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is “that incarnate lie” (X, st. ±) “ lying which has assumed a ¬xed and
material existence. Southey assumes such a form almost necessarily be-
cause, in Byron™s imagination, Southey™s vision of judgment is a vision
of absolute truth, of which he is the spokesman. Paradoxically, therefore,
the Byron of Don Juan, like his feminine imaginations in that work, is a
deceiver, whereas men like Southey are taken as the representatives of
accepted Truth “ “truth” being understood now, however, according to
that excellent modern proverb, ˜Truth is lies that have hardened.”
Manfred is once again the key text for constructing this distinction
between lying and cant. As Manfred contemplates suicide on a cliff of
the Jungfrau he observes:

There is a power upon me which withholds
And makes it my fatality to live;
If it be life to wear within myself
This barrenness of spirit, and to be
My own soul™s sepulchre, for I have ceased
To justify my deeds unto myself”
(, , “)
The last in¬rmity of evil.

Manfred does not redeem himself from “evil” here, he redeems him-
self from the “last in¬rmity” which evil deeds tempt one toward: the
justi¬cation of those deeds, the effort to (mis)represent them as some-
thing other than what they are. In determining to cease his processes
of self-justi¬cation Manfred speaks most directly to the Byronic texts of
±°“±±, explicating them as texts in which these deceptive dramas of
self-justi¬cation were playing themselves out.
The connection between self-justi¬cation and cant is concealed, or
revealed, in the Miltonic allusion executed through the phrase “The last
in¬rmity of evil.” Here the text glances at Milton™s “Lycidas” (II, ·°“·±),
where “The last in¬rmity of noble minds” is identi¬ed as the desire for
fame, for a “public approbation.” This desire is a recurrent topic in Don
Juan, where Byron both seduces and abandons the public™s approba-
tion, mocks it and pursues it. The success of the work might well be
·° Byron and Romanticism
represented, in fact, by the resoluteness with which it negotiates those
ambivalent impulses, just as that resoluteness will be usefully traced in
Don Juan™s ambivalent reception history. Indeed, the highest praise that
might be given Byron™s masterwork is that, although recognized as a
masterwork, it never became a cultural touchstone. When the need has
arisen for oracular consultations, we have usually gone to Wordsworth
and The Prelude rather than to Byron or Don Juan. (This has been good
for Byron, but bad for “ a travesty of “ Wordsworth.)
Marino Faliero offers another example of a canting self-justi¬cation
which is pertinent to this discussion. It occurs in Act IV, just after Faliero
has overcome his class scruples and determined to carry out the coup
against the Venetian aristocracy. Faliero re¬‚ects on the fact that the
oligarchs of Venice, after having insulted him, “trusted to” his aristocratic
character, trusted

To the subduing power which I preserved
Over my mood, when its ¬rst burst was spent.
But they were not aware that there are things
Which make revenge a virtue by re¬‚ection,
And not an impulse of mere anger; though
The laws sleep, justice wakes, and injured souls
Oft do a public right with private wrong,
And justify their deeds unto themselves.
(IV, ii, ±°°“±°·)

Here the Manfredian phrase works to expose the self-deception of
Faliero. The Doge means that his “private wrong,” his revenge against his
fellow aristocrats, will work in the end a “public right,” will bring social
justice to Venice. But the Doge is massively self-deceived, for the founda-
tion of his part in the plot against the nobles has nothing to do with social
justice or public service and everything to do with a private grievance
and personal revenge. The ringing, “noble” phrases (“though / The
laws sleep, justice wakes,” etc.) are post facto special pleading, rhetorical
obfuscation. Nevertheless, as in Julia™s letter, this text comes to us through
two voices. One voice we hear is the Doge™s self-deceived voice, whose
self-justi¬cation and apparent ¬rmness of purpose only mask a deeper
moral “in¬rmity.” But that voice is itself de¬ned by a deeper textual voice,
which turns the Doge™s personal “revenge” into a “virtue by re¬‚ection”
in a sense entirely unintended by the Doge. This deeper voice, in fact,
translates the entire passage into a positive expression on behalf of per-
sonal integrity and social justice, the two values here falsely proclaimed
by the Doge, and thereby actually revealed through the text.
·±
“My brain is feminine”

IV

Byron™s interesting new theory of the truth of art is obviously a critique
of the Romantic theory of artistic truth, i.e. a critique of the idea of
Romantic sincerity. Byron™s theory is a defence of a certain kind of
poetic arti¬ce which he calls “the truth in masquerade.” This remarkable
phrase involves an important allusion, indeed, a self-quotation. I cited
the originary passage earlier:

Far be™t from me unkindly to upbraid
The lovely ROSA™s prose in masquerade.

The allusion tells us that Byron™s theory of truth as poetic arti¬ce is it-
self a masquerade of some larger truth, including some deceptions and
absences of truth. The allusion reminds us, for example, that Byron™s
theory has concealed origins in that primary type of the poetry of
Romantic sincerity, sentimental verse. When Byron in English Bards calls
Charlotte Dacre™s verse “prose in masquerde” he is ridiculing her work
along the same lines that he ridiculed, throughout his life, the greatest
Romantic poet of sincerity, Wordsworth.
Of course, in Don Juan Byron™s attack comes from one who repeat-
edly insists that his poetic arti¬ce aims for a higher kind of sincer-
ity. Furthermore, if the poetry of sincerity is, as Byron says, dull and
prosy, Don Juan has made an explicit contract with “pedestrian muses”
(“Dedication,” st. ). Indeed, if the phrase “prose in masquerade” could
ever be applied to any English poem, it could be “ as all readers have
understood “ applied to Don Juan, the poem in which Byron “rattle[s]
on exactly as [he] talk[s]” (XV, st. ±).
We can sort through some of these complexities by recalling Byron™s
attacks on some other children of the sentimental muse. When Don Juan
was ¬rst read, the poem struck a number of readers as wickedly obscene.
Byron bristled at the charge, and argued that his work would never induce
a person to lustful acts because it was a comic poem. “Lust is a serious
passion and . . . cannot be excited by the ludicrous,” Byron says, and he
goes on to contrast his comic writing with serious and sentimental poetry
such as his friend Tom Moore™s work (CPW, V, ·n.). Elsewhere he
pursues the same line of argument, only more vigorously, in his brilliant
if malicious remarks on Keats™s similar sentimental eroticism.
Byron™s argument is that the verse of erotic sentimentality “ Charlotte
Dacre™s “prose in masquerade,” John Keats™s “p[i]ss a bed poetry”
(BLJ, VI, °°) “ turns sex from a matter of the body to a matter of
· Byron and Romanticism
the brain. Sex in poetry becomes “serious” when it is delivered over to
the imagination. At that point the pleasure of the text becomes not moral
but, literally, erotic. It is in this sense that Byron will insist, and with good
reason to support his position, that sentimental poets like Dacre and
Moore and Keats are the true immoralists. Through them eroticism ap-
pears as a behavior of conscience “ as “sex in the head.” Unlike sentimental
verse, which Byron calls “the Onanism of Poetry” (BLJ, VI, ±·), Don Juan
takes up its erotic subjects in a deliberately unsentimental way “ “it strips
off the tinsel of Sentiment” (BLJ, VI, °), he says, and thereby causes
offence among those who, while they want sex in poetry, want it in more
“re¬n™d” forms.
Byron™s argument, made in a context in which the Romantic ideology
was establishing itself, will now seem to us, who stand on the other side
of the ideology™s historical reign, remarkably insightful. And in truth
his imagination of the truth is here quite important. Nevertheless, this
Byronic imagination is not “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
It carries its own form of special pleading, and that (what must surely
be unconscious) allusion to Charlotte Dacre and his earlier act of poetic
betrayal returns in Don Juan as a critical opening in Byron™s own text,
unknown to itself.
Following the concealments and self-deception practiced in the po-
etry of ±°“±±, Byron™s exilic poetry made a virtue of candor and
truth-telling. I pass without comment the important contribution which
sentimental poetry like Charlotte Dacre™s made toward a poetic ideal of
candour and the fulness of truth. These matters we have already touched
on, and we have seen the depth of Byron™s debt to that poetry. Like Blake™s
Swedenborg, Byron in ±± had broken some of the nets that had bound
him up, and his escape is registered in his later work. Nevertheless, part of
the truth of Don Juan still operates in the mode of deception and untruth.
We observe this by interrogating Byron™s masterwork on the issue of the
erotics of the imagination, the issue of sex in the head. This is the territory
occupied by people like Dacre and Moore and Keats, a territory Byron
says he has abandoned, as he abandoned his canting homeland. Byron™s
critique of cant, however, was partly negotiated through a recovery of
certain sentimental attitudes “ a turn away from the muscular and moral
values which so dominate his work between English Bards and Childe Harold
Canto IV. Juan™s liaisons with Julia and Haid´ e are both completely
e
sentimental affairs. Furthermore, Byron™s new poetic theory of “truth
in masquerade” is grounded in a sympathetic meditation on a certain
kind of “feminine” lying. Earlier that sort of deception had served only
·
“My brain is feminine”
to drive a wedge between Byron and his sentimental attachments, but in
Don Juan he begins to rethink the issues.
The behavior of Julia (at the beginning of Don Juan) and of Lady
Adeline, la donna mobile (at the end), epitomizes how theatricality and
masquerade “ deliberate strategies of deception “ can serve the cause
of deep truth. These strategies will do so, Byron™s work argues, only if
they are deployed with complete self-consciousness “ that is, only if the
theatre of deception, or the masquerade, labels itself as such, and includes
itself in its own illusory displays. (To the degree that these displays are
sentimental productions, to that extent they are part of the theater of
love in the full sentimentalist sense.) In this erotic theater, the central
¬gure, for the man, must be the woman, “Whence is our entrance and
our exit” (IX, st. µµ).
A theory of art, however, once it is deployed through a work, becomes
a two-edged sword, and the case is no different for Don Juan. Byron™s
critique of the sentimental eroticism of Moore and Keats, for example,
seems hardly less applicable to many parts of Byron™s epic, not least,
I suppose, to the scenes in the harem. Criticism might conclude, from
this kind of contradiction, that Byron was fabulously self-deceived in thus
criticizing Moore and Keats; and criticism would no doubt be correct
in this judgment. But the exposure of Byron™s personal self-deception
is far less signi¬cant than the way his poetry transforms truth and lies
through the arti¬ce of its masquerades. Indeed, the brilliance of the
harem episode depends exactly on its having shown so clearly “ despite
Byron™s quotidian pronouncements “ the positive relation which operates
between sex and the imagination.
This relation is (as it were) dramatized for us in the persons “ in
the dreams and imaginations “ of the young harem women. But the
narrator™s specular involvement in that drama (and our involvement
through him) is equally drawn into the orbit of the poem™s theatricality.
The harem episode is, in one very obvious sense, nothing more than
a distinctly “male” sex fantasy, and hence a voyeuristic spectacle. The
narrator is unaware of his voyeurist perspective, however “ or rather, he
sees nothing in his act of seeing to be critical of. We see this innocence of
his mind in his blithe assumption that the scene and events could only
be imagined as he has imagined them.
This assumption acquires a critical edge in Byron™s poem, however,
just because it is a contrived assumption, an arti¬ce. Indeed, the essential
wit of the episode arises from the narrator™s conscious assumption of an
innocent eye, his pretence “ as in the narrative of Dudu™s dream “ that
· Byron and Romanticism
he is himself unaware of the word-plays and double meanings of his own
discourse. Unlike Julia in her letter in Canto I, Dudu does not narrate her
own dream; the narrator tells it for her in indirect discourse. That indi-
rection underscores the theatricality of his talk, the masquerade in which
he is involved. The critical consequence, however, is that the narrator is
himself pulled on to the stage of the poem. In that event the narrator
is released from the bondage of his own imagination. We are not only
able, for example, to “see” and criticize his voyeurism, we come as well
into contact with that supreme objectivity which poetic discourse, alone
of our discursive forms, seems able to achieve. “Byron” would not have
wanted to be told that his masterwork was itself deeply invested in senti-
mentalism and sex in the head; nonetheless, this is the case, and it is his
own master-work which tells us so.
In the harem episode we see Don Juan operating under the illusion of
its own self-consciousness. The narrator™s amusement is the sign that he
is satis¬ed with his understanding, that he possesses understanding. But
his wisdom is an illusion of knowledge which, however, tells a truth about
feeling. The harem episode is a theatrical display of a certain kind of “sex
in the head” “ an onanism of poetry fully the equal of Keats™s. And it
is an onanism of poetry precisely because its eroticism, founded in the
sentimentalist project, here executes that project in a space of solitude.
The harem episode is an image, in short, not of ful¬lled but of frustrated
desire. Its pretence to be something else “ its pretence to display an
ultimately ful¬lled eroticism “ is an essential feature of its deepest truth.
In Charlotte Dacre™s poetry, “hours of solitude” are hours of critical
re¬‚ection, hours in which one experiences the loss and deprivation of love
and in which one recognizes the state of the loss. The harem episode in
Don Juan means to imagine a way of escaping such solitude and loss, but
in the event it succeeds in de¬ning those illusions of escape which serve
only to deepen one™s awareness of what the experience of loss entails. In
this respect the episode is something of a retreat from the philosophical
achievement of Canto I. But the text does not revert to the style of
the period ±°“±±. Byron™s feminine and sentimental brain, which
emerged between ±±µ and ±±·, made such a lapse impossible. The
eroticism of the harem episode is in certain obvious respects ludicrous
and self-deceived, but “ like “The Eve of St Agnes,” which is quite a
comparable piece of work “ the episode does not (at any rate) torture
sexual feeling with moral instrumentations. It catches, therefore, the true
voice of Romantic feeling “ even if the feelings involved are not so rich
or complex as the feelings at the conclusion of Canto I.
·µ
“My brain is feminine”

NOTES

± Notes and Queries, th series,  (µ August ±), ±“±µ; and for Sir Richard
Edgecumbe™s piece, noted below, see ibid., µ±µ.
 I have never seen these books described by Wake but his identi¬cation of the
pencil notations is persuasive. Byron often wrote in pencil in books in this
way, especially in his early years.
 Byron™s four early books were all printed in Newark, and of course Byron™s
life between ±° and ±°· was closely connected to the Nottingham area.
 A good brief summary of the Della Cruscan phenomenon is given in John
Mark Longaker, The Della Cruscans and William Gifford. The History of a Minor
Movement in an Age of Literary Transition (Philadelphia, ±).
µ The Della Cruscans typically published under pseudonyms, and “Rosa
Matilde” is a direct allusion to Mrs. Cowley™s adopted cognomen “Laura
Matilda.” It is important to realize, however, that Dacre was not a Della
Cruscan herself, but a slightly later writer who came under their in¬‚u-
ence. Dacre™s work exhibits a much more self-conscious employment of
the Della Cruscan style: see, for example, her poems “Passion Uninspired
by Sentiment,” “To the Shade of Mary Robinson,” and “The Female
Philosopher.”

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