Byron’s Religions

‘Byron’s Religions’ was the title of the 2010 one-day Conference of the Newstead Abbey Byron society held at Nottingham University on May 1st.

Personally I think that despite some very interesting papers I found this Conference something of a disappointment. Of course this may have much to do with the fact that I was not very well when I attended it! But if asked for a more substantial and objective reason, I think I would say that in the first part the title proved something of a misnomer, in that most discussion was about Byron’s relationship to (Protestant) Christian theology – now this is a fascinating subject, but not exactly what is implied by the name of the Conference. Secondly, much of the Conference resolved itself into a highly specialised debate about very specific meanings and nuances of Cain – there were two factions here, each led by a heavyweight and it may be that this is one of those instances where there are wider disagreements and histories of which someone like me will be wholly unaware. Given this my usual caveat about the following being purely personal impressions, notes and reflections applies more than ever.

Opening Address

The opening address was given by Bernard Beatty. Beatty argued that B. was very much in the tradition of late 18thc scepticism which continued into early 19thC. He was not an atheist. In fact there were not many believers in Regency England [I am not really sure of the historical validity of this claim? surely it would at the least need to be qualified by reference to a particular class?]. The position was somewhat that the many advances in scientific thought seemed to challenge previous understandings – Beatty quoted Sartre to the effect that any one advance in though challenges all thought. In DJ Aurora is only conventional Christian (as Wilberforce was only conventional Christian in Pitt’s circle). It was the rational Christianity of the late 17th/18thC which was challenged – Locke’s theism – a position which Beatty claimed is what atheists attack today. But this is not the theological tradition which rejects reason.

B’s own reading was heavily theological. Beatty said he wanted to advance three claims in respect of B’s religion…

  1. B. not a believer in any orthodox sense
  2. B. in fact more orthodox than the rational theists
  3. B. was a Christian.

He said that 1 was self-evident.

As far as 2 is concerned Beatty turned to the recollections of James Kennedy on his arguments with B.; Kennedy dismissed all objections to rational truths and proofs of religion – B. on the other hand loved theological paradoxes and contradictions – the irrationality – example virgin mother. B. liked wonder which rational Christianity wanted to take away. Kennedy wanted to get rid of miracles where B. wanted to revel in them (even if he was highly sceptical of them). In Cain Adah is orthodox theologian and Lucifer is Enlightenment philosopher. But Cain ends with the incomprehensibility of suffering and continuance of human violence – with which only Adah can deal. B. deals with notions of grace, election and pre-destination in Heaven and Earth [highly satirically according to Caroline Franklin (1)]. Reformation Christianity – absence of feminism/feminine [I really find word and concept of feminism unsuitable here] – B. grew up in this tradition but eyes opened in Catholic  Spain [I just do not believe that B. sent Allegra to a convent because he wanted  her to become a feminist!].

B. is more orthodox in his poetic imagination – contradictions, paradoxes, unification of opposites – these are orthodox Christianity. Sense of sin separated B. from contemporaries. B. most sceptical in prose. Scepticism cannot generate poetry. Hazlitt condemned mixing of tangible things and intangible faiths, but this was exactly what B. loved to do – played around with transubstantiation and was fascinated by it – half mocking, half serious. B. played with multiplicity in unity and unity in multiplicity; rejected completeness – Beatty aligned Unitarianism with Dawkins and Hazlitt, multiplicity with post-modernism and Southey. B was orthodox in imagination and a believer by proxy.

In the discussion which followed the issue of the contradiction of freedom and necessity was highlighted.

[Having now typed up notes of this I am buying it even less than I did at the time. If what Beatty argues is some atheist’s simplistic view of Christianity – no other religions were mentioned – is valid – and I accept it may have some truth, it seems to me that he displays an equally simplistic view of atheism and atheists. In fact there is no more any necessary rational basis for being an atheist than for being a believer. I  have no interest in or understanding of science whatsoever but am still a committed atheist. It is not a matter of reason but of personal choice and belief – whatever the latter may mean. And actually I do rather like and am rather intrigued by theology – certainly much more than I am by science. None of this shakes my atheism. I am not arguing that B. was an atheist. What I am saying is the fact that he liked playing with and mulling over theological concepts proves nothing. Moreover it seems to me – even if it is absurd to move briefly into such muddy and difficult waters – that an essential part of being a Christian is not just belief but actually living one’s life according to Christian principles. I can see no evidence of this in B. and Beatty did not discuss the matter. All in all I am completely unconvinced.]

Richard Cardwell: ‘A Continuance of Enduring Thought’ : Byron’s Metaphysical Journey

Richard Cardwell said he would be looking at a single theme. He started with the Romantic world-view but admitted there were problems with the word Romantic and what it meant (or whether indeed it meant anything). But he said that the radical shift at the end of the 18thC was in the attitude to life, and the salient Romantic attitude was ‘inner disharmony’ – the common symptom was withdrawal rather than reaction – a psychological reaction – a radical reassessment.

Cardwell cited Isaiah Berlin’s thought on the subject [about which I started writing well over a year ago and am still nowhere near completion!] – the big shift was that prior to Romanticism it was believed that all problems were soluble by either man or God; from the late 18thC this was no longer believed – some questions and problems were held to be simply unanswerable. Idea that ultimate truth (whether or not ascertainable by man) exists is discarded.

B. is melancholic. He has a negative world-view and questioned absolute values. The problem is that if these go then what replaces them? Love – the Oriental Tales? Action? Mocking/black humour? But the most persistent reaction is revolt (against everything) and this is B’s central contention and heritage. In his poetry he is doubting and questioning both for himself and his public. Even in early poetry like the 1807 To Romance one can find this questioning and revolt: the poem’s trajectory is from golden dreams to shame, darkness and reality.

In Childe Harold we find the retreat from earlier innocence/happiness. CH cuts himself off, displaces himself, displaces thought with activity, but nothing dispels ‘life abhorring gloom’, weariness, ‘the blight of life the demon thought’.

One Romantic response is black humour – laugh in order not to weep – ‘mocking laugh’ – before B. Beaumarchais/Chateaubriand – many later expressions. A pose – the dandy effect. Writing is itself therapy – see start of Canto 3 of CH.

Oriental Tales present another version of Romantic response – theme of crime and punishment – in letter B. says Christianity immoral. Oriental protagonists suffer for no real reason and without solution. Conrad total outsider – response black humour and self-mockery. But this is a panacea not a cure – means of temporary self-protection – Stoic pose.

Manfred key work. ‘A continuance of enduring thought’. M. is beset by grief – knowledge can only be gained by loss – see  ‘sorrow is knowledge’ and following lines. The more M. seeks for knowledge the less he finds – indeed conversely the search leads to more grief. M. has fallen like man, his search is for lost Eden. M. is born under power of never-named supreme deity; M. is both good and evil. He is evil for no reason of own actions. When he contemplates suicide he is prevented by higher power – cannot even end it all. In conversation with abbot he rejects Christian solutions. Finally he meets spirits and B. offers solution – M’s power belongs to former world of good; he rejects accusation of crime and makes final great humanist declaration….

The mind which is immortal makes itself
Requital for its good or evil thoughts,                390
Is its own origin of ill and end,
And its own place and time; its innate sense,
When stripp’d of this mortality, derives
No colour from the fleeting things without,
But is absorb’d in sufferance or in joy,
Born from the knowledge of its own desert.

…man must be accountable to himself and so M. finally wills himself to death – B. prefigures Camus and the Existentialists here – my death will be my supreme protest against a world of tears and blood.

Onto Cain. A complex drama. B returns to idea that biblical creation story is deeply flawed – a theme of Manfred. B. deeply interested in science which he discussed with Shelley. Cain offers counter-account to Genesis. B. was influenced by Cuvier and his science – which was concerned with creation. Cuvier wanted longer time period than Church allowed but still wanted to reconcile geological proof of ancient earth with gospel account – B. saw weakness of this. Cuvier said Creator made organisms by fits and starts and scattered them in time – B. pointed out that this made for a Creator who was either deranged or inadequate or malevolent – and B. went for latter – rejected idea of Creator as benevolent and wise. B. nervous of reaction to Cain – B. rejects Genesis and Paradise Lost – makes God a ‘vain child’ creating worlds out of loneliness. But despite this pessimism B. suggests hope for man in rebellion – human suffering is collective and therefore endurable. Similarly God creates son (Jesus) out of loneliness and then destroys him in act of cruelty.

B. stresses immortality in Manfred and Cain – immortality which cannot be escaped. B argues that men who come to know mortal men’s nothingness can wrest something from creator. Revolt is not only metaphysical defiance but evolutionary act. Man must be free by shaking off creator and making world anew, but can only come to this through suffering and acceptance of non-knowledge.

 In dying months B. relies only on own strength – he debated with Kennedy – but at end stands by his own human integrity like Existential heirs. Dying words no mention of religion – specifically rejects its consolations.

In the discussion which followed the fact that the two opening addresses were utterly incompatible [as will hopefully be very clear from my summary!] emerged!

[Thinking back on this – and I would not claim that my memory is at all accurate – it was this divergence between the two opening speakers which spilled over into and dominated the rest of the day – not I think very helpfully. I say not very helpfully, because what seemed to happen was rather than acknowledging the fundamental opposing attitudes/ideas revealed, everything was reduced to discussion of a few textual matters – mainly those in Cain. Perhaps this is a version of academic good manners to stop too open an argument breaking out, or anything that smacks of ideology intruding. Personally I think it would have been more fruitful to have acknowledged the differences, but I can see why this might be ‘out of place’ at an academic conference. I think it should also be said that although I have talked of ‘factions’ before in fact this is a bit of a misnomer – Bernard Beatty’s position seemed to have far more followers, but whether this is because he is a much bigger weight in the academic Byron world, or because people agreed with him or some combination of the two I have no idea. Personally – as will probably be clear from the relative space I have given their talks – I found Cardwell much more convincing and interesting: I would freely admit this is because the ideas he presented were more ideologically sympathetic to me, but it is also true that his picture of B. tallies far more closely with mine. As an amateur I have of course little knowledge, and certainly attach no weight to, academic reputations – this is something I have discussed on previous occasions in relation to the academic world.

In terms of Cardwell’s paper I found a lot of it convincing. I would wish – as always – to add my own contribution concentrating on my own obsession on B. as depressive and the way this affected him as both poet and man – there are melancholies and melancholies – ‘the demon thought’ is a wonderful expression of something which every serious depressive will have experienced and had to deal with in their own way. Incidentally referring back to Beatty’s talk I find it hard to see the sense of sin in B. – what I find instead is guilt – but this again is for a depressive a symptom of their condition rather than any ethical or religious manifestation.

In brief summary I find Cardwell’s paper very rich and suggestive and it certainly made the day worthwhile.]

After lunch the Conference split into two with panels.

I attended Session 3B.

Mirka Hirova – Byron’s Catastrophism

The volcanic eruption of 1815 coincided with Napoleon’s defeat and led to bad weather which dogged B’s 1816 travels. Hirova claimed that catastrophism pervades all B’s work. It was an amalgam of two strands of geological thought…

  1. Neptunism – which held earth shaped by deluvial catastrophes
  2. Volcanism – which held earth shaped by volcanic catastrophes

Catastrophism combined the two. Cuvier published in English in 1813. Crucial element of catastrophist theory was degeneration: Neptune/Vulcan emphasise mytho-poetic elements of this. B’s writing of 1816 bursts with energy – see the Monody on the Death of Sheridan (‘hearts electric’) but above all Darkness. Some claim that catastrophism attractive to B. because of gloomy Fall/fall aspect but this is far too simplistic – B. actually sardonically questions truth of catastrophism in Detached Thoughts – (you never see ‘the abundant harvest’ etc. – this is an interesting passage which includes the great phrase ‘the miserable happiness of a stationary and unwarlike philosophy’). B. has no finite frame of thought and therefore no finite conclusions.

Paul Whickman – Fallible Revelations

The Blasphemy Act of 1698 still very much in force in Bs time.Recent argument has been that Cain is not anti-religious. Early 19thC saw flood of new Bible translations and therefore people concluded that words of scripture may not necessarily be scripture. Can Cain be seen as a dialogue between B. as interrogator of language and B. as defender of orthodoxy. Whickman argues that Cain is very suspicious of language and B. was too – Cain about power of language – Foucault – language controls  [as will be clear from these jottings I failed to grasp the intent and argument of this paper!].

Madeleine Callaghan – Byron and the Language of Sacrifice

Sacrifice is a constant theme in B. – he was strongly antithetical to sacrifice – it offended humanist concerns – B. will not sacrifice human life for art. Famous passage about absurdity of Jesus’s sacrifice – but is this his last word? Pedrillo episode in DJ suggests another mood/attitude. Callaghan argued that B’s poetry contributes a vocabulary of loss.

QandA

The QandA session following this panel reverted once more to the preceding argument – again centring on Cain. I did ask a question – based on the ‘miserable happiness’ quote – as to whether B. ever had anything to say about Quakerism/Pietism but apparently he did not. Apparently in fact he was not at all interested in other religions and says nothing about them – which might suggest as I have said that a Conference on the subject of ‘Byron’s Religions’ is either a misnomer or a non-starter!

Session 4A

I was only able to stay for two of the speakers on this panel but fortunately they were both interesting.

Ralph Lloyd-Jones – Byron and the Jews: the Jewish Byron?

This, as last year, Lloyd-Jones’ paper made a refreshing change in that it was based on historical rather than literary analysis [obviously this is primarily a literary conference but a leavening of historical and biographical discussion provides useful and interesting perspective]. Isaac Nathan was a friend of B. who wrote a memoir about him – given the racism and anti-Semitism of the day it is significant that B. had Jewish friends. Jews returned to England in 1655 but this did not stop anti-Semitism of which there was a long literary tradition – Chaucer/Marlowe/Shakespeare. In the late 18thC there were still heavy restrictions on Jews. B. had dealings with ‘the Jews’ as usurers and disdained them as such in the manner of his day, but his Jewish friends were in show-biz. He met Nathan via his Drury Lane connections. As radicals B. and circle both philo-Semitic and pro-Islam [neither of these fascinating issues was really developed at any length during the day] but he did not read and was not interested in Talmud/Torah/Koran. It was as poetry that B was fascinated by psalms and Nathan’s tunes – the job of creating words was first offered to Scott (Lloyd-Jones pointed out that B. probably didn’t know he was second choice). B. believed he empathised with persecution of the Jews.

Both Cain and Manfred called ‘mysteries’ – reference to medieval mystery plays in which B. very interested. ‘Wolf from the Fold’ a redemption narrative – but not Christian as does not involve acceptance of Christ. Nathan gave B. matzoh which B. accepted – they would have been well aware that this refuted the blood libel [I have made a note here that it would be very useful if this paper were published – Lloyd-Jones covered a tremendous amount of ground and my pen could not keep pace].

Was B. as Raphael claimed a Zionist avant la lettre? Probably not – can overstate friendship with Nathan; he sympathises with Jews as with Irish/Greeks/Albanians etc. but he never wrote for them. He wrote against Jews who supported despotic European regimes but not in a racist way

Shona Allen – An (Un)holy tale: Byron, Burns, the Bible and Blasphemy

[Allen is another speaker I have heard before and enjoyed].

Religion is frequently linked to both B. and Burns, especially in terms of blasphemy.

In fact Burns more narrowly centred on Calvinism/Scottish Presbyterianism (though research on Burns and Catholicism is ongoing).

There are 1704 references to the Bible in B. (someone counted!). B. was of course influenced by Burns though not vice-versa.Can one see in both a common detestation of hypocrisy/cant? MacDiarmid thought B. was the Scottish poet – before even Burns. Calvinism was of course central to Scottish life in the 16th-19thCs – the fact that this was part of Burns’ heritage is well-known but people forget B. spent first 10 years in Aberdeen.

Allen moved on to an analysis of Holy Willie’s Prayer – she claimed that the poem works with contradictions – it is not merely that Willie is hypocrite but that Calvinism itself demands hypocrisy. Burns switches languages and moods with extraordinary rapidity which is why poem may be said to prefigure DJ.

But question is whether Burns/B. use biblical references in such a way as to constitute blasphemy? Is it not just using voices which readers would understand? But readers did not read in ways that might be intended.

Last public prosecution for blasphemy in Scotland 1843 but law still on statute book there. In England law repealed in 2008 (!) but last successful case 1922. Bible world’s least read best-seller: a Church of Scotland survey found only 30% of members read bible [an incredible figure given the centrality of the Word in that church – one imagines it would be far lower in other churches?].

Are Burns/B. telling holy or unholy tales? Probably both. Scottish literature illustrates how much one can do with humour.

Conclusion

As stated I had to leave at this point to get back to a family party but I only missed one paper. Although I have been negative there were three papers (Cardwell, Lloyd-Jones and Allen) which I very much enjoyed. And I am not attempting to suggest that it would have been possible for the Conference to emerge with any firm conclusions: in the area of theology and religion one can make many cases for B’s position, as one can with his politics. He had no truck with and was not interested in consistency. Any claim which advances too much leaves room for a counter-claim, and everyone can have their own Byron (well nearly everyone – the people who see him mainly as the founder of vampirism and forerunner of The Twilight Saga fall beyond my pale!). This Byron reflects one’s own concerns and politics and philosophy. What I like to hear is people being honest about this. I am interested in Byron as depressive, radical and libertarian because those are my own interests and positions (and there is certainly evidence for all of them). But I recognise other people have other Byrons. I dislike those who try to claim that their personal B. is the B.. And as I say the disguising of starting points. I realise this is academic practice but it is not conducive to interesting or constructive debate. Instead people worry away at some particular point of text in the hope that it will prove or disprove a particular position. This seems to me not only a fruitless exercise, but also an excluding one since the non-academic will find it hard to follow. It is as if there is not only a claim for Byron (and I have no doubt this applies to other literary figures) to be a particular B., but that only those well-versed in the latest academic jargon and positions are entitled to make this kind of claim. One thing I am sure of is that B. himself would have found this absurd and tossed-off some well-directed satire.

As it is, much of the argument and debate at this Conference seemed to me to be conducted in a kind of code, where in truth it would have been much more helpful and constructive if no code had been employed.

Notes

  1. Franklin:Byron A Literary Life  p171

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