<<

. 19
( 50 .)



>>

the nineteenth century, Byron was felt to be mad, bad, and dangerous
to know. He was generally not read so in the English-speaking world
for one simple yet profound reason: his work called into question the
most basic premises of writing as they had been recast in the English
Romantic movement. Byron™s work argued that poetry is a discourse not
of truth but of illusions and deceits “ what Blake earlier called “bodies
of false-hood”; and he went on to show the social structure, the rhetoric,
by which such illusions are maintained. Brie¬‚y, he revealed the secrets
of the imagination, made those secrets public information “ much as
Brecht in the twentieth century would say that the theater should do.
For trying to leak the ¬les of the pentagon of the poets, Byron would be
silenced.
±±µ
Private poetry, public deception

I

Sincerity: this is one of the touchstones by which Romantic poetry orig-
inally measured itself.± In a poem™s sincerity one observed a deeply felt
relation binding the poetic Subject to the poetic subject, the speaking
voice to the matter being addressed. Romantic truth is inner vision, and
Romantic knowledge is the unfolding of the truths of that inner vision.
Hypocrisy is the antithesis of sincerity. One can be sincere and yet
speak incompletely, inadequately, or even falsely, but it appears a patent
contradiction to think or imagine that one could be sincere and at the
same time speak deliberate falsehoods or develop subtle equivocations.
To do so is to declare that one is “two-faced,” and hence lacking that
fundamental quality of the sincere person: integrity.
In this context, rhetorical and premeditated verse may be imagined
prima facie incapable with respect to truth and knowledge. The poetry
of sincerity “ Romantic poetry, in its paradigmatic mode “ therefore
typically avoids the procedures of those public forms of poetry, satirical
and polemical verse. When Romantic poetry opens itself to those genres,
it opens itself to the horizon of its antithesis, to the horizon of hypocrisy.
This last move is, of course, exactly what Byron did. We should not be
surprised, then, that he is the one English Romantic who has been com-
monly charged with “ who has had his work charged with “ hypocrisy.
This consequence re¬‚ects an important and (if I may so phrase it) two-
faced fact about Byron as a writer: that he cultivated rhetorical modes
of verse, and that he was a Romantic poet who cultivated those modes. The
distinction is crucial. Don Juan is a machine for exposing many kinds
of hypocrisy “ cant political, cant poetical, cant moral, Byron called
them “ and there is no one, I suppose, who would gainsay the extraor-
dinary scale of Byron™s achievement. Nevertheless, what we have still to
see more clearly is how this satire of hypocrisy is grounded in Byron™s
Romanticism, and how the latter is the very seat and primal scene of
what it means to be hypocritical. In the end we will discover a poetic
truth-function which Byron, alone of the English Romantics, elaborated
and deployed. An essential feature of this work is the understanding
that hypocrisy and the true voice of feeling cannot be separated (even
if they can be distinguished). Paradoxical though it may seem, this is a
discovery which may be imagined with peculiar “ perhaps unexampled “
clarity through the styles of Romanticism.
At the heart of the Romantic ideal of sincerity are two related prob-
lems, the one a contradiction, the other an illusion. The contradiction
±± Byron and Romanticism
is concealed in the Romantic idea(l) of self-integrity. Byron summed up
this problem with great wit and trenchancy:

Also observe, that like the great Lord Coke,
(See Littleton) when™er I have expressed
Opinions two, which at ¬rst sight may look
Twin opposites, the second is the best.
Perhaps I have a third too in a nook,
Or none at all”which seems a sorry jest;
But if a writer would be quite consistent,
How could he possibly show things existent?
(Don Juan XV, st. ·)

This anticipates exactly the critique of the Romantic idea(l) of sub-
jectivity that would be raised so powerfully by Kierkegaard in his
analysis of Hegel™s paradigmatic representation of the truth-content
of that ideal. Kierkegaard™s Concluding Unscienti¬c Postscript ridicules the
“German philosopher” “ “Herr Professor” “ for the abstraction of
Hegel™s concept of subjective and phenomenological truth, which cannot
be “realized for any existing spirit, who is himself existentially in process
of becoming.”µ
I will summarize brie¬‚y Kierkegaard™s argument on this matter be-
cause it helps to clarify the import and structure of Byron™s work.
According to Hegel, the idea(l) of identity is a dialectical synthesis of
“Twin opposites.” It is achieved when Otherness, that which is not the
subject, is “negated” in the process of knowledge we call consciousness.
The objective knowledge that is gained is not positive but phenomeno-
logical: not particular subjective or empirical truths, but the metaphysical
truth of the process itself.
To this position Kierkegaard raised a simple but dif¬cult problem “
his famous “aut . . . aut,” the “either/or.” Assuming (with Hegel and the
entire metaphysical tradition) the principle of identity, Kierkegaard
argued as follows: either the truth that is achieved is identical with con-
sciousness, or it is not truth. If the process is the truth, the process is
solipsistic (it involves mere tautologies); if it is not solipsistic, contradic-
tion “ untruth “ remains part of the process. The “negation” that is part
of the Hegelian process is either the phantom of a negation or it is a
true negation; in the ¬rst instance it may be transcended, in the second
it may not, but in either case knowledge and truth remain unachieved.
A writer, therefore, cannot “possibly show things existent” and at
the same time “be consistent.” This contradiction operates because the
±±·
Private poetry, public deception
“process” of subjectivity is an existential and not a logical (or dialectical)
process. Kierkegaard™s lively prose style is itself an “existential” critique
of German philosophical discourse, a revelation of what it actually means
to “show things existent.” But in this respect Byron™s verse far surpasses
the Danish philosopher™s arguments:

If people contradict themselves, can I
Help contradicting them, and every body,
Even my veracious self ?”But that™s a lie;
I never did so, never will”how should I?
He who doubts all things, nothing can deny.
(XV, st. )

The lines enact the contradictions they confront. In this passage Byron at
once asserts and denies his self-integrity. His contradiction of himself is a
lie, the lines declare, but they also declare that his “veracious self ” is a lie,
and hence they equally give the lie to his denial of his self-contradiction.
The passage, in short, turns itself into an illustration, or an instance, of
the problem it is proposing to deal with. It is Byron™s poetic, “existential”
equivalent of the logical paradox of the lying Cretan. Byron™s verse here
proposes such a paradox, but it includes its own activity of making the
proposal within the paradox, as yet another face of the contradiction.
Later I shall look further into Don Juan™s contradictions, but in order
to do that we need to understand better the illusions which correspond
to those contradictions. If a contradiction exposes itself at the core of
Romantic self-integrity, we confront an illusion in the Romantic idea(l)
of spontaneity and artlessness. Romantic sincerity only presents itself as
unpremeditated verse; in fact it involves a rhetoric, and contractual bonds
with its audiences, which are just as determinate and artful as the verse of
Donne, or Rochester, or Pope. The rhetoric of sincerity in Romanticism
is a rhetoric of displacement; the audience is not addressed directly, it
is set apart, like the re¬‚ective poet, in a position where the discourse of
the poem has to be overheard. Among the important consequences of
this basic maneuver is the illusion of freedom which it fosters “ as if the
reader were not being placed under the power of the writer™s rhetoric,
as if the writer were relatively indifferent to the reader™s presence and
intent only on communing with his own soul.
Byron™s work and his audiences, by contrast, always tend to preserve
a clarity of presence toward each other. This remains true even when
Byron is working in lyrical forms. In general, it is as if Byron in his
work were not simply meditating in public, but were declaring or even
±± Byron and Romanticism
declaiming his inmost thoughts and feelings out loud, and directly to
others. (The procedure has been aptly described as “trailing his bleeding
heart across Europe.”) The difference from the usual Romantic practice
is crucial.

II

We observe that difference very early in Byron™s work. The ¬rst important
publication in his career as a poet was in fact a text which he did not write
himself, though he had provoked it. I mean Henry Brougham™s shrewd
notice of Byron™s juvenile Hours of Idleness (±°·). Brougham registers and
then ridicules Byron™s efforts to control and manipulate his audience:
the noble author is peculiarly forward in pleading his minority. We have it in
the title-page, and on the very back of the volume; it follows his name like
a favourite part of his style. Much stress is laid upon it in the preface, and
the poems are connected with this general statement of his case, by particular
dates. (Rutherford, )

Brougham understands how the texts of Byron™s poems are integrated
into the format of the book in general so that the reading of individ-
ual texts will be framed and controlled by various intratextual markers.
When Brougham pillories Byron, therefore, it is not so much because
the poetry is maudlin or sentimental, but because he detects calculation
and insincerity in the work.
In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers Byron strikes back. Though the
work is formally a critical review of the current state of poetry and British
culture, the poem is in fact a riposte to the Edinburgh Review notice, an
act of self-justi¬cation.
Still must I hear?”shall hoarse FITZGERALD bawl
His creaking couplets in a tavern hall
And I not sing, lest, haply, Scotch Reviews
Should dub me scribbler, and denounce my Muse?
Prepare for rhyme”I™ll publish, right or wrong:
Fools are my theme, let Satire be my song.
(±±, ± “)

This is an unusual opening move because Byron does not entirely sep-
arate himself from the “Fools” who are his poem™s theme. The touch of
recklessness in the determination to “publish, right or wrong” is fairly
paraded in these lines. What Byron gains by that move is an effect of
±±
Private poetry, public deception
honesty, as if he were “ despite his faults as a writer and a person “ more
candid and morally courageous than those who will be the objects of his
satire (that is, bad poets like W. J. Fitzgerald and proud reviewers like
Brougham).
One notes as well the imperative address to the reader in the ¬fth line
(“Prepare for rhyme”). This maneuver reminds us of the general literary
situation which prevails in Byron™s writing even at this ¬rst stage of his
career. The work, that is to say, operates through a textual interplay
which is carried out in the public sphere.
The special strength of English Bards is a function of the Brougham
review. Charged by Brougham with insincerity in his earlier book, Byron
responds in English Bards with a new and more powerful style of sincerity.
His polemic is grounded in a signi¬cant and daring initial decision: not
to deny the charges brought against Hours of Idleness. Byron does not even
deny Brougham™s ad hominem critical implications “ that Lord Byron, the
author of the book, reveals himself in it as a somewhat foolish, calculating,
and untrustworthy person.
Byron, in other words, accepts “sincerity” as the critical issue. Launch-
ing an ad hominem rejoinder to his Scotch reviewer (whom Byron at the
time mistakenly thought was Francis Jeffrey) and his critical cohorts at the
Edinburgh Review, Byron admits his weaknesses as a writer and his faults
of character. This admission is a new sign of his sincerity, and it is the
foundation on which Byron reconstitutes his character in this new poem.
Being, as he says, the “least thinking of a thoughtless throng, / Just
skilled to know the right and chuse and wrong” (“°), Byron is
a model neither as a poet nor as a “Moralist” (·°°). Nonetheless, he
refuses to disqualify himself from satire. He has “learned to think, and
sternly speak the truth” (±°µ), and the truth is that cultural rectitude in
Britain has become random and ineffectual “ a praiseworthy poet here,
a judicious critic there, but none of them “ and least of all Lord Byron “
installed (or installable) in a position of authority. Byron™s poem exposes
the lack of a cultural consensus. More than that, it shows how, in the
absence of such a consensus, the merely “righteous” will move to seize
authority.
Thus much I™ve dared; if my incondite lay
Hath wronged these righteous times let others say;
(±°·“±°)

Lines like these solicit and even glory in their contrariness. At
once aggressive and indifferent, the couplet “ which concludes the
±° Byron and Romanticism
poem “ summarizes the tonal character of the satire as a whole, just
as it anticipates the tonal perspective of the celebrated writings soon to
follow: Childe Harold in particular, but all the Baudelairean Oriental tales
as well, and of course Manfred.
The challenge reminds us, however, of the equally important matter
I touched on earlier: that the structure of the work is communicative
exchange. Throughout his career Byron™s books cultivate direct commu-
nication with the people who are reading them “ addressing such people
(often by name) and responding to what they are themselves saying (as it
were) to Byron™s poems. His work assumes the presence of an audience
that talks and listens “ an audience that may hear as well as overhear,
and that may have something to say in its turn.
We recognize this procedure in numerous passages from Don Juan. The
exchange structure is especially interesting when Byron re¬‚ects upon or
responds to criticisms directed at his work by contemporary readers.

They accuse me”Me”the present writer of
The present poem”of”I know not what,”
A tendency to under-rate and scoff
At human power and virtue and all that;
And this they say in language rather rough.
(VII, st. )

In such cases “ they are numerous “ the act of writing makes itself one of
the principal subjects of the writing. This is not to say that we are simply
witnessing a poem that is written about poetry. That is what we should
say, correctly, about much of The Prelude or “The Fall of Hyperion” or a
host of other excellent Romantic poems. The situation is slightly but sig-
ni¬cantly different in Byron™s case. Here the act of writing has thoroughly
materialized and socialized the ¬eld of the imagination™s activity. In such
circumstances we observe how poetry is like most human events “ a
dynamic interchange between various parties each of whom plays some
part in the total transaction. Those parties are never completely visible
or present to consciousness “ in Byron™s poem or anywhere else; but a
poem like Don Juan, by calling attention to certain of its communicative
actions, allows one to glimpse the radical heteronomy of the exchanges
that are taking place.
Byron is quite sensitive to the presence of his many readers “ indeed,
his acts of writing are equally acts of imagining them into existence, and
then talking with them. Stanzas ·“ of Don Juan, Canto I, narrate
the marital troubles of Donna Inez and her husband Don Jose, but the
±±
Private poetry, public deception
subtext “ the domestic circumstances of Lord and Lady Byron “ exposes
the actual structure of Byron™s writing here:
For Inez call™d some druggists and physicians,

<<

. 19
( 50 .)



>>