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demic disinterest in this notorious poem to his wife sounds the hollow
echo of a reading that emerged at the moment the text began to cir-
culate. This is Wordsworth™s bourgeois reading, a reading generated
through the criteria of lyrical sincerity. Wordsworth, who would become
a model Romantic lyrist for twentiety-century academics, pronounced
Byron™s poem “doggerel” and the judgment has stuck. Wordsworth saw
the poem as a failed and utterly debased effort at Romantic sincer-
ity. “Fare Thee Well!” appears to him the emblem of a maudlin and
factitious effusion “ Byron posing as the sinner candidly self-exposed,
confessed, and repentant.
What Wordsworth could not see in this peom “ what he probably
could not imagine for it “ was its deliberate hypocrisy. The sincerity
of the poem is a pose, a mask that at once covers and reveals a deeper
“sincerity.” When Keats later sneered at Byron™s theatrical self-displays “
“Lord Byron cuts a ¬gure “ but he is not ¬gurative” “ he followed
Wordsworth in turning away from Byron™s lyrical rhetoric.· In making
that turn he seems to have understood “ as Wordsworth apparently did
not “ the choice involved. For Byron is a writer who strikes poses in his
work; he has only a diminished fancy for Keats™s ornamental luxuriance,
and a perverse design upon Wordsworth™s internal colloquies.
Byron adopts the conventions of Romanticism he inherited “ spon-
taneous over¬‚ow, internal colloquy “ in order to break them apart. His
crucial move was precisely a rhetorical one because the key assumption
of Romantic lyric is that the “true voice of feeling” cannot be studied, is
not a matter of rhetorical conventions. A non-arti¬cial paradise (or form
of expression) is assumed to exist, and “sincerity” is thereby made the
source and end and test of (Romantic) art. The drama of the Romantic
lyric therefore typically traces a sublunary pursuit by the speaking poet
for his own deepest and truest self. As a result, the poet in propria persona,
 Byron and Romanticism
the poet in what Coleridge and Wordsworth would call his “ideal self,”
structures the scene of Romantic lyric.
Byron did not repudiate his Romantic inheritance, he simply traced
out the logic of its internal contradictions “ what Baudelaire later saw as
its hypocrisies. In simplest terms, Byron™s poetry argued that “sincerity”
for the poet has to be a convention, an arti¬ce of language. To write
a Romantic lyric that will not be utterly self-deceived, the poet must
stand as it were anonymously before his own subjective presentations.
“Hypocrisy” (or contradiction) will become a poetical issue “ a subject
for the poet and the poem “ as soon as the illusion lying behind the po-
etical convention of sincerity is exposed. Byron™s lyric style, in effect, is a
satire upon a normative mode of Romantic writing. (As such, it is equally
a satire and critique of the moral and social orders implicitly celebrated
in that normative mode.) Byron™s “ideal self ” is “born for contradiction,”
not for (the bourgeois illusion of ) balance and reconciliation. Anticipat-
ing Baudelaire (and recalling Milton), Manfred would call that illusion
of synthesis “The last in¬rmity of evil” (Manfred, ±, , ).
Byron™s critique of Romanticism thus argued that a style of art
(Romanticism) was being transformed into an article of (bad) faith.
Coleridge™s famous de¬nition of “poetic faith” as the “willing suspension
of disbelief ” is very much to the point here. As in Coleridge™s other
technical discussions of poetry, this passage underscores the primacy
of “disbelief” so far as poetic arti¬ce is concerned. Coleridge imagines
highly self-conscious readers of poetry “ readers who deliberately
“suspend” their awareness that the poetic scene is a play of language.
Problems will arise, however, if the “suspension of disbelief ” should lose
its hold on the arti¬ce involved “ if a reader or poet should slip into a
delusion and take the poem for “truth,” take it (in its Romantic form) as
an artistic representation of the poet™s inner subjective feelings or state
of mind.
As Byron observed the cultural development of Romantic ideas, he
saw a widespread capitulation to such delusions. Other writers had
made similar observations “ T. H. Matthias, for example, and William
Gifford, and the writers of the Anti-Jacobin. Though English Bards and Scotch
Reviewers follows their critical line on Romanticism, it stands apart in one
crucial respect. Byron™s satire climaxes as an exercise in self-criticism.
In making this move Byron™s text also raised the troubling (Romantic)
question: is the self-critique “true,” or is it a matter of art? In what sense
should Byron (or his readers) “believe” the self-critical representations of
a text like English Bards? (The question would soon be raised again, even
more problematically, in Byron™s next published satire, Waltz [±±].)
·
Byron and the anonymous lyric
Byron™s importance for Romanticism lies exactly in his determina-
tion to force a confrontation with that question. To do so Byron placed
himself at the centre of his work and made a Brechtian theater of his
Romantic self-expression and sincerity. In his work these Romantic forms
are deployed as if they were real. Byron™s is not merely the poetry of a bleed-
ing heart, it is a poetry that comes complete with bleeding heart labels.
Whereas in (say) Wordsworth and Coleridge the question of the truth of
poetry remains a theoretical matter, in Byron™s work it is the central and
explicit subject of the writing.
The manifest sign of this fact about his work remains the biographical
obsession that dominates the reading and criticism of his poetry from
the outset. The obsession represents a desire to have the textual scene
validated by an extra-textual measure of truth (which in Romantic
terms would have to be a personal, subjective, or psychological mea-
sure “ the emergence into view of “the real Lord Byron”). That truth,
famously, remains elusive “ like most Romantic forms, “something
longed for, never seen.” The arti¬ce of Byron™s work thereby rein-
stalls a “primary imagination” of disbelief into the scene of writing
and reading. His is an art of seduction in which the seducer is as
abandoned (in both senses of that word) as the object of his seduction.
Byron™s poetry constructs an arti¬ce of the living poet himself, “Byron”
(as it were) in propria persona. Suspended thus between belief and dis-
belief, the poetry opens itself to the consequences that follow when a
Romantic “contract” between poet and reader is put into play. Unlike
Wordsworth, Byron is not trying to draw up such a contract “ to install
the romantic arti¬ce as a style of writing, to create the taste by which his
work is to be enjoyed. Byron™s relation to Romanticism is secondary and
critical. Accepting (provisionally and artistically) the power and author-
ity of Romanticism™s conventions, Byron institutes an anatomy of their
world.
To do this meant that Byron had to construct arti¬ces of himself in
his work “ illusory and theatrical selves that would summon up their
necessary reciprocals, an audience of responsive observers. Most famous
of these is the ¬gure of the suffering poet, whose (audience) reciprocal
is the sympathetic reader. (Poe, Heine, and Baudelaire represent the an-
tithesis of that sympathetic reader; they are all “Byronic” readers, cynical
and perverse.) Byron inherited the ¬gure of the suffering poet from his
Romantic forebears, and especially from Wordsworth and Coleridge. In
the benevolent lyricism of those early Romantics this relationship com-
prises a dynamic wherein “feeling comes in aid of feeling.” The dynamic
operates on the assumption that nature and society are permeated by
 Byron and Romanticism
a spirit of benevolence “ in traditional terms, by a loving God. Lyrical
Ballads and Coleridge™s early poetry constructed the model for this kind
of poetry. Lyrical Ballads is especially important because it tells the story
of Wordsworth™s and Coleridge™s education into the truth and reality of
this spirit of benevolence.
Byron™s work comes to reimagine the import of that message. When
feeling comes in aid of feeling in the Byronic/Baudelairean world the
dynamic of sympathy breaks free of the horizon of benevolence. Their™s
is no mere debunking move, however. Byron begins with the traditional
Romantic assumption that the poet is a man like other men but en-
dowed with more lively sensibilities and so forth.±° And he adopts the
Romantic course of trusting his own vision, his own imaginative grasp of
experience:
™Tis to create, and in creating, live
A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy, gaining as we give
The life we image, even as I do now.
(Childe Harold III, st. )

The gods summoned by this “being more intense” turn out Lucretian,
however, not Christian, and they rule according to the mighty working
of a primal duplicity. Aphrodite, Alma Venus Genetrix, Egeria: a “shape
and image . . . haunt[ing] the unequenched soul” in its eternal pas-
sage through an existence as radically contradicted as the paradoxes
Byron fashions to explain it, like the famous “unreach™d Paradise of our
despair”:
Who loves, raves”™tis youth™s frenzy”but the cure
Is bitterer still, as charm by charm unwinds
Which robed our idols, and we see too sure
Not wealth nor beauty dwells from out the mind™s
Ideal shape of such; yet still it binds,
The fatal spell, and still it draws us on,
Reaping the whirlwind from the oft-sown winds;
The stubborn heart, its alchemy begun,
Seems ever near the prize”wealthiest when most undone.
(Childe Harold IV, st. ±)

If passages like this “ they are all over Byron™s work “ appear demonic,
they measure the cost of that “being more intense” summoned by Byron.
Indeed, they incarnate the presence of that being and hence draw our
“gaze of wonder,” like the Giaour.

Byron and the anonymous lyric
What they do not draw, or even cultivate, is a reader™s sympathy or
empathetic response. What avenue for sympathy lies open for readers
when the lyric voice clearly has no sympathy for himself ? The verse is at
once intense and indifferent, a poetry of self-expression in which the self
has nothing to gain except further encounters, calculated and implacable,
with its own folly and pain, blindness and insight. Such writing is exactly
what Baudelaire called “anonymous” “ mannered and theatrical, the
poetry of dandyism. The verse performs a kind of Faustian rite in which
Byron agrees to use himself up “ to use himself, treat himself like a thing
to be coldly anatomized and observed. The reward? Simply increased
self-awareness.
We see Byron writing in this way very early, even in a juvenile poem
like “Damaetas.” The strength of this mordant analysis of a wicked
youth comes from its poetic deception. Byron publishes the poem in
Hours of Idleness under a cunning classical heading. The Theocritean
name carries a sly homosexual overtone, but that obliquity is merely the
sign of a deeper deceptiveness. More important and revelatory is the
suppressed title of the work: “My Character.”±± In this poem Byron tells
a slant truth about himself, and in slanting the truth he tells a further
and more revealing truth: he dramatizes his own hypocrisy.
A master of this style, Byron turns it loose upon all the poetic forms
of Europe™s cultural inheritance. That fact about his work “ the scope of
Byron™s formal poetic undertakings “ explains the immense impact that
his poetry had upon later writers. When he takes up the epigram “ he
wrote many “ the same effect appears:

Tis said Indifference marks the present time,
Then hear the reason”though ™tis told in rhyme”
A King who can™t”a Prince of Wales who don™t”
Patriots who shan™t, and Ministers who won™t”
What matters who are in or out of place
The Mad”the Bad”the Useless”or the Base?±

“[T]hough ™tis told in rhyme”: that conventional gesture of poetic
modesty comes as the prolepsis of what the last line names directly. This
poem is, in its chosen political terms, a mad, bad, useless, and base piece
of work, the moral equivalent of the world it is attacking. It is a small but
superb poem, an affront and an offence “ quite literally a terrible truth.
In a sense Auden™s later sentimentality would not have approved, this is
a poem that “makes nothing happen.” It exposes and exploits the secret
hidden within Kant™s bourgeois aesthetic of disinterestedness.
±°° Byron and Romanticism
But among Byron™s shorter poetic forms, the love lyrics illustrate his
stylistic achievements most fully. “Fare Thee Well!” is more than a cruel
and pathetic piece of hypocrisy; it is a dramatic presentation of the
illusion resting at the heart of the Romantic lyric, with its commitment
to a “willing suspension of disbelief ” on the part of poet and reader
alike. We do not begin to enter the dangerous space of “Fare Thee Well!”
until we see how, in the horizon of Romanticism™s moral and aesthetic
senses alike, it is a bad poem. It is bad not simply because it is a cruel
poem, intentionally designed to hurt his wife personally and damage
her in public. It is bad because, in a sense, it is hardly “poetry” at all,
more like a psycho-political broadside in verse. It is also bad because this
anti-aesthetic design is pursued in a cunning way, by the manipulation of
a mask of Romantic sincerity. That pretense of sincerity deepens into an
oblique exposure of Byron™s own pretenses of art. The last in¬rmity of
the poem™s evil, then, comes in the failure of its designs. (This failure of
the poem takes place on its own anti-aesthetic terms “ that is to say, in an
immediate and real way, when Byron is expelled from normal society,
when he leaves England in disgrace.)
Sincerity that masks a “spoiler™s art,” poetry that is not poetical: the
writing is radically self-contradicted in the context of its cultural inheri-
tance. It imaginatively transcends that historical moment when its imme-
diate failure and disgrace get culturally (re)inscribed, when the poem is
(academically) judged a simple piece of factitious Romantic trash. That
misreading of the poem comes from a culture™s determination to cherish a
doubled illusion: ¬rst, that poetry expresses the best that has been known
and thought in the world; and second, that criticism may be con¬dent
in its visions of judgment. If the history of critical condescension toward
“Fare Thee Well!” registers the collapse of Byron™s Romantic authority,
it equally testi¬es to the endurance of Baudelaire™s hypocritical reader.
Byron™s signi¬cance as a lyric poet lies in the range of ironizing and
critical techniques that he brought to the new lyrical forms of Romantic
sincerity. These techniques extend from the most sentimental kinds of
“romantic irony” (already at work in his earliest poetry, for example
Hours of Idleness) to corrosive and nakedly self-imploding forms. Though
Byron™s work shuttles between these two stylistic poles, his originality “
and hence his importance for Heine and Baudelaire “ must be located
strictly at the latter end, in his critical exploration of the conventions of
Romanticism and the inheritance of sentimentality.
Byron™s work has caused great dif¬culty for many readers, however, be-
cause his critical stance so often appears cynical, desperate, or “ perhaps
±°±
Byron and the anonymous lyric
worst of all “ indifferent. Subjecting Byron™s oeuvre to a programmatic
hope for some kind of social accommodation, Carlyle would later call
it “The Everlasting Nay.” Thus would he execute upon Byron his
middle-class, Victorian version of Hegel™s “negation of the negation.”
Baudelaire™s reading is structurally the same as Carlyle™s and Hegel™s,
but politically deviant. Baudelaire has greater sympathy for the devil “
he celebrates Byron™s satanism “ because his politics are resolutely
opposed to bourgeois order.
If we are to read Byron well, then, the issue of his satanism “ his
non-benevolent sympathy and “tendresse” “ must hold the center of
our attention. Because Baudelaire did exactly that, his understanding of
Byron runs deep. Why, then, would the importance of Byron escape so
many twentieth-century readers? The answer, I think, is ¬nally politi-
cal. While modernists like Eliot could translate Baudelaire™s myth of the
aristocrat/priest/dandy into a reactionary literalism, it was a move that
could not be made on Byron. Baudelaire was appropriated because his
satanism “ unlike Byron™s “ remained linguistic, and because a postmod-
ern consciousness had not yet established the spectacular and mordant
equivalence between res and verba that we now take for granted. In Byron,
however, that equivalence is “ as we shall see “ exactly the issue of the
work.

II

Thus far I have tried to de¬ne the general style and structure of Byron™s
lyrical dandyism. To understand the originality of this work, we have to
inquire further into his relation to certain conventional styles of Romantic
irony.

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