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Byron’s Fame in France

ISSUE:  Autumn 1926

Among the quantity of studies associated with the Byron Centenary, there were published in 1924 two works dealing with his vogue in England and in France respectively. These were Professor S. C. Chew’s “Byron and England: His Fame and After-Fame”; and G. Roth’s edition of French commemorative poems collected under the title of La Couronne poetique de Byron. Using these books for illustrations and others for sidelights, and following chiefly the extensive monograph of M. Estève, Byron et le Romantisme franeais (1907), we may trace the curve of Byron’s striking personal ascendency in France, approximately from Waterloo to the Revolution of 1830.


It may be said at once that no other foreign writer was so much in the limelight and none was considered so complete an incarnation of the wilder spirit of Romanticism. He was reckoned the greatest of lyric poets, says M. Texte, “admired as much for his life as for his works,” and (one might add) admired still more for his death. His dramas were less successful than his poetry proper; but the Byronic hero, “le heros fatal” invaded the theater and became the chief type of such Romantic plays as Hugo’s “Hernani” and Dumas’ “Antony.” His appeal was profoundly linked with the political and literary upheavals in France.

In fact, during the first third of the century, the imagination of Europe was largely possessed by two colossal names —the name of Napoleon and that of Byron. It seems clear that the tremendous vogue of the latter was partly due, in France at least, to the condition of society left by the former. The Byronic seed found its furrows already prepared in the disturbed heart of mankind. The high priest of individualism was acclaimed by the yearning flamboyant youth of the Restoration.

Balzac and Stendhal have left us authentic records of that tumultuous youth. They have described how imperial enthusiasm resolved itself into a democratic tide demanding a universal success; how the intellectuals either became arrivistes and shared in the brutal battle for position and fortune; or how they remained devotees for whom Art was a constant mistress, poetry the divine Word, and personality the key to the treasure-chambers of life and love. For both of these classes, for all the fervent life of the period, Byron was by turns the conquering corsair and the desperate idealist. He became that gale and he fanned it; he became that spirit, and it fled with him to France, to Greece, over the boundaries of his earth, out to the void of his hereafter.

Byronism is an imaginative fact. As such it had both a truth and a legend. The first, indeed, without the mysterious and grotesque additions of the latter, might well have been enough to stir our waiting and romantic youth. What a picture was in that life alone, for all those eyes smitten with the madness of magnificence! A lonely “Gothic” abbey in the foreground, haunted by passionate parents, adorned with negligent profusion; a rich barbaric Orient, freshly seen and colored; figures of noble women, tearful or triumphant; figures of Greeks dying for freedom in a landscape that unrolls its splendors like a sunset cloud; in the centre of the picture an abandoned beautiful lame demi-god, weeping for very loneliness, his features pale from long debauchery, but his eyes glowing still with the sacred fire and his heart ever-ready to leap out and serve its pelican-feast alike to brethren and traducers.

Add to this life that poetry. To us it may seem like an old song, and even to its age it brought little new, except its fusion and its passion. But that fusion and passion were everything. What were the disparate elements of that electric whole? There were first, d la Chateaubriand, aristocratic pride and an unsmiling aloofness; there were then, a la Rousseau, lonely promenades, followed by bursts and floods of lyrical individualism; as with both of these, there was the preference for the savage and grandiose aspects of nature—the torrents that became poetry had thundered first down the mountain-side. Followed then, of course, the chant to passion, the hope of making love, whether of Haidee or Parisina, the absolute answer. And proceeding from that failure, came to startle dreaming France ironic bursts of laughter, very Voltairian sneers, the cold-water cynicism of “Don Juan.”

It would seem so far that he gave back to France largely the elements he had drawn from her; but there was more. There was a fiery liberalism which from those days through to the later times of Landor and Swinburne, has been grafted so strangely on the aristocratic ego. There was something of the hopeless metaphysical brooding that Frenchmen have always associated with the fogs of the north. The fusion of all these became, as philosophy, a very thorough pessimism, magnificent in woe; and as individual expression, a leaping, tumultuous, but very direct torrent, abundantly capable of sweeping away not only thousands of ordinary instable citizens, but that eager artistic youth of France, ever ready to be swept. Byron lost less than most people in translations; his was not a genius of form, but of force. And more naively than now, enthusiasts read into the domesticated renderings of exotic poetry—occasionally into the more full-blooded original— a glamour that was not, a light that never was on land or sea.

Add to that life and that poetry the Byronic legend. According to Voltaire, God made man in his own image . . . “et on le lui a bien rendu.” According to Estève, Byron made his heroes after his likeness—and they have returned the compliment. Not only could all the world read the personality of the creator in his creations—in the proud irony of Lucifer, the remorse of Manfred, the restlessness of the wandering Harold, the sensuality of Don Juan, the violent passion and ambition of all. The next step was to present as the poet’s actual biography a composite photograph of all his supermen. London rumors, Venetian nights, Oriental seraglios added their embroidery to the Parisian picture. Framed by Delacroix, labelled by Hugo, it was soon ready for the boulevards. Its name was simply —Lucifer.

That prince of darkness was a gentleman-ranker. He had posed throughout the pages of “Cain”—he was ready to see Don Juan home—he had driven his bargain and his claw into the heart of every impenitent. “Satanisme” was what Hugo officially defended, admitting the nomenclature for the Frenetic School, admitting also, with his usual addiction to violent contrasts, that Byron had founded a school of evil opposed to the “good” of Chateaubriand. “Satanisme,” as usually considered, meant “Byronisme” in all its infernal pride. Byron’s private life, as filtered through the journals and other fiction, was suitably crowned by this lurid halo. His separation from his wife was based on horrors. He was a worn-out debauchee, to be stimulated only by the terribly abnormal, by crime and destruction. Had he not assassinated his mistress? Did he not use her skull as a drinking-cup? At least the French Romantics thought so. Professor Beers tells us that “the young enthusiasts . . . carried their Byronism so far, in imitation of the celebrated revels at Newstead, that they used to drink from a human skull in their feasts.” Goethe admitted without blinking that there was a corpse or so in Byron’s past. A former mistress of the poet’s, Lady Lamb, published a romance called “Glenarvon.” The hero was a criminal Byron, speaking in Byron’s own purple patches.

He is a handsome murderer, corrupter, mysterious sinner, proceeding with cold infamy through a string of adventures in the manner of Monk Lewis. “II a Vame de Satan!” cries one of his victims. This book made its fortune in France, as did also the romance of the “Vampire” long foisted on Byron himself. This ghoulish production lent its malodorous fame to support that of the first nearly complete translation of Byron, appearing from 1819-21. But before then the English debacle had taken place, and the poet had discovered, in more ways than one, that “the farther off from England, the nearer is to France.”


It was in 1812 that he first “awoke and found myself famous.” In England, an immense popularity, founded on “Childe Harold,” lasted well through the publication of “The Corsair” and “Lara” (1814). But early in that year, according to Professor Chew, there was a sudden fall in the Byron market, due to political reasons. Darkening clouds accompanied his marriage, the separation from his wife, “the scandal of 1816 and the subsequent notoriety.” This scandal has been revived in recent years. . . . Suffice it to say here that Byron’s rupture with his wife brought on a final rupture with England. He left his native country forever. And henceforward the lurid illumi-nation of Byronism is found chiefly on the Continent. Furthermore, “Don Juan” (1819) and “Cain” scandalized most Englishmen, though there were always illustrious exceptions. His reputation was at its lowest ebb at home in 1823, before his departure for Greece. A considerable reaction was caused by the poet’s death, and in England as elsewhere many tributes were showered upon his tomb.

“Wherever he went,” says Professor Chew, “he left the impress of his personality.” We may now note the strength of this personal impression upon certain distinguished French writers. Madame de Stael, whether at Coppet or in London, rafolait de lui. His “Lara” had “renewed her existence,” she pardoned the man for the sake of the poet, she even tried to draw him out in her salon. These efforts , were hardly successful. Byron is on record as grumbling that a half-hour of Mme. de Stael was all-sufficient. The best he could say for her was that nature ought to have made her a man. (Strangely enough, the lady staggered a good many men, including Napoleon, Sir Walter Scott and Stendhal.) According to the last-named, Byron was a strange lion in the Coppet drawing-room; the ladies present cast one glance at this terrific Satan; then they either became ill or withdrew in a huddled flock. The Due de Broglie grants Byron a pleasing exterior, but little expression, and only a heavy or vulgar conversation. Mme. de Stael was the only one who saw him arrive with pleasure.

Two enthusiasts of literature give a different account. Lamartine either saw the poet or imagined that he saw him, at some vague date, on the shores of Lake Leman. “I only half-distinguished,” he says, “his pale and fantastic visage across the mists of twilight.” But that was enough for all purposes of exaltation. Byron with the added “attraction” of melancholy appeared to him the most favored of mortals. Ever-afterwards, omitting the one point of scepticism, this half-seen Byron of a dream formed the model for Lamartine’s own poetic figure.

Stendhal himself, at his beloved Milan, in 1816, also had the privilege of a meeting. His whole attitude towards Byron, compounded of tuft-hunting, genuine artistic admiration, and inconsistent sarcasms, shows Stendhal in a very queer light. First of all, at the Scala, he was “filled with timidity and tenderness; if I had dared, I would have kissed the hand of Lord Byron, while bursting into tears.” At that time Stendhal was a devotee of “Lara.” But he likewise admits being overwhelmed by the beauty of Byron, by his noble rank and his reputation as a Lovelace. His “tête sublime” is the very embodiment of genius. Byron was affable, and Stendhal proceeds to include him in the shrine hitherto sacred to Napoleon. A little later, the clay feet of the idol appear; he is addicted to a puerile vanity, he fears ridicule and cant. But Stendhal clings at any rate to the worship of the poetry; he mentions a divine evening passed in swooning over “Parisina”; he stands for Byron against Boileau. Yet, in 1823, he was by way of treating all of Byron as flat heroics, when the Englishman saved the day by writing the Frenchman a letter. Stendhal immediately grovels. “Happy to have the pleasure of knowing your lordship” is the tone of his response. A few months afterwards he is again praising “le grand poète” and that, as nearly as one can tell, is how he must ultimately have judged him.


The “infiltration” of Byronism, as M. Estève calls it, was in the meantime going on apace. A capital step in its progress was the publication in 1818 at Paris of all of Byron’s poetry then in evidence. This was in English and was brought out by Galignani Brothers. Many Frenchmen proceeded to learn English from and for Byron. Many others, naturally enough, waited until the following year, when the translation (already mentioned) by Pichot and de Salle, began to come out. It was an extempore hasty affair, frequently colorless and incorrect in language. It was severely criticized—but it was also devoured. Six editions had appeared by 1827. By 1850, there were four complete translations, running to upwards of twenty editions. Volumes containing partial versions would run to nearly twice this number.

In criticism, the tone had varied from the beginning. French writers and reviewers judged Byron less from the moral than the literary angle. It mainly depended on whether he fell into the hands of the “pure” classicists or the sympathetic Romanticists, though it is true that several of the latter also called him to account. The first brief notice had appeared in 1813. “Childe Harold” and “Lara” were praised or scolded in various journals from 1814 on. Immediately after the Galignani edition, four long articles by a certain appreciative Malte-Brun appeared in the Journal des Debats. He says that Byron now exercises a “magic tyranny” over many readers. He recognizes that “The Corsair,” of which he gives a long analysis, seems to have the greatest vogue at present. But for his own part, though not without restrictions, he deems the power and profundity of “Manfred” better worth dwelling upon—a bold preference very soon shared by others.

The chief direct influence of these reviewers is that they promoted the study of English for the sake of Byron. The long list of those who took the plunge includes the painter Lebrun, the scientist Ampère, Mérimée, and a dozen others of that group. Viollet-le-Duc organized “Fridays” to discuss Byron, attended by the future editors of the famous “Globe”—Ste. Beuve, Charles de Remusat, Saint-Marc-Girardin.

The enthusiasm of distinguished individuals is still on record. Barante employs his leisure hours in translating “The Prisoner of Chillon.” Quinet at seventeen—the vogue, like that of Lamartine was especially pronounced among women and youths—makes of Byron an adolescent ideal. But half-a-dozen men bear witness that “drunk on Byron” was equivalent to “drunk as a lord.” “It was,” said Delécluze, “an intoxication like that of opium.” Even Michelet, in spite of conscientious objections, declared that reading Byron threw him into the state of those that drink strong liquors, a nightmare condition that made him long for the morrow. The women—Mme. de Broglie and Mme. de Remusat—were thrilled by the personal beauty of the poet and still more by the tale of his misfortunes. “Manfred” comes soon to be the favorite dissipation, and certain devotees even try to act the hero’s part. Scientists and historians alike lose their heads. George Sand in her solitude finds that Byron is almost the greatest expression of melancholy she has ever known. He brought to J.-J. Ampère a soul-sickness apparently beyond remedy. “For all that youth,” says M. Estève, “to understand Byron meant to curse life and be walled in by despair.”

The honestly pessimistic admirers were naturally disconcerted by the appearance of the first three cantoes of “Don Juan.” They did not like their sorrowful Lucifer in Voltairian guise. Stendhal and a few others are pleased by the smaller satirical vein, but the majority of the Byronists of the Restoration either simply regret “Don Juan” or speak of it with horror as an archangel’s fall. It came into something like favor only when the Romanticists had followed Byron’s own descent from fervor to cynicism.


After the “infiltration,” the “invasion.” Two things promoted the complete establishment of Byron as the hero of French Romanticism: the Philhellenic rage, which shortly seized the country, and the poet’s own death in Greece in 1824. But before that his name rose high on the tossing waves of Romanticism, and the leaders began to announce their opinions in re Byron. Even in that camp, he was still the sower of discord. Generally, says M. Estève, the work of Byron was the touchstone to divide the good from the bad Romanticists—these words being used strictly in the ethical sense. Now Chateaubriand, the foster-father of the movement, stood officially for a “good” Romanticism, since he favored an esthetic revival of Christianity. But Byron did not stand for Christianity at all, and Chateaubriand could not be expected to welcome Lucifer. When admirers began to put the names of the two writers on the same level, the veteran Frenchman agreed to such levelling only with a marked ill-humor. Yet many years later Chateaubriand agreed that there were strong similarities in their two natures, in their youthful upbringing, in their expression of “passion and misfortune.” The first tribute by a great French poet was Lamartine’s L’Homme (1819), a “Meditation” in which Byron is apostrophized as a fallen angel who should seek again the music of the higher spheres. Yet Lamartine is impressed by the “wild harmony” of a poetry commingled ever with storms and horrors; he is dazzled by the spectacle of this eagle who ascends Mount Athos to give voice to his pride and his despair.

Alfred de Vigny too published in the Conservateur Littéraire (1820) a noteworthy appreciation of Byron, of which the burden runs “With all thy faults I love thee still.” These faults were such as would naturally repel that dignified and delicate spirit. He cannot but condemn “Don Juan” and “Beppo.” He repeats the accusations of obscurity and lack of order. But the energy of “The Corsair,” the astonishing confession of “The Giaour,” the extraordinary imagination of “Mazeppa,” with its shock of passions and its pictures of epochs, above all the inexplicable charm of all that poetry’s deep despair—these are things upon which Vigny willingly dwells.

The attitude of Gautier—who naturally would have had no hesitation in being classed as a “bad” Romanticist—was wholly admiring, if one may judge by fewer extracts than have reached us from the others. He mentions, in the His-toire du Romantisme, a drama that he and a collaborator drew from “Parisina”—”that poem so touching and so pathetic.” He declares that Byron is of all poets the one who best loves the sea.

The pallid Chênedollé, a member of the first cénacle, won much of his fame by imitations of Byron; and the founders of that cénacle—the Deschamps brothers—managed to unite his cult with that of Chateaubriand. Charles Nodier, who created the nomenclature of the “Frenetic School,” thereby gave an opportunity for the Old Guard to consider Byron wholly in the Frenetic light. The term was tossed from Annates to professorial chair. And Nodier protested, maintaining that the advent of Byron is a world-moving event, but that most of his frenzy is legitimately poetic. The poet has not created the desperate state of society which he faithfully describes. He merely presents to itself an evil and perverse generation, which wars largely against its own passions, because its egotism allows no more generous objects of enmity or sympathy. The “Société des Bonnes Lettres” also declared war against Romanticism and incidentally against Byron. So that, by 1823, M. Estève asserts that the real admirers of Byron must be sought among the independents, such as Stendhal. As in England, the poet’s fame was darkened just before its bright resurgence. A rise in his fortunes, helped by the foundation of the Muse Française and by the temperate criticism of the “Globe,” was carried to the point of an almost universal enthusiasm by his connection with the war for Grecian independence.

What then was the wave of rhapsody and grief that broke over Paris when, in May, 1824, there came the news of Byron’s death? It was the moving event of that year. Poets and politicians alike lamented. The journals would talk of nothing else. Mourning was worn even on school-benches. From drawing-room to boulevard but one name was heard. Medallions and effigies multiplied. A portrait of the dead poet, with sword, sepulchral shroud and broken lyre, was exposed by a Grecian artist and attracted crowds.

Practically the entire press is outspoken in eulogy and regret, or, at the least, declares that nothing in his life became Byron like the leaving it. Even conservative critics aver that here died a youth of much promise (!) It was then that there was proposed and partly assembled a poetic Couronne; one hundred years later M. Roth completed the weaving of this garland. It contains tributes from Emile Deschamps, who expressed the grief of the Muse Française; from Victor Hugo, who declared as Tennyson did that a part of his own life seemed cut off; from Vigny, though better appreciations by Vigny had appeared earlier. Semi-classical still are the Odes by Guiraud and Lebrun, the very typical “Messénienne” by C. Delavigne, in which Greece is adjured to rise, sink, lament and despair. Wildly romantic are the “Dithyrambes” from the long-haired folk, such as Jules Lefevre (who imitated “Parisina”) and Ulric Guttinguer, thrice-blessed in his name.

Looking before and after Byron’s death, we see that from Lamartine’s respectful apostrophe in L’Homme (1819) to Chateaubriand’s complacent reminiscence called Lord Byron et Moi, the English poet won an almost universal acceptance from the more notable French writers. Were it part of our subject, we could also see that the very same names are foremost in the matter of imitating Byron. He was widely hailed as the Bonaparte of the realms of rhyme. No foreigner, not even Goethe, not even Scott, had such a vast influence upon French Romanticism. And if he was more honored abroad than in his own country, he was neither the first nor the last to conduct his life and works to that inevitable end.


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Alok Bhargava's picture
Alok Bhargava · 3 years ago

Byron was a visionary and a great poet. Stendhal in particular imitated Don Juan's personality in the heros of the Red and the Black and Charterhouse of Parma. Some of the sentences in Stendhal's books seem translations of the lines from Don Juan. Byron was also an existentialist but was more sincere and realistic than French existentialists that followed in 20th century.



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