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 Byron, Poetics and History
reviews of Byron™s style.µ Tory attacks on Drury Lane™s management
and mismanagement merged with responses to the public drama of
Byron™s separation scandal. Josiah Conder™s review of Poems (±±) in the
Eclectic referred to ˜the mind of the artist at leisure™ who ˜coolly [attends]
to the costume of the passions he delineates™, and Conder was led to
remember that
Garrick, in the most pathetic part of King Lear, had his mind suf¬ciently at
leisure to observe the aspect of his audience, and to whisper, with a low oath, to
a fellow actor, ˜Tom, this will do.™ (RR, B: ©©, p. ··)
The scandal of this anecdote comes in the combination of high passion
and a ˜low oath™. Indulgence in low behaviour was, of course, an aris-
tocratic prerogative. ˜One of the many advantages of birth is™, Byron
remarked to Lady Blessington, ˜that it saves one from . . . hypercritical
gentility.™ To a certain extent, Byron was licensed to use ˜common
thoughts™ and ˜common words™, knowing that ˜what would have been
deemed originality and spirit™ in him would have been condemned as ˜a
natural bias to vulgar habits™ in writers who were not part of the same
aristocratic, cosmopolitan coterie.
In May ±± William Roberts had reviewed ˜Fare Thee Well™ un-
favourably as ˜a phenomenon [of] the gloomy-gay world™, written not by
˜a German, or Frenchman, or Italian, but an Englishman™ (RR, B: ©, p. ·).
Aristocratic privilege was seen to tip over into a self-indulgence increas-
ingly under attack from the Evangelical middle-classes which formed the
readership of the British Critic. Roberts™s disquiet only increased when
he came to review Childe Harold canto ©©©. Amongst the ˜play and pli-
ability of Lord Byron™s genius™ he found a ˜foul admixture™ of scenes
allied to ˜the sport of a tumultuous assemblage of undisciplined feel-
ings™, ˜wayward temper™, ˜fretful moods and inconsistencies™, ˜discordant
principles™ and altogether a ˜strange jumble™ (RR, B: ©, pp. “µ°).
Clearly, Roberts had recognised that ˜play™ or ˜variety™ were essential con-
stituents of Byron™s poetry and he continued to read such volatility as a
dangerous ˜sport™. Reviewing Manfred in August ±±·, he summarised his
position:
The mischief that lurks in all Lord Byron™s productions is this “ they are all lying
representations of human nature; they bring qualities of a most contradictory
kind into close alliance; and so shape them into seeming union as to confound
sentiments, which, for the sake of sound morality and social security, should for
ever be kept contrasted, and at polar extremities with respect to each other . . .
These representations go beyond mere contradictoriness of character; they

Discourses of digression among Byron™s readers
involve a confusion of principle, and operate very fatally and very diffusively in
strengthening prejudices, which are at the bottom of our falsest estimations of
men and things. (RR, B: ©, p. µ)
Roberts™s use of the word ˜diffusively™ is an indication of the breadth of
in¬‚uence he feared Byron to have, and his point about ˜social security™
shows exactly the kind of disruptive, revolutionary potential that Byron™s
performances were believed to contain. By ±±“±· Byron™s writing had
acquired a reputation for ˜contradictoriness™ which could be traced to
characterisation, plot, Byronic ˜performance™ and more generally as an
operating principle within the text.
Beppo and the ¬rst instalment of Don Juan appeared as a con¬rmation
of Byron™s most unsettling traits just at the time that ottava rima was
recommended to the English public in a smooth and palatable form. In
April ±± the Quarterly Review published a detailed article on ˜Narrative
and Romantic Poems of the Italians™. It embraced reviews of two poems:
Whistlecraft, by John Hookham Frere and William Rose™s The Court of
Beasts.· The essay was by Ugo Foscolo but ˜rendered into good English™
by Francis Cohen (later Francis Palgrave). As an authoritative account
of what the nineteenth-century English reader should expect from the
Italian serio-comic form, it provides a crucial context for the publication
of Byron™s ottava rima poetry.
Although the Italian model offered a precedent for mixing mood
and allusion, English adapters of the same form prided themselves on
their ability to tone down sudden contrasts. In discussing the poetry of
Giambattista Casti, Foscolo™s article argued that during the sixteenth
century the spirit of chivalry could be blended with licentiousness. ˜A
thousand such contradictions may be found in the history of civilized
society™, he wrote, but he reminded his readers, ˜we cannot judge of an-
cient decency by a modern standard™. The satirist Casti was judged to
be inappropriate for the English audience of ±±:
We may or may not be purer in our morals than our ancestors were; but it is
quite evident that our taste is more chaste. It therefore becomes the duty of
every writer to avoid offending delicacy; and if he sins against the feeling of
the age, the genius which he prostitutes will not redeem him from contempt.
(˜Narrative and Romantic Poems™, p. °)
Distaste for ˜such contradictions™ is here seen as a mark of a more re¬ned
˜delicacy™. Rose was congratulated for having ˜puri¬ed his satire™ so that
˜his allusions to the foibles of individuals are poignant without being
ill-tempered™.° This accords with the polite preference for Horatian,
° Byron, Poetics and History
rather than Juvenalian satire recently documented by Gary Dyer, and
the gradual turn away from satire as a distinct genre in the ±°s and
±°s when British culture was taming its more abrasive literary modes.±
Similarly, the author of Whistlecraft was commended for ˜uniting great
playfulness with poetical dignity™:
We hope that he will be induced to continue this style in chastening and cor-
recting the extravagant fancies of Pulci and the romantic poets. The acumen
and acquirements of the man of letters, and the originality of the poet, will
undoubtedly enable him to mellow and harmonize the materials which he de-
rives from these writers, and perhaps to create a style which, while retaining the
blithesomeness and ease of his models, will become completely English, and be
truly naturalized by English wit and English feeling. But he must do his best
to gain the suffrages of the ladies, who, in every country, and particularly in
England, are, after all, the supreme arbiters of the destiny and reputation of the
new poetry. (pp. µ°“)
This passage is worth quoting at length for the light it sheds on the
feminisation of culture at the time: the use of Italian digressive romance
is welcomed on the understanding that it is mellowed, harmonised and
made respectable for the ladies. ˜English wit™, as Foscolo emphasised, was
distinguished by its display of ˜correct™ morals (p. °). This represents
a considerable curbing of the energies of eighteenth-century digressive
writing, and we can see how the culture of moral serenity, guarded by
˜ladies™ as the signi¬ers of ˜reputation™ was becoming dominant well
before the Victorian period: ˜Women the ultimate Oracles of Morals™,
Coleridge™s notebook records gloomily in ±°.
Byron™s Beppo was cited once in Foscolo™s article as a modern counter-
part to the parodies of Niccolo Forteguerri, sharing the ability to present
commonplace remarks ˜with fresh graces™. Considered as a one-off
in the tradition of Ariosto™s romance, the anonymous Beppo might ap-
pear innocuous but as soon as it was known to be by the author of
Childe Harold, critical responses became markedly more hostile. When
it reviewed Childe Harold canto © in July ±±, the Gentleman™s Magazine
objected to the way ˜Lord Byron closes a well-written preface on general
topicks with a sudden plunge into politicks, painful to the admirers of the
man of genius™ (RR, B: ©©©, p. ±±±). The abruptness of the ˜plunge™ had
become so recognisable as a Byronic trope that it enabled the Gentleman™s
Magazine to identify the author of Beppo a month later:
The Poem wanders on from digression to digression, occasionally pointed, or
even sour and satiric, but chie¬‚y in the easy and listless style in which verse is
allowed to fashion sentiment . . . The Poem has been given to a large parentage;
±
Discourses of digression among Byron™s readers
but from some peculiar expressions, from its ardour in praise of foreign beauty,
and its rapid turn from festivity to satire, we presume it to be Lord Byron™s. (RR,
B: ©©©, p. ±±±µ)
Josiah Conder suggested that the poem cohered ˜by no other law than
that of juxta-position™ and returned to his picture of Byron as the disin-
genuous actor when he analysed the meditation on Rome in canto ©: ˜in
the midst of his enthusiasm, [Lord Byron] is still cool enough to be able
to digress to his own domestic affairs; like the tragic actor, who, in the
very paroxysm of his mimic agonies, has his feelings perfectly at leisure
for a whispered joke™ (RR, B:, ©©, pp. ·µ“·).
The same sudden switches ˜from festivity to satire™ had led William
Roberts in May ±± to describe Beppo as ˜a burlesque upon Lord Byron™s
manner . . . for the resemblance between the solemn banter, and epi-
curean sarcasm which mark every page of the Childe Harold, and the
derisory ease and ironical pleasantry with which all serious things are
treated in this poem of Beppo, is most successfully preserved™ (RR, B: ©,
p. µ). Roberts objected in particular to ˜little facetious, frolicsome
attacks™ which he saw as a dangerous species of ˜French ridicule™ (RR, B:
©, p. µ·). He followed this up by attacking canto © of Childe Harold™s
Pilgrimage for its modern quality, ˜bred out of the French revolution™ and
its ˜most unnatural and contradictory [union of ] the false philosophy of
the continental schools, with all its anti-social and disorganizing princi-
ples, a creed . . . subversive of all established discipline™ (RR, B: ©, p. ).
Again we can see that the resistance to ˜disorganization™ adopts Burke™s
line on the French Revolution as something which destroyed the organic
cohesiveness of society. Anything which touched on principles of organ-
isation was received in the light of the upheaval it might cause to British
social strati¬cation.
Political objections can account for some of the outrage, but it is impor-
tant to distinguish between political prejudice and the form it adopted
in reviews. Byron™s power to unsettle was not felt solely by the Tory
critics. Hazlitt™s review of Beppo in the Yellow Dwarf in March ±±, criti-
cised ˜the bitterness of the satirist™ whom he depicted ˜digressing from his
digressions™ (RR, B: , p. µ). But his criticism of Childe Harold canto ©
went beyond mild rebuke to attack Byron for ˜indigestion of the mind . . .
Politically and practically speaking™, Hazlitt asserted, ˜a house divided
against itself cannot stand™ (RR, B: , p. ). His comments here may
re¬‚ect a wider concern about the messiness of opposition politics which
fed, as we shall see, into Byron™s digressive intertextuality in Don Juan.
Although he discerned in the early Wordsworth a ˜levelling muse™, a
 Byron, Poetics and History
voice of nature which could challenge the establishment, Hazlitt found
the versi¬cation and style of Childe Harold to be counter-productive “
˜as perverse and capricious as the method or the sentiments™ “ and he
objected both to the ˜alternate mixture of enthusiasm and spleen™ and to
the disjointed mode of composition:
There is here and in every line an effort at brilliancy, and a successful effort; and
yet, in the next, as if nothing had been done, the same thing is attempted to be
expressed again with the same effort of labour as before, the same success, and
with as little appearance of repose or satisfaction of mind. (RR, B: , pp. “)

Hazlitt™s dislike of a ˜mass of discordant things™ (RR, B: , p. ),
here contradicts his ability to appreciate the ˜broken mirror™ brilliance
of human wit. In Byron™s case he seems to have been disturbed because
˜alternate mixture™ dissipates the capacity of the human mind to be an
agent of political change.
Interestingly, Hazlitt™s objections were not shared by Byron™s Whig
mentor, Lord Holland who in ±±“± was attempting to draw Byron
back into moderate Whig politics (rather than Hobhouse™s reformist
variety). An unpublished letter from March ±± suggests that Holland
had identi¬ed positive political action in Beppo:
Among many other good things in Beppo the excellence of your politicks ought
not to be overlooked “ Nothing can be worse than the system pursued since
you left England “ Arbitrary principles supported by the most hypocritical
professions & the employment of spies to create the treason it was convenient
to suppose have been resorted to by Government & sanctioned by Parliament
till a positive disunion between the upper & lower classes of society seems really
likely to be the consequence “ In this state of things I have more than once
regretted that your proxy was extinct with last session & half reproached myself
with not sending you another “ However I did not venture to do so till I had
consulted Hobhouse whom I had expected every day but who did not arrive till
lately “ He tells me you would like to sign & I enclose it “ It must be sealed with
your arms or crest.

Holland held Byron™s proxy for the remainder of the session from · April
±±, but it was not renewed after that and the increasing gulf between
Holland House and Byron™s politics and aesthetics will be discussed in
a later chapter.µ Holland™s political approval for Beppo suggests that
he saw the conversational, digressive style of the poem as a method of
countering the ˜disunion between the upper & lower classes of society™
promoted by the Tory government. Byron™s use of ottava rima renders

Discourses of digression among Byron™s readers
small scale accident in the texture of the poem as if to counter the larger
scale uncertainties which af¬‚ict individuals under ˜arbitrary™ regimes.
Holland™s paternalistic dislike for ˜positive disunion™, however, follows
the moral and political preference for a united whole which we have
seen in Byron™s other readers.
Holland™s appreciation of Beppo was also informed by his aristocratic
enjoyment of the robust wit of Dryden, Swift and Pope. Representing the
conservative instincts of the more middling class of readers, John Murray
expressed pleasure in Byron™s new medley style through a conventional
analogy with Shakespeare™s changeability, but his letter also reveals a
thinly veiled anxiety:

Mr. Frere is at length satis¬ed that you are the author of ˜Beppo™. He had no
conception that you possessed the protean talent of Shakespeare, thus to assume
at will so different a character. He, and every one, continues in the same very
high opinion of its beauties. I am glad to ¬nd that you are disposed to pursue
this strain, which has occasioned so much delight. (Smiles, A Publisher and His
Friends, ©, p. )

Murray then added cautiously ˜Do you never think of prose?™ He was
inclined, perhaps, to be wary of Byron™s protean potential. As we shall
see in Chapter Three, Murray attempted in vain to steer Byron™s digres-
siveness into a more commodi¬able form while friends like Douglas
Kinnaird enjoyed Murray™s discomfort. Meanwhile, in the Quarterly
Review Foscolo™s taste-shaping essay was followed by an advertisement
for new poetic publications. The anonymous ¬nal entry was ˜Don Juan
to. ± l. ±± s. d.™ Byron™s notorious poem arrived on the public scene
at the very moment when ottava rima had been recommended to English
readers in a ˜naturalized™ verse form. It was doomed never to gain ˜the
suffrages of the ladies™.
The consternation of Byron™s friends and publisher when they read
Don Juan has been well-documented. But an important response to the
¬rst cantos, not widely known, is contained in a letter to John Murray
by Francis Cohen postmarked ± July ±± which Murray shared with
Byron. Cohen was a trusted adviser who had been a regular contributor
to the Edinburgh and the Quarterly (including his translation of Foscolo™s
article on Italian narrative poetry discussed above). Coming from some-
one who had experience of Italian verse, the letter allows us to see why
Byron™s contradictions were regarded as a departure from both English
and Italian precedent. ˜Like Shakespeare™, Cohen wrote, ˜he shows that
 Byron, Poetics and History
his soul can soar well into the seventh heaven & that when he returns
into this body he can be as merry as if sublimity ne™er was known.™:
but Lord B. should have been grave & gay by turns; grave in one page & gay
in the next; grave in one stanza, & gay in the next; grave in one line, & gay in
the next. And not grave & gay in the same page, or in the same stanza, or in
the same line. “ If he had followed <Pulci more closely> Ariosto more closely,
he would have produced a masterpiece & not a sport of fancy. Nothing can
be better calculated to display the talent of a great poet, than a composition
admitting of a ready transition from fun & drollery to sublimity & pathos, but
then they must be interchanged, they must not be mixed up together: they must
be kept distinct “ though contemplated jointly. If we stand on a mountain we
gladly view a storm beating on one side of the horizon & dark clouds impend-
ing & the sun shining bright & calm in the other quarter of the heavens, but
we are never drenched & scorched at the same instant whilst standing in one
spot.·
In correcting his mention of Pulci and substituting the name of Ariosto,
Cohen is following the English preference for romance over satire. His
letter to Murray tells us that it is the frequency of Byron™s transitions
which disturbed contemporary readers: to change tone ˜by turns™ (of
the page) would have been acceptable but transitions which threaten
proper tonal segregation are not. Cohen™s tactile ˜drenched & scorched™
metaphor emphasises that, like other readers, he was responding to a

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