In 1804, while still at Harrow, Byron suffered a moment's humiliation and discomfiture when in response to his classmates' intimation that he was admired for his wide ranging knowledge of publications and literature - and that surely this must be owed to his reading of Reviews, he responded naively: 'what is a review?' He later recalled in a letter that he made them laugh by his ludicrous
astonishment. He attributes this gap in knowledge to the fact that 'they (reviews) were then less common' and that he consequently ensured that he was soon well-acquainted with such publications. However, the review was again to be the cause of Byron's humiliation and discomfiture on a much larger scale in 1808, when an unsigned article in the Edinburgh Review was less than charitable in its opinion regarding the fledgling effort of the young poet. Hours of Idleness, published in the summer of 1807, was a self indulgent work which sought use 'a variety of publicly verifiable facts and situations (ancestry, age, schooling, youthful environment, home, etc.)'1 to define itself as well as its unique selling proposition, . A work that showed little indication that Byron was to adopt, with increasing aptitude, the second self that helped create the myth of Byron as well as contribute to his considerable commercial success.
Displaying the reliance on paratextual apparatus that was to become the hallmark of his publishing career, Byron sought to apologise yet justify his 'obtruding (…) on the world' a publication that 'were the fruits of the lighter years of a young man.' Careful to distance himself from the literary marketplace, Byron attempts to ensure that
his efforts are acknowledged as that of an aristocrat and not a professional: 'Poetry, however, is not my primary vocation, to divert the dull moments of indisposition, or the monotony of a vacant hour, urged me to this sin', a notion that is emphasised in the title of the work itself.
It seems that he intentionally refuses to accept that the very act of publishing thrusts him into that marketplace, and likens himself to 'an intruder' and 'interloper' in the groves of Parnassus, and is 'content…of ranking amongst the mob of gentlemen who write.' Byron recognised the early nineteenth century as 'an age so fertile in rhyme' but also realised with his newly found awareness of the periodical
press that his fate was most likely to be determined by the reviews, the dominant publishing format at the time because it was the most dependably profitable. However, he neatly sidesteps the issue of future censure by stating that Hours of Idleness is his 'first and last attempt (…) and that it is highly improbable that he shall obtrude (…) a second time on the Public.' He likens the act of
publishing to crossing the Rubicon after which he 'must stand or fall by the cast of the die. In the latter event I shall submit without a murmur…' and 'would rather incur the bitterest censure of anonymous criticism.' But, Byron"s tendency, as countless confounded critics (including myself) have found, is to equivocate. Or, to put it less
politely, Byron lies.
In the autumn of the same year of the publication of Hours of Idleness, Byron writes to his childhood friend Elizabeth Pigot telling her of his latest literary efforts, which consisted of '…214 pages of a novel--one poem of 380 lines, 560 lines of Bosworth Field, and 250 lines of another poem in rhyme, besides half a dozen smaller pieces.'
Hardly the output of somebody who intended to never publish again, especially as he went on to attribute this output to the fact that he has been 'praised to the skies by the Critical Review' and that on the basis of this intends to soon publish one of his poems in satire form with notes, inititally with the title British Bards but known in consequent editions as English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. It is worth bearing in mind that this prodigious output is in the face of the mixed reception of Hours of Idleness but before the trenchant piece in the Edinburgh Review. So far, Byron had remained true to his utterance in the Preface; he bore abuse 'like a philosopher' and comforted himself that at least it
was good for the sales of the book. He even had prior notice of the review that was to alter his attitude towards writing and the literary marketplace forever – and refers to it, almost jocularly, in a letter to the Reverend Becher:
I am of so much importance that a most violent attack is preparing for me in the next number of the 'Edinburgh Review'. . You know the system of the Edinburgh gentlemen is universal attack. They praise none; and neither the public nor the author expects praise from them. It is, however, something to be noticed, as they profess to pass
judgment only on works requiring the public attention. You will see this when it comes out, it is I understand of the most unmerciful description, but I am aware of it , and I hope you will not be hurt by its severity.(emphasis mine)
Byron goes on to ensure his mother's peace of mind at seeing the review, and to hope that 'her mind will not be ruffled'. His self-justification soon follows: 'It is nothing to be abused, when Southey, Moore, Lauderdale, Strangford, and Payne Knight share the same fate.' Byron does not seem to hold any of these poets in veneration, but is acutely aware of their commercial success, thus the 'nothing' he refers to is the lack of consequence that bad reviews have had on their sales. But in lumping himself in with these writers, Byron is already valorising his position as a 'professional writer' rather than that of an aristocrat with too much
time on his hands.
Contrast this with Byron's reaction after the review has been published – in a letter to his close friend Hobhouse he writes:
As an author, I am cut to atoms by the E(dinburgh) Review. It is just out, and has completely demolished my little fabric of fame. This is rather scurvy treatment from a Whig Review, but politics and
poetry are different things, and I am no adept in either. I therefore submit in Silence.
The inherent contradiction in the penultimate statement is exacerbated in the last line of this utterance, as Byron's 'submission in Silence' is the lengthy, often vicious, definitely unsubmissive English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. However, EBSR itself, initially published anonymously, could be Byron's attempt to
retain some semblance of silence, but with his increasing confidence, this charade was soon abandoned. Byron's characterisation of himself as an author marks his entry into the world of the professional: but is the role he wishes to play in the new political economy that of the
politician or poet? Work done in the field of Byron studies tends to often focus on Byron's aristocratic roots, and how it affected his writing and reception, the most representative work of this kind being Jerome Christensen's wide-ranging and erudite book published in 1995, Lord Byron's Strength: Romantic Writing and Commercial Society. However, I believe that there is considerable evidence in Byron's prefaces, notes, as well as journals and correspondence that points to a very self conscious decision on Byron's part to identify himself
as a 'professional' whose aristocratic status was merely a consequence of circumstance, to be employed in service of his other ambitions. One of the markers of this divorce from his status as a peer is reflected in the altered title of British Bards to English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. In Hours of Idleness, Byron alludes repeatedly to his Scots heritage, especially in 'Lachin Y Gair':
'Years have roll'd on, Loch na Garr, since I left you,
Years must elapse, e'er I tread you again;
Nature of verdure and flowers have bereft you,
Yet still are you dearer than Albion's plain:
England! Thy beauties are tame and domestic,
To one, who has rov'd on the mountains afar;
Oh! For the crags that are wild and majestic,
The steep, frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr.'
as well as paying homage to his title in A Fragment
My epitaph shall be, my name alone;
If that with honour fail to crown my clay,
Oh! may no other fame my deeds repay;
However, not only does the choice of 'Scotch Reviewers' as an epithet reflect Byron's fury at the Edinburgh Review but also a refusal to accord the Scots a literary heritage, instead holding up as his poetic exemplars Pope, Dryden and Gifford. British Bards was Horatian in tone throughout its first edition – 'not impassioned but aloof' – in the detached manner of Pope, (Essay on Criticism) or
the genial tone of the 'Anti Jacobin' – McGann points out that British Bards, far from being born of a violent reaction or need to rail against his age, was actually a result of his being encouraged by the critical success of Hours of Idleness more an exercise in imitation, than an actual diatribe. After Brougham's attack (which Byron mistakenly attributes to Francis Jeffrey, the editor of the Edinburgh Review) changed the tenor (and the reasons) for writing the poem – there is a shift from the Horatian to the mildly Juvenalian (as denoted by the
invocation to Juvenal in the opening), and the poem begins to reflect Byron's personal grievance. But only in the second edition of EBSR does the poem take on its Juvenalian manner entirely. Byron's literary agent Robert Dallas helped to keep EBSR1 relatively moderate, but B himself handled the press revisions for EBSR2, when the Juvenalian pattern achieved its first definite shape.
On the surface, Byron's choice of models is logical. In Satura I, Juvenal is introducing himself as a satirist, and providing a preface for future satirical poems. Byron is likewise, in beginning English Bards,
contemplating a career as a satirist, and sees his poem as an introduction. As Juvenal feels stung into writing satire by the inept literary efforts he sees about him, Byron too wishes to provide an antidote for the bulk of poetry being written during this time. When, however, he incorporates the structure, phraseology, and some of the examples from Juvenal's poem into his own, he finds himself with a poem
that attempts to introduce the writer, define and defend satire, satirize poets and critics, defend the Popean verse tradition, and satirize the greed and extravagance of a corrupt society. But no less vital is the parallel between Juvenal's decision to write satire, whatever the reaction of society and whatever the cost to himself and Byron's decision to write professionally. Byron's dismay at being
treated so callously by a Whig publication also points towards his political ambition, an ambition that he is never able to fulfil due incidents in his personal life. But he chooses to write politically, and I employ 'political' here in the sense that Shakespeare uses it in The Merry Wives of Windsor: 'Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?' And indeed Byron is more Machiavellian than political in that he is motivated by commercial and
social self interest as well as Machiavellian in the manner it is used by Jonson – as one who aspires to political sophistication, yet fails. It is this failure that seems to cause a shift in Byron's poetic diction after English Bards, an about face that only is reversed after Byron leaves the country.
The first notion we get of Byron's reluctance to associate himself with his satirical tour de force is in a letter written in 1811 to his agent Dallas: 'My Satire it seems is in a fourth edition, a success rather above the middling run, but not much for a production which, from its
topics, must be temporary, and of course be successful at first, or not at all. At this period, when I can think and act more coolly, I regret that I have written it, though I shall probably find it forgotten by all except those whom it has offended.' In a copy of English Bards that was owned by John Murray, Byron wrote such comments in the margins and on the title page as:'The binding of this volume is considerably too valuable for the contents. B.' and
'Nothing but the consideration of its being the property of another prevents me from consigning this miserable record of misplaced anger and indiscriminate acrimony to the flames', as well as scribbling 'Unjust' next to his harsh criticisms of Wordsworth and Coleridge. But though he felt some regret at that which he had written when he was 'angry at all the world' he was reluctant to dissociate himself from the poetic mode he had chosen. Dallas in Lovell's Collected
Conversations recalled: 'He said he believed satire to be his forte, and to that he had adhered, having written, during his stay at different places abroad, a paraphrase of Horace's Art of Poetry, which would be a good finish to English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, forgetting the regret which, in his last letter, he had expressed to me for having written it.' Even though Byron had started utilising other poetic modes, and drifted
away from his use of satire, he continued to champion its use and his adeptness at the use of the medium – in a letter to JM, dated April 26th, 1814 he wrote :
If ever I did anything original it was in C(hil)d(e) H(arol)d—which I prefer to the other things always after the
1st. week—yesterday I reread E(nglish) B(ar)ds—(bating the malice) it is the best.—'
However three years later, he was desperate to stop the
pirated publication of English Bards in Ireland:
'With regard to a future large Edition—you may print all or anything except 'English Bards' to the republication of which at no time will I consent—I would not reprint them on any consideration—I don't think them good for much—even in point of poetry as to the other things—and I do not consider that any time or circumstances can neutralise my suppression;--add to which that after being on terms with almost all the bards and Critics of the day—it would be savage at any time—but worst of all now when in another country—to revive this foolish lampoon.
But if Byron is constant in one thing, it is in his inconstancy. By 1821 he was writing letters to friends and publishers threatening another satire to which English Bards would be 'New Milk' in comparison. He claimed that he would write it as soon as he could pay a short visit to England as: 'Your (John Murray's) present literary world
of mountebanks stands in need of such an Avatar.—but I am not yet quite bilious enough'. The threatened work of course, was Don Juan. So, if we envision Byron as a writer who remained faithful (for once!) to satire and neoclassical ideals till the very end, what makes him a Romantic poet? A.O. Lovejoy had famously argued that no criterion of any kind was common to all Romanticisms(...) Can the exceptions, we may ask – Byron and Chateaubriand, for example – ever be acceptably rationalized from any standpoint, not just Lovejoy's? Though Byron's later poetry does not so obviously follow the Popean formula, he sought to disclose his
doctrine of poetic precision by demonstration rather than writing about it. He thus employed the Italian rhyme scheme ottava rima in Don Juan as an attempt to restore to English poetry the kind of classical
perfection of form achieved by Tasso and Ariosto. Edward Said defines contrapuntal reading as 'a simultaneous awareness both of the(…)history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts'. Byron's writing thus can be termed 'contrapuntal writing' as it is diametrically opposed to the non-doctrinal poetry of the Romantics,
which attempted to 'disguise its doctrinal material'2This follows from the critical commonplace that Romantic poetry 'continually present for reader consumption that they are innocent of
moral or doctrinal commitments.' The emphasis implies that the reality is that they clearly are not innocent, and that this is a subterfuge resorted to in the face of the threat of an anonymous audience, a strategy to avoid alienating any one faction unknowingly. Byron's writing therefore exposes the 'state and negate' nature of Romantic poetry: 'The
polemic of Romantic poetry, therefore, is that it will not be polemical; its doctrine, that it is non-doctrinal; and its ideology that it transcends ideology'.3
1. McGann, Jerome J.,Fiery Dust: Byron’s Poetic Development
(Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1968)
2. McGann, Jerome J.,The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation
(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983)