Friday, August 12, 2016

The Corsair by Lord Byron

Today, we all know Lord Byron as one of the great Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century. Many of us also know that during his own life he was primarily famous as a playboy and rake who left scandal and ruined lives wherever he went--in fact, it took until well after his death for his poetic efforts to be taken seriously, and somewhat detached from the sordid details of his personal life. For these reasons I've always had a bit of an aversion to Byron, but while I was reading The Last Chronicle of Barset, I have to admit that some references to his longer poems whetted my interest. They sounded like immense fun.

So, The Corsair is my first significant experience reading Byron's poetry, and in many ways it was an extremely eye-opening one.

Our story focuses on a pirate named Conrad. A magnetic, passionate, surly figure, Conrad rules his men with a rod of iron, in between brooding on his tragic past and hating himself and everyone else. The only exception is the love of his life, Medora. When Conrad prepares a daring attack on the Turkish Pasha who has sworn to destroy him, Medora fears he may never return...and thus begins a swashbuckling tale full of twists and turns, tragic love, and moody self-loathing.

I have to admit I really enjoyed The Corsair. I decided to read it, by the way, after having watched the DVD of the gorgeous English National Ballet production of the ballet which is based on it. I loved Le Corsaire's pitch-perfect, unironic reproduction of the nineteenth-century Orientalist aesthetic, to say nothing of the pretty music and Alina Cojocaru's mesmerising dancing. I wasn't so keen on the plot, which could really have done with more piracy and fewer slave-girls. Byron's original poem, I was glad to discover, had a very similar flavour--but shares only a few character names with the ballet. The plot is wildly different, and the characters are by and large much more interesting--especially the villain, who makes a much more compelling and scary character.

So I enjoyed The Corsair as a fun story. I particularly admired the plotting, which was fairly tight and full of plenty of surprising swerves (right up to one rather ridiculous plot twist at the end). Most of all, however, The Corsair fascinated me as the originator of an extremely common and influential literary trope.

Well, of course, the origin of the Byronic Hero is not solely The Corsair. However, I was struck by how influential this poem must have been. Take The Count of Monte Cristo, for instance. Both stories feature a mysteriously charismatic man with a tragic past, forging his own destiny with a sense of pride and hubris. Both stories are strongly romantic tales featuring piracy on the Mediterranean; both touch on the Ottoman occupation of Greece. Last time I reread Monte Cristo, I noticed that the titular Count was quite the Byronic hero, but the whole Mediterranean/Orientalist flavour of the setting confirms that Dumas's novel drew strongly on the Byronic tradition. Or take another book I'm currently reading--The Black Corsair, a vintage swashbuckler. Though this corsair haunts the Caribbean rather than the Mediterranean, his character could have been copied word-for-word from Byron's Conrad.

All these stories, of course, ultimately stem from the Romantic tradition. As you know if you've ever looked at the history of philosophy, this was one of two streams of thought (the other being Rationalism) flowing directly from the Enlightenment. It's important to note that both streams of Enlightenment thinking saw man as the measure of all things; but where Rationalist man was a coldly logical being inhabiting a baldly materialistic universe, Romanticist man was a passionately emotional being inhabiting a universe of powerful natural and supernatural forces. In the Rationalist stream, man's reason shapes the universe. In the Romanticism stream, it's his passions and imagination.

We see this pretty clearly in the Byronic hero. Besides being attractive, sophisticated, and introspective, the Byronic hero traditionally demonstrates a strong, individualistic and often unconventional moral code. This brings him into conflict, often violent conflict, with society: he's quite likely to be found either leading nationalistic uprisings, plotting complicated vengeance, or starting revolutions.

I find it fascinating to see where this philosophy ultimately led. A later thinker in the Romantic tradition was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who took this idea to its logical extreme in the figure of the Ubermensch. As I understand it, Nietzsche's Ubermensch was a figure who had freed himself from traditional concepts of morality in order to reconstruct for himself and for the rest of humanity a new moral code independent of what had come before. This figure was necessary to the eradication of the concept of God from human thought, since to eradicate God would be to abolish morality. Since Nietzsche was opposed to nihilism and considered some form of morality necessary, the Ubermensch was born. In a nutshell, this was a philosophy of human transcendence: the deification of mankind.

Both the Byronic Hero and the Ubermensch have gone on to become enormously influential cultural tropes: characters whose own unfettered and reconstructed sense of morality shapes all those around them. It was fascinating to read an early entry in this progression.

Find The Corsair on Wikisource.


Jamie W said...

"[H]e's quite likely to be found either leading nationalistic uprisings, plotting complicated vengeance, or starting revolutions." For some reason this sentence struck me as an entry in an "About Me" page or something, which would be hysterical. Literary archetypes in a Twitter bio? Can we? :)

Also, excellent article--I like how you acknowledge the very real reasons Romantic poetry is influential and enjoyable but also the limitations and dangers of Romanticism as a worldview.

Joseph J said...

You're quite right Jamie, that's a line Suzannah stole from my LinkedIn account. I currently work as the brooding CEO of a shadowy international private security firm plotting to overthrow several national governments by fomenting revolutions and implementing puppet dictators. Its the only life.

Suzannah when you say that the Byronic hero is a very influential cultural trope, are you referring to the anti-hero? I can only think of Batman off the top of my head for some reason.

Jamie W said...

Joseph -- This is a little odd, but another example of the Byronic hero in culture that I can think of is the March girls' plays in Little Women (which are apparently based on plays the Alcott sisters created as young girls). Jo plays the melodramatic Roderigo in enormous leather boots, and looking back at the novel I can definitely see the influence of this archetype.

The Alcotts' original scripts, available on Project Gutenberg, have a peculiar charm in themselves:

Suzannah said...

Oh, Jamie, haven't you heard of The Brooding YA Hero?

He used to be funnier, most of his tweets are just feminist propaganda these days, but I imagine that's more or less what you were thinking ;).

Joseph, one day you'll have to get Robert Ludlum to ghostwrite the story of your life, obviously. ;) Actually, the Anti-Hero and the Byronic Hero are slightly different tropes, although Batman would be a good example of both of them. One way of describing it would be to say that the Byronic Hero is a kind of anti-hero; the antihero trope also includes the classical antihero, of which Frodo Baggins is a good example: a humble everyman who more or less fails at the big quest.

Jamie W said...

Haha, that's brilliant! Oh dear. I don't read much YA but I once had to put one down when the protagonist described her biologically impossible eye color--never picked it up again either. And then again I've read some really good ones. But satire of a dominant genre is always fun. :)

Joseph J said...

Its almost disturbing how far TV Tropes has dissected and labelled stories. Who are the people who contribute to these websites? Where do they get their time? Its impressive, yet rather excessive. Useful though.

Suzannah said...

Jamie, can you recommend any of the really good YA novels you've read? I've been looking for some good ones with, I must admit, little success.

Joseph, I imagine TVTropes has a great many contributors who waste a good deal of time on there. As an author myself, however, I've found it incredibly useful both in generating ideas and identifying problems... in fact, it's often my first stop whenever I'm trying to add a bit more interest to any given scene, character, or plotline. So I'm really quite grateful for it!

Jamie W said...

Well, to be honest I didn't think through that comment. I know there have been some high-concept novels that I've enjoyed at least for the concept, but I'm afraid when I said it I was also including novels that, in my mind, are typically recommended starting in the young teens--but clearly The Hobbit isn't in the YA *genre*! I wonder, though, if A Wrinkle in Time would be considered YA. That book is excellent.

Suzannah said...

Ah yes, A WRINKLE IN TIME is definitely YA, and so are many other great books I could mention (already re-reading THE PERILOUS GARD, aloud with my sisters, and loving it more than ever the second time). So difficult to find comparable classics from within the last 10 years...


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