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reading Byron™s deliberate echoes of Churchill as a means of appealing
to literary tradition in an audience which could no longer be relied
upon to recognise classical allusion.µ As well as providing a model of
vituperative force, Churchill also offered a precedent for interrupting the
¬‚ow of verse to the reader with urgent or humorous asides. Byron seems
to have realised the potential of this technique early on, even though
one of Churchill™s most in¬‚uential editors presented such disruptions as
aesthetic ¬‚aws.
In the account of Churchill™s life prefacing his edition, William Tooke
established a way of reading Churchill™s stylistic irregularity as an acci-
dent of personal history: ˜The anxiety arising from domestic infelicity
unhinged his mind though naturally of a ¬rm texture, and seemed to
give an entirely new bias to his disposition™. The abruptness of this
˜plunge™ into ˜an abyss of misery™ (The Poetical Works of Charles Churchill
(±°), ©, p. xvii), coupled with reports of Churchill™s loss of faith in
˜Christianity as by law established™ and his trouble with creditors may
have encouraged Byron™s identi¬cation with the poet in ±±.· More
signi¬cantly, Churchill™s poetry offered an acute awareness of the public,
textual interface of private scandal:
Ah! what, my Lord, hath private life to do
With things of public nature? Why to view
Would you thus cruelly these scenes unfold . . . ?

In the two-volume ±° edition of Churchill™s poetry (listed in the ±±
sale catalogue of Byron™s library), Tooke used his notes to suggest that
Churchill™s digressive asides were an ˜accident™ of composition “ a view
which seems to have prevailed throughout the nineteenth century. The
main ˜blemish™ of the poet™s style, according to Tooke, was his personal,
abusive censure of individuals. Tooke classed Churchill as a Juvena-
lian satirist and made it clear that it was his ˜roughness™ and ˜common-
place™ qualities which kept him ˜below the ¬rst rank™.° Personal allusions
were regarded as errors, whereas classical allusions were accepted as the
currency of ˜every writer of taste™:
Though not unacquainted with the poets of ancient and modern times, the
Editor has seldom presumed to notice the passages of preceding writers, which
his author has occasionally imitated or borrowed; to every reader of taste they
will readily suggest themselves, and thus an idle accumulation of notes will have
been avoided . . . [the Editor] will be better pleased with being reproached
for the scantiness of information than for the admission of one super¬‚uous
note.±

Eighteenth-century digressions and Byron™s early verse
Tooke™s preface suggests that he regarded ˜super¬‚uous™ prose notes as
stylistic imperfections, much as he disapproved of the ˜general irreg-
ularity™ of Churchill™s conduct and of Churchill™s ˜indulgence™ in the
˜license of digression™. Byron™s higher esteem for the satirist is evident
in his comparison of Churchill™s Times with Dryden™s Annus Mirabilis in
correspondence with Lord Holland when asked to help out with the
Drury Lane Address. Byron adopted and developed the textual fea-
tures which Tooke described as Churchill™s ˜most obvious . . . blemishes™.
While Churchill™s ˜years of fame™ have been cited as relevant contexts
for Byron™s meditations on posterity, the texture of Churchill™s verse
satire has not been analysed in detail, and an exploration of its id-
iosyncrasies helps to de¬ne the rough ride of which Byron™s readers
complained.
Like much eighteenth-century verse, Byron™s early poetry displays
an emphatic use of personi¬cation “ a traditional method of gaining
universality for satire. Churchill and Byron, however, share an inclina-
tion towards more detailed and tangible personi¬cations, suggesting a
pull towards the fabric rather than the ¬gurines of didactic poetry.µ
In Churchill™s Gotham (±·) a playfully idiosyncratic voice emerges to
interrupt the poem before it is properly underway:
Far off (no matter whether east or west,
A real country, or one made in jest,
Not yet by modern Mandevilles disgrac™d,
Nor by map-jobbers wretchedly misplac™d,)
There lies an island, neither great nor small,
Which, for distinction sake, I Gotham call.
(ll. ± “)
As well as being an outrageous parenthetical interruption, these lines
¬‚aunt the marginalisation of the poet. Thomas Lockwood suggests that
Gotham presents Churchill as a legislator: ˜whereas Pope represents the
author™s isolation as enforced, Churchill accepts or even welcomes it and
tracks down its relativistic implications™. But Gotham is off the map in a
way which reminds us that, unlike Byron, Churchill was writing at a time
when the edges of England (notably Scotland) were dangerously periph-
eral. Churchill collaborated with John Wilkes on the North Briton and to
some extent, his digressive licence is the ¬‚aunting of an aggressive English
chauvinism. While Byron would borrow Churchill™s meandering digres-
sive line, his experience of British imperialism in Napoleonic Europe
and his sympathy with oppressed Celtic peoples questioned rather than
supported English nationalistic celebration.
µ° Byron, Poetics and History
Churchill bullied and harassed his readers with parenthetical asides
which were designed to pre-empt and forestall their objections. This
desire to incorporate and quell audience heckling in the text is evident
in the way quali¬cations are planted in Churchill™s Independence (±·)
from the ¬rst line:
Happy the bard (though few such bards we ¬nd)
Who, ™bove controulment, dares to speak his mind.
(ll. ± “)

The deliberate disruption of the verse texture in these lines demonstrates
the roughness of the ˜independent voice™. Not surprisingly, Hogarth™s
±· print of Churchill (˜The Bruiser™) depicted him as a club-wielding
bear.· With Wilkes, Churchill perfected the expression of an outsider™s
voice, proclaiming an authentic Englishness which had been betrayed
by the ruling party. Churchill™s aggressive Whiggish stance bolstered
a strong, patriotic sense of identity while simultaneously criticising the
status quo. In later years Byron sought to retain the idiom of indepen-
dence and liberty, but would (eventually) cut loose from the Whiggish
conception of the whole.
The Journey, which was left in manuscript at Churchill™s death, exem-
pli¬es in even more exaggerated form the obtrusiveness of the satirist™s
intelligence through the de¬‚ections of a self-interrupting narrator:
Some of my friends, (for friends I must suppose
All, who, not daring to appear my foes,
Feign great good will, and, not more full of spite
Than full of craft, under false colours ¬ght)
Some of my friends, (so lavishly I print)
As more in sorrow than in anger, hint
(Though that indeed will scarce admit a doubt)
That I shall run my stock of genius out.
(ll. ± “)

This passage displays many of the digressive modes later employed by
Byron: the repeated beginning of a phrase (or poem), thwarted linear
progress, quali¬cation, commentary on the process of composition, use
of proverbial expression from Hamlet and conversational after-thought. In
The Ghost, Churchill attempts to extricate himself from a digression using
˜But, to return™ three times in thirty lines, a device which Byron exploits
in Beppo: ˜To turn, “ and to return; “ the devil take it! / This story slips
forever through my ¬ngers™ (ll. ·“). This self-re¬‚exive narratology,
of course, ¬nds a prose counterpart in the writing of Laurence Sterne,
µ±
Eighteenth-century digressions and Byron™s early verse
and Churchill insisted that his use of a modish Shandean form should
reinforce his oppositional politics.
The ¬rst two volumes of Tristram Shandy were published in ±·° and
at the time Churchill was writing, Sterne™s novel was at the peak of its
popularity. Although this aspect of his satire has been seldom discussed,
Churchill was clearly interested in the possibility of a digressive prose
model for verse:
But though to poets we allow,
No matter when acquir™d or how,
From truth unbounded deviation,
Which custom calls Imagination,
Yet can™t they be suppos™d to lie
One half so fast as Fame can ¬‚y;
Therefore (to solve this Gordian knot,
A point we almost had forgot)
To courteous readers be it known,
That, fond of verse and falsehood grown,
Whilst we in sweet digression sung,
Fame check™d her ¬‚ight, and held her tongue,
And now pursues, with double force
And double speed, her destin™d course.
(The Ghost ©©©, ll. µ°“±)

The reference to Imagination as a sort of deviation, the graphic display
of deviation in parenthesis, the use of the adjective ˜sweet™ to charac-
terise the experience of digression, and the reference to the ˜knot™ are all
Shandean traits. The Ghost experiments with Sterne™s modes of narration
and, correspondingly, it was the poem least admired by Tooke:
The metre is rugged, and on the whole inferior to that of ˜The Duellist;™ and
though many ¬ne passages occur, the rambling, digressive manner in which the
whole poem is written, seldom invites to a re-perusal. (The Poetical Works of Charles
Churchill (±°), ©©, ±°)
In spite of widespread assumptions (like Tooke™s) that digression should
be seamless and contribute to the coherence of the long poem, Churchill™s
interruptions insist on opacities of language, the haphazard process of
reading, and the ˜sportive™ persona of the poet. This is evident in The Ghost
where the poet complicates our progress through the text by attempting
to ˜[lug] in™ material from other texts:
Men of sound parts, who, deeply read,
O™erload the storehouse of the head
With furniture they ne™er can use
µ Byron, Poetics and History
Cannot forgive our rambling Muse
This wild excursion; cannot see
Why Physic and Divinity,
To the surprise of all beholders,
Are lugg™d in by the head and shoulders;
Or how, in any point of view,
Oxford hath any thing to do:
But men of nice and subtle learning,
Remarkable for quick discerning,
Through spectacles of critic mould,
Without instruction, will behold
That we a method here have got
To shew what is, by what is not;
And that our drift (parenthesis
For once apart) is brie¬‚y this.
(The Ghost ©, ll. ±°·“)
Of course, the next section is by no means brief. Churchill versi¬ed
recurrent apologies for his digressions, and cultivated his association with
the hapless Shandean narrator who is constitutionally unable to restrict
himself to a linear narrative. We ¬nd the same unwieldy textuality in
Don Juan canto ©, ˜Kind reader! pass / This long parenthesis: I could
not shut / It sooner for the soul of me™ (©. µ). The manuscript of canto
© in the British Library reveals the faint trace of an opening mark of
parenthesis just before ˜I could not shut . . .™, suggesting the extent to
which, for Byron, opening an aside became a re¬‚ex of composition.
In his illuminating discussion of the use of brackets in Childe Harold™s
Pilgrimage and Don Juan, John Lennard followed the rhetorical lead of
A.B. England in emphasising the relationship between Byron™s paren-
thetical asides and verisimilitude. Lennard was sensitive to the reader™s
role in digression, but saw it as an essentially passive one, concluding
that Byron™s parentheses soothe the reader into compliance:
To a considerable extent the use of lunulae . . . becomes a mannerism, serving,
like grunts of agreement on the telephone, as phatic communication, reassuring
the reader that the ˜line™ is still open, that the private, mercuric Byron is still
there.°
Contemporary reviews indicate that the contrary was the case and that
Byron™s bracketed asides worked to check and modify the poet“reader
relationship, reinjecting tension rather than offering reassuring returns.
The contingencies of publication and critical reception are inextricably
linked with formal signi¬ers of the arbitrary and accidental in the printed
text. Byron and Churchill presented their falls into parentheses both as
µ
Eighteenth-century digressions and Byron™s early verse
a way of succumbing to the ¬‚uxes and re¬‚uxes of the mind and as a
renegotiation of the contract between poet and reader:
After my promise made in rhime,
And meant in earnest at that time,
To jog, according to the mode,
In one dull pace, in one dull road.
What but that curse of heart and head
To this digression could have lead?
Where plung™d, in vain I look about,
And can™t stay in, nor well get out.
Could I, whilst Humour held the quill,
Could I digress with half that skill;
Could I with half that skill return,
Which we so much admire in Sterne,
Where each digression, seeming vain,
And only ¬t to entertain,
Is found, on better recollection,
To have a just and nice connexion,
To help the whole with wondrous art,
Whence it seems idle to depart;
Then should our readers ne™er accuse
These wild excursions of the Muse;
Ne™er backward turn dull pages o™er
To recollect what went before.
(The Ghost ©©©, ll. µ“°)

Churchill here invokes the idea of organic digression ˜to help the whole™
only to reject it in favour of something more obstreperous. The refer-
ence to the book as a material article and to the reader™s experience of
turning back pages are self-conscious adaptations of Sterne™s running
commentary on the course of Tristram Shandy:
“ We™ll not stop two minutes, my dear Sir, “ only, as we have got through these
¬ve volumes, (do, Sir, sit down upon a set “ they are better than nothing) let us
just look back upon the country we have passed through.±
By referring to ˜the skill . . . which we so much admire in Sterne™,
Churchill links the reader™s experience of digression in Tristram Shandy and
the experience of digression in his own work. Sterne, however, appears
as the more traditional writer, upholding the decorum of parts contribut-
ing to a whole as opposed to the ˜wild excursions™ of Churchill™s Muse:
Sterne™s digressions create a potential space for ˜better recollection™,
while Churchill™s only produce the abruptness of a ˜plunge™. Nevertheless,
while deprecating his art, Churchill satirised literary critics as a ˜pack™
µ Byron, Poetics and History
intolerant of whatever does not connect:
When loose Digression, like a colt unbroke,
Spurning connexion and her formal yoke,
Bounds through the forest, wanders far astray
From the known path, and loves to lose her way,
™Tis a full feast to all the mongrel pack
To run the rambler down and bring her back.
(Gotham ©©, ll. °µ“±°)

Digression is here a female ¬gure and the hint of sexual promiscuity in
˜loose™ is emphasised by the traditional association of wantonness in the
image of the ˜colt™ like Sterne™s ˜unbacked ¬lly™, or Swift™s ˜fancy [getting]
astride on his reason™.
Swift and Sterne veer towards a relativism which is just held in check;
Churchill and Byron, on the other hand, ¬‚irt in a much riskier way with
the texture of moral and aesthetic relativity. While digression ¬gures

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