Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron and Montaigne

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron and Montaigne

Article excerpt


This article represents a search for affinities explaining Byron's comparison of Don Juan with Montaigne's Essays. Both proclaim a scepticism expressed by Montaigne as 'Que sçais-je?'. Both finally reject the use of violence to establish one's own opinions, yet Byron's joining in the Greek War for Independence shows no lack of integrity. He approves of war to relieve oppression and both Byron and Montaigne present themselves as changeable and full of contradictions. Montaigne's essays dealing with the philosophy and practice of war were useful reading for a tyro commander with a conscience to take to war. The thinker in the Palazzo Mocenigo and the thinker in the round tower at Montaigne were on much the same path.

'Que sçais-je?' What do I know? This was a phrase so significant to Montaigne that he had it struck on a medal. This chimes rather well with the Byron family device, 'Crede Byron', in that, as with Montaigne, you can always trust Byron because he never narrow-mindedly insists on his own omniscience. 'I deny nothing, but doubt everything.'1 In other words, 'Que sçais-je?' - What do I know?

The only mention of Montaigne in Byron's letters and journals is the remark in a letter to Douglas Kinnaird defending Don Juan from the criticisms of his friends in London. 'I mean it,' Byron wrote, 'for a poetical T[ristram] Shandy - or Montaigne's Essays with a story for a hinge.'2 It is nevertheless a significant pointer to his intentions in writing Don Juan. He clearly saw the poem as a compendium of wisdom and practical advice for living, as well as matter for laughter, wit and satire, though, in both Byron's and Montaigne's case, the writer is addressing himself rather than preaching to others.

James Hamilton Browne, who travelled to Greece with Byron on board the Hercules, tells us that

on the passage to Cephalonia Byron chiefly read the works of Dean Swift. He also made it a constant rule to peruse every day one or more of the Essays of Montaigne. This practice he said he had pursued for a long time, adding that more general knowledge and useful information are to be derived from an intimate acquaintance with that diverting author than by a long and continuous course of study.3

The title Seigneur de Montaigne gives the impression that Montaigne was a scion of a highly exalted family. This is not the case. Compared with the grand old French families, the Eyquems (Montaigne's family) were upstarts. Michael Screech describes Montaigne as a 'Macmillan among Douglas Homes'.4 This comparatively lowly status among his peers may have caused Montaigne some uneasiness as a boy, which might well bear comparison with Byron's own anxieties about his aristocratic status. However, in his essay on educating children, Montaigne insists on the importance of teaching them 'that self-assurance which fears nothing'.5 Montaigne's father, who was deeply concerned about his son's education, and the tutors he employed to instruct the boy clearly taught him just such self-assurance.

Montaigne also spent many years serving his country in various practical capacities, visiting court several times, serving Francis II and Henry III on both diplomatic and military missions, acting for thirteen years as councillor to the Parlement of Bordeaux, later being elected Mayor of the city of Bordeaux for two terms and, towards the end of his life, serving Henry of Navarre, later crowned as Henry IV.

Many of these activities were somewhat reluctantly performed after his withdrawal, at the age of 38, to his château of Montaigne in order to contemplate and write. His writings show a complete indifference to his own comparative status in any field whatsoever, apart from a tendency, again like Byron, to dwell a little too much on the importance of nobility. He was the first Montaigne to drop the family name, Eyquem, which was a reminder of the days when Ramon Eyquem, his great-grandfather, was a local landowner and merchant who built up the family's wealth by dealing in wine and fish in Bordeaux. …

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