The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Excitement, Byron, & the Trouble about Sex

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 3 of Poetry and Excitement, the magnificent 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel that we are serializing. Aesthetic Realism is based on the following principle, stated by him—which is the means, at last, of knowing what beauty is and what our own life is about: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” In this lecture, Mr. Siegel explains what excitement is—that thing everyone desires, is mixed up about, and also fears. He describes how reality’s opposites come together in it.

In the present section, he looks at stanzas of Byron. And I can say as a person who knows the field: Eli Siegel is the critic who understood Byron, both the man and the poet, supremely—as Byron thirsted to be understood. It moves me very much to comment on some of that understanding as expressed in another lecture: Lord Byron May Yet Be Known, of September 14, 1969. What Mr. Siegel explained in it concerns excitement, and something which millions of people feel is the most exciting thing in the world: sex. I am quoting from the report I wrote of that lecture at the time—30 years ago. 

Early in it, after reading a passage by William Hazlitt about Byron’s intensity and his desire to escape ennui, Mr. Siegel said:

That hints at Byron’s suffering. He wanted not to fall into himself in some dull and lessening way .... Byron opposed dullness in himself in two ways: through writing and through women. His big complaint is: after the ecstasy of love he was more in himself than before.

Byron never knew—as no person has before Aesthetic Realism—what differentiates the excitement that makes us proud and more alive, from the excitement that leaves us ashamed, dull, empty. Aesthetic Realism shows that there are two big drives in everyone: the first is to like the world, respect it; the second is to have contempt for the world—to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt, Mr. Siegel made clear, is “that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker” (Self and World, p. 362). His showing this, and identifying contempt as the source of every injustice, is a landmark in civilization. And the quality of our excitement, and the effect of it on ourselves, depend on whether our stir, thrill, ecstasy arise from a new respect for reality, or from being able to have victorious contempt for it.

The Two Excitements

When Byron “opposed dullness in himself” through writing, he was having the excitement of respecting the world. He describes that excitement musically, charmingly, in these lines from Canto 10 of Don Juan:

Why, just now,

In taking up this paltry sheet of paper,

My bosom underwent a glorious glow,

And my internal spirit cut a caper.

The excitement of sex can also be the excitement of respect. But very, very often, it is contempt. Very, very often it is the organic thrill of feeling that, through a person, reality is serving us, adoring us; we don’t have to think or be fair to anything: the puzzling, cold world has been defeated—it has become this person, this body, just quivering to please us. Byron didn’t know he was using sex to have contempt for a world he hoped to honor. He didn’t know that is why he felt agonized about love, and disgusted with himself.

In the 1969 lecture, Mr. Siegel read stanzas 120-127 of Canto 4 of Byron’s Childe Harold, and said that some of the greatest questioning of love is in them. For example, Byron writes:

Alas! our young affections run to waste,

Or water but the desert; whence arise

But weeds of dark luxuriance, tares of haste,

Rank at the core, though tempting to the eyes;

Flowers whose wild odours breathe but agonies.

Byron, Mr. Siegel explained, “is saying people use love to tamper with their vision of reality, and that makes the self displeased. He has described literally hundreds of times this ambivalence: something attractive with the force of dynamite can still be opposed by one. He saw that love could give one a sense of retrospective doubt—that perhaps one wasn’t so good to oneself.”

Byron Was Honest

There is today a tremendous pretense on the subject of sex. There is—on television, in the movies, in the advice columns—an effort to seem so at ease, and to have people feel there is no true, ethical reason for objecting to oneself after “successful” sex. Byron had plenty of “successful” sex. Throughout Europe, women were anxious to give themselves to this most famous and handsome of writers. He wrote jocularly in a letter in 1819, “I have been more ravished myself than any body since the Trojan war.” But Byron was trying to be honest about what he didn’t understand: about what the excitement of sex—what “something attractive with the force of dynamite”—did to him. He wrote in his journal, 1821: “Why, at the very height of desire and human pleasure,...does there mingle a certain sense of doubt and sorrow?” And there are a deep sadness and sourness—amid good prose style—in this, from his journal of 1813: “A mistress never is nor can be a friend. While you agree, you are lovers; and, when it is over, any thing but friends.”

Eli Siegel was the greatest, kindest of critics. And Byron would have loved him and Aesthetic Realism as I do for explaining, not only what poetry is, and what the self is—but what can make the excitement of sex respectful and proud. Mr. Siegel explained that the purpose of poetry and the purpose of sex have to be the same: to like the world. It is possible to feel that in being close to a person we respect immensely, we are close to the world, which this person stands for. It is possible to feel, in love at its most corporeal, that we are delighted wanting the world to affect us fully; wanting not to hide from the world; wanting to welcome it with all of ourselves; wanting to strengthen it and this person who dearly stands for it. The excitement then is sweeping and real!

Aesthetic Realism explains that the excitement of sex should be a means of seeing other things as exciting—a fact, a friend, an ordinary object—not of getting away from them. Humanity will thank Mr. Siegel for explaining this—and for giving the world the most exciting study there has ever been: Aesthetic Realism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Byron and Excitement

By Eli Siegel

There is the excitement in poetry which is pretty much that of the western. When people are all agog in a cinema, counting each hoofbeat as the good cowboys rush toward the bad cowboys, and the horses curve, and their tails wave, and there is some very careful yelling—all that is part of what I have described as making for excitement: the base of a pyramid coming to a point.

Suspense is managed excitement. And the preliminaries are important, because in the preliminaries you can feel the outcome. For example, in a gambling house people are excited by the wheel, because what the wheel is doing now is going to be in a moment what the wheel has done. The seeing of culmination in process is a mighty exciting thing. And the sense of uncertainty, of surprise, with the feeling that things are going on, can make for that more than customary agitation of the human frame, that more than customary stirring of the self, that more than customary perturbation of a single life, which are in the subject of this evening.

The poetry of Byron brought a new excitement. All art brings a new excitement; and Byron, though he was so introspective, brought melodramatic qualities into his verse. In Don Juan we have it; we have a shipwreck there which is a very fine thing. In Childe Harold we have it. And his Corsairs and Laras, and the people in Parisina, The Island, “The Prisoner of Chillon” are all pretty exciting people. They are melodramatic. They’ve got personality. They have style. They are twirling the moustache of their unconscious, in a sense: they are in a perpetual situation of bravado. Also, they are not saying all they could say—and that brings about a quality of suspense too.

Childe Harold was popular. And in it we have poetry that is like the cinema, with suspense. I read now the Waterloo stanzas, from Canto 3, of 1816. This is the Spenserian stanza. Byron wasn’t such an elegant master of that stanza, but it is a well-mastered stanza on the whole when he deals with it; and it gets that feeling of uncertainty and motion which he wanted.

He is describing the scene in Brussels, before the Battle of Waterloo. The English officers and their lady friends are dancing. Then Napoleon’s cannon are heard—the war is on again. And those who are dancing go off to death and wounds, perhaps.

There was a sound of revelry by night,

And Belgium’s capital had gather’d then

Her Beauty and her Chivalry, and bright

The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men;

A thousand hearts beat happily; and when

Music arose with its voluptuous swell,

Soft eyes look’d love to eyes which spake again,

And all went merry as a marriage bell;

But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!

Did ye not hear it?—No; ’twas but the wind,

Or the car rattling o'er the stony street.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

Arm! Arm! it is—it is—the cannon’s opening roar!...*

Change Compactly

One of the deepest causes of excitement is the close presence of death and life. That is why courtroom scenes are so exciting: whether a man is going to die or live, be hanged or not hanged, is a big thing—or whether he is going to go to jail or not. Any moment in which a lot is present; any second the yes-and-no of which will affect the years—that is the excitement of life itself. So the presence of change compactly is one of the big things making for that stir I am talking about.

In these stanzas, the contrast of the dance and possible death is clear. Byron didn’t have any predecessor in melodramatizing this contrast. Of course, the contrast had been, but Byron is using some of the cinema technique of later. He is putting a quality of showmanship into verse, where it hadn’t been before. Scott was nearest to it; Scott could get quarrels into his poems. One would think, really, the ground was shaking when he wrote Marmion. But Byron went even further. 

“The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men”: these two things have always been primal causes of excitement—love or sex, and fights. “But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!” Of course, the most exciting part of speech is the interjection, and if you want to get people excited in an easy way, just say Hush! or Hark! or Hear! or Oh! It can be made fun of; but Byron knows how to use his hushes and his harks.

“And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before! / Arm! Arm! it is—it is—the cannon’s opening roar!” When you have a dance interrupted by cannon, that is something. Some of this effect was later worked for by Thackeray in Vanity Fair. It does have people personally torn apart by the clatter of war; and it can get anybody, and should. Then, the speediest stanza: 

Ah! then and there was hurrying to and fro,

And gathering tears, and tremblings of distress,

And cheeks all pale, which but an hour ago

Blush’d at the praise of their own loveliness;

And there were sudden partings, such as press

The life from out young hearts, and choking sighs

Which ne’er might be repeated; who could guess

If ever more should meet those mutual eyes,

Since upon night so sweet such awful morn could rise!

This running around goes along with excitement, and reminds me of what I told a person once who had a tendency to be dull. I said, “If you feel like being dull, just run around the room as if you were terribly agitated; that could help—as if you didn’t know what could happen next.” I admit I said this with a tone of fun, but there is meaning in it.

When Life is Alive

And there was mounting in hot haste: the steed,

The mustering squadron, and the clattering car,

Went pouring forward with impetuous speed,

And swiftly forming in the ranks of war.

It is quite obvious that motion and noise are nearer excitement than lack of motion or stillness. In other words, when life is forced to be alive, there is excitement.

“And Ardennes waves above them her green leaves, / Dewy with Nature’s tear drops, as they pass.” The quality of spaciousness, which is in Byron, made for excitement too. To see much space, to see much territory suddenly, is something which, because it enables the person to be quickly expansive, is akin to excitement.

Last noon beheld them full of lusty life,

Last eve in Beauty’s circle proudly gay,

The midnight brought the signal-sound of strife,

The morn the marshalling in arms,—the day

Battle’s magnificently stern array!

The thunder-clouds close o'er it, which when rent

The earth is cover’d thick with other clay,

Which her own clay shall cover, heap’d and pent,

Rider and horse,—friend, foe,—in one red burial blent!

Here is some of the quality of Byron as a poet: the getting in of unforeseen drums, and the letting the sounds of the drums cover much territory. Byron, whatever else he did, excited Europe, and he should have. When you have great excitement and great subtlety, you have the greatest art. In the matter of subtlety, I imagine Byron had things to find. Still, he added a new motion to the history of poetry.

*Mr. Siegel read stanzas 21-28.