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The point is that Webster™s reading, though we do not have it or
even know if it were made, is part of this text™s imaginings “ and that
is an important truth about Don Juan, and about Byron™s writing in
general.

DI SC USS IO N
. . . I feel a little odd, because there™s no reason for most of
J E R O M E McG A N N :
you to be as invested in Byron™s work as I am, and I™m not sure how familiar
you are with the sort of thing he does, especially since Byron, although
tremendously famous to the nineteenth century and even to the beginning
of the twentieth century, in the English“American world of cultural studies,
[has] come to seem an odd, if not distinctly marginal writer “ as opposed to,
for example, the centrality, especially in the Romantic frame of reference,
of, say, Keats or Wordsworth.
D E B O R A H T H O M A S : Why do you think that is?
McG A N N : Well, because of the dominance “ the acceptance of the rules of the
poetry of sincerity. Byron™s poetry never is sincere in that sense. Even his
most sincere poetry is always masked in some way, it always has a hidden
secret. It™s always looking at itself and aware that it is doing something
according to a convention. Sometimes, he is the prisoner of the convention,
even when he is aware that he is the prisoner of the convention; at other
times he is not “ he plays with the convention.
J A M E S S H E R R Y : Where does this poetry of sincerity come from?
McG A N N : If you read Keats™s “On First Looking Into Chapman™s Homer,” or
probably any Wordsworth poem, you know you are reading a poetry which
takes itself seriously. John Stuart Mill said that this kind of poem had the
structure of “overheard” musings. That was a very powerful structure,
because it gave a kind of sacredness to the musings of the poet. The poetic
space was not to be invaded by persons from Porlock. You were to stand
back and sort of watch the poet in a vatic posture. The sign of the poem™s
sincerity was the fact that it was in communion with these higher things:
you weren™t paying attention to the world, you weren™t talking, it wasn™t a
rhetoric.
Wordsworth just denounced Byron™s work as factitious, as doggerel, as
poetry that “ well, remember Keats™s famous comment on Byron: “Lord
Byron cuts a ¬gure but he is not ¬gurative.” It™s a shrewd comment. What
he means is that Byron is like the Elvis Presley of his day, or James Dean or
something like that [laughter]. He™s very conscious of the transactions that
are going on between himself and his audience. Keats sees that, doesn™t
like it, and satirizes it. Byron has his own way of denouncing Keats, equally
±µ
Private poetry, public deception
witty, perhaps, and to the point. He calls it the onanism of poetry, he says
[Keats] is frigging his imagination, which is true.
S H E R R Y : Is Byron consciously going after the other Romantic poets? Is he
trying to undercut them? And if so, where does he go wrong, how does he
lose out in this duel?
McG A N N : Yes he is. It seems to me it™s a sociological problem. Byron very
de¬nitely is aware of his class situation [in the] special sense that he knows
his class is doomed. It™s like he™s alive and already dead. So it™s a kind of
dialogue where he can look at a scene from outside. He has that special
privilege of a person who no longer has any stake in what™s happening. He
knows it™s a middle-class world. The middle class and its power structures,
its ideologies, are winning. That means that he will lose. He™s resentful of
that, [but] it gives him a peculiar kind of privilege.
At the beginning of his life, Byron imagined that he would in fact be an
aristocrat to join this middle-class revolution. He saw himself as a liberal
reformer. He went into Parliament on those terms, and he quickly became
completely disillusioned with this procedure. It took him about two weeks to
realize that he was not cut out for this role [laughter]. So, he became cynical,
nihilistic, with all the stylistic and poetic privileges that come with that.
Now, Keats, Wordsworth, and especially Coleridge, who is the main
ideologue and cultural guru of Romantic theory, promulgate a series of aes-
thetic positions that Byron eventually will come to just vomit on [laughter].
But they are the positions that will dominate the theory of poetry for ±µ°,
±·µ years, more, even to our own day. It seems that only in the theater of
post-Modernism are these ideas actually beginning to crumble. Up until
the Vietnam War, it seems to me they held perfect and total sway. They do
not hold sway anymore.
S H E R R Y : I get the impression that Byron was a victim of who he was.
McG A N N : It™s hard to see him as a victim, though. I mean, he was so successful.
He™s a byword, as everyone in this room must know, of the person who is
beautiful, rich, successful. He couldn™t be more famous or successful in all
of his outward circumstances, and yet through all that he is unhappy. That™s
the meaning of Byronism: to be completely successful and beautiful and
happy and so forth, and to have everything you want, and to be desperately
unhappy [laughter].
N I C K L A W R E N C E : Was his fame due to the middle class?
McG A N N : Yes. But it™s a very complicated situation, because it™s the Regency.
When you think of Romanticism “ if you have any reason to think about
Romanticism [laughter] “ [you™re not likely to] think about the Regency,
[about] Holland House and certain fast, upper-class worlds. The Regency
period was fast and immoral “ as the movie says, “Live fast, die young,
and have a good-looking corpse.” That might have been its motto. [The
Regency] was not at all the middle-class world [with the] bourgeois set
of parameters [that usually come to mind with] Romanticism. [But]
Romanticism and the Regency were one, historically. And to that extent
± Byron and Romanticism
Byron is more truly of his age, whatever you want to call it, than proba-
bly any other writer at that time (except perhaps George Crabbe, whom
nobody ever reads anymore) because he ran in both these worlds: the
aristocratic and the middle-class . . .
[With the ascent of the middle class], the aristocracy either gets out,
the way Byron sort of dropped out, or agrees to become middle-class. But
it is allowed to keep its trappings. You can stay rich, you can keep your
houses, you can keep all the emblems, but you have to perform emblem-
atic ideological functions within a middle-class society. To me that is a
de¬nition of Victorianism. But Byron was nihilistic; he said no. It was a
suicide.
L A W R E N C E : I™m interested because he often championed early eighteenth-
century satire when none of the other Romantics did. If the Romantic
ideology has dominated academia™s reception of poetry, it has also man-
aged to exclude a serious satirical tradition.
McG A N N : Among the Romantic writers, Blake, Shelley, and Byron write satire.
The others do not. Wordsworth speci¬cally said he hated satire. Later on,
Tennyson, famously, denounced satire as an immoral mode.
Part of what I was trying to talk about here was that style or that way
with language: because satire has to be a public discourse, there have to
be transactions across. In the poetry of sincerity, that™s precisely what you
forbid. You have an overheard situation. The poet looks in his heart, or her
heart, and writes. And then you as a reader sort of look over the shoulder
and participate: but you don™t have an exchange going on between the
writer and the reader, [which] is the nature of a satiric discourse.
L A W R E N C E : Do you think it is class-related, as a genre? Because the early
eighteenth-century satirists were often middle-class, too.
McG A N N : I don™t know whether I™d say it is class-related, but it is related to
a desire to manage social dysfunctions. It™s like system-management: you
don™t want satire as part of the system because Romantic satire says that the
system is dysfunctional. It™s not unlike the sort of thing we see in the Bush
campaign now, or [with] Reagan, where it is imperative that you speak
positively; if you want to speak negatively [it must] be within the limits of
negativity.
One of the reasons why Byron is a kind of impossible writer through
this whole period is that he really is a nihilist. Baudelaire knew it, and
Nietzsche knew it. He was not assimilable. There are things that he will
do that are simply not to be done. You write a poem about a siege and
then the people who take the town come in and they start looking around
and they are not raping [laughter]. The text is very careful to say: Now of
course in all these kinds of situations there is always a lot of raping going
on, but in this one no raping occurs. And then the “Widows of forty,” who
are in their houses, open their shutters and say, “When is the raping going
to happen!” People read this in Don Juan and they were horri¬ed. It™s a
kind of joke that you™re not supposed to tell.
±·
Private poetry, public deception
Because of this, because of this aspect of Byron™s writing, it™s dif¬cult
for the culture, seen in an Arnoldean sense, to take him to its bosom. You
don™t teach your children this kind of thing.
There is lot of tastelessness in Don Juan, or what has been called taste-
lessness. I think that those passages are important to pay attention to. They
are at the limit [which] the culture will not accept. Mostly, a culture wants
to absorb its archive. It wants to take it and say: We love it, it™s wonderful,
here is another example of why our civilization is great. “The best that has
been known and thought in the world.” But Byron writes: “Wherefore the
ravishing did not begin!” Arnold could not have said that [laughter]. But
Benjamin would say that.
That kind of writing is not allowable in a framework that is de¬ned
by works like the Biographia Literaria or “The Preface” to Lyrical Ballads
or any or Arnold™s “ the usual run of texts that stand behind curricular
delivery systems of English“American poetry.
B R U C E A N D R E W S : Speaking of cultural delivery systems, I wondered if you
could talk about the consequences of the modernists™ appropriation of
Romantic ideology and speci¬cally what happens as they repress this self-
acknowledgment of conventionality, this self-acknowledgment of dialogue
that you are talking about in Byron.
McG A N N : Here I think there is a difference between early modernism and
late modernism. I really think that there was a distinct break with the
conventions of the nineteenth century, say in ±± with Tender Buttons and all
the early efforts of modernism. It seems to me that what you™re describing
doesn™t happen until later. A good example of it would be “ which I think
is a great poem “ “The Four Quartets.” It™s quite a late poem, but it
illustrates what you™re saying. As I read, say, The Waste Land “ leaving aside
the problem of its plot, which is kind of despicable “ its local procedures,
section-by-section, its Poundian procedures, seem to me tremendous.
A N D R E W S : I was talking about the canon as you end up confronting it in the
academy, in which a work like Tender Buttons obviously doesn™t exist. I know
very little about the reception of Byron among those ¬gures in the early
period of the century. That™s what I was curious about, because if that
acknowledgment of this communicational transaction, this economy of
dialogue, was present, it seemed that it would have given all its practitioners
a great resource to break through this self-enclosure that you get with the
other Romantics.
McG A N N : Byron was a tremendous lost resource.
It is in fact true that Pound began The Cantos with Byron and Browning in
mind. Now Browning didn™t have anything to do with Byron. They™re very
different, but stylistically they have a lot in common, at least from Pound™s
point of view. The ur-Cantos are consciously aware of Byron™s model. He
then becomes more interested in Browning and the whole sort of Byron
thing drops away. Remember the ur-Cantos, how consciously satiric they
are. That drops away.
± Byron and Romanticism
Pound was really interested in the problem of voice: how to get many
voices operating within a poetical text. And he saw Dan Juan as an obvious
[model]. The problem is that when Byron manages voices, he is a [fantastic,
seductive] mimic. And so, if you read the text through a Browning ¬lter,
you won™t see the rhetoric that I™ve been trying to describe to you here.
S T E P H E N L O W E Y : In his era, do you think he was misread?
McG A N N : The thing that most strikes me about the reception history of Byron
is that the best readers I think were the readers who were reading him at
the time. The reviewers, friends, enemies: they know what™s happening.
Many of them hate it, but then they should. Byron calls out that hatred,
deliberately.
D O N B Y R D : There are different kinds of time involved here. You probably
wouldn™t say that Wordsworth or Coleridge were best read by their con-
temporaries.
McG A N N : No. Wordsworth said he had to create the audience for his poetry.
B Y R D : To a certain extent they™re writing in “eternity.” I wonder if underlying
the Romantic ideology isn™t, in some sense, a kind of academic ideology,
and I don™t mean that in any narrow sense, but the remembering function “
the way a culture remembers itself. The one thing that an academy can™t
do is confront the circularity of the issue of its sincerity about sincerity or
its insincerity. This is the one place that that self-referential moment that
Byron makes so much use of comes alive for an academic tradition: how
sincere are we going to be about sincerity, and can we actually transmit the
idea of insincerity in some way without involving ourselves in a logically
impossible situation? So it seems to me that the kind of writing-in-time
that Byron represents, that some of the ¬ne poets in this room represent,
perhaps isn™t by its very nature the kind of poetry that is not going to be
remembered, in that high sense.
McG A N N : You raise an impossible question [laughter]. My way of trying to
come to grips with that ultimate paradox is: I think of Arnold when he
says that great writing, or whatever writing, is the best that has been known
and thought in the world. And then, sixty year later, Benjamin says: “Every
document of civilization is at the same time a document of barbarism.”
And it seems to me that if you are going to carry out academic writing,
you have to carry it out under those two epigraphs. I don™t know how you
can do it. You somehow have to manage it, though. But you cannot give
up either one. If you give up the Arnold, from a critical perspective what
you do is you hand the archive over to people who really oughtn™t to have
it. So you cannot. There is some sense in which the best that has been
known and thought in the world are these terrible things that Byron does,
and yet if you assimilate them and pull them in and they lose their edge,
then . . .
B Y R D : . . . then they™re not that anymore. And so exactly the self-referential
paradox that Byron exploits so beautifully in a way makes it impossible for
that to be done with a historical canon.
±
Private poetry, public deception
McG A N N : I suppose in the end what happens is that contemporary writing
rewrites the past.
One personal object I have in view at this point “ I don™t think I™ll ever
write again about Romanticism, maybe here and there but not in any
major way “ [is] to be able to ¬nd a way “ it™s a pedagogical problem “ to
help people in a classroom situation to read the archive within the frames
of reference of contemporary writing.
C H A R L E S B E R N S T E I N : It seems to me that a lot of what you are saying about
the complexity of the issue of sincerity also applies to left and oppositional
poetry: that much of this writing has not taken to heart, or to non-heart,
the limits of the Romantic ideology of sincerity. Even in rejecting the vatic
role of the poet, some of this writing nonetheless relies on unambiguously
positive images and values of, say, a community, or various programmatic
goals or aims. The Byronic mode that you propose here is as antithetical
to that as it is to the Arnoldian values you discuss.
McG A N N : No question. The writers that you are talking about are not interested
in [the sort of consideration I™m suggesting here]. And they™re right not to
[be], I think, given what they believe about how writing ought to be carried
out. [But] I believe they have miscalculated the social-historical situation.
They have adopted an avant-garde position in a kind of traditional sense:
that you can adopt an unproblematic negative position, and that by it you
can actually have some political leverage. I think that™s wrong.

NOTES

± For two good generic discussions of sincerity in Romanticism see David
Perkins, Wordsworth and the Poetry of Sincerity (Cambridge, MA, ±); Lionel
Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA, ±·).
 Romantic drama “ for example, the drama of Coleridge, Shelley, or Byron “
presents a special case of Romantic absorption. No literary mode is more so-
cialized than the drama: this is an historical and an institutional fact which
declares itself in the relation which persists between theater and drama.
The development of “closet drama” “ which is what happened in Romanti-
cism “ clearly breaks down that relationship, or at least throws it into a crisis.
The separation of the drama from the theater is an index of Romanticism
itself.
 The charge was ¬rst raised in the controversy over Byron™s “Poems on his
Domestic Circumstances,” and particularly in relation to “Fare Thee Well!”
John Gibson Lockhart™s comment on Don Juan “ “Stick to Don Juan: it is
the only sincere thing you have ever written” (quoted in Byron: The Critical
Heritage, ed. Andrew Rutherford [New York, ±·°], ±; hereafter cited as

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