« Who/what makes History? Byrons’s answers through The Deformed Transformed », by Marguerite Champeaux-Rousselot ( 2010)
In January 1822, Byron starts writing The Deformed Transformed (D.T.), a richly illuminated tale that captures striking historical detail. This combination of fact and fiction underlines his clear understanding of laws of history and, implicitly, of his personal choices. By means of his characters and situations, Byron communicates his thoughts about both history in general and history of individuals. As he writes, he gradually becomes more and more interested by action in Italy and in Greece, and consequently creates his own definition of action. The D.T. has thus become a kind of laboratory in which Byron is able to become a soldier rather than a poet, and a chief instead of a rebel.
Byron begins his drama as a phantasmagoria with psychological and philosophical objectives: this phantasmagoria lies in the magical transformation of the poor and ugly Arnold into Achilles by the Stranger, a being above humanity who is Byron’s spokesperson. In the second act, Byron continues with the exploitation of time travel, more specifically as a kind of “pilgrimage”. This leads the now handsome and violent Arnold-Achilles to take part in a war that is strange in a historical sense. The drama then returns to fantasy, but now in the style of an apologue: it appears to be a peaceful time, but the Stranger shows that it is only an illusion because cruel “despots” and passive “slaves” are playing on their own graves. The drama was never finished because Byron died, but several rough drafts as well as a little ‘reminder’ were found after his death, indicating the psychological logic of a tragic ending. One of the last scenes was to show how Arnold-Achilles comes to understand that beauty and physical strength are only traps that are based on false values.
Thanks to this evocative interaction between fantasy and history, Byron expresses his wider temporal and spatial vision of human history, ranging from the history of nations and civilizations to the life, birth and death of the individual. In this sense, Byron clearly tackles philosophy.
As the characters Arnold and Bourbon are strongly opposed to their acid and caustic commentator, the Stranger, the tone of the work is not pompous, heavy, or moralistic, and rather remains “Byronic”. However, the play does contain an ethic lesson about behavior: the processes of deformation and transformation can on the one hand apply to Man who, through it, can be liberated from physical and trivial circumstances as well as from evil temptations, and can on the other hand also pertain to history, insofar as this process helps Man to recognize interior values which consequently allow him to analyze, make decisions and take action.
D.T. in its entirety with its symbolic and historical characters is the intellectual result of Byron’s analysis of history and of those who make it. He writes this play precisely at a time when his own participation in history becomes more and more of interest.
Let’s briefly indicate how Byron involves and meditates the subject of history by the transcription of a historical fact.
Arnold-Achilles, thoughtless and reliant on appearances more than anything, quickly becomes spoilt, impolite, vain, proud and violent and his first wish is all in exteriority: to see (in both senses, material and intellectual) “where the world /Is thickest, that I may behold it in /Its workings”, which merits the Stranger’s reply: “That’s to say, where is war/And woman in activity”, before he adds: “In very truth,/There is small choice”: it does not mean that few countries are at war, but, on the contrary, that the choice is too easy, because “The whole race are just now/Tugging as usual at each other’s heart”: there is war everywhere and at anytime. But as Arnold wants to fight, Rome is clearly the amphitheatre for a constant “entertainment”. Byron refers to the private battle of Romulus who killed his twin-brother, to Scipio who set Carthage ablaze, to Nero, to Titus in Jerusalem, etc. The coveted site, Rome, carries in and of itself terrible ambiguities. Byron calls it Babel, Babylon, Sodom, and Troy; he calls it warlike, proselyte, intolerant and cruel: it is the city that put an end to Cato’s “Republic”, that killed in the name of “God”, a holy place where martyrs walked but where the vestiges of pagan gods and goddesses still stand as well. Byron recalls a myth almost unknown yet that conveys a meditation on the mechanisms of history itself: the myth of Ate, the goddess of folly, who tricked Zeus, was pushed off the top of Mount Olympus and fell onto a hill where Ilius later founded Troy, the ancestor of Rome.
Obeying Arnold’s wish, the Stranger takes him to war on May 6, 1527: precisely the day before the attack of Rome by the powerful Duke Charles III de Bourbon.
The life of Bourbon is full of unbelievable incidents and Romanesque coincidences: he was a great soldier who mislead himself with successive alliances, betrayals, and legitimate and illegitimate acts of vengeance. He was the Constable of France, and later became Charles V’s Lieutenant general. As a Barbarian leader, he attacked on the 6th of May no one other than the Pope.
Speaking through the Stranger, Byron reveals Bourbon’s pride and his misunderstanding of honor. That being said, Arnold goes to war by his side without hesitation for the pleasure of fighting and the joy of being rewarded either by his leader or by the looting.
Bourbon personally leads the assault, and is immediately and fatally harmed. He passes away with no regrets, while Arnold, galvanized into activity by his leader’s professed “sacrifice”, fights blindly on until he falls in love, a love that the Stranger immediately stigmatizes as selfish, foreshadowing the end.
This historical fact is used as an argumentative example. Since the omniscient Stranger knows the past as well as the future, the reflection widens. These allusions to a future still unknown allow Byron to show how Man ought to think about history, life and mankind.
For instance, Byron alludes to the discovery of America and to the bad use of what Europeans will call the “New World”
How old? What! There are
To you. You’ll find there are such shortly,
By its rich harvests, new disease, and gold ;
From one half of the world named a whole new one,
Because you know no better than the dull
A dubious notice of your eyes and ears.
I’ll trust them.
Do! They will deceive you sweetly
And it is better than the bitter truth.
In another example, the Stranger helps a priest escape. Although this may seem impertinent, the Stranger explains how this priest will become Pope and consequently refers to the future Papacy’s scandalous and schism-causing decisions:
I am glad he hath escaped: he may thank me for’t
In part. I would not have his bulls abolish’d –
‘T were worth of one half our empire: his indulgences
Demand some in return ; no, no, he must not
Fall ; – and besides, his now escape may furnish
A future miracle, in future proof of his infallibility.
In addition, underlining the ambiguity of Rome (“victorious” or “slave”, “Holy City” of the West that is also its “Sodom”) allows Byron to show how complex history is, and how much reflection is needed before judging it and reacting to it.
This episode also illustrates how some men claim to make history by means of cruelty, covetousness and blasphemy – three vices they occasionally disguise under social order, religion or ideologies. However, the Stranger unmasks their real motives as well as the causes of their failures and mistakes. He particularly points at some leaders, who satisfy their ambitions by spilling the blood of others. He explains to Bourbon that he is chiefly responsible for the death of the Romans, as well as for the soldiers’ poverty, death, and eventual path to Hell. Thus, the Stranger underlines why Bourbon deserves what soon befalls him.
Byron’s analysis of the world and of Man is almost identical to that of the Stranger.
In the D.T., the Stranger (once again: Byron’s mouthpiece) insists on the fact that Man is only “dust”, “clay”, “atom”, “bubble”, “foam”, “insect”, or even “ant”:
And these are men, forsooth!
Heroes and chiefs, the flower of Adam’s bastards!
This is the consequence of giving matter
The power of thoughts. It is a stubborn substance,
And thinks chaotically, as it acts,
Ever relapsing into its first elements.
Well! I must play with these poor puppets:’t is
The spirit’s pastime in his idler hours.
When I grow weary of it, I have business
Amongst the stars, which these poor creatures deem
Were made for them to look at. ‘T were a jest now
To bring one amongst them, and set fire
Unto their anthill: how the pismires then
Would scamper o’er the scalding soil, and, ceasing
From tearing down each other’s nests, pipe forth
One universal orison! Ha! Ha!
The Stranger shows that everyone, from “planet” to “worm”, lives and dies in a continuous cycle, an opinion that ridicules both anthropocentrism and romanticism.
The Stranger thinks that the interventions of men result from a malformed nature. Bravery is in fact more often a superficial and mortifying value, and men and captains often delude themselves into believing that they merit entering into the annals of the peoples. As a dying defender shouts: “I have died for Rome!”, the clarvoyant Stranger who understands all of the significations of the preposition “ for” states: “And so did Bourbon, in an other sense. Oh these immortal men! And their great motives!”.
This delusive behaviour corresponds to the absurd lifestyles that Byron also relishes in demonstrating through several instructive notes.
It is both logical and unlikely that the High Constable, who puts on a white cloak, arguing of a professed honor that is actually “deformed”, dies in the first minutes of battle. Equally unbelievable is the head-to-head interaction between the dying Bayard and Bourbon, the treacherous conqueror, on the battlefield of Pavie. The gesture of embracing his still bloody sword as a cross is depicted as absurd : Byron actually takes an opportunity to make us think about this paradoxical and blasphemous gesture when the Stranger suggests the act to the dying Bourbon, claiming that any pious knight would do the same.
In a final example, the fact that Benvenuto Cellini killed Bourbon is improbable, yet is still a subject for historical debate. How many major works of art would have been missed if he had been killed in battle?! The disproportion between risk and result is flagrant here, and borders upon the absurd, or more specifically the stupidity of certain men.
Thus, the Stranger-Byron evokes that life is full of the pardoxical occurrence of inconceivable impossibilities. Life is inundated by absurdities and other improbable events to which we, only little “atoms”, attach ourselves and consequently upset the nature of things:
There is cause at times.-
Oh yes – when atoms jostle –
The Systeme is in peril – but I speak
Of things you know not ; – well- to earth again –
Byron also implies that Man creates history through both little moments and “great” works. He must therefore take into account the two universal laws taught by the Stranger. The first one is the repetition of alternatives: History repeats its incidents and everyone takes his turn or is taken in turn, often at the mercy of Fortune, a situation which makes Man partly incapable of judging others. This first law is linked to a second one: the law of evolution. Life is “motion” and “commotion”, nobody can stay unaffected “within”, nobody can “rebel” against both of these laws of Nature, nor totally escape from them.
Arnold hopes – the battle being the following day- that in certain cases “rebellion” can succeed even without respecting these laws, but the Stranger explains clearly that the outcome of change is not controlled only by Man. Thus to believe in the success of “rebellion” is a naïve human error:
You must obey what all obey, the rule
Of fix’d necessity: against her edict
Rebellion prospers not.
And when it prospers –
‘Tis not rebellion.
Those who go to war without taking these two laws into account, as well as those who just pray in hoping that destiny will change, have a false analysis which leads them to make enormous errors.
Man has also a great freedom in addition to as much responsibility as he wants with regards to the events that depend on him alone. Byron thus uses dramatic means that help him to make the links between destiny, liberty and history understood. Amongst these means is the invention of his character the Stranger.
Arnold begins by referring to the Stranger as a “devil”, a “demon” in the evil sense, but the Stranger’s opinions and his advice show that Byron actually conceived him as a Daimon, with regards to the high sense of the inner consciousness that is conceived by Socrates. This reflection also concerns history because Byron shows several times that the Stranger, however omnipotent and omniscient, lets nature and destiny (or God) follow its own laws, and allows man, in his turn, to act freely. Why is this? Because the Stranger is stoic and because even if he doesn’t push them, many men will finish in Hell because of their ill doings: Men reap his harvest gratis. As the Stranger defines his own role, the didascaly shows how Arnold, Bourbon and men in general too often react impulsively, and this recurrent reaction underlines the fact that Man listens neither to the prophets nor to his conscience:
The devil speaks truth much oftener than he’s deem’d:
He has an ignorant audience.
Arnold (without attending him)…
Byron’s choice of characters, Arnold and Bourbon, results in showing that Men are too often like “arrogant ants” that think they can change History. Supposed or professed admirable “heroes”, many of them are in fact manipulated “puppets ”, are contemptible or punishable, and are followed by the blind crowds that are moved by instincts or forces to which they are ignorant.
The Stranger is content with watching, decoding and revealing reality and truth: structurally, he is the illustrator and producer of human freedom and responsibility. Consequently men are all the more responsible – chiefs especially – given the fact they are more aware.
However, the similarities end here. If the Stranger is indeed Byron’s mouthpiece, Byron is the Stranger only to a certain extent: while the Stranger criticizes, seems skeptical and abstains from intervening in the network of small human acts that eventually make history, Byron has, since his twenties, gradually become a conscious man and has always acted as if he were already listening to a still unknown Stranger.
On November 23, 1813, as the young Byron writes a letter, he begins with a contemptuous, scornful and indifferent tone: “But I have no ambition ; at least, if any, it would be aut Caesar aut nihil.”, but immediately after, even if too proudly, he wishes to have a useful power : “After all, even the highest game of crowns and scepters, what is it?” Concerning the trivial end of the Napoleon dream, he regrets that “men never advance beyond a certain point” and becomes vehemently indignant: “and here we are, retrograding, to the dull, stupid old system,–balance of Europe–poising straws upon kings’ noses, instead of wringing them off!” This tirade could have been uttered by the Stranger, the omnipotent Stranger who despises, speaks ironically and never acts. But anger leads Byron to imagine, from a distance, the means by which he could bring good fortune and happiness to the people: “Give me a republic, or a despotism of one, rather than the mixed government of one, two, three. A republic! — look in the history of the Earth — Rome, Greece, Venice, France, Holland, America, our short (« eheu! ») Commonwealth, and compare it with what they did under masters. The Asiatics are not qualified to be republicans, but they have the liberty of demolishing despots, which is the next thing to it.” He finishes with reticent enthusiasm for becoming the possible leader of such actions: “To be the first man — not the Dictator — not the Sylla, but the Washington or the Aristides — the leader in talent and truth — is next to the Divinity! Franklin, Penn, and, next to these, either Brutus or Cassius — even Mirabeau — or St. Just”. As he writes these few lines, his idea of becoming Caesar (exactly the name Stranger will assume in the D.T.) greatly evolves.
From this day, nearly on every birthday, Byron’s pangs of consciousness lead him to become more and more interested in action, and, without yet knowing it, in history.
Aged 29, he believes that he is worn out, but in fact this feeling increases his awareness of the now inevitable emergency of acting: at last he admits the strength of his political dreams, the righteousness of his ideas and the eventual possibility of their becoming widespread reality: “If I live ten years longer, you will see, however, that it is not over with me – I don’t mean literature, for that is nothing ; and it may seem odd enough to say, it is not my vocation”.
Many words and facts prove this progression from his life to the later D.T., and reciprocally from the text of the D.T. to his life, as his thoughts will gradually become reality.
In fact, Byron becomes more and more actively interested in politics. At last he owns up to having a lively character and even to liking turbulent uproar, the “commotion” he will evoke later in the D.T. itself. He gradually discovers what he will draw in the drama, and builds himself upon this discovery, contrary, sometimes term to term , to the selfish illusions of which Arnold and Bourbon, who are “conquerors” of illusion, suffer.
For example, the dramatic scheme of the D.T. is that of a classic tale/fable in which a ill-chosen wish is granted. Byron evades this trap that consists of the will to get out of one’s fixed situation at any cost. He writes in his diary – Thought 95: « If I were to live over again, I do not know what I would change in my life, unless it were for–not to have lived at all. All history and experience, and the rest, teaches us that the good and evil are pretty equally balanced in this existence.”
Indeed, Byron knows that he is subject to the laws of Nature and Chance, and that he is therefore a part of the successive « waves breaking on the shore », but he also knows that on the edge of one’s own history, everyone has a role to play, a role which in and of itself can play a part in history.
Byron chooses, and then, as opposed to Stranger who remains non–acting, exercises his possibility of action, aware not only of its relativity, but also of its reality. He is therefore quite different of Bourbon and Arnold, who once again are both puppets manipulated by their instincts.
Finally, ready for “anything”, Byron moves into action by the side of others.
During a few months in 1822-1824, he “applies” the lessons of the drama (D.T.) which progresses parallel, or rather, dialectically with his life. We can say the same for his poems, letters and journals. The poet fades away under the orders of the fighting man. His behavior changes with regards to money, ambition and religion. For instance: » I should almost regret that my own affairs went well, when those of nations are in peril. If the interests of mankind could be essentially bettered (particularly of these oppressed Italians), I should not so much mind my own « sma’ peculiar ». God grant us all better times, or more philosophy. ». He becomes a man of action with the use of all of his means. That is why history thus becomes his first challenge and preoccupation, in writing just as in loving.
Byron studies in the Stranger how to both succeed and act: as he knows he is merely a “puppet”, he has to be sure that he remains as true as possible to natural laws, so that the “commotion” that he wishes to initiate or the uphold he wishes to create has a chance to succeed in history. Reading Byron’s letters and diaries, we see him enquiring what these countries are up to. He notices that the Republic advances throughout the entirety of Europe and that people consequently gain independence. He believes that with his help people can be successful, and therefore begins summoning the “slaves” to rebel, just like Stranger in his finale, and in quite a different way from Bourbon. He then invests in the liberal movement, becoming more and more generous as opposed to the profiteers and pillagers depicted in the D.T.
Byron gradually understands that his fight eventually requires other sacrifices, and even his own sufferings and death: “In like manner, whatever the sacrifice of individuals, the great cause will gather strength, sweep down what is rugged and fertilise (for sea-weed is manure) what is cultivable. And so, the mere selfish calculations ought never to be made on such occasions; and, at present, it shall not be completed by me. I was never a good arithmetician of chances, and shall not commence now.”
On January 8, 1821, after the defeat of the Carbonari, Byron underlines what the losing Italians were lacking: a chief. This analysis precipitates him to believe it acceptable, with the sole purpose of aiding Greece, ( » As I did not come there to join a faction but a nation »), to take on the role of advisor, mentor, lieutenant, and finally « chief » – “if necessary”.
Ten years later, his dream on November 23, 1813 interacts with his solidified values: no personal material interest; liberty and republic as ideals; hate of despots, but acceptation of authority when necessary; and even being an honest and talented chief if necessary. On October 7, 1823, his words are almost apprehensive when he explains that he is going to raise his own troops for Greece: “But if it should appear necessary why – as they are admitted to be the best and bravest of the present combatants – it might, or may, so happen that I could, would, should, or shall take to me the support of such a body of men, with whose aid I think something might be done both in Greece and out of it (for there is a good deal to put to rights in both).” He thus hopes to be able to intervene “for some time, and, as I have not any motive for so doing but the well-wishing to Greece, I should hope with advantage.”
In fact, during Byron’s last two years, the Stranger plays the role of a court jester, or of the “slave” hidden next to the victorious roman general, who must remind him that he is only a man. On the other hand, Arnold, in the D.T., refuses to listen to the Stranger who offers to tell him the truth:
Stranger (to Arnold)
In the Victor’s Chariot – when Rome triumphed –
There was a Slave of yore – to tell him truth –
You are a Conqueror – command to your Slave.-
Byron listens to this cynically realist philosopher, champion of disillusion, and now becomes his turn to be the Stranger for the Greeks. However, while putting into effect all the Stranger’s advice for Man, Byron wishes to surpass any of his elements of stoicism and passive cynicism and to rather be a sublimate scout, an exemplary man if necessary. He finds in himself an ideal: to give birth to free men, free from a country of “slaves”, in “a new-born people’s cry” as he wrote in his probably last poem.
Byron dies too soon for us to see if he would have been a good role model, a leader that would have listened to the Stranger. However, it is evident through several indications that this might in fact have been so.
Byron knew that life is a rare and precious thing to spend and risk, his own as much as those of others. He was very wise in choosing where to spend it and for what he would risk it. For instance, while generously sending back prisoners to the enemy, he writes: “I would only beg Your Highness to treat with humanity any Greek who may be (captured) or fall into the hands of the Mussulmans – Since the horrors of war are sufficient in themselves without adding cold-blooded ruthlessness on either side.-”
His role models are above all Prometheus, the limping poet and warrior Tyrtaios, and even Aristomenes who fights with all his might to no avail. Byron also especially admires Achilles, but putting into the back of his head both his beauty and his strength, he focuses on the tragic fact that he fought knowing that the Greek victory would amount to his own death. Byron, like Achilles, creates an image of an Independent Greece and affirms: “I shall not live to see it, but I foresee it » .
He knows that he resembles a prophet who is no more listened to than the Stranger is by Arnold in the D.T. The Greeks around him behave illogically and in turn the Stranger’s analysis would have been harsh. However, the objective Byron is far removed from the passiveness of the Stranger and on October 7, 1823 he writes to Teresa Guiccioli from a measured distance: « I need say little on that subject. I was a fool to come here; but, being here, I must see what is to be done ».
Byron knows that history will never be fundamentally changed by the pull of a “puppet” string. However, this drama nevertheless gives shape to his sublimation, as he becomes capable of passing from his status of an observing author to that of an actor being propelled forward by the lessons of his own drama towards historical actions.
In conclusion, Byron did not hesitate to mix mythology and fantasy with historical facts and miscellaneous events, nor to write down his thoughts and wills during a “historical” period of his life.
He considers himself as a speck of dust in the Universe – which prevents him from being pompous –, but is at the same time aware that the Universe is in fact made up of dust. He is conscious of the fact that he lives at only one instant in time, but equally knows that history is woven by individual acts delineating on the crisscrossed threads created by God or by Chance.
As a man set free by an almighty possible God, dispenser of justice, Byron provides analyses and warnings; but on the other hand, like an “insect”, he seizes the part of action within his reach – a measured and deliberate “rebellion” – and acts out in favor of the other “insects”. He becomes a responsible actor who dares to stake out his position, almost suddenly, after having experienced the depths of Arnold’s illusions and having surpassed the non-active skepticism of the Stranger. He chooses to surpass his inhibitions and to follow what he judges to be a good plan taken at a time that seems opportune. When he decides to act for Greece, Byron is fully aware of his ability to accelerate and mark history, and thus prepares himself morally, psychologically and materially to reach success in his intervention.
Faced with the rather philosophical questions “Who makes history?” and “Where am I in all of it?”, Byron’s answer, in words and in actions, surprises us through its daring depth, concrete realism, unifying ideal and action. It is the result of a long maturation period during which, having described and directed other individuals, he gradually outlines a literary vision of Man and of the Universe that enables him to be decisive in his progress.
This personal development is reflective of our own lives, especially for those of us who have known the cruel role that history in Byron’s own life. His life has remained important, just as if it had been sacrificed on the battlefield. In a sense, Byron was The Deformed Transformed, and most probably wishes us to ‘transform’ our own ‘deformities’ in order to change the course of history along with him.
( 2009-09-10, 35th International Byron Conference, Athens and Messolonghi : « Lord Byron and History » )
 “Stranger” is also called “Caesar” in Byron’s play, but we shall go on using only the name “Stranger”.
 Stranger’s song
But too much I scorn it
Or else I would mourn it –
To see despots and slaves
Playing o’er their own graves – (D.T., Part III, text of a fragment, 12-15)
 D.T., Works of Lord Byron, by Th. Moore, 1833, p.328
 D.T., Works of Lord Byron, by Th. Moore, 1833, p. 332
 D.T., Works of Lord Byron, by Th. Moore, 1833, p.359
 Works of Lord Byron, by Th. Moore, 1833, p.345
 And where is that which is so? From the star
To the winding worm, all life is motion; and
In life commotion is the extreme point
Of life. The planet wheels till it becomes
A comet, and destroying as it sweeps
The stars, goes out. The poor worm winds its way,
Living upon the death of other things,
But still, like them, must live and die, the subject
Of something which has made it live and die. (Works of Lord Byron, by Th. Moore, 1833, p.333)
 This is the consequence of giving matter
The power of thoughts. It is a stubborn substance,
And thinks chaotically as it acts,
Ever relapsing into its first elements. (D.T., Works of Lord Byron, by Th. Moore, 1833, p.345)
 D.T., Works of Lord Byron, by Th. Moore, 1833, p.353
 D.T., Works of Lord Byron, by Th. Moore, 1833, p.328
 On they march, though self-slaughter,
Regular as rolling water,
whose high waves o’ersweep the border
Of huge moles, but keep their order,
Breaking only rank by rank! ( D.T. Works of Lord Byron, by Th. Moore, 1833, p.346)
 D.T., Works of Lord Byron, by Th. Moore, 1833, p.333
 D.T., Works of Lord Byron, by Th. Moore, 1833, p.365
 D.T.,Letter to Th. Moore, Venice, Feb. 28, 1817
 Life of Lord Byron, Letters and Journals, by Th. Moore, p. 652
On they march, though self-slaughter,
Regular as rolling water,
whose high waves o’ersweep the border
Of huge moles , but keep their order,
Breaking only rank by rank!
 Journal of Ravenna, Jan. 11, 1821
 Journal of Ravenna, Jan. 9, 1821
 Journal of Ravenna, Jan. 8, 1821.
 Journal of Cephalonia, Oct.17,1823.
 D.T. Part III, lines 89-92
 [Last words on Greece ] 1824
 Corr. Cephalonia, Jan. 23 , 1824,
 Journal, Jan. 13, 1821
 Corr., October 7, 1823