Byron and Le mal du siècle

By Dr Stephen Minta

Taken from a Byron Society Lecture

We begin a long way from Lord Byron. In fact, at the very dawn of European literary culture. I’m going to start with a brief passage from Homer’s Iliad, book 3. Helen, she of Troy, has just been looking from the battlements at the vast army of the Greeks below her on the Trojan plain. She understands very well that she is the cause of all the bloodshed, the long years of siege, and she regrets bitterly that she ever left her home in Sparta to come to Troy. She makes what we might call a principled decision: that she will, in future, no longer sleep with Paris, because the consequences are so terrible. ‘It would be treason’, she says, ‘to share his bed’. This looks sensible and sane. But then the goddess Aphrodite, in the shape of an old woman who used to spin wool for Helen, in the days back in Sparta, appears. Aphrodite, as the goddess of sexuality, is angered by Helen’s decision, Helen’s refusal to bow before the supremacy of the sexual imperative:

Wretched girl, do not tease me lest in anger I forsake you

And grow to hate you as much as now I terribly love you…

Suddenly, Helen is very afraid and ‘led by the goddess’ she returns to Paris’s bed. All principle and morality defied in a moment. Now, whatever process lies behind this change of heart—whether it’s a matter of sudden sexual arousal, or whether Helen’s fear is of what she might become, once cut off from the all-powerful sexuality that has always defined her—Homer clearly wants to explore Helen’s emotional response by externalising it, by placing it in relation to the goddess who represents the mix of forces that we might say are at work within Helen herself. To be abandoned by Aphrodite, to be hated by Aphrodite, is terrifying—but whatever it means or implies, we would see that terror as originating within Helen herself, whereas Homer externalises it.

This way of representing emotion (by externalisation) is common to much of western thought. Colin Campbell, in a book called The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (1987) suggests that only in modern times have emotions come to be located ‘within’ individuals, as opposed to ‘in’ the world. In pre-modern cultures, he argues, emotions are seen as belonging to aspects of reality, from where they exert their influence over humans. The major shift towards internalisation, he goes on, can be traced back to ancient Judaism, but it was accelerated by the Reformation and achieved its most complete expression in the Enlightenment.

This may sound a little abstract. I hope the relevance to a reading of Byron will gradually become clear. But just to make things a little more concrete at an early stage, a brief look at how this process of internalisation is reflected in language. The term ‘self-confidence’, as we now understand it, for example, comes into English only in the late eighteenth century (1781); ‘self-consciousness’, in our sense of ‘feeling acutely aware of oneself’, comes in only in 1833, according to the very recent update in the OED. Or—a final example for now, though a particularly telling one–look at the word ‘temperament’. Byron has a line in Don Juan, Canto 3, 417, referring to Lambro, Haidée’s father – “He was a man of a strange temperament”.

Nothing sounds more natural to our ear than this, but the OED records Byron’s use of ‘temperament’ here as the first example in English in the modern sense of ‘natural disposition’. Before then, ‘temperament’ was grounded in the idea of something external: its sense was of a mix of elements in a compound, the proportion of the mix determining the nature of something or someone. We know this sense best from the world of medieval physiology, where ‘temperament’ is the name for the combination of the four cardinal humours which determine, as we might want to say, who we are.

For us, the external world is no longer seen as the primary source of feelings, but rather as a neutral sphere governed by its own laws. We have been freed from dependency on externals, and awareness of self, for good and bad, is the result. It is now commonplace to talk of the self as a construct and of our freedom in this respect. The invitation of modern life is to make of ourselves what we will, in terms of relationships, or career, or sexual orientation, or whatever. The mal du siècle, which is the subject of my talk this evening, can be understood, in the broadest sense, as a reaction to the discovery of the power of selfhood, a power that turns out to have an extraordinary range of attributes, from the conventionally positive to the conventionally negative.

To underline how complex this discovery can be, and how far the complexity can take away any assurance we may look for in talking about positives and negatives in relation to the self, here is a moment in the final poem of the Fleurs du mal, by the French poet Charles Baudelaire. It’s a moment to which I’ll return in the context of Byron’s Giaour. Baudelaire, in this final poem (called ‘Le Voyage’), takes the reader on a journey from childhood to death. The encroaching enemy we encounter on this journey is the monster with which Baudelaire began the Fleurs du mal, the monster Ennui. Baudelaire gives us, on the one hand, an intimation of the unfathomable depths of the self, the potential for horror and the unthinkable. On the other hand, Baudelaire sees this potential as precisely what can liberate us from ennui, from the sheer tedium of being. Here are the lines:

The world, monotonous and tiny, today,

Yesterday, tomorrow, for ever, makes us see our image:

An oasis of horror in a desert of ennui!

(‘Une oasis d’horreur dans un désert d’ennui!’)

The chasms which open up when we look into the self are more frightening, but also more interesting, than the external terror of Aphrodite, or the fires of traditional hell; a long time before Conrad’s ‘The horror! The horror!’ in Heart of Darkness, we learned that the real horror, the real darkness, lies within, rather than without. Byron’s Giaour is already there.

Now to come closer to my subject. The mal du siècle. Sometimes the term used is maladie du siècle. But mal du siècle is more common, because mal suggests sorrow, pain, moral suffering, where maladie suggests exclusively physical illness. An English translation of mal du siècle might be ‘the scourge of the age’, but the term also has the specific sense of melancholy and world-weariness. Its immediate origins, as I have suggested, lie deep in the eighteenth century. The influence of Goethe’s Sorrows of the Young Werther is often mentioned in this context: this was a work published in 1774, and written when Goethe was the same age as Byron (24) when the first two Cantos of Childe Harold were published. Both works made their authors sensationally famous overnight. But the figure who did most to explore the idea of the mal du siècle in a theoretical way was the French Romantic writer François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848).

It is well known that Byron had little to say about Chateaubriand. Chateaubriand, on the other hand, appeared at times obsessed with Byron. Byron’s engagement with Chateaubriand, such as it was, found expression exclusively in political terms. He never talks of Chateaubriand as a writer, even though he was one of the most important figures in the history of French Romanticism, and one who, too, had found sensational overnight success—Chateaubriand’s story Atala was published in 1801 and was subsequently translated into Spanish, Italian, German, Russian, Modern Greek, and, of course, English. The English translation, incidentally, was entitled Atala, or the Love and Constancy of two Savages in the Desert. It’s an interesting insight into English tastes at the time that the translation added those words ‘and Constancy’, which were not in the original title.

Atala was a story that pushed at sexual boundaries; it is teasing and disconcerting, much more open about sex than anything we find in Byron. It stimulates interracial fantasies, lesbian fantasies, and contains an outspoken defence of incest, referring to the time of the first men and women on earth, a time of ‘those ineffable unions, when the sister was the wife of the brother, when love and fraternal friendship were joined in the same heart, and when the purity of the one increased the pleasures of the other’. This would have been far too direct for Byron. Byron and Chateaubriand both had passionate relationships with an elder sister, Chateaubriand with Lucile, four years older (she died in 1804, seemingly by suicide), Byron with his half-sister Augusta, five years his senior. The publication of Chateaubriand’s Atala led to a mass of imitations, parodies, ballets, popular engravings, operas, and vaudevilles. He was a writer to be reckoned with, but Byron, according to Teresa Guiccioli, was repulsed by Chateaubriand’s politics and by his changes of political allegiance. Teresa wrote: ‘When Lord Byron heard it said of someone : he had changed his colours…you felt that his natural indulgence, that was normally so great, left him; he regarded this fault as a despicable variant of the vice that he never pardoned: lying’.

Chateaubriand was in exile during the later stages of the French Revolution, living in the small Suffolk village of Beccles, where he used to eat alone in the local inn, and it was there, one evening in May 1794, that he heard an Englishman reading from a newspaper a list of the latest victims of the guillotine, among whom was his brother. Chateaubriand was a survivor in a world where survival was very difficult. He dedicated one of his works to Napoleon in 1803, then ten years later began a violently anti-Napoleonic pamphlet, which appeared one day before Napoleon’s abdication. Chateaubriand then went on to serve the restored Bourbon Louis XVIII as ambassador to London. All this was too much for Byron, who was unable or unwilling to see that Chateaubriand had to negotiate a political landscape that bore no relationship at all to the English.

Chateaubriand claimed rights of ownership over the mal du siècle. He couldn’t come to terms with Byron’s neglect. For him, Childe Harold, Conrad, Lara, Manfred, and the Giaour all owed something to his influence. There is a passage in Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe that had its origins at a time (1822) when Byron was still alive, but which was substantially the work of a later period. Even now, reading this passage is embarrassing. Why, Chateaubriand laments, did Byron have the ‘faiblesse’ (the ‘weakness’) never to mention my name? ‘I was, then, one of those fathers who are disowned when the son has come to power?’ ‘Could Lord Byron have been completely unaware of me, he, who quotes almost all the French writers of his generation? Has he never heard anyone speak of me, when the English newspapers, like the French newspapers, have resounded in his ears for twenty years with the controversy surrounding my works?’

So, what was Chateaubriand’s contribution to defining the mal du siècle, the contribution that, in his eyes, Byron never acknowledged? Chateaubriand’s most notable attempt to define the mal du siècle came in a chapter from a very long book called Génie du christianisme (Genius of Christianity), which he published in 1802. It was the second edition of this essay that he dedicated to Napoleon in the following year. The relevant chapter is called ‘Du vague des passions’ (literally ‘On the vagueness of the passions’). The expression has undertones of the French ‘vague à l’âme’ (literally ‘vagueness in the soul’), which means ‘melancholy’. ‘Avoir du vague à l’âme’, ‘to have vagueness in the soul’, means ‘to feel melancholic’. The title of the chapter has two key elements that give a context for the mal du siècle: the mal is a form of melancholia, on the one hand; more importantly, it is a melancholia which cannot be defined or fully understood, on the other. It is a vague sense of something not being right, an uneasy, anxious state of mind that escapes analysis. It combines world-weariness with a feeling of aimlessness and a lack of satisfaction. The opening line of Baudelaire’s poem ‘Spleen’ immediately hints at this range:

Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux…

(‘I am like the king of a rainy country’)

Chateaubriand begins his chapter with the claim that the particular state of mind, which will later be called the mal du siècle, has not so far been well understood. He then notes that it is an attribute of the young in particular, and that it derives from a turning in of the faculties upon themselves, creating a kind of circularity without aim or object. The imagination overflows, he says, but then existence reveals itself as poor, dry, disenchanted. People afflicted with the condition, he says, ‘inhabit, with a full heart, an empty world’, and the resulting bitterness is extraordinary. ‘The Ancients’, Chateaubriand says, ‘scarcely knew this secret anxiety…they were not inclined to the exaggerations, the hopes, the fears without object, the mobility (‘mobilité’) of ideas and feelings, the perpetual instability, which is nothing but a constant source of disgust’. Note the word ‘mobilité’ here: it’s a forerunner of Byron’s use of the word ‘mobility’ in Don Juan, Canto XVI, l. 820. Byron attached an often-quoted note to that line, where he recognises the French origin of the term, adding ‘I am not sure that mobility is English, but it is expressive of a quality which rather belongs to other climates, though it is sometimes seen to a great extent in our own. It may be defined as an excessive susceptibility of immediate impressions’. It is, he concludes, ‘a most painful and unhappy attribute’. I’ll be laying some stress in this talk on the unmoored self—and here we find Chateaubriand and Byron both exploring the idea of mobility—whether in ideas or emotions—as a potential source of deep pain.

Much of the language that Chateaubriand uses here, the language of perpetual instability and the like, might be ascribed to what we would now see as the impact of modernity, but Chateaubriand looks, on the contrary, to the past for an understanding of how we got here. ‘It is in the spirit of Christianity’, he writes,’ that we should, above all, seek the reason for this vagueness of feeling that is widespread among the men of today’. Christianity, he argues, offers us a twin picture of the sorrows of the earth and celestial joys, leaving the human heart endlessly uncertain of itself. At other times, though, Chateaubriand is conscious that the mal du siècle is a reflection of the contemporary. He looks to Rousseau, for example: ‘he has made a whole crowd of young people believe that it is fine to throw oneself…into the vagueness of life’.

From our vantage point, it seems inevitable to link the mal du siècle with Europe’s passage through modernity and the concomitant upheaval associated with the death of God. Both of these forces contributed to the anxiety of an increasingly unanchored and exposed self; both suggest the dissolution of received truths, and their replacement by the uncertainties of myth. There is a wonderful moment in a sonnet by the nineteenth-century French poet Nerval, where he imagines Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Christ suddenly becomes aware that his crucifixion is meaningless. God does not exist and his mythical son is simply the sacrificial victim at an altar that has lost any external, divine validation.

Christ cries out to his disciples:

Brothers, I deceived you: Abyss! Abyss! Abyss!

The idea of the abyss haunts much of the literature of this period.

It is fascinating to watch Chateaubriand, as he casts around, trying to locate the sources of the sickness that be believes was characteristic of his time, and that he was the first to diagnose. Whatever the value of his reflections on the past, his sense that one of the primary forces behind the mal du siècle was what we would now call an increasingly alienated self-consciousness is shrewdly observant.

Watching Chateaubriand also reminds us that it was the very vagueness of the emotional state he was trying to speak about that made it hard to identify its nature. Indeed, it is at the heart of the mal du siècle that it escapes precise definition. What it represents is, rather, a spectrum, rather than a single identifiable form of sickness. We can see this if we look at the two terms that, more than any others, were used as a shorthand for addressing that sickness: ennui and spleen. These two words revolve around each other in fascinating ways.

Ennui has had a long career in the French language. It derives from the Latin in odio, as in ‘est mihi in odio’ (‘it is to me hateful’). So it begins its life in French with the very strong sense of ‘pain’ before gradually, after the thirteenth century, acquiring the sense it now has. It was borrowed into English in the late seventeenth century, apparently to fill a gap. The OED has a quotation that reads: ‘We have hardly any words [in English] that do…fully express the French naivete, ennui, bizarre, etc.’. This from 1667.  Curiously, the English word spleen was potentially available to fill this gap. Spleen had long been in English, if not as long as ennui had been in French: it is an ancient word, going back to an IE root. Originally, it seems to have been used in a purely anatomical sense, but, from the late fourteenth century, it is already regarded also as the seat of melancholy. However, its career thereafter was one of extreme dilution. It came to mean wildly contradictory things. It was regarded for a time as the seat of laughter, for example, and Shakespeare uses it to mean things like merriment, a sudden impulse, hot temper, ill-humour. At the same time as the 1667 OED quotation, lamenting the lack of an English equivalent for French ennui, spleen was coming back into fashion in English as a quasi-medical term. Here is a humorous exchange between two characters in a play by Sir William Killigrew called Pandora (1664):

…has he got a blow on his head?

Only some fumes from his heart Madam, makes his head addle, tis call’d the Spleen of late, and much in fashion…

So, here we have two terms which will be applied to designate the mal du siècleennui and spleen–each indicating varying states of mind that for us would be spread out along a broad spectrum, going from a kind of fashionable world-weariness, at one end, through a generalised dissatisfaction with life, to a sense of gloominess, melancholia and what we would tend to call depression. But the dialogue between the French and English terms doesn’t end there. From the middle of the eighteenth century, the English word spleen is borrowed into French. Baudelaire has a number of poems entitled ‘Spleen’. Spleen in French always carried with it a marker of Englishness. From the mid-eighteenth century, we have a French reference to ‘that sickness peculiar to the English, which we call Spline after them’. While Louis Fontanes (1757-1821), French poet and friend of Chateaubriand, has the following lines from 1821: ‘In those great English parks, dotted with sterile trees,/Where Spleen with its pale brow, its gloomy eye, its slow pace,/Haunted by the fog, passes by with a yawn’. And the English had long recognised that spleen was one of the characteristic ways in which their country was identified by foreigners. In a quotation from 1690, we read: ‘Our Country [i.e. England] must be confess’d to be what a great foreign Physician called it, the Region of Spleen’. French fashionable ennui appealed to the English, while brooding spleen appealed to the French.

Chateaubriand knew England well. In an interesting passage (1805), he talks about long-term changes in English society, in a way that prefigures much of the language which will be used by Byron’s critics against the gloomy Byronic heroes they often found incomprehensible. Chateaubriand noted that the monasteries had once provided a disciplined environment for reverie and contemplation. With their demise, however, we should expect to see, ‘as has happened in England’, a rise in solitariness at the heart of social life, and the emergence of observers ‘who, unable either to renounce the vices of the century, or to love the century, will take their hatred of man as a proof of their genius…and will plunge ever deeper into a proud misanthropy which will lead them to madness or to death’.

Now I pass on to look more directly at two of these Byronic heroes, at their solitariness and misanthropy. First, at Childe Harold. He is introduced, in Byron’s ‘Addition to the Preface’ to the first two Cantos, as ‘that most unamiable personage’. Byron, in the original Preface, had taken care to distance himself from the Childe, calling him the ‘child of imagination’; but in the letter to Hobhouse at the beginning of Canto IV (1818), he gives up the pretence and admits, what was in any case obvious, the close connection between author and subject: ‘I had become weary of drawing a line which every one seemed determined not to perceive…it was in vain that I asserted, and imagined, that I had drawn, a distinction between the author and the pilgrim’.

The Childe is, then, a doubling of Byron and plays various roles in the Pilgrimage, vanishing for a long period in the later Cantos when Byron no longer has need of him. As we first encounter him in the early Cantos, he is clearly defined by many of the elements that make up the mal du siècle. He is young, first of all, like his creator. As Chateaubriand noted, the mal du siècle weighed heavily on the young. It could be understood, Chateaubriand says, as a state that precedes the true development of the passions: it is a state in which emotions have no external focus, but rather turn in on themselves, endlessly circular, but all-consuming. A condition which he describes as one of knowing without experience, of being disabused, disenchanted, without ever having learned the meaning of pleasure.

The early Cantos of Childe Harold awaken anxiety in the reader. This stands in contrast to the comfortable French epigraph Byron inserts from Le Cosmopolite: ‘The universe is a sort of book, of which one has only read the first page when one has seen only one’s own country’. We think we are going on a journey, a pilgrimage to somewhere; and that it will bring us some experience that will, as we say, broaden the mind. But as Robert Gleckner wrote: the pilgrimage in Childe Harold is ‘away from rather than to a shrine’. The Childe is thoroughly modern, for all the tongue-in-cheek trappings of the past. He may be called a Childe (an obsolete term meaning a young man of noble birth); Byron may use a stanzaic form out of Spenser and indulge in pastiche of an older English style (‘Whilome in Albion’s isle there dwelt a youth’). But this is a young man on the run and with nowhere to go. He has succumbed to the ‘fulness of satiety’, he has known ‘concubines and carnal companie’, but this cannot be reassuringly dismissed as simple youthful high spirits. The Childe carries the mark of Cain, who cried out to God, following the murder of his brother Abel: ‘and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth’. Or as the poet comments on the Childe: ‘life-abhorring gloom / Wrote on his faded brow curst Cain’s unresting doom’.

We never learn about the Childe’s past and that, of course, is the point. The imagination, invited to fill a gap, plunges in and is left face-to-face with its own dark projections; or else, which might be worse, the imagination senses its failure to grasp what lies before it and is forced to accept that it cannot measure the depths of another’s fantasies or misfortunes. Something terrible has apparently happened to the Childe, but it is so terrible that we cannot be allowed anywhere near it. The reader is tempted with the assertion that ‘he through Sin’s long labyrinth had run’, but it all remains deliberately vague. The poet plays with the reader’s anxiety through the Childe’s song in Canto I: ‘I’ve known the worst’, he sings, and then asks on our behalf, rhetorically: ‘What is that worst?’, before immediately closing down any possibility of clarification, by seeking both our sympathy for the horrors he has experienced, while at the same time denying our right to know anything about them:

What is that worst? Nay do not ask—

    In pity from the search forbear:

Smile on—nor venture to unmask

    Man’s heart, and view the Hell that’s there.

We are tempted to look into the darkness and warned against it at the same time, for fear of what it might reveal about ourselves. The Childe’s inner self has become the head of the Gorgon.

The Childe recognises (and it’s part of his gloom and misanthropy) the impossibility of escape. Consciousness will not leave us alone. The Childe sings:

What Exile from himself can flee?

                To Zones, though more and more remote,

Still, still pursues—where-e’er I be,

                The blight of life—the demon—Thought.

It’s quite common for critics to speculate on what might lie behind the sense of horror which the Childe carries. Usually, that horror is related to Byron’s homosexuality; and, more directly, to the lines which were cancelled in Canto II of the Childe, and which were replaced by those which are now numbered 545-9. The cancelled lines read, in part:

For boyish minions of unhallowed love

The shameless torch of wild desire is lit,

Caressed, preferred even to woman’s self above…

This memory of the promiscuous sexual availability of young boys was a consequence of Byron’s visit to Ali Pasha in October 1809. It is probably significant that Byron began the Childe just a week after he left Ali. Shelley, in a letter of December 1818 to Thomas Love Peacock, gives a clear sense of how even a relatively unconventional observer at the time might struggle with Byron’s sexual preferences: Byron, Shelley says, ‘associates with wretches…who do not scruple to avow practices which are not only not named but I believe seldom even conceived in England’.

For all that, it is reductive to dwell too long on the supposed specifics of biography. It’s clear that the darkness of the Childe gains its force by being undefined, and by being undefined, connects us to the world of the mal du siècle. The real horror is not in the detail of this or that action, but in the nature of a self unmoored, beyond reach of redemption, either of a religious or a secular kind. There is simply a void, or an unbearable nostalgia, in the space where once there might have been the possibility of fulfilment. The Childe is not embarked on a romantic quest in the hope of change or development; rather, the quest is for a nothingness that is the only relief from the world.

The poet, on the other hand, is concerned to explore—and this is his pilgrimage—what responses might be available to the nihilism of the Childe. What might the disabused consciousness place in the balance, since, of course, the poem must go on, as even life itself must go on. The poet finds and examines a range of possibilities, and I’ll say something briefly about these. To put it more directly, what does Byron have to say about the challenges of the mal du siècle?

To take a first example, there is the discovery of Greece and what Greece might represent as a counterweight to the hell of modern life. Greece may well be a withered simulacrum of what it once was, but Byron senses the possibility of linking past and present, in a way that was unusual at the time, and which generates a passionate sense of renewal and vindication. ‘Where’er we tread ‘tis haunted, holy ground…’

Greece remains haunted and holy, in spite of its manifest decline. The reason Byron gives for this is interesting. Greece takes us back to our earliest fantasies, returns us to the stories that framed our own individual beginnings, even as it framed the beginning of the culture of the West. Suddenly in these lines there is a wholeness which is missing from the world of the Childe:

Where’er we tread ‘tis haunted, holy ground;

No earth of thine is lost in vulgar mould,

But one vast realm of wonder spreads around,

And all the Muse’s tales seem truly told,

Till the sense aches with gazing to behold

The scenes our earliest dreams have dwelt upon…

This is a version of one of the West’s most potent myths: Greece as the mother, the place we all come from. But the past here is not comfortably contained within itself. This is not simply the picture of an idealised classical Greece that was the stuff of so much nineteenth-century travel writing. The classicising love affair with Greece was almost inevitably accompanied by a rejection of the world of modern Greece, as messy and denuded. It’s true that Byron sometimes shares this view. But here, he finds something different. The Muse here is not a mere fictional device from ancient epic, she is the guarantor of authenticity in the present. What we have dreamed of from earliest childhood is true and real and treading the land of a real Greece confirms it.  The effect is one of both intellectual stimulus and an almost erotic passion. This is a connection for the drifting self, a way back to our earliest dreams, before the ravages of self-consciousness take over.

The affirmation here is of the possibilities of a past that somehow continues to be validated in the present, a still resonant childhood from which we are not  irrevocably cut off by the anxiety of a developing consciousness. At the very end of Childe Harold, Byron finds the same connection:

And I have loved thee, Ocean! and my joy

Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be

Borne, like thy bubbles, onward: from a boy

I wantoned with thy breakers—they to me

Were a delight; and if the freshening sea

Made them a terror—‘twas a pleasing fear,

For I was as it were a child of thee,

And trusted to thy billows far and near,

And laid my hand upon thy mane—as I do here.

Note that final ‘as I do here’, which could be a simple stylistic mannerism, but which, in context, brings the memory of childhood in nature firmly into a present where it can be reaffirmed. There is no embarrassment about childhood joy; about trust and love freely given. These qualities live on, just two stanzas before the end of the poem.

It is clear that none of the responses to the sickness of the Childe can be complete or sustained. Byron, rather, in the course of Childe Harold argues for a creative acceptance of the partial:

Thou movest—but increasing with the advance,

Like climbing some great Alp, which still doth rise,

Deceived by its gigantic elegance…

The mountain beckons, deceptive in the illusion that it can be conquered; but an acceptance of the limits of what might be possible for human thought is a kind of way forward.

Thou seest not all; but piecemeal thou must break,

To separate contemplation, the great whole…

And if the Childe sees the problem as one of the inescapable terrors of self-consciousness (‘The blight of life—the demon, Thought’), the poet seeks to revalue our capacity for thought as one of the great attributes of human beings:

Yet let us ponder boldly—‘tis a base

Abandonment of reason to resign

Our right of thought—our last and only place

Of refuge…

Our capacity for thought is, he says, ‘the faculty divine’. As McGann suggests, this ‘activity of groping thought’, recognising that we will never glimpse the world as a totality, is, in the end, our best chance of defending ourselves against the void.

It is also possible, Byron sometimes suggests, to confront the mal du siècle in a mood of heroic acceptance. There may be no goals to attain, no ultimately sustaining pilgrimage, but there is a heroism in acknowledging that:

The race of life becomes a hopeless flight

To those that walk in darkness: on the sea,

The boldest steer but where their ports invite,

But there are wanderers o’er Eternity

Whose bark drives on and on, and anchored ne’er shall be.   (III, st. 70)

This is a recognition of the loneliness and rootlessness at the heart of modernity, and which responds to that rootlessness, not with despair, but with a disabused and potentially heroic acceptance.

Finally, in the Childe, there are the resources of art and love. The Childe is no artist, though he does sing a song, as we’ve seen. The poet, however, makes us see that, as Gleckner suggested, it is in the act of creation itself that the poet may find whatever salvation is possible. Out of the unromantic despair of the Childe comes the romantic affirmation of the final efficacy of art in human affairs. While love, on the other hand, remains the only antidote to what Byron sees as the gravest of all dangers, as much at the level of nation states as of the individual, the danger of an endless circularity, of what he calls the ‘wretched interchange of wrong for wrong’ (III, st. 69).

In the last part of this talk, I look at the Giaour. In Childe Harold, there is, as we’ve seen, a kind of implicit dialogue between the ravaged Childe with nowhere to go and the reflective poet, who tries to find ways forward, however temporary, however partial they may be. In the Giaour, though, there is no such dialogue, and the tale remains disconcertingly open-ended.

Byron probably began the Giaour in late 1812. He subtitled it ‘A Fragment of a Turkish Tale’. It was originally a poem of only 344 lines, but it progressively lengthened in subsequent versions, ending, in December 1813, with a seventh edition of 1334 lines. Despite Byron’s fears, the poem proved hugely popular, with fourteen editions by 1815.

Byron draws for his poem both on personal experience (he claims to have heard the tale ‘recited by one of the coffee-house story tellers who abound in the Levant’) and on his reading of Turkish history.  Whereas Childe Harold has no plot in any meaningful sense, the Giaour tells a story that still has the capacity to shock. Leila is a beautiful slave in the harem of the Turkish Muslim Hassan. She is seduced by a young Venetian, who is the Giaour of the title. Hassan has Leila drowned at sea for her sexual infidelity. The Giaour takes revenge, kills Hassan, and then, overcome with a wild mix of emotions, seeks out a Christian monastery in which to make an unrepentant confession and end his days.

Whatever may be going on in the Giaour, we are clearly not dealing with the mal du siècle in the form that we have encountered it so far. The Giaour’s torment of emotion exists in relation to something very real, the death of a lover, rather than being a vague, unanalysable response to the problems of simply being in the world. The Giaour is fascinating, though, for the way it both foregrounds terror while at the same time allowing the reader a perspective—that of the Giaour himself—in which terror appears as an alternative to the even worse horrors associated with the mal du siècle.

The Giaour’s perspective here is never validated by the poet, but nearly all the early readers were troubled by its challenge. The writer for The British Review (October 1813) voiced a common concern: ‘There is a sort of morbid, sentimental hue thrown over the stormy character of the Giaour, which is likely to beget a feeling in which too much of admiration enters, for a reader not well grounded in good principles to be safe under its influence’. The formulation now sounds extreme, but the point is not without its seriousness. The writer in The Eclectic Review (November 1813) puts things more simply: ‘the moral tendency of [the Giaour]…we are convinced, is exceedingly pernicious’. ‘[T[he poetry, like the glare of lightning on a dark night, just serves to shew, and to exaggerate, the darkness around’.

The Antijacobin Review (August 1813) was unsure about Byron’s moral compass: ‘we may express our concern…and also to regret, that [Byron] failed to point the moral, which the tale, even in its present imperfect state, obviously presented’. But the poem is disturbing because it has no obvious moral, or, if it does, then the moral is so bland (don’t sleep with another man’s wife) that it is eclipsed by the much more troubling fascination we have with the question of pain. The reader is left simply to confront the darkness, in the face of horrors that can be glimpsed and yet never fully confronted by the imagination. What might it be like to be the Giaour? To know the extraordinary price of sexual transgression? ‘What felt he then…?’, which is line 267, a challenge to the reader’s imagination that never lets up. Almost all the early reviewers felt they were being drawn towards the appeal of horror, where an intimation of suffering surpasses in its power the mind’s capacity to provide a moral commentary on it.

A recognition of the way the mal du siècle always hovers somewhere in the background of the tale is important, since, particularly in the 21st century, and in the wake of a famous essay by Samuel Huntington in 1993 called ‘The Clash of Civilisations?’, there has been a tendency to read the Giaour as a commentary on Christian/Muslim relations. One critic typically suggested that the confrontation between the Giaour and the Turkish Hassan is ‘a face-off between modernity and tradition’; while another writes that the poem is about ‘the hegemony of West over East’, while another says that the Giaour represents Western religious scepticism in the face of the strict sexual morality of Hassan’s Islamic theocracy’. Such views seem to me to be without foundation. Had Byron sought to promote a poem about cultural difference, he would have chosen a more iconic figure than the Giaour, who is stateless and nameless and who, as another critic has written, ‘operates on the borderlands of culture, traditions, and beliefs’. There is nothing to be learned from the poem about the clash of cultures. The landscape of moribund Greece is the theatre for emotions and actions that could be played out between two men anywhere at any time, regardless of cultural affiliation. The Giaour himself says that, in Hassan’s place, he’d have done the same thing.

We return here to the Baudelaire poem from which I quoted earlier. In that poem, from ‘Le Voyage’ in the Fleurs du mal, the poet talks of the self as the one refuge from the true horror of the nothingness of the mal du siècle. The self, he says, is: ‘Une oasis d’horreur dans un desert d’ennui!’

This is why the Giaour can find no repentance; he still craves that oasis, even, and especially, with the thought of approaching death:

And I shall sleep without the dream

            Of what I was, and would be still…

He chooses the pain of lived experience over the nothingness of ‘dull, unvarying days’:

Yet still in hours of love or strife

I’ve scap’d the weariness of life;

Now leagu’d with friends, now girt by foes,

I loathed the languor of repose…

It is this weariness, this sense of languor that haunts the mal du siècle. The Giaour claims to have escaped from it into the horror of the self. This is why so many of the early reviewers struggled with the Giaour. It is a poem that takes the key debate over what it means to be human, from the traditional opposition between right and wrong, to a sense that nothing can be as terrible as a state without feeling. Morality fades in the face of apathy:

The keenest pangs the wretched find

                Are rapture to the dreary void—

The leafless desart of the mind—

                The waste of feelings unemploy’d—

The Giaour recalls looking into the face of Hassan as he kills him and how the lack of emotion on that face was unbearable:

I search’d, but vainly search’d to find,

The workings of a wounded mind;

Each feature of that sullen corse

Betrayed his rage, but no remorse.

Oh, what had Vengeance given to trace

Despair upon his dying face!

This desperate privileging of sensation over all else is something we find a good deal in Byron, before he takes the great comic turn towards Beppo and Don Juan. Even now these texts are troubling in their implication. The mal du siècle is a state that throws us back on resources we turn out to lack, and which we experience as moral anguish. The secret burdens of these characters, from Chateaubriand’s Atala to Byron’s Giaour, offer, in however dysfunctional a form, something defining for consciousness to rest on, an identity to clothe the appalling vagueness of feeling that they otherwise experience.

The mal du siècle is, as I suggested at the beginning, best understood as part of a huge shift in consciousness in the West. The growing sense that we are the originators of our emotional worlds, that what we feel is determined within ourselves, leads both to the possibilities of extraordinary empowerment and to sensations of helplessness, atomisation, overload–what Chateaubriand calls the vagueness of the passions. The mal du siècle was always a very broad-based sickness. It played into fashionable poses, in the way that existentialism did at one point in the twentieth century. It was fed by doubts about the continuing validity of God as an external validator for what we do. For Byron’s generation, both in England and France and elsewhere in Europe, the mal was related to the vast sense of anti-climax that followed the French Revolution and the fall of Napoleon, the sense of having missed one of the most important moments in history, where ideas, ideology, and action were being simultaneously engaged in the political sphere. When Byron says simply, at the beginning of Don Juan: ‘I want a hero’ (in the sense of ‘I desire one’ and ‘I lack one’), he is speaking for an entire generation.

The mal du siècle, in the way we have seen it in Byron’s work, was always potentially subversive and transgressive. Once the primacy of moral issues falls back before other more important claims, as we’ve seen in the Giaour, the way is open for any extremes. The mal was subversive at the general level of morality; its effects extended into areas of fashion, of religion, of politics; and, perhaps above all, it was sexy.