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ance, but Byron™s disengagement from the English public was not quite
so terminal. Hidden among the well-known details of his departure “
the selling of his library and the histrionic claims that his friends had
forsaken him “ is the record in the House of Lords Proxy Book for ±±
which states that from  April ±± ˜George Earl of Essex hath the proxy
of George Lord Byron.™ In other words, while ¬‚aunting his intention to
shake the dust of England from his shoes, Byron was also preparing to re-
engage with English politics via a different route. One abrupt change of
direction is shadowed by an alternative and, in this case, opposite course
of action. This discontinuously continuous relationship with England
colours Byron™s life history and also his poetics.
Our experiences of reading, teaching and studying Romantic poetics
have been enriched over the last two decades by critical attention to
historical context and gender. In the last ¬ve years, a resurgence of interest
in form, genre and poetics has enabled us to re¬‚ect on how selective
some of those early de¬nitions of ˜historical context™ were. The recovery
of socio-political and cultural contexts sometimes tended to overlook
±
 Byron, Poetics and History
the aesthetics of Romantic period works. More recently, however, critics
have begun to unite the traditional strengths of close formal analysis with
attention to the shaping dynamics of historical contexts.
Following Stuart Curran™s absorbing study of the Romantic poets™ uses
of traditional poetic forms within eighteenth-century generic boundaries,
Richard Cronin, Michael O™Neill, Jerome McGann and Susan Wolfson
have redirected attention to the ways in which a text™s relationship with
its readers may sculpt and energise form. Cronin™s In Search of the Pure
Commonwealth: The Politics of Romantic Poetry (°°°), O™Neill™s Romanticism
and the Self-Conscious Poem (±·), McGann™s The Poetics of Sensibility: A
Revolution in Literary Style (±) and Wolfson™s Formal Charges: The Shaping
of Poetry in British Romanticism (±·) have in different ways redirected
attention to the aesthetic and affective contours of Romantic poetry,
highlighting the extent to which poetic form had been neglected in earlier
revisionary historicist studies of the period.
The recovery of women writers in the Romantic period has also pro-
voked a reassessment of the aesthetic audacity of the canonical Romantic
poets. The technical virtuosity of women writers, coupled with their
decorous reticence within well-de¬ned generic categories, are now seen
to have inspired some of the formal experiments of the ˜Big Six™. While
Francis Jeffrey praised Felicia Hemans for her ˜serenity of execution™,
however, he identi¬ed Byron™s poetry with the disturbing experience of
being ˜at once torn and transported™. The tension between continuity
and rupture associated with Byron™s poetry by Jeffrey and his contempo-
raries emerges subsequently as a determining characteristic in Elizabeth
Barrett Browning™s ˜Stanzas on the Death of Lord Byron™ and Felicia
Hemans™s ˜The Lost Pleiad™.
For Barrett Browning and Hemans, Byron is associated with a vi-
olent collision of presence and absence. ˜He was, and is not!™, Barrett
Browning™s poem begins, using Spenserian stanzas to circle round ˜The
awful tale of greatness swiftly o™er™ (l. ).µ Similarly, for Hemans, the myth
of the lost Pleiad preserves Byron™s absent presence: ˜And is there glory
from the heavens departed? “ / O! void unmark™d!™ Although the poem
identi¬es steady feminine value in the ˜Unchanged™ sister Pleiads who
˜Still hold their place on high™, it keeps returning to the moment of
fracture when Byron™s orb ˜started™ away: ˜Hath the night lost a gem?™;
˜Couldst thou be shaken?™
The shock of Byron™s death in Greece was registered as yet another
textual ¬ssure in William Hazlitt™s The Spirit of the Age. News of the

Introduction: Byron and the poetics of digression
poet™s death literally interrupts the essay, creating a ˜void™ marked by
a constellation of asterisks. Inscribing in print this sense of abrupt de-
parture, displacement and interruption, Hazlitt, Barrett Browning and
Hemans drew on a new syntax of disruption which was already marked
as Byronic. Such instances when the reader is jolted out of secure knowl-
edge can only be addressed in a line-by-line encounter with the text, not
through any generalised overview. Byron™s unsettling uses of the frag-
ment, satire, mixed or medley forms, obtrusive allusion and Romantic
irony are all moments when the reading process is disturbed by his art of
digression.
˜The matter of digression is the key to Byron™s method™, Jerome
McGann states, but we cannot fully understand this method if we con-
¬ne our notion of digression simply to conversational deviation from the
plot.· Rather, Byron™s digressions comprehend multiple challenges to a
placid readerly experience. Throughout his poetic career, Byron devel-
oped an ever-shifting repertoire of strategies for changing the subject.
While popular contemporaries such as Walter Scott, Felicia Hemans,
William Wordsworth and LEL perfected reassuring modes of readerly
address, Byron™s relationship with his public was marked by abrupt tran-
sitions and discontinuities. Even within the perceived sameness of the
Byronic hero in the oriental tales, Byron aggravated his audience. ˜I sup-
pose you have read Lord Byron™s Giaour™, Anna Barbauld remarked in
a letter to her friend, Mrs Beecroft (anticipating the discussion between
Anne Elliot and Captain Benwick in Chapter ±± of Persuasion):
“ and which edition? because there are ¬ve, and in every one he adds about
¬fty lines; so that the different editions have rather the sisterly likeness which
Ovid says the Nereids had, than the identity expected by purchasers of the same
work. And pray do you say Lord B¯ ron or B˜ ron? . . . And do you pronounce
y y
Giaour hard g or soft g ? And do you understand the poem at ¬rst reading? “
because Lord Byron and the Edinburgh Reviewers say you are very stupid if
you don™t, and yet the same Reviewers have thought proper to pre¬x the story
to help your apprehension.
Barbauld shrewdly envisages a publishing ploy behind the teasing
serpentine release of The Giaour. Its narrative toying with an audience has
provoked much critical debate, but most of this has tended to buttress a re-
construction of the Byronic hero. The effect of narrative unpredictability
on the reader and the reader™s subsequent part in the construction of
meaning, registered at the time, were rapidly overshadowed by the po-
tency of biographical myth. It has taken a long time, but this traditional
 Byron, Poetics and History
focus on the character of the poet-hero has been challenged by the in-
creasingly diverse contextualising energies of historical criticism.
For Byron™s most sophisticated historicist critics, his digressive tech-
niques called attention to the poems™ self-re¬‚exive relationship to their
historical moment. Voicing the post-colonial concerns of the later ±°s,
Nigel Leask considered ˜Romanticism™s sense of its own problematic
modernity™ exhibited in self-conscious antiquarian techniques, ˜placing the
“original” ballad within a discontinuous historical or geopolitical ¬eld
and posing questions about the moral and cultural signi¬cance of heroic
and epical values in the context of a “progressive” present™.±° Leask
argued that ˜Byron™s critique of empire broadens out into a critique of
modernity itself ™, and he developed Truman Guy Pratt™s ±µ· reading of
Lara by suggesting that the ˜narrative anxiety™ of that poem predicts the
˜dark mythic forces of Fascism and totalitarianism™.±± Leask™s notion of
a disruptive European modernity ˜cut loose from tradition™ anticipated
Jerome Christensen™s suggestion that ˜the modernity of Juan™s dispensa-
tion is that neither the narrator nor anyone else can claim on cognitively
reliable grounds to be its father. The narrator must forcibly institute the
grounds of his own authority, summoning as he does so the maddening
aporia of self-legitimating authority.™± In Christensen™s reading, ˜cutting
loose™ from tradition paradoxically generates an acutely self-conscious
reliance on tradition, as we can see in his discussion of the ˜“Carpe
diem”™ exhortation of Don Juan canto ©: ˜“Life™s a poor player,” “ then
“play out the play,”™ (©. ):
The quotation marks are what Hazlitt calls an ˜in¬‚iction of the present™ on the
incorporated maxim, the sign of a time when the existence of the ˜common
place™ is itself at stake . . . The citation attempts to generate for the maxim a
normative transcendence of the moment of audition.±

As we shall see, placing quotation marks at ˜the moment of audition™
has implications for the reader as well as for the status of quoted mate-
rial. Christensen™s isolation of the ˜aporia of self-legitimating authority™
affects both reader and narrator; the reader of Byron™s poetry is always
implicated in this heightened awareness of the ˜now™ of the text. From the
beginning of Byron™s career, an increasingly risky relationship between
poet and reader generated the meaning of the poem as they collabo-
rated “ or not “ in realising textual digressions within a tightly controlled
formal patterning.
Christensen™s emphasis on Don Juan as context rather than as an au-
thored text extended Jerome McGann™s foundational work on the moral
µ
Introduction: Byron and the poetics of digression
and generic parameters of digression within Byron™s epic style. McGann™s
accounts of Byron™s digressions depended upon ˜the biographical
substructure™ of a mythic personality in Fiery Dust (±) and the ˜total
¬eld™ of ˜history, tradition, facts™ in Don Juan in Context (±·).± Based on
his perception of ˜local consequences . . . injected into the larger ¬eld of
the poem as a whole™, McGann™s unifying of Byron™s style under a philo-
sophical or moral ideal gradually but inevitably sacri¬ced a realisation
of Byron™s poetry at the level of the reading experience, a level I think
we now need to recover.±µ As with Christensen, the critical conception
of the whole (˜the key words™ or ˜the most signi¬cant stylistic elements™)
tended to eclipse the particularity of the reading experience.±
While McGann discussed the digressive form of the English cantos
of Don Juan ˜in order to explain, if not to justify, Byron™s procedure™, the
˜formalities of explanation™ themselves come under scrutiny in James
Chandler™s thoughtful and ultra self-conscious scrutiny of Romantic
texts in England in ±±: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of
Romantic Historicism (±).±· Chandler developed a method of ˜performa-
tive self-consciousness™ to examine Byron™s modernisation of epic form.
In the novelistic Don Juan, Chandler suggested, Byron followed Scott in
creating a new form of contemporaneity which itself anticipated the ma-
noeuvres of Byron™s historically self-conscious commentators in the late
twentieth century. Identifying a tension between what is ˜perspicuous™
and what constitutes the ˜labile ironies™ in Don Juan, Chandler ap-
proached the texture of the poem™s historical moment.± His ˜work of
explanation™ ends when the critic ¬nds himself ˜suspended™ in contradic-
tion. By focusing on some of those points of contradiction and suspense,
Byron, Poetics and History re-examines the poem™s relationship with its
reader at particular historical moments.±
The omnipresence of post-modern narrative in ¬lm, television and
advertising has ensured that in the ±°s and ±°s the notion of the
reader as co-producer became widely accepted in popular culture as
well as literary criticism. Locating Romantic self-re¬‚exiveness in rela-
tion to post-modern ¬lm narrative, William Galperin has examined the
ways in which Romantic texts question an omniscient authorial posi-
tion and acknowledge their own materiality. Efforts to make Byron into
a modernist or post-modernist, he argued, derive from Byron™s ˜virtual
exclusion from the more liberal, humanistic conceptions of the romantic
achievement . . . by critics such as M.H. Abrams and Harold Bloom™.°
Galperin™s fascinating deconstructive analysis of Childe Harold™s Pilgrimage
and Don Juan suggests that Don Juan might be less deconstructively
 Byron, Poetics and History
˜advanced™ than aspects of the ¬rst cantos of Childe Harold:

If the most mature aspects of Childe Harold™s Pilgrimage represent a resistance
to writing . . . and to the totalizing visions writing ordinarily serves, then Don
Juan would seem to con¬rm Byron™s claim that his earlier poems were more
advanced than anything he had produced subsequently . . . For all of Don
Juan™s various subversions, it is also the case that these are circumscribed by
writing. ±

In this critique of Don Juan™s ˜notable faith in writing™, literary production
is exclusively author-centred, omitting any reference to the poem™s anx-
ieties about its readers. Galperin™s separate discussions of Childe Harold™s
Pilgrimage and Don Juan overlook the way that the later cantos of Don
Juan revisit Byron™s earlier poems in an ironic manner (which Galperin
might well have connected with post-modern ¬lm and music). Both the
narrator of Don Juan and the director of Chinatown (to use Galperin™s
cinematic example) use unexpected returns and recurrences to test and
modify the relationship between reader and text.
In her stimulating analysis of an absent presence in Don Juan (more
present for the poem™s ¬rst readers than it is today), Moyra Haslett has
explored the scandalous associations of the Don Juan legend in Byron™s
own time. Her book offers an illuminating survey of Regency attitudes
to male and female libertinism, concluding with parallels between Don
Juan and Baudrillard™s de¬nition of the ˜consummate seducer™. The
effect of the theoretical coda is to place both these texts in an a-historical
continuum of ˜masculinist ideology™: ˜The subversive potential of both
Don Juan and De la s©duction collapses under, as indeed it returns to, the
conventional asymmetry of the sexes™ (Byron™s Don Juan, p. ). Here
we witness the surrender of the particular to the general which typi¬es
considerations of the poem where formal texture is neglected: amidst
all the meticulously researched detail about Don Juan™s cultural contexts,
there is no room for any discussion of the seductive potential embodied
in feminine rhyme or the movement of ottava rima. The monograph™s
neglect of poetic form is emphasised by Clarendon Press™s ironing-out
of the irregularities of ottava rima with a justi¬ed left-hand margin.
Turning from historical considerations of Romantic poetry to more
philosophical critical approaches, many theorists of Romantic irony
have contemplated the impact of Byron™s self-re¬‚exive digressions. Irving
Babbitt famously saw Byron™s sudden transitions as an egotistical impo-
sition on the reader: ˜It is as though he would in¬‚ict upon the reader
the disillusion from which he has himself suffered. By his swift passage
·
Introduction: Byron and the poetics of digression
from one mood to another (Stimmungsbrechung) he shows that he is subject
to no centre. The effect is often that of a sudden breaking of the spell
of poetry by an intrusion of the poet™s ego.™ Babbitt™s account of the
working of Romantic irony in Byron™s Don Juan depicts the reader at the
mercy of the whims of the poet rather than participating in the breaks
and quali¬cations in the poetic surface. It is a classic high Modernist
conception of the arrogant artist, and it is unable to admit the possibility
of the poet spilling tea or responding to reviews. Although the quotidian
actions of the poet might seem the province of the biographer, they have
as much impact on the production of texts as broader cultural contexts
and help us to recover the nervous vulnerability of Romantic texts to
their readers. The legacy of Friedrich Schlegel™s Romantic irony, in
particular, has had the effect of elevating the poet to a god-like status, as
if to ¬ll the theological gap created by its ¬rst premises. It becomes a form
of transcendence, rising in¬nitely above everything ¬nite and accidental
and is just as remote from the materiality of Byron™s scrawled instruc-
tions to his publisher as Roland Barthes™s conception of the author as
textual ˜function™.
In a later account of Romantic irony, Anne K. Mellor connected
Byron™s ˜exuberant mobilit©™ with the texts of Yeats, Joyce and Nabokov
which ˜play between order and chaos™ and allow the reader to participate
in ˜liminality™.µ For Mellor, the texts of Byron and other Romantic iro-
nists offer ˜pleasure, psychic health, and intellectual freedom™; more than
this, ˜Romantic irony . . . can potentially free individuals and even entire
cultures from totalitarian modes of thought and behaviour.™ Mellor™s
Romantic irony is a positive inverse of Jerome McGann™s Romantic
ideology “ a kind of global, democratising process which liberates texts
and readers across continents. Yet, we may be wary that this generous,
liberal panoply is nevertheless a-historical in its treatment of literary
modes, and inattentive to other crucial textual dynamics.
In Mellor™s early work “ as also in the in¬‚uential studies of the
±·°s and ±°s by Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, Tilottama Rajan
and David Simpson “ Romantic irony helped to efface consideration of
historical context and gender. While appearing to celebrate the pos-
sibilities of undecidability and openness, it tended to consolidate a
male-dominated canonical Romanticism rooted in high Modernism.
For Mellor, Byron the Romantic ironist was ˜Schlegel™s hero, the urbane
man of liberal imagination and tolerance™ (English Romantic Irony, p. ±).
Likewise, Tilottama Rajan presented Byron™s approach to ˜radical mod-
ernism™ as an heroic quest: ˜In Don Juan he tries to become a modern poet
 Byron, Poetics and History
and to make irony into a modus vivendi. But . . . in that very process he
declares the need for the resolution forged by Keats and Shelley, whose

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