Academic journal article The Byron Journal

P. L. Møller: Kierkegaard's Byronic Adversary

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

P. L. Møller: Kierkegaard's Byronic Adversary

Article excerpt

From 1836 to 1837, the young Søren Aabye Kierkegaard had what Bartholomew Ryan terms his 'Faustian period '. During this time, the would-be philosopher mentions Lord Byron in his journals three times, the first within the context of Karl Ernst Schubarth's study of Byron's Manfred vis-à-vis Goethe 's Faust.1 Kierkegaard writes that Schubarth 'shows that some have simply understood the poem to be a complaint that he was denied the highest pleasures of life, and that Lord Byron has reproduced the matter and content in F.[aust] from this standpoint.' In this same entry, Kierkegaard 's regard for Byron is apparent when he writes that the poet 's Cain 'has understood the Devil from another side ', and that Byron is indeed one of the 'great poets'.2 Kierkegaard sublimated this youthful enthusiasm for Byron in the creation of Either/Or, the book that he regarded as the debut of his authorship.3 In his A Short Life of Kierkegaard, Walter Lowrie perceptively notes that one of its first sections clearly suggests the influence of the poet:

The book claimed to be edited by Victor Eremita, who makes use of the papers of 'A' and 'B' which were accidentally discovered. 'A' is a brilliant young man who depicts in glowing terms the pleasures of the aesthetic life, but reveals from the very outset ; in the Diapsalmata, which are Byronic expressions of despair ; that this is not the way which leads to happiness. The extremest aberration of the aesthetic life is exemplified in the Seducer, whose diary concludes the first volume.4

Whether the papers of A the aesthete (Part I) are put into a dialectical relationship to those of B the ethicist (Part II), or if, as is more commonly thought, they merely serve as a straw man or foil, is an important question for Kierkegaard scholars.5 It will be best here to sidestep such a complex question and simply note that in the Diapsalmata Byron is unmistakably being included in the conversation, however narrowly he is defined. The first of the Diapsalmata is probably the most Byronic in its appropriation of Childe Harold's poetic melancholia and the second canto's Hellenic themes. It is quoted below in its entirety:

What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music. It is with him as with the poor wretches in Phalaris's bronze bull, who were slowly tortured over a slow fire; their screams could not reach the tyrant 's ears to terrify him; to him they sounded like sweet music. And people crowd around the poet and say to him, 'Sing again soon' ; in other words, may new sufferings torture your soul, and may your lips continue to be formed as before, because your screams would only alarm us, but the music is charming. And reviewers step up and say, 'That is right; so it must be according to the rules of esthetics.' Now of course a reviewer resembles a poet to a hair, except that he does not have the anguish in his heart, or the music on his lips. Therefore, I would rather be a swineherd out on Amager and be understood by swine than be a poet and be misunderstood by people.6

That Kierkegaard should choose to debut his authorship in the fashion of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage indicates he had an earnest appreciation for Byron at the time. Moreover, one might even argue that Kierkegaard had hoped to emulate Byron, he who, after the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold, awoke to find himself famous.

Whereas in the Diapsalmata Byron exists only by way of strong suggestion, there are explicit references to him in other sections of Either/Or. In the essay on Mozart entitled 'The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical-Erotic', A, the aesthete, writes,

Even if Don Juan is not given speaking lines, an interpretation of Don Juan that nevertheless uses words as a medium is conceivable. And there actually is such an interpretation by Byron. That Byron was in many ways particularly endowed to present a Don Juan is certain enough, and therefore one can be sure that when that undertaking failed, the reason was not in Byron but in something far deeper. …

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