THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON THE NORTH AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR THE STUDY OF ROMANTICISM. THE VERSION POSTED HERE WAS LATER WITHDRAWN AS THE ORGANIZATION FELT IT DID NOT MATCH THE ACADEMIC STANDARDS OR AESTHETIC THEY PREFERRED. PLEASE ENJOY.
The last time I wrote about Byron I almost got fired.
That isn’t my usual blend of sarcasm and snark, I literally almost got fired from this gig the last time I wrote about Byron, but in NASSR’s defense I did decide to write about his Dedication which includes bawdy humor and reference to ejaculation. I have nobody else to blame for that one. My bad NASSR. Imagine then what miraculous thoughts possessed me, or what wondrous concoctions stolen from the realm of the Weird Sisters, as I shared coffee with fellow NASSR writer Seth Wilson and decided that I would once again tackle that charming character and compare his work to the heavy metal band TOOL.
If you don’t hear from me in a month it’s because this essay killed my career.
The reason for the coffee needs to be explained first. Shocking as it may appear, coming up with ideas for essays, even if it’s for a blog, is difficult and I find that when I bounce ideas off of people, dots begin to connect, the stars shift to form constellations, and the ghost of Wordsworth returns to me offering advice on which stocks to invest in. As of this writing I own forty thousand shares of the East India Company and my dividend is paltry to say the least. But one of the ideas I shared with Seth was the idea of writing about Byron’s poem Darkness. Some readers may recognize this poem, in fact given the reading audience I hope they’ve at least heard of it. The poem is something of a narrative as Byron describes life on earth as the sun dims and human beings are left in the dark to survive. It’s a bleak and rather morbid read, but no teacher I’ve ever had bothers to cover the poem. When you talk Byron you discuss Childe Harold. Previous to the conversation that brought this up Seth had mentioned to me that he had scored a publication in an anthology comparing British poetry to Rock N’ Roll. Now once I had finished planning out how to kill him and steal his identity, he is my friend after all, I considered Byron’s poem and the first connection that sprang to mind is TOOL’s song Aenema.
The reason for this comparison of Byron’s Darkness and Aenema is simple: both works are ultimately about oblivion, and both works seem, upon reflection, to be possessed by a kind of bitterness. Byron’s poem begins:
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
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light
And TOOL’s Aenema begins:
Some say the end is near.
Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon.
I certainly hope we will.
I sure could use a vacation from this
Bullshit three ring circus sideshow of freaks
Aenema does not have a “Romantic” introduction like Darkness does, but it does begin with an immediate summoning of prophecy and sublime terror. The speaker of Darkness enters the realms of dreams, a plane of reality that often promises limitless potential and promise, but Byron strips the reader of that pleasure by the second line of the poem. Both speakers immediately place their readers/listeners into a state if morbidity as the foundations of human society and existence itself are in a state of uncertainty. This makes sense given the actual background behind both works.
There is a single footnote in my Norton Anthology in the poem Darkness is printed. It reads as follows:
A powerful blank-verse description of the end of life on Earth. New geological sciences and an accompanying interest in what the fossil record indicated about the extinction of species made such speculations hardless less common in Byron’s time than in ours. Mary Shelley would later take up the theme in her novel The Last Man (1826). (pg 1678).
Byron’s inspiration was the developing idea of something known as “deep time,” a concept that would really gain traction during the Victorian period. As natural philosophy, later to be known as “science,” you might have heard of it, began to progress forward in discoveries of geology and biology human beings began to question more and more the idea that the earth was formed only a few thousand years ago as the church had argued. “Deep time” was a new paradigm that would argue that the earth was in fact billions of years old, and the universe in which is existed was even older. What this did for human beings living during this time was question the significance of their existence in the great expanse of time, and when one recognizes that the entirely of human life occupies only a few seconds in what astronomer Neil Degrasse Tyson on the series COSMOS refers to as The Cosmic Calendar it’s understandable why Darwin had such a damned conflict when he published his book. Byron’s Darkness speaks to that existential crisis, but rather than mourning at the loss of their species significance, Byron applies his marvelous ability to stand above others in his society and shrug his shoulder. The great artistic statement of Byron’s poem seems to: well so what?
Byron in fact seems rather mocking of his society as he carefully, and realistically, demonstrates the fall of human society:
—and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d,
And men were gather’d round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain’d;
Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour
They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks
Extinguish’d with a crash—and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smil’d;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and look’d up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky
Human beings demonstrate their own mediocrity as Byron shows them scurrying about attempting to face the inevitable collapse of their world, destroying their precious achievements, artistic triumphs, and political dynasties only to see each other’s face. This reasoning speaks to the vanity of our species, coupled with our intense solipsism in the face of utter annihilation. In the end human beings would not unite to make their last moments more bearable, the most likely scenario is that the masses would cling to some kind of lingering impression of themselves before the light finally snuffed out.
Byron reminds why I adore him. In the last few years the idea of the apocalypse has entered more and more into our consciousness to the point that at least three of four movies about the subject must be made culminating in the soon to be released Pride & Predjudice with Zombies. The most glaring example is AMC’s The Walking Dead, a show that regularly sells the Zombie Apocalypse, but in fact only sells actions figures and t-shirts for retail outlets. Human beings would reject an actual Apocalypse story like Darkness because a real apocalypse would leave the reader/viewer horrified. The end of human existence is not something fun, nor is it something you can sell on a t-shirt. It’s an examination of the reality of how minuscule our achievements as a species are in the face of the enormity of infinity.
This leads me back to Aenema. The title of the song is a mixture of “enema,” a purging of the human bowel using warm water or other chemicals, and “anima” which was an important concept in the work of a man by the name of Carl Jung. You might have heard of him, if you haven’t he was one of Sigmund Freud’s students, however unlike Freud who argued that many of man’s impulses can be explained through sexuality (which for the record I know is a basic explanation of Freud’s concepts) but rather though the collected unconsciousness of memories, experiences, and archetypes. The “Anima” was the “female persona” found in males that reflected an aspect of inner personality. Aenema uses this complex idea after the lead singer and writer of the band an, odd isn’t quite the right word, eccentric does little justice but it will have to do, a man by the name of Maynard James Keenan makes a scathing criticism of the population of Los Angeles:
Fret for your figure and
Fret for your latte and
Fret for your lawsuit and
Fret for your hairpiece and
Fret for your Prozac and
Fret for your pilot and
Fret for your contract and
Fret for your car.
It’s a bullshit three ring circus sideshow of freaks
Here in this hopeless fucking hole we call L.A.
The only way to fix it is to flush it all away.
Any fucking time. Any fucking day.
Learn to swim, I’ll see you down in Arizona Bay.
This is just the opening, he goes onto a scathing point by point of the various character types one can find in the city of LA:
Fuck L Ron Hubbard and
Fuck all his clones.
Fuck all these gun-toting
Hip gangster wannabes.
Learn to swim.
Fuck retro anything.
Fuck your tattoos.
Fuck all you junkies and
Fuck your short memory.
Learn to swim.
Fuck smiley glad-hands
With hidden agendas.
Fuck these dysfunctional,
Learn to swim.
The reader has most likely caught the repeated “Learn to Swim line” and may be wondering at this point what Byron’s Darkness has to do with a profanity laden heavy metal song from a band whose leader singer has been known to perform in anything from military gear to nothing but a pair of boxer shorts. As I said before, both songs speak to a bitterness about humanity. Not long after recording Aenema Maynard Keenan moved to Arizona, and looking back to Darkness it was composed in the year 1816, the year Byron left England never to return due to the scandals of his love life.
Both works were written around the time both authors experienced a kind of exile. While Keenan was forced out of L.A. the social environment proved toxic to his mental health, and the apocalyptic words speak to that. Earlier in the song he writes:
Some say a comet will fall from the sky.
Followed by meteor showers and tidal waves.
Followed by fault lines that cannot sit still.
Followed by millions of dumbfounded dip shits.
And he follows this later on with a revealing choice of words:
Cause I’m praying for rain
And I’m praying for tidal waves
I wanna see the ground give way.
I wanna watch it all go down.
Mom, please flush it all away.
I wanna see it go right in and down.
I wanna watch it go right in.
Watch you flush it all away.
Keenan calls out to “Mom” to eliminate the scene of depravity. Looking back to “Anima” and recognizing that Los Angeles sits directly on the beach of the Pacific Ocean there is complex psychological allusion taking place. Keenan wants to see a mass purge, an “enema” of the human mediocrity that has consumed Los Angeles, and calling to the feminine “mom” is a sign that the writer is hoping for a new birth. In early religions and societies the ocean was given feminine qualities, one example being the Republic of Florence who practiced a yearly ceremony. The Doge, the head of the city-state’s government, would sail out with a retinue of the town’s officials and nobles, and drop a solid gold ring into the Gulf of Venice which leads into the Adriatic and eventually the Mediterranean. This action was meant to signify the marriage of Venice to the water. Other mythologies and ceremonies have existed to perpetuate this idea, and the reason for this interpretation is most likely because the ocean is a reminder of the enormity that dwarf’s human life. To this day the ocean remains a largely unexplored region of this planet because of the sheer size…not to mention lack of funding for oceanographers.
Aenema’s vision is of a purifying catastrophe that will eliminate the waste of Los Angeles and allow for a feminine transformation of the territory. In this way Byron’s Darkness performs a similar task. Once humanity has been destroyed the Earth is silent
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.
Byron and Maynard are similar, and I bet you never believed you’d see that sentence ever written in your lifetime. Like Maynard, Byron ends his work looking as the purge of humanity and he observes a feminine, rather than masculine energy in the universe possessing power. The blackness which shall overtake humanity, leading to its downfall and destruction, leads ultimately to a sublime power characterized by a feminine energy. It’s this force that shall ultimately win out over the achievement of man, for it possesses a potential far exceeding the efforts of human initiative and achievement. It outlasts the notion of “deep time” and surpasses the forces the nature that influence the settlements and evolution of the human species.
I’d like to end though understanding the similarities of the work to the idea of exile. It’s not beyond reason to look at these works and observe first the millenarian sentiment embodying them. The end of the world will continue to spark imagination and intrigue, but the isolated human being possess far more potency as I read them. Byron was exiled because of the love of his half-sister, and while the establishment in Britain had been somewhat accepting and intrigued by his polyamory and bisexuality (that’s what we’ll call it for now), his society would not accept a relationship that bordered on incest. Maynard Keenan exiled himself from Los Angeles because of behavior he deemed obscene, defined by flaccid emptiness.
These men, divided by time and cultures, embody a figure often present in romantic poetry and prose: the isolated figure. Whether it’s Mary Shelly’s Monster in Frankenstein or the Mariner in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, there recurs an image of an exiled and isolated person who seems to possess a frightening knowledge or vision about humanity. The image appealed to the romantics I think because of the idea of the clerisy. Poets were human beings whose social responsibility was to communicate spiritual guidance for the people. They needed to touch the sublime, or at least encounter it, so that human beings could process what their lives meant in relation to reality, what were their moral responsibilities. Much like Ion, the student of Socrates who learned his social role was to communicate the will of the gods through poetry, so the reader of the Byron’s poetry would learn of their place in the cosmos, so the listener of Keenan would understand the shallowness of human beings.
Darkness and Aenema may initially just seem like dark brooding, but there does exist a potential to observe the sublime in action, and anyone who’s seen TOOL life can speak to this fact, prompting the real conclusion: Byron missed his calling as a Heavy Metal singer, and it’s damn impossible to get tickets for TOOL. Seriously those puppies sell faster than girl scout cookies.
The idea of the Apocalypse as something relevant is not an original thought, for many people apart from me have written about it. Below are three essays that explore the idea, one of which I actually wrote. Hope you enjoy:
I’ve included a link to Aenema performed live and the original music video. I should warn the reader that these are uncensored so if you have a problem with profanity you might want to skip it:
I’ve included links to the poem Darkness by Byron and the lyrics to Aenema below.