Byron: judging and judged

August 25, 2015

Authored by Nicholas Halmi, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at University College, University of Oxford. Nicholas edits Romantics materials for Oxford Scholarly Editions Online.

This spring over 90 editions were added to Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO), among them the first tranche of editions containing writings from what is conventionally called the Romantic period (here defined loosely as 1789–1837).

Byron 1824; Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Byron 1824; Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Periodization is so deeply entrenched in the disciplines of historical and literary study that we are apt to forget the extent to which this sectioning of time into distinct units of several decades or centuries each is a retrospective activity, intended to make research manageable and coherent historical interpretation possible. This is particularly true of the Romantic period, the academic definition of which began only in the late nineteenth century. True, German ‘early Romantic’ writers like Friedrich Schlegel and August Wilhelm Schlegel distinguished ‘romantic’ from ‘classical’ literature, but this usage was as much typological as chronological, and even the chronological application was very broad. The British Romantic writers did not refer to themselves as such at all. Indeed, Lord Byron was at pains to dissociate himself in print from his older contemporaries Wordsworth, Robert Southey, and (to a lesser extent) Coleridge. Small wonder, then, that Romanticists have been perpetually conflicted about the nature, even the existence, of their object of study.

This first tranche of Romantic-period texts in OSEO reveals abundantly both the heterogeneity of writing in the period and the occasionally fraught relations among writers. The earliest work in Andrew Nicholson’s edition of Byron’s Complete Miscellaneous Prose is an anonymous review of Wordsworth’s Poems in Two Volumes of 1807—a publication containing many of the poet’s most subsequently admired poems, including ‘Resolution and Independence’, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, and the Intimations Ode. Written when Byron was still an undergraduate, the review concludes loftily by regretting ‘that Mr. W. confines his muse to such trifling subjects’.

We can trace through Byron’s Complete Miscellaneous Prose and Complete Poetical Works his elaboration of this complaint about Wordsworth,

  • from his contemptuous dismissal of the poet in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809): ‘Let simple WORDSWORTH chime his childish verse . . .’
  • to his parody of Wordsworth’s note to ‘The Thorn’ (available in Wordsworth’s Complete Poetical Works in OSEO) in the unpublished preface to canto 1 of Don Juan (1819)
  • to the repeated published references to Wordsworth in Don Juan, as in canto 1, stanza 90: ‘There [in nature] poets find materials for their books, | And every now and then we read them through, | So that there plan and prosody are eligible, | Unless, like Wordsworth, they prove unintelligible.’
  • to a little-known parody of Wordsworth’s Peter Bell (1819), a poem about a hard-hearted man’s spiritually transformative encounter with an untended donkey: ‘There’s something in a stupid Ass, | And something in a heavy Dunce, | But never since I went to School | I heard so damned a fool | As William Wordsworth is for once.’
  • to his ridicule of ‘The Blind Highland Boy’ (‘a poem about a Washing tub’) in A Letter to John Murray (1821)
  • to an epigram also of 1821 (‘Of Turdsworth the great Metaquizzical poet’)

Naturally, Wordsworth was not insensitive to Byron’s attacks on him, but he declined to respond publicly. Fortunately, the inclusion of The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth in OSEO gives us ready access to Wordsworth’s private comments on Byron, whom he ranked far below Percy Bysshe Shelley in poetical talent and with Goethe in being ‘deficient in the true elements of life and immortality’ (note to letter 2028, Nov. 1846).

It is broadly true that Wordsworth, as he claimed to an unidentified correspondent in 1847, ‘never spoke with acrimony of Lord Byron, notwithstanding the noble poet's public poetical attacks’ (letter 2045), and he affirmed to another unidentified correspondent in 1842, ‘I am never in the practise of thinking myself in comparison with other Authors, and therefore I shall say nothing in respect to my relation to Lord Byron. Posterity will put us both in our places’ (letter 1599). In earlier years, however, when Byron was still alive and Wordsworth suffering at the hands of reviewers, the letters reveal a less detached view of the younger, more popular poet: in 1814 Wordsworth warned another poet, Robert Pearce Gillies, against Byron as a poetic model (‘too much of a bad writer’), and six years later he confided to his friend Henry Crabb Robinson, ‘I am persuaded that Don Juan will do more harm to the English character, than anything of our time’ (letter 571a).

The engagement of other writers with Byron is also richly documented in OSEO’s collection of prose writings, particularly letters and journals, from the early nineteenth century. No poet was closer to Byron, both personally and intellectually, during the years of his Italian residence than Shelley, whose side of their correspondence is now available in OSEO. The younger poet’s letters by and about Byron are fascinating reading, revealing profound ambivalence as well as sincere admiration and recording periods of estrangement as well as closeness in the years from 1816 to 1822. If Shelley was repelled by canto 4 of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818)—‘The spirit in which it is written is, if insane, the most wicked & mischievous insanity that ever was given forth’, he wrote to Thomas Love Peacock in December 1818 (letter 488)—then he was enchanted by Don Juan, ‘in the poetical parts of which’, he told Byron in April 1821, ‘you seem to have equalled the finest passages in your former poems’ (letter 621). One of the most poignant letters is Shelley’s last to Byron, of 16 May 1812, in which he reports the delivery of Byron’s boat the Don Juan (letter 706)—that is, the boat in which Shelley was to drown two months later.

Byron’s celebrity was so great that other contemporaries took as much interest in his life and personality as in his writings. Thus we find Frances Burney—who shared with Byron an acquaintance with the exiled French critic and salonnière Germaine de Staël—eagerly inquiring whether her friend Mrs Waddington had met the self-exiled poet in Rome or had uncovered any information about the novel Glenarvon, Lady Caroline Lamb’s thinly veiled account of her affair with him (letter 1109).

Maria Edgeworth’s gossipy letters to her mother reveal not only an interest in Lord Byron himself but encounters with his family and friends. Dining with the critic and Blackwood’s editor John Gibson Lockhart in January 1831, Edgeworth was regaled with anecdotes about Byron, including an account of his prodigious consumption of brandy, ‘that not only he never went sober to bed but it often required two stout fellows to drag him by force away from the bottle and to break bottle and glass before they could get him off’. Almost nine years earlier, in May 1822, Edgeworth had met the poet’s estranged wife, but had not been impressed: ‘We dined lately with Mrs. Lushington to meet Lady Byron—alone—result—I don’t like her—cold—and dull and flat-dog looking face’.

Jane Austen never met Byron, although from 1815 they shared a publisher, John Murray. In Persuasion, published by Murray after Austen’s death, the novelist established the contemporaneity of her story by having Anne Elliott imagine that Louisa Musgrove ‘would learn to be an enthusiast for Scott and Lord Byron’ under Captain Benwick’s influence. But while Austen was obviously aware of Byron’s fame, which dated from the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812, she did not otherwise refer to him or his works, even in her letters. 

Finally, a less expected connection with Byron is attested in the correspondence of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The London Greek Committee, founded by followers of Bentham, sponsored Byron’s expedition to Greece in 1823 in support of the nation’s liberation from the Ottoman Turks. And Bentham’s letters of early 1824 (e.g., letters 2039, 3064, 3071) reveal his approval of Byron’s efforts and his own involvement in the cause.

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