The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Complaint and Byron

Dear Unknown Friends:

The 1966 lecture by Eli Siegel that we’re in the midst of serializing is important and immensely kind. It’s on a subject so much a part of people’s days, thoughts, and utterances: complaint. The lecture is about complaint in poetry. And in the section we’ve reached, Mr. Siegel comments on passages from Byron’s poem Childe Harold.

He spoke on Byron many times. And I have said that Eli Siegel is the critic who understood Byron, both as poet and human being. This is not the place for me to give with any fullness my reasons for saying that (though I have great pleasure in doing so). But since Byron is part of the present lecture as a person illustrating complaint in poetry, I want to point to other statements of Mr. Siegel about him in relation to this particular subject.

His Unprecedented Effect

No poet has ever been more popular—and widely popular—during his or her own lifetime than George Gordon Lord Byron (1788-1824). The first two cantos of Childe Harold were published in 1812 and Byron wrote, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” He was not exaggerating. Soon, his work was stirring, in an unprecedented way, people not only in England but America, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Russia, and beyond. He was writing poetry but he was a best-seller, and the interest in him was not “literary” in a narrow sense. In a 1961 lecture, Aesthetic Realism on Byron, Eli Siegel said:

There was something hardly paralleled about his effect, which was more subtle than even the persons who underwent it knew; and it is still going on. [TRO 772]

Of all the critics and scholars of Byron for the last two centuries, it is Mr. Siegel who has explained why he did so much to people. And the reason has to do with this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

The two biggest opposites in everyone’s life are self and world. The huge tendency in people is to see these as apart: to make what goes on in us separate from the outside world in its wideness and otherness. The tendency—even as we go about our activities and interact with people—is to make a world that is just our own under our skin, apart, unseen, precious, and often miserable. The poetry of Byron opposed that. Mr. Siegel explained in 1961: “Byron placed together the self and the external world more closely than others had.”

Byron’s poetry seemed to say, Look—I can write about my own confusions, angers, hopes, complaints, in such a way that they sound like a world matter. He gave personal turmoil a certain importance it hadn’t been given before. And a large means of that was: as he described himself within, he described too the outside world in its grandeur—the Alps, the ruins of Rome, the ocean with its might and kindness. Byron brought people the world in its might, with detail—and simultaneously the self in its sorrow, hopes, confusions, with those mighty too. Mr. Siegel explained that in Byron people saw the troubles, the discontents they themselves had, “accompanied by magnificence.”

This has to do with the ethics of our present subject: complaint.

The Criterion

What is unethical, ugly, dangerous about the way most people complain (both to others and, inwardly, to themselves) is: they use their own woes to cheapen the meaning of other things and people. Their own grievances are important—other people’s feelings are not. And they use their pain to expunge the value and beauty of outside things: to have contempt. That is exactly what Byron does not do. He described his inner turbulence with a certain fullness, but he was always interested in the world, excitedly, thrillingly interested. And to be interested, Mr. Siegel once said, is the first thing in respect. The fundamental test of our own complaint is: are we using it to respect the world or to have contempt for the world?

Byron, though monumentally popular, was attacked by various critics, during his short life and after. One of the things said frequently of him was that he “posed.” The accusation meant that he had a conceited insincerity, an egotistic fakery as he described himself—presenting himself as broodingly mighty beside a mountain, say; or as proud yet woeful near an ocean; or as “a ruin amidst ruins” in Italy. Mr. Siegel passionately, and with scholarship, disagreed. In the 1961 class he said of Byron:

He never posed. I deny it; I have read it, but I deny it! Even when Byron was famous, he had the feeling, as in [his play] Manfred, of being lost among the crags....The sense that Byron wasn’t as close to things as he wanted to be, and couldn’t be, tormented him. If he shows himself as a person against the shadows of a rock, that is his mode; but he never posed. If you really feel your personal problem takes in mountains, lakes, and time, you seem to be posing. But if a human being is related to everything in this world, he should put that among his infinite heirlooms.

Byron’s sense of woe said, “Look at it: it takes in all the Mediterranean!”

Well, that is great as literary criticism; as understanding of a particular person; as understanding of a need in every person. Mr. Siegel was speaking extemporaneously, as he always did in his lectures. And his spoken prose was some of the most beautiful and powerful of all English prose. What I just quoted is an instance of that beauty and power. And I am sure Byron would have loved it.

Now We Can Learn

Matthew Arnold, in a poem of 1855, has a stanza about Byron. Arnold was born in 1822, two years before Byron’s death. And in “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” he says that people haven’t learned from writers of the past generation—they haven’t learned how to have lives they can like. In the midst of saying this, he writes of Byron’s tremendous effect:

What helps it now, that Byron bore,

With haughty scorn which mock’d the smart,

Through Europe to the Aetolian shore

The pageant of his bleeding heart?

That thousands counted every groan,

And Europe made his woe her own?

In 1881, Arnold, as literary critic, wrote an important essay on Byron. Yet he did not understand why that grand complaining of Byron, “the pageant of his bleeding heart,” meant so much to people. Nor, as I said earlier, has any critic except Eli Siegel. And so, as a prelude to the section of the 1966 lecture included here, I state this: Every person wants, most deeply, to see what goes on in us as mattering, as having might; and to see at the same time, and inseparably, the outside world as magnificent. Unless we can do that, we will have contempt for the world and, as a result, feel pervasively ashamed. Through Byron people got a sense, without being clear about it, that those all-important two—care for self and care for the world—could actually be one.

I have certainly not described all of what Mr. Siegel explained about Byron and his effect; I’ve written here, a little, about one aspect of it. But through Aesthetic Realism what Matthew Arnold complained about—the not benefitting from Byron and other writers in terms of life as such—no longer has to be. Aesthetic Realism enables people really to use the past, and art, and the world itself—including Byron, Arnold, and others—to see justly, grandly, and have lives we truly like.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Byronic Complaint

By Eli Siegel

Now, another kind of complaint. It is by one of the great complainers of all time, who was popular because he put down what people were sad about and would have complained about if they could—and very often did. The Great Complainer, as I said earlier, is Edmund Spenser. Grand also, almost as grand, is Lord Byron.

Byron’s stories in verse have been called complaints in narrative. His plays have been called complaints in dramatic form. But his most effective complaining is in lyrical form chiefly, though you can say they’re narratives. Canto 3 of Childe Harold is some of the greatest complaining in the world, and I’ll read some of it. The other three cantos of that poem also have complaints. Childe Harold is written in the Spenserian stanza; and Byron may have felt the Spenserian stanza was a good stanza for complaining. I’ll begin with the fifth stanza of canto 3:

He, who grown aged in this world of woe,

In deeds, not years, piercing the depths of life,

So that no wonder waits him; nor below

Can love, or sorrow, fame, ambition, strife,

Cut to his heart again with the keen knife

Of silent, sharp endurance: he can tell

Why thought seeks refuge in lone caves, yet rife

With airy images, and shapes which dwell

Still unimpair’d, though old, in the soul’s haunted cell.

This stanza is pretty powerful but it is congested and not well organized. The next stanza is better made:


’Tis to create, and in creating live

A being more intense, that we endow

With form our fancy, gaining as we give

The life we image, even as I do now.

What am I? Nothing: but not so art thou,

Soul of my thought! with whom I traverse earth,

Invisible but gazing, as I glow

Mix’d with thy spirit, blended with thy birth,

And feeling still with thee in my crush’d feelings’ dearth.

The complaint here is solved by Byron’s giving himself another self—the self that is thought—which he likes better than the first: “What am I? Nothing: but not so art thou, / Soul of my thought!” This solution can either work or not. Apparently, it worked a little for Byron: he says he didn’t like himself, but he did like the soul of his thought, and therefore he was consoled.

Then in the next stanza Byron says maybe he’s gone too far:


Yet must I think less wildly:—I have thought

Too long and darkly, till my brain became,

In its own eddy boiling and o’erwrought,

A whirling gulf of phantasy and flame:

And thus, untaught in youth my heart to tame

My springs of life were poison’d. ’Tis too late!

Yet am I changed; though still enough the same

In strength to bear what time can not abate,

And feed on bitter fruits without accusing Fate.

This is a particular way of Byron’s saying, All right, so there are bitter fruits for me—I’ll like them. He says this in ever so many ways. “And feed on bitter fruits without accusing Fate”: he can bear this. He is above all this sorrow.

There Is the Hope Not to Feel

None of what I just read is about the character Childe Harold—it’s about our noble lord, Byron himself. Then (as happens in all the cantos), suddenly we find Harold again:


Something too much of this: but now ’tis past,

And the spell closes with its silent seal.

Long absent Harold re-appears at last,—

He of the breast which fain no more would feel.

Wrung with the wounds which kill not but ne’er heal;

Yet Time, who changes all, had alter’d him

In soul and aspect as in age: years steal

Fire from the mind as vigour from the limb,

And life’s enchanted cup but sparkles near the brim.

That has a good deal of power. It could be better organized. And one can look at it somewhat: “Something too much of this: but now ’tis past.” Something too much of this can be, really, interesting language for I’m not sure what I’m talking about. It’s good anyway. “And the spell closes with its silent seal.” Seal is not the best word here. “Long absent Harold re-appears at last,—/ He of the breast which fain no more would feel.” Very early, persons tried to feel nothing anymore. No more. No more feeling.

“Wrung with the wounds which kill not, but ne’er heal.” That is one of the most typical lines of the noble poet. And it affected all of Europe.

“Years steal / Fire from the mind as vigour from the limb / And life’s enchanted cup but sparkles near the brim.” Harold is more sober; there’s less fire.

Pain was often compared to drink. People who were very courageous would quaff the dregs of woe. And there’s some quaffing in the next stanza: “His had been quaffed too quickly”—that is, life’s enchanted cup. And then, because you quaff the enchanted cup too quickly you have another cup with the dregs of wormwood: “His had been quaffed too quickly, and he found / The dregs were wormwood.”

...Still round him clung invisibly a chain

Which gall’d for ever, fettering though unseen,

And heavy though it clank’d not; worn with pain,

Which pined although it spoke not, and grew keen,

Entering with every step he took through many a scene.

Another way of representing woe was through a chain. A further way, which is in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” is to have to fall on thorns.

Harold has tried to compose himself and get to something sedate. But that hasn’t worked perfectly either:


Secure in guarded coldness, he had mix’d

Again in fancied safety with his kind,

And deem’d his spirit now so firmly fix’d

And sheathed with an invulnerable mind,

That, if no joy, no sorrow lurk’d behind....

He tried to moderate himself but the implication is that he didn’t do so well. He wanted neither joy nor sorrow: he felt if he got no joy, no sorrow would lurk behind. But apparently it did lurk.

We Cannot Help Desiring

Then Byron says there’s something that wants in man:


But who can view the ripen’d rose, nor seek

To wear it? who can curiously behold

The smoothness and the sheen of beauty’s cheek,

Nor feel the heart can never all grow old?

Who can contemplate Fame through clouds unfold

The star which rises o’er her steep, nor climb?

Harold, once more within the vortex, roll’d

On with the giddy circle, chasing Time,

Yet with a nobler aim than in his youth’s fond prime.

“But who can view the ripen’d rose, nor seek / To wear it?” That’s easily answered. There are many persons who have viewed the ripened rose and not sought to wear it. But this is a way of saying that desire will be. It goes along with the import of my poem “Encomium of Desire.”

“But who can view the ripen’d rose, nor seek / To wear it?” The answer to that is, three people out of ten. After all, we aren’t so bent on wearing ripened roses. “Who can curiously behold / The smoothness and the sheen of beauty’s cheek, / Nor feel the heart can never all grow old?” That’s harder to answer.

“Who can contemplate Fame through clouds unfold / The star which rises o’er her steep, nor climb?” I think the syntax of that is not utterly correct. But there are three temptations here: the rose, women, and fame.

“Harold, once more within the vortex, roll’d / On with the giddy circle, chasing Time, / Yet with a nobler aim than in his youth’s fond prime.” Harold is still chasing time but he does it better than he used to. Chasing time is here equivalent to having desire.

Then we have the saddest stanza and maybe the best:


But soon he knew himself the most unfit

Of men to herd with Man, with whom he held

Little in common;—untaught to submit

His thoughts to others, though his soul was quell’d

In youth by his own thoughts; still uncompell’d,

He would not yield dominion of his mind

To spirits against whom his own rebell’d;

Proud though in desolation; which could find

A life within itself, to breathe without mankind.

Though this is about Childe Harold, we see something in Lord Byron that is like him: Byron says that he himself is unfit to be among men.

To What Should We Yield?

Shelley and Byron had this in common: they felt nothing went on in England, or for that matter in Europe, that they had to yield to. The Romantics felt there hadn’t been anything in civilization that was worth yielding to—which is different from asking what in reality can be yielded to.

What Byron is saying makes for much meditation. But it is complaint. And it’s complaint about the world and society.