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surface texture, not to metaphysical depths.
There have been several studies of the reception of Don Juan in England
but the obsessive critical preoccupation with the poem™s surface tex-
ture and its relationship with Byron™s earlier poems has been overshad-
owed by the poem™s content. A few early reviewers felt that the satiric
strain of the poem licensed its heterogeneous mixture. One writer for the
Literary Gazette applauded the ˜singularly felicitous mixture of burlesque
and pathos™, and used a Shakespearean image to characterise Byron™s
genius: ˜like the dolphin sporting in its native waves, however grotesque,
displaying a new hue and a new beauty, the noble author has shewn an ab-
solute controul over his means™ (RR, B: ©, pp. ±±; ±±°). Such ˜control™,
however, soon came to be seen as threatening. Contemporary criticism
of the poem built on the patterns of inconsistency which had been
perceived in Byron™s writing since ±±, and which were recognised as
threats to Burkean and, later, Coleridgean organic principles of criticism:
the occasional profanity which de¬led his graver, and the indecency which
stained his lighter productions, are here embodied in the compactness of a
µ
Discourses of digression among Byron™s readers
system, and have been madly exalted from their station as humble though repul-
sive accessories of his theme, to be its avowed end, purpose and consummation.
(RR, B: ©©, p. ·)

It was the suspicion of a ˜system™ at work which caused much of the
hostility. As David Simpson has shown, the aversion to ˜systems™ often
came from a Tory suspicion of abstraction and theory associated with the
French Revolution. This prejudice was usually combined with a cele-
bration of English (Shakespearean) irregularity, but Byron™s systematised
disorder confounded national stereotypes. Far from ¬nding a humane
Shakespearean plurality when they encountered Byron™s poetic irreg-
ularity at close quarters, reviewers decried his methodical process of
˜degrading™ human experience. Blame was frequently attached to Byron™s
distance from his readers and his own work as if, like Stephen Dedalus™s
artist, he could be seen ˜indifferent, paring his ¬ngernails™. ˜Byron™ be-
came a signi¬er for a paradoxical mixture of extreme separateness from
society, an aloof and isolated authorship together with a textual expe-
rience of simultaneity, or contradictory areas of experience ˜[ jumbled]
in one undistinguished mass™ (RR, B: ©©©, p. ±±±). It is as if readers felt
Byron to be in a realm of untrammelled space beyond his poems while
they were relegated to an urban existence of crush and clamour. William
Roberts, for example, argued that the poem™s simultaneity destroyed the
possibility of readerly empathy:
it delights in extracting ridicule out of its own pathos. While it brings the tears
of sympathy into the eyes of the reader . . . a heartless humour immediately
succeeds, showing how little the writer participates in the emotion he excites.
Skilful to play upon another™s bosom, and to touch with mysterious art the
¬nest chords of sensibility himself, he is all the while an alien to his own magical
creation. (RR, B: ©, p. °)

The poet™s detachment was recurrently contrasted with the reader™s baf-
¬‚ed experience of palpable disjunction. The fame of Byron™s misanthrop-
ical heroes, however, has since overshadowed the way in which the style
of the poem itself was felt to be misanthropical.
Don Juan was regarded as a work of deliberate provocation by evan-
gelical Tories like Roberts, but “ surprisingly, perhaps “ also by educated
liberals and reformists. In the circle of writers that included Leigh Hunt
and John Keats, for example, there is evidence of strong resistance to
Byron™s mingled style. On ° September ±± Richard Woodhouse (who
may be taken as a barometer of taste for educated readers with strong
 Byron, Poetics and History
liberal sympathies) wrote to John Taylor about Keats™s proposed alter-
ations to ˜The Eve of St Agnes™:
[Keats] has altered the last  lines to leave on the reader a sense of pettish
disgust, by bringing Old Angela in (only) dead stiff & ugly. “ He says he likes
that the poem should leave off with this Change of Sentiment “ it was what he
aimed at, & was glad to ¬nd from my objections to it that he had succeeded. “
I apprehend he had a fancy for trying his hand at an attempt to play with the
reader, & ¬‚ing him off at the last “ I shd. have thought, he affected the Don Juan
style of mingling up sentiment & sneering: but that he had before asked Hessey
if he cod. procure him a sight of that work, as he had not met with it, and if the
˜E. of St A.™ had not in all probability been altered before his Lordship had thus
¬‚own in the face of the public.°
Keats may have adopted a Byronic mode to forestall criticism of his
work as weak and sentimental: he was determined to write ˜for men™
and Don Juan, as Moyra Haslett has recently pointed out, ˜was addressed
conspiratorially to masculine intimates, but was not unaware that women
would overhear™.±
Under the cover of concern about how the poem might threaten
female readers, Byron™s reviewers also expressed fear of an invidious
feminine style. The image of the prostituted muse combined allegations
of Byron™s ˜perversion™ or degradation of his genius with earlier responses
to his imaginative fertility. The British Critic, for example, created the
image of a ˜non-descript goddess™ presiding over Don Juan:
In the ¬rst canto we saw her elegant, highly talented, and graceful, and lamented
her de¬‚ection from virtue. We can trace her subsequently through each stage
of deterioration, till we ¬nd her a camp-follower at Ismail, still possessing al-
lurements of a coarse and sensual sort, and though thoroughly depraved, full of
anecdote and adventurous spirit . . . her conversation a mixture of metaphysical
scraps picked up in the course of her former education; with broader slang
and more unblushing indecency, than she had as yet ventured upon. (RR, B: ©,
pp. “°)
Reviewers had hinted before at a feminine prolixity in Byron™s style:
˜The muse of Lord Byron is so extremely proli¬c, that if she does not
actually bring forth Twins, her offspring succeed each other with such
wonderful rapidity, that it becomes almost impracticable to complete the
examination of the beauties and deformities of one, before another bursts
upon us.™ A feminine mutability had been detected in his digressive
characteristics, and this was con¬rmed by the triviality of Beppo which
Jeffrey called ˜a mere piece of lively and loquacious prattling . . . upon
all kinds of frivolous subjects, “ a sort of gay and desultory babbling™
·
Discourses of digression among Byron™s readers
(RR, B: ©©, p. ). Don Juan, however, extended ¬ckle caprice into harlotry
and the concept of the prostituted muse led to criticism of the increasing
˜infection™ of the poem (RR, B: ©, p. ±).
What prompted this violent dislike was the fear that Don Juan could
nihilistically undermine all political and philosophical positions. The
radical publisher William Hone protested about the ˜character™ of the
poem, claiming in ±± that Don Juan ˜keeps no terms with even the
common feelings of civilized man . . . It wars with virtue, as resolutely
as with vice.™ Hone™s troubled response parallels that of Byron™s friend
Hobhouse who criticised ˜the whole turn of the poem™ because he felt that
those opposing the corruption of the Establishment should uphold an
unimpeachable moral standard. While classically educated aristocrats
might enjoy the wit of the poem, they could not cope with the politics
of Don Juan and the liberals and radicals who might have welcomed the
politics were thrown by the poem™s asides on religious and moral codes.
The poem was indeed ˜non-descript™.
The perversion of national genius by hybrid foreign in¬‚uences was, of
course, increasingly threatening to an imperial power. Byron™s Don Juan
recalled the protean variations of Shakespeare without the security of
English national pride: ˜it is true™, wrote William Roberts,
that this existence is a medley of joy and sorrow, close upon each other™s con¬nes;
and that moral and pathetic representations of life in prose or verse proceeding
in correspondence with the reality, admit of being chequered by grave and gay,
pensive and playful moods; but they must not be suffered to run into one another
and disturb each other™s impressions. Sorrow is engrossing “ nor can the heart
at the same time lend itself to two opposite emotions. (RR, B: ©, p. °)

Roberts attempted to distinguish between a just imitation of the varied
human lot and Byron™s world of contradiction where constant collisions
and quali¬cations of experience led to a sense that no stable emotional
states existed. In the background of this criticism is Johnson™s appreci-
ation of Shakespeare which provided a pattern for acceptable mixture.
Shakespeare™s plays, according to Johnson, exhibit ˜the real state of sub-
lunary nature™:
which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of
proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course
of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same
time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in
which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and
many mischiefs and many bene¬ts are done and hindered without design.µ
 Byron, Poetics and History
Byron™s digressions usurped the prerogative of nature in a way that
Johnson had verged on detecting in Shakespeare: ˜what he does best, he
soon ceases to do . . . He no sooner begins to move, than he counteracts
himself; and terror and pity, as they are rising in the mind, are checked
and blasted by sudden frigidity™ (Works of Samuel Johnson, ©©, p. ·). But
this criticism was wholly subordinate to the overview of Shakespeare as
a national genius. Byron was still alive and in Italy, apparently disowning
his Englishness as in the Letter to John Murray Esqre. where he referred to
Great Britain as ˜your Country™.
Byron™s betrayal of class and race was con¬rmed by his involvement
with the ˜hobby-horse of Radicalism™ (RR, B: ©, p. µ), otherwise known
as the Cockney School as reconstituted in Pisa. In ±, as soon as
Byron™s collaboration with Leigh Hunt on the Liberal was known, Tory
reviewers began to trace Cockney in¬‚uences in his work. Recent criticism
by Richard Cronin, Nicholas Roe and Jeffrey Cox has identi¬ed and
explored the reasons for the ˜high™ cultural resistance to Hunt™s circle,
but the impact of this on Byron™s reputation has not been discussed.·
In Blackwood™s and the British Critic parallels between Byron and Hunt
were detected in images of disharmony and opposition; ˜anti-British
garbage™, ˜unmusical drawl™, ˜lisping dull double-entendres™ and ˜hymning
Jacobinism™ (RR, B: ©, p. °µ). Byron™s rhymes in Don Juan cantos ©,
©© and ©©© were depicted in Blackwood™s as the result of his listening to
Cockney ˜gibberish™, and were attributed to Hunt™s joint authorship by
the British Critic. In March ± the British Critic summarised Byron to
date:

To blow hot and cold from every point in the compass, to praise and abuse
respectively republics and monarchies; monarchies and republics; to libel and
¬‚atter England and America, Buonoparte and Tom Paine, the king and the
people, friends and enemies, men and women, truth and justice, backwards and
forwards ten times over; to do all this without any excuse or bashfulness within
the continent of one work, is really at once a symptom, a proof, and a consequence
of an order of intellect, which we have no adequate terms to describe. (RR, B: ©,
p. ±)

Beyond the pale, Byron™s writing undermined the criteria of unity and
harmony which had sustained Johnsonian literary criticism in England.
When T.S. Eliot reluctantly turned his attention to Byron in ±·, he too
was shocked by how un-English Byron was: ˜I cannot think of another
poet of his distinction who might so easily have been an accomplished for-
eigner writing English.™ Byron™s association with Hunt in Italy blurred

Discourses of digression among Byron™s readers
clear distinctions of class and nationhood. Not surprisingly, the British
Critic regarded Byron™s association with ˜accomplished foreigners™ as a
menace to Whigs and Tories alike:
The case is perfectly plain. Lord Byron has perceived too late that public opinion
has connected him, more than he may approve, with the Riminists, or Cocknio-
Carbonari, or whatever name may rejoice the ears of the literary club which
he has been pleased to found at Pisa. As obvious must it have become . . .
that these his chosen friends are scouted both by Whig and Tory as a gang
of despicable Pilgarlics, insensible alike to English prejudices, English pursuits,
English humour, and the comforts of an English ¬reside. Alike coarse, ¬‚uttering
and insigni¬cant, their body collective has been roughly brushed away, like a
nauseous ¬‚esh-¬‚y from the front of Whiggism on which it had crawled for a
while, and not even Lord Byron himself has escaped a portion of the disgrace.
(RR, B: ©, p. ·)
If the effectiveness of a challenge to orthodoxy is to be gauged by the
violence of the response, we can see how seriously Byron™s illicit union
with the Cockneys threatened members of the Establishment. When it
reviewed Werner in March ± the British Critic accounted for all Byron™s
textual disruptions by categorising him as ˜the dupe of Leigh Hunt™:
the Aristocratico-democrat is the tame hackney scrivener of the jacobinico-
radical; the macaroni simperer on the patrician properties of long ¬ngers is
linked hand in hand with the mutton ¬st of the sometime tenant of a gaol. (RR,
B: ©, p. )
These caricatures of ˜the Pisan Confederacy™ were one way of dealing
with Byron™s ˜scorching and drenching™, but a few reviewers seem to have
sensed that the instability of Byron™s poetry could not be explained away
simply in terms of politics.
Compounding moral, political and aesthetic uncertainties, Byron™s
problematic poetic texture was summarised in Francis Jeffrey™s article
on Byron™s tragedies in the Edinburgh Review (February ±). Jeffrey dis-
cussed the effect of Don Juan, distinguishing it from the ˜affectiveness™ of
satire:
The charge we bring against Lord B. in short is, that his writings have a tendency
to destroy all belief in the reality of virtue “ and to make all enthusiasm and
constancy of affection ridiculous . . . when the satirist deals out his sarcasms
against the sincerity of human professions, and unmasks the secret in¬rmities
of our bosoms, we consider this as aimed at hypocrisy and not at mankind . . .
The true antidote to such seductive or revolting views of human nature, is to
turn to the scenes of its nobleness and attraction; and to reconcile ourselves
again to our kind, by listening to the accents of pure affection and incorruptible
° Byron, Poetics and History
honour. But if those accents have ¬‚owed, in all their sweetness, from the very lips
that instantly open again to mock and blaspheme them, the antidote is mingled
with the poison, and the draught is more deadly for the mixture! (RR, B: ©©,
p. )
For Jeffrey, Byron™s ˜theatrical exhibition™ undermined not only the illu-
sion of sincerity in the poem but the illusion of any public meaning or
coherence. Byron demonstrated ˜how possible it is to have all ¬ne and no-
ble feelings, or their appearance, for a moment, and yet retain no particle
of respect for them “ or of belief in their intrinsic worth or permanent
reality™ (RR, B: ©©, p. ·). In this case Don Juan offered an exploration of
relativity of value for the reader. Jeffrey read in this sceptical process ˜a
system of resolute misanthropy™: ˜all good feelings are excited only to ac-
custom us to their speedy and complete extinction™ (RR, B: ©©, pp. ·“).
What we ¬nd in Jeffrey™s reaction is the fear of ambiguity and in-
determinacy which had been expressed in aesthetic treatises through-
out the eighteenth century and which pervaded critical resistance to
the mind which ˜¬‚oats and ¬‚uctuates in cheerless uncertainty™. John
Barrell has analysed some of these attitudes to ¬‚uctuation in the ¬eld
of the visual arts, and has suggested that, ˜sketchiness, indistinctness,
a capricious looseness of handling “ these are only allowable in works
which, because their aim is to represent the accidental, are understood
to be private pictures™.µ° If we trace this orthodoxy from painting into
the ¬eld of literature (as the language of Byron™s reviewers tells us they
did), we can see that Don Juan™s miscible modes created a troubling simul-
taneity which confused public and private experience. In the sixth and
tenth Discourses, Sir Joshua Reynolds warned his audience about the dan-
gers of ˜peculiarities™ which ˜force themselves upon view™. He used the
˜entangled confusion™ of Bernini™s Neptune as an example and discussed
the ˜mischief ™ of dividing the work ˜into many minute parts™, destroying
the ˜grandeur of its general effect™.µ± The language of Byron™s contem-
porary reviews tells us that his work was perceived to have violated the
same aesthetic standard of civic cohesion. In Don Juan, as in his earlier
works, Byron™s stylistic interruptions made the reader aware of the un-
certainty of the relationship between the general and the particular as
the accidental rises up to challenge the whole.
It is open to twentieth-century readers, although it was not to Jeffrey,
to distinguish relativity from cynicism. The strand we have been trac-
ing in the reception of Byron™s poetry is signi¬cant for, as John Keats
remarked early in ±±, ˜These Reviews . . . are getting more and more
powerful . . . They are like a superstition.™µ The discourse of the reviews
±
Discourses of digression among Byron™s readers
helped to ¬x not only readers™ conceptions of Byron, but Byron™s con-

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