demonic despair, Haidée’s
despair remains objectless, no longer “aiming toward” Juan or anything external, as all
emotional investment is directed inward toward her self, falling back on herself,
reflecting on “what she was and is.” Despair at last is the gate through which her being –
her “total personality” – becomes possible, if not wholly realized or obtained.
Despite being able to use Kierkegaard’s philosophy of irony to read Don Juan in a
way that measures its truth-functions, thereby approximating Byron’s escape from
literary traditions, Kierkegaard’s direct reference to Don Juan exposes a more appropriate
kind of escape in the poem’s use of irony. Although Kierkegaard’s character A and the
poem’s narrator can be seen as self-evading ironic aesthetes, the way Haidée faces up to
selfhood through despair and the way her despair ends with her recognizing “what she
was and is” – all of which matches Kierkegaard’s self as a spirit in despair – begins to
point toward the kind of embedded ontology in Byron’s thinking that focuses on being as
“what is.” Thus, what this chapter has tried to offer is an entry point into Byron’s
ontological thinking, hopefully offering a convincing account of how Byron’s characters
can be read as symptoms for the way the poet had been thinking about existence in terms
of the emotion of despair.
Chapter Two
“’Tis not so difficult to sigh”: Manfred and Bonnivard’s Anguish Before Themselves
“What a thing is Man, this lauded demi-god! Does he not lack the very powers he has
most need of? And if he should soar in joy, or sink in sorrow, is he not halted and
returned to his cold, dull consciousness at the very moment he was longing to be lost in
the vastness of infinity?” – Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Book Two, letter 6th
of December.
Both Friedrich Nietzsche’s and Jean-Paul Sartre’s references to Byron are volatile.
Comments that might help to begin dislodging Byron’s embedded ontology tend to take a
less favorable turn toward confusing Byron’s romantic and existentialist impulses.
Therefore, in this chapter I will examine Nietzsche’s view of Manfred13 and Sartre’s
references to Byron to expose how Byron’s romantic capabilities can be, and often have
been mistaken for his existentialism. Ultimately, reading Manfred’s power that
“withholds” him from committing suicide and Bonnivard’s sigh in The Prisoner of
Chillon back through Sartre’s theoretical understanding of angoisse and “bad faith” will
show these characters falling back on themselves in ways that erase any discursive
ambiguity. In other words, applying existentialist theory to Byron’s poems where direct
references fail to make Byron existentially relevant provides the best way for reading him
anticipating existentialist angst. Motifs like individualism and escapism that help define
For the most comprehensive study of this view, see David Thatcher’s “Nietzsche and Byron,”
which also provides an exhaustive biographical account of Nietzsche’s reception of Byron’s
poetry in total, as well as Percy Shelley’s influence on Nietzsche.
both romanticism and existentialism will be revealed in Manfred and Prisoner as
moments of discursive confusion, which will demonstrate that any investigation into the
poet’s existentialism must decide what kind of relationship it shares with romanticism.
In the present study this relationship is clear: one that positions Byron’s “famous
despair” as angst, which is the acute instance of a larger attempt at interpreting romantic
melancholy as existentialist angst. Because of this distinction I am able to show an
embedded ontology at work in Byron’s writing. Manfred’s “power upon [him] which
withholds” him from jumping off the cliffs of the Mountain of the Jungfrau, spilling his
“guilty blood,” is another existentialist case of this (1.2.23, 111); yet at the same time his
power for god-defiance draws our attention away from this ontology. In other words,
though Manfred anticipates Sartre’s description of angoisse as his reeling brain gives way
to a “power upon me,” making him fall back on himself in his “fatality to live” (1.2.24), I
maintain that Manfred’s actions and his power for god-defiance throughout the drama
remain wholly Nietzschean in a way fundamentally un-existentialist and in no way
explicitly ontological. Byron is most existential when his characters (like Haidée) do their
defying in despair to become conscious of existence; he is most Nietzschean, and perhaps
most romantic when his heroes (like Manfred) do their defying through suffering to
propel and assert their will. From the beginning of the drama Manfred displays a willasserting Nietzschean defiance of the Spirits: “scoff not at my will! / The mind, the spirit,
the Promethean spark, / The lightning of my being, is as bright, / Pervading, and fardarting as your own, / And shall not yield to yours, though coop’d in clay!” (1.1.153-57).
Here defiance is conveyed in terms of a self-assertive, unyielding game of tug-of-war: the
struggle for strength over weakness, for the body to overcome its dust for deity. This
willful power to defy is then repeated throughout the drama, bringing the notion of
freedom to the foreground, yet in a way that cannot be reconciled to Sartre’s existentialist
take on it.
We will return to Sartre’s notion of freedom shortly, but for now I want to point out
that the idea of freedom in Manfred14 – which remains the poem’s “forbidden fruit”
(2.3.71) – proceeds from some hybridization of a romantic-Nietzschean distancing of the
individual from sources of comfort. The most obvious of these is Manfred’s distance
from organized religion, which Nietzsche is well known for having taken up. Manfred is
consistently petitioned by the chamois hunter to repent: “there’s comfort yet – / The aid
of holy men, and heavenly patience” (2.1.33-34), and by the abbot to take penitence:
“reconcile thee / With the true church, and through the church to heaven” (3.1.50-51).
And like Nietzsche, Manfred refuses on the grounds of a slave-morality, claiming to be
“not of thine order” (2.1.38) since he “disdain[s] to mingle with / A herd, though to be a
leader – and of wolves” (3.1.121-122). This comes from his Zarathustra-like desire to be
free by overcoming his “low wants” with a “lofty will” (1.2.44), exhibited through his
physical separation from the “herd” (the chamois hunter first encounters Manfred
dwelling on the cliffs of the mountain of the Jungfrau as he “hath reach’d / A height
which none even our mountaineers, / […] may attain” (1.2.60-62)), as well as through his
spiritual exclusion: “My spirit walk’d not with the souls of men, / Nor look’d upon the
earth with human eyes; / […] The aim of their existence was not mine” (2.2.51-54). In no
specific way then is any of this defiance existentialist, given that Manfred not only wants
to be a “leader of wolves,” but also his despair is continually described in terms of
Stuart Sperry states that Manfred “is Byron’s Prometheus Unbound,” and is quite literally “his
Man Freed” (201).
existence merely borne through suffering: “I would not […] exchange / My lot with
living being: I can bear – / However wretchedly, ’tis still to bear” (2.1.75-77). Manfred at
last finds “no power in holy men / Nor charm in prayer” and at last sinks into a “deep
despair” that does not have the power to grant him Sartrean consciousness of his
freedom, but rather to “make a hell of heaven” where justice is no match for “the selfcondemned / [who] deals on his own soul” (3.1.66-78), similar to the way in which
Nietzsche’s well known “revaluation of all values” yields a similar exuberantly goddefying übermensch. Finally, that Astarte remains the object over which he despairs
makes Manfred’s angst impossible; thus from the beginning despair is “grief [that] should
be the instructor of the wise; Sorrow is knowledge” – a quote which Nietzsche himself
greatly admired15 – and which would then place Byron’s despair in the camp of Charlotte
Smith’s sentimental sorrow (1.1.9-10).
Yet the most profound act of this comfort-distancing comes about through the way
both Manfred and Nietzsche’s übermensch share a very specific Selbst-Überwindung
quality, which expresses their concern for exploring what happens when individual,
mortal man over-steps his bounds towards divinity. Just as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra
announces the death of God in his self-overcoming, Manfred “stand[s] / Upon [his] own
strength” to “defy” and “deny” the Spirit, having taken solace “In knowledge of our
forefathers – when the earth / Saw men and spirits walking side by side, / And gave ye no
supremacy” (3.4.117-120). For Jane Stabler this overstepping of mortal boundaries is
signaled by Manfred registering “his own imaginative randomness” as an answer to a
“cosmic randomness,” which constitutes the poem’s “main challenge to orthodox
See Human, All Too Human, vol. 1, part 3, aphorism 109 (Works 6:112).
religion” (Burke 73). Though Manfred’s misgiving in being “Half dust, half deity, alike
unfit / To sink or soar” (1.2.40-41) remains a “Promethean aspiration” for Leslie
Marchand, it does however articulate a central “Byronic-Romantic quandary” where the
“‘half-deity’ of the spirit is linked with the ‘half-dust’ of humanity and can never soar
freely” (79). Yet the impasse Manfred reaches here as a “disparity between his soaring
aspirations and his earth-bound condition” does nonetheless lead Marchand to read into
the poem’s larger meaning as the poet’s “recognition of the mind’s limitations as well as
the affirmation of its invincibility” (78, 84). In fact, Harold Bloom’s reading follows the
exact same formula. While this central dust/deity theme of the poem ends in Manfred’s
“denial of immortality if it means yielding up the human glory of our condition, yet [is]
accompanied by a longing to transcend that condition,” it also articulates his “despairing
triumph of self” and his “Promethean satisfaction of having asserted the supremacy of the
human will over everything natural […]” – all of which gets expressed by virtue of being
a “Romantic drama of alienation and renewal, of the self purged by the self” (249-252).
Nietzsche himself even postures Manfred’s willful style in terms of a god-like
conquering and Selbst-Überwindung. At the end of his life Nietzsche admits to being
“profoundly related to Byron’s Manfred: of all the dark abysses in this work I found the
counterparts in my own soul” (Works 17:40). Nearly thirty years earlier at the age of
seventeen he delivered a lecture to the Germania Student Society entitled, “Ueber die
dramatischen Dichtungen Byrons” in which he claims to have been “erschütternd durch
die furchtbare Erhabenheit dieses geisterbeherrschenden Uebermenschen” (“moved
deeply through the terrible heights of a spirit-conquering overman”; Werke 1:38, my
translation). Though this appears to be one of, if not the first time Nietzsche uses the term
übermensch, R. J. Hollingdale remains skeptical about the larger, affirmative influence
Byron had on Nietzsche, seeing his early lecture only as a “passing phase of Byronic
revolt” (24). At bottom for Hollingdale, Nietzsche’s admiration for Byron was only for
“the man with the courage to follow his instincts,” and thus it remains a “mistake” to
overestimate Byron’s influence on the conception of Nietzsche’s übermensch since in his
1861 lecture “the word means no more than a man of great passion and strength” (23-24).
While Hollingdale is adamant in stating that Nietzsche was only “reiterating the then
current view of [Byron],” and had seen in him only what his contemporaries saw, namely
“Karl Moor come to life” (23), there are critics who nonetheless maintain a strong
connection between the übermensch and Byron not only based on the recurring problem
in Byron scholarship of the poet’s personality,16 but on these aforementioned “mistaken”
affirmative and “overcoming” grounds where the übermensch represents generally the
rise and “development of the individual [which] has now become easier since the belief
in a single God has disappeared” (Hollingdale 145). As Graham Parkes comments, the
young Nietzsche in fact “was seized by a devotion to the Lord that was anything but
short-lived” (28), and what perhaps sustained this devotion, in a fashion contrary to
There is an avenue of criticism that explores Nietzsche’s appraisal of Byron in terms of the
fluid distinction between his characters and himself. For Achim Geisenhanslüke and Frank
Pointner, Nietzsche’s übermensch “may be indebted to Byron’s own person as much as to his
protagonist Manfred” (267), and according to Graham Parkes Nietzsche’s praised the very thing
for which critics like Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot had criticized Byron. Nietzsche uses
Byron’s “personal autobiography” as a source to condemn the “ascetic priest’s” disgust with
himself, and thus to attack the morality of these so-called “good men” (Works 13:177-179). At
bottom, Nietzsche is primarily attracted to Byron’s poetry as “it lets us engage the Lord’s own
world of feeling and thought […] in the storm-pressure of a spirit of fire, of a volcano that now
spews glowing devastating lava” (qtd. in Parkes 29); and Parkes himself adds that “what
impressed Nietzsche was Byron’s ability to present radically different parts of himself in his
various characters” (29). Ultimately, “while Nietzsche follows Goethe in finding Byron limited as
a dramatist, he does admire his ability to portray a genuine multiplicity of characters by drawing
from the depths of his own soul” (Parkes 30).
Hollingdale, was that for Nietzsche “Manfred and Faust represent the aspirations of a
man to become a higher form of human being,” placing Zarathustra and Manfred in the
same heroic tradition (Geisenhanslüke, Pointner 267). Throughout the drama Byron’s
hero overcomes the superhuman to become one himself. So dismayed by his encounter
with the seven Spirits in the first Act: “I lean no more on super-human aid” (1.2.4), it is
his “super-human art” that enables him to forswear the help of the Witch of the Alps
(2.2.148) and thus defy it in order to die alone without comfort or salvation. At the very
least, Nietzsche sees Manfred as “an almost superhuman work,” and his “admiration for
Byron’s godlessness” suggests that Byron contributed “material that [would] in the hands
of the mature Nietzsche become the basis for a new and earthier religiosity” (Parkes 30).
While this “earthier religiosity” has placed Nietzsche within the canon of existentialist
thought, I remain suspicious of basing Byron’s existentialist impulse on the same
But critics of Byron have been less suspicious. Scholars who have read Manfred
existentially based on this Nietzschean, godless self-overcoming have done so in a way
similar to how Walter Kaufmann in fact hesitates placing Nietzsche in his anthology on
existentialism. Taking into consideration the “striking preoccupation with failure, dread,
and death [as] essential characteristics of existentialism, Nietzsche can no longer be
included in this movement” seeing as it is not the “somber and depressed moods that he
stresses most but […] a ‘Dionysian’ joy and exultation that says Yes to life […] with love
and laughter” (Kaufmann 21). Although by these standards Nietzsche and Byron would
not be existentialists, what is important here rather is that their response to a world in
which there is “nothing to lean on,” a world in which “you and you alone exist,” as Isaiah
Berlin has proposed, is the criterion that determines their failure/success as existentialists
(143). In other words, one way to measure Byron’s existentialism is to gauge his response
to such a world. This gauging of Byron’s response, I argue, which maintains itself by
measuring how permeable the line is that distinguishes an existentialist attitude from a
romantic one, is the most pervasive, and the most incorrect method for reading Byron
Byron’s heroes are often read existentially according to the particular response they
exhibit, that is, according to the criterion upon which Kaufmann paradoxically hesitates
to base Nietzsche’s existentialism: the joyous affirmation of life through self-creation and
self-assertion. Anne Mellor shares a similar hesitancy toward promoting Byron’s
existentialism, and uses these “affirmative” qualities to advance his romantic irony
instead. Yet to do so Mellor must point out the “very different emotional responses” that
a romantic ironist and an existentialist elicit (184). Despite sharing a similar attitude, or
“ontological vision of the universe as chaotic and incomprehensible,” Mellor states, “in
the face of such chaos the romantic ironist enthusiastically creates and decreates himself
and his myths. But the existentialist engages in this same process with anxiety and even
fear,” and as a result “commitment to ironic doubt […] is liberating rather than
debilitating” for the narrator in Don Juan (183, 45). And in Peter Thorslev’s conception
of the romantic open universe, although the contingency of the “ironic event” overlaps
Byron’s Don Juan with Sartre’s anecdote about the sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s
automobile accident,17 which is “liberating” for both writers, he also points out that
According to Thorslev’s retelling of Sartre’s story, after being struck Giacometti felt a sense of
“exultation which transcended the pain: an exultation in the discovery, as he put it, that
‘accidents’ are indeed still possible, and if so, then perhaps he was not ‘meant to be’ a sculptor
after all!” (Contraries 19). See Sartre’s own account in Words (Les Mots) where he claims to
Byron’s romantic and Sartre’s existential responses differ somewhat, as Byron finds his
place in the open universe “almost hopeful,” where for Sartre it is “nauseating”
(Contraries 170, 144). Ultimately, within this open universe there is little difference
between Manfred, for whom death is “not so difficult,” Sartre’s Antoine Roquentin who
feels as though he could “do anything” in the face of knowing that “every existing thing
is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance” (Nausea 123,
133), and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra who kills “the spirit of gravity” in spite of a
soothsayer’s advice to him that “nothing is worth while, the world is without meaning,
knowledge strangleth” (Works 11:45, 292). By these guidelines, Thorslev is right to
situate the Byronic hero in this universe since he is nothing short of a “man alone in an
alien and godless universe, with nothing much of his own except the ‘dreadful freedom’
to create his own system of value, and, in a sense, to create his very self,” which Thorslev
claims obviously “appealed to Nietzsche” (Byronic 175).
Yet, at bottom I think Bostetter is correct to see Byron’s “response” drawing from
both sides of this line since “what in Childe Harold was cause for despair […] becomes
in Don Juan a cause of laughter and vigorous creative activity” (254). Following this, as
well as John Watkins’s model for reading Manfred, it remains my aim to make a case for
Byron’s existentialist impulse in a way regardless of this “responsive” dividing line
altogether by focusing on Manfred’s “withholding” power as his “response.” Watkins
seems to be one of the few, if not the only critic who circumvents this responsive reading
by interpreting Byron through Heidegger’s theory. “Like Heidegger,” he states, “Manfred
moves beyond initial Angst to present nihilation as a source of liberty” (402), keeping
“appreciate his radical attitude” whereby Giacometti felt “a kind of joy” in realizing, from this
accident, that he “was born for nothing” (158).
Byron’s “emancipation” within its properly Heideggerian, not Nietzschean, limits. For
Watkins, Manfred’s death-wish “touches on the Heideggerian notion that we are defined
by our finitude, that ‘temporality makes up the primordial meaning of Dasein’s being.’
Only in the anticipation of death can we discover the freedom of true individuality”
(402). This is what Heidegger calls “Being-towards-death,” and goes on to emphasize
specifically the “anticipation” (Vorlaufen) of this type of death whereby “one becomes
free for one’s own death,” which “turns out to be the possibility of understanding one’s
ownmost and uttermost potentiality-for-Being – that is to say, the possibility of authentic
existence” (BT 308, 307). Through Vorlaufen, Heidegger claims “Dasein guards itself
against falling back behind itself” in such a way that “death is just one’s own” (BT 308,
309), which is what Manfred accomplishes in the “not so difficult” quality of his death
and his wish to “die as I have lived – alone” (3.4.90). In this way we can see Watkins
motioning toward an aspect of Manfred’s existentialism that cannot and does not benefit
from vague generalizations borrowed from Nietzsche’s godless, passionate, spiritconquering, instinct-driven, affirmation of life.
Yet there is no shortage of Byron scholarship that finds the poet voicing his response
existentially in the form of a Nietzschean joyful affirmation, despite what Mellor and
Kaufmann have worked out. Where Robert Gleckner points out how Byron might
similarly embrace such despair and suffering, Bostetter remains the one scholar who puts
this embrace in terms of Nietzsche’s existentialism as Byron’s “inextinguishable energy
was a fact of his existence, and he poured it out indiscriminately as a means of affirming
that existence” (269). Not only does Byron use “his sense of a meaningless universe” as a
backdrop against which to “oppose his sense of the life force within himself,” but more
specifically Byron does “discover that the situation he had come to at the end of Manfred
was […] enjoyable” (Bostetter 269, 292). Yet it is in Manfred’s “not so difficult” death
that Bostetter needs to cite Sartre at length to reposition Manfred’s death in terms of
Byron’s affirmation of life: “within the context of Byron’s own dramatic struggle, [the
last lines] mean, ‘It is not so difficult to live – alone – without comfort’” (280), which, for
Gleckner, provides a similar triumph as Manfred creates “out of his despair a meaningful
framework within which to die” (257).
For Mark Kipperman Byron’s affirmation comes back to der Wille, and he ultimately
extrapolates from his existential reading of Manfred a place for Byron in Thorslev’s open
universe. Although he ultimately does see Manfred’s “cosmic self-assertion” leading only
to “self-accusation and destructiveness,” and thus agrees with Peter Manning’s claim that
Manfred’s “death confirms ‘the bankruptcy of his Titanic pretensions,’” Kipperman
nonetheless sees Manfred “reject[ing] human finitude because he fears it destroys the
perfectly self-contained ego,” and pushing “the romantic narrative of self-assertion to its
breaking point, raising the issues of heroism and self-transformation” (182-183, 181).
Again, the parallel here to the übermensch is striking, yet it is passed off onto the
“modernity” of Sartre and Heidegger. By reaching this “heroic poise,” Kipperman
concludes, “Byron confronts the most spiritually devastating fact of modernity – the
assumption of existential freedom in a demythologized cosmos – and transforms it by a
gesture, a hard-won assertion, into a source of psychic health and personal triumph”
Yet Kipperman also points out that the rejection of “human finitude” of Manfred’s
self-assertion is something that would mark his failure as an existentialist. It is Childe
Harold’s grounding in Kierkegaard’s “actuality” that, in a similar though more secular
way to Manfred in Marchand’s reading, defines his “acceptance of man’s being-as-finite,
while yet demanding the freedom of the self-conscious mind to create its own uniquely
personal response to that finitude,” which “marks precisely that point at which romantic
quest feeds into a later cultural movement, existentialism” (201). Yet Kipperman must
nonetheless feed off of Thorslev’s and Nietzsche’s plates, metonymically reading
romantic self-assertion as existentialism: “Byron’s romantic self-assertion is a threshold
on which the idealist quest for a meaningful cosmos becomes an existential stance where
man declares himself heroically free precisely because he is conscious of the relentless
coursing of finitude, change, and lost myths through his embattled mind” (201). Here we
can begin to see Kipperman’s affirmative responsive reading giving way to the source
that makes it possible: individual self-assertion, which I argue is carried out on the
grounds of confusing the praise of individuality and individual responsibility in
existentialist thought – what Iris Murdoch calls Sartre’s wish “to affirm the preciousness
of the individual” (70) – with the celebration of what in romantic art and literature has
been called the “cult of individualism” that stresses, among other things, the “personal
independence of mind” (Behrendt 63). Kipperman captures this confusion perfectly in his
terms of the “romantic quest” where “Byron’s romantic heroes – Childe Harold, Manfred,
Conrad,” to name a few, “face psychological and existential dilemmas” as “paradoxes of
self-assertion and freedom” (179). In short, the praise and centrality of individuality is a
soft spot in the relation between romanticism and existentialism that critics seem to have
exploited, taking an aspect of his romantic impulse to understand the whole of Byron’s
Put another way, Byron’s existentialist impulse seems to be based not on the way his
characters fall back upon themselves in despair, as I argue, but on some conjunction
between “individuality as one’s highest vocation, [as] a divine egoism,” in Friedrich
Schlegel’s terms (qtd. in Lovejoy 307), and on the same life-affirming quality with which
Nietzsche’s self-assertive, self-overcoming existentialism has been credited (what
Thorslev names as Don Juan’s “real zest for life, and the resilient capacity to act without
a crippling self-consciousness” (Contraries 185)). Specifically regarding this latter selfassertive quality that comes about through affirmation, Nietzsche pronounces his idea of
the Eternal Return: with mankind having “unchained this earth from its sun” (Works
10:168), the “eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over, and you with it,” and
there is the “greatest stress” in having to decide either to “throw yourself down and gnash
your teeth” and let this knowledge crush you, or rather, “crave nothing more fervently”
than the knowledge of this “tremendous moment” (Works 10:271).19 Thus, a distilment
takes place: what ultimately “form[s] the summit of the doctrine of the eternal return,”
according to Gilles Deleuze, is his transvaluation of all values, which “means affirmation
Let us point out here, however, an interesting line of congruency. Compare Stephen Behrendt’s
claim that, “The Romantic artist relishes those characteristics that distinguish the individual from
the mob, even if it results in our accepting, like Lord Byron […] that none of us is perfect or ideal
[…]” (63), with the fact that “a persistent theme in existentialist writings is the contrast between
the life of the authentic individual and the life which is immersed in the anonymous ‘public,’
‘crowd,’ ‘herd’ or ‘mass’ […]” (Cooper 110). We will investigate further Byron’s crossover with
Heidegger’s das Man in the next chapter, but it is interesting to note here that Cooper cites the
sociologist Erving Goffman, who claims that it is a “touching tendency” of the romantic legacy
for existentialism to suppose that an individual man can be anything more than a communal being
in his inherently social role (Cooper 110).
Consider the striking similarity to Byron’s poem “Darkness” and its own “great stress”: as the
“bright sun was extinguish’d […] some lay down / And hid their eyes and wept; and some did
rest / Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled” (2, 24-26).
instead of negation” and is thus “the supreme Dionysian metamorphosis” (71). Though
critics of Byron seem to pick up on this distilled form of Nietzsche’s affirmative
“response” upon which to found Byron’s self-assertive existentialism, it may be more
helpful to approach Byron’s existentialism in terms of what Bernd Magnus has called
Nietzsche’s “existential imperative,” which is located in his plea to the “individual’s
attitude towards himself and his world. The individual’s life, deeds, despair, and suffering
ought to be embraced because they are shaped by nothing alien. Man’s role is ‘free’
creation to the extent that there are no known determining forces […] which shape his
life” (150). With this movement “toward” oneself, we must keep in mind the instability
of Manfred’s existentialism when it is tailored according to the same criteria as Nietzsche
whose existentially “affirmative” capabilities are in doubt to begin with.
Interestingly, Thorslev champions these individualistic and affirmative qualities in
Manfred’s existentialism in terms of angst as Weltschmerz. In short, Thorslev parallels
the tension between being half dust and half deity in Manfred with the opposing “twin”
drives of romantic Weltschmerz. In the world-weary romantic there is a “tension in his
personality that results from the conflict of two contradictory drives, one toward total
commitment, toward loss of self in a vision of absolutes, the other toward a skeptical and
even aggressive assertion of the self” (Byronic 141). Thorslev wants to see Byron’s
Harold and Manfred being driven “toward a positive and passionate assertion of oneself
as an individual, a self-assertion which makes impossible any wholehearted commitment
to dogmas or to absolutes outside oneself,” but it is the movement between drives in
Byron himself that remains existentially unresolved:
for Byron in all of his works, such [organic] commitment was impossible; [since]
a sense of life, of individuality, of a skeptical life was too strong; [he] remained to
the end detached, insulated, and passionately individual. This unresolved tension
[…] constitutes the basis of Romantic Weltschmerz in all of its various guises
[…]. It is easy to see that this “state of mind” is closely related to that described
by modern existentialism: man caught between the realization of the relativity of
all values (“If God is dead, all things are possible,” as Ivan Karamazov says),20
and the necessity for a positive self-assertion in this realm of relativistic chaos
[…]” (Byronic 89).
Thorslev at his most extreme sees angst as romantic irony, employed in Don Juan in such
a way that reinforces “the vision of the cosmic tragedy of human self-assertion in an alien
universe,” which gives us a picture of Don Juan illustrating that “the human predicament
may be an absurdity (as Sartre says) […]” (Byronic 143-144).
If the celebration of “insulated” individualism and self-assertion in a meaningless,
“alien universe” is enough to make existential that which is an open romanticism, then
there is really no difference between Manfred, Sartre’s Roquentin or Pablo Ibbieta, and
Camus’s Meursault. As a Spirit takes note of how Manfred “mastereth himself, and
makes / His torture tributary to his will” (2.4.161-162), Sartre should have no problem
accepting Cooke’s speculation that “what gets ‘mastered’ here is the curl of the interested
self; the will works as a rectified will […] sustaining the integrity of the existential self”
(70). Critics like Kipperman, Bostetter and Thorslev assume that any affirmative
movement of Byron’s Wille within an alienating, relativistic and chaotic universe is
This quote from Dostoyevsky’s novel “is the starting point of existentialism,” according to
Sartre (Humanism 29).
suitable ground for assigning an existential title to his romantic heroes. And it is
Nietzsche’s praise of Manfred’s spirit-conquering capability that seems to have both
perpetuated critics’ understanding and guided their rhetoric of Byron’s existentialism –
all of which only gets us as far as placing Byron and Nietzsche in the same godless, open
universe. As a result, and as Nietzsche himself points out more generally about Byron,
the drama at most displays Byron’s despair as Weltschmerz.21 In fact, the position we
arrive at here is very similar to what Morse Peckham has called a “negative
romanticism,” which Wellek describes as a “despairing, nihilistic romanticism” that, in
contrast to a more “positive” romanticism, “does not fit Byron” (Wellek 200). Therefore,
what critics appear to have located as Manfred’s existentialism is in fact no more than a
highly magnified, extravagantly glorified facet of romanticism, or just a Nietzscheanism.
And of all the critics who should not make use of this terminology, Jerome McGann
describes Manfred as “Byron’s most Nietzschean work: an exploration of the meaning,
even the possibility, of integrity and selfhood” (Major 1038). Spreading out an attribute
(i.e. an affirming self-assertion) heralded in romanticism to be read as existential or
Nietzschean is perhaps further evidence of his and other critics’ “uncritical absorption in
Romanticism’s own self-representations” (McGann, Ideology 1).
Sartre’s biographical writing can help us to move beyond Byron’s romantically open
existentialism and locate Manfred’s existentialist impulse. In short, that Manfred
“mastereth himself, and makes / His torture tributary to his will” should be read
according to the way Sartre views self-accusation: “I have always preferred to accuse
“Die unglückliche Poesie des Weltschmerzes nimmt in Byron ihren Ursprung und ihre
genialste Entfaltung” (“the unhappy poetry of Weltschmerz takes its source and its brilliant
development from Byron”; Werke 1:37, my translation).
myself rather than the universe; not out of good nature: but to remain my own master”
(Words 159). Likewise, Manfred’s ability to implicate himself in Astarte’s death, and
thus bear all of the guilt (“that I do bear / This punishment for both” (2.4.125-126)) rather
than pass it off onto “the universe,” or something outside himself, constitutes his selfmastering existentialism. Here, self-mastery means falling back upon or “toward” himself
in the way that Berlin has written about, but failed to pinpoint precisely.
Yet, it is Sartre’s theoretical work that permits us to extract from this dust/deity theme
in Manfred the title character’s existentialist despair. When Manfred stops to consider his
“Half dust, half deity” situation in terms of nature imagery, at once torn between “mother
Earth” and a view of the eagle as a “cloud-cleaving minister,” what at first appears to be
the Burkean Sublime22 at work in his “dizziness of distance” becomes existentialist
angoisse. As he stands on the “extreme edge” of a mountain cliff – in a way similar to the
narrator’s “courage which grows out of fear” in Don Juan who “can’t gaze a minute /
Without an awful wish to plunge within it” – he ponders like Sartre:
[…] when a leap,
A stir, a motion, even a breath, would bring
My breast upon its rocky bosom’s bed
To rest for ever – wherefore do I pause?
I feel the impulse – yet I do not plunge;
I see the peril – yet do not recede;
And my brain reels – and yet my foot is firm:
There is a power upon me which withholds,
See page 38, note 10.
And makes it my fatality to live;
If it be life to wear within myself
This barrenness of spirit […]. (1.2.16-26)
According to Sartre, who follows Kierkegaard and Heidegger before him, “anguish is
distinguished from fear in that fear is a fear of beings in the world whereas anguish is
anguish before myself,” but stresses the element of freedom in his definition: “Vertigo is
anguish to the extent that I am afraid not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing
myself over. A situation provokes fear if there is a possibility of my life being changed
from without; my being provokes anguish to the extent that I distrust myself and my own
reactions in that situation” (BN 65). In light of Sartre’s theory, Manfred’s dizziness and
reeling brain – all in spite of having a “firm” foot – is a result of having realized that the
“power upon [him] which withholds” him from jumping is his own. That he is just about
to jump, yet is stopped by the chamois hunter in this scene is beside the point. What is
existentially relevant here is the fact that he is returned back to himself “to live” and to
wear life “within [him]self” in this “power upon” himself – and knows it. In Sartre’s
words, in this “anguish before himself” Manfred has obtained “the consciousness of his
freedom” insofar as he is the power that must ultimately withhold (BN 65). In The Flies,
this is Orestes understanding that he is neither slave nor master to his freedom: for “I am
my freedom” (117). Bonnivard will make a similar claim to his unrestricted freedom in
anguish before himself: “Fetter’d or fetterless to be, / I learn’d to love despair” (373-74).
Therefore, with the consciousness of Manfred’s freedom established in anguish, Bloom’s
assertion that Manfred experiences a “despairing triumph of self,” which hails his
“Promethean satisfaction of having asserted the supremacy of the human will over
everything natural” is now just as relevant and just as applicable without needing to be
justified or supported in terms of a “Romantic drama of alienation and renewal,” or as a
“Byronic-Romantic quandary” in Marchand’s terms.
Finding an expression of Byron’s existentialism through angoisse apart from his
romantically open existentialism is therefore possible only by first having shown how the
existentialist self falls back on itself in Sartrean “anguish before itself,” rather than
merely pointing out that Byron’s romantic self is in an existential position where, again
using Berlin’s paradigmatic expression, “there is in the world nothing to lean on.” Until
now Byron’s existentialism has been merely adjectival; and the lack of this “how” seems
to be the impetus for misdirecting Byron’s existentialism towards his open romanticism.23
It is as if critics have severely condensed and distilled Byron’s expression of both a
faithlessness in higher authorities and an overall meaninglessness to life into the single
term “existential” (with which Bloom, Thorslev and Marchand draw over-arching
conclusions about Manfred’s placement in the romantic canon). For all these reasons
Manfred remains the best example of this condensation. To this effect, Stuart M. Sperry
reads it as “an exercise in sustained negation, the renunciation of all authority but that
most innate to the self […],” which comes from Manfred’s defiance of the Spirit in act 3
near the end of scene 4 where there is “a kind of existential affirmation – Manfred’s
insistence on the right to judge himself, to ordain and bear a punishment heavier than any
external authority might impose” (201, 200). It should come as no surprise that Thorslev
himself uses this very same moment in the drama to find the Byronic Hero’s “dreadful
To see how far this misdirection extends, compare even Stuart Curran’s assessment of Mary
Robinson’s “unsatisfying, lonely existence,” which, if one “adds her voice to Charlotte Smith’s,
the result is something beyond merely somber tones. It is veritably existential” – perhaps because
the theme of Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets is “of rootless exile” (200).
freedom,” without specifying how it comes close to “the core of the existentialist
dilemma” (Byronic 175).
The larger critical problem here is determining what constitutes an appropriate use of
information with which to read a connection between Byron’s romantic verse and another
discursive terrain. In Chapter Three we will investigate what constitutes sufficient use of
this information to read Childe Harold, but for the time being the problem remains one of
suitability: when making a case for Byron’s existentialism, do we first select a romantic
representation such as the “cult of individualism” with which then to assimilate the
existentialist concern for individual “preciousness,” or rather do we use a specific
element from existentialism like angoisse that can then be used as a device to read back
through Byron’s romantic poetry in order to pinpoint moments where an overlap might
indicate anticipation? Ultimately, at stake in this interpretive distinction is the way the
philosophy of existentialism, and more specifically a particular author, is used to read
Byron’s romanticism. Sartre’s writing can be utilized in two ways that result in two very
different, if not contradictory readings of Byron’s despair, which more broadly calls into
question the discursive separation between Byron’s placement in romantic and
existentialist representations of escapism.
In short, Bonnivard’s despairing sigh at the end of Prisoner can eclipse Manfred’s
world-weary, yet self-assertive individualism as a signifier for Byron’s true existentialist
impulse. His sigh is the breaking point of existentialist interpretation and can either
testify to his bad faith, or it can be read counter-intuitively to see Bonnivard not
brooding, but in fact reclaiming consciousness of his freedom through despair, again like
Manfred when read back through Sartre’s vertiginous angst. Yet, using Sartre to do this,
like Kierkegaard in the first chapter, is problematic: while his theoretical work allows us
to read Bonnivard in an existentially favorable way, his explicit references to Byron
confuse his romantic and existentialist impulses. Therefore, that Byron “arrives” at a
position that is “similar to the existentialist position of Sartre and his followers” is not as
smooth and clean-cut as Bostetter leads us to believe (280). The confusion lies in having
to decide where to draw the line between existentialist self-escape as bad faith, and
romantic escapism – the universal autumn evinced in Keats’s To Autumn being perhaps
the best example.24
If we are scholars of romanticism then we follow McGann’s lead: “the idea that
poetry, or even consciousness, can set one free of the ruins of history and culture is the
grand illusion of every Romantic poet” (Ideology 91). Romantic escapism is a problem
that concerns the individual poet’s retreat into his imagination to avoid his socio-political
anxieties. McGann is correct, then, to read Byron’s poetic despair not as “a cause for our
critical valuations of his poetic work” since it is not the meaning of his poetry but is
rather “the poetic reflex of the social and historical realities it is a part of,” which thus
gives little import to Bonnivard’s sigh (Ideology 132). In short, despair in Byron’s poetry
is a “reflex,” or sign of his ideological attachment, a signifier for his false consciousness.
Thus, imagination and poetry for Byron “do not offer a relief and escape but a permanent
Though critics like Nicholas Roe have sought in Keats’s poem an “impersonal voice […] in
relation to contemporary discourses of political and social conflict” in place of an “aesthetic
resort in which to ‘escape’ or ‘evade’ the world” (252-3, 266), the dominant reading does favor
seeing Keats writing to “dissolve social and political conflicts in the mediations of art and
beauty” rather than to “enlist poetry in the service of social and political causes” (McGann,
Beauty 53). Before writing The Romantic Ideology McGann explicitly cites Byron and Shelley’s
socio-political commitments as counter examples to Keats’s autumn in the mind, yet he
ultimately shows in Ideology that Byron and Shelley are also the most “deeply engaged (in a
socialist activist sense) when they have moved furthest along their paths of displacement and
escape” (124).
and self-realized condition of suffering, a Romantic Agony,” as this is how “Byronic
Despair” remains at best “the reflex of an Ideal attachment” (Ideology 131,127).
And in his own way Sartre generally agrees: “the misfortunes of the Romantics are
profitable for Romanticism” (FI 3:290). Yet Sartre’s allusions to Byron show the French
philosopher displaying an “uncritical absorption” in the standard representations of
Byron’s youthful idealism. Unable to position his “escape” into romantic idealism in the
same way that McGann’s appropriation of Heinrich Heine’s method enables “Romantic
escapism [to be] observed as a critical gesture” (Ideology 35), Sartre admits:
I cherished an ideal of a great man’s life that I borrowed from romanticism. It was
Shelley, Byron, Wagner who’d had those lives I took as models. So stubbornly
and without being aware of it I sought to achieve – between 1920 and 1960 – an
1830 life. This was concealed from me, of course, and I borrowed my materials
from my own century: Marxism, pacifism, anti-pacifism, etc. […] [I]n this
perspective[,] the ideas of progress or superman, the admonition to master
oneself, took on special value. I uprooted them from their own moral systems and
introduced them into the framework of my own life. My final goal was not to
create the superman or to advance morality, but simply to have a fine life. (War
Though Sartre at times is mindful to express his own version of romanticism’s selfrepresentations – what he calls its “system of references” (FI 3:278) – he nonetheless
seems unable to avoid them critically by “turn[ing] a sympathetic eye” to his own
idealism modeled on these romantics while at the same time acknowledging the political
and historical conditions from which it springs.25 Thus, Sartre becomes politically active,
a “soldier’s slut,” and admittedly transfigures his “vocation by filling it with [his] old
dreams” according to Byron’s ideological commitment, blindly imbibing the political
idealism of his heroes, taking a “role-call of [his] true regiment: Silvio Pellico:
imprisoned for life. André Chenier: guillotined. Etienne Dolet: burned alive. Byron: dead
for Greece” (Words 120).
As an existentialist, however, Sartre is concerned with the idea of escape not in the
romantically ideological terms of one’s evasion of “the Terror, King Ludd, Peterloo, the
Six Acts, and the recurrent financial crises of the Regency,” but rather as a means “to put
oneself out of reach” through bad faith (McGann, Beauty 61; BN 110). Sartre would be
very interested, for example, in analyzing Byron’s desire “To withdraw myself from
myself,” which is his sole motivation for “scribbling at all” (BLJ 3:225).26 Existentialist
escape is a retreat from oneself. In the most general way, it is an attempt to blind oneself
to being-in-itself (être-en-soi). Sartre says of this type of primordial being simply that it
“is what it is,” and he holds it in contrast to “being-for-itself” (être-pour-soi), which is
being in “a relation to Being” (BN 28, 800). Again, for Kierkegaard, the eschewal of
selfhood is displayed by the ironist’s ability not to go through with his despair, and
experiences existence as nothing but an “impersonal” relation to himself by “hovering”
This is precisely what Heine is able to do according to McGann: to read “those Romantics who
sought an escape from a crass present into a dream of the past” only as he is able to acknowledge
simultaneously the historicity of the medievalism to which they fled (Ideology 35).
Consider Nietzsche’s own view of Byron in this light. In an aphorism titled “Flight from one’s
self,” he writes: “Those sufferers from intellectual spasms who are impatient towards themselves
and look upon themselves with a gloomy eye – such as Byron or Alfred de Musset – and who, in
everything that they do, resemble runaway horses, and from their own works derive only a
transient joy and an ardent passion which almost bursts their veins, followed by sterility and
disenchantment – how are they able to bear up! They would fain attain to something beyond
‘beyond themselves.’ […] If we are like Byron we long for actions, because these detach us from
ourselves to an even greater extent than thoughts, feelings, and works” (Works 9:380).
indeterminately. In Heidegger’s language, escapism is an attempt to thwart having to face
up to one’s “authentic” (eigentlich) being – literally the “own-ness” or “mine-ness” of
being – both owning up to existence and possessing it. Bonnivard’s être-en-soi, his
eigentlich being, I claim, is experienced and expressed in his “I only” situation as he falls
back on his own non-relational being.
Yet, Sartre seems to be uncritically absorbed in Byron’s romantic self-representations
like those romantic scholars who McGann names. How Sartre uses Byron to execute his
existentialist analysis of Gustave Flaubert displays this romantic ideology. To his credit
Sartre does set out initially to read the characteristics of Flaubert’s generation by situating
himself in the 1840’s to view the literature, like McGann, “at which it is not yet written,
rather than viewing it retrospectively as something complete, finished and inevitable”
(Adamowski, Good 176). This method seems to align itself fairly well with the New
Historical attempt to place the critic in a position to be the first reader of any given text.
Despite this method, however, Sartre has recourse to Flaubert’s existentialist escapism
via those attributes of Byron’s “escapist poetry which so many readers have found so
characteristic of Romanticism” (McGann, Beauty 61). Thus Byron is positioned in this
reading in terms of the rhetoric of romantic ideology, offered as an outlet for Flaubert and
his contemporaries as an imaginative escape from social pressures.
Sartre sees the young Flaubert and his schoolmates at the école Rouen being
presented with the Byronic model of an evasion of social being by means of escape into
an illusory world of inverted morals. “The Romantic mirror,” he states, offers these
adolescents “a world similar to our own, except that No is pervasively substituted for
Yes, and Yes for No, […] allowed at certain times to be Manfred […], that is, a great
crippled lord, incestuous and magnificent” (FI 3:278, 322). As early as 1835 the
floodgates of Byronism had opened wide enough for Flaubert and his comrades to find
their “escape” through Byron and discover “the theme of arrogant refusal and revolt
against all Creation, defiance of God,” and more specifically with “Childe Harolde [sic]:
the revolt against being” (FI 3:258). Flaubert’s own adolescent view of Byron somewhat
confirms this as he describes the British poet believing “in nothing, with the possible
exception of his faith in all vices, in a living God who exists for the pleasure of doing
evil” (3). This is Flaubert “compelled to realize in all [romantic] iniquity, day after day,
by suffering his life and groaning with Byron: ‘I was born a child of wrath,’ and also, ‘I
am my own hell’” (Sartre, FI 3:281). As Flaubert reads romantic works, Sartre claims
that he comes under the sway of “Romantic passion,” which makes its victims become
“intoxicated with sorrow” (FI 3:273). These adolescent readers of romanticism are thus
“jubilant to be in Lara, in Childe Harold, that nonbeing of being to which they have been
reduced,” and as a result this “ethic of Romanticism” clings to these young readers in a
way that says: “Lose yourself under an empty heaven to bear witness to the impossible” –
a heaven where “all imaging consciousness detaches itself from the real because it aims
at absences. Defiance situates itself on the level of detachment. Moreover, it is also an
escape” (FI 3:279, 308).
At last, however, Sartre sees Flaubert’s generation seeking an “antidote to Byron,” a
corrective to the romantic poet as “the imaginary being,” left to solve the contradictions
of their literary inheritance by appealing to the autonomy of art “preserved through
unreality” (FI 3:260, 268; Adamowski, Good 177).27 Yet in all of Sartre’s readings, does
it not seem as though he is in some way uncritically absorbed in those romantic selfrepresentations of Byron’s political activism and sorrowful suffering? Though Byron can
be seen in Sartre’s war journal entry representing the revolutionary active conditions and
“commitment” that in part enable Sartre’s être-en-soi, Lara, Manfred, Harold and Byron
himself are still utilized by Sartre to implicate romantic literature as one governed by
imaginative escape, which advocates evading the type of primordial existence his être-ensoi tries to promote. We are left wondering, as we were with Thorslev’s open
romanticism, whether Sartre has undertaken legitimate existentialist criticism to read
Flaubert’s occasional retreat into bad faith, or whether he has simply latched onto the
ideological “reflex” of Byron’s despairing sorrow and his being “dead for Greece.” To
approach Byron’s existentialist despair from a romantic point of view (Thorslev,
Kipperman, etc.) is just as big of a let down as Sartre perhaps repeating those aspects of
Byron’s romantic ideology to read Flaubert’s existentially “unreal” aesthetic. Which kind
of “escape” Flaubert is guilty of remains ambiguous because, as Iris Murdoch has stated,
Sartre’s description of “this ‘going away’ [and] ‘losing of oneself’ […] is, in a thin
disguise, the old familiar romantic answer to the problem” (25).
We can see the necessity in asking, as René Wellek has done, “whether we can speak
of a genuinely existential criticism,” and if so, what kind of critical position does Sartre’s
Sartre sees them struggling to tie up the loose ends created in the wake of Enlightenment and
romantic literature by retreating into the “unreality” of an autonomous aesthetic. Specifically,
Flaubert arrived at this “unreal” aesthetic by being fully conscious of the fact that, on the one
hand, Enlightenment literature with its claim to the idea of “universal man” conflicts with his own
bourgeois class consciousness, and on the other that “Lara and Manfred are sons of lords; Rolla,
Chatterton, sons of counts,” and that romanticism is essentially an aristocratic literature (FI
3:296; Adamowski, Good 177).
existentialism assume to make use of a poet like Byron (340).28 The most suitable way to
read Byron in relation to existentialism is to show him anticipating it, which requires
applying existentialist theory to Byron’s poems where direct references have failed.
Though Kierkegaard’s reference to Don Juan allowed us to see the narrator as an
inadequate existentialist, using Kierkegaard’s theory demonstrated Haidée’s defiant
Fortvivlelse; and now even though Sartre’s use of Byron, Childe Harold, Lara, etc., has
ended in discursive ambiguity, we can read Bonnivard back through Sartre’s theory of
angoisse to see him either failing or succeeding as an existentialist depending on how we
interpret his sigh in terms of bad faith. While we should hang on to the way the poem
realizes “desire in a most undesirable manner” as a kind of existential sentiment that
“threatens to undo” Bonnivard, we must at the same time avoid assuming, like those
critics of Manfred, that there is a “certainty of the self’s existential location” in Prisoner
(Garber 125, 123).
Wellek states: “Historicism contradicts existentialism,” and existential criticism is of no value
to literary theory since it is the “attempt to reconstruct the author’s ‘consciousness,’ his relation to
time and space […]” (see for example Sartre’s “On The Sound and the Fury: Time in the Work of
Faulkner”); thus the work of art “is broken up or ignored in favor of a study of attitudes, feelings,
concepts, and philosophies of the poets. The act of creation and the poet rather than the work
becomes the centers of interest” (340, 363). In fact, philosophy and literary criticism remain
incompatible for Wellek who wants to keep “the interpretation of literature as distinct from other
activities of man” with the motto: “philosophy and literary criticism” (343). I remain hesitant to
acknowledge such a strict division in analyzing Byron’s despair since, as I have tried to show in
this chapter, in order to separate philosophy and literary criticism we must first distinguish them
suitably. See also Eugene Kaelin’s excellent description of Sartre’s understanding of an
existentialist criticism. In a way, existentialist-phenomenological criticism resembles modern
Reader-Response theory: “an art object [is] a mediating link between two consciousnesses […].
All arts must be per-formed; and thus the consumer is as important to the total process as the
producer” (92). The literary critic is responsible for participating in this “literary process” because
he serves part of “a communication between consciousness” (125). That is, he promotes literature
as “a process of communication” between reader and writer, and therefore he fulfills his function
when he discloses the way in which literature “reveals the inner structure of the world, society or
consciousness” – seeing as “the value of the literary work is to disclose being in some aspect of
its totality” (117, 125).
McGann is correct to point out two fundamental approaches to reading Prisoner. It
has been read traditionally “as a celebration of man’s ability to preserve his spiritual
freedom despite the worst privations” (FD 166), which is in line with Paul Trueblood’s
reading of the poem that “exemplifies the poet’s increasing tendency toward ‘the
celebration of unadorned reality’” (73). Though these critics stress the celebratory nature
of the poem’s stance toward freedom, it is more generally Bonnivard’s restricted
condition, like that of Sartre’s ontology, which makes “freedom a sine qua non condition
of human consciousness” (Pucciani 503). The very question of freedom is, at the very
least, posited in the poem in terms of despair: “Fetter’d or fetterless to be, / I learn’d to
love despair” (373-74). As Sartre would clarify, “anguish has not appeared to us as a
proof of human freedom; the latter was given to us as the necessary condition for the
question,” that is, the question of how, in anguish, we come to know we are at bottom
“condemned” to be free (BN 70). Condemned because one is freedom, and thus angoisse
for Sartre, like Heidegger’s Angst, signals how individuals become aware of the
“necessary condition” of their freedom: “there exists a specific consciousness of freedom
[and] this consciousness is anguish” (BN 70-71). Bonnivard’s sigh signifies not the
gloomy consciousness of his imprisonment, but his consciousness awaking to its
“condemned” freedom. And if Sartre claims that there is similarly no overcoming
anguish, “for we are anguish,” then we can begin to see that Bonnivard’s learning to love
despair confirms quite literally his condemnation to freedom as his consciousness realizes
its freedom with a sigh (BN 82).
In a larger sense, then, Bonnivard’s prison cell stands as a “mediating space where
consciousness learns to love despair and takes full possession of itself” (Brombert,
“Happy” 9). Thus, Bonnivard’s sigh at the end of the poem anticipates Sartre’s
existentialism: “even I / Regain’d my freedom with a sigh” (391-392). His sighing
despair is the “specific consciousness” through which Bonnivard takes full possession of
himself and recognizes his freedom; and this exhalation indicates that despite any initial
ambivalence Bonnivard has assigned to his freedom, it has never been absent as a
“necessary condition” of his being, only “regain’d” consciously in despair as a
permanent constituent of his being. Similarly, this is how Orestes in The Flies can say
with surety, “I am my freedom” having understood that “human life begins on the far side
of despair” (117, 119). Orestes imagines man in his unconditionally free state, that is,
regardless of whether he is “Fetter’d or fetterless,” by acknowledging from the beginning
of the play: “my mind’s my own” (59). Thus, Orestes can accept Zeus’s challenge: “if
you claim to be free, then you must praise the freedom of a prisoner languishing in
fetters” (113).29 Praising the freedom of the prisoner of Chillon is possible for us, then,
because he inhabits a type of prison, according to Brombert, that is “conceived as the
locus of spiritual freedom and revelation” (“Happy” 62). In fact, Brombert cites Byron’s
Prisoner as a chief example of the “confrontation with anguish and nothingness in a
prison setting” that is “fully exploited by Romantic as well as Existentialist writers”
(“Happy” 65). In Brombert’s notion of the “happy prison,” the poet “exalts sequestration
because it rejuvenates the soul […] and galvanizes the imagination […]: the locked-in
individual in his solipsistic ‘recreation’ learns how to enter into dialogue with the self,”
Stuart Gilbert’s translation turns this statement into a question where there is not one in the
original. I have amended his translation by offering one closer to Sartre’s original: “Si tu oses
prétendre que tu es libre, alors il faudra vanter la liberté du prisonnier chargé de chaînes […]”
and thus Byron’s prisoner should be read experiencing “a return to the self” (“Happy” 69,
There is one key instance leading up to Bonnivard’s “regain’d” freedom where,
despite undergoing the worst privations, he expresses an enthusiastic return to life and
return to self and thus champions the situation in which he finds himself with “No partner
is [his] misery” (325). The poem’s existentialist force sustains itself by setting up
moments for melancholic despair only to knock them down with Bonnivard’s affirmative
return. The most evident example of such privation and return begins with Bonnivard’s
description of his youngest brother’s death. Early in the poem Bonnivard recounts that as
he finally “droop’d and died,” he found himself “living by his side” (47). Emphasizing
his continued state of “living” both by way of this pleonasm and in spite of his
“drooping” death later enables “A little hope [his] own to raise” as he regards the “tints”
from his brother’s cheek as it “gently sunk away” to pervade the room “that almost made
the dungeon bright” (190-99). This in turn leads more appropriately to Bonnivard’s
existentialist-individualist position: alone and without his “failing race,” Bonnivard
wildly realizes: “I only30 stirr’d in this black spot, / I only lived – I only drew / The
accursed breath of dungeon-dew” (212-14). In his “dread / [that] Would not be thus
admonished” (207-8), Bonnivard is not only forced repeatedly to return back to the “I
only” of his situation, but incredibly he also feels “that [he] was still alive,” which is a
“frantic feeling” (224-5). This is what Brombert identifies as an “uninterpreted reality” in
Sartre’s Nausea whereby Roquentin falls back upon himself in an “opaque immediacy”
While Mary Godwin’s fair copy of the poem underlines the opening “I”s of lines 212 and 213,
Claire Clairmont underlines all three “I”s in her fair copy, which served as the first edition
reading. Neither fair copy carries over Byron’s own emphasis on “only” in line 212 (Cochran 37).
(Prison 197). Here, then, Bonnivard can suitably “arrive” at Sartre’s existentialist
position and take full possession of himself, consigning himself utterly to the “vacancy
absorbing space,” falling back on the “I only” situation of his being amid the “sea of
stagnant idleness” that by the end of the poem will engender his freedom realized only,
thus necessarily through a signifier for his anguish.
With this interpretation we can see Byron mobilizing what in Sartre’s work is called
“commitment” (engagement), despite Sartre’s thoughts to the contrary.31 Though Sartre
forbids the existence of a “poetic commitment” on the grounds that poets work with
words “from the outside” in a way that reifies their useful intentions, Bonnivard, like so
many of Byron’s afflicted heroes, is perhaps a demonstration of Byron engaging himself
in his work “not in an abjectly passive rôle by putting forward his vices, his misfortunes,
and his weakness, but as a resolute will and as a choice, as this total enterprise of living
that each one of us is” (Literature 9, 22-23). The upshot of commitment is seeing “the
work of art [as] an act of confidence in the freedom of men”; and even if Byron himself
cannot be read achieving this type of freedom, seeing that poets are blind to the fact that
Sartre spends the first chapter of What is Literature? drawing out a rationale for why poetry,
like painting and music, is incapable of producing “committed” works of art. Because “the
‘committed’ writer knows words are action” his “whole art is bent on obliging [us] to create what
he discloses […] so both of us bear the responsibility for the universe” (Literature 13, 44). In
short, only a prose writer writes “to address himself to the freedom of readers”; and as readers we
share a similar freedom in commitment, being “given this world with its injustices […] not so that
[we] may contemplate them coldly, but that [we] may animate them with [our] indignation”
(Literature 36, 45). This transaction is impossible for poets, according to Sartre, because the
language they employ “is no longer a meaning, but a substance,” or rather “the poetic attitude
[…] considers words as things and not as signs,” which the prose writer utilizes for directing the
reader’s “indignation,” for example (Literature 9, 5). Since poets “refuse to utilize language,”
Sartre asks “how can one hope to provoke the indignation or political enthusiasm of the reader
when the very thing one does is to withdraw him from the human condition […]?” (Literature 5,
10). At bottom, Sartre uses a quasi-formalist approach to understanding poetry in order to critique
a romantic one: “In so far as the writer of prose exhibits feelings, he illustrates them; whereas, if
the poet injects his feelings into his poem, he ceases to recognize them; the words take hold of
them, penetrate them, and metamorphose them; they do not signify them […]. Emotion has
become a thing” – and in this way a poet cannot “make use of words” (Literature 10).
“words are action,” we should not ignore the way Bonnivard’s anguished freedom
appears to confirm, in Sartre’s existentialism, that “there is no ‘gloomy literature,’ […]
however dark may be the colors in which one paints the world, one paints it only so that
free men may feel their freedom as they face it” (Literature 45). This is how Bonnivard
feels and experiences his freedom: not by choosing either to “soar in joy, or sink in
sorrow” like the “existential” Manfred, but by being “halted and returned,” in Goethe’s
words, “to his cold, dull consciousness” (105).
More recently, however, McGann cites a second line of interpretation that has favored
reading the strict limitations placed on “man’s creative integrity” and the “limits beyond
which even the strongest cannot be pushed without losing control over his physical
circumstances” (FD 166-167). In his own reading McGann ultimately emphasizes the
“the theme of a crippled life […]. Having lost all hope in the possibilities of a full life
[…] Bonnivard determines to live in the suburbs of existence […]” (FD 172). Gleckner
reads the poem similarly as a “chronicle of the slow decay of the human mind in the
dungeon of its being” (191). W. Paul Elledge comes to the same conclusion, locating in
the final stanza “nothing but more proof that any kind of affirmation about the continuity
of life or the meaning of liberty is now impossible for the speaker,” having drawn out
Byron’s complex symbolism (53-54). While Bonnivard’s youngest brother represents a
“passive freedom” in his association throughout the poem with “light, birds, and color,”
the other brother’s “active, defiant, combative spirit of liberty” inevitably takes over –
enabling the speaker ultimately not to escape bondage and thus affirm his freedom, but as
Elledge reminds us, to see: “the whole earth would henceforth be / A wider prison unto
me” (50-53).
In light of Sartre’s notion of bad faith whereby the individual’s goal “is to put
[him]self out of reach” as a form of escape, these “limiting” critical interpretations of
Bonnivard’s situation in which his debilitating privations outdo his spiritual integrity and
place him in the “suburbs of existence” appear more suitable (BN 110). Despite having
regained consciousness of his freedom through despair, we can also interpret Bonnivard’s
sigh as his hesitation in accepting fully the freedom he has gained, since when he is
physically liberated Bonnivard in fact relieves himself of his freedom. Partly refusing it,
partly passing it off onto the ineluctable “necessity” of Time, Bonnivard conversely
eschews all agency in regaining his freedom: “My very chains and I grew friends, / So
much a long communion tends / To make us what we are […]” (389-91). Incredibly, even
prior to his pardon Bonnivard exhibits a similar hesitancy to take part in his freedom the
more of it he gains. As he peers out the window toward the Rhone “With links
unfasten’d” and at “liberty to stride,” Bonnivard at once is cognizant of realizing his
possible freedom with the idealized image of the eagle riding the “rising blast,” yet is
wholly committed to convincing himself of its ineffectuality: “And then new tears came
in my eye, / And I felt troubled – and would fain / I had not left my recent chain” (35658). The bird that arrives at his window, which again not only signals the “necessary”
condition of freedom since its sheer existence forces him to question “if it late were free,
/ Or broke its cage to perch on mine,” but which also brings him “back to feel and think,”
leads Bonnivard not to desire its freedom (278-80). Thus, his retreat back into a
necessary bondage takes place precisely because the “worse privations” – the friendship
with spiders and mice, the “heavy walls” of his hermitage – become more favorable than
having to confront the necessary freedom of his “I only” situation. In this sense he makes
himself unavailable and “out of reach” for freedom since the “crippled life” and “slow
decay” present far less opportunity for surprise, and thus disappointment. Here Bonnivard
sighs in bad faith. He is both the deceiver and the deceived – the one who “must know
the truth very exactly in order to conceal it more carefully” (Sartre, BN 89). By regaining
the “I only” of his freedom while simultaneously befriending the communal comfort of
his chains and his monarchy over mice, Bonnivard’s sigh then places the entire structure
of freedom in a sustained indeterminacy: now is he satisfied to revel in the love of his
own despair than have to admit to the “necessary condition” of his “Fetter’d or fetterless”
state, the bird’s exchange of one cage for another or its “free” flight. With this Bonnivard
remains in the “suburbs of existence,” escaping himself by “postpon[ing] the moment of
decision” (Sartre, BN 97).
In conclusion, Nietzsche’s view of Manfred and Sartre’s references to Byron tend to
confuse Byron’s romantic and existentialist impulses. Yet, while critics’ understanding of
Byron’s existentialism based implicitly on Nietzsche’s view get us as far as placing them
in the same godless, open universe; and while Sartre’s use of Byron presents difficulties
for seeing his suffering as anything other than a romantic ideology, Manfred’s power to
withhold and Bonnivard’s sigh can be read back through Sartre’s theoretical work to
show them existentially falling back on themselves. In both of these works the hero has
recourse only to his own freedom with which to face up to himself. As a result, we can
now read Byron’s despair in a way that, to twist McGann’s words, is “cause for our
critical valuations of his poetic work” given the way it consistently allows his characters
greater means to become conscious of their free existence.
Chapter Three
Childe Harold’s “being-there more intense”
“Yea, in the very nature of a living spirit, it may be more possible that heaven and earth
should pass away, than that a single act, a single thought, should be loosened or lost
from that living chain of causes, to all whose links, conscious or unconscious, the free
will, our only absolute self, is coextensive and co-present.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
Biographia Literaria, Chapter VI.
The way in which Haidée, Manfred and Bonnivard have fallen back on and taken
possession of themselves to recognize their being through despair finds its most potent
expression in the dynamic characterization of Childe Harold. In this chapter I aim to read
this poem back through Heidegger’s work in order to spot Byron casting off Harold and
the voice of the narrator in search of “a being more intense.” The way Byron reaches this
intense being through an “electric chain” of despair therefore will be read foreshadowing
how “anxiety individualizes” in Heidegger’s philosophy (BT 235). There is enough of a
resemblance in the way Byron’s characterization and Heidegger’s philosophy describe
the proximate thereness of existence through a “nameless,” untraceable despair to begin
laying open an ontology in Byron’s thinking best understood as his Dasein.
Sartre and Kierkegaard’s theoretical apparatuses have been effective in reading Byron
anticipating their understanding of despair. And seeing as their allusions to Byron only
cast doubt on his existentialist impulse, the lack of a direct reference to Byron made by
Heidegger is a methodological asset. That is to say, using Heidegger’s theory to read
back through Childe Harold is the most effective method for seeing how the poem
anticipates Heidegger’s theory. It is effective because the seam between the poem’s
electric chain of despair and Heidegger’s theory of an individualizing anxiety is almost
unnoticeable. But where do we find a primary entry point or an area of overlap between
Byron’s poem and Heidegger’s theory without a direct reference to initiate one? It is not
until Byron’s acknowledgement of John Edleston’s death (“thou hast ceas’d to be!”) at
the very end on Canto II, stanza 95, that the poem begins addressing being as a problem
(“What is my being?”). That Byron addresses being in this way, as a problem, is what
makes him stand out from all other romantic poets. For Percy Shelley, for example, being
remains a comfortable abstraction. Though he writes of the “restless wheels of being” in
Queen Mab, he does so only in passing, as if it is already a given fact that requires no
further explanation; while in Epipsychidion he encounters it as a reliable thing, “a Being
whom [his] spirit oft / Met on its visioned wanderings” (9.152; 190-191). For Byron, in
Cantos III and IV of Childe Harold, he and his characters begin meditating much more
heavily on the consequences and meaning of being, refusing to leave questions
concerning existence unanswered and rhetorical. The entry point lies here, at the
beginning of Canto III, where the narrator acknowledges how being is to be experienced:
“’Tis to create, and in creating live / A being more intense” (3.6). In this “being more
intense” we see Byron not only addressing being as something that requires agency and
active participation (“to create”), but describing it in terms of an emotion, or what in
Heidegger’s ontology is Dasein’s “mood” (Stimmung), which will create the conditions
for angst. Heidegger presents mood in relation to being by stating that it “makes manifest
‘how one is, and how one is fairing’ […]. In this ‘how one is,’ having a mood brings
being to its ‘there’” (BT 173). Therefore, in Childe Harold III the speaker’s emphasis on
the intensity of being brings being to its thereness as a mood. The speaker’s intense
mood, in short, places his “created” being there – the place from which Heidegger thinks
existence should be analyzed, given that in this “mood” Dasein is that being for whom
being “matters” (BT 141). Unlike Shelley’s, Byron’s intense being matters.
But is this mood sufficient? More specifically, is it enough not only to initiate, but
also to sustain reading Childe Harold in a way that sees Byron grappling with the idea of
existence through despair just as Heidegger explores Dasein through angst? Consider
Northrop Frye’s statement that, “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” (68). Here Frye overlaps Byron with other figures, just as I
do, yet in a way that is based on artistic inspiration and influence. Eugène Delacroix’s La
Grèce expirant sur les ruines de Missolonghi and a number of his other paintings were
inspired by the theme in Byron’s work concerned with the struggle for Greek
independence, and we saw in the previous chapter how Manfred directly influenced the
young Nietzsche. Given these areas of overlap, can we still say with certainty that mood
is enough to design Byron’s Dasein any more or less than Delacroix’s inspiration in part
constituting the ubiquity of a Byronic spell?
Ruth Carpenter in fact follows the trail of this spell to discover a “musical Byronism,”
which she locates both through Berlioz’s symphony Harold en Italie as well as in
Berlioz’s personal memoirs that specifically refer to Byron (38). Somewhat hesitant to
grant any ultimate authority to these direct references alone, Carpenter searches for a
common emotive element that romantic composers and romantic poets shared historically
(40). She begins her study by finding a similar shift in the “new gravity given to the
emotional content of a work post-Beethoven,” which, with a similar non-mimetic aim,
shadows the way poetry during the romantic period had shifted “from a description or
‘imitation’ of programmatic events or natural phenomena, to a portrayal of the artist’s
inner consciousness [whereby] the expression of feeling became the main concern in
poetry” (39). Again, the problem at hand is determining whether the common element of
mood can suffice ultimately to draw out Byron’s Dasein, and more broadly whether a
shared element is enough to constitute a legitimate investigation.
Indeed mood is an element that critics like Tilottama Rajan32 and Thomas Pfau
substantiate in their work, coupling facets of romanticism with a wide range of discursive
practices in the late 19th and early to mid-20th century. With this common element, like
Carpenter’s “emotional content,” a perimeter can be assembled that begins to hold
Heidegger’s angst together with Byron’s despair in terms of their descriptions of being.
For Pfau the crossover between romantic literature and a large amount of both Kantian
and post-Kantian philosophy is a symbiotically unique, but necessary one because they
have in mind a similar goal or “agenda.” While this vast philosophical tradition petitions
literature to establish systematic universals,
always [finding] itself most forcefully drawn to the literary when struggling to
justify its hypothesis of a “negative” universal, a motoric, precognitive, and hence
inscrutable agency said to circumscribe all possible historical and material
See page 8, note 3.
experience, whether thought of as a Kantian Ding an sich, Schopenhauer’s Wille,
Freud’s unconscious, or Heidegger’s Dasein,
“romantic literature,” Pfau continues, “is impelled by an agenda remarkably similar to
that of the thinkers just named” (16). When Pfau begins to highlight Heidegger’s peculiar
role in this crossover, he uncovers in the process the shared “anxious” mood of which
both camps make use:
If romantic literature broaches fundamental ontological questions, it does so […]
in formal-aesthetic constructs whose very design aims to mediate an abiding
“mood” or Stimmung. The role of the aesthetic thus becomes to trace how
individuals and communities are at once embedded in and estranged from their
experiential, historical reality. With its focus on “anxiety” (Angst) as the
quintessential “mood” of Dasein, Heidegger’s Being and Time largely recaptures
what romanticism had already come upon in its own figural mode: namely, that
the prevailing “mood” of anxiety constitutes the ontological echo of man as a
strictly historical phenomenon, a “being-in-the-world” that knows of its utter lack
of any transcendent point reference or “ground.” For that reason, whatever its
generic filiations and thematic surface concerns, romantic literature’s true sujet
[…] explores how experience in the aggregate molds the emotional fabric of its
subject – namely, as a persistent and unsettling “feeling” of the irreducible
tenuousness and volatility of being, a quality to be mirrored in lyric and narrative
forms whose interpretive complexity proves just as palpable and irreducible. (1617)
While Pfau will go on to disregard Childe Harold as a poem that “remains content to
posit melancholy strictly as a rhetorical topos,” leaving both Don Juan and John Keats33
instead to pick up on “protoexistentialist psychological scenarios,” I insist nonetheless
that Pfau has opened an important door that allows us the opportunity to take a second
look at Childe Harold in light of its Stimmungangst (333). That goes to say, with Pfau’s
insights we now have the adequate language and the appropriate substance to show how
Heidegger “recaptures” what Byron himself “had already come upon” in Childe Harold.
Since mood for Heidegger “comes neither from ‘outside’ nor from ‘inside,’ but arises
out of Being-in-the-world, as a way of such Being,” it therefore “makes […] possible first
of all” the conditions by which “to direct oneself toward something” (BT 176). Simply,
yet necessarily having a mood is what “lets the world matter” (BT 178). With its intense
mood, Canto III is similarly free to “direct” being: both introspectively for the narrator
(“What am I? Nothing” in line 5), and then externally with Harold, “with whom [he]
traverse[s] earth, / Invisible but gazing” in lines 6-7. Even Byron in his well-known letter
on sensation points to a similar directionality: “The great object of life is sensation – to
feel that we exist, even though in pain. It is this ‘craving void’ which drives us to gaming
– to battle – to travel […]” (BLJ 3:109).34 Therefore, this intense mood is what opens the
very possibilities throughout the poem’s final two cantos of being “directed” toward
different ways of being; and ultimately a specific being, namely Dasein, will emerge
Pfau goes as far as to say, “Keats’s late cadences are closer to the existentialist psychology of
Camus or Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic evocation of a post-theological world than to the utopian
rhetoric of revolutionary romanticism” (342).
This enacts Byron’s hesitancy toward systematic ways of thinking (see page 25, note 7), given
that a similar “sensation” conversely drives him, as we saw in Chapter One, to pass his evenings
in “calm nothingness of languor, which I most delight in” (BLJ 3:257).
describing human existence in terms of a non-preconditioned Being-in-the-world, which
will be in each case authentically “his” and will be a Being-there for whom being matters.
Without the specificity of this shared anxious mood, the investigation into the nature
of Byron’s philosophy of being can begin and end anywhere. By studying Byron’s poem
in terms of this mood called angst we are necessarily differentiating our existentialist
study from the work of critics like John Beer and Edward Wayne Marjarum who
approach Byron’s ontology from his language, his imagery, his literary and personal
relationships; and his philosophical skepticism,35 respectively. In his reading of Byron’s
description of the Alps in Childe Harold III, Beer concludes that “the true focus of the
sense of Being lay in a refinement of energy which could be most fully itself only if
realized as lightning” (153). Though we will similarly point to this connection between
being and electric current, this “one word” of stanza 97 leads Beer to search for a
“personal geography of Being,” finding that Byron “entered the domains of creative
Being simply by powers of language” and “linguistic exploration,” while “developing the
major characteristic of his predecessor,” namely Wordsworth, which paid tribute to his
“powerful naturalism” (155).
Further, critics like Andrew Rutherford and Robert Gleckner have approached the
being of stanza 6 in ways that resist direct treatment of Byron’s ontology. This stanza
instead supports their goal of foregrounding the relationship between Byron and Harold
in order to establish some unity to the poem, or more specifically for Rutherford a
For Marjarum, “the matured poet comes to the problem of being in an alertly critical frame of
mind,” concluding that since he was not a “systematic metaphysician[,] his hold upon the
subtleties of ontological theory was at best precarious” (44, 64). The specific role that Byron’s
“skeptic reflection” plays in all of this is one that “tended to doubt that truth was static,” which,
according to Marjarum, worked in tandem with his “natural philosophy [which] emphasized the
dynamic nature of being” (61). Here Marjarum specifically cites from Deformed Transformed
where “all life is motion; and / In life, commotion is the extremist point / Of life” (1.1.591-593).
common “idiom” with which Byron was experimenting. For Rutherford, this stanza
presents a problem with who is speaking and enacts a “mixing and blending” in the
distinction between Byron and his hero, which Byron quickly allows to “lapse” (50), or
“collapse” as McGann has put it, or “absorb” for Gleckner. Following this stanza, a “new
protagonist, who thus combines the functions of both hero and narrator,” emerges, which
“shows a marked advance on all his predecessors,” indicating a growth in Byron’s
characterization; and ultimately this assimilation of voices gives rise to the canto’s unity
since this one character is able to encompass all four of what Rutherford will later explain
as the poem’s major themes (51). For Gleckner, similarly, the poet’s “absorption” of
Harold is central because it begins to reflect how Byron struggled to “assimilate all
partial views” into a “total vision” within the poem. Thus, the intensity of being in these
lines suggests a “growing self-awareness,” or as Gleckner cites A.G. Lehmann, a “more
acute consciousness” on the part of Byron whereby “the poet, Harold, the narrator, all
mankind” engages in this type of “created” being which “endow[s] / With form our
fancy” (Gleckner 236; CHP 3.6).
For critics like Jerome McGann, Harold Bloom and Peter Manning, this stanza’s
being represents a general tendency toward therapy. Manning wants us to see that “the
very essence of the poem is an effort to rehabilitate the self: to read the poem is to watch
the process” (64). Yet, like Gleckner and Rutherford, Manning must feed off of Byron
and Harold’s relationship in this stanza – one where “Harold is truly an alter ego: the
bearer of rejected parts of the self” – in order to arrive at Byron’s objective: “to evade
further bruises by retirement to a less assertive posture” (63, 64). For McGann, the sixth
stanza signals a rebirth from the “weariness and inanition which [had] overcome the poet
at the end of Cantos I-II,” and thus “announces the therapeutic end of his renewed
pilgrimage, to create a ‘being more intense’ and then become himself the energetic
creature of his imaginative aspirations” (FD 78-79). This therapeutic regeneration “to
recreate himself according to the longings of his highest imaginations” in the face of a
“death-in-life” then ties into Byron’s “necessity of constant development and painful
growth” in McGann’s more general understanding of the poem (FD 114, 49). Such
“growth” is achieved very specifically, according to Bostetter, in the act of writing and
creating, as composition “was for [Byron] a means of living more intensely” (271). Yet
Bloom takes issue with this “being more intense” in terms of Byron’s flight from
England, showing, like McGann, how Byron escapes “into his poem, and affirms a
therapeutic aesthetic idealism,” whereby the intensity of being becomes little more than a
yardstick that gauges biographical life quantitatively: “thought seeks refuge in the
creation of poetry, for by it we gain more life” (240, my emphasis).
Redirecting the moreness of Bloom’s quantitative assessment back toward the intense
thereness of being in the poem, we now want to search for how the poem’s characters
experience angst “as a mode of affectedness [which] does not result from the disclosure
of world but is itself the disclosure of world as world” (Gorner 118). Like Haidée, we
first notice this through the way despair takes on counter-intuitive smiling trait. The
attempt at trying to “live / A being more intense” begins with an image of Harold “With
nought of hope left” as he wanders, however, “with less of gloom,” which shadows the
turn his despair takes in the following lines: “The very knowledge that he lived in vain, /
That all was over on this side of the tomb, / Had made Despair a smilingness assume”
(3.16). While we can interpret these lines in a way that sees Harold simply turning his
moping despair into an upbeat cheerfulness, its counter-intuitive description leads us
reconsider this. We can take note of the “wild” quality that his despair retains similar to
Haidée’s, and how the counter-intuitive quality of this “wild” despair is then compared to
the carousing scene of a “plundered wreck / When mariners would madly meet their
doom / With draughts intemperate on the sinking deck” (3.16). Both scenes describe how
a motional, “wild” and “intemperate” despair comes about through a type of being that
faces annihilation, or what Watkins calls a moment of “Byronic nihilation.” For Watkins
“like Heidegger […], Byron confronts the nothing that is the matrix of individual beings
to discover their vulnerability to the eventual and certain negation that is part of the truth
of being” – which in scenes like this from Childe Harold III represents “the full
authenticity of voice that can be achieved only when the poet confronts his finitude […]”
(404, 405). As a result, despair in this scene is not a passive, moping about, but rather an
assertive, highly dynamic moving about, or energetic “burst of passion” according to
Watkins. Similarly for Bostetter, instead of being “reduced to apathy” in the despair of
self-exile, Byron, like Harold here, is actually “stimulated to increased activity” (276).
Thus, Harold’s despair, like Haidée’s “overwrought” despair and Marina’s despair,
which “makes its way through hosts / With levell’d spears,” is counter-intuitive to the
point of indicating increased activity. These moments overlap with Heidegger’s own
counter-intuitive description of angst (perhaps translated as an “uneasiness” or “malaise”
as Macquarrie and Robinson have alternatively suggested), which defies the traditional
dictionary meaning of the word as a persistent worrying or nervousness. The type of
“activity” in Heidegger’s model therefore is a presencing movement, one that strips being
of its comfort, its home and places being there. Most notably, Heidegger maintains that
“in anxiety one feels uncanny” (unheimlich) (BT 233). This uncanniness “declares those
keys moments in which Angst brings Dasein face to face with its terrible freedom to be or
not to be,” and thus angst makes one feel “homeless” because it is “the taking upon
oneself of the nearness of nothingness, of the potential non-being of one’s own being”
(Steiner 100, 104). Moreover, dread (Aengstlichkeit) and nervousness (Furchtsamkeit) are
strongly differentiated from angst since they are “moods that come over us only too
easily,” indicating that they are moods that respond to this nihilated being, unlike angst
which is the cause of reaching authentic Dasein (“Metaphysics” 248). That is to say,
there is difficulty in experiencing angst as it is not an “accidental or random mood of
‘weakness’ in some individual,” and often Heidegger describes it as a “threat” that
Dasein experiences “arising out of its own ‘there’” (BT 295, 310). It is a threat because in
angst we are “in suspense,”36 and “in the trepidation of this suspense where there is
nothing to hold on to, Da-sein is all that remains” (“Metaphysics” 249). The similarity to
the groundless terrain an individual must navigate in Berlin’s existential romanticism,
and even in Bostetter’s view of Byron’s comfortless “shibboleths” (254) is clear, but
perhaps what is most interesting is Heidegger’s claim that angst “is pervaded by a
peculiar kind of peace” – a peace that in fact turns out to be a sort of “spell-bound”
(gebannt) peace (“Metaphysics” 248, 250).
Heidegger’s peaceful angst is matched briefly by Harold’s despair “inspir[ing] a
cheer” by the end of stanza 6. And like Heidegger’s unheimlich angst, there is an
unfamiliarity in this scene that posits Harold’s, albeit “wearisome” despair, in a similar
Heidegger uses the same verb (schweben) here that Schlegel had used to describe the
indeterminate, “hovering” position that romantic ironic poets and artists assume. Heidegger’s
suspense is not meant in the sense of horror or fright, but of a sort of ambivalent calm.
way to the homelessness of a “wild-born falcon with clipt wing, / To whom the boundless
air alone were home” (3.15). We also see Harold in his “unfit” capacity here having “the
passion and the power to roam” in such a way that his unheimlich wandering extends to
naturally transient imagery: “Where roll’d the ocean, thereon was his home” (3.13). In
fact, I think it is no accident that Byron will return to address the ocean at the close of the
poem in curiously unheimlich terms as it “goest forth, dread, fathomless, alone” (4.183),
which might indicate Byron’s larger existentialist skepticism of “a benevolent and
purposeful nature,” according to Bostetter, as the ocean here symbolizes “the impersonal
power of nature” that can ultimately magnify “the puniness and perishability of man”
(Bostetter 267).
Yet one of the most distinctive features of angst, according to Heidegger, is that
“Dasein is taken all the way back to its naked uncanniness, and becomes fascinated by it”
(BT 394). Again, Harold appears to achieve this as “he forbore to check” the “cheer” that
ensues his “wild” despair (3.16). Yet it is here that his overlap with Heidegger also
begins to wane. This is due in part to the fact that the narrator interjects: “Stop! – for thy
tread is on an Empire’s dust” (3.17). Here all attention on being is lost. Although the
narrator will interrupt Harold at many other points throughout the poem, attempting to
move the narrative along by waking Harold from his despairing digressions, this
interjection draws attention away from the momentum Harold’s angst seems to be
building. By stanza 18 his “fascination” is not with the “naked uncanniness” of his being,
but with “the place of skulls.” Thus, up until stanza 34 where the narrator’s despair
emerges, images from Waterloo act as both the catalyst and the object of despair. As a
result, both the narrator’s and Harold’s existentialist preoccupation lies elsewhere since
neither seem concerned with his being, but with human liberty: both the failure of it as
the narrator references the “king-making Victory” of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and
the championing of it in symbolic form: the myrtle that “wreathes a sword / Such as
Harmodius drew on Athens’ tyrant lord” (3.17, 3.20).
For Heidegger all of this “smilingness” and “wild” angst must bring Harold
authentically closer to his Being-there, exposing the world as world. Although Harold
exhibits all of the unheimlich fascination of angst in this stanza, he comes no closer to his
Dasein with his attention turned to “the place of skulls.” Harold, therefore, is unique in
Byron’s characterization because he is the only figure who experiences angst without
arriving at some grand ontological apotheosis. If Byron is writing about being the same
way as Heidegger, then what this discrepancy suggests is that during the composition of
Canto III in the months before July 1816 Byron was experimenting with his own being
through his hero Harold. Although Prisoner was composed roughly within the same six
months as Canto III, Bonnivard and Harold do not reflect identical representations in
Byron’s ontological thinking; and by late 1819 Haidée becomes a solidified expression of
what in 1816 still needed working out in Childe Harold. Whereas Byron’s ontology
seems to broach angst with Haidée and Bonnivard, divorced from his own personal
anguish, Byron’s presence in Childe Harold must be seen as an attempt by the poet to
inaugurate an engagement with that ontology through its characters. This not only
explains the lack of Harold’s musing on existence after experiencing a “wild” despair in
stanza 16, but it also accounts for the very fact that Byron needs two characters, two
voices, to carry out what can be accomplished with only one in other poems only after
Byron either undergoes angst himself, or at the very least enters into, like Heidegger, an
examination of how angst permits Dasein’s being to be “in each case mine” (BT 150).
Heidegger’s attempt to explain and justify Dasein’s “authenticity” in his ontological
investigation makes extensive use of grammatical prepositions because, like existentialist
inquiry, they highlight the area in-between things. This comes out clearly not only in
Heidegger’s neologisms (Being-with, Being-toward, potentiality-for, etc.), but in his
reading of Friedrich Hölderlin where “man dwells by spanning the ‘on the earth’ and the
‘beneath the sky.’ This ‘on’ and ‘beneath’ belong together. Their interplay is the span that
man traverses at every moment insofar as he is as an earthly being” (Poetry 223).
McGann’s reading of Childe Harold relies on a similar strategy. According to him, while
our interest in the poem may be in “the poet’s existential condition,” the “basic issue” of
the poem concerns “how to remain in the world and yet keep free of the world, how to
wed imagination to objective reality […]” (FD 33, 85). These statements, and the ones
that follow, begin to gesture toward the same idea that I have expressed above in
accounting for Byron’s dealing through Harold and with the others, narrowing the area
“in-between” him and these characters to fall back on his own “I only” situation.
For McGann, however, this keeping-free-of and remaining-in is strictly a “poetic
asset” and leads to a greater appreciation of Byron’s virtue as an artist. This “alter-ego
device” puts Byron in a position to objectify in Harold his “deep uncertainty of mind and
self-lacerating Angst,” bearing the “strength of [Byron’s] own spiritual inertia” (FD 88).
Despite being a “clumsiness,” however, this device turns out to be “a kind of honesty”
done “to protect [Byron] from public judgment,” and therefore “intensifies the subjective
quality of the poem and heightens our sense of Byron’s personal presence in his own
work” (FD 77). With McGann’s thoughts in mind, we might say that Byron is more
playful and unrestricted in experimenting with being because, as McGann’s stress on
prepositions suggests, the relation between subjects and objects is fluid and porous,
allowing Byron both to move himself about and remove himself from all consequence by
letting Harold shoulder the burden of his anxiety, which actually confirms Gleckner’s
view that Byron intended to “deal with [Harold], not through him” (43). This then could
explain not only why Byron has Harold play freely and “wildly” with a despair that leads
nowhere ontologically, but also why, for Gleckner, the “poet’s voice of universal
despair” reigns throughout the poem since there is no apprehension on Byron’s part to
follow through with his despair (81). Being is not an issue for Harold if Byron isn’t there.
We should therefore consider this “alter-ego device” not as a literary or security
device, but as an ontological strategy. Eventually Harold is let go. If we read Byron
becoming a more confident poet, then he is let go either by being “absorbed” according to
Gleckner or “collapsed” according to McGann. On the other hand, Harold is cast off if
we read Byron existentially overcoming Sartre’s bad faith, or reaching his Dasein. Either
way necessarily renders both the poet’s and the narrator’s being very much at issue; and
that it happens gradually from the second to the fourth canto, I think, points to Byron
working out his own being through these characters as he moves along, getting it right
only after having first tested the water with Harold, then the narrator’s voice. With this
said, it seems plausible to disregard Byron’s initial intention to “preserve this difference”
between himself and Harold in order for us to read Harold not as a playful, but rather a
hesitated attempt at Byron exploring being. If Byron is there in Harold, then his part in
exploring “A being more intense” will necessarily begin in a very timid, cautionary way
that tends to eschew contemplating being, of which Harold demonstrates. All we get in
the stanzas surrounding stanza 16 is Harold “roll[ing] / On with the giddy circle, chasing
Time” and feeling “Proud though in desolation, which could find / A life within itself”
(3.11, 3.12). Though the “mid-European transit” of Canto III represents an “existential
journey,” according to Blackstone, Harold’s ability to “roll on” in this fashion displays
how the canto as a whole “projects flight rather than pilgrimage” (183). The bottom line,
then, is that if Byron is seen grappling with angst in seed form, then Harold represents
Byron’s first, albeit incomplete, reserved and half-hearted (i.e. taking “flight” from
being) attempt at describing existence in terms of a “wild” despair.
Therefore, undertaking an investigation of this ontological magnitude calls for not
one, but two characters who will play off each other not only in a way that speaks to
Byron’s absorption as an indicator of his self-confidence and his “growing awareness of
his own ability and sureness of his imagination and hand” – a “confidence in his own
poetic power” that will later enable Byron “to objectify the subjectivity of his own world
view by means of a single persona instead of a medley of voices” (Gleckner 240, 84) –
but also in a manner that equips Byron with the tools to arrive at a more complete, if not
more developed understanding of the meaning of his own being by shedding extraneous
beings or entities37 like Harold who ultimately have no hand in allowing Byron to reach
the meaning of the mine-ness and there-ness of his being. By casting off Harold, Childe
To extend the similarity here as far as possible, we might see Harold as what Heidegger call
Seiendes, and what Macquarrie and Robinson have translated as “entity” to mean “that which is”
or “something which is” (BT 22). The distinction between Dasein and things like Seiendes or
Vorhandenheit (presence-at-hand) are the major impetus for writing BT in total since Heidegger
undertakes to show how all of western metaphysics has erred by regarding existence in terms of
Seiendes and examining its vorhanden property, rather than regarding the meaning of being as
Dasein. “Being is not in fact accessible as an entity,” Heidegger theorizes, and therefore, “behind
this slight difference of signification […] there lies hidden a failure to master the basic problem of
Being” (BT 127) – which, again, remains a problem for Byron’s poem: “What is my being?”
Harold III and IV stand as an existentialist record of the initial step Byron takes in
implicating himself as part of the process of investigating existence, recognizing that he
must Be-there in order to complete the pilgrimage.
Harold’s incomplete despair did not suffice for the poet who wanted to “remember
Job’s saying, and console [himself] with being ‘a living man’” (BLJ 3:208).38 With a Joblike suffering that Byron may have in mind here, the question now is whether despair as
personal misery can outstrip his desire to be “a living man.” Byron seems to want to
“complete” his existentialist pilgrimage through the narrator of Childe Harold III who
takes up the slack that Byron cannot make Harold adequately handle. By stanza 34 the
narrator addresses the paradoxes and disappointments of existence, asking whether “man
compute[s] / Existence by enjoyment, and count o’er / Such hours ‘gainst years of life
[…],” having granted despair with its own being: “There is a very life in our despair.”
However, that despair and being share an existential connection seems uncertain at first.
Not only, as I suggested earlier, does the narrator’s despair here seem to have Waterloo
as its object, but despair is also the “Vitality of poison,39 – a quick root / Which feeds
these deadly branches,” which seems in line with the traditional understanding of
Gleckner’s “all-inclusive” despairing reading: where “the burden of Childe Harold’s
Pilgrimage finally is what Roppen and Sommer call the ‘burden of nihil,’ the poet’s
lonely struggle with his own despair at the pattern of universal waste and ruin […]”
(237). Here personal suffering does seem to outstrip his “living man” as Byron deals-with
Byron begins this journal entry: “[…] but I must not complain. The respectable Job says, ‘Why
should a living man complain?,’” which, as Leslie Marchand points out, actually belongs to
Jeremiah in Lamentations, III, 39.
If Byron stands apart from Shelley by addressing being as a “problem” (see page 79), then he
also stands out from him through his description of despair. In Prometheus Unbound, the “poison
of despair” can only give way to a “sweet nutriment” in terms of the process of “interchange,”
never in counter-intuitive conjunction or simultaneity (3.3.95-96).
his despair as romantic melancholy, which leads to a gloomy, nihilistic loneliness where
the narrator lives as if he were his “own obituary notice” (Sartre, Words 141).
On the other hand, the narrator’s mere contemplation of existence in terms of despair
does begin to ground an existentialist connection. In fact, Bostetter explicitly champions
despair in this stanza in a way that supports his existential reading of Byron, as “despair
itself became a source of sensation, a means of feeling that he existed” (276). And though
this despair remains existentially incorrect in Bostetter’s reading since it is ultimately an
act of “suffering,” it nonetheless grounds a connection between Heidegger and the
narrator’s view of existence as a dwelling in the world, seeing as Byron uses this
suffering in his poetry “not simply as an escape or release” (Bostetter 276). In
Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin, the poet’s verse does not represent the traditional view
of romantic poetry as belonging “to the realm of fantasy,” flying “fantastically above
reality” or “surmount[ing] the earth in order to escape it,” but rather enacts that which
“brings man onto the earth, making him belong to it, and thus brings him into dwelling”
(Poetry 218). At first, for Byron’s narrator “there is a fire / And motion of the soul which
will not dwell / In its own narrow being, but aspire / Beyond […]” (3.42), suggesting a
kind of flight from dwelling in the world whereby the narrator is afforded to “live not in
myself, but I become / Portion of that around me” (3.72). Yet he does become “absorb’d”
enough to recognize that “this is life” (3.73). Ultimately the narrator recognizes the “wild
world [he] dwelt in” at Lake Leman40 and returns there nearly a dozen stanzas later to
“resume / The march of our existence” (3.85, 3.98).
That this dwelling takes place at Leman is significant in Byron’s “collapse” for McGann. It is a
symbol for a “perilous voyaging,” which, when combined with the “domestic value” of the
stanza’s “a Sister’s voice” creates a “conflict within [the narrator] himself” that once again plays
out the theme of “continual self-development for Byron himself (McGann FD 87-88).
The progress the narrator is making in his dwelling begins to wane throughout the
third canto as he irresolutely contemplates his authentic (eigentlich) being, again literally
the “own-ness” of his being. Reminding himself initially of the goal with which he
started the canto (“All is concentred in a life intense”), he begins fragmenting this “life
intense” by viewing it from “Where not a beam, nor air, nor leaf is lost, / But hath a part
of being […]” (3.89).41 In this romantically “organic,” existentially inauthentic separated
“part of being” his thoughts turn toward “our being,” which “then doth melt / And
purifies from self” (3.90). Reading being in this way in Byron’s poem confirms what
This stanza, like 72, initiates one of the moments in Childe Harold III that critics have usually seen
shadowing Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s organic/pantheistic view of nature. I point this out only so that
we may keep Byron’s romantic and existentialist impulses once again distinguished clearly. Thus, the
“part of being” Byron is concerned with in this stanza, which continues through stanza 99, is described
in terms of “the feeling with which all around Clarens […] is invested,” which is “of a still higher and
more comprehensive order than the mere sympathy with individual passions” (CPW 2:312). And by
experiencing “the feeling infinite […] through our being” apart from “self” and “not in myself” (3.72)
means, in organic terms, addressing “the great principle of the universe, which is there more
condensed, but not less manifested; and of which, though knowing ourselves a part, we lose our
individuality, and mingle in the beauty of the whole” (CPW 2:312). Following Morse Peckham’s
“organic dynamism,” Abrams’s work on Coleridge’s “aesthetics of organism” and more broadly René
Wellek’s summarization of it as “the great endeavor to overcome the split between subject and object,
the self and the world, the conscious and the unconscious” (220), this is how Wordsworth becomes
“wholly committed to a vision of an organic and mystic Nature” by experiencing an “assimilation of
nature to mind” (Thorslev, Byronic 89, Contraries 98). This organicism is predicated upon
Wordsworth’s exploration into the “freedom of ‘pure’ self-conscious subjectivity […] in which both
nature and mind become one organic whole which evidences itself in history. To ‘abstract’ oneself
from this universal process is to cut oneself off from life itself, and to enter a living death” (Contraries
106). Human freedom here is key, and suffice it to say that the role of nature assimilated to the mind in
the organic world “is free only in the sense in which organic things are free to follow the teleological
path of their evolution or development. Its destiny is inevitable and inexorable: there are no
alternatives, and contingencies and accidents are apparent only, perhaps ultimately unreal” (Contraries
99). As opposed to a feeling of “dreadful freedom” in the open universe, which marks Byron’s
existentialist impulse (e.g. that Byron realizes “right / And wrong are accidents” having asked “What
from this barren being do we reap?” (CHP 4.93), and later realizes the liberating joy in asking, “Must I
restrain me, through fear of strife, / From holding up the Nothingness of life?” (DJ 7.6)), there is “for
the organicist a renewed sense of destiny, and therefore a secure sense that his values are, if not
sanctioned by a transcendent God nor written into a static universe of things, then written into
history,” and therefore “true freedom becomes the joyful recognition of one’s destiny” (Contraries
102). See also Schopenhauer’s “youthful” take on stanza 72. That “men are always separating more an
more their subjective feeling from their objective knowledge” is avoided in Byron’s stanza, which
captures what Schopenhauer sees as youth’s ability “to blend” the two realms, and the child’s inability
“to distinguish itself from its surroundings” (251).
McGann has already worked out in distinguishing Byron’s romantic and existential
impulses: “There is no question that Byron made Shelley’s reading of Wordsworth a
central part of the third canto of Childe Harold. But we want to remember that the poem
is a Byronic and not a Shelleyan – and least of all a Wordsworthian – exercise. That is to
say, its reflexive structure is energetic and existential, not meditative and conceptual” (BR
176). What McGann means is that in this “reflexive structure” Byron’s poem faces up to
being energetically rather than conceptualizing it abstractly (e.g. the “Being” whom
Shelley’s spirit met on its “visioned wanderings”). Thus, the rupture offered by this “part
of” and “our” being is a existentially positive move for Byron since, at the very least, it
acknowledges a problematic dividing line between the authentic mode of his Being-there
as he “stood and stand[s] alone” in stanza 112, and his inauthentic Being-with-others,
which, in seeing being as “ours,” Byron gives to us with the image of the narrator “in the
crowd” where he “stood / Among them, but not of them […]” in stanza 113. This latter
mode of existence Heidegger calls the inauthentic das Man, which brings about
“tranquillized familiarity” and a sort of “Being-at-home,” ultimately demonstrated by a
“failure to stand by one’s Self” (BT 233, 166). At bottom, however, in the last half of
Canto III the narrator remains satisfied to speculate indeterminately whether it is “not
better thus our lives to wear” authentically, as if to actively suit oneself with and in
existence “Than join the crushing crowd […],” inauthentically passing off existence to be
among it, outside of it (3.71).
It is also the ambiguity of his despair that halts any existentialist progress he is
making by this point. Byron’s experimentation shows the narrator, who can “stand alone”
in despair, failing miserably since the “absorb’d” existence in stanza 73 turns out to be an
existence that leads to a gloomy, dejected despairing: “I look upon the peopled desert
past, / As on a place of agony and strife, / Where, for some sin, to Sorrow I was cast, / To
act and suffer, […]” (3.73). And again, since “There is a very life in our despair,” it is
difficult to discern whether the “life” in this despair is the mood that contains the
possibility to rescue his Dasein from inauthentic, public Being-with-others, or
authentically deliver Dasein back over to itself in such a way that this self can “stand by
itself” and become aware that “Dasein is in each case mine” remains ambiguous here (BT
At the close of Canto III, then, I maintain that Byron is using both Harold’s sheer
absence and what the narrator has learned in his ambiguous despair to come closer to his
own Being-there in Canto IV. Specifically what Byron takes away from the narrator is his
awareness of the part-ness or our-ness (“the crushing crowd”) and mine-ness (“I stand
alone”) of being. This matches what Heidegger calls angst’s ability to “individualize” as
it “brings Dasein back from its falling, and makes manifest to it that authenticity and
inauthenticity are possibilities of its Being” (BT 235). In addition to its ability as a mood
to place being there, angst’s ability to individualize is “a disclosure which is quite
distinctive” because it makes being available, makes Dasein’s being “an issue”: “Beingfree for one’s ownmost potentiality-for-Being, and therewith for the possibility of
authenticity and inauthenticity, is shown […] in anxiety” (BT 235, 236). In short,
“individualization is a way in which the ‘there’ is disclosed for existence” (BT 308). I
believe that despair understood by Byron as an “electric chain” is a counter-intuitive,
unheimlich angst that discloses Byron’s individualized Being-there, bringing his Dasein
“face to face with its world as world, and thus […] face to face with itself as Being-inthe-world” (BT 233).
As Byron initially sets out in Canto IV to explore the varying responses that other
individuals have to a “borne” existence – some suffer, others are “with hope replenish’d,”
some “seek devotion,” others are left “withering ere their time” – he notices that these
qualitative expressions of existence are “darkly bound” in the same way to a mysterious,
untraceable “electric chain” (4.21-23). What makes Byron’s existentialist impulse stand
out here is the way he uses this untraced element (soon to be revealed as despair) to
discuss existence, which describes what Heidegger has in mind when he discusses the
Wovor and Worum of angst. What really makes angst unheimlich is its objectlessness
since in angst there is nothing to be anxious about, nothing to despair over. As Paul
Gorner paraphrases Heidegger, “that about which” (Wovor) Dasein is anxious and “that
in the face of which” (Worum) Dasein is anxious both turn out to be the same thing:
Being-in-the-world (118). And just as this type of anxiety remains faceless in
Heidegger’s philosophy, so too does it go without a name in Canto IV. Although
“Existence may be borne,” life’s suffering becomes angst – opening up being rather than
fretting about it and merely bearing it – the moment it cannot be traced:
There comes a token like a scorpion’s sting,
Scarce seen, but with fresh bitterness imbued;
And slight withal may be the things which bring
Back on the heart the weight which it would fling
Aside forever: it may be a sound –
A tone of music, – summer’s eve – or spring,
A flower – the wind – the ocean – which shall wound,
Striking the electric chain wherewith we are darkly bound;
And how and why we know not, nor can trace
Home to its cloud this lightning of the mind,
But feel the shock renew’d, nor can efface
The blight and blackening which it leaves behind,
Which out of things familiar, undesign’d,
When least we deem of such, calls up to view
The spectres whom no exorcism can bind […]. (4.23-24)
By stanza 172 Byron will state explicitly, in addressing Princess Charlotte, that the
“electric chain” by which we are bound is an “electric chain of that despair.” Although it
has “opprest / The land,” Byron once again describes this despair in terms of a violent
dynamism, as an “electric” chain that is seismic, “Whose shock was as an earthquake’s”
(4.172).42 In stanzas 23 and 24 this despair is similarly counter-intuitive, likened to a
scorpion’s sting in its “fresh bitterness,” but above all it is unheimlich. Byron attempts to
find a home, a source for this “electric chain” of despair by appealing to all five human
senses (the smell and sight of the flower; the sound of the music and the ocean, which
occurs again in 4.178: “By the deep Sea, and music in its roar;” the touch/feel of the
wind; and the taste perhaps of the “bitter” sting) only to realize that it remains not only
thing-less and thus untraceable (“nor can trace / Home”), but that such tracelessness is
itself a powerful “feeling” of a “shock renew’d.” Thus only a “blight and blackening” is
Compare Byron’s December 1817 letter from Venice: “The death of Princess Charlotte has
been a shock even here – and must have been an earthquake at home” (BLJ 5:276).
left behind, which then leaves Byron individualized: there, torn between an authentic
“undesign’d” unfamiliarity and inauthentic “things familiar.”
In fact, Byron even encounters this unheimlich despair again in stanza 138: “The seal
is set. – Now welcome, thou dread power / Nameless, yet thus omnipotent, which here /
Walk’st in the shadow of the midnight hour / With a deep awe, yet all distinct from fear.”
Astonishingly, the nameless “awe” of Byron’s “dread power,” which is “distinct from
fear,” anticipates Heidegger’s differentiation between angst and fear (Furcht). Fear is a
“cowardly” mood experienced when “thinking about death” and represents a “somber
way of fleeing from the world” (BT 298). In a way, fear actually makes one feel “at
home” because there is a certain security in fearing over or about something, which
cannot be said for angst since the Wovor and Worum of Dasein’s anxiety is a faceless
Being-in-the-world. Angst is more specific and counters fear by engaging Dasein to flee
authentically toward the world in a resilient, “spell-bound” calm since there is no “home”
toward which to retreat. Fear for Keats (“When I have fears that I may cease to be”) only
enables him to disengage being in a way that lets him sink into “Huge cloudy symbols of
a high romance” (6). Therefore, for both Byron and Heidegger this “dread power” of
angst does not relapse into a cowardly fright or “cloudy symbols” when thinking about
death since it is the source for thinking about being. The stanza thus ends by struggling to
position being, offering “a sense” of it as “we become a part of what has been, / And
grow upon the spot,” wavering between the interstices of an “all-seeing” absolute
presence, yet an “unseen” absence.
It is true that the ontological insight reached in stanza 138 is followed by a long
meditative retreat into the ruins of the past, which ends at St. Peter’s cathedral (4.153). In
fact it is here that Byron’s thoughts culminate in another one of his organic propositions:
“we thus dilate / Our spirits to the size of that they contemplate” (4.158). However, this
apparent detour is finally redirected back to Byron’s ontological handling of “The being
who upheld” his song who is now “as nothing” (4.164), thereby allowing Byron’s
attention to be captured by Charlotte’s voice: a “long low distant murmur of dread sound”
that will induce his recognition of an electric despair (4.167). Yet when Mark Kipperman
declares Childe Harold “the romance of the first existential hero in English literature,” he
bases this on the Kierkegaardian idea of “actuality” with ancillary importance placed on
any ensuing despair (185). Unlike Don Juan’s narrator, Childe Harold engages
“actuality” in such a way that
the narrator (if not Harold), reconceiving the meaning of human freedom in a
finite world, understanding self-assertion in a more mature way, and without
receiving any apocalyptic revelation, struggles purely with his own mind’s
conflicting demands and reaches not resignation but dynamic affirmation. […]
The movement of mind from self-lacerating to liberating self-consciousness
requires engagement in the slow process through which the mind grasps what is
actual without “fevering into false creations” [CHP 4.122]. (Kipperman 185, 194)
We have already seen in the preceding chapter how problematic it is for Byron’s poetry
to sustain its existentialist integrity based on its ability to affirm life rather than sink into
despair over its inevitable, chaotic, meaningless ruin; to confront reality rather than to
escape from it. What Kipperman has in mind is reading the way “Existence may be
borne, and the deep root / Of life and sufferance makes its firm abode / In bare and
desolated bosoms […],” and how Byron affirms such existence “not bestow’d / In vain,”
seeing as if “Things of ignoble or of savage mood, / Endure and shrink not, we of nobler
clay / May temper it to bear, – it is but for a day” (4.21). At the very least, however, we
can take a clue from Kipperman and see Byron’s affirmative self-assertion in a way that
makes the poet’s world “real in itself, presenting itself not as receding being but as
present being” (198). That is, we can only begin to think of extrapolating a Byronic
existential affirmation from the way the vivacity of the electric component of despair
“reaches not resignation” to create a present being more intense.
More particularly, that this chain of despair is specifically “electric” in its unheimlich
ability to bind Byron spatially there to existence as a “present being” (bound to “the
world as world” in his individualization with “things familiar,” yet “undesign’d;” bound
seismically to Charlotte in England while touring the continent) must ultimately be able
to account for why “There woos no home, nor hope, nor life, save what is here” (4.105),
despite the fact that Byron seems more interested in the ocean’s power to perform such a
task. Byron’s juxtaposition of despair with the image of electricity might be explained in
terms of late 18th century English natural philosophy. According to Trevor Levere, “the
science of electricity had become enormously fashionable” after 1800 when Alessandro
Volta invented the electric pile (146). Joseph Priestley’s work in the fields of chemistry
and plant biology provided electricity with “revolutionary connotations,” as he combined
his experimental research with liberal politics to theorize “the relationship of matter to
the divine” (Morus 495; Fulford 93). Even after Byron’s death Thomas Simmons
Mackintosh was still calling for the “establishment of a new social order” with his
Electrical Theory of the Universe (Morus 495). Yet it was in the first decade of the 19th
century that Humphry Davy was using massive amounts of electrical current in his
London lectures to break down matter, seeking to reveal that electricity was one
component of a single law “that powered both mind and matter,” while attempting to
demonstrate that electricity might be the “force which held the universe together”
(Fulford 95; Morus 495). Davy had actually confided in Coleridge in the early 1800’s
during his pioneering work on electrochemistry, claiming to have made “some important
galvanic discoveries which seem to lead to the door of the temple of the mysterious god
of Life” (qtd. in Levere 32).43 In the most general way, “electricity was vital to the
Romantic creed of nature as a revolutionary and anti-imperial power” (Fulford, Kitson,
and Lee 183).
Therefore, despair described by virtue of its electric quality in 1817 should be read no
differently from the vitally “overwrought” property of Haidée’s defiant despair of 1819,
or from Marina Foscari’s despair that “defies even despotism” of 1821; nor should it fail
to be interpreted as indicating that which drove Byron himself in 1823 to take interest in
the Greek Revolution, to be elected a member of the London Greek Committee in April,
or to set out for Missolonghi in 1824 to join Greek forces in their fight for independence.
To this, though Bostetter states that “the necessary prelude to other freedoms” for Byron
was his view that nations should be “self-determining, free of foreign rule,” he is keen to
pinpoint Byron reaching one of these “other freedoms” in the “existentialist conception of
engagement: that the man who has experienced the sense of detachment or freedom must
throw himself back into the social context with the intention of changing his condition”
(298). But most importantly, I insist that this electric chain of despair functions to draw
Though Coleridge’s connection to Davy was more extensive, Byron enjoyed a brief relation
with the scientist. Byron “was fond of the Davys,” according to Marchand, and had in fact been
visited by the “great Chemist” himself in 1820, which offers perhaps some explanation for why
despair takes on electrically vital and uplifting connotations in Byron’s poem (BLJ 3:44, 7:98).
out a “present being,” again in Kipperman’s terms, in Childe Harold IV in the same way
an “overwrought” despair draws out the “starkness” of Haidée’s “interested self,” in the
same way Manfred’s reeling brain draws out his “fatality to live” as his own “power to
withhold,” and in the same way Bonnivard’s anguished sigh leads him to fall back on his
“I only” situation.
Only at the end of the poem when the “how and why we know not” of the “electric
chain” in stanzas 23-24 should turn out to be “of that despair” by stanza 172 does the
recurring image of the chain throughout both cantos turn out to contain a despair that
individualizes. This chain had been seen by Harold and the narrator earlier to stand for a
restricting, inhibiting slavery, but which Byron now describes in its presencing ability. In
stanza 9, Canto III “Still round [Harold] clung invisibly a chain / Which gall’d for ever,
fettering […],” while in stanza 72 the narrator loathes “a link, reluctant in a fleshy chain /
Class’d among creatures, when the soul can flee.” And it is only after stanza 172 that the
image of a “long envenomed chain” which “Rivets the living links […] Enforc[ing] pang
on pang, and stifl[ing] gasp on gasp” (4.160) and the image of “the faculty divine / […]
chain’d and tortured – cabin’d, cribb’d, confined” cease altogether for Byron himself
(4.127). Byron realizes the significance of Harold’s “invisible” chain not by that which it
had initially been described as “fettering though unseen, / And heavy though it clank’d
not; worn with pain, / Which pined although it spoke not, and grew keen” (3.9), but in
terms of its electrically vital properties that rend such “fettering” and break down, vis-àvis Davy, such “heavy” weight to bind and solidify all existence into one moment.44 In
Given that there is a similar “clankless chain” that “hath bound thee” in Manfred (I, i, 259), an
interesting investigation might be made into a soundless chain that perhaps traverses the entirety
of Byron’s poetry. See Paul Elledge’s Dynamics for an interpretation of how Byron’s “chains” in
short, Byron becomes an existentialist on par with Heidegger as he locates the presencing
aspect of being in terms of the electric chain that links and binds all existence there: “But
now a bride and mother – and now there! / How many ties did that stern moment tear! /
From thy Sire’s to his humblest subject’s breast / Is linked the electric chain of that
despair” (4.172).
Until this moment in the poem the electric chain of despair had been possible for
disclosing a “now there” to all beings (see for instance stanza 50: “there – forever there –
/ Chain’d to the chariot of triumphal Art, / We stand as captives, and would not depart),
but it is only here that such a definite thereness comes about through an unheimlich,
seismic and electric tearing motion, ultimately and existentially justifying the eschewal of
“her destiny” in the opening line of the stanza and favoring instead her “now there.” In
this way despair no longer slavishly “Enforces pang on pang” or chains by torture, but
liberates being simply to be there. Though Byron’s chain appears to be unique (contrast
Shelley’s enslaving chains of “commerce” and religion that pervade Queen Mab: “To all
that shares the lot of human life, / Which poisoned body and soul, scarce drags the chain,
/ That lengthens as it goes and clanks behind” (5.50-52)), it does capture what Coleridge
had already described in the Biographia by way of “that living chain of causes” where
the “absolute self” is rendered “coextensive and co-present.” Like Coleridge’s chain, the
electric despair of Byron’s speaks of presence, and enables an individualization whereby,
again, “the ‘there’ is disclosed for existence” (BT 308).
Again, Byron’s emphasis on an individualized thereness in these passages is possible
because this electric despair “brings Dasein back from its falling, and makes manifest to
part signify “the disparity between the sensuous and imaginative worlds” in the poems of 1817-18
it that authenticity and inauthenticity are possibilities of its Being” (BT 235). Throughout
the canto Byron continually wants to sink into the inauthentic pastness of existence in
terms of “ruins,” and embody what in Canto I was described as “Consciousness awaking
to her woes” (1.92). He acts out his desire to “stand / A ruin amidst ruins” (4.25), seeking
out “Spirits which soar from ruin” (4.55), sitting gloomily by some “ivied stone” to call
forth from his “heated mind / Forms from the floating wreck with Ruin leaves behind”
(4.104), ultimately relating his “moral of all human tales; / ‘Tis but the same rehearsal of
the past” (4.108). However, it is also in Byron’s awareness of the totality of an electric
chain of that despair wherewith all existence is darkly bound traversing Cantos III and IV
that he at last authentically casts off Harold as “the being who upheld” his song and his
own being to see the entire gambit of existence as a present being. In a similar way, this
thereness works temporally as a nowness. For Gleckner “Time thus converges, by means
of what Byron calls ‘the electric chain wherewith we are darkly bound’ to each other, to
the past, and to mortality,” which is similar to Heidegger’s claim that in Dasein’s
authentic being time is an “innocuous infinite sequence of ‘nows’” that is “uninterrupted
and has no gaps” (Gleckner 279; BT 477, 475). Only in these temporal and spatial ways
can Byron’s desire to extract “a little bark of hope” from his “battle with the ocean” apply
to the way his despair individualizes, thus defining his existentialist impulse in which we
find the poet asking: “But could I gather from the wave-worn shore / Enough for my rude
boat, where should I steer? / There woos no home, nor hope, nor life, save what is here”
In short, what Byron reaches here is a Being-there that inhabits a single link on the
vast electric chain because of that despair. By virtue of its counter-intuitive description,
Byron’s “electric” despair at the very least opens his eyes to a plane of existence
possessed by the “stern moment” and its placement “now there.” What follows, in
Kipperman’s terms, is a self-assertive, affirmative being present, where Byron “can yet
feel gladden’d by the sun, / And reap from earth, sea, joy almost as dear / As if there were
no man to trouble what is clear” (4.176). Now Byron can “feel [him]self exalted,” and
asks whether we can “not / Accord [him] such a being” (4.177). With this question, it is
as if Byron found himself caught in the “the busy mesh of being, and stood face to face
with the ontological, with the Daseinsfrage,” or question of Being-there (Steiner 99-100).
Thus by the end of the poem Byron can return to the ocean, which, like his being in
unheimlich angst, “goest forth, dread, fathomless, alone” (4.183). And the larger picture
of Byron in Childe Harold IV “stand[ing] / A ruin amidst ruins” becomes “affirmatively”
important for Watkins as well, since “the spectacles of ruin lead Byron to reflect on his
mortality” not in a gloomy, pessimistic way that evokes “Byronic nihilism” as fatalistic,
but rather in a way that “celebrate[s] the intensity life takes on in the realization of its
finitude,” and where “‘essence’ is redefined along Heideggerian lines as energy, and
things are transformed into bursts of passion as they pass into the abyss to reveal the
nothing as the matrix of being” (407-408, my emphasis). Though Byron’s
individualization again lets him realize both authentic “rapture on the lonely shore” and
inauthentic “society,” he finally turns to those romantic tools of Nature and deep feeling
to attest to the being he attains: “From these our interviews, in which I steal / From all I
may be, or have been before, / To mingle with the Universe, and feel / What I can ne’er
express, yet can not all conceal” (4.178). As this ineffable feeling concerns being only as
it “may be” and “has been,” we return full circle to the way the intensity of mood
initiated being as there at the start of Canto III. In all, Byron comes to the same
conclusion that Heidegger and other existentialists had reached by way of the dictum
“existence precedes essence,” which Lloyd Davies pinpoints in his reading of Byron’s
“excavating” the “essence of […] being” in Childe Harold: as early as the beginning of
Canto III Byron had reached not “an essential natural self, a bedrock of subjectivity
immune to the vicissitudes of the world,” but instead had secured “literally nothing” and
understood that “there is no core of being” (169). In fact, Cooke suggests throughout his
study that Byron tends to discuss being in terms of a self-returning presence. If Childe
Harold III presents a “self which has turned for succor in reality” and which does not
hesitate to “turn to itself,” then this “turn” is perhaps the announcement of “a major new
attitude” in Childe Harold IV, one whereby Byron “conjures up an empirical definition of
one’s proper place as where it is possible, all things considered, to be” (60, 126-127). To
be, there: that is all the poet asks.
In conclusion, the edict of a “being more intense” is the wellspring from which
Byron’s understanding of being matches Heidegger’s definition of Dasein as literally a
Being-there for whom being matters. And though casting off Harold and subduing the
voice of the narrator are significant clues that enable us to discern Byron coming closer to
his Dasein, it is the specificity of a “blight and blackening,” traceless despair, which
makes Byron aware of his authentic and inauthentic modes of being, that makes Byron
appear to be anticipating Heidegger’s idea of an individualizing angst. And with the
image of an electric chain that actually turns out to bind all of existence through despair
“now there,” we can calculate more accurately how Heidegger and Byron may share an
understanding of being in terms of, and subsequent to the mood of angst.
Conclusion: Byron’s Dasein Designed
In the broadest sense this thesis has tried to reveal an existentialist impulse in Byron’s
poetry. Specifically, what I have tried to pinpoint here are only two interrelated
characteristics of this impulse: the proximate thereness of existence, and the mood of
angst from which this type of existence proceeds. Having examined these characteristics
in four of Byron’s major works, and having found them all exhibiting characters who fall
back on themselves to recognize their being through various kinds of counter-intuitive
despair, it remains my contention that Byron can be read anticipating the existentialist
aim to explore being in terms of angst. By considering the emotion of despair in Byron’s
characters as angst distinct from romantic melancholy, I have exposed the peculiar way
his characters become alert to their existence, the way they fall back on nothing but
themselves, which reveals in Byron’s poetical thinking an embedded ontology that
conceives of being by virtue of its “perpetual presence.”
I explored this relation between being and despair in Byron’s work according to three
key existentialist philosophers. I have tried to demonstrate that Byron can be read
anticipating these existentialists only insofar as his characters overlap with and are read
back through the theoretical work of existentialism. As we recall, direct references made
by Kierkegaard and Sartre do not place Don Juan’s narrator or Byron himself in
existentially favorable positions. In short, I discovered that Byron’s poetry must first be
read back through existentialist theory if he is to be read anticipating it.
In reading Byron’s poetry back through existentialist philosophy I found that the
description of despair by all four authors shared a strikingly counter-intuitive quality.
While Kierkegaard points out that the nature of Fortvivlelse is neither gloomy nor
discouraging but is defiantly “uplifting,” Sartre posits angoisse in a similar active role, so
much so that anguish is the “condition for action itself.” Haidée’s “overwrought” and
“wild” despair remains the exemplar of this active despair. And Byron even compares
Childe Harold’s “wild” despair to the active, “intemperate” qualities of the mariner’s
sinking ship – all of which produces an “uplifting,” feeling, that is to say, a “smilingness”
that “inspire[s] a cheer.” Yet it is Heidegger’s unheimlich angst that accords so well with
moments in Childe Harold IV where Byron not only points to a similar traceless,
nameless and seismic quality of the electric chain of despair, but also distinguishes it, like
Heidegger, from fear. And that this despair is “electric” again signifies an activity and
vitality in Byron’s poetic thinking, and perhaps his own political action. Therefore, a
characteristic that unites these philosophers as existentialists, and which thus allows
Byron to anticipate them, is the counter-intuitive way despair operates.
More important, however, is the ontological upshot of describing despair counterintuitively for all four authors. This exposes a major caveat, one that is clearly articulated
now only after having surveyed all three philosophers. It acknowledges that Byron must
condense these three different, idiosyncratic views on the relation between being and
despair if he is going to be read anticipating them all. If we remember, while Kierkegaard
uses Fortvivlelse to understand selfhood, Heidegger uses Angst to explain the authentic
thereness of Dasein, and for Sartre angoisse signals man’s responsibility to his
“condemned” freedom. Therefore, the fact that Byron and all three existentialists discuss
being in terms of despair – regardless of any number of different approaches or outcomes
– is enough to show how he anticipates them. As a result, it should be clear that there is
no difference between the way a wildly and defiantly “overwrought” despair draws out
Haidée’s “stark,” interested self; the way Manfred’s reeling brain draws out his “fatality
to live” or his own “power to withhold”; the way Bonnivard’s anguished sigh leads him
to fall back on his “I only” situation; and the way Byron casts off Harold and the ruins of
history to realize the “electric” chain of despair that amasses all existence “now there.” In
all of these cases Byron’s poetry offers an amendment to Isaiah Berlin’s understanding
that, again, “the central sermon of existentialism is essentially a romantic one, namely,
that there is in the world nothing to lean on.” What Byron’s characters demonstrate
instead is their willingness “to lean on” and fall back not on nothing, but themselves,
thereby understanding their being through their various experiences of counter-intuitive
This relationship between romanticism and existentialism itself proved to be quite
problematic. Overall I tried to lay the groundwork for providing both sufficient and
appropriate evidence with which to read Byron’s romantic impulses as existentialist
ones. Both types of “evidence” were formulated not only to acknowledge the crossover
between romanticism and existentialism, but also to support the peculiar way that
Byron’s romantic poetry anticipates existentialist philosophy. Beyond pointing out that
Byron inhabits the “open universe” along with the existentialists, I have shown how
“mood” is enough to transform Childe Harold’s organic being into Being-there, which
sees Byron anticipating Heidegger; and how angoisse is the most suitable starting point
from which to approach Manfred’s sublime “dizziness of distance” and Bonnivard’s
melancholic sigh, which sees Byron anticipating Sartre.
Therefore, having addressed Byron’s romantic and existentialist impulses in this way
exposes a pattern in his characters’ display of despair and subsequent being. When taken
together – Haidée’s ability to “aim toward” herself and reflect on “what she was and is”
as a result of her defiant despair; Manfred’s realization that the “power upon [him] which
withholds” him from jumping is his own in a way that it “makes it my fatality to live” and
thus “wear” life “within myself” in Sartrean anguish; Bonnivard’s admission that “I only
stirr’d in this black spot, / I only lived,” thereby regaining his freedom “with a sigh”; and
finally Byron’s ability to shed Harold and a narrating voice to implicate himself as part of
the process of investigating existence, recognizing that he must Be-there in order to
complete the pilgrimage, to overcome the ruins of the past, and to disregard thoughts of
home, hope and life, “save what is here,” and thus to speak of existence bound together in
terms of an electric chain of despair – this level of continuity indicates that Byron
anticipates the existentialist impulse to write about being in terms of despair. And his
continual emphasis on the sheer presence and mine-ness of being – the “I only,” the
“what was and is,” the “save what is here,” the “now there,” the “fatality to live” –
reveals that there is an embedded ontology in his poetic thinking that is perhaps best
understood as his Dasein. That these characters continually fall back on themselves and
the proximate vicinity of their being shows that Byron’s ontological thinking can be
understood in terms of the way Heidegger addresses being as Dasein, an unconditional
Being-there in the world for whom being matters.
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