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Byron’s Reworking of Thomas Campbell:Unfolding Gloom in Darkness
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This article aims to investigate how Byron reworks Thomas Campbell’s The Last Man while contriving the various strata of distress and blackness in his 1816 poem Darkness. The author initially deploys the recurrent motif of the speaker’s perception of gloom and heavy heart in “My Soul is Dark” (1814), concentrating on the individual facets of pain and internal turmoil. The subsequent poem Darkness maintains the underlying theme of murkiness portrayed in the previous work, yet Byron propounds such a major poetic concern through a larger perspective of the universe and the multitude’s reactions to the dark, abhorrent circumstances. In dealing with this matter, Byron, who had a great admiration for Campbell among his contemporary writers, creatively adopts Campbell’s 1806 poem, The Last Man. The article examines how Byron’s poetic considerations rework Campbell’s text into Darkness by way of making his vigorous, creative elaborations on thematic motif, structural pattern, and diverse images. While exploring this subject, the article reverberates Byron’s other 1816 works in which he unveils his persistent reflections and psychological affiliations to desolation and distress.

Darkness , Campbell , The Last Man , reworking , gloom , distress
  • I

    One of the literary newspapers of Byron’s time, The London Chronicle dated 17 July 1816, recorded that this year, when Byron composed Darkness, was conceived by contemporary people as the “time without summer” (7). The documentation of this historical archive instances a vivid meteorological description of the “inexplicable weather” and “bizarre blackness” which brought about cold temperatures across all the European countries (12-13). Most scientists, who ardently searched for the main cause of the awful weather, discovered that large spots may now be seen upon the sun’s disk, and that these horrid atmospheric conditions also provoked the “ridiculous apprehensions and absurd predictions” of many inhabitants (Paley 15-16). Unacknowledged to the multitude of the time, the loathsome weather was actually aroused from the “volcanicash” which spread from the sudden eruption of Mount Tambora located in Indonesia (Vail 187-88). According to one of Byron’s letters dated 8 September 1816, the poet who temporarily stayed in Switzerland in June-July 1816 did experience this pugnant condition whereby he captured the inspiration of procreating the poem Darkness (Byron’s Letters and Journals 5: 91-92).

    In addition to this circumstantial occurrence which affected Byron’s writing, it was his close literary relationship with Thomas Campbell, one of the Romantic poets renowned in London high society. Campbell wrote The Last Man in 1806, before Byron composed Darkness in 1816. Campbell was one of the few contemporary poets whom Byron revered, as he declared in a satirical poem, The English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). Byron had a great estimation of Campbell as a poet and editor next to Walter Scott and Samuel Rogers, particularly for his classical poem The Pleasures of Hope written in 1799 (Byron’s Letters and Journals 3: 107). Numerous textual evidences of Byron’s Darkness English Language and Literature Vol. 58 No. 3 (2012) 379-94 show that Byron did acknowledge Campbell’s The Last Man before the composition of the poem in July-August 1816. Yet, Byron’s Darkness reveals his creative reconstruction of Campbell’s work into his poem in accordance with his persistent conception of distress and bleakness prevalent both in the human mind and the world.

    With regard to the critical receptions of Darkness, few literary reviewers during Byron’s time explored the poem, but the same work drew the interest of some critics in our time despite its small scale. Modern commentators, for instance Caroline Franklin, Morton Paley, and Terence Hoagwood, have explored the poem with the following views: “the inevitable extinguishing of the light of the human mind” (Franklin 101), “Byron’s satirical response to the millennial vision” (Paley 108), and “the writer’s dreary thinking of established conceptions” (Hoagwood 97-98). Among modern reviewers, it was Jane Stabler who pointed out the “resemblances” between The Last Man and Darkness. However, she raised this thought-provoking issue only in a few lines, tracing Campbell’s unreserved articulation about Byron’s “obvious acknowledgment” of his poem The Last Man (41). She did not expand her own intriguingsuggestion with coherence and elaboration in her subsequent writings.

    My contention is that in spite of the useful commentaries on Darkness, reviewers have paid little attention to Byron’s inventive reconstructions of Campbell’s The Last Man in the work. I would argue that the poet reuses Campbell’s work while pursuing his sustaining notions of distress and gloom, which he also expands in other various poems written in 1816—the wretched, turbulent year for the author after his self-exile from England. The article will examine how Byron productively adopts Campbell’s poem into his work by deploying his persistent conception of murkiness, unique structural pattern, and efficient images. While dealing with this matter, the article will refer to Byron’s previous work “My Soul is Dark” (1814) and other 1816 writings where he unravels his relentless contemplations and psychological dispositions to turmoil, bleakness, and devastation.


    One of the important features of Byron’s poem “My Soul Is Dark” (1814) is to foreground the germ of the thematic motif of gloom which he significantly develops in his later poem Darkness. In this earlier work, the writer investigates how the poetic speaker conceives inner chaos and responds to such struggle deeply grained in his heart. The main situation of the poem is that the speaker reveals a deep sorrow to a minstrel playing harp, in order to require a prompt consolation for his heavy, turbulent heart. According to the tone of the commencing stanza, the speaker believes in the cathartic effect of the music, whereby his “tears” can “cease to burn” his painful “brain” (7-8). Despite his great expectation for the change of his mood into a light one, what he actually finds is the irreducible working of the internal blackness and disturbance inherent within his mind. As Jean-Paul Forster usefully commented, one of the author’s main concerns in this poem is to concentrate on unveiling the “inmost recesses” of human heart (72). The gloomy state is so overwhelming that it exploits the speaker’s ardent wish for turning himself away from the current, undesirable moment. Contrary to his intention to have a psychological relief, he rather plunges into the nadir of dark and despondency:

    In the Early Tales such as The Giaour, The Corsair, Lara, and The Bride of Abydos written between 1812 and 1814, Byron uncovers the protagonists’ repressed manner in which they do not spell out why they have been enduring the long-term pain in their unpleasant heart. They usually lock up their past experiences charged with guilt and remorse, intensely forbearing the present darkness in their internal sphere. In contrast with this way of treating the buried aspect of the protagonists in the Turkish Tales, the speaker of “My Soul is Dark” vigorously unravels his present sorrow, having realized that the sad music is more beneficial to undertake his melancholic mood than the “melting murmurs.” His earnest wish for the minstrel is indicated in these lines: “bid the strain be wild and deep, / Nor let thy notes of joy be first / I tell thee, minstrel, I must weep, / Or else this heavy heart will burst” (10-13). Unlike the “impossibility of articulation” (Curtis 103) evident in the main figures of the Tales, the speaker of “My Soul is Dark” is straightforward in reveal-ing his inner dreariness. He now implores the same minstrel to procreate “wild and deep” sound instead of begetting “joyful” notes for taking relief from his mournful bosom. The poet establishes and intensifies the gloom inherent within the speaker by means of depicting his own direct revelation of the interior turmoil and frustration.

    The outspoken attitude of the speaker’s internal sphere contributes to featuring a remarkable transition in Byron’s poetical world, in that he does not evade the harsh moment but undergoes it as one part of the inevitable condition which “hath been by sorrow nursed / And ached in sleepless silence, long” (13-14). As Martin Garrett beneficially pointed out, one of Byron’s poetic concerns is to investigate a main figure who has been “haunted by his tortured feelings” (47). The irresistible sense of “doom” deeply entangled in the speaker’s mind is noticeable, for the poet extends this conception of sustaining distress to his other 1816 poems. In Darkness he broadens the scale and manner of depicting his persistent idea on the gloomy thought, by reworking The Last Man written by Campbell. Darkness is obviously the author’s continuing elaboration on the thematic motif of gloom explored in “My Soul is Dark,” but he expands the personal and internal sphere of the previous short poem into the cosmic and external range of darkness in the longer work. Byron still includes the interior aspects of the multitude in the prolonged poem, but that he primarily considers is the social and cosmic facets in dealing with the subject of murkiness.

    With regard to the contextual evidence for Byron’s awareness of Campbell’s work, Campbell himself mentioned Byron’s recognition of what he previously wrote in The Last Man. In 1817 Campbell revealed the similitude between The Last Man and Darkness to Byron’s close friend, Thomas Moore:

    As Jane Stabler keenly but shortly remarked, Campbell’s reception of Byron embedded a “rancor” in accordance with the tone of his conversation with Moore (41). Although Campbell clearly noticed the similarity between his work and Byron’s poem, he little mentioned the detailed aspects of the resemblance. This raises a thought-provoking question about in what sense Byron adopts Campbell’s The Last Man and how his poem departs from the previously written work. Most of all, in foregrounding the thematic notion of the dark aspect of the world in his poem, Byron obviously resounds the apocryphal atmosphere throughout his poem, which recalls the “traits of the picture” which Campbell “meant to draw.” While formulating the image of the “uncontrollable cosmic horrors” (Calder 52), he, like Campbell, manifests the poetic speaker’s dream envisaging the striking picture of the doom of the Universe. The commencement of Darkness clearly conveys the bleak state of celestial spheres like the sun and the stars:

    The rambling and “extinguished” heavenly bodies are in a state of being “rayless, and pathless,” indicating a total chaos in the “eternal space” as well as in human society. This cataclysmic imagery deployed at the start of the poem plays a key role in formulating a dominant motif of gloom and darkness which the author further intensifies as the poetic text develops. While describing these disoriented circumstances, the speaker accentuates his perception of “no day,” which drives him to conceive a pessimistic view of the forthcoming age. As Angus Calder appropriately commented, the poet establishes a situation in which the affirmative aspiration would come to nothing (22-23).

    In contrast with the outset of Byron’s Darkness, Campbell’s The Last Man shows a different picture which includes the dual aspects of the world to come. Like in Darkness, the speaker of Campbell’s work predicts through his dream vision the utter darkness after the disappearance of the celestial entities. However, he simultaneously reckons the undiminishing existence of God’s domain. According to the whole text of The Last Man, the “prophet-like” (21) speaker has a firm belief in the everlasting governance of the Almighty, in spite of the complete demolition of man’s sphere. In portraying the picture of chaos, Byron’s beginning puts more focus on the external facet of man’s desolate side, whereas Campbell represents both the darkness and a small glimpse of “immortal” light in the midst of that complete gloom. This optimistic perception of the religious world is repeated in the rest of Campbell’s poem, which distinguishes the main difference of the two authors in treating the thematic motif of darkness and desolation:

    In addition to the recognition of the afterworld presided by God, Campbell implies His punishment for man’s depravity which is reminiscent of The Revelation of The New Testament. However, as Stuart Curran pointed out, Byron himself accentuates the various and figurative occurrences of darkness (126-27) when he gradually unfolds the buried conceptions of devastation. The speaker’s preoccupation with the complete disorder and blackout becomes a predominant subject both in the poem and most of his other works written after his personal hardship necessitated by his self-exile in 1816. While the author composed his poems, particularly in May-September 1816, such turbulent experience might have affected his evident preoccupation with contriving the glim pieces of works. According to his letter to Thomas Moore dated 29 February 1816, he had an immensely bitter sense of ordeal, feeling how hard it was for him to cope with the depressing factors caused by uncontrollable rumors about the main cause for his divorce with Annabella Milbanke: “I am at war with all the world and my wife or rather, all the world and my wife are at war with me . . . I was ever, at home or abroad, in a situation so completely uprooting of present pleasure, or rational hope for the future (Byron’s Letters and Journals 5: 35). As Jean-Paul Forster suggested, Byron’s 1816 poems keenly represent the conceptions of chaos in the mind of the speaker, which are utilized as a “vehicle for the poet’s inner turmoil” (70). Foster’s idea is pertinent because a number of Byron’s poems of 1816 as well as Darkness incorporate such notion of bleakness into the mind of the speaker.

    Byron’s depiction of the speaker’s interior gloom and turmoil had previously been glimpsed in his 1812-1814 poems, but the themes of darkness and chaos are enriched and more propounded by his traumatic experiences of 1816. In Manfred, for example, the protagonist is preoccupied with his internal, chaotic state and projects it to the celestial body which is clearly interconnected with the beginning of Darkness:

    Byron’s persistent exploration of the darkness becomes a dominant concern in both Darkness and most poems composed in 1816. In “The Dream,” for instance, the speaker expresses his painful heart caused by unspoken, repressed affliction from his past lives. He does not spell out the exact reasons for suffering from the pain, but reveals the intense sensitivity to his depression and disorder in his heart. This preoccupation with the dreary state of his internal domain is similar to the main aspect of “My Soul is Dark.” “The Dream” shows the speaker’s situation of painful separation from his beloved lady which brings the “tyranny of pain” to his heart (14). The “shadow of an inward strife” (133) and the great dejection of his current situation approaches the core of chaos and gloom, which leads to a bitter sense of “disjointed things” (174) and an undiluted sentiment of “blight and desolation” (188). As Bernard Beatty keenly remarked, Byron was indeed preoccupied with the “internal bleakness and pain” as “consequential” in the recognitions by those who have to endure it after having made their fatal errors or experiencing the ironic entrapment of their vigorous desire (6-7). The speaker’s affinity to recession in Darkness is closely linked with the sustaining ideas of depredation predominantly pursued in the 1816 works.

    The poet’s coherent depiction of the protagonist’s unfolding darkness and his helpless response to the doom is well interfaced with the people’s hopeless stance in Darkness. On this occasion, the author elaborates the key notion of darkness by reshaping the structural pattern utilized by Campbell in The Last Man. Byron’s reiterative working of the dominant, gloomy picture involves the “irony of man’s aspirations and life (Garber 130-31), constituting one of the crucial themes in the whole text of Darkness. In this sense, the enduring grimness makes a clear departure from Campbell’s portrayal of a hopeful and positive future unmodified by the realm of death and extinction. Byron’s great dissimilarity to Campbell lies in the illustration of various dark images and people’s own gloomy countermove to the distressing moment once revealed at the beginning of the poem.

    One of the other features of the structure of The Last Man is to establish a form of the prophesying speaker’s address to the sun, whereas Darkness comprises the speaker’s unique perception of the multiple layers of darkness prevalent in any place all over the universe. In constructing the declaration of the prophet to the sun, Campbell depicts the grim aftermath of the extermination of the sunlight, considering the sun as the “dim discrowned king of day” (36). While the speaker describes the “cold face” of the sun which disregarded the “tide of human tears” (26-29), his tone embeds a grumbling, chiding mood toward the ruthless planet because it has completely exploited the light and warmness from the human world. He looks like a person who scolds the sun like a mischievous child, preventing it from doing the harmful behavior which necessitates to bring its tragic result and great anguish into man. As Donald H. Reiman commented, the speaker trusts in the “sublimity of human spirit,” which eventually triumphs over the ultimate threat of fear and despair (108). The resilient and unyielding tone of the speaker is quite different from that of the people who helplessly succumb to the total blackout of the sun in Darkness:

    The speaker’s strong wish is the extermination of “life’s tragedy” and more substantially the culmination of the “rack of pain” triggered by the blackout of the sunlight. This eagerness and resistance of the speaker to the overweening force features a repetitive, dominant idea for the rest of The Last Man. In spite of his suffering from the desolate circumstance, the speaker does not like to be overwhelmed by the destructive power of the sun. He is rather determined to proclaim the victory of human spirit whose invisible and defiant entity will last for ever under the protection and mercy of Almighty God. The speaker has an unswerving trust in the immortal workings of God, assuring His eternal kingdom unaffected by the expiration of the human world. This arrangement of the speaker’s faith in the Almighty, aside with the picture of darkness, makes a coherent structural pattern in the poem. The prophet-poet anticipates the supremacy of God’s perpetuity in the middle of the pessimistic outlook of the current deprivation. The tone of the speaker’s voice is not anxious, but filled with great aspiration and confidence in His absolute power:

    In contrast with Campbell’s configuration of both pessimistic and optimistic vision of the present and future, Byron concentrates on the complete darkness for the remainder of his poem, treating the various layers of gloom in the “tragedy of human limitations” (Marchand 248). In dealing with this matter, he deploys the effective images of nature and animals, which reinforce the consistent thematic notion of death and blackness. Byron does not solely depict the external devastation, but also registers the distressing response of people to the horrible situation. The picture of forests burnt with fire is entirely covered up with the “despairing light” and all extinction. This is an expanded representation of “desolation,” and the “extinguished” woodland enhances his visionary sight of the dreary depletion:

    Campbell’s use of imagery in The Last Man is predominantly focused on the single picture of the sun and its demolition, which brought about “the majesty of Death” (59) to “the Earth cities” (18). In contrast with Campbell, it is Byron’s unique poetic device to stress not only the multifaceted sides of the blackness but also the obvious “boundaries” of the people (Beatty 2). This aspect of limitation is well revealed particularly when they need to face the horrible moment of death and dying in the midst of the pessimistic dread. Unlike the speaker’s positive reaction to the dingy ambience in Campbell’s poem, Byron’s characters conceive their unbearable fear and dejection on the abominable consequence of the destroyed nature. As Bernard Blackstone beneficially commented, the poet’s utilization of the “symbolic function of nature” (80) conveys the barriers of men in the extent of their desires and endeavors. Their gloomy perception of people repeatedly appears in the rest of the poem, which certainly features Byron’s distinctive structural arrangement of the poem.

    In addition to portraying the dreary nature, Byron extends the range of imagery into non-human beings like animals, which also suffer from the present state of blackness: “the wild birds shrieked / And terrified, did flutter on the ground, / And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes / Came tremulous” (32-34). Through the “wild” beast, the writer strengthens to implicate the chaotic condition of human beings whose society now turns to be turbulent and anarchic. Furthermore, man becomes barbaric, since he slaughters the animals “for food” (37). Man’s “immediate inglorious” act of killing the beasts renders the speaker to be grief-stricken and to deplore at the brutal situation that “no love was left; / All earth was but one thought—and that was death” (41-42). Another image of “dog” is efficiently deployed to show man’s brutal treatment of the faithful animal which has taken aback into its master with an equal, cruel reaction: “the meagre by the meagre were devoured, / Even dogs assailed their masters” (46-47). Through this specific instance of the broken relationship between men and their obedient dogs, the poet intensifies not only the disorderly state caused by the complete darkness but also the remarkable decline of human power to control the outside world. The complete hopelessness of men clearly indicates the “ironic consequence of Romantic ambitions” (Hoagwood 100) which they once regarded as a recompense for life’s impediments.

    The rest of Darkness reaches into its highlight in accentuating the human frailty and deprived volition for defying the “Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless” (70-71). Recalling the weakness of willpower represented in Byron’s poetical works of 1816, the people described in Darkness are overwhelmed by the “chaos of hard clay” (72). Byron keeps his eye on the people’s “mutual hideousness” (67) in the land abided by the “lump of death” which was once gloriously enriched with the “populous and the powerful” (69). It is this ironic aspect of the world which Byron intensifies at the end of Darkness. Through the recurrent motif of the people’s uncontrollable abhorrence, the poet implicates the unexpected vicissitudes of fame, power, and human endeavors, which now cannot work any longer for people’s sake. What he points up here is the changeable and transitory nature of the established dominion over human culture and society. This is one of the significant messages which the writer delivers through the sustaining depiction of the dingy foresight of human desolation. The realistic, limited domains of man’s world embody the uselessness of “latent possibility” which the “champion of human fears” (Beatty 5) firmly trusted and acted upon in the past. This sense of vanity and futility of human ambitions and achievements results in one of the major different facets between Byron and Campbell.

    Campbell culminates the very end of his poem with the prophet’s unwavering assurance of the everlasting existence of God’s reign existent beyond time and place. He puts more accentuation on the world which overcomes the boundary of human beings, vigorously depicting the pervading reign of God whose mercy pierces into the last gloom and death of human society. In the concluding lines, the author clearly voices out the unyielding vitality of “heavenly spark” (62) which will be unaffected by any “sting from Death” of man: “the darkening universe defy / To quench his Immortality, / Or quench his trust in God!” (78-80). Byron does not represent this transcendental world of “bliss” and “breath” which the end of The Last Man features (67-69). Instead, the poet main-tains to embody man’s “chaotic emotions of fear” (Graham 35) and the gloomy picture of his impotence which he commences with and develops up to the very last part of the poem.

    The different viewpoint of the future emanates the two authors’ remarkably distinct portrayals of the state of the universe. Unlike the optimistic culmination of Campbell’s poem, Byron makes clear the everlasting picture of despair and demolition in the whole world: “The winds were withered in the stagnant air, / And the clouds perished; Darkness had no need of aid from them—She was the universe” (80-82). Whereas Campbell concludes with the crucial notion of the existence of “immortality,” Byron’s prominence is directed to the opposite sense of mortality and transience of human life. Byron makes unique this ironic boundary of human beings whose utmost desires and efforts are utterly shattered and crashed into their lowest ebb. Their conception of willpower and ardent wish is drastically reduced to keep unavailing, regardless of his previous ruling over established organizations and other various external milieus.


    This article has examined how Byron reworks Campbell’s The Last Man in Darkness by means of his persistent thematic notions of gloom such as death and darkness, a distinctive treatment of the structural pattern, and an efficient utilization of imagistic embodiments. The poet initially gestated man’s grim aspects in “My Soul is Dark” composed in 1814, but propounded it in Darkness as well as in his other works of 1816. The author’s coherent contemplation on the bleak and dingy sides of life is enhanced by the similar scrutinization of his contemporary admirable poet, Campbell. One of the main discoveries in this article is that both writers are preoccupied with the dream vision of the speaker on the extinction of the human world, but show a remarkable difference in treating the theme of the gloom prevailed in the universe. Campbell puts more focus on the speaker’s confident vision of God’s sustaining domination, which outlives the tomblike earth. Byron, in contrast, accentuates a pessimistic, persevering picture of bleakness in the human world. His gloomy perspective clearly departs from Campbell’s religious, positive conception about the permanence of God’s reign unwavered by man’s depleted culture and society.

    When arranging his keen perception of the gloom, Byron constructs this prominent concern from the beginning to the end of the poem. Campbell takes the form of the speaker’s address to the sun, through which the speaker articulates a growing sense of confidence in the immortality of God in the midst of the extinction of human races. In contrast, Byron’s depiction of death and dinginess is consistently deployed throughout the whole poem, as we can see in his repetitive articulations of the total prevalence of the “lump of death” all over the universe. Unlike Campbell, Byron’s unique structural device also perseveres in the key notions of distress and murkiness with regular incorporation of people’s hopeless, impotent reactions to the distressing ambiences.

    Another finding of this article is that in the sustaining pattern of portraying the demise and the multitude’s response toward the helpless circumstances, Byron uses varied images such as nature and animals, which contribute to reinforcing the chaotic condition surrounding the people. Campbell largely utilizes the single image of the sun to which the speaker declares his assured opinion about the overrule of the Almighty. The extinguished picture of the sun in his poem makes a stark contrast with God’s imperishable domain. Byron, however, procreates the devastated nature and defiant animal images as well as the destroyed sun, in order to strengthen the vibrant embodiment of the hopeless prevalence of gloom and disorder all over the earth. While making use of these bleak images, the poet does indicate the lack of man’s control over the irresistible, turbulent conditions of his environments.

    Finally, Byron’s predominant emphasis on the darkness goes on to imply the ironic consequences of human ambitions and enterprises, which were once both compelling and authoritative in society and civilizations. This aspect features a further distinction of Byron from Campbell, because Byron highlights the ultimate territory of human power in presiding over the utmost dingy conditions. His unswerving concern with the boundary of man’s aspiration is extended into his other poetical works composed after Darkness, for example, historical and religious tragedies, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage III-IV, and a number of Cantos in Don Juan. In these works, the author propels his undiminishing investigation of the transient, ironic limitation of man’s vigorous yearnings and tasks, showing how the main characters cope with various sorts of adverse fortunes inherent both in the internal and external spheres. The writer largely ruminates the protagonists’ somber awareness of frustration and despair while they respond to diverse uncontrollable occasions. In this sense, Byron’s Darkness does germinate his committed observation into the irresolvable bound of man’s determinations and actions through digging into the very bottom of their complete dejection and devastation.

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