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Hero is exposed as a text of such ambiguity that, reading it, one cannot
be certain if it signals a heart ¬lled with “the calmness of the good” or
with a “Guilt grown old in desperate hardihood.” And she added that
this skill with words was one “he is afraid of ” himself.
In a good recent essay Elledge has revived a variant of this insidious
reading of “Fare Thee Well!” The poem, he argues, is “a portrait of
indecision, taut with antithetical tensions”; it “charts . . . the depth and
con¬gurations of the poet™s ambivalence . . . toward reconciliation with
his wife” (Elledge ±: ). Although Elledge is, I believe, certainly
correct in this reading of the poem, he does not go nearly far enough,
either substantively or methodologically. In this respect the readings of
both the Critical reviewer and Lady Byron seem to me more weighty and
profound.
What Anabella and the Critical reviewer call attention to are the social
contexts in which the poem was executed. Anabella was peculiarly alive
to such matters because they touched upon her life in the most important
ways. “Fare Thee Well!” was not simply a thing of beauty, an aesthetic
object spinning in the disinterested space of a Kantian (or Coleridgean)
theoretical world. It was an event in the language, of art, speci¬cally
located, and she registered that event in particular ways. To her the sep-
aration controversy came to involve two primary matters. There was ¬rst
the matter of the law, and who, in the complex legal maneuverings, would
have power over the other to in¬‚uence various decisions (Lady Byron
feared, for example, that Byron would seek to deprive her of custody of
their daughter Ada). And second there was the (closely related) matter
of public opinion, and who would enter into and ¬nally emerge from the
separation proceedings with what sort of public image.
When Byron sent her a copy of “Fare Thee Well!” soon after he wrote
it, Lady Byron was quick to read it as a shrewd ploy to gain power
over her in the context of those two areas of interest which most con-
cerned her. At ¬rst she emphasized the “legal” reading, for she felt, as we
have already seen, that Byron™s various communications were designed to
construct a sympathetic self-image in order to improve his bargaining po-
sition. “He has been assuming the character of an injured & affectionate

The circumstances of publication
husband with great success to some,” she remarked in mid-February
(Elwin ±: °). When Byron sent her a MS copy of the poem late
in March, she wrote ironically to her mother of its apparent tenderness,
“and so he talks of me to Every one” (). But the poem did not disturb
her greatly until she learned that Byron intended to print and distribute
it privately in London society. This act, she feared, would turn “The Tide
of feeling . . . against” her, · but she was dissuaded from her ¬rst impulse “
to publish a rejoinder “ by the counsel of Dr. Stephen Lushington.
The signi¬cance of all this becomes more clear, I think, if we recall that
“Fare Thee Well!” was initially constituted as three very different texts,
only two of which were manipulated by Byron, while the other fell under
the co-authority of persons and powers who were hostile to him. The
¬rst of these texts is the one which originates in the MS poem addressed
to Lady Byron, and which Byron caused to have circulated in London in
late March and early April. The second is the text privately printed and
distributed in ¬fty copies on  April, at Byron™s insistence and over the
objections of his publisher Murray. Byron™s activities here are important
to remember because they show that he was manipulating the poem,
was literally fashioning an audience for it of a very speci¬c kind. The
original MS may have been addressed to his wife, but when copies of that
poem began to be made and circulated, a new text started to emerge.
The printed text in ¬fty copies represents the de¬nitive emergence of
that text, which was addressed past and through Lady Byron to a circle
of people “ friends, acquaintances, and other interested parties “ whose
“reading” and “interpretation” of the poem Byron wanted to generate,
and of course in¬‚uence.
In the most limited sense, Byron wanted his poem to be read as the
effusion of an “injured and affectionate husband.” Moore™s later report
in his Life, that the MS text he saw was covered with Byron™s tears,
represents in effect such an interpretation of the poem. But the fact that
Byron was also managing a certain kind of circulation for the poem set
in motion other forces, and other readings, which were only latent (so
to speak) in the verbal MS text. The poem, that is to say, came to be
widely seen “ and read “ as another event in Byron™s troubled “domestic
circumstances.” It is this circulation of the verses which begins to change
the meaning of the poem “ indeed, which begins to change the poem
itself. The words of the original MS do not signi¬cantly differ from the
privately printed text; nonetheless, that ¬rst printed text has become
another poem, and one which sets in motion an urgency toward the
production of yet another textual change.
 Byron and Romanticism
This new change is de¬nitive when the privately printed text ¬nally
makes its appearance in the Champion on ± April and thence throughout
the periodical press. This is a new poem altogether. In the ¬rst place, it
does not appear alone but alongside “A Sketch,” Byron™s cutting satire
on Mrs. Clermont which he had also put into private circulation in ¬fty
copies several days before he began circulating “Fare Thee Well!.” The
editors of the Champion text so printed and positioned “A Sketch” as to
make it an exponent of the “real meaning” of “Fare Thee Well!”: that
is to say, it is used partly for the light it sheds on “Fare Thee Well!,” as
a way of exposing Byron™s hypocritical malignancy. In the second place,
the farewell poem is accompanied, in the Champion, by a long editorial
commentary denouncing Byron™s character as well as his politics, and
explicitly “reading” the two poems as evidence of his wickedness.
The Champion™s text of “Fare Thee Well!” is, I would say, the de¬ni-
tive version of the (so to speak) hypocritical poem, just as the MS version
sent to Lady Byron “ which, interestingly, seems not to have survived “
would be the de¬nitive version of the sentimental poem. The “texts” which
extend between these two versions dramatize this ¬rst, crucial stage in
the poem™s processes of transformation. But they do not conclude those
processes. Even as the Champion text is completing that ¬rst stage of the
poem™s transformations, it has initiated a new stage, the one in which
the two faces of this poem are forced to confront one another. And it
is in this next stage of its textual development that “Fare Thee Well!”
becomes most rich and interesting. This is the poem whose meaning
focuses and culminates the controversies among the readers in Byron™s
day. The question is gone over again and again: is this a poem of love
(“sentimental”) or a poem of hate (“hypocritical”)? The ¬nal contempo-
rary text declares that in some important sense it is both. Byron him-
self produced the materialized version of this culminant text when he
published the poem, with the telling epigraph from “Christabel,” in his
Poems (±±).
This is the text which Elledge has recently revived, a work full of pain-
ful and even frightening tensions and contradictions. And while I want to
salute Elledge™s success in rescuing Byron™s poem from its impoverished
sentimental readings, I must also point out Elledge™s insistence “ it stems
from his New Critical background “ that his is not a reading of a work of
poetry so much as an exploration of a set of tense personal circumstances:
“my concern is less with the poem as poem than with the dynamics
of the relationship between poet-husband and audience-wife as Byron
represents them” (Elledge ±: n). He makes this statement because
µ
The circumstances of publication
his notion is that “the poem as poem” is an abstract verbal construct, a
“text” that not only can be, but must be, divorced from the social and
material formations within which the work was instituted and carried out.
Such an idea commits one to a certain way of reading poetry which
seems to me intolerable. But it is a way which is particularly destructive for
a poet like Byron, whose poetical language is characteristically executed
by invoking and utilizing its available social and institutional resources.
More, Byron™s work insists that this is the way of all poetry, though
some poets and apologists for poetry argue that it is otherwise, that
poetry operates in a space of disinterestedness and autonomy. “Fare Thee
Well!” is therefore, in this respect, a kind of metapoem, a work which
foregrounds Byron™s ideas about what poetry actually is and how it works.
Byron himself seems to have recognized very clearly “ that is to say,
with pain and reluctance “ the full signi¬cance of his poetic practice. In
writing and circulating “Fare Thee Well!” he was the author and agent of
the completed work, the one who ¬nally would be responsible (of course
not entirely responsible “ just personally responsible) for all of the texts.
Yet while Byron authored those texts, he could not fully control them “
this, the fate of all poets, is sometimes called their “inspiration” “ so that
in the end he found that he too, like everyone else who would involve
themselves with the poem, would have to trust the tale and not the teller.
His discovery of this, a bitter revelation, would soon ¬nd expression in
another of the “Poems on his Domestic Circumstances”: the “[Epistle
to Augusta]” which he wrote in the summer of ±±. Re¬‚ecting on that
“talent for equivocation” which he ¬‚aunted before his wife, Byron would
expose its equivocal character.
The fault was mine;”nor do I seek to screen
My errors with defensive paradox”
I have been cunning in mine overthrow
The careful pilot of my proper woe. (± “)

Which is as much as to say of that most “cunning” of his poems to date,
“Fare Thee Well!,” that it tells more than one would have imagined
possible, tells more than its own author wanted told.
I shall shortly return to indicate what I believe this kind of analysis
signi¬es for any concrete “reading” of “Fare Thee Well!” But ¬rst I
would ask you to re¬‚ect upon certain matters of general relevance for
Byron™s poetry. When we say that Byron™s is a highly rhetorical poetry
we mean “ we should mean “ not that it is loud or overblown, but
that it is always, at whatever register, elaborating reciprocities with its
 Byron and Romanticism
audiences. These reciprocities, like all social relations, accumulate their
own histories as time passes and more interchanges occur “ and we
then call these, as Donald Reiman has called them, “the cumulative
effect” of the work. New poetry is written “ and read “ within the
context of those accumulations. The development of the various texts of
“Fare Thee Well!” between March and November ±± is a miniature
example of how these reciprocities can get played out.
I want to emphasize that Byron wrote this way throughout his life.
The masterpiece Don Juan is a work of, quite literally, consummate skill,
because the whole of Byron™s life and career is gathered into it. Without
an awareness of, an involvement in, that poem™s “cumulative effect” one
will be reduced simply to reading its words: as Eliot in this connection
might have said, not to have the experience and to miss the meaning.
Related to this rhetorical framework of the poetry is Byron™s habit
of manipulating his texts. To present a work through a “cumulative”
context is to open it to changes and modi¬cations, in fact, to new oppor-
tunities of meaning: not so much, as Coleridge would have had it, the
“reconciliation” of “opposite and discordant qualities” as their artistic
exploitation. “Fare Thee Well!” did not bring about any reconciliations,
poetic or otherwise; it raised a tumult of new discords and con¬‚icts. Yet
it is those very tumults, and their artistic signi¬cance, which turned the
period of Byron™s separation “ from his wife, from England “ to a wa-
tershed in his career, and in his understanding of what was involved, for
him, in his methods of poetic production.
To understand this better we have to retreat in time, to Byron™s years
at Harrow and especially Cambridge, when he took his ¬rst lessons in
the art of literary equivocation. Byron told his wife that he had a talent
for that sort of thing, and Louis Crompton™s recent book Byron and Greek
Love has shown that it was a mode of writing practiced by Byron™s circle
of Cambridge friends “ a deliberate and quite literally a methodical set
of procedures for saying one thing and meaning something else. Brie¬‚y,
they cultivated a mode of homosexual double-talk.
One of Byron™s ¬rst epistolary exercises in this equivocal style was
in his letter to Charles Skinner Matthews of  June ±°; Matthews™s
answer to this letter is important because of its explicit discussion:
In transmitting my dispatches to Hobhouse, mi carissime buron [Byron] I can-
not refrain from addressing a few lines to yourself: chie¬‚y to congratulate you on
the splendid success of your ¬rst efforts in the mysterious, that style in which more
is meant than meets the Eye . . . [B]ut I must recommend that . . . [Hobhouse]
·
The circumstances of publication
do not in future put a dash under his mysterious signi¬cances, such a practise
would go near to letting the cat out of the bag . . . And I positively decree that
every one who professes ma methode do spell the term wch designates his calling
with an e at the end of it “ methodiste, not methodist, and pronounce the word in
the French fashion. Every one™s taste must revolt at confounding ourselves with
that sect of . . . fanatics. (Crompton ±µ: ±“±)

Byron™s letter may in fact have been his “¬rst effort” at writing in
Matthews™s particular dialect of “the mysterious,” but it was a language
he was already practiced in, and one which would receive its apotheo-
sis in the incredible display of puns and coded talk that constitutes
Don Juan.
Matthews™s letter is also interesting because it suggests that the use
of this kind of style is a game that can be played with, and that its
practitioners should think of themselves as a kind of elite group with
´
special gifts and powers. But it was also a style that ran grave risks for
the user. Byron told his wife that he was afraid of his own skill with this
method of writing. And well he might be, for it entailed the conscious
deployment of duplicitous and hypocritical postures.
All of Byron™s early tales are written in this equivocal style “ which
has become, in Byron™s hands, a vehicle of immensely greater range and
complexity than Charles Skinner Matthews would have imagined possi-
ble, had he lived to see Byron™s displays. But the more Byron developed
his talent for equivocation, the more he built a store of explosive and
dangerous contradictions into his work. Those contradictions came to a
head during the separation controversy, and in “Fare Thee Well!” they
¬nally reached their ¬‚ashpoint.
That the poem is not what the commonplace “sentimental” reading
has taken it to be is exposed unmistakably for us in the initial period of
its production and reception. Many readers were alive to its duplicities.
The opening four lines, in fact, signal the poem™s method by installing a
grammatical pun of fundamental importance:

Fare thee well! and if for ever”
Still for ever, fare thee well”
Even though unforgiving, never
™Gainst thee shall my heart rebel.

The sense here urges us to take Lady Byron™s as the “unforgiving” heart,
but the grammar tells us that heart is Byron™s own. The poem will operate
under this sign of contradiction to the end. Noteworthy too is Byron™s
 Byron and Romanticism
assertion that, though his heart is unforgiving, it will never “rebel” against
hers: as if he were imagining their separation and mutual antagonisms
succeeding to a second, darker marriage which would “never” be dis-
solved or put asunder.
In fact, the poem is replete with this kind of complex double-speaking.
Ponder, for example, these four lines:

Would that breast by thee glanc™d over,
Every inmost thought could show!
Then thou would™st at last discover
™Twas not well to spurn it so” (“±)

It is a nice question what the inmost thoughts of an unforgiving and yet
unrebellious heart would look like. Blake wrote a great deal of poetry
about just such a heart, and he always imagined it as dangerous and
fearful. And if we merely “glance over” Byron™s lines here we may easily
fail to “discover” their full truth: that the passage does not merely tell
about the dark truths of unforgiving hearts; it is itself executing them.
“™Twas not well to spurn it so” is a warning of possible danger, but as
coming from this speaker it carries as well a threatening message and
rhetoric.
Of course the poem delivers these kinds of messages obliquely, but
in doing so it only increases the volatile character of the text. Because
more is meant here than meets the eye directly, the censored materi-
als exert enormous pressure for their freedom of complete expression.
The parallel text in Canto III of Childe Harold™s Pilgrimage meditates on

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