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imbalance in those studies which, with a few exceptions, have set out to
regulate Byron™s digressions and to systematise the strange conjunctions
of violence and polish in his poetics. This book adopts an approach which
is more sensitive to the local, the contingent and the individual case.
˜When a man talks of system™, Byron wrote of Leigh Hunt, ˜his case
is hopeless.™ For the reasons I give below, literary theory informs this
book non-systematically. It will be obvious that post-structuralist theo-
retical models have enabled us to talk about the liberating pleasure of
digression in a way which was not possible for Byron™s contemporary re-
viewers. Bakhtinian ideas about carnival and chronotype have been em-
ployed productively in Byron criticism for several years. Julia Kristeva™s
reading of Bakhtin on Menippean discourse helpfully opens up the value
of scandal and eccentricity in language: ˜This discourse is made up of
contrasts . . . It uses abrupt transitions and changes; high and low, rise
and fall, and misalliances of all kinds . . . It is an all-inclusive genre, put
together as a pavement of citations.™· The French feminist writings of
Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and H©lène Cixous together with the later
work of Roland Barthes all offer models for a positive assessment of
Byron™s destabilising textual practices. In particular, the idea of readerly
±µ
Introduction: Byron and the poetics of digression
and writerly acceptance of risk draws on what Cixous has de¬ned as
a feminine libidinal economy, while the weaving metaphor I invoke to
describe Byron™s poetic texture is indebted to the feminist poetics of
Irigaray, Nancy K. Miller and Alice Jardine. However, the complete
ideological matrix of each writer would in each case reproduce ˜their™
Byron, not mine. Throughout the book I aim to keep formal contours in
touch with historical contexts and instead of advancing a theoretically
systematised thesis, my study interweaves discussions of and encounters
with individual case studies.
Any adequate theoretical model for Byron™s textual digressiveness
would need to capture some “ or all “ of the following characteristics: a
delight in form; an awareness of how history in¬‚ects form; a sensitivity to
the changing regard of the reader; an awareness of multiple paths avail-
able through a work of literature but not all taken; a sense of relativity
and responsibility; an alertness to particularity and scale; an appreciation
of af¬rmative forms of indeterminacy. Distinguished writing on Byron
this century has touched on some of these needs; Jerome McGann, for
example, has described the ˜generosity™ of Byron™s writing in arguing
that the dynamic driving Byron™s writing is inadequately represented as
a ˜dialectical form™:

Don Juan does something more than set in motion Byron™s version of
Kierkegaard™s either/or problematic. The poem™s contradictions . . . decon-
struct all truth-functions which are founded either in (metaphysical) Identity or
(psychological) Integrity. In their place is set a truth-function founded (negatively)
in contradiction itself, and (positively) in metonymy: to the negative either/or
dialectic, Don Juan adds the procedural rule of ˜both/and.™

What we have in Byron™s writing, McGann suggests, is ˜a third being . . .
the awareness of the unresolved characters of original opposition.™µ° I
have argued that in digressive allusion this ˜third being™ is an invitation to
the reader to make the casting vote, while preserving the awareness that
there is always another way to move forward. It is important to stress that
Don Juan does not offer in¬nite ˜unresolvability™ but emphasises readerly
and writerly responsibility. Byron™s poetics offers the possibility of an
af¬rmative texture of indeterminacy because its meaning is not located
in transcendence of the text, but in the local negotiations between the
text and its reader.
Here modern French theory falls short of Byron™s technique; femi-
nist theory, for example, relies too extensively on Lacanian assumptions.
This means that the critic is occupied by asking to what system does any
± Byron, Poetics and History
reading subscribe “ rather than asking what any reading might create.
In digressive allusion, the reader™s potential to create offers a way of
questioning the Lacanian ˜Law™, as I suggest in Chapter Five. A problem
with Derridean theory in relation to Byron™s poetry is almost the opposite
one, that while deconstructive ˜jouissance™ is suggestive of the af¬rmative
dynamic of Byron™s ˜ever-varying rhyme™, deconstructive resistance to
˜rule-governed scenarios™ is not.µ± An ottava rima stanza is ˜a rule governed
scenario™, and the materiality of Don Juan™s language can work as political
agency precisely because the reader is invited to limit textual jouissance.
We feel this pressure, for example, in the multiplicity of puns in the siege
cantos which ensnare us in the lush and sinister way of Andrew Marvell™s
˜The Garden™. Derridean deconstruction can offer suggestive models for
a dynamic of disruption, undecidability, and moments where reader and
writer are be-labyrinthed in language, but its elating momentum defers
forever the urgency of readerly discrimination, construction and respon-
sibility for one™s decisions, all of which are vital to the fabric of Don Juan.
The texture of Byronic digression enables us to reconsider the rela-
tionship between the general and the particular, not just in Byron™s work,
but in our readings of all Romantic poetry. There has been a growing
post-Derridean awareness, shared by both Marxist and formalist critics,
that subversion cannot exist “ or exist effectively “ throughout a text.
˜Pure difference . . . is as blank and tedious as pure identity . . . there
can be no talk of difference or dissonance without some provisional con-
¬gurating of the particulars in question™, Terry Eagleton has remarked.
Frank Kermode makes the same point in defence of mythic wholeness:
˜without routine, without inherited structures, carnival loses its point;
without social totalities there are no anti-social fragments.™µ Andrew
Bowie argues that philosophical oversights by post-modern thinkers such
as Lyotard and Derrida were anticipated by the Romantic philosopher,
Johann Georg Hamann, who ˜arrives at his position through a desire to
celebrate difference as the endless articulation of the diversity of God™s
universe. God gives him the moment of identity, which makes difference
signi¬cant, and which his post-structuralist heirs wrongly think they can
do without.™µ As I argue in Chapter Three, Byron™s poetics asks the
reader to come to terms with the relation of disruptive particularity to
˜inherited structures™ and the shadow of a universe of order. It is this
urgent involvement of the reader in questions of organisation which, I
argue, constitutes the political force of Byron™s poetry.
Provisional and ¬‚eeting points of contact between Byron and post-
structuralist writing may be helpful in our attempts to de¬ne the
±·
Introduction: Byron and the poetics of digression
characteristics of a remarkable and complex literary intertexture. In the
end, however, Byron™s writing resists the totalising discourse of any one
theoretical model. It is dif¬cult above all to relate Byron™s poetics to mod-
els which take no account of the formal properties of poetry. Although
Byronic texts challenge the law of genre (as early nineteenth-century
reactions to his poetry show), they are energised conceptually and prac-
tically by strict adherence to verse structure and resist the disintegration
of formal difference which comes with novelisation. Rhyme cannot be
endlessly deferred, and poetic form and genre still stand as recognisable,
historical presences to which we respond, albeit less violently than Byron
and his contemporaries. If we recover the cultural dynamics of, for ex-
ample, the Pope/Bowles controversy (±±“), we shall be closer to an
element of the Romantic period which makes the works composed at
that time so different from one another and so separate from our own
time. By bringing the relationship between form, context and reader to a
crisis, Byron™s digressive poetics challenges us to rethink our assumptions
about stability and change in literature and to be aware of the relative,
historical state of any critical position. If Romantic literary criticism is
going to perform any meaningful dialogue with a wider audience it needs
to be at least as attentive to readers as Romantic poets themselves were.
It also needs to account for the momentary experiences of pleasure and
surprise engendered by reading Romantic poems. As J. Paul Hunter
observes, ˜theory has a crucial place . . . Still, one has to ¬nd a theory
appropriate to the text, and that may also involve ¬nding an appropriate
theory for the form.™µ This book is an endeavour in that direction.
° ®

˜Scorching and drenching™: discourses of digression
among Byron™s readers



Max Beerbohm™s picture of ˜Lord Byron, shaking the dust of England
from his shoes™ (±°) captures the exquisitely self-conscious turn away
from the English public Byron was seen to have made in April ±±. That
moment of departure also signalled a turning-point in his reputation “
or so the familiar outline of his career has led us to believe. The separa-
tion scandal is usually presented as the de¬nitive break between Byron,
London society and the adulation of his English readership.± There is
strong evidence, however, to suggest that Byron™s readers were already
alert to and unsettled by this kind of behaviour, not least because his
poetics of rapid transition, modulation and subversive aside raised awk-
ward questions from the start of his career. Critical expressions of unease
offer us a reader-centred view of digressive poetics and a fresh way of
approaching the unique texture of Byron™s verse.
Scholars of Byron™s and other Romantic poets™ receptions in England
have, of course, noted that his work was always controversial. But they
have not analysed the peculiar kinds of misgiving expressed about Byron™s
poetry, nor have they traced the evolving signi¬cance of this kind of crit-
ical discourse. The extensive reviews of Byron™s publications during his
lifetime are evidence that, for his contemporaries, digression covered
a multitude of sins including misanthropic or political perversion, con-
tradictory principles, sudden changes of tone, and personal or cultural
allusions in a variety of shapes and forms. This broader understanding
of digression, rather than the strict structuralist de¬nition of a (usu-
ally lengthy) deviation from the narrative subject, enables us to see the
mixture of aesthetic and political factors that made Byron™s poetics so
disturbing for his contemporary readers. A digression may be as short
as a single word in parenthesis or quotation marks or it may extend, as
it did for Byron™s readers, to include most of a canto or most of a career.
One important feature of Byronic digression is that it offers its read-
ers the experience of an encounter with awkward historical particulars
±
±
Discourses of digression among Byron™s readers
coupled with the experience of con¬‚icting textual worlds. When Byron
interrupts his verse, readers are forced to accept a new thread of poetic
development, while remaining aware of the relation of this new part to
an altered concept of the poetic whole. While the ideal of the whole,
uni¬ed work of art had been agreed by gentlemanly consensus for most
of the eighteenth century, mirroring the ideal of a benign Nature, Byron™s
poetry raised the possibility that this ideal construction was partial and
subject to accident and human intervention. ˜All is exploded “ be it good
or bad™ (l. ), Byron wrote in The Age of Bronze, indicating that the stable
collective sense of an ˜all™ had gone as well as the content of the ˜all™
which made up the traditional ubi sunt motif.
The reception of Byron™s poetry during his life was a complex af-
fair and cannot simply be glossed as massive popularity for melancholy
narratives followed by ostracism for the sociable mobilit© of ottava rima
verse. Contemporary reviews reveal widespread concern about the un-
stable compounds of tone, mood and allusions in Byron™s writing from
the publication of the ¬rst two cantos of Childe Harold™s Pilgrimage. This
early turbulent aspect of Byron™s critical reception was overshadowed
in the nineteenth century by the popularisation of the Byronic hero “
˜the wither™d heart that would not break™ “ and in the twentieth, by an
emphasis on the weight of Romantic self-consciousness “ ˜I write, write,
write, as the Wandering Jew walks, walks, walks.™
Critical emphasis on nature, sublimity and the transcendent mind
reinforced the classi¬cation of late Byron as an ˜anti-Romantic™ or psy-
chological oddity. M.H. Abrams famously omitted Byron from his dis-
cussion of Romantic literature in Natural Supernaturalism (±·±) ˜because
in his greatest work he speaks with an ironic counter-voice and delib-
erately opens a satirical perspective on the vatic stance of his Romantic
contemporaries™. This segregation seemed natural and inevitable be-
cause it ful¬lled the ˜either/or™ canons of criticism that had always char-
acterised the reception of Byron™s work. But Abrams need not have read
Byron™s irony as the ˜deliberate™ undermining of Romantic vision: his
choice of the musical metaphor ˜counter-voice™ suggests the co-existence
of two or more voices in juxtaposition; ˜the action of placing two or
more things side by side™ (OED) offers the possibility of oscillation or
simultaneity.
Byron™s ˜counter-voice™ questioned both traditional morality agreed by
social consensus and the emergent aesthetic of individual sincerity de-
¬ned against society. Nineteenth-century readers feared that Byron™s jux-
taposition of serious and comic elements would automatically undermine
° Byron, Poetics and History
all moral seriousness including the integrity of personal and social re-
lationships. This worry contributed to the idea of Byron™s ˜perversion™,
the term used by Francis Jeffrey to characterise the perniciously active
in¬‚uence of The Giaour over its readers:
The sterner and more terrible poetry which is conversant with the guilty and
vindictive passions, is not indeed without its use both in purging and in exalting
the soul: but the delight which it yields is of a less pure, and more overpowering
nature; and the impressions which it leaves behind are of a more dangerous and
ambiguous tendency. Energy of character and intensity of emotion are sublime
in themselves, and attractive in the highest degree as objects of admiration; but
the admiration which they excite, when presented in combination with worthless-
ness and guilt, is one of the most powerful corrupters and perverters of our moral
nature; and is the more to be lamented, as it is most apt to exert its in¬‚uence
on the noblest characters. The poetry of Lord Byron is full of this perversion.
(RR, B: ©©, p. ·; my italics)
Jeffrey used the literal and technical meaning of ˜perversion™ “ ˜to turn
round or about, turn the wrong way, overturn . . . to subvert™ (OED). His
phobia about ˜combination™ represents the conservative fear of hybridity,
doubt and ˜ambiguous tendencies™ which may be traced back to Old
Testament injunctions against mixture: ˜Thou shalt not sow thy vineyard
with divers seeds . . . Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together.
Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woollen and linen
together™ (Deuteronomy .“±±).
In the course of Byron™s poetic career, Jeffrey™s very precise use of the
idea of perversion was overlaid by the more generalised apprehension of
moral depravity “ a process which continued throughout the nineteenth
century. John Addington Symonds™s essay on Byron (±°) displaced the
active sense of perversion in Byron™s writing with the view that the poet™s
judgement had been ˜prematurely warped™ before he began to write
poetry and that his ˜perverse ideas™ were re¬‚exes of self-defence acquired
as a child.µ By re-examining the ¬rst responses to Byron™s poetry, we can
recover the textually de-familiarising effects of digression and the ways in
which it brought to a crisis the relationship between poet and reader in
early nineteenth-century Britain. The rest of this chapter focuses on the
cultural signi¬cance of digression in the period between the appearance
of the ¬rst two cantos of Childe Harold™s Pilgrimage (±±) and the last
complete cantos of Don Juan (±).
Byron began his ˜years of fame™ with an apology for ˜variation™. His
¬rst draft of Childe Harold involved more abrupt changes of tone, in-
congruous material and digressive allusions to contemporary social and
±
Discourses of digression among Byron™s readers
political circumstances than the version which was ¬nally published, but
the digressive tendency of what remained, even after censorship, caused
a stir amongst reviewers. Their varying degrees of critical objection de-
pended on a number of factors including the political af¬liation of the
periodical and its intended readership. In June ±± the Critical Review
(at this time moderately Whig) was one of several to question Byron™s
invocation of James Beattie as a model:
The use of the burlesque in this poem is, we think, not suf¬ciently justi¬ed by the
opinion of Dr. Beattie, which the author has quoted in his preface. The general
complexion of the work is serious, and even melancholy. The occasional bursts
of humour are, therefore, unpleasant, as breaking in too abruptly upon the
general tone of the reader™s feelings. What mind can, without very disagreeable
sensations, turn on a sudden from the ridiculous picture of the Convention,
before alluded to, to the contemplation of the Childe Harold™s melancholy
mood, and again to the description of a Cockney-Sunday? The latter is, also,
pourtrayed in a style of hackneyed, not to say vulgar, ridicule, which could not have
been much relished, even in a work of lighter composition. (RR, B: ©©, pp. ±“±·)

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