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Byron and the Drama of Temptation* Mervyn Nicholson Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint!—Faust, Part I Byron is distinctive in that he thinks in actions rather than in abstract ideas. That is why he rejected system as the basis for understanding experience. Rejecting system has affected his reputation: critics, assuming significant thought is the same as systematic thought, have looked down on Byron as a kind of poetic rock star incapable of real intellection.1 But Byron's ideas are expressed in the form of actions, and actions cannot be judged by meaning or truth-content but by their quality as actions. That is, the study of Byron is the study of the logic of action. Byron's concern with action springs directly from his world view. In that world view, reality is too large to be enclosed by any system; it is "an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed," in Emerson's Byronic phrase.2 Hence it follows that acting in a meaningful way is more important than knowing the meaning of life—or trying to know it, for the nature of reality itself precludes such knowledge. Given this emphasis on action, it is not surprising that Byron was the foremost narrative poet of his period. Whereas his friend Shelley gravitated to philosophy, science, and what we would call political science, Byron was attracted to history, the record of human acts, and anthropology, the comparative life and manners of peoples. His biography displays the same concern with meaningful action that his writing does. He was drawn to liberation struggles—in a practical, hands-on way—not as an armchair agitator.3 Hence * This essay is dedicated to the memory of Northrop Frye. MERVYN NICHOLSON, chair of English and Modern Languages at University College of the Cariboo, has published extensively in a variety of journals, including Journal of the History of Ideas, Mosaic, Women's Studies, English Studies in Canada, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, Children's Literature Quarterly, and others. 329 330Comparative Drama to appreciate Byron's depth as a thinker, we must study his handling of action; we need to regard the units of his thought as acts, noting actions that indicate (in Lyotard's term) a master narrative—the forms of what is an essentially dramatic imagination. For Byron's narrative impulse was theatrical, blocking the action in scenes of dramatic conflict or intensity, not as continuous parts of a plot-line; thus the ease with which they could be—and were—adapted as operas. The master plot that sustains Byron's obsession with action is specific in shape, underlying his poems of action. To sum it up: the protagonist is a brilliant man who leaves (or is expelled from) society through some act that makes him a threat to authority. Departure, like birth, is traumatic and typically deprives him of social identity. Now an alien, he wanders disoriented , disconsolate. Then comes a crisis: he finds either a community where he truly belongs or some other source of identity that not only replaces his lost social function but also is more existentially authentic; or the hero clings, yearns for a lost home, or is obsessed by a broken love and so is doomed to suffer even worse. This is a drama of exile, the same story one finds historically—and ironically—in Byron's own life. Three distinct foci emerge: (1) a break with society, often involving a life-threatening ordeal (e.g., Mazeppa's "ride," Marino Faliero's injury and conspiracy, Bonnivard's collision with religious power, or the exile trauma that dominates The Two Foscari); (2) alienated wandering (e.g., Childe Harold's painful introspection abroad or the restless roaming of the Giaour); (3) self-transformation, usually associated with finding a new community, like Torquil in The Island or Sardanapalus achieving authenticity with his mistress—and without his wife. If the hero fails to achieve this self-transformation he becomes a kind of lost soul, like Cain, totally alienated. The final phase, even if successful, may feature the death of the hero. That is because dying in Byron is always less to be feared than not gaining the power of meaningful action. In...


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