Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron's Catholic Confessions

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron's Catholic Confessions

Article excerpt


This essay briefly considers Byron's general relationship with Catholicism and then examines in greater detail his two very different accounts of confession in The Giaour and Parisina. The Giaour's approach to confession is secular, while Parisina's more religious take on confession sees it as a key that unlocks the dynamic of the Byronic Hero. The essay argues that these aspects of the poems illumine both the genesis of the Byronic Hero and the change in Byron's poetry from 1816 onwards.

Discussions of Byron's religious beliefs, whether Calvinist, sceptical or Catholic, tend to be rather serious in tone.1 Yet Byron did not usually make the distinctions between seriousness and levity that, for example, Wordsworth did. This essay is not concerned with Byron's 'serious' religious convictions but with his engagement with Catholicism as a mode of thought. It will suggest that Byron was drawn to Catholicism because of its openness to contraries - contraries such as seriousness and levity.

Byron was surprised by the way in which Catholic countries viewed things differently from the society he knew in England,2 and particularly intrigued by 'a society that put so much energy into its gaieties' and 'the frankness of the Italians in love matters'.3 Shelley's attitude was different. He viewed Italian Catholicism as something that 'pervades' the 'whole framework of society' and manifests itself, 'according to the temper of the mind which it inhabits', as 'a passion, a persuasion, an excuse, a refuge, but never a check'. He suggested that the disassociation of morality and religion in Italy would astonish an Englishman.4

Byron notes an example of the kind of thing Shelley was talking about in the behaviour of 'La Fornarina', Margarita Cogni:

she was very devout, and would cross herself if she heard the prayer-time strike - sometimes when that ceremony did not appear to be much in unison with what she was then about.5

Yet he does not seem convinced of the disassociation suggested by Shelley. Byron sees that religion is real to Margarita even if it is not noticeably repressive of illicit sexual behaviour in the manner in which, for example, Presbyterianism might be, at least as presented by Robert Burns:

But yet, O Lord! confess I must

At times I'm fash'd wi' fleshly lust;


O Lord! yestreen, thou kens, wi' Meg -

Thy pardon I sincerely beg. ('Holy Willie's Prayer', 27-28, 36-37)6

Religion is a part of Holy Willie's everyday life but its tenets are not those by which he conducts his private life. Holy Willie is a hypocrite. He accepts that religion should 'check' him in theory, as he alternately denounces other sinners in 'that presbyt'ry of Ayr' (74) and pleads for mercy for himself - 'But, Lord, remember me and mine / Wi' mercies temp'ral and divine' (91-92) - but does not allow religion to check him in practice. Nevertheless Shelley's presumption that it ought to is still there, otherwise the satire would be unintelligible.

Byron saw rather different presumptions at work in the way Margarita carried her religion into the activities of her everyday life, and was intrigued by her distinctly Catholic religious practices. Margarita clearly did not consider blessing herself and making love to be mutually exclusive or incongruous. She belongs to two systems: one is the Catholic Church with its own scheme of acknowledging holiness and the power of intermediary signs, prayers and sacraments; the second is Italian society, which takes adultery for granted and tolerates it, as long as one stays within the rules and takes only one lover, as we see in Beppo. But these two systems do not belong to different worlds. In Italy Byron observed religious enthusiasm, intense prayer and a strong belief in an unseen world. The ringing of the Angelus or Sanctus bells, which Byron recalls Margarita hearing, announces that all of these things are everywhere observable in ordinary life. …

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