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Lord Byron Among the Reviews

  • Mark Schoenfield
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Part of the Nineteenth-Century Major Lives and Letters book series (19CMLL)

Abstract

According to both Shelley and Byron—Shelley writing with accusatory sentimentality in Adonais and Byron with self-congratulatory jesting in Don Juan—the periodicals killed John Keats. An early biographer of Byron, John Galt, makes a related claim about Byron:

With title, wealth, and genius blest, The noble Byron knows no rest; From clime to clime, he flies in vain, Nor finds a refuge from his pain. Is love, rejected love the cause, Perfidious friendship, or the laws? Or does the moon control his blood? Ah no. What then? His books reviewed. John Galt, “Epigram” (Autobiography 123)

Although reviews were not fatal to Byron, Galt proposes that they were instrumental to his public persona, to his restlessness, to a deformation that Galt associates with Byron’s “singular scowl” (GLB Chs. 8 and 24 and Autobiography 118).1

Keywords

Title Page Public Recognition Distant View Public Persona Bodily Presence 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    In both Galt’s Autobiography and Life of Byron, Byron’s poetry confirms his personality. Galt records Byron’s “indignation against a writer in a scurrilous publication, called The Scourge; in which he … charged with being, as he told me himself, the illegitimate son of a murderer” (GLB 163–4; retold with somewhat different details in Autobiography I:230–31). To convince Byron not to pursue a lawsuit, Galt observed that the libeler was rearranging the narrative of the fifth Lord Byron’s duel in 1765 with William Chaworth, “the facts of which being matter of history and public record, superseded the necessity of any proceeding” (GLB 164). In Galt’s reconstruction, Byron projected his own personality into the narrative generated in the public press, in order to write Lara. This dynamic among Byron, reviewer, and poem typifies Galt’s understanding of Byron’s creative process.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    In Don Juan, Byron uses “poem” to refer to Don Juan, and reserves “book” for the works of others. The ironic exception is the end of Canto I, where he offers the apotheosis, “Go, little book, from this my solitude! / I cast thee on the waters, go thy ways!” and then, revealing that the lines are Southey’s, begs, “For God’s sake, reader! take them not for mine” (I.222.1–2, 8).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The reviews of Manfred that speculate on Byron’s incest are blunt examples of the public circulation of secrets, but reviews of virtually every work from English Bards onward engage in this dynamic.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Jerome Christensen observes that the Edinburgh’s attack on Hours of Idleness, repeating the term “hobbling” to characterize Byron’s verse, “intends to inflict a mortal wound on Byron’s name by remarking on the deformation of Byron’s foot” (LBS 22). Byron deploys the same metaphor in English Bards (“Let Hayley hobble on”), and Hints from Horace: Though you and I, who eruditely know To separate the elegant and low, Can also, when a hobbling line appears, Detect with fingers—in default of ears. (433–436)Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Moore reports that Byron “was prouder of being a descendant of those Byrons of Normandy, who accompanied William the Conqueror into England, than of having been the author of Childe Harold and Manfred” (I:1). Even before attaining his title, he rebuffed a compliment by a friend of his mother who hoped for the “pleasure, some time or other, of reading your speeches in the House of Commons,” by declaring, “I hope not … if you read any speeches of mine, it will be in the House of Lords” (I:29).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Stephen Cheeke asks: Was there ever a time when Lord Byron was an unknown writer? In a sense, perhaps not really. Not just because Byron’s pre-fame writings seem especially sensitive to questions of reputation, name and reaction, but because the representational potencies of Byronism are such that it may be impossible not to discover this phenomenon at each and every stage of the poet’s life and work, at least in potentia. (“Geo-History” 134)Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Paul Elledge, discussing the letter to Augusta about Speech Day, notes a Byronic ambivalence about the locations of fame: “Here is the future author/performer hypersensitive to press review, and already adept at disputing censure. But his coup de grace now follows: to be a local sensation may be preferable to widespread recognition; the heat of the Harrow spotlight may feel better than the warmth of diffused celebrity” (156).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The “framework” of Hoursis, Jerome McGann maintains, “essentially realistic” and “organized in such a way as to force upon the reader the presence of the poet—a specific man named George Gordon” who defined himself “by reference to a variety of publicly verifiable facts and situations” (8, 5). McGann emphasizes that reviewers “singled out the strongly expressive quality of Hours of Idleness, for Byron seems to have consciously striven to publicize his character” (14).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    To the extent that the “fathers” stand between Byron and the daughters as readers, such a dynamic anticipates Byron’s concern with his female readership and the masculine cartel of reviewers.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    In “To M…” Byron reiterates the connection between female beauty and the divine (“When Nature stamp’d thy beauteous birth” … She fear’d that, too divine for earth [9–11]); the metaphor is conventional but perhaps too explicitly invokes sexual performance to be read comfortably by the ostensible performers and their parents. Byron’s solution to this conundrum of an audience too nearly implicated, in the revised Poems on Various Occasions, was not as “miraculously chaste” as Byron described it. In the seeming renunciation, “To M.S.G.,” the speaker vows that despite “those lips of thine, / their hue invites my fervent kiss,” he will resist so that “At least from guilt, shalt thou be free.” The active verb “invites” and the qualifier “at least” (hovering between two readings: at least she though not he is free of guilt, or at least she is free of guilt, but not desire) indicate urges that undercut the claim that her “yield[ing] those lips” is a gesture of a “last farewell” (29, 32) rather than, like the “kisses” in “To the Sighing Stephon,” signifying “still there was something beyond.” Julia, in Don Juan, seduces both Juan and herself by pretending that signs of invitation are acts of farewell.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Though I cannot confidently decode the sexuality of these poems, lines such as the following suggest non-penetrative sexual practices: No more that bosom heaves for me, On it another seeks repose, Another riot’s on its snows, And though no more in folds of pleasure, Kiss follows kiss in countless measure (“To Mary” 13–15, 34–5)Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Byron used a similar formulation disdaining critics of Don Juan more than a decade later: “Your little envious knot of parson-poets may say what they please” (BLJ 8:192).Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Byron remained concerned with the sales of his poetry in Southwell. Within two weeks of the publication of Hours, Byron asked Elizabeth Pigot, “[H]as Ridge [the publisher] sold well? Or do the ancients demur? what Ladies have bought? All disappointed I dare say nothing indecent in the present publication” (BLJ 1:125).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Aligning Byron’s satirical powers with his determination to “run a career worthy of his character and talents, and of his genuine pride of an illustrious ancestry,” the critic falls into the courtesy that the Preface set out for him. Similarly, the Anti-Jacobin’s short notice and Le Beau Monde both quote the Preface on youth and “On Leaving Newstead Abbey,” and the latter, allowing that “youth” has “some claims to indulgence,” ends by urging Byron’s cultivation of his talent. (RR 76). The British Critic’s squib announces “there is much taste, and more vigour than might reasonably be expected from a minor” (RR 232).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Dallas learned of the poems from family members who had seen extracts in a periodical. He ordered the book, and “discerned in it marks of the genius which has been since so universally admired” (5–6).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Reviewing Charles Hoyle’s Exodus, a Poem, the Satirist, deriding poetic amateurism, remarks that “‘George Gordon, Lord Byron, a minor’ is sometimes willing to employ his ‘hours of idleness’ in more solid enjoyments than that of scribbling” (Sat I:409–10). In March 1808, the magazine included “Address to the Satirist,” which applauded its “Daring hand” that “Scourges the rampant follies of the land” (Sat II:7). Clarke claims he delayed “considerable time” before deciding to publish—although since it cites a review from the prior month, both the poem’s authorship and the editorial explanation are suspect. The poem commends the “strict review” given when “a Lord step forth, whose Idle Hours / Display, midst petty wits, his minor powers,” and footnotes the couplet with: “The Hours of Idleness, by George Gordon, Lord Byron, a minor, justly reprobated in The Satirist” (Sat II:8). Such ridicule might have motivated Byron to change “Hours of Idleness” in the next edition, but the Satirist revives that title in its review of Poems, Original and Translated and continues to name him “a minor,” despite Byron having dropped the appellation. The review invents the title “Prayer of George Gordon, Lord Byron, a Minor” for [“May Heaven so guard my lovely Quaker”] (III:82). Further insisting on the durable trace of Idleness, this review discusses—and quotes at varying lengths—six of the poems omitted from the Poems, Original and Translated. Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    These lines invoke competition not with Garrick, but with the celebrity child-actor, William “Master” Betty (Elledge 164). Byron, in one of many complaints of being overidentified with his characters, notes that writing is a theatrical impersonation: “My ideas of a character may run away with me: like all imaginative men, I, of course, embody myself with the character while I draw it, but not a moment after the pen is from off the paper” (BLJ 9:118–19).Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    In another misleading redaction, the reviewer quotes the footnote to the first line of “Damaetas,” without mentioning the poem, and transforms the note into Byron’s special pleading: “He tells us in a note, “that by law every person is an infant who has not attained the age of 2l!!! Now for that information the world are truly indebted; nobody could guess that, till the magnanimous George Gordon Lord Byron, a minor, came from Harrow school to declare it to the world” (Sat I:79–80). The poem, anticipating Childe Harold’s youth, undermines the stability of the meaning of age: “Old in the world, though scarcely broke from school; / Damaetas ran through all the maze of sin” (8–9).Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    The Satirist calls the line “Then Morpheus envelope my faculties fast” (from “To M.S.G.”), the “quintessence of poetry,” and speculates that it reveals that Byron “intends Morpheus to seal up his faculties fast, in a two-penny post letter, and thus, in an envelope, send him a pleasant dream for his next night’s amusement” (Sat I:79). The accusation is the same Byron would level at Keats, that he is “f[ri] gg[in]g his Imagination” (BLJ 7:225).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    While at Cambridge, Clarke published The Saunterer. In its Preface, Clarke requests: “The reader should remember, whatever may be the imperfections of the following pages, that they were composed by a youth, who, when he first commenced their publication, had only just completed his seventeenth year.” Clarke recognized the convention of youthful authorship, and his insistence on a biographical reading of Byron’s Preface would have seemed unfair. Clarke’s 1808 review of Poems, Original and Translated highlights their Cambridge connection, and ends by intimating personal knowledge: “There is still one beloved and intimate friend left to his lordship besides his bear; one, whose counsels, wild, dangerous, and plunging as they have hitherto been, Lord Byron has never slighted” (Sat III:86).Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Byron, retrospectively, recalls events differently: I remember the effect of the first Edinburgh Review on me. I heard of it six weeks before,—read it the day of its denunciation,—dined and drank three bottles of claret, (with S. B. Davies, I think,) neither ate nor slept the less, but, nevertheless, was not easy till I had vented my wrath and my rhyme, in the same pages, against every thing and every body. (BLJ 3:213) Hobhouse took Byron’s despondency seriously; he wrote in the margin to Moore’s biography, “he was very near destroying himself” (Marchand I:148).Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    “A disease characterized by general debility of the body, extreme tenderness of the gums, foul breath, subcutaneous eruptions and pains in the limbs, induced by exposure and by a too liberal diet of salted foods; … Now recognized as due to insufficient ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in the diet” (OED). Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Colin Horne unpacks the complex literary genealogy of this citation (310–13).Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Nicholas Mason, relating the marketing of Byronism to the advances in Romantic advertisement, notes that the prepublication marketing campaign suggests that both [Murray and Byron] had internalized the rules and methods of the new advertising system in general and of branding in particular. They worked diligently, if not always collaboratively, to differentiate Byron from the other poets of the day, to establish a consistent “brand identity,” and, most important, to use every means of publicity at their disposal to make the Byron name widely recognized prior to the poem’s release. (“Building Brand Byron” 425) Galt intimates Byron’s own contributions to the prepublication of the poem: Although few men were more under the impulses of passion than Lord Byron, there was yet a curious kind of management about him which showed that he was well aware how much of the world’s favour was to be won by it. Long before Childe Harold appeared, it was generally known that he had a poem in the press, and various surmises to stimulate curiosity were circulated concerning it: I do not say that these were by his orders, or under his directions, but on one occasion I did fancy that I could discern a touch of his own hand in a paragraph in the Morning Post, in which he was mentioned as having returned from an excursion into the interior of Africa; and when I alluded to it, my suspicion was confirmed by his embarrassment. (GLB 171)Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    The reviewer tells another parable, in which he encounters a person “who maintained that he was Wordsworth” but was clearly an “impostor”: after kicking him and being told by him that “the evening being calm, we should pursue our journey,” Blackwood’s later learns that “he had actually written” some sonnets in imitation of Wordsworth’s, and “really had some sort of reason to believe himself a Lake poet” (BM XIII:437–8). What one writes, Blackwood’s implies, with its adverbs of “actually” and “really” becomes who one is.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    The Scot’s Magazine called Cantos IX–XI “nothing but measured prose with bad puns, stale jests, small wit” devoid of “those redeeming bursts of true poetic inspiration” (RR 2217).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Mary Poovey discusses the role of the dialogue between statistics and political economy (and other social sciences) in the development of the “modern fact” (Chs. 5–6).Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    The adjective is ambiguous in the context of Juan’s undisclosed diplomatic mission. An intellectual war is a war of wits, but it is also a cold war of information and economics. In the interstices of their hot wars, England and France spread false information through counterfeited money and documents, and deployed spying networks (both internal and international) to garner military advantages. Byron recognized that the intellectual wars of the periodicals were part of both the culture of wit and the battle for nationalist power.Google Scholar

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© Mark Schoenfield 2009

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