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Reading Byron after Columbine

On Wednesday I began teaching my new English Literature 2 class (from the Romantics to post-colonial and postmodern literature), one of those four-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week intensive surveys. I began, as I always do, by discussing what the so-called “Romantics” celebrate in their poetry: nature, sex, drugs, revolution, social justice, non-materialism, the artist genius, the Byronic or romantic outcast…. These values were an easier sell forty years ago than they are now, but the one that strikes no sparks at all from contemporary students is the notion of the romantic outcast. The very word gives them chills.

“Outcast” brings to their minds mass murderers. Today’s college sophomores were between nine and twelve years old when the Columbine horror erupted on televisions in their bedrooms, and they were permanently marked by it. They associate outcasts with guns, not with poetry. The school murders since Columbine have deepened their fears. These students seek safety in conformity and scrupulously hide the outcast-within. They are suspicious of anyone who doesn’t fit in. They reject genius–their own or anyone else’s. I ache to see the fear to which they’ve grown accustomed, and I wonder what outlets remain for those who can’t make themselves fit in. If Byron were in high school now, he’d be referred for counseling.

Among these capable students, whatever is not at ease in the common herd is buried beneath the costume and the culture of the cool, the hip, the blase, or the frenetically busy (cell phones, instant messaging, multiple windows, ipods, streaming video). We’re learning together, and they teach me a re-vision of the romantic hero. This is a small class of brighter-than-average students (only the the truly courageous have the nerve to attempt a whole semester of literature in twelve days), and they tell me that in their generation, rebels are not merely out of fashion; they’re pathological. Rebels are a menace. Outcasts need to be taken out of the classroom, medicated, and perhaps institutionalized.

I re-read Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage with twenty-year-old eyes, and it takes on new shades of meaning. “The wandering outlaw of his own dark mind” who “knew himself the most unfit/ Of men to herd with Man; with whom he held/ Little in common…” is no longer even vaguely attractive.

I have not loved the world, nor the world me;
I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bow’d
To its idolatries a patient knee,–
Nor coin’d my cheek to smiles,–nor cried aloud
In worship of an echo; in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such; I stood
Among them, but not of them; in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could,
Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.

This historical romantic hero was “Extreme in all things.” The meaning of extremity has changed since Byron’s time. These students have seen extremities Byron could have never dreamed.

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-3 responses to “Reading Byron after Columbine”

  1. stephenbrody says:

    Your students, by the sound of it, are pretty much bereft not only of words but of pictures, imagination and ideas. Otherwise, perhaps it’s not so different as all that? Byron was an extraordinary and exceptional fellow even in his own time; he was reviled, detested and feared, “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, and his assertions of independence and individuality were occasioned by a realization of the timid, convention-ridden, hypocritical and humdrum condition of most of humanity. He raged against that all his life. It’s probably true that if he lived now he wouldn’t be noticed, even if he escaped the clutches of psychiatry, but it was his good fortune, and ours, that he appeared at the right time, when talent even if misguided was noted, when a few other heroic eagles were still freely using their wings, when ordinary sensibility was not yet so dimmed that a thrill of envious admiration might still inspire the unheroic … and when the world was still beautiful enough to engage its contemplation.
    To a large extent, as much as because of the ‘scandals’, Byron’s fame derived from his ecstatic descriptions of wonderful and mysterious places beyond the reach or even the thoughts of most of his readers. Mass travel and the television have done in the hero as much as medications …..

  2. Gallo says:

    Very interesting insight, Kendall, about the shifting perceptions of misfits. With you, I don’t find much to like in Byron’s outlaw. But I still love Whitman-as-misfit. I wonder if he’s any more attractive to your students?

    I know I am restless, and make others so;
    I know my words are weapons, full of danger, full of death;
    For I confront peace, security, and all the settled laws, to unsettle them;
    I am more resolute because all have denied me, than I could ever have been had all accepted me;
    I heed not, and have never heeded, either experience, cautions, majorities, nor ridicule;
    And the threat of what is call’d hell is little or nothing to me;
    And the lure of what is call’d heaven is little or nothing to me

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