E457 George Gordon Byron Questions

Assigned: 03/16. Lord Byron. "Written after Swimming from Sestos to Abydos" (555-56), "She Walks in Beauty" (556-57), "Darkness" (559-60), "January 22nd. Missolonghi" (562-63), Manfred (588-621).
03/23. Don Juan (621-89), Letters (689-98).

"Written after Swimming from Sestos to Abydos" (555-56)

1. What attitude does this poem take towards earlier literary retellings of the Hero and Leander story — specifically, to Marlowe's Elizabethan version and to the ancient recountings by Musaeus Grammaticus and Ovid? There's no need to go over these earlier versions in detail; the point is to discuss briefly how Byron connects himself to and distinguishes himself from “literary tradition.” Internet sources: Hero and Leander (on the ancient version) and Marlowe's version.

"She Walks in Beauty" (556-57)

2. What accounts for the remarkable beauty of the “She” in this poem (Mrs. Wilmot, Byron's cousin)? Consider how the speaker deals with what Coleridge would call “opposite and discordant qualities” (disparate phenomena, that is) in his description of the lady, and how he connects her physical beauty to moral qualities.

"Darkness" (559-60)

3. When the sun is extinguished in the speaker's dream, what natural processes follow the same path to destruction? How does this path correspond to the speaker's recounting of the human race's final days?

4. If you are familiar with the Bible's book Revelation (in which John of Patmos describes his vision of the Apocalypse), how does Byron's end-of-the-world scenario differ in its tone and assumptions from that work?

"January 22nd. Missolonghi" (562-63)

5. Byron died of a fever in Missolonghi not long after this poem was composed – he was there to help organize Greece's fight for independence from the Turkish Ottoman Empire. How does he arrive at his resolution to stay and “Seek out . . . / A Soldier's Grave” (37-38)?

6. Compare the attitude struck up in this poem with the one in the earlier, shorter poem “When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home” (page 561). Together, how do they suggest the complexity of Byron's understanding of his own actions and the claims used to justify them?

Manfred (588-621)

Act 1, Scene 1

7. From 1.1.21-25, Manfred refers to some primal scene and curse that have caused his unhappiness. The Norton editors point out that this vague reference may have to do with an incestuous relationship between Manfred and Astarte. Aside from the obvious taboo status of incest, how might this forbidden behavior be interpreted in a way that sheds light on Manfred's dilemma as a "romantic hero"? In this light, consider the lines that begin the play – 1.1.1-25 as a unit.

8. From 1.1.28-192, Manfred has his first encounter with the Spirits whom he has summoned. Who are these spirits? Why must they obey Manfred? What can't they tell him that he wants to know, and why? What do they offer him in compensation, and then what happens when (175ff) Manfred demands to "behold . . . {them} face to face")?

9. From 1.1.193-261, what further insight does the Voice offer about Manfred's situation? To what extent does it explain the end of the previous episode, in which Manfred "faints away" at the sight of one of the Spirits?

Act 1, Scene 2

10. From 1.2.1-56, we note that the scene has shifted from Manfred's Castle to the Mountain of the Jungfrau. Why is this alternation in setting between the Alps and a human habitation significant? How is the mountain-summit setting, in particular, metaphoric of the speaker's spiritual condition? More generally, what does Manfred suggest in this passage about his connection (or lack thereof) to the natural world?

11. Again from 1.2.1-56, how does Manfred explain his failure to leap from the mountain at once, without further thoughts or words? How, in this passage, does Manfred analyze and figure forth his desire to die, and why do his words seem only to increase his misery?

12. From 1.2.57-125, the Chamois Hunter comes upon Manfred unawares, and rescues him. How does this character's sensibility differ from that of Manfred, and how does he apparently regard the latter's attempt at suicide? And why — aside from brute force — does Manfred descend with the Chamois Hunter rather than continue to struggle?

Act 2, Scene 1

13. From 2.1.1-95, how does his continuing conversation with the Chamois Hunter help Manfred decide what his course must be, now that he has rejected suicide? How much does the Hunter understand of Manfred's problem? How does Manfred himself describe it at this point?

Act 2, Scene 2

14. From 2.2.1-205, how does Manfred describe his differences from ordinary human beings? What did he seek most intently, and to what extent did he find what he was looking for? How does the picture we obtain of Manfred here amount to what readers and critics came to call "The Byronic Stance (or Pose)"?

15. Again from 2.2.1-205, why won't Manfred swear obedience to the Witch of the Alps? What is the symbolic significance of his rejection, and how does his refusal follow logically from the self-description given us?

Act 2, Scene 3

16. From 2.3.1-72, what are the aims and powers of the Destinies and Nemesis?

Act 2, Scene 4

17. From 2.4.1-169, what request does Manfred make of the Destinies, Nemesis, and Ahrimanes? What does he want from Astarte, and what answer does the Phantom of Astarte give him?

Act 3, Scene 1

18. From 3.1.1-171, the Abbot of St. Maurice visits Manfred's Castle — what arguments does this priest employ to bring Manfred round to an acceptance of Christian tenets? What explanation does Manfred give for refusing, and in what sense is this explanation (which gives us a sense of the Count's ethics or moral system) characteristic of the "Byronic Hero"?

Act 3, Scenes 2-3

19. From 3.2.1-30 and 3.3.1-63, Manfred bids goodbye to the sun, and then his servants Herman and Manuel reminisce about former times. Manuel begins to recount "an event / Which happened hereabouts" (32-33), but the Abbot's return prevents him from speaking further. To what conjectures might this passage give rise concerning the event that took place in the Castle and involved Manfred and Astarte?

Act 3, Scene 4

20. From 3.4.1-153, with the Abbot standing by, Manfred confronts the Spirits that have come to summon him away. Examine his dying speech from 3.3.109-41. Why does he refuse to bow to the spirits' will, and to what extent does the scene as a whole call into question the Abbot's orthodox Christian understanding of Manfred's fate?

21. General question: Manfred is often described as programmatically romantic – a play that illustrates later critics' claims about what constitutes literary romanticism. What characteristics of the play lend themselves to such a categorization? Still, is there anything about the text that doesn't seem so programmatic, or that is characteristic of romantic appreciation for nuance and an ability to question romantic premises? Explain.

Don Juan (621-89)

Canto 1 (622-650)

22. Who is the narrator of this epic poem? Discuss a few important passages in which he intrudes upon the story with his own ideas about the poem's purpose, moral status, structure, characters, and so forth. How does he make his own situation and attitudes an inextricable part of the Don Juan narrative proper? On the whole, which predominates – the story about young Juan, or the interjections and commentary of the narrator?

23. Consider Juan's first love match – the one with the winsome (but married) Donna Julia. What in the circumstances of his education and upbringing (particularly with regard to Juan's mother, Donna Inez) makes this affair and its consequences all but inevitable? How is this episode perhaps Byron's way of mocking the absurdity of conventional moral strictures against sexuality?

Canto 2 (651-672)

24. In the first half of the selections from this canto, how does the narrator handle the shipwreck suffered by Juan and the "cannibal lottery" that costs Juan's guardian Pedrillo his life? What attitude, that is, does the narrator adopt towards these unfortunate events? How does the episode as a whole cut against the notion that Juan is an active hero or romance quester, as he is in some earlier versions of the legend?

25. In the second half of the selections from this canto, what observations does the narrator offer regarding Haidee, the beautiful young woman who finds Juan washed up along the shore? What makes her special, and distinguishes her from, say, European women such as Donna Inez and Donna Julia from the previous canto?

26. The narrator traces for us Juan's recovery and the stirrings of a glorious "innocent love" between Juan and Haidee. In this recounting, do the narrator's interruptions and sly comments undercut your enjoyment of the "innocent love" theme, or does that theme hold its own against humor and cynicism? Explain your rationale.

Canto 3 (672-680) and Canto 4 (680-689)

27. Just as the love between Juan and Haidee is becoming more intense, Haidee's pirate father Lambro returns to the island. What happens then – how does Haidee manage to save Juan's life, if not preserve his freedom? In what sense does the narration reverse or at least unsettle traditional male-centered notions about heroism?

28. What happens to Haidee as a result of her heroic act? How – at the end of the selection from this canto — does the narrator extricate himself from having to dwell longer on her sad fate, and how has he thereby circled back to his self-absorbed interjections at the beginning of the 4th canto? On the whole, do you find that the narrator's own ideas and circumstances in Cantos 3-4 overshadow the Juan-narrative proper, or do you regard them as having equal weight or less significance? Explain your rationale.

Letters (689-98)

29. In any of the selected letters, discuss Byron's comments about his own work (Childe Harold and or Don Juan) – in what estimation does he seem to regard his own literary productions? How much does he care about criticism of them, and what seem to be his hopes or expectations for them regarding their public reception?

30. In the letter to Leigh Hunt (689-90), what is Byron's complaint about Wordsworth's attitude as a critic and his powers of observation as a poet? What fundamental difference in approach to literature would you say underlies the disagreement Byron expresses?

31. In any of the selected letters, discuss Byron's remarks about his affairs with women and his attitude towards women generally: what (if anything) do you find noteworthy about them? What (if anything) do you not like about his remarks on this topic, and why?

Edition: Abrams, M.H. et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2A. 7th edition. ISBN 2A = 0393975681.