Peter L. Thorslev (1929-2011) was an English Romantics Nineteenth-Century Literature scholar and a pioneer in teaching the genre of Homosexual Literature. He spent most of his career at UCLA and is most well-known for literally writing the book on the Byronic Hero.
In The Byronic Hero, Thorslev considers Lord George Byron’s influence on ‘heroic’ characters, to do so he looks backward to trace the development of different types of heroic figures. He begins in the Eighteenth-Century, works his way through the Romantic period and finally, considers Byron’s own heroes as the culmination and evolution of previous heroic types. Ultimately, Thorslev argues that ‘heroes’ no longer necessarily comply with the tropes and traditions of classical or traditional epics.
Thorslev believed that embarking on such an ambitious task was justified by more than Byron’s remarkable literary and cultural influence. He argues in his introduction that a study of the origins and development of the Byronic Hero would throw more light on Romanticism as a whole.
Due to the fascinating and often distracting nature of Byron’s life, and the tendency of scholars to focus on the Byronic hero’s representation in other texts and arenas (e.g. Frankenstein, the poetry of Pushkin, French Romanticism etc.) until Thorslev there existed no definitive or in-depth study of the Byronic Hero’s ancestors, or of the Byronic Hero itself. Thorslev himself notes Bertrand Evans’ Gothic Drama from Walpole to Shelley and Eino Railo’s The Haunted Castle for their discussion of the development of the villain-hero and its connection to Byron. Thorslev also criticises Mario Praz’s Romantic Agony for “reducing Romanticism to a perverted sensibility” (7). After acknowledging that there is considerable evidence supporting the belief that Byron’s heroes (particularly the Giour and Lara) were (as a consequence of Byron’s apparent introspective limitations) fashioned by Byron as representative of himself, Thorslev suggests that the best approach to the Byronic figure is an objective one.
Thorslev sets out to examine the heroes of an age he believed to be characterised by “passion and fiery energy, all moral, intellectual, and political rebellion” (16). An age which Thorslev believes to have come to think of hubris as a “cardinal virtue” more than a cardinal sin.
Thorslev moves through the heroes of the Eighteenth-Century:
The Child of Nature
The Hero of Sensibility: Man of Feeling or Gloomy Egoist
The Gothic Villain
To Romantic Hero types:
The Noble Outlaw
Cain and Ahasuerus
Satan and Prometheus
Before discussing Byronic Heroes:
Four Turkish Tales
Two Metaphysical Dramas
and finishes by contemplating the “Byronic Hero and Heroic Tradition” as a whole.
Thorslev concludes that Byron is “our natural contact with this last great heroic tradition in our literature” (185) and defines the Byronic Hero in light of his own study as embodying the following characteristics:
- “bigger than life.”
- “above the common level.”
- Possessing “greater powers, greater dignity and a greater soul” than the common human.
- Simultaneously possessing the qualities of “ordinary mortals” so that we can “see ourselves in him.”
- An idealization.
- “a man whose capacities have been multiplied and enlarged so as to make him a giant among men.”
- In spite of his tragic flaw, he must also be “better” and “more virtuous” than the average man.
He notes these attributes as features that entitle them to a place in the broader tradition of heroic literature. However, Thorslev also suggests that they have distinguishable characteristics that make them distinctive, the most important of these he suggests are “sensibility” and “Satanism” (188).
- of their affinity and appreciation of natural beauty.
- “they long for some kind of absorption in the universe around them.”
- they have “almost infinite capacities for feeling.”
- and that these attributes together often make them egocentric.
“Satanism” because of:
- the influence of John Milton Paradise Lost.
- the eighteenth-century pietistic movement.
- and because the Romantic period was one of “rebellion in the name of individualism” (189) wherein a dichotomy was drawn between aggressive “humanism, self-reliance and Satanism” and “God-reliance, total commitment to absolutes, and consequent self-immolation” (189).
Obviously, in such a brief summary I am avoiding many important tangential arguments, but this last point is the crux of Thorslev’s thesis, that the tradition of the Byronic hero was one founded on rebellion.
Since Thorslev, there has not been a similarly successful overview of the Byronic hero, its origins, or its relationship with literature as a whole. However, Thorslev wrote The Byronic Hero in 1965 and it appears to be only the second of a long list of works written on this subject and the greater Romantic period. My question is, did Thorslev change his mind or develop any important parts of his discussion further as he progressed in his career?
The fact that he never in any way retracted The Byronic Hero or published any form of emphatic re-working of his ideas is a testament that his main argument remained unchanged. A large number of citations of the text also supports the notion that Thorslev did not revise his argument. However, an examination of Thorslev’s work suggests that he did extend it and alter some elements despite the reality that they often went unnoticed, overshadowed as there were by Thorslev’s original work.
Below is a list of Thorslev’s published work throughout his academic career. I have listed them chronologically, not alphabetically and have included his non-academic writing, but none of his numerous book reviews. The articles and book relevant to the Byronic Hero have been highlighted.
Thorslev, Peter L. “The Romantic Mind Is Its Own Place.” Comparative Literature 15 (1963): 250-68.
———. The Byronic Hero. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965.
———. “Incest as Romantic Symbol.” Comparative Literature Studies 2, no. 1 (1965): 41-58.
———. “Freedom and Destiny: Romantic Contraries.” The Bucknell Review 14, no. 2 (1966): 38-45.
———. “Wordsworth’s “Borderers” and the Romantic Villain-Hero.” Studies in Romanticism 5, no. 2 (1966): 84-103.
Thorslev, Peter L. “Blake’s Experience.” The New York Review of Books. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1966/02/03/blakes-experience/ (29/02/18) – Published 1966.
Thorslev, Peter L. “Politics and Morality.” The New York Review of Books. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1967/10/26/politics-and-morality-2/ (29/02/18). – Published 1967.
———. “Romantic Writers and the Now Generation.” The Wordsworth Circle 2, no. 2 (1971): 42-45.
———. “Romanticism and the Literary Consciousness.” Journal of the History of Ideas 36, no. 3 (1975): 563-72.
Thorslev, Peter L. “Daring to Speak its Name.” The New York Review of Books. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1981/04/02/daring-to-speak-its-name-2/ (29/02/18). – Published 1981.
———. Romantic Contraries: Freedom Versus Destiny. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.
———. “Post-Waterloo Liberalism: The Second Generation.” Studies in Romanticism (1989): 437-61.
———. “Recent Studies in the Nineteenth Century.” Studies in English Literature (1989).
What quickly becomes apparent, is that the topic of the Byronic Hero was of concern to Thorslev early in his career. Later, he seems to have become preoccupied with other areas of research in the Romantic Period. He certainly remained interested in gothic themes and Byron but seems to have considered the Byronic Hero to have been ‘dealt with.’ The subject does arise in some of his book reviews when he corrects the authors’ general use (and often misuse) of terms like ‘Byronic Hero’ and ‘gothic heroes.’
‘The Romantic Mind in its Own Place’ was published before The Byronic Hero and is the first time Thorslev presents the idea of categorising or providing a chronological list reflective of the evident change in the nature of the heroes that began in the Romantic period. Thorslev also suggests that such a study could/should include earlier heroes that did not conform to traditional heroic expectations.
In this article, Thorslev first notes the gap in the scholarship surrounding problematic hero types, almost foreshadowing his forthcoming book:
There is no complete study of romantic Satanism in this more philosophical sense, and of course, such a topic is far beyond the measure of the present essay. Such a study could well begin with the Satan of Paradise Lost, however, not only because this is Satan’s most heroic portrait, but also because this image of Satan was so influential in the romantic movement, both in England and in Germany. Satan underwent a long metamorphosis in the eighteenth century, largely under the benign influence of various concepts of the heroic and the sublime in literature and, when he re-emerged in no longer the (larval) serpent of the later books of Paradise Lost, but had reassumed his archangelic wings and had become intimately associated with romantic rebellion in the name of the new humanist self-assertion-particularly in association with his brother rebel against God, Prometheus (251).
He continues by suggesting that a starting point for the study of Romantic Satanism would benefit from the following method:
take[ing] a key passage in the characterization of Satan in Paradise Lost, classify the Satanic characteristics implicit in a thorough exegesis of the passage, and then follow these themes briefly through the romantic mind and see how they are transmuted one poet emphasizing one characteristic, another a second, and often with unmistakable echoes of the locus classicus in Paradise Lost.
Thorslev then uses this technique on the following passage from Paradise Lost:
One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater?
Here at least We shall be free… (I. 251-59)
He focuses particularly on the idea of “the mind in its own place” and continues by examining the quote from the perspective of psychological, stoic, epistemological/creationist and existential points of view. Though not quite chronological, Thorslev is able to trace perceptions of one example of Satan’s many contentious heroic qualities and illustrate the development of one aspect of Romantic Satanism.
Either Thorslev was already working on The Byronic Hero, or he was at least beginning to think about it. Either way, Thorslev would change his approach, probably because it would be an ambitious task to analyse in such detail every contentious line related to Satan in Paradise Lost. Instead, he would focus on the development of heroic types. He is still able to acknowledge different philosophical and theological responses to alternative heroic characters, and this broader approach also allows him to consider Satan in comparison to his forebears and descendants.
Later, in ‘Romantic Contraries’ an article that would eventually become a book, Thorslev spends some time defining Byronic and Gothic heroes (although he often refers to them more generally as “this type of hero”) in relation to the landscape the author has situated them in. He acknowledges the struggle the Romantics faced, in often being forced to find an alternative “imaginative landscape” in which to place their heroes due to a world that was becoming increasingly dominated by science. Thorslev discusses the various attributes that become associated with alternative heroic types that are placed in what he defines as the “organic universe,” the “demonic universe,” and the “open” universe. While this article returns to Thorslev’s discussion of heroic types and prototypes it diverges from essential debates. Thorslev does not revise any of his initial points of discussion of heroes, but rather extends it.
The last relevant piece of scholarship published by Thorslev is ‘Wordsworth’s “Borderers” and the Romantic Villain-Hero.’ Thorslev does not dedicate much time to Wordsworth in The Byronic Hero. Compared to his contemporaries, Wordsworth was far less preoccupied with complex heroes. However, by summarising his main arguments in The Byronic Hero Thorslev argues that the character of Oswald is an example of the Romantic Villain-Hero:
This Romantic hero has his origins in a revived Renaissance “mortal god” (the Stoic sapiens, or the Faustian or Machiavellian super man), and in a reinterpreted Satan from Paradise Lost; he appears first in the eighteenth century in the German Sturm und Drang, in the person of Schiller’s Karl Moor or of Goethe’s Gotz, and in a myriad of Fausts, Prometheuses, and even titanic Wandering Jews. In England he makes his first appearance as the villain in the proliferation of Gothic novels and dramas in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Having received a strong infusion from the German, and from the traditional outlaw-hero, he reaches full maturity in the verse romances of Scott and Byron, and later in Byron’s dramas, particularly Manfred and Cain. Then, gone into eclipse in England except for the novels of Disraeli or the Brontes, he reappears in American Melville’s Captain Ahab, for instance. Finally, as Vaclav Cerny has pointed out, he reaches his apotheosis in Nietzsche’s superman, or his nemesis in the novels of Dostoevsky (91-2).
Thorslev takes this opportunity to define the Romantic Hero-Villain as:
dark, reserved, and inclined to be morose, often with a past of mystery and secret sin, and yet he has an attraction and a personal magnetism immediately obvious, even to the casual observer, and exercising its power especially over the small band of outlaws of which he is often the leader…His more philosophical characteristics or attitudes are perhaps not so obvious, but they are even more important. He aims above all at freedom, and for this reason he seeks first the power and self-sufficiency which make this freedom possible. This endeavor usually leads him to place the head above the heart…Above all, he is a rebel, first against the family and community, then against the state and the church, and finally, on the precedent of his Satanic forebear, against God himself. His motives in rebellion are his inability to conceive of or to tolerate limits to his freedom: he wills the ultimate freedom and its concomitant power. He wills to be God. Finally, in spite of his close association with Prometheus, this hero is not always or even frequently a philanthropist; he is more of a metaphysical rebel (93).
Following this, Thorslev examines Oswald’s exhibition of these characteristics. Examining only one character in such detail makes it possible for Thorslev to be more thorough in his analysis. He is also able to apply his own (now well established and cited) work to a character to judge not only their validity as a Romantic Hero-Villain but also their place in the scope of the Romantic Hero-Villain tradition as a whole. Again, Thorslev emphasises the Hero-Villain’s affinity with Satan and their preoccupation with the philosophy of rebellion. He also introduces what appears to be a new aspect of the Hero-Villain’s characteristics. He discusses Oswald as transcending ‘good and evil’ values by establishing himself (through his rebellion) as separate to the values of society:
In ridding himself of his regret for the past and of respect for the regard of his fellows, he has denied the authority both of conscience and of social pressure, those twin enforcers, from within and without, of all traditional moral codes (95).
Far from changing his mind, Thorslev is merely developing his definition. One could argue that making the list of defining features longer and longer to incorporate more characters defeats the purpose of defining the character in the first place. However, I argue that rather than lengthening the list, Thorslev is providing clarification by discussing earlier defined characteristics in more depth. Discussing the examples of Villain-Heroes outside his original scope allows Thorslev to substantiate his original thesis further. It also allows him to consider his argument in light of new academic research and a developing understanding of the importance Romantic heroes types in relation to contemporary literature. That Thorslev’s ‘Borderers’ article was the last he wrote on this topic despite the list of publications by Thorslev that followed, does not suggest that he changed his mind, or had nothing left to contribute to the topic. Perhaps that was the case, perhaps he grew tired of the topic for one reason or another, or perhaps he simply moved to other areas of study. It is unlikely and probably unimportant that we ever find out. The reality we should concern ourselves with is that Thorslev remains relatively unmatched in his work on the Byronic Hero (and the Romantic Villain-Hero more generally) and that while he expanded and explored it, Thorslev did not change his definition and it appears, did not change his mind.