The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

II. Byron

§ 11. Dramatic works

Apart from an early draft of the first act of Werner, Byron’s dramatic works all belong to the years that succeed his final departure from England in 1816; and the same alternation between the romantic and the classic mode, which can be traced in his early poems, reappears still more clearly in his plays. Manfred, Cain and Heaven and Earth are romantic alike in spirit and structure; Marino Faliero, The Two Foscari and Sardanapalus represent a deliberate attempt on the part of the author to break loose from that domination of the Elizabethan masters which is so apparent in most of the poetic dramas of the romantic revival, and to fashion tragedy on the neoclassic principles of Racine and Alfieri. In other words, Byron is a romanticist when he introduces into his dramas super-natural beings and a strong lyrical element, but a classicist when he draws his material from the beaten track of history and refuses to admit the intervention of a spirit-world into the affairs of men.

In Manfred, as in the third canto of Childe Harold, we recognise the spell which the Alps exercised on Byron’s genius. In one of his letters he declares, “It was the Staubach and the Jungfrau and something else, much more than Faustus, that made me write Manfred.” His sense of the spiritual life of nature finds lofty expression in the songs with which the spirits of the earth and air greet Manfred in the opening act, while the sublimity of the mountain scenery reacts upon the hero’s soul in somewhat the same way as the storm on the heath reacts upon the soul of Lear. Yet, Manfred is, at the same time, the child of Goethe’s Faust; Byron’s indebtedness to Goethe is most marked in the opening soliloquy, but, soon, the younger poet’s masterful individuality breaks the spell, and, in making Manfred reject the compact with the spirits of Arimanes and thereby remain master of his fate, Byron introduces a new and eminently characteristic element into the action. In Manfred, the Byronic hero of the oriental tales, an outcast from society, stained with crime and proudly solitary, reappers under a tenser and more spiritualised form. There is something Promethean in his nature, and he towers above the earlier Byronic heroes both by the greater intensity of his anguish of mind and, also, by the iron resolution of his will. Over the drama there hangs a pall of mystery, which the vision of Astarte, instead of lightening, serves only to make more impenetrable. Speculation has been rife as to the precise nature of that “something else” which, Byron tells us, went to the making of the play, but all attempts to elucidate the mystery remain frustrate.

In Cain, we witness the final stage in the evolution of the Byronic hero. It is a play which bears somewhat the same relation to Paradise Lost that Manfred bears to Faust. The note of rebellion against social order and against authority is stronger than ever; but the conflict which goes to form the tragedy is, unlike that of Manfred, one of the intellect rather than of the passions. Cain is a drama of scepticism—a scepticism which is of small account in our day, but which, when the “Mystery” first appeared, seemed strangely like blasphemy, and called down upon Byron a torrent of anger and abuse. The scepticism finds expression, not only on the lips of Cain, but, also, on those of Lucifer, who is but Cain writ large, and whose spirit of rebellion against divine government gives to the drama its Titanic character. The story of Cain had fascinated Byron since the time when, as a boy of eight, his German master had read to him Gessner’s Der Tod Abels, while the poet’s indebtedness—first pointed out by Coleridge—to Milton’s Satan, in his conception of Lucifer, needs no elaboration here. But what marks Cain off from Manfred and the verse-tales in that element of idyllic tenderness associated with the characters of Cain’s wife, Adah, and their child, Enoch. This is beautiful in itself, and also serves as a fitting contrast to those sublimer scenes in which the hero is borne by Lucifer through the abysses of space and the dark abodes of Hades.

Heaven and Earth, written at Ravenna within the space of fourteen days, seems to have been intended by its author as a corrective to what the world termed the impiety of Cain. It appeared almost simultaneously with Moore’s Loves of the Angels, which deals, though in a vastly different mood, with the same biblical legend of the marriage of the sons of God to the daughters of men. In the person of Aholibamah, the note of Byronic revolt rings out once more; but the “mystery,” quite apart from its fragmentary character, lacks human interest and coherency, while its amorphous choral lyrics are a positive disfigurement.

When we pass from Byron’s romantic and supernatural dramas to his Venetian tragedies and Sardanapalus, we enter a very different would. Here, in the observance of the unities, the setting of the scenes and in all that goes to constitute the technique of drama, the principles of classicism are in force. Byron’s reverence for the classic mould finds expression already in his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, in which he makes the following appeal to Sheridan:

  • Give, as thy last memorial to the age,
  • One classic drama, and reform the stage.
  • The acquaintance which he gained, during his residence in Italy, with the classical tragedies of Alfieri deepened the convictions of his youth, and the influence of the Italian tragedian can be traced in all Byron’s historical dramas. This influence is, perhaps, strongest in Marino Faliero, and is all the more remarkable in that Byron is following in the path marked out by the romantic masters, Shakespeare and Otway, in his portrayal of Venetian life under its doges. But, here, as in The Two Foscari, the dramatic workmanship, though faithful to that regularity and precision of outline enjoined by classic tradition, suffers much from the recalcitrant nature of the material dramatised. The conduct of Marino Faliero, like that of the younger Foscari, though more or less true to history, is felt to be dramatically improbable; the motives which inspire the courses of action are inadequate, and indulgence in rhetorical declamation—the besetting sin of classical tragedy from Seneca onwards—adds still further to the sense of unreality in these plays.

    Sardanapalus is, from every point of view, a greater success than either of the Venetian tragedies. Though the plot is drawn from historical records—the Bibliothecae Historicae of Diodorus Siculus—Byron allows himself a free hand in shaping his materials, and the love-story, with all that concerns the heroine, Myrrha, is pure invention. the play was written at Ravenna in 1821 and owes much to the poet’s daily intercourse with Theresa Guiccioli. Indeed, much might be said in favour of the view that the countess is herself portrayed in the person of Myrrha, who is painted with far greater sympathy and truth to life than any of the heroines of the verse-tales, while self-portraiture is seen in every line of the hero, Sardanapalus. The Assyrian king has far more of Byron in him than any of the so-called Byronic heroes; for, while they are but shadowy representations of a certain temper of mind, Sardanapalus is a creature of flesh and blood. Nor is the dramatic interest summed up in a single character: Myrrha, the Greek slave, Zarina, the wronged queen, and her brother, Salamenes, are all living characters, lacking, it may be, the subtle complexity of Shakespeare’s dramatis personae, but boldly and firmly outlined in the manner of classic tragedy, to which this play conforms more closely than any other of Byron’s works.

    In Werner and The Deformed Transformed, there is a return to the romantic pattern of dramatic workmanship. The former is an unconvincing attempt to dramatise one of the Canterbury Tales of Sophia and Harriet Lee, and is deficient both in poetry and dramatic power: the latter, also based, to a certain extent, on a contemporary novel—Joshua Pickersgill’s The Three Brothers (1803)—is an excursion into the realms of necromancy, and daringly presents the figure of a hunchback Julius Caesar engaging in the siege of Rome in 1527, and assuming the rôle of a Mephistopheles.

    It is an easy transition from Byron’s historical dramas to such poems as The Lament of Tasso and The Prophecy of Dante, which take the form of dramatic soliloquies and may be looked upon as the creations of the historic imagination. The former was written in 1817, after a visit to the scenes of Tasso’s life at Ferrara, while the latter belongs to the year 1819, which the poet spent in the city of Ravenna, where Dante lies buried. It is dedicated to countess Guiccioli, who suggested the theme. The mood of The Lament is one of unavailing sadness, ennobled by pride and transfigured by the Italian poet’s love for Leonora d’Este; and the expression of this love and grief is marred by no rhetorical artifice on Byron’s part, whose sympathy with Tasso renders him for once forgetful of self and capable of giving voice to a passion that was not his own but another’s. The Prophecy is cast in a more ambitious mould, and is charged with intense personal emotion. The Dante who speaks is the apostle of that political liberty which had grown dear to Byron at a time when he was living in a country that lay under the Austrian yoke. Though written in English, it was, as Medwin tells us, intended for the Italians, to who it was to be a glorious vision, revealed to them by their great national poet, of the risorgimento of Italy in their own day. Byron has, perhaps, failed to reproduce the noble clarity of Dante’s mind, but he has caught the patriotic pride and saeva indignatio of the great Florentine, and, in making him the foreteller of an age when

  • The Genius of my Country shall arise,
  • A Cedar towering o’er the Wilderness,
  • Lovely in all its branches to all eyes,
  • Fragrant as fair, and recognised afar,
  • Wafting its native incense through the skies—
  • he has magnificently associated the aspirations of Dante with those of himself in the days of the Carboneria. Byron’s terza rima of the Commedia; for, whereas Dante almost invariably makes a distinct pause at the close of the stanza, Byron frequently runs on the sense from one tercet to another and, thereby, goes far to destroy the metrical effect produced upon the ear by Dante.