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In Byron™s and Shelley™s cases, however, the poetical scene is very differ-
ent. Laying depth-psychological models on their work is a pretty thankless
task. The results always seem either ludicrous or banal. Marxist or cultural-
historical studies of their work are much more successful, however, because
the analytic of disillusion is focused on public rather than private worlds.
° Byron and Romanticism
Tracking Wordsworth™s poetry will inevitably take you back to the mys-
teries of God and divinely constituted worlds, where human beings work
out their salvation in fear and trembling. Tracking Byron™s and Shelley™s
verse always ends in the complexities of mortally ordered worlds, where
God and the gods are, like the pursuits of science, natural forms of human
desire and imagination.
J S : I™m reminded of one of your favorite distinctions in Blake “ between forms of
worship and poetic tales, and the idea that illusion (false consciousness? bad
faith?) converts the former into the latter. But I take it Byron™s poetic tales
never were forms of worship, and that™s what ¬rst and ¬nally distinguishes
him from Wordsworth and all the “vatic” poets.
J J M : I™m not sure I understand you or what you™re driving at. Blake™s idea is that
every human experience begins as an imaginative realization of existence,
and that the primal conditions of such realizations are “poetic” and assume
the vehicular forms of “poetic tales.” “Forms of worship” are ritual moral
derivations from those primal conditions of experience “ forms drawn out
of the primal forms. For Blake “ I think “ it would be a contradiction in
terms to worship a poetic tale. Worship is reserved for God. Poetic tales
are revelations.
J S : It may be a contradiction, but isn™t that contradiction at the heart of most
dogma and hypocrisy “ and Byron™s “cant”?
J J M : Oh I see what you mean: not Blake™s C H O O S I N G forms of worship from
poetic tales, but T U R N I N G forms of worship into poetic tales. Blake would
have been dismantled by such an idea. But it does seem to me a very Byronic
idea, and even a kind of map for understanding the Shelleyan/Byronic
critique of ¬rst-generation English Romanticism. Beyond that, the idea
involves a more general critique of art and poetry turned to the service
of culture and the culture industries: for instance, the institutionalizing
of various forms of Romanticism from Wordsworth™s psychomachia to
Byron™s de¬ant “Born for opposition.”
J S : Can or should Byron™s oppositional stances (poses?) be institutionalized?
Isn™t being “Born for opposition” also a resistance to all forms of worship,
including the worship of (the idea of ) Romanticism? I suppose I™m also
asking you to re¬‚ect on the meaning of writing essays on Byron and essaying
a Byronic, oppositional life.
J J M : It™s an interesting problem you point to, in the context of a modernist
ethos that sets such a value on revisionist art and thought. The problem
has cleaved all cultural practices for at least °° years. And the problem
registers in an especially acute way for educators and scholars, whose of¬ce
is preservative, even conservative (in the strictest sense of the term). For us,
the sin against the light is surely this: to fail the language(s) given to us,
to neglect or debase them. Pedants are as apt for this sin as journalists.
So there is good writing (which is not ¬ne writing) and good speaking
(for which we have few public models): to care for these things has always
been to stand in opposition. Beyond that we have the model of Socrates:
±
Byron and Romanticism, a dialogue
the unexamined life is not worth living. Both of these ancient touchstones
acquire for me a fresh value through our modern sense of a “thick history,”
of a present rich with contradiction and difference, of many pasts and many
futures. We cultivate ourselves and our world by cultivating this inheritance
of difference. Byron is surely the very emblem of a “home” difference “
not a resident alien but an alien resident. For scholars and educators, I can
hardly imagine a better model in a world as administered as ours is “ where
even difference is administered and becomes what Byron grieved to see
himself become, partly at his own making: “a name,” a word.
J S : The idea of failing the language given to us and being bad custodians of
culture reminds me of Alexander Pope and the “uncreating word” that
voids Creation by delivering us into the evil of Dullness. Of late, you lament
the “administered world” and its impoverishing of the imagination. How
does a writer or critic cultivate the “inheritance of difference” in a world so
bent on institutional sameness, including the sameness one begins to expect
from certain prestigious presses? How has your own work, particularly in
the essays preceding this dialogue, augured Byron™s “radical” difference
and his resistance to becoming merely a name?
J J M : I™ve no idea how to answer those two questions. To the ¬rst I™m inclined to
quote Shelley: “each to himself must be the oracle.” To the second, I can™t
say that my work has been useful or not “ how could I know this? But your
questions put me in mind of something I might comment on in regard to
Byron™s “ ˜radical™ difference and . . . resistance.”
First of all, we want to remember that Byron and Shelley “ and Blake too
for that matter “ were ¬gures of failure. Los(s) is the central Power in Blake;
Byron™s heroic emblem is a Promethean Isolato who makes a victory of his
own death; and Shelley is, as he regularly tells us himself, an ineffectual
angel. When you are in “opposition,” it seems clear enough, you are at best
a secondary force, at worst invisible and insigni¬cant. “History” is written
by the winners, as we know. It is true, however, that ¬gures like Byron
brought a mode of creative doubt, as it were, to the event of “victory.”
And they wrote this doubt at large, as it were, as a public prophecy and not
simply as a psychical condition. This move made it possible to begin writing
histories that would be multiple and self-contradictory. In a dialectic of
winners and losers, the Byronic imagination foresees the perpetual return
of the repressed.
This myth, Byron™s foundational imagination, captured the Euro-
American aesthetic and intellectual scene for over a hundred years. In the
twentieth century it would mutate from a dialectical to a fractal model “
Bakhtin™s heteroglossia being the best-known literary version of this mu-
tation. We don™t have history, we have histories, an n-dimensional ¬eld of
events precisely de¬ned by the idea, the necessity, of loss at every point.
So it won™t do, in my judgment, to try to read Byron as a hero of oppo-
sition, or as a hero at all. His emblem is exactly his ¬rst “Byronic Hero,”
the Giaour “ a brutal renegade who admits he would have killed the only
 Byron and Romanticism
person he loved if she had betrayed him as she betrayed her legal master.
The Giaour tells a story of “ ˜radical™ difference and . . . resistance” and the
poem itself remains a “lost” and failed masterpiece of the period. It is pre-
cisely not a poem to point a moral or adorn another tale. The great closing
couplet of The Corsair sums the matter with exquisite precision:

He left a Corsair™s name to other times,
Linked with one virtue, and a thousand crimes.
In the story of the poem, the one virtue is his sinful love. In the history of
culture, that virtue translates as Byron™s immoderate art “ at once shocking,
brilliant, and consciously debased.± All his poetry is like those famous, or
infamous, early tales: a network of contradictions whose function is to
create the Baudelairean reader.
J S : I think I™m following you, but to make sure, tell me how you read and teach
the following lines from Don Juan; it™s the shipwreck scene from Canto
II where the survivors must resort to cannibalism. Byron™s luckless tutor
Pedrillo is about to be consumed.

He died as born, a Catholic in faith,
Like most in the belief in which they™re bred,
At ¬rst a little cruci¬x he kiss™d,
And then held out his jugular and wrist.
I suppose my question is this: how can we keep these lines from becoming
dull? By having students recite them? By not explaining away Byron™s desire
to shock and debase? That is, by not turning his cantos into canticles?
J J M : Dull?! Have you known readers who found these lines dull? This would
amaze me. The lines, as well as the whole notorious passage they lo-
cate, might fairly be called “offensive,” “shocking,” “debased,” even
“immoral” “ I think they™ve been so characterized from the beginning.
And since I regard all readings of poetry as correct “ that is to say, as rep-
resenting some kind of proper (O R improper) reaction, some re¬‚ection of
human thought and feeling “ then these critical readings tell an important
set of truths about the passage. I wouldn™t want to “ not that I could “
cancel or trash these readings. What I would want to do is put on display
as many readings as possible, as many as one knows of or can imagine.
And then try to explain how and why readers might come to these various
readings.
Recitation necessarily comes into any interrogation of a poetical text.
Recitation is the sine qua non of all interpretation, its mortal ground as it were.
This passage, for instance, is remarkable for its metrical precision, which it
fairly ¬‚aunts. A good deal of the effect is secured because of this assiduous
correctness of form, which “imitates,” in a wonderfully outrageous way, the
ritual of the scene. The blasphemy “ Pedrillo enacting his imitatio Christi “
is lightly carried, is barely perceivable and all the more shocking for that

Byron and Romanticism, a dialogue
deftness. Here we see Byron™s splendid artistic gifts in full play “ which is,
I think, exactly why certain (moral) readers ¬nd the passage so horrid. The
passage enacts the privilege Byron gives to “poetic tales” over “forms of
worship.”
This brief commentary, needless to say, barely touches the richness of
the passage, which goes to the core of the shipwreck scene in its last series of
breathtaking exposures of the frailties of human beings. Imagine David or
Ingres painting The Wreck of the Medusa: that would be a picture something
like what Byron gives us here.
J S : I have read the lines from DJ and have had students read them and, yes,
I have seen the students have rather dull reactions. It takes a great deal
to shock or offend students who have been fed MTV and Nirvana and
Marilyn Manson. If truly “nothing is sacred,” then the witty transmo-
grifying of forms of worship into poetic tales loses its energy and, well,
sprezzatura. Tell me more about how and why you countenance “improper
readings” as “correct.” Is “lethargy” an improper response, or is that in
another category? And I wonder if Byron™s forms of irony are too subtle “
yes, even in the lines quoted above “ for many readers today, for whom
irony is a jackhammer.
J J M : What you describe isn™t reading, is it?! It™s a refusal to read. And I confess
that when I say that “all readings are correct,” I don™t have in mind “
haven™t had in mind “ the refusal of reading as a type of reading.
But now that you raise the issue it seems quite important, doesn™t it. The
refusal is a “reading” of “literature” as prima facie “dull.” Whose problem is
that anyway? I™m reminded of Frank O™Hara™s splendid (Byronic) comment
on the matter in his manifesto “Personism”:
But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means,
or if it improves them? Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry
them along? Too many poets [ printer™s devil: and professors] act like a
middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat,
and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don™t give a damn whether they eat
or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should
experience anything they don™t need to, if they don™t need poetry, bully for
them, I like the movies too.
Verbum sat . . . But for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, we are in
JS:
the business of serving up poetry for students, many of whom don™t give a
damn whether they eat or not, or even if we really care about making them
eat. This problem “ and I think it is one “ could and perhaps should take
us far a¬eld, but let me try to pull the subject back to Byronic resistance
and the Baudelairean reader (who rears his head in several of your essays).
You often claim that Byron anticipates Baudelaire in imagining such a
reader, a reader who becomes the image of the cannily deceptive author.
But I™m struck in our present discussion just how much training, education,
patience, good will, and even a certain “ pardon me “ sincerity is required to
 Byron and Romanticism
participate in this contract. Our “resistant” students are leagues away from
such an understanding “ call it ironic connoisseurship “ and presumably
we must teach them to develop the taste by which to enjoy, or even construe,
Byron™s poetry. Like Pedrillo, we must open a vein to repast them. But if
they don™t want any part of the literary covenant “ even when that covenant
is deliriously funny, sexy, and sweetly irreverent “ what then must we do?
Tell them to wait for the movie to come out?
J J M : First of all this: I don™t claim that Byron anticipates Baudelaire. I simply
say “ it is a complex fact “ that Baudelaire took some of his most important
ideas from his meditations on Byron, whose work he admired and clearly
saw himself as continuing.
Second, I still think O™Hara™s comment is all that needs to be said. But
let me gloss his remark in this way. If we have any “duty” towards resistant
students, it is to give as good a performance as we can of the art and poetry
we love. O™Hara™s comment, and the whole of the “Personism” essay, is a
model of such a loving performance. It goes without saying that we have at
our disposal many kinds of performative options “ good scholarship being
not the least of them.
J S : What do you consider bad scholarship?
J J M : The whole raft of things that my critical reviewers have found lacking in
my work.
J S : Push that raft toward me.
J J M : Criticism, like charity, begins at home. Do you want me to itemize some
of my horrid gaffes and blunders? The grotesque failures of proo¬ng in
several of my earlier books? The many, many times, in the Byron edition,
when I cut corners in my editorial notes “ because it was clear, having
at last learned what scholarly editing entailed, I began to realize the true
impossibility of the task I had blithely, and ignorantly, undertaken. The
transcription errors.
Bad scholarship includes that kind of thing. Worse still is silence on such
matters, or pretending that something is the case when you know it isn™t
exactly so. Worst of all is losing clarity of mind: about the difference between
scholarship and journalism; about the modesty scholars need before the
works they inherit and pass on; about thoroughness and honesty as “the
bound and outward circumference” of the scholar™s imagination.
J S : I™m intrigued by your distinction between scholarship and journalism. How
do you mark the differences between the two? Do you think a lot of scholars
have been teased into the journalistic mode because they are simply tired
of the “¬t audience, though few” or are there other reasons for scholarship
deliquescing into journalism?
J J M : It™s not a question of “scholarship deliquescing into journalism,” as if one
were a good thing and the other bad. Many scholars ought to turn their
work into journalistic venues, or work in those venues in more or less regu-
lar ways. Scholars are after all teachers too and their pedagogy shouldn™t be
bound in the classroom. What I refer to is a peculiar hybrid nourished by
µ
Byron and Romanticism, a dialogue
publishing demands laid upon young scholars by the profession. Scholarly
work is expected that can™t be done without years of experienced research.
So corners get cut, and the moves are concealed in a jargonized, often
pseudo-theoretical discourse. The result is a kind of intramural journal-
ism, an easy-to-read handling of the novelties or commonplaces of the
immediate cultural and professional scene.
Work of this kind is dif¬cult not to produce given the constraints of the
profession. It has, as we know, laid us open to various philistine attacks and
injured our cultural authority.
But lamentations are so dreary, so ineffectual. The only thing to do is
work against that grain as best one can.
J S : Actually, what I mean by “deliquescing” is precisely that hybrid. But this
raises another question: is the difference between journalism and scholar-
ship akin to “ even parallel to “ the distinction between “the news” and
“news that stays news”? I wonder how criticism “ A N Y criticism “ can hope
to stay news. Perhaps Byron intuited this when he opens his masterpiece
by rejecting the heroes vended to him by the gazettes and selects instead
his old friend, Don Juan, a ¬gure who has admirable staying-power. Was
this Byron™s way of working against the grain “ i.e., being oppositional by
being radically traditional?
J J M : The news that stays news is poetry “ that was Pound™s point, wasn™t it? As
opposed to temporizing texts. And yes, most of what we call “criticism” is
temporizing, of this place and time. Like eighteenth-century sermons “ a
genre, I™ve been told, that dominated the print of that period “ “criticism”
has been general over our Ireland. And that™s ¬ne, though we who write it
should be under no illusion about its place and function.
Our scholarly vocation is to pass on the news that stays news. It is such
a privilege! Being the retainers of Don Juan.
J S : It™s true that criticism has snowed all over our Ireland (mad Byron hurt us
into criticism?). But do you think critics might take a few more chances
in evolving forms of “temporizing” that engage the primary texts in more
fecund, extramural ways? Your early book on Swinburne, for example, a

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