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The Byronic Hero

The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes

Peter L. Thorslev
Copyright Date: 1962
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 240
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    The Byronic Hero
    Book Description:

    The Byronic Hero was first published in 1962. This study of the origins and development of the Romantic hero through its apogee in the works of Byron critically examines the major Romantic heroes of comparative literature and places them in the wider perspective of history. Professor Thorslev devotes the first part of his discussion to the cultural origins and “family relationships” of a range of pre-Romantic and Romantic hero types, and to analyses of those aspects of the spirit of the times which each hero symbolizes. He shows that these forebears of the Byronic Hero -- the Child of Nature roaming the forests of Wales or the Highlands of Scotland, the Gloomy Egoist celebrating death and worms and charnel houses, the Man of Feeling expiring from a surfeit of emotion, the Gothic Villain-Hero exuding mystery, violence, and tenderness -- are largely English products of eighteenth-century sentiment and Gothicism. The more distinctly Romantic types -- the Hero of Sensibility feasting his soul and longing for its dissolution, the Noble Outlaw defying society, Faust the seeker, Cain the metaphysical rebel, the death-seeking Wandering Jew, Satan, and the fiery Prometheus -- are traced from their first appearance in the German Sturm und Drang to their composite reincarnation in the works of Byron. As the culmination of this last heroic tradition in Western literature, the Byronic Hero is significantly related to the later cult of hero-worship and to various philosophies of rebellion, from Nietzsche to Camus. An appendix contains a selective, annotated bibliography of secondary studies of each of the hero types discussed in the text. The book will be of particular interest to those studying or teaching English or comparative literature or the history of ideas.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6469-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. (pp. 3-13)

    To say that the most popular phenmenono of the English Romantic Movement and the figure with the most far-reaching consequences for nineteenthcentury Western literature was the Byronic Hero is no overstatement of the case. In Victorian England or in the nascent American literary culture Byron’s influence was perhaps less important, but still the young Tennyson wept on hearing of Byron’s death; Arnold testifies that the collective English soul “Hadfelthim like the thunder’s roll”; certainly the Brontë sisters’ Heathcliff and Rochester attest the continued appeal of this awesome hero; and the most terrible figure in our classical American literature,...

  2. (pp. 14-24)

    Our ordinary twentieth-century working concept of the Romantic Movement is by no means strictly historical, but is based on a value judgment. When we think of the great names among the English Romantic poets we think first of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Blake, and Byron — and probably in that order. The names of Scott, Southey, Campbell, and Moore rise only as second thoughts, if at all. We need occasionally to be reminded that this value concept of the Romantic Movement was built up only very gradually over a period of almost a century, and that it was most emphatically not...


    • (pp. 27-34)

      In a monograph entiledNature’s Simple Plan,Chanucey Brewster Tinker gives an amusing and informative account of primitivism in the eighteenth century. He covers such peculiarly “age of reason” phenomena as Lord Monboddo, the “Scottish Rousseau” with his primitive notions of evolution and his fanciful searches for caudal appendages, and the enthusiastic reception and eventual disillusionment with imported “noble savages” on the one hand, such as Omai or Prince Lee Bo, and on the other with native peasant bards such as Stephen Duck, the Thresher Poet, or Mary Collier, the Poetical Washerwoman. Professor Tinker then concludes: “the ‘noble savage’ was...

    • (pp. 35-50)

      The hero of Sensibility was more of a novelty in the eighteenth century than the Child of Nature, and, in spite of his always much less robust constitution, he proved to have far greater survival power in the literature of the times and of the succeeding age. By the Hero of Sensibility I mean to denote the hero who is distinguished not by daring exploits or superior intelligence, but quite simply by his capacities for feeling, mostly for the tender emotions — gentle and tearful love, nostalgia, and a pervasive melancholy that ranges from autumnal musing to “grave-yard” moralizing, with occasional...

    • (pp. 51-62)

      By the beginning of the Romantic Movement the Child of Nature as a poetic hero was on the wane, as we have seen, and in general the same is true of the eighteenth-century Man of Feeling. Never very robust of constitution, he seems to have died partly of a kind of emotional anemia, partly as a victim of wit and humor (parodies of and satires on the excesses of sentimentalism had begun to appear even before the end of the century), and partly because he was eclipsed by more robust Romantic heroes.

      This decline is vividly illustrated in the young...


    • (pp. 65-83)

      The eighteenth-century hero types — the Child of Nature, the Gloomy Egoist, and the Man of Feeling — are not, as their Romantic successors are, fullblown solitaries or social or theological rebels. They are distinctive in society, to be sure: the Child of Nature because of the peculiarities of his breeding; the Gloomy Egoist and the Man of Feeling because of their peculiar sensibilities. They are even critics of society, as we have seen, either implicitly, giving the lie to social hypocrisy by their lives of simple virtue, or explicitly, given to somewhat sententious moral analyses of the people around them. But...

    • (pp. 84-91)

      Faust is of course much more than a Romantic hero. Since his first literary appearance in theUrfaustof 1587 he has come to typify man’s eternal quest for knowledge — not only of scientific truths, but of Absolutes. His tragedy in its broadest sense is one which has been with us since the dawn of intellectual history: the tragedy of epistemology. As a popular literary hero, however, Faust certainly owes his revival to the Romantic Movement, particularly in Germany. But partly because he is a German figure, Faust has been the subject of an endless number of scholarly monographs and...

    • (pp. 92-107)

      The noble Outlaw, although often compared to Satan or Prometheus, was stillmenschliche,evenallzumenschliche;and his rebellion, for the most part, was against the laws of society, not against the laws of God. Faust, although he dabbled in magic and the supernatural, was still very human in his feelings and in his failings, but his rebellion, being inward even if intense, was against God, not merely society, and was of course unsuccessful. The next two Romantic heroes, Cain and Ahasuerus, although human to begin with, take on superhuman qualities in the course of their tragedies and become at last...

    • (pp. 108-124)

      Satan and Prometheus represent the Romantic Hero apotheosized; in these figures he reaches the ultimate in sublimity, in dignity, and in rebellion. All of the Romantic heroes have to a certain extent taken on titanic characteristics: the Noble Outlaw fought against the injustices of society; Faust and Ahasuerus in their symbolic suffering sometimes stood for all mankind; but it was Prometheus who became symbolic, through all the Romantic Movement, of man in his fight for liberty against oppression in all its forms: he combines in his person those two most prominent and not always compatible concerns of Romanticism — the concern...


    • (pp. 127-145)

      Even the casual reader of Byron’sjuveniliacan see that the earliest Byronic Hero did not spring fullgrown and unprepared for from the mind of the young poet on his Grand Tour. Something like the poetic character of Childe Harold had already appeared in the earlyHours of Idleness— in the figure of the eighteen-year-old student who fondly recalls his past “childhood” at Harrow, for instance, and the tombstone on which he was wont to lie and meditate on autumn evenings (“On a Distant View of Harrow”). Or in the figure who opines in “Childish Recollections” that he is a...

    • (pp. 146-164)

      Childe haroldI and II had appeared in March of 1812, and within months Byron was being toasted and feted in all London society. It is surprising that in the next two years of his life he found time to write at all: in addition to taking an active part in London social life, he delivered three speeches in the House of Lords, had two prolonged “affairs” (with Lady Oxford and with Lady Frances Webster), and began his unfortunate courtship of Annabella Milbanke.

      But in the brief period of a little over a year — from June 5, 1813 to August...

    • (pp. 165-184)

      In the years just preceding his exile in 1816, Byron had served on the committee which selected plays for Drury Lane, and during the course of this service, he read literally hundreds of long since forgotten works, including, of course, a good many Gothic melodramas. (Among the plays with which he was personally concerned in preparing for the stage was Coleridge’sRemorse.) It is certainly more than probable that this experience was on his mind when he made his first effort in the drama in the summer and fall of 1816, while living in Switzerland. He did not intendManfred...

    • (pp. 185-200)

      In this study of the types and prototypes of the Byronic Hero one major point, at least, has become clear: there was in the Romantic Movement a distinctive heroic tradition — an aspect of Romanticism which perhaps deserves more scholarly attention than it has so far received. The tradition began in Germany in theSturm und Drang,and culminated in Goethe’sFaust,Romanticism’s greatest achievement. It is probably true to say that the “hero aspect” of Romanticism was always more important in Germany than in England; but English Romanticism too has its representatives in this tradition — indeed, England has a prior...