Ecocriticism in Byron’s ‘Darkness’
By Ioannes P. Chountis
Lord Byron was a famous romantic poet who lived in the early 19th century (1789-1824). Although he died very young in Missolonghi during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1828), Byron left behind a very extensive corpus of poetic work. His magnum opus was Don Juan but the British poet is also famous for his youth work, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. He also wrote shorter poems on various occasions. One of these shorter pieces is related to a topic that was not unknown to the English literature of the Hanoverian Era. His Darkness refers to a post-apocalyptic world, after an enormous natural catastrophe.
This poem also falls under the broader narrative of Man and Nature in Romantic literature. Nature – with a capital N – played a significant role in Romantic poetry. For the romantics, Humankind and Nature formed an organic continuum and could be perceived at most times as one and identical. Byron followed this pattern of thought in his verses, especially on those occasions of describing various natural scenes and physical beauties.
A very rare and shocking event prompted the synthesis of Darkness. In 1815-1816 Europe, amongst other places in the world, experienced a drastic climate shift that produced famine, riots and mass death because of a large disease outbreak. All these were as a result of the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia. As a result, 1816 was called ‘The Year without Summer’, as temperatures dropped so much that there were some local recording drops of 3-5 degrees Fahrenheit on average, as was the case in New England.
Byron wrote his poem on that July of 1816 in Diodati while in self-exile in Italy. The poem was published with the Prisoner of Chillon later in the same year and enjoyed considerable popularity. This popularity owes much to the poem’s resemblance to the numerous and fashionable treatments of the ‘Last Man theme’, a subject selected by, among others, Mary Shelley and Thomas Campbell. Darkness, however, is very distinctive from all other ‘Last Man’ literature of the time because no ‘Last Man’ appears in it.
Byron presents a vision, a dream of an ‘icy Earth’, a very peculiar theme for its age. In the aftermath of this catastrophe we read about wars on a global scale, cities on fire and complete desolation. Based on these, I argue that the poem, although short and of minor literary importance compared to other Byronic poems, can be read in contemporary terms as it refers – latu sensu – to climate change and the disaster provoked in the environment by human actions. It, thus, constitutes an early 19th century ecocriticism.
After all, Byron himself confesses that his dream…is not a dream at all. In Buffon’s Natural History, we find the argument that, due to the general law that every object in Nature must change and decay, the sun itself will be extinguished. Byron’s narrative is, thus based upon the speculations of accredited scientific thinkers within the Enlightenment sphere. This is the way the opening statement presents and communicates that the dream may be made a reality by inexorable laws of physical decay.
The poem, entirely written in blank verse and can be additionally read as an ‘epic’ narrative of what will happen to humanity if the Earth suffers an ecological disaster. It runs for a total of 82 lines, many of which end abruptly – in line with the gloomy mood of the poem – ending the readers’ thoughts abruptly.
Byron was very familiar with the poetic concept of nature and the advantages of the rural lifestyle. A few years back, in 1812, Byron had spoken in favor of the Luddites in the House of Lords and had blistered Industrialization. He also wrote An Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill to argue for their cause. According to Steven Jones, “romantic literature was somehow inherently incompatible with technological media”, while William Safire claimed that “the fundamental literary-historical assumption is that the Romantics were ‘natural Luddites.” As we noted above, Romantics like Byron were very nostalgic of the natural and more organic state of the humankind before the advent of Industrialization.
In the world of total Darkness, the results of this rapid climate change remain forever – there can be no turning back, Man’s mistakes are irreversible. It is a very dark and bleak world. That is why critics have seen Byron’s poem as a precursor to the monochromatic desolation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It also brings to mind the contemporary post-apocalyptic movie of Bong Joon-ho Snowpiercer.
Eventually, humanity in Darkness would fall into complete extinction – no Last Man survives. We must note that Byron’s motives are not solely based on ecological abuse. They derive from the fact that ‘sun was extinghish’d’ – that alone produced ‘an icy earth’. The poet was trying to interpret the extraordinary natural sight itself, which all Europeans witnessed that summer.
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air…
It can be argued that Byron might have privately felt that the advent of industry and technological achievements could create an ecological effect that would, eventually, harm humankind itself which he never publicly spoke of. Regardless, his poem is read as a bleak vision of how humanity might devolve in the face of climate change. Modern literary criticism has proven that it might not be so important to interpret the author’s motives, but we must focus on the product of his imagination itself.
How would men react to such drastic change in the earth? Byron writes that ‘men forgot their passions in the dread’ of ‘their desolation’, while hearts are chilled into a ‘selfish prayer for light’. Nevertheless, the Light was gone for good – as we said, no turning back. The people of the earth had to live in a world without summer. In real life, summer would, eventually, come again next year but the moment Byron penned these verses, he could not have been so sure about it at all.
The only beacons and sources of Light would be the burning cities and the homes on fire. He dreams of people setting forests on fire for Light and warmth – that alone, of course, is ecological abuse. Moreover, Byron knew his Bible well, and he creates a picturesque of the biblical Book of Revelation-style hell on Earth. The world catastrophe matches the descriptions of Apocalypse in the Old Testament. Furthermore, this is vindicated through the various references to religious symbols and events in the lines of the poem. Some are reduced to a happy delirium, and others run amok. Finally, the poem veers toward the complete collapse of civilization.
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and look’d up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d: the wild birds shriek’d
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d
And twin’d themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food.
Byron perhaps harnesses in poetic license what extreme climate change might do to the Earth and humanity. Finally, what did he see after all humans and other creatures vanish from the Earth?
…The world was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d
They slept on the abyss without a surge—
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;
The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them—She was the Universe.
In conclusion, we can also read the poem as a poetic allegory to Byron’s state of mind and feelings after his departure from England. He had left amid a massive social scandal, he was labeled as an outcast, and he still faced financial troubles. Darkness kept his own life away from Light.
The poem is truly a romantic work. It refers to Nature, it is full of depressing images and has nothing positive to offer. Darkness becomes ‘the Universe’ and Man has no place on Earth.
Nevertheless, we must remember that there is always post tenebras lux.
Byron, George Gordon, Darkness, The Poetry Foundation <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43825/darkness-56d222aeeee1b> [accessed 26 March 2020]
Ioannes P. Chountis (M.A.) is Special Adviser to MP, Hellenic Parliament, BoD, Society of Greek Philologists (F.I.E.C. member).
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.