THE great men of the past whose names have given an adjective to the language are by that very fact most vulnerable to the reductive treatment. Everybody knows what "Machiavellian" means, and "Rabelaisian"; everybody uses the terms "Platonic" and "Byronic" and relies on them to express certain commonplace notions in frequent use. Unfortunately, this common application of proper names yields but a detached fragment of the truth, and sometimes less than a fragment—a mere shadow of it. With regard to "Byronic," the reduction is truly ad absurdum, for the adjective refers to the man exclusively and to a single mood only—one of the poet's fictional types has engrossed his name. But Byron's thoughts, works, and character as a whole cannot be adequately summed up in the figure of a headlong lover in an open collar, whose fits of melancholy are a pose.
Byron and the Byronic are two distinct things, though in part overlapping. The Byronic is found in Byron's early works and in those of his large literary progeny. Byron himself is to be found in the usual first-hand sources of biography, and especially in his letters. For unlike the popular narratives—whether novel or biography—the letters enable us to feel directly the "fascination" the books speak of, the power that Byron exerted over his contemporaries, men as well as women. They bring us within his magnetic field of force, which was not, as the Byronic stereotype might suggest, mere agitation and recklessness. It was concentrated mind, and high spirits, wit, daylight good sense, and a passion for truth—in short a unique discharge of intellectual vitality.
The Byronic itself, in its narrowest meaning, begins to look different when it is removed from the neighborhood of other textbook clichés and replaced in its historical setting. As everybody knows, after bringing out in early youth two volumes of imitative verse, Byron spent two years touring the Mediterranean and the Levant, returned with the first cantos of Childe Harold, published them, and "awoke to find himself famous." The date was 1812. During the next four years, that is to say before his twenty-eighth year, when he left England forever, he poured forth half a dozen more verse narratives of kindred strain, and thereby established a reputation that has varied in strength but never died.
We may like to think of that epoch as done with, its mood irrecoverable; and yet in certain ways we are today well equipped to understand it. By 1812 England and the Continent had been deadlocked in warfare, both "hot" and "cold," for thirty years. The French Revolution seemed as ever-present a threat to the countries surrounding its birthplace as the Russian Revolution does to us, for then as now revolution united fanatic faith to imperialism: in the very year of Childe Harold Napoleon would invade Russia in order to master all Europe: it was the fifth time the French had assaulted their neighbors in twenty years. Every country, moreover, had to cope with those of its subjects who secretly or openly sided with the enemy, convinced as many were by the revolutionary program of popular liberties. From his schooldays at Harrow, Byron himself had been a liberal and a Bonapartist, and he was not the first among Englishmen: for three decades the struggle of democrat and reactionary had infected every branch of literature and public life.
Into the supersaturated atmosphere of factional strife, Childe Harold came like a breeze from the open sea. The poem, as the preface told the reader, had been written "amidst the scenes which it attempts to describe," and these scenes began with departure from the beleaguered British Isles. The reader was taken through Gibraltar to the Near East and shown its picturesque ambiguity, now classic Greek, now oriental Turk. Forgetting its claustrophobia the European imagination could slacken the tension and enlarge its sympathies without breach of patriotism or principle, could recuperate on novelty that was both safe and real.
Only a young poet who was his own hero and pilgrim could have supplied this relief from war news and politics, for the new feelings required fresh and appropriate scenery; and the verse, while recalling familiar objects of reverence, must purge the long guilt and anxiety of hate. For this reason, the prevailing tone must be that of melancholy self-accusation and erotic self-pity:—
Worse than Adversity the Childe befell;
He felt the fullness of Satiety:
Then loathed he in his native land to dwell,
Which seemed to him more lone than Eremite's sad cell.
For he through Sin's long labyrinth had run,
Nor made atonement when he did amiss,
Had sighed to many though he loved but one,
And that loved one, alas! could ne'er be his.
Once he had exorcised these blue devils by writing of them, Byron could truthfully say: "I would not be such a fellow as I have made my hero for all the world." But in the longing for freedom there was a second element which still wanted outlet, the impulse to action. Byronic melancholy, which is to say almost all nineteenth-century melancholy, had its roots in energy repressed. Ennui, as bored and languid youth itself discovered, is the product of enforced inaction or curbed desire. Byronic heroism is its antidote or vicarious satisfaction. In the eastern tales that follow Childe Harold the hero is no longer a pensive but an active wanderer, a corsair or chieftain still crime-laden, but redeemed by some daring act of revenge that condemns the corrupt society he has abjured—in a word, the Byronic hero in action is a noble outlaw.