Byron: More Than a Pretty Face
Lord Byron, the 19th-century Romantic best known for his epic poem Don Juan, has another, little-recognized side. Emily A. Bernhard Jackson, a Byron scholar, says Byron developed a philosophy of knowledge sharply at odds with the thinking of his time.
“People don’t tend to talk about Byron as a philosopher,” Bernhard Jackson said. “Either they talk about his influence or talk about him in historical or cultural terms. He was funny and good-looking, and he didn’t become famous for his thinking but for his selfhood.”
Her article “The Harold of a New Age: Childe Harold I and II and Byron’s Rejection of Canonical Knowledge” was published in the scholarly journal Romanticism on the Net.
In her examination of Byron’s work Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Bernhard wrote that Byron challenged “the conventional idea of knowledge as stable and reliable.”
Britain in Byron’s time had taken a “turn toward the visual” with opportunities abounding for the public to visit galleries and museums. Theater became a more visual, as opposed to a verbal, experience. Shop windows displayed cartoons and prints of news and scandals.
Soon academies, institutes and popular writings offered instruction in discernment “to lay bare the underlying tenets of taste in order that it might be understood and acquired by those who sought it.” Byron initially presents Childe Harold as a travel narrative offering observations of other lands by an educated member of the upper classes, a narrative that at first “seems to participate in the validation of sight as a conduit to understanding.”
Not so, Bernhard Jackson said. “You can see Byron poking at the 18th-century idea of how to acquire knowledge – for him, ‘different ways of seeing produce different ways of knowing.’”
Byron ends Childe Harold with a commentary that repudiates the notion of sight producing revelation.
“This commentary,” Bernhard Jackson observed, “demonstrates to readers not the power but the weakness of both sight and knowledge: one may see, but one may not necessarily discern; what one knows may be only what one has been taught to believe.”