Archive for March, 2018

Lord Byron’s Complex Relationship with Time

March 6, 2018

Lord Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is packed with nostalgic meditations on youth. The very fact that this poem is centered around a “child” figure, which archetypally indicates the temporal meditations that will plague Byron’s narrator in the poem’s final canto. Particularly in the fourth canto, the framing of this topographical survey poem in terms of a temporal perspective proves crucial. In Childe Harold, Byron visits Italy, longing for the past zenith of the country’s great cities and empires. The ruins (and occasional superfluities) evoke the greatness of Italy’s past, and, in a similar way, call Byron’s “Harold” into question. That is, Harold’s journey, though topographical, is grounded more fundamentally in a temporal quest. In the way that Proust’s great narrator searches in recovery of lost time, so too does Byron’s narrator seek, through travel, to negotiate his own relationship to mortality – a morbid intimation that bleeds throughout his otherwise romantic poetry.

Byron’s temporal lamentations begin at the third canto’s inception, and carries on throughout the final canto of the poem. This preferatory stanza anticipates the narrator’s travel from Dover to Waterloo:

In my youth’s summer I did sing of One,

The wandering outlaw of his own dark mind;

Again I seize the theme then but begun,

And bear it with me, as the rushing wind

Bears the cloud onwards: in that Tale I find

The furrows of long thought, and dried-up tears,

Which, ebbing, leave a sterile track behind,

O’er which all heavily the journeying years

Plod the last sands of life, – where not a flower appears. (19-27).

 

Here, Byron opens the third canto’s journey from the frame of youth, but more symbolically, the youth’s “summer” in which time passes like the “rushing wind.” The “Tale” that Byron’s narrator tells begins with moribund perseverations, namely the language that Byron’s narrator invokes: “dried-up,” “ebbing,” “sterile,” and so forth. In other words, Byron’s narrator feels that his life-force is washing away in the proverbial tide; Byron’s narrator feels the “journeying years” “heavily” which is to say that the “sands of life,” that is, an hourglass’ sands, passing by like a momento mori – and an indication of Time’s (Byron’s capitalization) passage. In the end, presumably in apocalypse, no flower – a biological symbol of reproduction – appears. The earth will die; time will run out.

Byron’s fourth canto, in Venice,  is where the meditations on Time influence the outcome of the poem’s narration. Byron’s narrator feels moved by the surrounding city, its history, all the lost time that it evokes:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;

A palace and a prison on each hand:

I saw from out the wave her structures rise

As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:

A thousand years their cloudy wings expand

Around me, and a dying Glory smiles

O’er the far times, when many a subject land

Look’d to the winged Lion’s marble piles,

Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles! (1-9).

Implicitly, Byron evokes the past, namely through Venetian memories that are indelibly etched into the landscape around Byron’s narrator. The balance of “palace” and “prison” within this opening stanza self-contradicts within these Venetian memories; this contradiction bears the weight of “a thousand years” and simultaneously dusts itself off as its “cloudy wings expand.” These wings expand around Byron’s narrator, casting memories of sacrifice (“Glory”), smiling through the landscape. The peopling of Venice’s past peers through the landscape, through time.

Structurally, Byron’s lamentations about time continue in the poem’s fifth stanza, deepening the doubts that plague the poem’s narrator throughout the poem’s eventual unfolding:

The beings of the mind are not of clay;

Essentially immortal, they create

And multiply in us a brighter ray

And more beloved existence: that which Fate

Prohibits to dull life, in this our state

Of mortal bondage, by these spirits supplied,

First exiles, then replaces what we hate;

Watering the heart whose early flowers have died,

And with a fresher growth replenishing the void. (37-45).

It’s safe to say that the “beings of the mind” that aren’t clay are simply memories. The “beings,” or perhaps, figments, of the memory’s object are “essentially immortal.” For memories “create” and “multiply” versions within us that cast a “brighter ray” and “more beloved existence” on the meaning within our lives. Byron’s narrator here suggests that “Fate,” fickle as it is, requires the adoption of sacrifice and responsibility – as evidenced by the invocation of prohibiting a “dull” (expedient, perhaps, instead of meaningful) life. By calling “our” state into question, Byron’s narrator here bonds himself to every human’s “mortal” fate. These fates are doomed to a cycle: first exiling our ‘selves’ from ourselves, and then burning off those parts, like dead wood, allowing “fresher growth” to appear, replacing “what we hate.” Time thus replenishes “the void,” and interpolates us to improve; as Jung would later suggest: our future selves are beckoning to us in the present.

The poem’s sixth stanza begins with brief but premoniscent predictions for how Time becomes an object of obsessive fixation for Byron’s narrator. Here, Byron’s observations about Time arrive in his mind “like truth,” and disappear “like dreams” (55):

Such is the refuge of our youth and age,

The first from Hope, the last from Vacancy;

And this worn feeling peoples many a page;

And, may be, that which grows beneath mine eye” (46-49).

Here, Byron equates “youth” with “refuge,” which suggests how one can retreat into the confines of youth as a means of escape from, presumably, adulthood – the very condition that Byron’s narrator in Childe Harold is attempting to escape from. Furthermore, the indication that “Hope” and “Vacancy” are places to seek refuge “from” wears on the narrator’s conscience; this is indicated by the “worn” feeling that, as it “peoples many a page,” simultaneously “grows,” like a cancer, “beneath mine eye.” Time takes its toll. It can’t be stopped.

Byron’s narrator lingers in Italy, prasing its virtues while simultaneously lamenting its faults. Here, we will fast-forward through the key stanzas in which Lord Byron accentuates and (fittingly) accelerates the importance of Time’s passage in Childe Harold:

These are four minds, which, like the elements,

Might furnish forth creation: — Italy!

Time, which hath wrong’d thee with ten thousand rents

Of thine imperial garment, shall deny,

And hath denied, to every other sky,

Spirits which soar from ruin: — thy decay

Is still impregnate with divinity,

Which gilds it with revivifying ray;

Such as the great of yore, Canova is to-day. (487-495).

“Time,” capitalized at last by Byron’s narrator, becomes a sort of agent: a character for Byron’s “Harold” narrator. Here, Time has “wrong’d thee with ten thousand rents / Of thine imperial garment,” which is to say that all objects are torn apart by Time. The attainment of objects is a plethoric act that is in vain, according Byron’s narrator, for all will disappear. The “imperial garment,” or architectural decay, is transparent to Time; the “wrongs” committed by either self, neighbor, or government, shall be rectified by Time’s judgment. In this stanza, Time denies even the sky, and the “spirits which soar from ruin.” The “decay” of the landscape – the topographical element – is supplanted by the “impreg[nation]” of “divinity” within the history – that is to say, Time – of the landscape: Italy (or, appropriately, “Italia!”).

Time becomes a teacher – not just for Harold, but for the reader of Childe Harold as well. This first becomes clear when Byron’s narrator realizes that these beautiful Italian landscapes and architectural achievements are “Too much, to conquer for the poet’s sake” for there would never be time to write it all “forced down word by word” but that there is still “pleasure to record” (673-675):

Aught that recalls the daily drug which turn’d

My sickening memory; and, though time hath taught

My mind to meditate what then it learn’d,

Yet such the fix’d inveteracy wrought

By the impatience of my early thought,

That, with the freshness wearing out before

My mind could relish what it might have sought,

If free to choose, I cannot now restore

Its health; but what it then detested, still abhor. (676-684).

At the risk of redundancy, Byron here equates memory with a drug. Time instructs, even for the addict. The mind, then, evolves to “meditate” on these lessons – whether drug-induced or Time-induced. Thus, “inveteracy” sets in, stubbornly reducing the narrator’s experiences into easy packages; this is borne through the “impatience” and “wearing out” of the narrator’s thoughts. Further, calling back to memory, the narrator’s mind fails to “restore” the “relish” with which its memory would otherwise find in “health.” That is to say, even repressed memories (“what is then detested”) are still abhorrent.

To refute the reader that casts a skeptical glance on this thesis of Time in Byron’s poem, I’d appeal first to the poem’s eightieth stanza, in which Byron’s narrator puts Time on equal footing with God. In love with Rome, the “city of the soul” (694), Byron’s narrator realizes just how “fragile” (701) the world is, how fragile human beings are:

The Goth, the Christian, Time, War, Flood, and Fire,

Have dealt upon the seven-hill’d city’s pride;

She saw her glories star by star expire,

And up the steep barbarian monarchs ride,

Where the car climb’d the capitol; far and wide

Temple and tower went down, nor left a site: —

Chaos of ruins! who shall trace the void,

O’er the dim fragments cast a lunar light,

And say, ‘here was, or is,” where all is doubly night? (711-720).

Byron’s narrator lines up some otherwise transcendent, Platonic ideas next to each other in this first line: “The Goth, the Christian, Time, War, Flood, and Fire.” This might be a gesture towards the fundaments of human nature. It might otherwise be a condemnation of these six forces, as they tempt and corrupt human societies. Time, again capitalized – afforded agency – becomes associated with War in terms of its sociological and psychological impact on Byron’s narrator.

Byron’s obsession with Time becomes prescriptive when he is taken aback by the “Imperial Mount” that all, even the “mighty” falls (963):

There is the moral of all human tales;

‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,

First Freedom, and then Glory — when that fails,

Wealth, vice, corruption, — barbarism at last.

And History, with all her volumes vast,

Hath but one page, — ’tis better written here,

Where gorgeous tyranny hath thus amass’d

All treasures, all delights, that eye or ear,

Heart, soul could seek, tongue ask — Away with words! draw near, (964-972).

The “moral” edge to this stanza is where Byron’s prescription becomes apparent, that is to say, learn your damn history (“History”). For “wealth, vice, corruption,” supervenes on the redeeming aspects of human nature, for Byron’s narrator. “Barbarism,” unfortunately, emerges from the unrefined mind, from the unrefined relationship with “Freedom” and “Glory.” “History,” then, personified, “hath but one page,” and that page is reflective of all human nature: Time corrupts even the noblest of intentions; further, “Tyranny” emerges from those who perseverate on these temporal matters: “All treasures, all delights” dissolve in the face of corrupt cravings, urges to “ask” for more than mortal lives can (or should) bear.

The ego of Byron’s narrator, dwarfed by Time and history, finally submits in the presence of a ruined palace and crumbling arches. As Harold begins to see himself anew, as unquestionably and inexorably mortal, he supplicates a gift from Time, himself:

Oh Time! the beautifier of the dead,

Adorner of the ruin, comforter

And only healer when the heart hath bled —

Time! the corrector where our judgements err,

The test of truth, love, — sole philosopher,

For all beside are sophists, from thy thrift,

Which never loses though it doth defer —

Time, the avenger! unto thee I lift

My hands, and eyes, and heart, and crave of thee a gift: (1162-1170).

At last, Byron’s narrator submits himself to the fatalistic (deterministic) force of Time’s passage. Time then becomes the “beautifier” of the dead, the “adorner” of the ruin, the “comforter” and “only healer” for the broken heart that “hath bled.” Time, nuanced in this passage, becomes paradoxical: signifier and signified. Time, thus, is the existential “corrector” for mistakes in judgment; Time, thus, “never loses,” which is to say, is always correct; Time, thus, always avenges (moral wrongs?); Time, finally, offers the power of bestowing a gift – maybe not just for the poem’s narrator, but as a reinforcing gesture, harkening back to the poem’s aforementioned “moral” that was promised. Time becomes the great equalizer for Byron’s narrator.

The fourth canto’s most iconic stanza, stanza 137, recursively incorporates Byron’s narrator’s lamentations about Time and Time’s passage. Several stanzas precede this penultimate moment of realizing the “mountain of [Harold’s] curse” (1205):

But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:

My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,

And my frame perish even in conquering pain;

But there is that within me which shall tire

Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;

Something unearthly, which they deem not of,

Like the remember’d tone of a mute lyre,

Shall on their soften’d spirits sink, and move

In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love. (1225-1233)

Here, Byron’s narrator confronts the inevitable decline of his bodily and mental faculties. Harold’s quest throughout this poem has been, in some sense, to recover his youth – whether that means age or spirit is an undecided question. But Byron’s narrator, here, at last, collapses the distinction between a lived life: a long life and, more importantly, a well-lived life. Byron’s narrator at last acknowledges that “conquering pain” is part of what makes life a meaningful endeavor. Byron’s narrator at last acknowledges that a life well-lived will “tire” him at the end of the day, as opposed to the privileged, restful existence that he’d been existing with so far. “Torture and Time,” now twin forces, equally and tyrannically supplant the narrator’s initial quest: to recover inspiration out of the act of traveling. Again, Proust’s great narrator is anticipated in Childe Harold’s temporal meditations throughout this fourth canto. Time, perhaps, is what Byron’s narrator means by “something […] not of,” hence the “remembered” lyre, and the remorseful, rocky “hearts.”

Time emerges as a cohesive conceptual unit, particularly when Byron writes of the great Roman Colesseum and “Saxon times” (1300). Rome confronts Byron’s narrator as irreparable and “Ruin[ed] past Redemption’s skill” (1304).

Simple, erect, severe, austere, sublime —

Shrine of all saints and temple of all gods,

From Jove to Jesus — spared and blest by time;

Looking tranquillity, while falls or nods

Arch, empire, each thing round thee, and man plods

His way through thorns to ashes — glorious dome!

Shalt thou not last?  Time’s scythe and tyrants’ rods

Shiver upon thee — sanctuary and home

Of art and piety — Pantheon! — pride of Rome! (1306-1314).

The span from “Jove to Jesus” indicates the kinds of temporal span within Byron’s narration in this canto. This span is “spared and blest by time,” which, curiously, is not capitalized here. Time, thus begins to fade in existential importance for this poem hereafter. But, for the time (pardon the pun) being, the theme of Time continues: empires rise and fall, while human nature persists. Further, humanity “plods / [their] way through the ashes” of past civilizations, past cultures, such that they (humanity, people) culturally appropriate that which is perceived to be valuable from disparate civilizations. When Byron’s narrator then asks, “Shalt thou not last?,” Time’s “scythe” and tyrant’s “rods” come in to punish the asker of the very question. Returning to the comparison between Jove and Jesus, it’s as though Satan himself emerges, reprimanding Byron’s narrator for the audacity to suggest that Time and mortal finitude is unfair.

Byron thinks of Rome as the Garden of Eden, of a kind of paradise lost that still offers a “fruit” (1341) from the “deep pure fountain of young life” (1333). Byron’s narrator puts his concerns with Time to rest, as “youth” offers a gift to him:

But here youth offers to old age the food,

The milk of his own gift: — it is her site

To whom she renders back the debt of blood

Born with her birth.  No; he shall not expire

While in those warm and lovely veins the fire

Of health and holy feeling can provide

Great Nature’s Nile, whose deep stream rises higher

Than Egypt’s river: — from that gentle side

Drink, drink and live, old man!  Heaven’s realm holds no such tide. (1342-1350).

“Youth,” as a predominant theme, resurfaces at the poem’s end. The initial place of embarkment from which this poem began becomes a recursive loop to which the poem’s narrator emancipates himself from in this stanza. This emancipation happens when Byron writes that youth “offers” to old age the “food,” or the “milk,” of “his own gift.” This gift is time, age, experience – in other words, the potential with which one is “born with [one’s] birth.” The inevitability of one’s fate to “expire” is bound in fate (capital Fate, in Byron’s language), but that should – for the poem’s narrator – never diminish the “fire” in one’s veins. “Health” will be maintained, in accordance with “Great Nature’s Nile,” if one drinks from the stream of life, so to speak. That is, as Byron writes, “Heaven’s ream holds no such tide.” Earthly existence, impermanent as it is, holds treasures that no poem can quantify.

Time unwelcomingly appears for its final volley when Byron’s narrator concludes, “Farewell! a word that must be, and hath been – / A sound which makes us linger; – yet – farewell!” (1666-1667). The past-tense evocation that the word “farewell” brings with it suggests that the poem’s narrator has had to work up to this utterance. Saying “farewell” is emotionally difficult for Harold; Time is a virtue that Byron’s narrator has only just begun to acquaint himself with. But, as the poem continues, the “sound” of the word “farewell” makes us “linger.” We, in other words, are contradictorily bound when this utterance occurs. The intent of the message, “farewell,” is interrupted by the emotions undergirding the phrase itself.

Afterword

For further thoughts on Byron’s complex relationship with Time, one might turn to the 43rd International Byron Conference in 2017, a conference that themed itself around “Byron, Time and Space.” The element of “Time” was heavily explored in this conference, but never touched the elements of Chile Harold that so obviously complicate Byron’s relationship with Time. Of this conference, Stephen Minta writes of Tatevik Movsisyan from Yerevan State who stringently argued that The Giaour, one of Byron’s most acclaimed works, was fundamentally tethered to this idea of “Time and Space” (Minta 2). Further, Byron himself authored a poem five years before the publication of Childe Harold’s fourth canto, entitled “To Time.” In this poem, Byron explores these themes that occur throughout Childe Harold. Those interested in the innumerable connections between Byron’s narrators and Time would be wisely advised to explore “To Time.”

 

Works Cited

Byron, George Gordon Byron, and Jerome J. McGann. Lord Byron, the major works. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Minta, S. “‘Byron, Time and Space’ 43rd International Byron Conference, Yerevan 29 June–1 July 2017 [2–4 July: excursions].” The Byron Journal, vol. 45 no. 2, 2017, pp. 177-181. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/683077.

 

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