Although his work is often classified in anthologies alongside other Romantic poets, and despite the fact that his poems do contain obvious elements that were so characteristic of Romantic writing, Lord Byron can justifiably be considered to have created a hybrid genre in which he experimented with various poetic forms to create a style that was uniquely his own. An analysis of three of his poems, “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos,” “Don Juan: Canto I,” and “She Walks in Beauty,” helps the reader to understand how romantic and neoclassical elements both complement and contradict one another in the larger body of Lord Byron’s poetic works. Rather than align himself with any single poetic school, Byron was able to draw from the strengths and benefits of several styles, and his poems are all the better for having done so. These three poems by Byron, “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos,” “Don Juan: Canto I,” and “She Walks in Beauty” demonstrate the way in which the interplay of romantic and neoclassical elements evolved over the course of Byron’s poetic career.
“Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos” was written in 1810. Although there are many elements for analysis in “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos” it is a brief poem by Byron, especially when compared to the epic length of “Don Juan,” but it is perhaps the most representative of Byron’s incorporation of neoclassical elements in his poetry. Byron clearly situates the poem “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos” in a specific temporal period, which sets up a initial contrast between an idealized past and the wretched present in which he wrote. The speaker is a “degenerate modern wretch” (l. 5) who thinks “I’ve done a feat today” (l. 6), comparing himself against the figures of the past. The speaker appeals to a “fair Venus” (l. 4) and refers to the gods of the ancient past. Upon closer inspection, however, the comparison is not so idealized after all. The speaker finds the story of the old hero “doubtful” (l. 7) and concludes that it is difficult to discern “who fared the best” (l. 7), himself or the old hero, for the old hero “drown’d” and the speaker has “the ague” (l. 8). The speaker’s recollection of the idealized past has served to challenge that past as an idyllic, heroic period, though the speaker makes it clear that men still strive, if vainly, to perform heroic deeds as an effort to prove their love.
“She Walks in Beauty” was written in 1814 and represents a dramatic shift in tone compared to “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos.” The ideal beauty of the ages has changed little, but there is not a single direct reference to any classic beauties of the past, nor are there comparisons. Instead, the woman who walks in beauty in the poem by Byron, “She Walks in Beauty” is judged only on her own merits. It is not only her positive qualities that are extolled, though. In addition, Byron alludes that the woman has a shadow side, which also appeals to him and which he finds worthy of mention. In fact, the poem opens with the poet comparing this beauty to a cloudless night with stars, and he openly shares that “…all that’s best of dark and bright/Meet in her aspect and her eyes” (ll. 3-4). This beauty, then, is no ordinary romantic female figure. Instead, she is complex and multi-faceted, and Byron is unafraid to search for the beautiful beyond the surface. As a matter of fact, the woman’s superficial physical beauty seems to be secondary to other kinds of beauty: “her nameless grace” (l. 8), her pure thoughts, and her peacefulness and innocence are all important characteristics the poet considers worth mentioning to the reader. This version of beauty in “She Walks in Beauty” is distinct from other romantic poems in the same period, though there are romantic elements. The nature imagery, of course, is one of the most important romantic characteristics that is found in all three of the Byron poems being analyzed here.
Finally, “Don Juan: Canto I” was composed in 1822, the year of the poet’s death. An extraordinarily lengthy poem that Byron had not finished by the time of his death, it is the most complex of the three poems analyzed here and the most sophisticated in terms of the complicated interplay of neoclassical and romantic elements. First of all, the most obvious neoclassical characteristic is Byron’s choice of a subject, Don Juan himself. This subject evokes a period of chivalrous knighthood in which men prove their love for worthy ladies. Byron’s voice is hardly veiled in the poem, and as Canto the First opens, he clearly explains his reason for selecting Don Juan as his subject: “I want a hero: an uncommon want/When every year and month sends forth a new one/Till…/The age discovers he is not the true one:…/I’ll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan….” (ll. 1-6). In this clearly articulated stanza, Byron explains that there is no contemporary hero worthy of an epic meditation—“I condemn none/But can’t find any in the present age fit for my poem….” (ll. 13-15)– and so he is compelled to reach into the past for an archetypal hero figure. He does not make any false claims about how he will treat this hero, however. Byron’s wit and sense of humor are at their sharpest in “Don Juan,” and he is unsparing in his treatment of the old hero.
Byron also explains in the opening stanzas of the Canto that he will be telling an unconventional tale, warning the reader that he will introduce his own poetic style in the interpretation of the traditional Don Juan narrative. He does not ask for apology; his statement is simply intended to inform the reader about his approach, signaling that “the usual method [is] not mine” (l. 25). Across the span of this long poem, Byron nestles various moral lessons that are intended to convey both classical and romantic ideals. Among these lessons are: “The flesh is frail, and so the soul undone” (l. 502), “Even innocence itself has many a wile/And will not dare to trust itself with truth” (ll. 574-575), and “Love, then, but love within its proper limits” (l. 641). Byron thus defends love as the highest aspiration—“Men have all these resources, we but one,/To love again, and be again undone” (ll. 1551-1552)—but also acknowledges, unlike the other romantic poets, that love has its limits and difficulties. Thus, the reader observes how the neoclassical figure of Don Juan is appropriated by Byron to render a message that one might interpret as a reaction against the full embrace of the romantics’ position.
Lord Byron is often classified as a romantic poet, and this classification is not inaccurate, but it is not wholly correct, either. By incorporating significant and recognizable ideas and images from earlier periods, Byron explored and either admitted or contested their conclusions and their symbolic meaning, and applied his own interpretations as a way of responding to the unrestrained emotional passion of his romantic contemporaries. Byron was not simply a transitional figure who stood on the border between neoclassicism and romanticism; rather, he blended both genres to craft a style that was his own. An examination of three of his poems, “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos,” “She Walks in Beauty,” and “Don Juan: Canto I,” helps the reader to comprehend how these ideas developed and crystallized over the course of his poetic career. These poems bridge the neoclassical and romantic ideologies by putting them into conversation and opposition with one another.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Poetry of the Romantic Period • Romanticism in Poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge • Analytical Essay on the Poem “Air and Angels” by John Donne • The Theme of Celibacy in Browning’s Poem “Fra Lippo Lippi” • Explanation and Analysis of “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats • Analysis of the “Mask of Anarchy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Byron, George Gordon. The Complete Poetical Works of Lord Byron. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1905.