Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Byron and the Byronic Double Pt. 2
Even as a broken Mirror, which the glass
In every fragment multiplies— and makes
A thousand images of one that was
The same— and still the more, the more it breaks;
And thus the heart will do which not forsakes,
Living in shattered guise; and still, and cold,
And bloodless, with its sleepless sorrow aches,
Yet withers on till all without is old,
Showing no visible sign, for such things are untold.
The image of the heart as broken-mirror is deceptively simple, and less romantic than its constituent elements might suggest.
The idea of the “silent heart” is not at all consonant with the premises of Romanticism, as they have been passed down into current criticism. Romantic poets, we are told, are caught in traps of sincerity and sincerely represented anguish, rendered for effect with all the trappings of a more innocent literary age. Moreover, it must be noted that Byron here is stating these home truths about affect and relationships in the most objective possible fashion; abstracted away from himself twice (first, because he may be talking about Harold rather than his own “I,” secondly because he speaks in strictly metaphorical terms), cast in a form that resembles the metaphysical conceits of Donne and Marvell, rather than in the trope-forms that modern opinion subscribes to Romantic perspectives. The image of the broken mirror comes to us, in fact, at a great distance from the blankly rendered subjectivity that Romantic poetry often gets taken to task for. Moreover, the multiplication of selves that this frozen image (perhaps its resonance with Keats) presents us is, in a very, perhaps overly obvious way, a level that speaks to what later became known as the Modernist impulse— a fracturing of subjective impulses into “pieces” that become constituent elements of poems chosen for different kinds of resonances, that each work as “images” that clash, jar, or mix to form a harmonious or inharmonious whole.
It may be useful, at this juncture, to look at a stanza that does manifest traces of what is commonly known as the Romantic “I.” It needs to be remembered, however, that Byron’s “I” is here is both doubled (i.e. it may represent Byron or Harold at any point) and fractured (because the subjectivity of this “I,” whether it be Byron or Harold, is presented to the reader as fractured by contradictory impulses, manifested in the coming stanza, as to what constitutes true selfhood, appropriate relationships to outward and inward levels of life). To the extent that a complex entity emerges that, in its amorphousness, has not only traces of Modernist impulses but post-modern impulses (post-modern in the sense of a fractured quality extended infinitely), Byron becomes not only a great artist (assuming that his major status is already granted) but a comprehensive great artist, one with as much prophetic force (albeit expressed in different terms) as William Blake. This stanza works to heighten this impression of comprehensiveness:
And thus I am absorbed, and this is life—
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, but remount at last
With a fresh pinion; which I feel to spring,
Though young, yet waxing vigorous as the Blast
Which it would cope with, on delighted wing,
Spurning the clay-cold bonds which round our being cling.
“Acting and suffering,” of course, makes a major re-appearance in Murder in the Cathedral. Rather than being used in an allegorical context, as it is in Eliot’s piece, here action and suffering takes on significance as a median realm between Earth and Heaven. “Clay” as a metaphor for human flesh, and a rather common one; but Byron uses it, here and in Manfred, to great effect. Images of flight abound in Byron’s major pieces, and in fact Goethe himself remarked on the manner his verses have of taking wing. But the doubled effect, that makes an uncertainty of what in Romantic poetry is usually taken to be a certainty (is this Byron or Harold?), elevates this (pun intended) from the sense of blankness or blandness that is often ascribed to Romantic subjectivity by poetry artists attempting to push the envelope.