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ception of his readers and of the English public more widely. Byron™s
art of juxtaposition provoked both predictable political outrage and a
less easily de¬nable anxiety about poetry™s palpable effect on its readers.
The perceived theatricality of Byron™s texts questioned poetic ideals of
organic unity and sincerity of address, challenging the new orthodoxies
of nineteenth-century poetic production.
After Byron™s death in ± it became easier for retrospective accounts
of his career to unify division under the sign of biography. Thomas
Moore followed the pattern of Hunt™s defensive criticism in creating as
smooth an image as possible, surrounding Byron™s writing with a protec-
tive gloss of biographical commentary.µ Byron™s ˜habit of forming . . .
incongruous juxtapositions™ was coupled with a ˜natural tendency to
yield . . . to every chance impression, and change with every passing
impulse™.µ By stressing the experience of schism in Byron™s childhood
and the ˜strange assemblage of contrary elements, all meeting together
in the same mind™ in ±±, Moore prepared the way for readings of
Don Juan as case-history: ˜the most powerful and . . . painful display of
the versatility of genius that has ever been left for succeeding ages to
wonder at and deplore™ (The Works of Lord Byron (±“), ©, p. ±). It
was Moore™s version, I would argue, which ¬xed the view of Byron as
a ˜painful mixture™ (©, p. µ) of personal misfortune and psychological
oddity for the rest of the nineteenth century.
A little known, but fascinating variant on this commodi¬cation of
Byron is supplied in a meditation by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose crit-
ical legacy was that quest for unity, depth, symbol and religious certainty
in literature which diminished Byron™s more troubled poetic surfaces.
Coleridge™s account of Byron was recorded by Seymour Teulon Porter,
the boy at the chemist™s shop in Highgate where Coleridge purchased his
laudanum. He recalled that in July ± while watching Byron™s funeral
procession from the door of the shop Coleridge arrived and spoke on
˜topics suggested by the scene of that hour™:

Byron™s unhappy youth; the extraordinary issue of it in his prodigious works & his
numerous & great public merits; his great & special claims on his countrymen™s
generous if discriminative appreciation; the delightful fact that even then, at
that so early period after his death, the funeral ceremonies indicated that in
the future, according to the noble wont of the English people, Byron™s literary
merits would seem continually to rise, while his personal errors, if not denied,
or altogether forgotten, would be little noticed, & would be treated with ever
softening gentleness.µµ
 Byron, Poetics and History
How much of this is Coleridge, and how much Porter, we cannot tell, but
the indication it gives of ˜ever softening gentleness™ catches the feminisa-
tion of culture which we have begun to trace and suggests how it was that
Byron™s unique poetic texture, the experience of simultaneous ˜scorching
and drenching™, came to be obscured by more harmonious nineteenth-
century cultural forms like biography, patriotism and religious belief.
To a certain extent, new poetic forms are always perceived to create
a physical rupturing of the reader™s experience. In June ±°±, for ex-
ample, the Monthly Monitor had attacked Lyrical Ballads for the ˜studied
abruptness™ of the poems ˜which makes them assume the appearance of
mere fragments™. The political inference of this style led the reviewer to
suspect Wordsworth and Coleridge of a ˜wayward spirit of discontent
. . . calculated to diffuse the seeds of general dissatisfaction™ (RR, A: ©©,
p. ·). Over a century later, W.B. Yeats struggled with Ezra Pound™s
Cantos, ¬nding ˜grotesque fragments™, ˜unbridged transitions™ and ˜unex-
plained ejaculations™.µ The advent of Modernism in the early nineteenth
and again in the early twentieth century possesses a distinctive texture,
but the meaning of the texture is entirely dependent on literary and
historical contexts. In order to understand the reading experience of
Byron™s contemporaries, we need to look at what shapes the unexpected
was expected to take.
° ·

˜Breaches in transition™: eighteenth-century
digressions and Byron™s early verse



Seventeenth-century scienti¬c empiricism was famously hostile to ˜all the
ampli¬cations, digressions, and swellings of style™ which the Royal Society
of London condemned as resulting in ˜only mists and uncertainties™.±
By the ¬rst decades of the eighteenth century, however, positive ap-
praisals of digressions were appearing in rhetorical theory. Shaftesbury
described a style of ˜deviations and excursions™ as the prerogative of
the gentleman and poet in his Characteristicks (±·±±), and Longinian the-
ory offered another way of reading abrupt change or discontinuity in
poetry as the product of sublime inspiration. But the art of digression
remained controversial, often highlighting an insecurity in literary crit-
icism more generally. Alexander Pope used digressive footnotes in The
Dunciad (±·) to parody the academic scholarship of Lewis Theobald.
This technique anticipated the anti-Jacobin satire of Gifford, Canning,
Frere and Mathias in the ±·°s. All these writers, however, used digres-
sion to support the concept of ideal beauty: even the labyrinthine gothic
library of The Dunciad shadows the orderly classical edi¬ce of all civilised
knowledge.
In eighteenth-century critical discourse, digression was presented as
structural beauty, an integral part, whereby the poet temporarily de-
parted from a poem™s ostensible subject, but discovered in the process of
digressing a hidden connection with the main subject. Digression was,
therefore, a way of reinforcing a concept of the uni¬ed whole: like the
operation of divinity it moved in a mysterious way. Anna Barbauld sum-
marised this digressive decorum in her preface to Akenside™s The Pleasures
of Imagination:
Many of these pieces . . . owe all their entertainment to the frequent digressions.
Where these arise naturally out of the subject . . . they are not only allowable
but graceful; but if forced, . . . they can be considered in no other light than that
of beautiful monsters, and injure the piece they are meant to adorn.



 Byron, Poetics and History
As we have seen, Byron™s digressions were received by contemporary
critics as ˜monsters™ (not always beautiful, by any means), and subse-
quent critics have also found them dif¬cult to categorise. In tracing
the relationship between theories of digression and transition in the
eighteenth-century long poem, Richard Terry usefully distinguishes be-
tween the use of digression to af¬rm hidden continuity, and digression
as ˜an autonomous textual unit™. Byron™s critics have frequently assimi-
lated digression to the theory of harmonious totality and, in so doing,
have overlooked the element of juxtaposition which is essential to Byronic
digression. Throughout the eighteenth century, the evaluation of digres-
sion was entwined with questions about how poetry could deal with
cultural and social manifestations of transition and change.
Disputes about the timing and delivery of poetic transition inevitably
returned to classical models, trying to balance the demands of emo-
tional veracity with consideration for the reader. Tensions between the
expression of feeling and formal organisation were focused on the ode.
William Congreve™s ˜discourse on the pindarique ode™ (±·°) had charac-
terised some recent lyrics as ˜a Bundle of rambling incoherent Thoughts,
express™d in a like parcel of irregular Stanzas which also consist of
such another complication of disproportion™d, uncertain and perplex™d
verses and Rhimes™. Congreve rejected the frequently cited precedent of
Pindar, ˜for tho™ his Digressions are frequent, and his Transitions sudden,
yet there is ever some secret connexion which tho™ not always appearing
to the Eye, never fails to communicate itself to the Understanding of
the Reader™.µ The appeal to ˜understanding™ was, of course, an af¬rma-
tion of the shared outlook of classically educated gentlemen whose taste
could be relied upon to guard social ˜connexion™. James Beattie was sure
that incongruous allusion would never ˜force a smile™ from a gentleman
˜except it surprise him in an unguarded moment™ and the laws of genre
helped to prevent any such ˜unguarded moments™.
In the Rambler in ±·µ± Samuel Johnson complained that poets were
using the ˜accidental peculiarity™ of ancient writers to free lyric poetry
from all laws, ˜to neglect the niceties of transition, to start into remote
digressions, and to wander without restraint from one scene of imagery
to another™. This pandered to a weakness in the uncultivated reader
whose attention is ˜more successfully excited by sudden sallies and un-
expected exclamations, than by . . . more artful and placid beauties™.· In
±·, however, Goldsmith™s revision of Newbery™s The Art of Poetry on a
New Plan celebrated the ode™s new loosening of restraint: ˜Fired . . . with
his subject™, the lyric poet ˜disdains grammatical niceties, and common
µ
Eighteenth-century digressions and Byron™s early verse
modes of speech, and often soars above rule . . . This freedom . . . con-
sists chie¬‚y in sudden transitions, bold digressions, and lofty excursions.™
Nevertheless Goldsmith, too, looked for an underlying coherence where
the poet is ˜led naturally to his subject again, and like a bee, having col-
lected the essence of many different ¬‚owers, returns home and unites
them all in one uniform pleasing sweet™ (©©, p. ±). Apparent disjunction
was expected to prepare the way for deeper resolution.
Revisiting the question of proper transition in the ode in ±·, Hugh
Blair was concerned about the mental stability of the poet who ˜becomes
so abrupt in his transitions; so eccentric and irregular in his motions . . .
that we essay in vain to follow him . . . The transitions from thought to
thought may be light and delicate, such as are prompted by a lively
fancy; but still they should be such as preserve the connection of ideas,
and show the Author to be one who thinks, and not one who raves.™
The threat of individual insanity to the community is comically em-
bodied in Jane Austen™s Henry Tilney who, when translated into the
role of lover, ˜talked at random, without sense or connection™.±° But as
well as the wider community, Blair also envisaged the immediate rela-
tionship between poet and reader. He was particularly concerned about
how the sublime could be sustained since ˜the mind is tending every
moment to fall down into its ordinary situation™: as soon as the author
˜alters the key; he relaxes the tension of the mind; the strength of the
feeling is emasculated; the Beautiful may remain, but the Sublime is
gone™ (Lectures, ©, p. ).±± Blair judged one of the greatest threats to
sublimity to be the incursion of particularity, insisting that if in sublime
compositions ˜any trivial or improper circumstances are mingled, the
whole is degraded™ (©, p. ·°). Cowper also wrestled with this problem in
his translations of Homer: ˜It is dif¬cult to kill a sheep with dignity in
a modern language™, he admitted wryly in his Preface, ˜Dif¬cult also,
without sinking below the level of poetry, to harness mules to a wag-
gon, particularizing every article of their furniture, straps, rings, staples,
and even the tying of knots that kept all together. H, who writes
always to the eye, with all his sublimity and grandeur, has the minute-
ness of a Flemish painter.™± Homer™s minutiae were problematic for a
late eighteenth-century readership because quotidian detail, as Naomi
Schor has observed, has always been ˜part of a larger semantic network,
bounded on the one side by the ornamental, with its traditional conno-
tations of effeminacy and decadence, and on the other, by the everyday,
whose “prosiness” is rooted in the domestic sphere of social life presided
over by women™.±
 Byron, Poetics and History
Early nineteenth-century questions about how to represent the
intricate ¬‚uxes and re¬‚uxes of the human mind were informed by
eighteenth-century theories about the association of ideas.± For Hume,
the words ˜transition™ and ˜association™ were almost interchangeable, but
transition in a work of art ought to strengthen the ties of community.
In a just composition, he argued, ˜the passions make an easy transition
from one object to another™ and prompt the kindling of sympathy, ˜But
were the poet to make a total digression from his subject . . . the imag-
ination, feeling a breach in the transition, would enter coldly into the
new scene.™±µ English taste could warm to eccentric digression, such as
the progress of Sterne™s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, but in
this case, changeability was contained under the unifying sign of Irish
personality. For a similar reason, the capriciousness of John Wolcot™s
(Peter Pindar™s) verse was popular as a humorous (if vulgar) adaptation
of classical precedent: ˜A Desultory way of writing, / A hop and step and
jump mode of inditing, / My great and wise relation Pindar, boasted.™±
Peter Pindar™s buffoonery was clearly just that, and so did not present any
threat to the law of genre; his self-indulgent rambling simply elaborated
the extravagant potential of sensibility.
Poetry of sensibility made much of the waywardness of the sentimen-
tal traveller. Thomas Warton, William Lisle Bowles, Charlotte Smith
and Samuel Taylor Coleridge all deployed self-consciously ˜desultory™
lines as a vehicle of individual feeling. In the ±·°s desultory writing was
rapidly associated with radical sensibility and feminine susceptibility.±·
In its ˜New Morality™ attack on the culture of tender radicalism, The
Anti-Jacobin praised fellow satirist T. J. Mathias for his ˜manly vigour™ and
˜patriot warmth™ which ˜wakes and points the desultory ¬res™ (ll. µ“µ).±
Although desultory forms could render faithfully the transitions of the
suffering human mind, they lacked the masculine virtues of order, dis-
cipline and rational control. It was in the spirit of a manly rebuke that
Mackintosh condemned Burke™s narrative of the French revolution as
˜desultory™.±
Byron™s writing was condemned as ˜desultory™ by reviewers long be-
fore he acknowledged the description in Don Juan canto  (stanza °);
the pedigree of Byron™s mingled poetic surface was, however, uncertain.
While Byron himself was evidently and self-consciously an aristocrat,
his poetic voice was dangerously hybridised and feminised. It focused
a nexus of critical uneasiness about digressions, ˜unblushing allusions™,
transitions, juxtapositions and minute detail. In order to clarify Byron™s
break with tradition, we need to look more closely at the disruptive
textuality of some of Byron™s eighteenth-century models.
·
Eighteenth-century digressions and Byron™s early verse
No poet offers more of a digressive parallel than Charles Churchill, the
satirist who ˜blazed / The comet of a season™ and whose grave in Dover
Byron visited the evening before he left England.° Andrew Bennett has
recently discussed Byron™s poem ˜Churchill™s Grave™ as an unteasing of
the myth of posterity, but Churchill™s use of digression in verse also opens
up the art of ˜mingling™ to ˜confuse a Newton™s thought™ (l. ).± The
poem™s composition dates from the summer of ±± when Byron was
reading Wordsworth at Shelley™s instigation. Anticipating Coleridge™s
criticisms of Wordsworthian abruptness in Biographia Literaria, Byron set
out to imitate Wordsworth™s style, ˜its beauties and its defects™.
With a blend of sentimental encounter (˜of sorrow and of awe™) and
parody (˜Because my homely phrase the truth would tell™), Byron sets
up a double relationship with his readers. The poem mixes alternately
rhyming lines and couplets, shadowing both Wordsworth™s Lyrical Ballads
style and Churchill™s Miltonised couplets: the meditative pace is that of
Wordsworth™s ˜Michael™ or The Excursion, but this ˜natural homily™ is pre-
sented as a knowing performance. We are given the melancholy erasure
of human achievement ˜Through the thick deaths of half a century™ (l. ±°),
juxtaposed with the opportunistic Sexton™s hints that he would like a tip.
After struggling to ˜extricate remembrance™ of the grave™s signi¬cance,
the Sexton manages to dredge up ˜the twilight of a former Sun™ and
eventually he supplies the simple and moving reason why ˜frequent trav-
ellers turn to pilgrims so™: ˜the man of whom you wot . . . / Was a most
famous writer in his day, / And therefore travellers step from out their
way / To pay him honour™ (ll. “).
This is an explanation, but it is also a mystery. The desire to step out
of one™s way to visit a ˜name no clearer than the names unknown™ (l. )
introduces an invisible notion of value which challenges (rather than
circulates with) the transaction between Byron and the Sexton. Byron
invokes Churchill, I think, not only because of the circumstantial parallel
of a season™s fame, but because Churchill™s relationship with his audience
existed on a cusp between formal verse satire and sentimental epistolary
conversation which was as risky and combative as Byron™s own position
in ±±. This curious mixture is ˜Literally Rendered™ in the poem and
the doubleness of the mode of address captures Byron™s critical sense of
his precarious textual and social position.
Churchill had been recognised as an element in Byron™s style at the
very start of his publishing career. The Eclectic™s review of English Bards and
Scotch Reviewers found that Byron™s ˜indiscriminate™ revenge indicated he
had been taking ˜a course of Churchill™. Peter J. Manning has discussed
the importance of Charles Churchill™s poetry for Byron™s early satire,
 Byron, Poetics and History

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