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This critique reveals a subtle link between the canons of classical
criticism, social class and the criteria of Christian moral judgement:
˜vulgarity™ or a mingling with quotidian detail is regarded as a shocking
intrusion.
During Byron™s lifetime, the emphasis of literary criticism was shifting
away from general rules of literary taste towards an interest in the psycho-
logical effects of literature on individual readers. This shift is manifest in
the critical essays of Anna Barbauld, the preface to Joanna Baillie™s A Series
of Plays (±·), and later, the Shakespearean criticism of Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey. But eighteenth-
century stylistic proscriptions lingered on besides the newly evolving
attention to the individual. Critics like the Earl of Shaftesbury, Edmund
Burke, Dr Johnson, Lord Kames, George Campbell, Sir Joshua Reynolds
and James Beattie had all decreed that ˜incongruity™ and ˜harsh com-
binations™ were to be avoided as departures from established literary
form. According to eighteenth-century critical discourse, unexpected
juxtapositions “ ˜turning on a sudden™ “ would be condemned by the
classically-educated reader as a lapse of decorum. For many nineteenth-
century critics, in addition, abrupt juxtapositions of pathos and humour
appeared as a form of social transgression that might corrupt readers “
especially increasing numbers of non-classically educated women.·
One of the effects of Byron™s writing was to bring the reader to
question Johnsonian constructions of normative decorum and taste in
 Byron, Poetics and History
poetry. This clash of different cultural values is encapsulated by Maria
Edgeworth™s description of a party in ± at which Don Juan was read
aloud by Edward Ellice “ much against the better judgement of those
present:
He would read passages of Don Juan to us and to tell you the truth the best of
us & Lady Elizabeth herself could not help laughing. Lady Hannah turned her
face almost off her shoulder and picked the embroidered corner almost out of
her pocket handkerchief and she did not laugh.
Edgeworth™s letter offers graphic evidence “ ˜to tell you the truth™ “ of
how unacceptable it was for women to share in public the humour of
Byron™s poem. The account of Edgeworth and ˜the best of ™ her female
companions physically struggling to suppress their laughter shows how
values of order and propriety (the embroidered pocket handkerchief)
came to be ˜unpicked™ by Byron™s verse. In this instance, the force of
the con¬‚ict was embodied by the strong reaction of the audience; more
often, however, a sense of disjunction, of cultural values buckling under
the force of poetic collision, was displaced on to Byron himself.
Voicing a Protestant, dissenting point of view in June ±±, the Eclectic
Review regarded the asides in Childe Harold™s Pilgrimage as a ¬‚aw in the
Childe™s characterisation:
There are, however, some inconveniences attending this arrangement of the
several parts, appropriated to the author and to the hero of the poem. Sometimes
the Childe forgets (accidentally, we believe,) the heart-struck melancholy of his
temper, and deviates into a species of pleasantry, which, to say the truth, appears
to us very ¬‚ippant, and very unworthy of the person to whom it is attributed.
(RR, B: ©©, p. ·°)
As with Edgeworth™s parenthetical ˜to tell you the truth™, the reviewer™s
effort ˜to say the truth™ points to an awkwardness in attempts to de-
¬ne reaction. Byron™s ˜inconvenience™, his ˜deviance™ and ˜species of
pleasantry™, failed to keep within eighteenth-century conventions of witty
incongruity epitomised, for example, in the ultra-conservative essays of
James Beattie.
By contrast, the more forward-looking critic William Hazlitt™s ˜Essay
on Wit and Humour™ (±±), explored the positive aesthetic fascination
of ˜juxta-position™:
it is the mirror broken into pieces, each fragment of which re¬‚ects a new light
from surrounding objects; or it is the untwisting chain of our ideas, whereby
each link is made to hook on more readily to others than when they were all
bound up together by habit.±°

Discourses of digression among Byron™s readers
Hazlitt™s stylistic desire to escape from reactionary ˜habit™ was, of course,
something of an anomaly and, as we shall see, Hazlitt was less sure
about the value of Byronic fragmentation when it confronted him on
the page rather than as an abstract idea. In ±± readers often attributed
Byron™s early poetic inconsistencies to ˜accidental™ misjudgements rather
than to a deliberate ˜untwisting™ of the chain of ideas. However, a hint
of the instability which shadowed early readings of Byron is evident
when the Eclectic applied to Byron what Johnson said of Dryden, that
he treads ˜upon the brink of meaning where light and darkness begin to
mingle™.±± Having quoted extensively and approvingly from Childe Harold
to illustrate its ˜beauties™ the reviewer noted reluctantly that
Lord Byron labours under a very unfortunate mistake as to his gifts and quali¬-
cations as a satirist . . . Can it be believed, that the author of the passages we have
quoted could write such stanzas as the following? [©. “·°] Can any thing be
more ¬‚ippant than the foregoing passage? “ unless, indeed, it be the ingenious
personi¬cation of the imp ˜Convention,™ . . . or the following caustic animadver-
sions on a book called Ida of Athens, the production of a Miss Owenson, who,
it seems, is just now a popular writer of novels. (RR, B: ©©, p. ·°)
Caught between the desire to chastise Byron for an ad hominem attack on
a woman and the instinct to patronise a woman novelist, this reviewer
identi¬ed authorial instability in Childe Harold. The Edinburgh Review,
the Critical Review and the Quarterly Review all objected to ˜those attacks
on private feeling™ in Byron™s notes to the poem, joining the Eclectic in
¬nding in Byron™s notes ˜animadversions™ and incongruities which re-
inforced the wayward digressiveness of the poem™s text.± Some of the
poet™s endnotes expressed the topical satire which Murray had advised
Byron to suppress “ for example the ˜expressions concerning Spain and
Portugal which™, Murray said, ˜do not harmonize with the now prevalent
feeling™.± Murray™s sense of a consensus of ˜prevalent feeling™ points to
a new version of the eighteenth-century ˜public sphere™. This consensus
of domestic ˜feeling™ rather than Enlightenment debate was partly the
result of Britain™s war with France.
Internal rupture in the shape of civil war or civil disobedience is partic-
ularly threatening when national frontiers are also at risk. As we witness
in relations between press and government today, it is still deemed ˜bad
form™ to draw attention to blunders in British foreign policy while British
troops are risking their lives abroad. But this is exactly what Byron™s poem
did. Murray™s acute audience sensitivity anticipated the risk of satiric in-
fection in what was otherwise a very popular genre. As Gary Dyer has
recently demonstrated, satire persisted throughout the Romantic period,
 Byron, Poetics and History
but it was less present in public or literary discourse than in Pope™s or
Swift™s day. Dyer also points out that both Neo-Juvenalian and Neo-
Horatian verse satires tended to support a conservative outlook either
because they were anti-Jacobin or quiescent.± Byron™s satiric interrup-
tions were therefore doubly unexpected because they turned a conser-
vative form against the Tory government of the day.
By far the most hostile reaction to the ¬rst cantos of Childe Harold came
from the Antijacobin Review in a politically-motivated attack on the
˜fractious, wayward, capricious, cheerless, morose, sullen, discontented,
and unprincipled™ character of the Childe (RR, B: ©, p. ±±). For this iras-
cible reviewer, the digressiveness of anti-Establishment poet/hero frac-
tured the poem:
We object, then, to the political prejudices, to the unpatriotic defects, and to the
irreligious principles, of this bastard of the imagination. He arraigns wars, gen-
erally, and indiscriminately, confounding the just with the unjust, the defensive
with the offensive, the preservative with the destructive, not with the judgment
of a sage, but with the settled moroseness of a misanthrope. (RR, B: ©, p. ±±)
As the review progressed, similar accusations were extended to Byron™s
style and to his politics. Byron™s comparison of British and Turkish gov-
ernments was dismissed as the product of ˜unsettled principles and way-
ward mind™ (RR, B: ©, p. ±). In the period preceding the Reform Act in
± the Tory press applied this tag indiscriminately to reformist Whigs
like Sir Francis Burdett and Burkean radicals like William Cobbett. Its
appearance in reviews of Byron™s early work indicates that his style was
perceived as a threat to established social hierarchies.
Just as Byron identi¬ed himself with frame-breaking in the political
forum of the House of Lords, his refusal to discriminate in matters of
style was equated with democratic principles, while the ˜straying™ plot and
˜mingled™ character of the hero were presented as the ˜bastard™ images of
a liberal imagination.±µ The Antijacobin extracted the stanzas on Cintra
(©. “) and quoted Byron™s note with the following comment:
The loose sneers, and sarcastic remarks, which an author, who suffers no restraint
from principle, may introduce in the course of a poetical narrative, where they
appear to be merely incidental, are calculated to do more mischief, because
the ordinary reader is not on his guard against them; than laboured treatises,
composed for the avowed purpose of attacking the settled order of things in any
state or government. (RR, B: ©, p. ±)
Dated August ±±, this is one of the earliest political readings of Byron™s
digressive poetics. It is clear that the reviewer was concerned about the
µ
Discourses of digression among Byron™s readers
˜rant of democracy™ (for example ©. ·“), but his concern extends to
the politics of poetic style and the seemingly ˜incidental™ way in which
this material is introduced into poetry: ˜the bard seems determined, that
the delight which his genius is able to impart shall be marred by the un-
seasonable intrusion of his offensive sentiments™ (RR, B: ©, pp. ±µ; ±). For
this reason, the Antijacobin and other reviews italicised offending phrases
in their extracts of Byron™s poetry, enhancing the effect of an uneven
poetic surface.
Byron™s sentiments were ˜offensive™ because they questioned British
foreign policy in a genre which was usually the vehicle for patriotic
celebration. From the ±·°s onwards, war in Europe provided the con-
ditions for the travel poem in English to become a vehicle of cultural
consolidation in which the stimulus of different landscapes and societies
introduced re¬‚ections on the preferability of home. If satire did occur in
the travel poem, it was at the expense of other nations. Henry Fox, the
son of Byron™s Whig mentor, remarked in his diary during a stay in Italy
in ±, ˜the whole object of an Englishman when once ferried over Pas
de Calais is to compare every thing he sees to the diminutive objects he
has passed his existence with, and to make a sort of perpetual justi¬ca-
tion of his own superiority™.± Byron™s satire in text and notes directed
against British non-achievement and mis-management abroad under-
mined the expected ideological basis of the literary tour. Anna Barbauld
provoked similar outrage when she published the satire Eighteen Hundred
and Eleven. She was accused of transgressing generic propriety by pro-
ducing Juvenalian satire, but critics like J.W. Croker also responded to
the shock of a ˜tour™ of a London fallen into ruins, cultural corruption
and moral decay. For Byron™s reviewers the liberal and oppositional sen-
timents voiced directly in his poem were reinforced by the unpredictable
turnings and inconsistencies of his style.±·
Byron had claimed that the ¬rst two cantos of Childe Harold were
experimental, a comment which encouraged most reviewers to anticipate
greater completion and unity in his next production. Byron thwarted
their expectations by producing a ˜voluntarily mutilated™ composition in
full knowledge of the ˜general horror of fragments™.± Besides the choice
of poetic form the Antijacobin detected a more dangerous instability of
˜ambiguity™ in The Giaour:
It is not that any marked absence of religious or moral principle is betrayed in
any particular passages; but that there is a doubt left on the reader™s mind by the
loose and ambiguous manner in which allusions are made, in different places,
to topics of the nature referred to. (RR, B: ©, p. °)
 Byron, Poetics and History
Doubt is dangerous. Byron™s ˜ambiguity™ represented a threat to the re-
ligious and political status quo. His line, ˜Even bliss -™twere woe alone to
bear™ was particularly objectionable, noted the reviewer, because
woe and bliss are incompatible; the moment woe comes, bliss is expelled from
the heart; they cannot dwell together in the human bosom. We are not converts
to the justice of the poet™s general position. (RR, B: ©, p. )
Again, it is the experience of simultaneity which is seen as threatening.
Hostile criticism of Byron™s style derived from a negative moral assess-
ment of indeterminacy or relativism. The Antijacobin succeeded in asso-
ciating Byron™s textual ˜incompatibilities™ with immaturity, malice, and
(eventually) madness. They were delighted to point out that Byron™s ded-
ication of The Corsair to Thomas Moore represented a personal volte-face:
˜he does not condescend to state to the public one single reason for the
revolution which has taken place in his sentiments . . . This is treating
the public rather cavalierly™ (RR, B: ©, p. ±). Stylistic instability could be
accounted for by an author ˜whose opinions and whose principles are as
unsettled as the wind; and who seems to take delight only in venting the
splenetic effusions of a restless, wayward, and perturbed imagination™
(RR, B: ©, p. ±). But their obsessive depiction of these characteristics
suggests that reviewers were challenged by a poetry of disparate parts
which questioned the construction of a consistent whole.
The organisation of works of art very easily tilts into discussions of
general principles with political implications. Aesthetic oddity or singu-
larity may be condemned because, as John Barrell has pointed out, it
˜is always the sign of an adherence to private concerns, and an imper-
fect awareness of one™s duties to the public™.± In the seventh Discourse,
Sir Joshua Reynolds remarked that ˜the arts would lie open for ever to
caprice and casualty, if those who are to judge of their excellencies had
no settled principles by which they are to regulate their decisions, and
the merit or defect of performances were to be determined by unguided
fancy™.° The tradition of Reynoldsian criticism is consistently and solidly
opposed to whatever is capricious, variable or transient. When Byron™s
poetry arrived on the public scene, Reynolds™s fears about instability and
¬‚imsiness were seen to be embodied in the shape of an in¬‚uential author,
the poet of ˜distorted fancy™ (RR, B: ©, p. ), whose characters embodied
the same offensive mingling of attributes: ˜a more hideous assemblage of
detestable qualities were never surely compressed before within so small
a space™, the reviewer noted of Conrad (RR, B: ©, p. µ).
This kind of ˜delusive compound™ (RR, B: ©, p. ) was identi¬ed by
William Roberts as originating from ˜modern poetry and the German
·
Discourses of digression among Byron™s readers
drama™ (RR, B: ©, p. ±µ). In the oriental tales Byron™s adoption of the frag-
ment form and his continued elaboration of an aesthetic of sudden mix-
ture or variety was received as dangerously European. The pre-eminent
instance of instability and dislocation for Byron™s contemporaries and
succeeding generations was, of course, the French Revolution. Behind
the often invoked ˜law of nature™ in Tory reviews of Byron™s poetry stood
the political and philosophical writings of Edmund Burke. In contem-
plating the fragmented narration of The Giaour, Roberts found himself
reminded of ˜those who, in the language of Mr. Burke, are expert in
“arrangements for general confusion”™ (RR, B: ©, p. ±±). As Chris
Baldick has shown, Burke™s characterisation of the French Revolutionary
˜political monster™ was immensely in¬‚uential throughout the nineteenth
century:
Everything seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and all
sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies. In viewing this monstrous
tragi-comic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and some-
times mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation;
alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror.±
Burke™s political preference for an organised whole was buttressed, as we
have seen, by Reynoldsian aesthetics which aligned digressive character-
istics with the unnatural: ˜deformity is not nature™, Reynolds argued, ˜but
an accidental deviation from her accustomed practice™. The trouble
was that reviewers were beginning to suspect Byron of digressing not ˜by
accident™, but by design. Burke™s account of revolutionary miscegenation
consistently informed Tory criticisms of Byron™s style, and was used to
classify him not only with the liberal Whigs but eventually, as we shall
see, with con¬rmed opponents of the British Establishment “ Radicals
and Cockneys like Leigh and John Hunt.
In ±±µ“± the early associations of the poet™s ˜wayward™ interrup-
tions with a democratic inclination were in¬‚ected by his participation
in the new Drury Lane Theatre project. Byron™s membership of the
management sub-committee complicated his relationship with contem-
porary readers in several major respects: it provided Byron with new
models for the whimsical or capricious digressive aside, it offered his
readership an image of its own role as spectator to a performance and
it also emphasised Byron™s role as an oppositional Whig. Public inter-
est in the plans to reopen and run the Drury Lane Theatre under the
direction of prominent Whigs like Samuel Whitbread and Lord Holland
was widespread. One hitherto unexamined outcome of the scheme was
that oblique references to the politicised theatrical world ¬ltered into

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