"I Am More Fit to Die Than People Think": Byron on Immortality
Stevens, Harold Ray, Christianity and Literature
"What is Poetry?--The Feeling of a Former world and a Future."
Byron, Ravenna Journal
Elizabeth Longford affirms a commonly accepted view that Byron "mocked the idea of Christian immortality" by citing one of his best-known letters on the subject: "And our carcases, which are to rise again, are they worth raising? I hope, if mine is, that I shall have a better pair of legs than I have moved on these two-and-twenty years, or I shall be sadly behind in the squeeze into paradise" (44). (1) That Calvinism shaped Byron's thoughts about the afterlife is as well-known and frequently commented on as his deformed foot; and Longford's observation about Byron's occasional mocking of anthropomorphic views of a contemporary and significant concept of Christian immortality is illustrated in his Vision of Judgment (1822). (2) Byron's exploration of visions of immortality, however, is not limited to Calvin's theology, and especially not to those who systematically condemn most of humankind to hell. Because the larger context of immortality is lost when discussing Byron's reaction to Calvinism, it is worthwhile to remember, as Byron did, that perhaps the Calvinists who instructed the young Byron in Aberdeen at the turn of the nineteenth century did not have exclusive rights to Paradise.
Consequently, this article will explore the contexts for and reasons behind Byron's fascination with immortality as it is influenced by his interest in both Christian and Islamic perspectives; his reading of the Bible; his inclusion, especially in Manfred (1817) and Childe Harold III (1816) and IV (1818), of speculation that the immortal substance of humankind resides in the mind; his examination of the specter of death and its aftermath as a consequence of the Fall in the mystery plays Cain (1821) and Heaven and Earth (1823); and his reaction to Robert Southey, who led Byron to The Vision of Judgment which, like Cain, Heaven and Earth, and Manfred, features spirits, phantoms, and people from religious tradition and accepts a poetic vision of a life that transcends mortality.
Byron's interest in the afterlife and his references to eternity, often in biblical contexts, (3) shape significant portions of his poetry and his poetic theory. On 28 January 1821, before he began writing the scriptural plays, Byron recorded in the Ravenna Journal: "What is Poetry?--The feeling of a Former world and a Future" (LJ, VIII, 37); and in The Prophecy of Dante (1821) he observed: "For what is Poesy but to create, / From overfeeling, Good or Ill, and aim / At an external life beyond our fate" (IV, 11-14). Byron also refers to an afterlife in conversations, letters, and journals; and occasionally includes speculations about the state of immortality in seemingly random fashion throughout his poetry--whether in the juvenilia or Don Juan. Byron's attitude toward and belief about immortality varies, but he dismisses the concept as insignificant or irrelevant neither to his worldview nor to his writing. In practice, Calvinism--a remnant of indoctrination at Aberdeen by those who subjected Byron as an impressionable child to visions of eternal torment--functions best, especially in the scriptural plays and Vision of Judgment, as a focal point to explore avenues to an afterlife and to question the assumptions of those who taught eternal damnation.
During his final illness in Greece, where he was actively involved in the battle for Greek independence, Byron was not tormented by doubt, if reports of his final conversations are to be believed. Dr. Julius Millingen, the physician who attended Byron at Missolonghi, recorded that Byron asked, before losing consciousness for the last time: "Shall I sue for mercy?" Byron then responded to his own question: "Come, come, no weakness! Let's be a man to the last" (Marchand, Biography, III, 1217). Shortly before his death, Byron commented to his valet William Fletcher: "I am not afraid of dying, I am more fit to die than people think" (Marchand, Biography, III, 1221); and on his deathbed he confided to his firemaster William Parry: "I fancy myself a Jew, a Mahomedan, and a Christian of every profession of faith. …