<<

. 7
( 50 .)



>>

[his] time” “ has always focused certain literary problems, not least of
all, at the outset, for Byron himself. “Lord Byron cuts a ¬gure “ but he is
not ¬gurative” (·), Keats waspishly observed in a letter to the George
Keatses. This is an envious and illuminating remark which reveals as
much about Keats and his ambitions for a successful career as it does
about the character of Byron™s verse, the phenomenon of Byronism,
and the changing structure of the institution of letters at the beginning
of the nineteenth century. Later writers have sometimes condescended
to Byron, particularly to the Byron of the pre-exilic period, as a facti-
tious writer who had merely seized the main chance during the Years
of Fame. Of course it is true that he was himself largely responsible for
creating the enormous popularity of the Oriental and Byronic Tales.
Nevertheless “ so the story goes “ he cranked out verse between ±±
and ±±µ to various formulas and audience expectations. In this activity
he was not so much a poet as he was a pander and whore to public
tastes. It passes without saying that those tastes were corrupt. (The non-
malicious version of this general view is that Byron invented the myth
of himself as The Romantic Poet, thereby creating a new structure of
authorship which answered to the changing conditions that were rapidly
transforming the English literary institution.)
Byron himself was well aware of these events and social formations.
His letters and his poetry alike re¬‚ect on these matters often. In May ±±,
for example, at the peak of his London years, Byron writes to Thomas
Moore about projects in poetry:
Stick to the East; “ the oracle, Sta¨ l, told me it was the only poetical
e
policy . . . The little I have done in that way is merely a “voice in the wilderness”
for you; and, if it has had any success, that also will prove that the public are

·
Mobility and the poetics of historical ventriloquism
orientalizing, and pave the path for you. (Byron™s Letters and Journals. Ed. Leslie
Marchand (hereafter BLJ ), III, ±°±)

Later, of course, he came to speak more critically, even disparagingly,
of this kind of careerist calculation. In January ± he tells Douglas
Kinnaird that “my object is not immediate popularity in my present pro-
ductions which are written on a different system from the rage of the
day”; and in another letter three days later: “Now once and for all about
publication “ I [n]ever courted the public “ and I will never yield to it. “ As
long as I can ¬nd a single reader I will publish my Mind . . . and write
while I feel the impetus” (BLJ, IX, , ).
Byron arrived at this changed position largely because of the Separa-
tion Controversy and its aftermath, which exposed to critical analysis a
whole train of Byron™s most cherished ideas and illusions. The idea which
dominates his “[Epistle to Augusta]” “ that “I have been cunning in mine
overthrow, / The careful pilot of my proper woe” (lines “) “ has its
deepest ¬liations with Byron™s public life and poetical career between
±°· and ±±, as a later passage of the same poem testi¬es:

With false Ambition what had I to do?
Little with Love, and least of all with Fame;
And yet they came unsought; and with me grew;
And made me all which they can make”a Name.
Yet this was not the end I did pursue;
Surely I once beheld a nobler aim. (·“±°)

This critical examination of himself, his public life, and his poetical/
moral goals will dominate most of his later years and will affect all aspects
of his work in the most profound ways.
I have sketched this brief history in order to recollect two salient
aspects of Byron™s work, especially his later work. The ¬rst has to do
with the historical/biographical dimensions of his poetry. To speak
only of Don Juan, we are always aware when reading the poem that
its most persistent subtext is the myth (or plot) of Byron™s public life,
which Don Juan re¬‚ects upon as an exemplary history “ a tale which
sums up, in an English perspective, the meaning of the entire European
epoch stretching from the late ±·°s to ±± and the six following years
(the period of Don Juan™s composition and publication). More particularly,
Byron™s work will, as a matter of course, generate itself by echoing and
re¬‚ecting his own earlier poetical works. The most dramatic example of
this outside of Don Juan is, I suppose, stanzas µ± “µ of Beppo.
 Byron and Romanticism
Oh! that I had the art of easy writing,
What should be easy reading! could I scale
Parnassus, where the Muses sit inditing
Those pretty poems never known to fail,
How quickly would I print (the World delighting)
A Grecian, Syrian, or Assyrian tale;
And sell you, mixed with western Sentimentalism,
Some samples of the ¬nest Orientalism.
But I am but a nameless sort of person,
(A broken Dandy lately on my travels).

Part of the genius of this passage is that it manages to be at once critical
and sympathetic toward Byron™s career, his own earlier work, and the
audience which found (and which continues to ¬nd) an interest and pro¬t
in such things. This poetry institutes a benevolent critique of itself and
its world, on the one hand, and, on the other, of the verse which fashion
will cultivate at various times “ as well as the very concept and event of
fashionableness itself.
Often, however “ as we have already noticed in the passages from
Byron quoted above “ Byron™s re¬‚ective thoughts about these matters
conclude on a much more problematic, even a more severe, note. This
fact reveals the second important aspect of Byron™s poetry: its preoccupa-
tion with the social structure of its rhetoric. This preoccupation appears
frequently as a problem in Byron™s verse which can be phrased, in simple
terms, in the following way: a writer must have an audience and hence
must operate with certain speci¬c sets of audience expectation, need,
and desire (which will be more or less explicit or inchoate); at the same
time, the writer cannot merely attend upon and serve audience. Rather,
the audience™s social character must be re¬‚ected back to itself so that it
can “re¬‚ect upon” that re¬‚ection in a critical and illuminating way.
Byron™s famous discussion of “Mobility” in Canto XVI on Don Juan
constitutes a structural analysis of this set of relations, but one that is
carried out in non-literary social terms. The passage speci¬cally calls
attention to the relation of mobility to the structure of the artist™s
life:

This makes your actors, artists, and romancers,
Heroes sometimes, though seldom”sages never;
But speakers, bards, diplomatists, and dancers,
Little that™s great, but much of what is clever;
Most orators, but very few ¬nanciers . . . (: ± “µ)

Mobility and the poetics of historical ventriloquism
“ are people, in other words, whose work or life demands that they treat
with others in a broadly public or spectacular ¬eld.
In a note to this passage Byron de¬nes mobility as follows: “an excessive
susceptibility of immediate impressions “ at the same time without losing
the past; and is, though sometimes apparently useful to the possessor, a
most painful and unhappy attribute.” Lady Adeline Amundeville shows
that she possesses this equivocal virtue when she is observed dealing with
her guests at Norman Abbey.

But Adeline was occupied by fame
This day; and watching, witching, condescending
To the consumers of ¬sh, fowl and game,
And dignity with courtesy so blending,
As all must blend whose part it is to aim
(Especially as the sixth year is ending)
At their lord™s, son™s, or similar connection™s
Safe conduct through the rocks of re-elections.
Though this was most expedient on the whole,
And usual”Juan, when he cast a glance
On Adeline while playing her grand role,
Which she went through as though it were a dance,
(Betraying only now and then her soul
By a look scarce perceptibly askance
Of weariness or scorn) began to feel
Some doubt how much of Adeline was real;
So well she acted, all and every part
By turns”with that vivacious versatility,
Which many people take for want of heart.
They err”™tis merely what is called mobility,
A thing of temperament and not of art,
Though seeming so, from its supposed facility;
And false”though true; for surely they™re sincerest,
Who are strongly acted on by what is nearest.
(XVI. µ“·)

These lines deserve some attention. If mobility is “an excessive suscepti-
bility to immediate impressions,” the passage also suggests that it is not
simply a psychological attribute. Lady Adeline is at home in this social
world; indeed, her entire life in the poem shows that she is governed by
a social “susceptibility” to this kind of structure. She has at once a taste
and a gift for managing social affairs of these kinds with brilliance. In
the end, however, the passage shows that the psychological attribute and
° Byron and Romanticism
the social formation call out to each other, that they are, indeed, symbi-
otic and inter-dependent.
We will understand what Byron means when he says that such mo-
bility is “a most painful and unhappy attribute” if we meditate on Lady
Adeline™s barely perceptible “look . . . / Of weariness or scorn.” Juan
glimpses an important aspect of her character and its social determi-
nants when he observes her “now and then” “ in the very midst of
her social brilliance “ “Betraying . . . her soul” in those looks of scorn
and weariness. “Playing her grand role” involves, within a Romantic
Ideology, a reciprocal danger: lack of authenticity. Thus Lady Adeline
“betrays” her soul in at least two senses when she inadvertently reveals
her mobility to Juan and to us.
What is crucial to see in all this is that mobility involves a structure
of social relations and not simply a psychological characteristic. Byron
interprets mobility in psychological terms, but his verse exposes this in-
terpretation as a special (ultimately, a Romantic) view of what is clearly
a much more complex state of affairs. Scarcely less important is an in-
teresting paradox which Byron calls attention to: mobility appears as a
set of social graces, a capacity to charm and to be all things to all men,
but it arises, apparently, from a ground of “sincerity” in those kinds of
people “Who are strongly acted on by what is nearest.” Yet it appears
the very height of insincerity and calculation. Which is it: “a thing of ”
one™s spontaneous “temperament,” or of one™s role-playing and “art”?
Is it “false” or is it “true”?
This set of paradoxes and contradictions gets registered for us in Lady
Adeline™s looks of weariness and scorn, and in Byron™s remark that mo-
bility is painful and a source of unhappiness. Lady Adeline™s “soul” is
rent by these paradoxes which her situation re¬‚ects but which her con-
sciousness does not appear to understand (or even try to understand).
When Byron re¬‚ects upon her situation he gains a clearer knowledge of
the contradictions, but he too remains incapable of producing anything
more than a demonstrative and aesthetic explanation (which is itself
supplemented by the psychological explanation of his note). Reading
Byron™s verse, we see it all much more clearly than Lady Adeline does, for
we are provided with a much more comprehensive vantage of the ¬eld
of relations being played out.
The connection of social mobility to the Romantic artist™s ideal
of spontaneity and sincerity has often been noted by scholars, most
trenchantly, perhaps, by George Ridenour. Thus we now commonly
equate the “conversational facility” of Don Juan (XV, °, ), or what H. J. C.
±
Mobility and the poetics of historical ventriloquism
Grierson terms the “strain of passionate improvisation” in Byron™s High
Romantic mode (“Lord Byron: Arnold and Swinburne,” ±±), with the
mobility of Lady Adeline and the “actors, artists, and romancers” who
are her equivalents. What is less often noted is the negative dimension
which Byron sees in the artist of mobility. It is mildly shocking, but
quite necessary, to understand that the dark shadow cast by the mobility
of the spontaneous Romantic poet is called (in Don Juan Robert Southey,
and sometimes William Wordsworth. Byron calls Southey an “Epic
Renegade” at the very outset of the poem, in the “Dedication” (±, µ),
and he links the recent Laureate with Wordsworth as instances of poets
who apostasized their early republican principles in their later years.
Southey™s “conversion” (, ) “has lately been a common case” (±, ),
Byron says, but if such “Apostasy™s . . . fashionable” now (±·, ), it was not
always so. Milton rises up in Byron™s “Dedication” as one who “deigned
not to belie his soul in songs” (±°, µ) which swerved from his initial ground
and principles. Byron, of course, justi¬es himself with such an ideal of
poetic and ideological behavior: “And, if in ¬‚attering strains I do not
predicate, / ™Tis that I still retain my ˜buff and blue™” (±·, ).
In Byron™s “Vision of Judgment” Southey™s political apostasy is elab-
orated into a general “literary character,” a Grub Street avatar formed
in the image of his own time.

He said”(I only give the heads)”he said,
He meant no harm in scribbling; ™twas his way
Upon all topics; ™twas, besides, his bread,
Of which he buttered both sides; ™twould delay
Too long the assembly (he was pleased to dread),
And take up rather more time than a day,
To name his works”he would but cite a few”
“Wat Tyler””“Rhymes on Blenheim””“Waterloo.”
He had written praises of a Regicide;
He had written praises of all kings whatever;
He had written for republics far and wide,
And then against them bitterer than ever;
For pantisocracy he once had cried
Aloud, a scheme less moral than ™twas clever;
Then grew a hearty anti-jacobin”
Had turned his coat”and would have turned his skin.
He had sung against all battles, and again
In their high praise and glory; he had called
Reviewing “the ungentle craft,” and then
 Byron and Romanticism
Became as base a critic as e™er crawled”
Fed, paid, and pampered by the very men
By whom his muse and morals had been mauled:
He had written much blank verse, and blanker prose,
And more of both than any body knows.
He had written Wesley™s life:”here turning round
To Satan, “Sir, I™m ready to write yours,
In two octavo volumes, nicely bound,
With notes and preface, all that most allures
The pious purchaser; and there™s no ground
For fear, for I can choose my own reviewers:
So let me have the proper documents,
That I may add you to my other saints.”
(Stanzas “)

Like Lady Adeline when she is “occupied by fame” (DJ XVI, µ, ±),
Southey too is ever “watching, witching, condescending” with those who
might advance his literary career and projects. He will write on any
topic, from any point of view, in any style or medium. He is, besides,
keenly aware of all that is most current, and anxious to be borne along
by that current. Finally, he understands how the institutions of literary
production operate in his day. In his own summing up, Southey™s is “a pen
of all work” (“Vision” ±°°, µ) and he is a poet of skill and industry, without
malice (or conscience), good-natured (and culpably unscrupulous). He
has all of Lady Adeline™s (and by extension Byron™s) gifts, and would
be an exact literary re¬‚ection but for one thing: his looks never betray
the telltale glance “Of weariness or scorn.” His mobility is complete but,

<<

. 7
( 50 .)



>>