Byron vs. Wordsworth

[Lord Byron] chose to be noisily “immoral” not because he was any worse (or any better) than the average aristocrat of his time but as a weapon against the moralism of Wordsworth. I don’t mean “moralism” in a normative sense – God no. I remember sifting through the elderly Wordsworth’s letters looking for any comment at all on the Great Famine which was extirpating the Irish, and finding only one remark, in which the great moralist earnestly prays that England will not weaken, ie provide any aid whatsoever.  It’s one of the curiosities of English literary history that you’ll never find the least particle of compassion for the Irish in “moral” poets like Wordsworth.

Only the “mad, bad and dangerous” Byron mentioned the slaughter of 1798, attacking the PM, Castlereagh, for “dabbling [his] sleek young hands in Erin’s gore” and, as Pope would have recommended, delivering an extra kick to his enemy’s corpse in this epitaph: “Posterity will never survey a nobler grave than this: here lie the bones of Castlereagh: stop, traveler, and piss.”

More here.  Why is it that those who seemed at the time to most emphasize morality often end up later looking the least moral?

Hat tip to Paul Gowder.

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  • What can be shown cannot be said?

  • komponisto

    Why is it that those who seemed at the time to most emphasize morality often end up later looking the least moral?

    Because signaling morality without being moral is considered bad (“hypocrisy”); hence when morals change, and older times are regarded as immoral, past “moralists” get blamed more than their otherwise equally guilty contemporaries.

    Note that people from the past signaling morals similar to today’s don’t seem bad. E.g. slavery abolitionists.

  • Why? Now why would that be, my esteemed Robin? To me, it is exceedingly obvious:

    Because those who wish to control us, use (false) morality (they appeal to our desire to be good) to more effectively manipulate us, all the while they absolutely do not plan to “do as they say” all along. It is far easier to take a man’s money if you convince him that not surrendering it is “immoral”, than it is to point a gun at the man and shoot if he resists. And, of course, they still have the option of putting him in a cage or shooting him, and still look like you hold the high moral ground. They may be corrupt, but stupid they are not.

    So it is not an accident that these who use morality as a means for population control and perpetuation of power, do not actually end living up to their professed standards. You see, their intention was to get and maintain exclusive privileges all along. Why would they follow the arbitrary rules they make up? That would be contrary to their corrupt interests!

    You are a bright person. Why haven’t you pointed this out sooner?

  • …do you think it is surprising to see policemen abusing innocent people, priests abusing young children, or politicians abusing privilege?

    That which we create to defend us, ends up ruling us. The fences are not for the farmers — they are for the cattle.

  • Constant

    Morality isn’t compassion. A person can be either one and not be the other.

  • Jonas

    Byron vs. Heine

    “Dabei muß ich Ihnen auch gestehen, Herr
    Doktor, daß mir die katholische Religion nicht einmal
    Vergnügen macht, und als ein vernünftiger Mann
    müssen Sie mir recht geben. Ich sehe das Pläsier nicht
    ein, es ist eine Religion, als wenn der liebe Gott, gott-
    bewahre, eben gestorben wäre, und es riecht dabei
    nach Weihrauch, wie bei einem Leichenbegängnis,
    und dabei brummt eine so traurige Begräbnismusik,
    daß man die Melancholik bekömmt – ich sage Ihnen,
    es ist keine Religion für einen Hamburger.«
    »Aber, Herr Hyazinth, wie gefällt Ihnen denn die
    protestantische Religion?«
    »Die ist mir wieder zu vernünftig, Herr Doktor,
    und gäbe es in der protestantischen Kirche keine
    Orgel, so wäre sie gar keine Religion. Unter uns ge-
    sagt, diese Religion schadet nichts und ist so rein wie
    ein Glas Wasser, aber sie hilft auch nichts. Ich habe
    sie probiert, und diese Probe kostet mich vier Mark
    vierzehn Schilling -«
    »Wieso, mein lieber Herr Hyazinth?«
    »Sehen, Herr Doktor, ich habe gedacht, das ist frei-
    lich eine sehr aufgeklärte Religion, und es fehlt ihr an
    Schwärmerei und Wunder; indessen, ein bißchen
    Schwärmerei muß sie doch haben, ein ganz klein
    Wunderchen muß sie doch tun können, wenn sie sich
    für eine honette Religion ausgeben will. Aber wer soll
    da Wunder tun, dacht ich, als ich mal in Hamburg
    eine protestantische Kirche besah, die zu der ganz
    kahlen Sorte gehörte, wo nichts als braune Bänke und
    weiße Wände sind und an der Wand nichts als ein
    schwarz Täfelchen hängt, worauf ein halb Dutzend
    weiße Zahlen stehen. Du tust dieser Religion viel-
    leicht unrecht, dacht ich wieder, vielleicht können
    diese Zahlen ebensogut ein Wunder tun wie ein Bild
    von der Muttergottes oder wie ein Knochen von ihrem
    Mann, dem heiligen Joseph, und um der Sache auf
    den Grund zu kommen, ging ich gleich nach Altona
    und besetzte ebendiese Zahlen in der Altonaer Lotte-
    rie, die Ambe besetzte ich mit acht Schilling, die
    Terne mit sechs, die Quaterne mit vier und die Quin-
    terne mit zwei Schilling – Aber, ich versichere Sie auf
    meine Ehre, keine einzige von den protestantischen
    Nummern ist herausgekommen. Jetzt wußte ich, was
    ich zu denken hatte, jetzt dacht ich, bleibt mir weg
    mit einer Religion, die gar nichts kann, bei der nicht
    einmal eine Ambe herauskömmt – werde ich so ein
    Narr sein, auf diese Religion, worauf ich schon vier
    Mark und vierzehn Schilling gesetzt und verloren
    habe, noch meine ganze Glückseligkeit zu setzen?«

    Heinrich Heine (Die Bäder von Lucca)

  • Robin, if you haven’t read it, do grab a copy of Paul Johnson’ book Intellectuals. He investigates the private lives of folk like Rousseau, Shelly, Henrik Ibson, Marx, Hemingway, Brecht, and Sarte.

    These guys lived lives that would even make Roissy blink.

    • But several of these have never been considered to be “moralists” particularly, even if they would sometimes utter “moralistic” statements about public affairs. Who ever thought that Sartre was a “moralist”?

  • William H. Stoddard

    Shelley, around the same time, wrote

    I met Murder by the way:
    He had a mask like Castlereagh.

    Have you read “How the Dismal Science Got Its Name”? It traces Thomas Carlyle’s attacks on economics to his hostility to the British antislavery movement, of which John Stuart Mill was the leader and which many economists supported. The literary and humanist intellectuals, such as Carlyle and Ruskin, seem to have been sympathetic to the cause of the slaveowners; Carlyle in particular thought that a human being without a master was a lost soul.

  • mikem

    I think it is because moral systems are primarily concerned with sustaining and propagating a particular ordering of society. The individuals seen as most moral at a given time are those who promote the established order. Part of that promotion generally includes denigrating alternative orderings of society.

    As the established order changes, the old order is redefined as an alternative order, and those who most fiercely promoted the old order are now seen as immorally promoting alternatives to the present ordering of society.

  • ad

    Why is it that those who seemed at the time to most emphasize morality often end up later looking the least moral?

    Looking the least moral to whom? In the quoted article John Dolan despises Wordsworth and praises Byron – does everyone today agree with him?

    After all, some people would disagree with some of his opinions such as:

    no heads ever deserved to roll more than those lopped by the so-called Terror

  • Julian Morrison

    Wordsworth thunders about “morals” – he’s seen as moral. Wordsworth does morals – he pisses people off and is seen as a busybody. Wordsworth desires to win friends and influence people. You do the math.

    • This would be my own major guess, just like “family values” politicians nowadays. People are just incredibly bad at tracking who walks the walk as opposed to talking the talk. Robin Hanson would probably guess that this means people don’t really care all that much about the substance as opposed to the group affiliations (I mean, I’m not Robin Hanson, but it seems like a Hansonian thing to say). I would also point to what I see as a widespread and incredible degree to which people have trouble seeing reality through labels or even consciously distinguishing the two.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    Why is it that those who seemed at the time to most emphasize morality often end up later looking the least moral?

    You probably have some near/far explanation for this, and I’m interested to hear it.

    But in the example you gave, I only see a contemporary poltical faction identifying itself with a past political faction. Unsurprisingly, the contemporary political faction considers its selected predecessor to be moral. Furthermore, since this particular contemporary faction considers its contemporary enemies to be immoral moralists, it therefore also considers the enemies of its predecessor to be immoral moralists.

    In other words, the dynamic you observe is the result of mapping a contemporary political dispute onto a past political dispute.

  • Why is it that those who seemed at the time to most emphasize morality often end up later looking the least moral?

    They’d done their good deeds for the day by talking about morality?

  • Wordsworth changed quite a bit over his life. He and Coleridge were early enthursiasts for the French Revolution, but responded to its bloody denouement by becoming arch-conservatives. Wordsworth isn’t much admired for his writing on anything later in life.

    Meanwhile, Shelley, Byron, Hazlitt et. al. don’t seem to me much better in ignoring, and in some cases praising, the revolutionary bloodshed and Bonapartism that followed. They were all passionate moralists, just of a more trendy kind.

    • ad:

      Right. Byron is the precursor of all those bad boy rockers who sometimes pose as immoralists and then lecture us on global warming or how bad a person George W. Bush was. Like Byron, they often get downright preachy.

    • Yvain

      I give Byron some authenticity points for going off and dying for what he believed in. No way Wordsworth or the rockers you compare him to would’ve done that.

  • jonathan

    My only quibble is the conceit that Byron “chose” when it’s more that he acted out without sufficient self-control. He was able to get away with it because he was prodigiously gifted and, significantly, produced his popular work when he was young. He lived off that early success in many ways. But Byron was unable to control himself in his life or in the construction of his poetry, as demonstrated in the saga of how Don Juan became his life.

    We tend to think a person chooses and that in our eyes gives a greater moral weight to the actions. I tend to object to both: people often act out rather than make conscious choices and what one feels and is may be as significant as a reasoned choice. In other words, rebellion yes but with less choice and more immaturity, more wildness.

    And Wordy is a straw man of an argument. I admit to trouble liking his work enough to treat him fairly but he was one poet, one man, perhaps of a type but one of many poets and public figures who filled a spectrum from outright crazy to staid. To set Byron and Wordy up as a representative duo is a student paper construct – one I think I fell into years past.

    As for templates, Byron is one but certainly not THE one. He isn’t even THE dying young rebel template, but one of many. And Byron’s place in these groups is enhanced by his time in history and, more importantly, that his work is read today by the educated in colleges, etc. Others less known now had huge impacts on the youth and aspirations. But it’s such a selective reading of history to pluck Byron out of the line-up in the first place.

  • josh

    Because the writers of history tend to emphasize the crimes of their historical enemies. Had the Tories been victorious we might hear of the terrorism of the Boston mob.

  • Yvain

    “Why is it that those who seemed at the time to most emphasize morality often end up later looking the least moral?”

    1. Bias. We get a thrill out of proving that people who claim they’re better than us are actually worse than us, so we cherry-pick examples. It’s exciting news when a televangelist turns out to be gay, but not when thousands of televangelists are faithful heterosexuals. This post tries to claim a trend based on one story. Since Robin is interested in raising suspicion of anyone who tries to be or claims to be moral, we should be wary of his ability to impartially pick out representative stories and identify trends from them.

    2. It’s become common in the past few centuries for the ruling-class/conservatives/traditionalists to call their views “morality”, and for people rebelling against the status quo to accept that label and personally identify as “immoral” – even if they’re motivated as strongly by a sense of righteousness and justice as the other side – in order to dis-identify with the hypocritical morality of the ruling class. If you read Byron’s poems carefully, you realize he’s actually obsessed with what we would call “morality” – but he deliberately rejects what he thinks is the sham that passes for morality in his age. As such, we would expect many people who criticize immoral ruling class actions to be those who put less work into signaling as “moral”.

    3. We tend to remember especially moral people not as “moralists”, but for their specific crusades. We remember Wilberforce as an abolitionist (not a moralist), Gandhi as a pacifist (not a moralist) and MLK Jr. as a campaigner for racial tolerance (not a moralist), even though all three of those people talked a lot about morality. Therefore the only moralists who are remembered *as moralists* are the ones who may talk a lot about morality but don’t actually do any particular moral things.
    This says more about our biases than anything else – post 20th century, we are suspicious of formal “morality” and especially “moralism” and tend to identify it with cliched Dr. Laura type figures or self-righteous hypocrites, while describing genuinely moral people with other words and emphasizing where they differed from established moral systems.

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