Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Childe Harold III, stanza 6, lines 46-54

'Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy, gaining as we give
The life we image--even as I do now.
What am I? Nothing. But not so art thou,
Soul of my thought, with whom I traverse earth,
Invisible but gazing, as I glow
Mixed with thy spirit, blended with thy birth,
And feeling still with thee in my crushed feelings' dearth.

This fascinating stanza comes from the introductory section of Byron's Childe Harold, Canto III, composed in 1816. Byron had become famous--one of the first bona fide media celebrities in the modern world--as a result of the publication of Childe Harold I and II in 1812. Since that time, the poet's wayward sexual morality and disastrous marriage had caused many to recoil from his society, though many also remained fascinated, even entranced, by his larger-than-life personality. Eventually, in early 1816, Byron went into self-exile, leaving England and taking up residence on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland (where he would be visited by Percy and Mary Shelley). At this point he took up the earlier poem once again, and at Shelley's urging he produced the very Wordsworthian Childe Harold Canto III.

One extraordinary element of this passage is the deliberate self-fashioning that, as Byron explains it, underlies his current poetic effort. The creation of art--in this case writing the present poem--is a way to "live / A being more intense." The act of artistic creation--endowing our "fancy" with some tangible "form"--enables the artist to gain something akin to the life he creates. Artistic creation, in other words, is not simply the production of some verbal artifact such as a poem; it is also a remaking of the life of the artist. As the stanza continues, Byron identifies himself, perhaps disingenuously, as "Nothing." Put another way, the artist is a kind of cipher or blank slate until endowed with life and character in the act of creation. And for Byron such creation has a double reference: the "Soul of my thought" is both his own earlier Childe Harold character (the figure who took the English readership by storm in 1812) and his months-old daughter Ada whom he left behind in England as he fled to the Continent.

The passage might be fruitfully compared with other romantic descriptions of the practice and purposes of artistic creation. One thinks, for instance, of Wordsworth's "recollection in tranquility" which occurs when the poet is in a "vacant or a pensive mood." (See Wordsworth's Preface and his "I wander'd lonely....") Or one might think of Keats's letter to Woodhouse (27 October 1818) claiming that true poets have "no identity" themselves and are continually filling the vacuum with "some other body." Such texts, and there are no doubt others, point to one strand of romantic theories of aesthetic creation.

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