Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Byron's "The Giaour" (ll. 387-409)

Delacroix's famous image introduces one of Byron's most compelling poems. The passage below is a bit longer than most of the features here on Romanticism@UAB, but it's both accessible to readers and illustrative of a key and recurrent idea in Byron's poetry.

The Giaour is one of several oriental tales Byron wrote during his "years of fame"—that period from 1812 through 1815 when the poet was celebrated as the author of Childe Harold I & II and before the scandals of his private life caused him to go into (self)exile in 1816. The poem offers a fragmented narrative about a strangely powerful "Giaour" (i.e. a Christian) who, as is typical of the Byronic hero, is torn by remorse and anguish. As we piece together the various poetic fragments that make up the poem, it becomes evident that the Giaour has had a passionate relationship with Leila, a young woman from the Turk Hassan's harem. At the end of the poem, the beautiful Leila is dead, killed by Hassan in revenge for her unfaithfulness; Hassan is dead, killed by the Giaour in revenge for his killing of Leila; and the Giaour lives on, a shell of his former self, having spent his closing years as a vaguely frightening and mysterious brother in a nameless Abbey (a figure likely borrowed from the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe).

In the midst of this fragmented, discontinuous tale, the Boatman delivers these lines as an interpretation of or commentary on the narrative (lines 387-409):

As rising on its purple wing
The insect-queen of eastern spring,
O'er emerald meadows of Kashmeer
Invites the young pursuer near,
And leads him on from flower to flower
A weary chase and wasted hour,
Then leaves him, as it soars on high
With panting heart and tearful eye:
So beauty lures the full-grown child
With hue as bright, and wing as wild;
A chase of idle hopes and fears,
Begun in folly, closed in tears.
If won, to equal ills betrayed,
Woe waits the insect and the maid,
A life of pain, the loss of peace,
From infant's play, or man's caprice:
The lovely toy so fiercely sought
Has lost its charm by being caught,
For every touch that wooed its stay
Has brush'd the brightest hues away
Till charm, and hue, and beauty gone,
'Tis left to fly or fall alone.

The central figure here has to do with catching butterflies. The most fantastic and beautiful butterfly (the "insect-queen of eastern spring") entices the "young pursuer" into a chase which ultimately is unsuccessful, leaving the disappointed butterfly hunter "With panting heart and tearful eye." This, of course, is a figurative way of describing the attraction to beauty—like the young butterfly hunter, the "full-grown child" is enticed by the beauty of a "maid" into a chase that is "Begun in folly, closed in tears." What is especially interesting here is that, regardless of whether the pursuit of beauty is successful, the end is tragic for both pursuer and pursued: If the pursuit fails, then the pursuer is left with the "tearful eye" born of aroused but unsatisfied desire. If the pursuit succeeds, then the maid/butterfly sacrifices beauty to captivity (she has "lost [her] charm by being caught"), a point Byron illustrates by having the fragile pigment of the butterfly's wing brushed away by the pursuer's touch "Till charm, and hue, and beauty gone, / 'Tis left to fly or fall alone." Similarly for the pursuer, the "folly" of his pursuit is the dream of some fulfilled desire, some lasting pleasure which, of course, turns out to be illusory, leaving the pursuer in sorrow—at least until a new object of desire swims into his ken.

This is a recurrent structure in Byron's poetry (and perhaps in his life as well!), a structure that may help explain both the tragic sense of a work like Manfred and the comic narrative repetitions in Don Juan. For instance, Manfred explains a "fatal truth" in his opening monologue, that "Sorrow is Knowledge," or to put it otherwise, "The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life" (I.i.10-12). As readers of the Giaour's butterfly-hunting passage, we are in a position of "knowledge"; from our objective vantage point we can see the ultimate futility and disappointment that inevitably awaits the butterfly hunter whether or not he succeeds in catching his prize. From the hunter's point of view, however, he is alive only to his own desire for the butterfly, and he is fully engaged in his effort to satisfy that desire. The hunter does not consider such nice questions as whether the pursuit is worthwhile or whether it will lead to some final satisfaction—it is quite sufficient for him to feel and act upon his attraction to the prize. (Contrast this to Manfred, who feels the "curse to have no natural fear, / Nor fluttering throb, that beats with hopes or wishes, / Or lurking love of something on the earth" (I.i.25-27).) The hunter is fully caught up in his Life, conceived of as the goal-oriented pursuit of some object of desire; but we as readers are fully apprised of the Knowledge that such a life leads only to disappointment and sorrow: our Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.

Toward the end of the poem, when the fearsome and mysterious title character is explaining himself to the friar, the Giaour claims that ordinary worldly accolades now mean nothing to him—"I smile at laurels won or lost" (1013). He then expresses his current condition in very Manfred-like terms: "But place again before my eyes / Aught that I deem a worthy prize;— / The maid I love — the man I hate — / And I will hunt the steps of fate, / (To save or slay — as these require) / Through rending steel, and rolling fire" (1016-20). Such is the condition of the Byronic hero: stricken with knowledge of the "fatal truth," living on as the mere shadow of a once indomitable power (that others now look upon in tantalized fear), and without any possibility of worthy or worthwhile action, whether driven by love or hate. If there is any possible exit from this intolerable position, it must be, as the Giaour suggests, his own death. But, I would argue, Byron eventually discovers an alternative in the comic, zeugmatic rhetoric of Don Juan.