WHO’S WHO ? THE UNCERTAINTIES OF IDENTITY IN BYRON’S WRITINGS. ( par Danièle SARRAT)

The great variety of subject, style and tone in Byron’s writings mirrors the poet’s multiple identity, his penchant for misleading situations and his recurrent tendency to puzzle or surprise his readers, as far as identity is concerned, through various means. These are changes in physical appearance, or even gender, through disguise for instance, or reversed clichés: women acting in ways traditionally reserved for men, and conversely.

This general blurring originates in the poet’s way of presenting himself : it is a well-known fact that, as one of the first modern celebrities, Byron attached great importance to his appearance, not only in his portraits, but also in real life. He had a marked liking for disguise, costumes and uniforms, for instance his «state robes» in Cambridge in 1805,[1] his «magnifique» Albanian costume bought at Jannina in 1809, his dandy dress in his years of fame in London, and his «electrifying» image, as Mavrocordato put it,[2]on his arrival in Greece in 1823, with his «splendid scarlet coat with gold epaulettes», and especially his incredible, stupendous plumed helmet. This tendency may have been contagious, as Caroline Lamb also disguised herself as a page, so as to approach Byron surreptitiously, and several ladies «accoutred themselves as chambermaids»[3] to get a closer look at him just before his departure from Dover in 1816.

Similar changes in physical appearance can often be found in his characters. We can remember that Lara’s page, Kaled, turns out to be a woman when her «breast is bared» and her «sex confessed» as a result.

Arnold, in The Deformed Transformed, is eventually given the aspect of Achilles, after refusing those of Julius Caesar, Alcibiades, Socrates, Antony and Demetrius.

In Canto V, stanza 73, Don Juan, though he is not «in a masquerading mood», is compelled by Baba to put on an «effeminate garb» ( 76) in which «a Princess with great pleasure would

array her limbs».(73).

How could a mere change of outfit, and just «some small aid from scissors, paint and tweezers» (80) turn a young man into a credible damsel? Even His Highness, the Sultan, was taken in and wondered «That a mere Christian should be half so pretty» (155).

Baba’s «slight lessons» (91) no doubt helped him to preserve the secret about his real identity: Don Juan just had

«To stint

That somewhat manly majesty of stride,

[…]To swing a little less from side to side,

[…]And also […] look a little modest» (91).

But feminine intuition need not be proved, and the «lovely Odalisques» (Canto VI, 29) in the harem couldn’t help feeling

«A soft kind of concatenation,

Like magnetism, or devilism, or what

You please.» ( VI, 38).

A possible explanation might be, of course, that, like «the fair Sultana», they all «erred from inanition» (VI, 9). Besides, there are some limits to the power of disguise, as is shown by the next episode in bed with Dudù, when his masculine identity cannot be kept secret any more.

A blurred gender distinction may be due to other factors, that have nothing to do with disguise. An example of this is Myrrha’s fighting like a man in Sardanapalus, with «the steel in her hand» (III, 1, 396), thus contradicting Salemenes’disparaging assumption that she is

«Herding with the other females,

Like frightened antelopes» (III, 1, 377-378).

In The Corsair, Gulnare is a matter of bewilderment to all the pirates after she has been so bold as to kill the Pacha :

«The worst of crimes had left her woman still!» (III, 16).

Yet, all Conrad sees in her is «the homicide» (III, 13), even though she killed out of love, and to save him.

She desperately tries to alter his vision of  her:

«Oh! Spare me now!

I am not what I seem» (III, 13).

Her claim is interesting, as it urges us to go beyond, to probe more deeply into identity and   its fragmented, kalaedoscopic nature.

The incredibly rich mystery of D.N.A. proves the intricacies of this matter.The blood in one’s veins is supposed to be directly connected with one’s family name, but it is not always the case.

Hugo, in Parisina, is denied his real identity: he can’t «claim the lawful heirship» of his father’s name, Este (XIII, 260-262). Though he shares his father’s «nobility of race» (XIII, 283), his «tamelessness of heart» ( 288), his «arm of strength» and «soul of flame» (291), he remains the son of innocence betrayed, as his mother Bianca was wronged, seduced then discarded by his father Azo.

What’s in a name? Romeo, in Shakespeare’s play, would willingly « doff » his, and accept not to be a Montague, out of love for Juliet. In Hugo’s case, it is the opposite, as he is wrongly deprived of his title, which determines his fate: he loved Parisina, she was «destined long» for him (XIII, 255), but he was considered «a match ignoble for her arms»(XIII, 259). As a consequence, all could

«See the son fall by the doom of the father». (XV, 406).

The matter of guilt and justice thus defies appearances, and may be central to the plot in other works, such as The Bride of Abydos. Here, the role of heredity is primeval,and it may also be misleading in our appreciation of identity, as characters can be genetically modified according to the narrator’s will. Selim’s love for Zuleika is not incestuous:

«I am not, love! what I appear.» (Canto I, XIV, 482)

In Canto II, he reveals his «darker secret» (X, 160):

«Oh! Never wed another  ?

Zuleika! I am not thy brother!».( X, 163-164).

Selim is not Giaffir’s son, but his nephew, and his real father was poisoned by Giaffir.This is why Giaffir rejects his so-called «only son», refers to him as «a wayward boy» (I, 132), «son of a slave» (I, 81), «from unbelieving mother bred» (I, 82), whereas his daughter is «the offspring of [his] choice» (I, 148), his «child of gentleness» (I, 193).

The father’s identity is here decisive, as love is no longer forbidden between Selim and Zuleika, and this is possibly an autobiographical element : Byron might have loved to say these very words to his own sister Augusta.

Leila, sentenced to a cruel death by Hassan because of her love for the Giaour illustrates the same point: all these characters, as Michael Foot points out in The Politics of Paradise[4] «carried somewhere the Byronic trade mark of protest against war and tyranny», and all those revelations about their identities lay the blame on others, and aim at emphasizing their innnocence.

This theme is central to Heaven and Earth , the mystery inspired from the Deluge in the Bible, published in the second issue of The Liberal, January 1st, 1823.The rebellious spirit is still present and revolt seems inevitable, as God’s verdict is pitiless: his decree is that

«All die

Save the slight remnant of Seth’s seed». (I, 3, 250).

Here again, lineage and guilt are central, and the resulting divisions lead to nothing less than mortality or eternal life. The first difference lies between the «sons of clay»(I, 16), also referred to as the «Perishable» (I,1, 28), or «Adamites»(I,1, 69), and the angels and seraphs, the «celestial creatures (I, 10) of «immortal essence»(I, 1, 66). The second division opposes men to one another, according to whether those «earth-born beings»(I, 3, 468), descending from Abel, are «sons of the saved» (I, 3, 124), or they  belong to «the abhorred race(I, 3,76) and are called the «stern Cainites» (I, 3,406) or even the «children of the wicked».(I, 3,465)

Aholibamah refuses to yield and valiantly stands up for her grandfather Cain:

«Shall I blush for him

From whom we had our being?» (I, 3, 420).

She rejects Seth, calling him «the last offspring of old Adam’s dotage» (part 1, sc.3, 392). Her sister Anah could be saved by the love of Noah’s son, Japhet, but she loves a seraph, Azaziel, though such unnatural «communion» is blamed by Noah:

«Has not God made a barrier between earth

And heaven, and limited each, kind to kind?» (Part 1, sc.3, 476)

If Azaziel can’t save her, she’d rather die alone than make him lose his immortality.This celestial love distinguishes her from other women: «An angel’s bride disdains to weep.»(1,3, 648.) Japhet’s fate is to survive thanks to the ark, his «alloted ocean-tent» (1,3,878) but he expresses profound despair in the last line of the poem :

«Why, when all perish, why must I remain?»

The contrast between the words «I» and «all» shows how difficult it is to be the chosen one.

Identity, here, determines survival or immediate death and depends upon ancestry, but it is also a matter of personal choice.

A similar attempt at probing identity by lifting the veil between life and death can be found in two other instances.

The first one, in Childe Harold ,( canto IV, C), lies in Byron’s passionate questioning about the centuries-old inhabitant of a tomb outside Rome, Cecilia Metella:

«But who was she, the lady of the dead,

Tomb’d in a palace? […]

How lived, how loved, how died she?»[1]

Byron often refers in his works to the connection between men and their burial places. If Cecilia Metella was fortunate enough to be immortalized in Byron’s lines, it is not due to her heroism, but to the poet’s fertile romantic imagination in front of her unusual tomb. It is so solidly built, «firm as a fortress» (XCIX) that its contents must be exceptionally precious, as he describes them «a more than mortal lot» (C). The mystery about her identity arouses his curiosity about the kind of woman she was in love: was she «chaste and fair»?(C) Was she virtuous or unfaithful to her husband? Whose bed did she share? All these conjectures arouse his empathy for her, and even intimacy, as he finally tells the tomb:

«It seems as if I had thine inmate known». (CIV)

Cecilia’s example, besides revealing Byron’s passionate temperament, shows that for him the matter of identity is ageless, as mystery and desire can survive death.

The second example shows that the revelation of one’s true identity may have delightful consequences, as in Don Juan’s case at the end of the poem. Meeting a ghost during a full-moon night in an old abbey is a hair-raising experience, except when the cold, immaterial vaporous being turns out to be a tangible, warm and pleasantly solid creature, namely the «full, voluptuous» bulk of «her frolic Grace Fitz-Fulke.»(Canto XVII, CXXIII). Don Juan, though he was said to «shake», «shudder» and be «petrified» had not failed to notice the ghost’s «bright eye», «dimpled chin» ( CXXIII), and even «remarkable sweet breath» (CXXI).

In this instance, no one is really mystified except the reader, and this cat-and-mouse game seems to end quite well, though both Don Juan and Lady Fitz-Fulke are «rather wan and worn» (XIV) at breakfast the next morning, which shows that the matter of identity is also a subjective notion, and there exist very different kinds of ghosts indeed.

So identity, because it depends on our subjective appreciation, is constantly transforming and evolving. It has many ramifications, such as physical beauty, disguise, gender, lineage and name, leading to questions of innocence and guilt. This permits Byron to debunk myths and rid his characters of conventional clichés as to their attitudes and social roles. The masculine-feminine border can easily be crossed. Seduction and desire are born from ambiguity and mystery, regardless of identity. Though man is doomed to a mortal fate, his capacity for questioning and protesting shows that identity has to do mainly with personal courage and freedom.

 

Danièle SARRAT

 



[1] I wish to thank Geoffrey Bond for giving me access to his library and helping me with my research on Cecilia Metella (« Historical Illustrations », p.200.)



[1]              BLJ, I, 78. Letter to John Hanson, Trinity College, Oct. 26th. 1805.

[2]              Fiona Mc Carthy, Byron, Life and Legend (John Murray 2002), p.490.

[3]              Leslie A. Marchand, A Portrait, (Pimlico 1993), p.234.

[4]              Michael Foot, The Politics of Paradise, (W.Collins, London 1988),ch. IV, p.152.

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