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¬nal poems reach beyond Byron™s precisely because they do not reach
as far.™· Rajan described the self-irony of Don Juan as a momentary
apprehension of the high Modernism of Wallace Stevens, insulating art
from natural or historical process (Dark Interpreter, p. ±·). Her searching
study of Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley in the light of modern existen-
tialism suggested that it was the hitherto unquestioned domination of
high Modernism by male theorists which led to the relative neglect of
what we might see as the ˜feminine™ aspects of Byron™s poetic texture and
(until recently) literature across the Romantic period.
The poet appeared again as masculine Enlightenment hero in
Frederick Garber™s eloquent and compelling study of Byron as a
Romantic ironist. Garber argued that Byron™s discursive variety ˜is
strung on an obsessive singleness of seeing, a vision of the world™s radical
discordance and of the fearsome and pervasive threat that discordance
poses to all the symmetries of the self ™. In this reading, Romantic irony
was aligned (as in Babbitt™s reading) with Swiftian satire as a way of
countering the ˜destructive ironies of the world™ and answering ˜assaults
on the self ™. Garber acknowledged that Swift was ˜as devious™ as Byron
in his ˜implication of the reader™, but was primarily concerned with
the ˜mastery™ of the ironist™s performance in the ˜perpetual making and
remaking of self and text™.° This emphasis drew what Garber calls the
˜commonplaces™ of illusion-breaking and sudden shifts of tone into a
uni¬ed and stringently Modern project: ˜His purpose was to purify the
language of the tribe.™± Garber™s quest for stability is a traditional one,
close to William Empson™s much earlier anchoring of ambiguity: ˜The
object of life, after all, is not to understand things, but to maintain one™s
defences and equilibrium and live as well as one can.™ The importance
of critical control over digressive and discordant possibilities is, of course,
a masculine ideal which has persisted since Plato banned poets from his
Republic.
Among all the deconstructive explorations of Romantic irony, Michael
G. Cooke was the only critic to suggest that it might be a mode recep-
tive to ˜new potential and new risks . . . inseparable from the feminine
¬gure™. Once we shake ourselves free from the demand that poetry and
criticism should express a manly, uni¬ed purpose, we can discover the
possibilities of af¬liation between Byron™s poetics and a more feminised
aesthetic theory. In particular, I consider the role of ˜feminine Caprice™
as vital to Byron™s digressive mode and an important adaptation of his

Introduction: Byron and the poetics of digression
eighteenth-century Popean legacy in the light of a very different sense of
the readership.
Previous discussions of Byron™s digressive relationship with the reader
through historical self-consciousness or intertextuality exemplify similar
critical procedures: the critic selects a premise for comparison and pro-
ceeds to decontextualise the modern text and Byronic text as if historical
contingencies of reception might threaten critical continuity. Hermione
de Almeida™s linkage of Byron™s and James Joyce™s ˜serious attempt to
emulate and rival™ Homeric myth typi¬ed this transcendent assumption
about the stability of poetic form. ˜By seeming to digress™, de Almeida ob-
serves, ˜Byron and Joyce show the domination of their immortal minds.™
Literary modes and ¬gures of speech are bound to recur in later and still
later works of literature, but as they reappear, they acquire different
meanings which are contingent on historical contexts and the role of the
reader.
Although it is an instinctive and entrancing critical gesture to trace
parallels between different writers, it is of limited critical usefulness to
point out that bits of Byron are like bits of Joyce, or Auden, or Nabokov,
or Melville or Muldoon (although the temptation to record these resem-
blances remains very strong and at times, irresistible). What I think we
recognise when we make such a-historical connections (the reader™s ver-
sion of literary allusion) is the way that certain textual manoeuvres invite
contingency into the text, leaving more room for the reader within the
activity of composition. To put it another way, in the process of reading,
we tend to experience texts as the author™s contemporary (whereas when
we re¬‚ect critically on them, we place them historically). That experi-
ence of contemporaneousness and historical difference is one of the most
distinctive qualities of reading Byron.
This book examines, in a necessarily speculative manner, the ways in
which Byron™s digressive contingency is historically rooted and develops
in relation to particular readers. Although Byron imagines a future read-
ership (˜But ye “ our children™s children! think how we / Showed what
things were before the world was free!™), the aim of this book is not to explore
what Andrew Bennett calls ˜the culture of posterity™, but to examine how
networks of anticipated and actual reading responses affected Byron™s
texts at the time of composition and publication.µ One context which has
dominated discussion of Byronic digression since the nineteenth century
is the concept of poetic mobilit© which Byron discussed in his famous
footnote about Adeline in Don Juan canto ©. In subsequent criticism,
however, this concept has resulted in the unifying of diverse effects under
±° Byron, Poetics and History
the imprint of a biographical personality and distracting attention from
the reader™s experience of the ˜painful and unhappy attribute™.
Closer attention to the texture of Byron™s poetry at the level of the
reading experience helps to recover the dialectical relationship between
Byron™s readers and his mobile poetic surface. For this reason, I have
chosen to focus my book on Byron™s satirical works, especially Don Juan.
Satire is a notoriously digressive mode and its hybridity was one reason
Stuart Curran excluded it from his study of Romantic poetic form. Since
Curran™s work, however, Frederick L. Beaty, Stephen C. Behrendt,
Steven E. Jones and Gary Dyer have published important studies which
correct the critical neglect of satire in Romantic culture.· Building on
their research, this book considers some of Byron™s less well-known writ-
ing from Fugitive Pieces (±°), Hours of Idleness (±°·), Hints from Horace (±±±
and ±°“±), the Letter to John Murray Esqre. (±±) and The Age of Bronze
(±), revealing the ways in which Byron™s art of digression developed in
response to various readers “ whether individual acquaintances, critics,
or the English reading public as variously conceived between ±± and
± (including the ghostly existence of an ex-readership).
My book is concerned to recover the vitality of formal matters in
Byron™s poetry, but this consideration of form is intended to be alert also
to the contingencies of readerly participation and the historical matrices
of literary composition. Andrew Elfenbein™s Byron and the Victorians set out
to ˜re-examine the historicity of in¬‚uence™ and ˜to suggest how historicis-
ing the workings of in¬‚uence, with particular reference to Byron, enables
a rethinking of the signi¬cance of Victorian texts™. Whereas his work of-
fers a valuable analysis of Byron™s relationship with the later nineteenth
century, Byron, Poetics and History is more concerned with Byron™s im-
mediate impact on early nineteenth-century readers. The main focus of
Elfenbein™s study was writing of the inner self, so that although he success-
fully complicated the concept of the Byronic hero in Victorian literature,
he devoted little attention to the ways in which Victorian writers received
the materiality of Byron™s ottava rima writing. In his chapter on Carlyle,
for example, Elfenbein concentrated on Teufelsdröckh as a means of
supplanting the Byronic hero with the character of a professional intel-
lectual. By contrast, my book points forward to a re-examination of the
˜labyrinthic combination™ of Sartor Resartus or the ˜glaciers™ Ruskin found
in Robert Browning™s poetry, and the ˜holes™, ˜ledges™, ˜bits™ and ˜breaks™
Browning himself defended.
In common with the earliest dedicated studies of digression in Byron™s
writing by E.D.H. Johnson, William T. Ross and Joel Dana Black, critics
±±
Introduction: Byron and the poetics of digression
in recent years have all relied on a paradigm which places digression in
relation to a totalising conception of the completed work.° By tracing
the different manifestations of Byronic digression in momentary paren-
thetical asides and ¬‚eeting signalled allusions to other texts or contextual
events, I argue that Byron™s digressiveness challenged eighteenth-century
moral ideals of aesthetic completion such as taste or harmony, and emerg-
ing nineteenth-century aesthetic ideals of organic unity. We need to re-
cover the abruptness and discontinuity of Byron™s generic de¬‚ections on
the printed page before we can appreciate the reader™s response to mo-
ments of textual indeterminacy as a crucial part of the meaning of the
poem. In this respect, Wolfgang Iser™s dynamic account of the response
of the reader to certain texts has been very useful to me, although I do
not follow Iser™s view that textual indeterminacy decreases as the reader
makes his or her choice about how to proceed. In my reading of Byron™s
Don Juan, for example, I believe that digressions keep the reader aware
of alternative routes so that a sense of indeterminacy is heightened even
as a choice about interpretation is made.± Byron™s poetics of digression
invites his readers to negotiate the general and the particular in an in-
¬nitely more complex way than in the writing of some of his critics, asking
us to reconsider how we relate concepts of parts and whole. In so doing,
Byron™s textual procedures might be seen to anticipate the theoretical
debate about the value of imaginative activity in an intellectual climate
of utilitarianism which John Whale has recently identi¬ed in the writing
of Hazlitt, Coleridge and Mill. The present book identi¬es Byron™s
focus on individual aesthetic response in the digressive modes of juxta-
position, transition and intertextuality, and examines these in relation to
the shifting historical contexts which helped to shape their meaning.
To attend to formal texture, historical context and reader response, I
use familiar reader-centred and author-centred approaches. The book
begins with separate reader- and author-oriented sections before moving
towards an approach which brings them together. The ¬rst chapter is
reader-centred; it offers a fresh examination of Byron™s contemporary
reviews, focusing particularly on the ways in which Byron™s writing was
perceived to disturb its readers through sudden turns, transitions and
allusions. This instability was not only identi¬ed with the later ottava rima
(the dominant later nineteenth-century view of Byron), but was detected
by Byron™s contemporaries from an early date in the ¬rst two cantos of
Childe Harold™s Pilgrimage (±±). Here, satiric interpolations and whimsical
prose notes were condemned for disrupting what the reader expected
from poetry. I argue that although these forms of digression provoked
± Byron, Poetics and History
hostility among Byron™s readers, they quickly became an identi¬able part
of his poetic and political identity “ so much so, indeed, that his later
experiments with ottava rima verse appeared to have been predicted by
his readers.
Digressive poetics may be traced back to a range of literary traditions.
My second chapter offers a literary context for Byron™s forms of dis-
ruption, looking back to eighteenth-century writers who preceded him
in their use of self-re¬‚exive narrative, juxtaposition and parodic quota-
tion. The chapter is author-centred, foregrounding the work of Charles
Churchill, Laurence Sterne and Matthew Prior. I also suggest that pro-
logues written for speci¬c theatrical productions also provided Byron
with another model for digressive mediation between text and audience,
and so modi¬ed his use of closed heroic couplets in a way which would be
fully realised in The Age of Bronze. The materiality of Byronic digression,
I argue, created a form of theatre (somewhat different from the ˜mental
theatre™ of Manfred ) in which textual disruption was co-produced by
poet and audience, at ¬rst resisting, but gradually incorporating a much
greater receptiveness to historical matter.
Chapter Three investigates a section of Byron™s audience in more de-
tail, considering the role of some of the speci¬c readers addressed in
Hints from Horace, and treating the poet as a ˜reader™ of his own earlier
work. The ±±± and ±°“± texts of Hints from Horace bridge Byron™s early
and later verse without imposing an over-simpli¬ed trajectory of devel-
opment onto his career. The chapter reconsiders Hints from Horace as a
dialogue between Byron™s early and later critiques of the Lake School,
which turned into a debate between Byron and his friends about the
politics of publication. This chapter also considers the construction of
˜Byron™s Pope™ and suggests that the different receptions of Pope™s mobilit©
amongst Byron, his publisher and other English readers help to de¬ne
the changing face of the readership which in¬‚uenced Byron™s poetry
throughout his career. Analysis of different digressive characteristics in
Hints from Horace suggests that Byron™s quotation of other texts creates a
chiaroscuro of intertextuality quite distinct from other kinds of Romantic
allusion. An examination of unpublished letters from the John Murray
Archive charts some of the hitherto concealed details of the poem™s his-
torical moment, and explores the poem™s interventions in a public debate
about literary taste.
Byron™s later work on Hints from Horace coincided with his break from
John Murray in ± over the publication of Don Juan, and the con-
tinuation of that poem under John Hunt™s imprint. My fourth chapter
mixes author- and reader-centred approaches to the digressive texture
±
Introduction: Byron and the poetics of digression
of Don Juan, particularly in the harem episode (canto ©) and the siege
cantos (cantos ©© and ©©©). Building on the idea of theatrical resources in-
troduced in Chapters One and Two, and the idea of poetic chiaroscuro
discussed in Chapter Three, I offer a close reading of the effects of
Shakespearean drama in Don Juan, showing how the reader may, or may
not, recognise this strand and co-produce its metamorphosis into sex-
ual comedy. Modifying earlier readings of Don Juan which have identi¬ed
Byron™s allusion as a means of establishing narrative control and personal
stability, this book suggests that various con¬gurations of Shakespearean
drama in Byron™s work transfer the focus of instability on to the response
of the reader. The reader™s response to the riskiness of this procedure is,
I argue, a vital aspect of Byron™s poetics of digression.
The ¬fth chapter builds on the argument of Chapter Four, suggesting
that while digression offers a poetics of indeterminacy, aesthetic form
is always shaped by context. This chapter is concerned with the inter-
mingling of the ˜low™ cultural ¬eld of contemporary journalism with the
˜high™ cultural ¬eld of literary allusion in Don Juan. In particular I use
new archive research to identify interwoven reports from the newspaper
Galignani™s Messenger in satiric passages in the poem. I suggest that edi-
torials from this newspaper in¬‚ect Byron™s references to England in the
English cantos, and that this should qualify a prevailing view, elaborated
by E.D.H. Johnson, McGann and Graham, that Byron was sadly out
of touch with and nostalgic about English society. This chapter also
examines the contiguities between Byron™s textual instability and vari-
ous tropes of femininity in the poem, developing recent feminist analyses
of Don Juan by Caroline Franklin, Moyra Haslett and Susan Wolfson.
The chapter closes with a reading of Byron™s ˜frozen champagne™ stanzas
in canto ©©© which beautifully illustrate the intricate, shifting layers of
Byronic digression and suggest some of the contingencies in the poem™s
address to its community of readers. This individual instance of digres-
sion exempli¬es how Don Juan renders the concrete details of its historical
period as literature, while simultaneously leaving the literary texture of
the poem open to the random particulars of the world. Byron™s hospi-
tality to the uncertainties of historical events invites a comparison with
post-Modern theories of textuality in which the reader is engaged in the
undecidability of a surface rather than in the interpretation of symbols;
but to label Byron as a post-Modernist runs the risk of distorting his
historical particularity.µ
The sixth and ¬nal chapter focuses on The Age of Bronze, examining
the fascinating implications of Byron™s return to this traditional form of
satire at a moment when he was also engaged with the ottava rima satire of
± Byron, Poetics and History
Don Juan™s English cantos. The chapter looks at the ways in which Whig
factionalism shaped the direction of Byron™s satire and responses to the
poem. In particular, I argue that Byron™s formal experiments with The
Age of Bronze and The Island in between cantos ©© and ©©© of Don Juan
represent a political stance rather different from the accepted view of
Byron™s aristocratic Whig poetic identity. Building on my discussion of
the Pope/Bowles controversy in Chapter Three, I examine what Byron™s
last turn to couplet satire tells us about critical differences between his
work and Pope™s, and how his use of a feminine digressive persona in
Don Juan is tested and af¬rmed in his last digressive swerves.
Throughout this book there is a deliberate concentration on local
effects rather than any over-arching survey of Byron™s complete works.
The main reason for this is that poetic texture in Romantic literature
and Byron™s work in particular has been relatively neglected. A study
which directs close attention to small-scale formal matters will always
invite the objection that it lacks an adequate concept of the general.
As the ¬rst chapter of this book demonstrates, this response permeated
the classically-informed reviews of Byron™s poetry in his own time. Since
the reviews of Francis Jeffrey and William Roberts, Byron has not been
short of critics who have uni¬ed his digressive poetics under their own
religious or political preoccupations. My book attempts to correct an

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