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The Byronic Hero

Published onMar 08, 2024
The Byronic Hero

The Byronic Hero


Lord Byron

Caroline Lamb

Mary Shelley

Felicia Hermans

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Robert Southey

Emily Brontë

Defining a “Byronic Hero”


Noun: A kind of hero found in several of the works of Lord Byron. Like Byron himself, a Byronic hero is a melancholy and rebellious young man, distressed by a terrible wrong he committed in the past.

A Byronic hero is a type of fictional character who is a moody, brooding rebel, often one haunted by a dark secret from his past. The term describes the type of main character found in many fictional works by Lord Byron, who is said to have had this type of personality.

Lord Byron (1788–1824) was an English poet famous for his works of fiction, as well as his scandalous personal life.

Byronic heroes are typically the protagonists, or main characters, of whatever story they appear in, and this is what’s meant by hero in the phrase—the story’s main character. The label Byronic herohas traditionally been applied only to male characters.

Byronic hero is used in the discussion of literature to describe a type of character that appears not just in the works of Byron himself but also in many other works of fiction. This makes the character an archetype (a type of character that recurs in all kinds of stories).

Lord Byron was once famously described by a lover as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” and that reputation gives you a pretty good understanding of the Byronic hero—he’s a classic bad boy. The first character considered a Byronic hero (or at least the first one written by Byron) is the protagonist of Byron’s 1812 poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Byron went on to write about similarly brooding characters in works like Don Juan, The Corsair, and Manfred. But although Byron popularized this archetype—and it’s named after him—the roots of it are older, and its legacy extends to today’s media.

Byronic heroes are characterized by having several particular traits. They may be angry, rebellious, seductive, and struggling with vices. They usually have high intelligence and emotional awareness—which tends to make them brood and be outsiders from society. And the Byronic hero is often tortured by guilt or a secret from his past.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is sometimes considered a Byronic hero, as are some of the heroes of the Gothic literature of the late 1700s. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights has Heathcliff, and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has Rochester, both often-cited examples of classic Byronic heroes. But Byronic heroes aren’t confined to novels of the 1800s. Modern stories are full of examples. Take Batman, for example, who’s always wearing all black, brooding away in the Batcave, haunted by the murder of his parents, and acting outside the rules of society.

The Byronic hero is sometimes discussed alongside the antihero archetype, referring to a hero who lacks classical heroic traits, like courage and noble intentions. A Byronic hero may sometimes be an antihero, but an antihero doesn’t have to be Byronic.

Determining which characters are Byronic heroes isn’t always so easy. For example, is Kylo Ren of the Star Wars series a Byronic hero? An antihero? Just a straight-up villain? The truth is that it’s really up to your interpretation as the viewer or reader. Labels like Byronic hero are intended not just as a way to sort characters into categories but also as a tool to help us make sense of what we’re reading or watching.

Lord Byron

From The Giaour

The mind that broods o’er guilty woes,
  Is like the scorpion girt by fire;
In circle narrowing as it glows,
The flames around their captive close,
Till inly searched by thousand throes,
  And maddening in her ire,
One sad and sole relief she knows,
The sting she nourished for her foes,
Whose venom never yet was vain,
Gives but one pang, and cures all pain,
So do the dark in soul expire,
Or live like scorpion girt by fire;
So writhes the mind remorse hath riven,
Unfit for earth, undoomed for heaven,
Darkness above, despair beneath,
Around it flame, within it death!

From The Corsair

Yet was not Conrad thus by Nature sent
To lead the guilty-guilt's worse instrument-
His soul was changed, before his deeds had driven
Him forth to war with man and forfeit heaven
Warp'd by the world in Disappointment's school,
In words too wise, in conduct there a fool;
Too firm to yield, and far too proud to stoop,
Doom'd by his very virtues for a dupe,
He cursed those virtues as the cause of ill,
And not the traitors who betray'd him still;
Nor deem'd that gifts bestow'd on better men
Had left him joy, and means to give again
Fear'd, shunn'd, belied, ere youth had lost her force,
He hated man too much to feel remorse,
And thought the voice of wrath a sacred call,
To pay the injuries of some on all.
He knew himself a villain-but he deem'd
The rest no better than the thing he seem'd
And scorn'd'the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath'd him, crouch'd and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt;
His name could sadden, and his acts surprise;
But they that fear'd him dared not to despise;
Man spurns the worm, but pauses ere he wake
The slumbering venom of the folded snake:
The first may turn, but not avenge the blow;
The last expires, but leaves no living foe;
Fast to the doom'd offender's form it clings,
And he may crush-not conquer-still it stings!

From Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto the Third

[Napoleon Buonaparte]


  There sunk the greatest, nor the worst of men,

   Whose spirit anithetically mixed

   One moment of the mightiest, and again

   On little objects with like firmness fixed;

   Extreme in all things! hadst thou been betwixt,

   Thy throne had still been thine, or never been;

   For daring made thy rise as fall:  thou seek'st

   Even now to reassume the imperial mien,

And shake again the world, the Thunderer of the scene!


  Conqueror and captive of the earth art thou!

   She trembles at thee still, and thy wild name

   Was ne'er more bruited in men's minds than now

   That thou art nothing, save the jest of Fame,

   Who wooed thee once, thy vassal, and became

   The flatterer of thy fierceness, till thou wert

   A god unto thyself; nor less the same

   To the astounded kingdoms all inert,

Who deemed thee for a time whate'er thou didst assert.


  Oh, more or less than man—in high or low,

   Battling with nations, flying from the field;

   Now making monarchs' necks thy footstool, now

   More than thy meanest soldier taught to yield:

   An empire thou couldst crush, command, rebuild,

   But govern not thy pettiest passion, nor,

   However deeply in men's spirits skilled,

   Look through thine own, nor curb the lust of war,

Nor learn that tempted Fate will leave the loftiest star.


  Yet well thy soul hath brooked the turning tide

   With that untaught innate philosophy,

   Which, be it wisdom, coldness, or deep pride,

   Is gall and wormwood to an enemy.

   When the whole host of hatred stood hard by,

   To watch and mock thee shrinking, thou hast smiled

   With a sedate and all-enduring eye;

   When Fortune fled her spoiled and favourite child,

He stood unbowed beneath the ills upon him piled.


  Sager than in thy fortunes; for in them

   Ambition steeled thee on to far too show

   That just habitual scorn, which could contemn

   Men and their thoughts; 'twas wise to feel, not so

   To wear it ever on thy lip and brow,

   And spurn the instruments thou wert to use

   Till they were turned unto thine overthrow:

   'Tis but a worthless world to win or lose;

So hath it proved to thee, and all such lot who choose.


  If, like a tower upon a headland rock,

   Thou hadst been made to stand or fall alone,

   Such scorn of man had helped to brave the shock;

   But men's thoughts were the steps which paved thy throne,

   THEIR admiration thy best weapon shone;

   The part of Philip's son was thine, not then

   (Unless aside thy purple had been thrown)

   Like stern Diogenes to mock at men;

For sceptred cynics earth were far too wide a den.


  But quiet to quick bosoms is a hell,

   And THERE hath been thy bane; there is a fire

   And motion of the soul, which will not dwell

   In its own narrow being, but aspire

   Beyond the fitting medium of desire;

   And, but once kindled, quenchless evermore,

   Preys upon high adventure, nor can tire

   Of aught but rest; a fever at the core,

Fatal to him who bears, to all who ever bore.

From Lara

And they indeed were changed–’tis quickly seen,
Whate’er he be, ’twas not what he had been:
That brow in furrow’d lines had fix’d at last,
And spake of passions, but of passion past;
The pride, but not the fire, of early days,
Coldness of mien, and carelessness of praise;
A high demeanour, and a glance that took
Their thoughts from others by a single look;
And that sarcastic levity of tongue,
The stinging of a heart the world hath stung,
That darts in seeming playfulness around,
And makes those feel that will not own the wound:
All these seem’d his, and something more beneath
Than glance could well reveal, or accent breathe.
Ambition, glory, love, the common aim
That some can conquer, and that all would claim,
Within his breast appear’d no more to strive,
Yet seem’d as lately they had been alive;
And some deep feeling it were vain to trace
At moments lighten’d o’er his livid face.


Titan! to whose immortal eyes

         The sufferings of mortality,

         Seen in their sad reality,

Were not as things that gods despise;

What was thy pity's recompense?

A silent suffering, and intense;

The rock, the vulture, and the chain,

All that the proud can feel of pain,

The agony they do not show,

The suffocating sense of woe,

         Which speaks but in its loneliness,

And then is jealous lest the sky

Should have a listener, nor will sigh

         Until its voice is echoless.

Titan! to thee the strife was given

         Between the suffering and the will,

         Which torture where they cannot kill;

And the inexorable Heaven,

And the deaf tyranny of Fate,

The ruling principle of Hate,

Which for its pleasure doth create

The things it may annihilate,

Refus'd thee even the boon to die:

The wretched gift Eternity

Was thine—and thou hast borne it well.

All that the Thunderer wrung from thee

Was but the menace which flung back

On him the torments of thy rack;

The fate thou didst so well foresee,

But would not to appease him tell;

And in thy Silence was his Sentence,

And in his Soul a vain repentance,

And evil dread so ill dissembled,

That in his hand the lightnings trembled.

Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,

         To render with thy precepts less

         The sum of human wretchedness,

And strengthen Man with his own mind;

But baffled as thou wert from high,

Still in thy patient energy,

In the endurance, and repulse

         Of thine impenetrable Spirit,

Which Earth and Heaven could not convulse,

         A mighty lesson we inherit:

Thou art a symbol and a sign

         To Mortals of their fate and force;

Like thee, Man is in part divine,

         A troubled stream from a pure source;

And Man in portions can foresee

His own funereal destiny;

His wretchedness, and his resistance,

And his sad unallied existence:

To which his Spirit may oppose

Itself—and equal to all woes,

         And a firm will, and a deep sense,

Which even in torture can descry

         Its own concenter'd recompense,

Triumphant where it dares defy,

And making Death a Victory.

From The Vision of Judgment


But bringing up the rear of this bright host [185]
   A Spirit of a different aspect waved
His wings, like thunder-clouds above some coast
   Whose barren beach with frequent wrecks is paved;
His brow was like the deep when tempest-tossed;
   Fierce and unfathomable thoughts engraved
Eternal wrath on his immortal face,
And where he gazed a gloom pervaded space.


But here they were in neutral space: we know
   From Job, that Satan hath the power to pay
A heavenly visit thrice a-year or so;
   And that the "Sons of God," like those of clay,
Must keep him company; and we might show
   From the same book, in how polite a way
The dialogue is held between the Powers
Of Good and Evil — but 'twould take up hours.


The spirits were in neutral space, before
   The gate of Heaven; like eastern thresholds is
The place where Death's grand cause is argued o'er,
   And souls despatched to that world or to this;
And therefore Michael and the other wore
   A civil aspect: though they did not kiss,
Yet still between his Darkness and his Brightness
There passed a mutual glance of great politeness


The Archangel bowed, not like a modern beau,
   But with a graceful oriental bend,
Pressing one radiant arm just where below
   The heart in good men is supposed to tend;
He turned as to an equal, not too low,
   But kindly; Satan met his ancient friend
With more hauteur, as might an old Castilian
Poor Noble meet a mushroom rich civilian.

Caroline Lamb

From Glenarvon

[from Chapter XXVI]

Those who have given way to the violence of any uncontrouled passion know that during its influence, all other considerations vanish. It is of little use to upbraid or admonish the victim who pursues his course: the fires that goad° him on to his ruin, prevent his return. A kind word, an endearing smile, may excite one contrite tear; but he never pauses to reflect, or turns his eyes from the object of his pursuit. In vain the cold looks of an offended world, the heavy censures, and the pointed, bitter sarcasms of friends and dependants. Misfortunes, poverty, pain, even to the rack, are nothing if he obtain his view. It is a madness that falls upon the brain and heart. All is at stake for that one throw; and he who dares all, is desperate, and cannot fear. It was phrenzy, not love, that raged in Calantha's bosom. 

To the prayers of a heart-broken parent, Lady Avondale opposed the agonizing threats of a distempered mind. I will leave you all, if you take him / from me. On earth there is nothing left me but Glenarvon.—Oh name not virtue and religion to me. - What are its hopes, its promises, if I lose him.' The fever of her mind was such, that she could not for one hour rest: he saw the dreadful power he had gained, and he lost no opportunity of encreasing it. Ah did he share it? In language the sweetest, and the most persuasive, he worked upon her passions, till he inflamed them beyond endurance.

'This, this is sin,' he cried, as he held her to his bosom, and breathed vows of ardent, burning love. This is what moralists rail at, and account degrading. Now tell them, Calantha, thou who didst affect to be so pure—so chaste, whether the human heart can resist it? Religion bids thee fly me,' he cried: 'every hope of heaven and hereafter warns thee from my bosom. Glenarvon is the hell thou art to shun: - this is the hour of trial.

Christians must resist. Calantha arise, and fly me; leave me alone, as before I found thee. Desert me, and thy father and relations shall bless thee for the sacrifice: and thy God, who redeemed thee, shall mark thee for his own.' With bitter taunts he smiled as he thus spoke: then clasping her nearer to his heart, 'Tell both priests and parents,' he said exultingly, 'that one kiss from the lips of those we love, is dearer than every future hope.'

All day,—severy hour in the day,—every instant of passing time Glenarvon thought but of Calantha. It was not love, it was distraction. When near him, she felt ecstacy: but if separated, though but for one moment, she was sullen and desponding. At night she seldom slept; a burning fever quickened every pulse: the heart heat as if with approaching dissolution,—delirium fell upon her brain. No longer innocent, her fancy painted but visions of love; and to be his alone, was all she now wished for, or desired on earth. He felt, he saw, that the peace of her mind, her life itself were gone' for ever, and he rejoiced in the thought.


[from Chapter XCVIII]

The duke started, and looked full in the face of Glenarvon. 'Who is this Viviani?' he said, in a tone of voice loud and terrible. 'An idol, replied Glenarvon, 'whom the multitude have set up for themselves, and worshipped, forsaking their true faith, to follow after a false light - a man who is in love with crime and baseness—one, of whom it has been said, that he hath an imagination of fire playing around a heart of ice—one whom the never-dying worm feeds on by night and day - a hypocrite," continued Glenarvon, with a smile of bitterness, who wears a mask to his friends, and defeats his enemies by his unexpected sincerity - a coward, with more of bravery than some who fear nothing; for, even in his utmost terror, he defies that which he fears.' 'And where is this wretch?' said the duke: 'what dungeon is black enough to hold him? What rack has been prepared to punish him for his crimes?' 'He is as I have said,' replied Glenarvon triumphantly, the idol of the fair, and the great. Is it virtue that women prize? Is it honour and renown they worship? Throw but the dazzling light of genius upon baseness, and corruption, and every crime will be to them but an additional charm.'


[From Chapter CVI]

Madness to phrenzy came upon him. In vain his friends, and many of the brave companions in his ship, held him struggling in their arms. He seized his opportunity. 'Bear on, he cried: pursue, till death and vengeance—” and throwing himself from the helm, plunged headlong into the waters. They rescued him; but it was too late. In the struggles of ebbing life, even as the spirit of flame rushed from the bands of mortality, visions of punishment and hell pursued him. Down, down, he seemed to sink with horrid precipitance from gulf to gulf, till immured in darkness; and as he closed his eyes in death, a voice, loud and terrible, from beneath, thus seemed to address him:

'Hardened and impenitent sinner! the measure of your iniquity is full: the / price of & Ime has been paid: here shall your spirit dwell for ever, and for ever. You have dreamed away life's joyous hour, nor made atonement for error, nor denied yourself aught that the fair earth presented you. You did not controul the fiend in your bosom, or stifle him in his first growth: he now has mastered you, and brought you here: and you did not bow the knee for mercy whilst time was given you: now mercy shall not be shewn. O, cry upwards from these lower pits, to the friends and companions you have left, to the sinner who hardens himself against his Creator—who basks in the ray of prosperous guilt, nor dreams that his hour like your's is at hand. Tell him how terrible a thing is death; how fearful at such an hour is remembrance of the past. Bid him repent, but he shall not hear you. Bid him amend, but like you he shall delay till it is too late. Then, neither his arts, nor talents, nor / his possessions, shall save him, nor friends, though leagued together more than ten thousand strong; for the axe of justice must fall. God is just; and the spirit of evil infatuates before he destroys.

Mary Shelley

From Frankenstein (1818)

[from Volume I, Chapter 3]

No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve their’s. Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.

These thoughts supported my spirits, while I pursued my undertaking with unremitting ardour. My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement. Sometimes, on the very brink of certainty, I failed; yet still I clung to the hope which the next day or the next hour might realize. One secret which I alone possessed was the hope to which I had dedicated myself; and the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding places. Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless, and almost frantic impulse, urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit. It was indeed but a passing trance, that only made me feel with renewed acuteness so soon as, the unnatural stimulus ceasing to operate, I had returned to my old habits. I collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.

[from Volume II, Chapter 7]

“But Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions. I read it, as I had read the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe, that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting. I often referred the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.

Another circumstance strengthened and confirmed these feelings. Soon after my arrival in the hovel, I discovered some papers in the pocket of the dress which I had taken from your laboratory. At first I had neglected them; but now that I was able to decypher the characters in which they were written, I began to study them with diligence. It was your journal of the four months that preceded my creation. You minutely described in these papers every step you took in the progress of your work; this history was mingled with accounts of domestic occurrences. You, doubtless, recollect these papers. Here they are. Every thing is related in them which bears reference to my accursed origin; the whole detail of that series of disgusting circumstances which produced it is set in view; the minutest description of my odious and loathsome person is given, in language which painted your own horrors, and rendered mine ineffaceable. I sickened as I read. ‘Hateful day when I received life!’ I exclaimed in agony. ‘Cursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God in pity made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of your’s, more horrid from its very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and detested.’

Felicia Hermans

From the Widow of Crescentius

[from Part 1]

Vain, vain the search — his troubled breast
Nor vow nor penance lulls to rest;
The weary pilgrimage is o'er,
The hopes that cheer'd it are no more.
Then sinks his soul, and day by day,
Youth's buoyant energies decay.
The light of health his eye hath flown,
The glow that tinged his cheek is gone.
Joyless as one on whom is laid
Some baleful spell that bids him fade,
Extending its mysterious power
O'er every scene, o'er every hour;
E'en thus he withers; and to him,
Italia's brilliant skies are dim.
He withers — in that glorious clime
Where Nature laughs in scorn of Time;
And suns, that shed on all below
Their full and vivifying glow,
From him alone their power withhold,
And leave his heart in darkness cold.
Earth blooms around him, heaven is fair,
He only seems to perish there.

Yet sometimes will a transient smile
Play o'er his faded cheek awhile,
When breathes his minstrel-boy a strain
Of power to lull all earthly pain;
So wildly sweet, its notes might seem
Th' ethereal music of a dream,
A spirit's voice from worlds unknown,
Deep thrilling power in every tone!
Sweet is that lay, and yet its flow
Hath language only given to woe;
And if at times its wakening swell
Some tale of glory seems to tell,
Soon the proud notes of triumph die,
Lost in a dirge's harmony.
Oh! many a pang the heart hath proved,
Hath deeply suffer'd, fondly loved,
Ere the sad strain could catch from thence
Such deep impassion'd eloquence!
Yes! gaze on him, that minstrel-boy —
He is no child of hope and joy;
Though few his years, yet have they been
Such as leave traces on the mien,
And o'er the roses of our prime
Breathe other blights than those of time.

Yet, seems his spirit wild and proud,
By grief unsoften'd and unbow'd.
Oh! there are sorrows which impart
A sternness foreign to the heart,
And rushing with an earthquake's power,
That makes a desert in an hour;
Rouse the dread passions in their course,
As tempests wake the billows' force! —
'Tis sad on youthful Guido's face,
The stamp of woes like these to trace.
Oh! where can ruins awe mankind
Dark as the ruins of the mind?

His mien is lofty, but his gaze
Too well a wandering soul betrays:
His full, dark eye at times is bright
With strange and momentary light,
Whose quick uncertain flashes throw
O'er his pale cheek a hectic glow;
And oft his features and his air
A shade of troubled mystery wear,
A glance of hurried wildness, fraught
With some unfathomable thought.
Whate'er that thought, still unexpress'd,
Dwells the sad secret in his breast;
The pride his haughty brow reveals,
All other passion well conceals.
He breathes each wounded feeling's tone
In music's eloquence alone;
His soul's deep voice is only pour'd
Through his full song and swelling chord.
He seeks no friend, but shuns the train
Of courtiers with a proud disdain…

Percy Bysshe Shelley

From Prometheus Unbound

[from “Preface”]

The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs, and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure. In the minds of those who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling it engenders something worse. But Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.

[from Act I]

SCENE.—A Ravine of Icy Rocks in the Indian Caucasus. Prometheus is discovered bound to the Precipice. Panthea and Ione are seated at his feet. Time, night. During the Scene, morning slowly breaks.


   Monarch of Gods and Dæmons, and all Spirits

But One, who throng those bright and rolling worlds

Which Thou and I alone of living things

Behold with sleepless eyes! regard this Earth

Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou

Requitest for knee-worship, prayer, and praise,

And toil, and hecatombs of broken hearts,

With fear and self-contempt and barren hope.

Whilst me, who am thy foe, eyeless in hate,

Hast thou made reign and triumph, to thy scorn,

O'er mine own misery and thy vain revenge.

Three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered hours,

And moments aye divided by keen pangs

Till they seemed years, torture and solitude,

Scorn and despair,—these are mine empire:—

More glorious far than that which thou surveyest

From thine unenvied throne, O Mighty God!

Almighty, had I deigned to share the shame

Of thine ill tyranny, and hung not here

Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain,

Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured; without herb,

Insect, or beast, or shape or sound of life.

Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!

   No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure.

I ask the Earth, have not the mountains felt?

I ask yon Heaven, the all-beholding Sun,

Has it not seen? The Sea, in storm or calm,

Heaven's ever-changing Shadow, spread below,

Have its deaf waves not heard my agony?

Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!

   The crawling glaciers pierce me with the spears

Of their moon-freezing crystals, the bright chains

Eat with their burning cold into my bones.

Heaven's wingèd hound, polluting from thy lips

His beak in poison not his own, tears up

My heart; and shapeless sights come wandering by,

The ghastly people of the realm of dream,

Mocking me: and the Earthquake-fiends are charged

To wrench the rivets from my quivering wounds

When the rocks split and close again behind:

While from their loud abysses howling throng

The genii of the storm, urging the rage

Of whirlwind, and afflict me with keen hail.

And yet to me welcome is day and night,

Whether one breaks the hoar frost of the morn,

Or starry, dim, and slow, the other climbs

The leaden-coloured east; for then they lead

The wingless, crawling hours, one among whom

—As some dark Priest hales the reluctant victim—

Shall drag thee, cruel King, to kiss the blood

From these pale feet, which then might trample thee

If they disdained not such a prostrate slave.

Disdain! Ah no! I pity thee. What ruin

Will hunt thee undefended through wide Heaven!

How will thy soul, cloven to its depth with terror,

Gape like a hell within! I speak in grief,

Not exultation, for I hate no more,

As then ere misery made me wise. The curse

Once breathed on thee I would recall. Ye Mountains,

Whose many-voicèd Echoes, through the mist

Of cataracts, flung the thunder of that spell!

Ye icy Springs, stagnant with wrinkling frost,

Which vibrated to hear me, and then crept

Shuddering through India! Thou serenest Air,

Through which the Sun walks burning without beams!

And ye swift Whirlwinds, who on poisèd wings

Hung mute and moveless o'er yon hushed abyss,

As thunder, louder than your own, made rock

The orbèd world! If then my words had power,

Though I am changed so that aught evil wish

Is dead within; although no memory be

Of what is hate, let them not lose it now!

What was that curse? for ye all heard me speak.

Robert Southey

From A Vision of Judgment, Preface

I am well aware that the public are peculiarly intolerant of such innovations; not less than the populace used to be of any foreign fashion, whether of foppery or convenience. Would that this literary intolerance were under the influence of a saner judgement, and regarded the morals rather than the manner of a composition; the spirit rather than the form! Would that it were directed against those monstrous combinations of horrors and mockery, lewdness and impiety, with which English poetry has, in our days, first been polluted! For more than half a century English literature had been distinguished by its moral purity, the effect, and in turn, the cause of an improvement in national manners. A father might, without apprehension of evil, have put into the hands of his children any book which issued from the press, if it did not bear, either in its title-page or frontispiece, manifest signs that it was intended as furniture for the brothel. There was no danger in any work which bore the name of a respectable publisher, or was to be procured at any respectable bookseller’s. This was particularly the case with regard to our poetry. It is now no longer so; and woe to those by whom the offence cometh! The greater the talents of the offender, the greater is his guilt, and the more enduring will be his shame. Whether it be that the laws are in themselves unable to abate an evil of this magnitude, or whether it be that they are remissly administered, and with such injustice that the celebrity of an offender serves as a privilege whereby he obtains impunity, individuals are bound to consider that such pernicious works would neither be published nor written, if they were discouraged as they might, and ought to be, by public feeling; every person, therefore, who purchases such books, or admits them into his house, promotes the mischief, and thereby, as far as in him likes, becomes an aider and abettor of the crime.

The publication of a lascivious book is one of the worst offences that can be committed against the well-being of society. It is a sin, to the consequences of which no limits can be assigned, and those consequences no after repentance in the writer can counteract. Whatever remorse of conscience he may feel when his hour comes (and come it must!) will be of no avail. The poignancy of a death-bed repentance cannot cancel one copy of the thousands which are sent abroad; and as long as it continues to be read, so long is he the pandar of posterity, and so long is he heaping up guilt in his soul in perpetual accumulation.

These remarks are not more severe than the offence deserves, when applied to those immoral writers who have not been conscious of any evil intention in their writings, who would acknowledge a little levity, a little warmth of colouring, and so forth, in that sort of language with which men gloss over their favourite vices, and deceive themselves. What then should be said of those for whom the thoughtlessness and inebriety of wanton youth can no longer be pleaded, but who have written in sober manhood and with deliberate purpose? . . Men of diseased hearts and depraved imaginations, who, forming a system of opinions to suit their own unhappy course of conduct, have rebelled against the holiest ordinances of human society, and hating that revealed religion which, with all their efforts and bravadoes, they are unable entirely to disbelieve, labour to make others as miserable as themselves, by infecting them with a moral virus that eats into the soul! The school which they have set up may properly be called the Satanic school; for though their productions breathe the spirit of Belial in their lascivious parts, and the spirit of Moloch in those loathsome images of atrocities and horrors which they delight to represent, they are more especially characterised by a Satanic spirit of pride and audacious impiety, which still betrays the wretched feeling of hopelessness wherewith it is allied.

This evil is political as well as moral, for indeed moral and political evils are inseparably connected. Truly it has been affirmed by one of our ablest and clearest reasoners, that “the destruction of governments may be proved by and deduced from the general corruption of the subjects’ manners, as a direct and natural cause thereof, by a demonstration as certain as any in the mathematics.” There is no maxim more frequently enforced by Machiavelli, than that where the manners of a people are generally corrupted, there the government cannot long subsist, . . a truth which all history exemplifies; and there is no means whereby that corruption can be so surely and rapidly diffused, as by poisoning the waters of literature.

Let the rulers of the state look to this, in time! But, to use the words of South, if “our physicians think the best way of curing a disease is to pamper it, . . the Lord in mercy prepare the kingdom to suffer, what He by miracle only can prevent!”

No apology is offered for these remarks. The subject led to them; and the occasion of introducing them was willingly taken, because it is the duty of every one, whose opinion may have any influence, to expose the drift and aim of those writers who are labouring to subvert the foundations of human virtue and of human happiness.

Emily Brontë

From Wuthering Heights

from Chapter IV

This was Heathcliff’s first introduction to the family. On coming back a few days afterwards (for I did not consider my banishment perpetual), I found they had christened him “Heathcliff”: it was the name of a son who died in childhood, and it has served him ever since, both for Christian and surname. Miss Cathy and he were now very thick; but Hindley hated him: and to say the truth I did the same; and we plagued and went on with him shamefully: for I wasn’t reasonable enough to feel my injustice, and the mistress never put in a word on his behalf when she saw him wronged.

He seemed a sullen, patient child; hardened, perhaps, to ill-treatment: he would stand Hindley’s blows without winking or shedding a tear, and my pinches moved him only to draw in a breath and open his eyes, as if he had hurt himself by accident, and nobody was to blame. This endurance made old Earnshaw furious, when he discovered his son persecuting the poor fatherless child, as he called him. He took to Heathcliff strangely, believing all he said (for that matter, he said precious little, and generally the truth), and petting him up far above Cathy, who was too mischievous and wayward for a favourite.

So, from the very beginning, he bred bad feeling in the house; and at Mrs. Earnshaw’s death, which happened in less than two years after, the young master had learned to regard his father as an oppressor rather than a friend, and Heathcliff as a usurper of his parent’s affections and his privileges; and he grew bitter with brooding over these injuries. I sympathised a while; but when the children fell ill of the measles, and I had to tend them, and take on me the cares of a woman at once, I changed my idea. Heathcliff was dangerously sick; and while he lay at the worst he would have me constantly by his pillow: I suppose he felt I did a good deal for him, and he hadn’t wit to guess that I was compelled to do it. However, I will say this, he was the quietest child that ever nurse watched over. The difference between him and the others forced me to be less partial. Cathy and her brother harassed me terribly: he was as uncomplaining as a lamb; though hardness, not gentleness, made him give little trouble.

[from Chapter 10]

I descended, and found Heathcliff waiting under the porch, evidently anticipating an invitation to enter. He followed my guidance without waste of words, and I ushered him into the presence of the master and mistress, whose flushed cheeks betrayed signs of warm talking. But the lady’s glowed with another feeling when her friend appeared at the door: she sprang forward, took both his hands, and led him to Linton; and then she seized Linton’s reluctant fingers and crushed them into his. Now, fully revealed by the fire and candlelight, I was amazed, more than ever, to behold the transformation of Heathcliff. He had grown a tall, athletic, well-formed man; beside whom my master seemed quite slender and youth-like. His upright carriage suggested the idea of his having been in the army. His countenance was much older in expression and decision of feature than Mr. Linton’s; it looked intelligent, and retained no marks of former degradation. A half-civilised ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued; and his manner was even dignified: quite divested of roughness, though too stern for grace. My master’s surprise equalled or exceeded mine: he remained for a minute at a loss how to address the ploughboy, as he had called him. Heathcliff dropped his slight hand, and stood looking at him coolly till he chose to speak.

[from Chapter XXV]

A movement of Catherine’s relieved me a little presently: she put up her hand to clasp his neck, and bring her cheek to his as he held her; while he, in return, covering her with frantic caresses, said wildly—

“You teach me now how cruel you’ve been—cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Whydid you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they’ll blight you—they’ll damn you. You loved me—then what right had you to leave me? What right—answer me—for the poor fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart—you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine. So much the worse for me that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you—oh, God! would you like to live with your soul in the grave?”

“Let me alone. Let me alone,” sobbed Catherine. “If I’ve done wrong, I’m dying for it. It is enough! You left me too: but I won’t upbraid you! I forgive you. Forgive me!”

“It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands,” he answered. “Kiss me again; and don’t let me see your eyes! I forgive what you have done to me. I love mymurderer—but yours! How can I?”

They were silent—their faces hid against each other, and washed by each other’s tears. At least, I suppose the weeping was on both sides; as it seemed Heathcliff could weep on a great occasion like this.

[from Chapter XXIX]

“You are a boastful champion,” replied Heathcliff; “but I don’t like you well enough to hurt him: you shall get the full benefit of the torment, as long as it lasts. It is not I who will make him hateful to you—it is his own sweet spirit. He’s as bitter as gall at your desertion and its consequences: don’t expect thanks for this noble devotion. I heard him draw a pleasant picture to Zillah of what he would do if he were as strong as I: the inclination is there, and his very weakness will sharpen his wits to find a substitute for strength.”

“I know he has a bad nature,” said Catherine: “he’s your son. But I’m glad I’ve a better, to forgive it; and I know he loves me, and for that reason I love him. Mr. Heathcliff, you havenobody to love you; and, however miserable you make us, we shall still have the revenge of thinking that your cruelty arises from your greater misery. You are miserable, are you not? Lonely, like the devil, and envious like him? Nobody loves you—nobody will cry for you when you die! I wouldn’t be you!”

Catherine spoke with a kind of dreary triumph: she seemed to have made up her mind to enter into the spirit of her future family, and draw pleasure from the griefs of her enemies.

“You shall be sorry to be yourself presently,” said her father-in-law, “if you stand there another minute. Begone, witch, and get your things!”

She scornfully withdrew. In her absence I began to beg for Zillah’s place at the Heights, offering to resign mine to her; but he would suffer it on no account. He bid me be silent; and then, for the first time, allowed himself a glance round the room and a look at the pictures. Having studied Mrs. Linton’s, he said—“I shall have that home. Not because I need it, but—” He turned abruptly to the fire, and continued, with what, for lack of a better word, I must call a smile—“I’ll tell you what I did yesterday! I got the sexton, who was digging Linton’s grave, to remove the earth off her coffin lid, and I opened it. I thought, once, I would have stayed there: when I saw her face again—it is hers yet!—he had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change if the air blew on it, and so I struck one side of the coffin loose, and covered it up: not Linton’s side, damn him! I wish he’d been soldered in lead. And I bribed the sexton to pull it away when I’m laid there, and slide mine out too; I’ll have it made so: and then by the time Linton gets to us he’ll not know which is which!”

“You were very wicked, Mr. Heathcliff!” I exclaimed; “were you not ashamed to disturb the dead?”

“I disturbed nobody, Nelly,” he replied; “and I gave some ease to myself. I shall be a great deal more comfortable now; and you’ll have a better chance of keeping me underground, when I get there. Disturbed her? No! she has disturbed me, night and day, through eighteen years—incessantly—remorselessly—till yesternight; and yesternight I was tranquil. I dreamt I was sleeping the last sleep by that sleeper, with my heart stopped and my cheek frozen against hers.”

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