Spurgeon, Byron, and the Contingencies of Mediation
The popular Victorian preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon referred to Byron almost forty times in his published works. Drawing on first-hand examination of Spurgeon’s library, this essay shows how Byron’s words were mediated to Spurgeon through a variety of anthologies, primers, and collections of sententiae, and how Spurgeon mediated them to others in turn through his sermons and writings. In the process, Byron’s writing was broken into fragments, placed in new contexts, spliced with other people’s words, misremembered, misattributed and rendered strange. The essay suggests that analysing this contingent process of mediation reveals alternative possibilities for the study of reception history.
On a December day in 1853, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) visited Byron’s statue in Cambridge and saw a man divided against himself. The poet commemorated in marble had been dead for almost thirty years, and the nineteen-year-old evangelist who came to gaze on him was at a formative moment in his ministry. Already an accomplished preacher in Cambridgeshire, Spurgeon was about to leave for London, where he would rapidly become the most important dissenting evangelical in Victorian Britain. We don’t know whether Spurgeon walked into the library of Trinity College idly or purposefully that day, but we do know that what he saw there made a lasting impression. Spurgeon would invoke his encounter with Byron’s statue in sermons and writings throughout his life:
Before I left Cambridge, to come to London, I went one day into the library of Trinity College, and there I noticed a very fine statue of Lord Byron. The librarian said to me, “Stand here, sir.” I did as I was directed, and as I looked at it I said, “What a fine intellectual countenance! What a grand genius he was!” “Come here,” said the librarian, “and look at the other side of the statue.” I said, “Oh! what a demon! There stands the man who could defy the Deity.” He seemed to have such a scowl and such a dreadful leer on his face, as Milton would have painted upon Satan when he said, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in Heaven.” I turned away, and asked the librarian, “Do you think the artist designed this?” “Yes,” he said, “he wished to picture the two characters, – the great, the grand, the almost-superhuman genius that Byron possessed, and yet the enormous mass of sin that was in his soul.”
Spurgeon, Autobiography, 1: 297-298
In Byron’s statue, Spurgeon saw an extraordinary genius, but also yet another sinner in need of salvation. Here was a man of contradictory impulses, like his own Manfred, “alike unfit to sink or soar” (Byron, Manfred 1:2:40-41). Brilliance co-existed with vice. His writing could therefore be a force for good or evil, and his legacy was potent but unstable.
Spurgeon must also have seen in the statue a warning against temptation. He was flattered to have been invited to preach in London (the invitation was extended, and Spurgeon agreed to remain permanently the following April). Poised to leave his parishioners in rural Cambridgeshire behind and take his message to a larger and more challenging metropolitan audience, Spurgeon must have been wary of the sin of pride shared by Byron and Lucifer, which he invokes in this passage of his autobiography. Earlier that year, while walking in Cambridge, he had heard “what seemed a loud voice”, saying, “seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not” (Autobiography 1: 242). He would later credit this moment of revelation with turning him away from academic studies and confirming his vocation for popular preaching. Now, at the first signs of his success, he seemed to need reassurance that he was not Byron: not sinfully proud of his gifts, but humbly serving the Lord. At first glance, Spurgeon and Byron seem to be an unlikely pair; no one, to my knowledge, has previously connected the names of the scandalous poet and the revivalist preacher. But I contend that the ways in which Spurgeon read, annotated, remembered, invoked and cited Byron form a revealing case study of the contingencies of mediation that structure cultural transmission over time. In my account, Spurgeon stands revealed as a node in a contingent, rhizomatic network of mediations, in which each individual absorbs information through unreliable media before mediating that information to others in turn, also in an unreliable, even aleatory fashion.
Spurgeon was clearly extraordinary in a variety of ways, but I do not wish to claim that he was an extraordinary reader of Byron; in fact, Spurgeon serves my purposes here precisely because the contingent ways in which he encountered Byron’s writings were widely repeated in nineteenth-century Britain. When Spurgeon cited Byron’s name or his poetry, however, he mediated Byron to an extraordinarily large audience, making his citations an important feature of Byron’s nineteenth-century reception, especially amongst popular, non-academic audiences. Studying Spurgeon reminds us of the extent to which textuality remained bound up with orality in the nineteenth century, with the result that the history of reception is not identical with the history of reading. More specifically, it suggests that, whether they were heard or read, sermons were an important and still understudied element in the circulation and reception of literature in Victorian Britain.
By foregrounding a populist figure such as Spurgeon, my approach here differs from that of previous critics such as George Ford, Stephen Gill and Andrew Elfenbein, who investigate the influence of Romantic poets on later canonical authors, operating, however critically, in a tradition of influence study now mostly associated with the work of Harold Bloom. Other approaches have focussed on the material media through which texts reach their readers and the commercial, editorial, legal or proprietory frameworks in which they operate: Leah Price’s work on anthologies, William St Clair’s on reprinting, Andrew Piper’s on gift books, collected reprints, and critical editions, Kathryn Sutherland’s on Austen’s textual history and Gill’s on Wordsworthian editions, anthologies and tourist guidebooks all fit this description. In this essay I follow these studies in paying close attention to the books that mediated Byron to Spurgeon and the use he made of them. Still other studies have considered receptions across media: Sarah Wooton examines Keats in painting, Atara Stein finds Byron in film and television, and Mike Goode discovers Blake being appropriated in unpredictable places. When Spurgeon culled phrases and anecdotes from his reading for his sermons, he became an agent in the remediation of Romantic writing. This essay, then, takes a popular, material and intermedial approach that invites us to think of literary texts as repeatedly reactivated by later readers – and even non-readers – in contexts beyond the imaginations of their authors. It requires us to acknowledge that literary texts never simply endure but always need to be re-imagined, and to consider that they may make their most important impacts when they are redeployed in later cultural and political contexts.
That emphasis places me at odds with the historicist tendency to privilege above all others the context of the text’s composition and/or first publication. This tendency emerges from historicism’s powerful central insight – the claim that literary texts should be understood both as products of a particular social, historical and political context and as interventions into that context. It helps us to see texts as both historical constructs and historical agents. But ironically this tendency can end up truncating our understanding of texts’ history and limiting our sense of their power beyond their moment of conception. This is not to say that a historicist approach necessarily truncates a text’s history, nor that all historicist critics in fact do so. On the contrary, some of the most perceptive historicist critics do address the reception history of the texts they study. Jerome McGann, for example, asserts that “Any current interpretation of a work of poetry issues from the previous history of the work’s meanings”, acknowledging that this “previous history” is temporally extended and not confined to the moment of composition or publication (343). Nonetheless, I contend that the general tendency of historicist criticism in studies of Romantic-period literature has been to overlook reception history. In concentrating on the context of writing and first reading, much historicist criticism restores a political dimension to Romantic literature, but by restricting the relevant context to what Thomas Pfau has criticised as ‘a merely topical and occasional model of politics’, it actually tends to limit the text’s political ramifications to those that occur punctually (340).
Historicist critics often aim to reconstruct “aspects of […] poems apparent to [their] first readers” (Roe 257), or “the probable meaning for the informed first reader” (Butler 31). Reception history does not privilege the first reader in this way. Looking beyond the moment of production does not mean appealing to a humanist or idealist conception of texts “transcending” history – what Marjorie Levinson calls “normative formalism” – nor does it mean unquestioningly repeating the compensatory rhetoric of what Andrew Bennett has called Romanticism’s “culture of posterity”. Rather, it means repeatedly historicising literary works at different historically specific moments of reception and paying attention to the material forms in which they are transmitted. In this essay, by attending closely to the books in which Spurgeon read Byron, and the sermons and writings in which he cited him, I explore that process of cultural transmission.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon regularly preached to five thousand people on Sunday morning and another five thousand on Sunday evening, and once preached to twenty-four thousand people gathered in Crystal Palace. He had an enormous following among working- and lower-middle-class Christians, as part of the popular religious revival of the mid nineteenth century, but also attracted the attention of such prominent figures as George Eliot, John Ruskin, William Gladstone and Matthew Arnold (who mentioned Spurgeon several times in Culture and Anarchy). After coming to London in 1853, Spurgeon preached at the New Park Street chapel, and in secular halls such as the Surrey Gardens Music Hall. In 1861, the Metropolitan Tabernacle, in Southwark, was built for Spurgeon’s congregation and became the headquarters for a range of evangelistic and philanthropic projects. At the height of his ministry, Spurgeon oversaw a Pastors’ College, orphanages for boys and girls in Stockwell, a network of twenty-seven Sunday schools, almshouses with quarters for seventeen poor women, and a colportage society of almost one hundred colporteurs, who distributed Bibles and tracts throughout the country.
His enormous congregation was a testament to Spurgeon’s lively style, flair for publicity and extraordinary vocal power (“the finest voice I ever heard” according to the future Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith (Kruppa 96)). But his impact owed as much to the printed as to the spoken word. Spurgeon spoke from notes rather than reading a prepared text, because he believed that a sermon was an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to speak through the vessel of the preacher in an inspired moment, rather than something that should be composed in advance. But the intensely oral occasions when he preached became the centrepiece in an extensive array of printed matter. From 1855 he published corrected stenographic transcripts of his sermons each week; in this form, his homilies gained a circulation of twenty-five thousand. In 1865 Spurgeon added a monthly magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, which rapidly reached a circulation of fifteen thousand. These periodical publications were accompanied by a steady stream of scriptural commentaries, aids to devotion, advice to preachers and inspirational works. Spurgeon’s writings were translated into almost forty languages and were widely distributed in America, Australia and beyond. Spurgeon’s fame thus extended far beyond his own congregation, and his public profile was consolidated in England by preaching tours which allowed his readers to hear him in person. In the spirit of his early-modern evangelical predecessor, Martin Luther, Spurgeon assiduously used the press to supplement his oratorical gifts, since he believed that “God has made the printing press to be a great agent in the world’s correction and evangelization” and liked to imagine “a gospellized and purified literature triumphing over and tramping underfoot and crushing out a corrupt literature” (qtd. Conwell 479).
Spurgeon’s popularity was bolstered by his canny use of advertising, leading one journalist to describe him as “the very BARNUM of the pulpit” (Kruppa 101). He used multi-coloured posters to publicize his preaching, making him – in his own words – “a little bit of a celebrity” (Spurgeon, Letters 57). Spurgeon’s sermons were widely reviewed in newspapers and periodicals, and he pasted the reviews into scrapbooks. Images of the preacher, and not simply his message, permeated Victorian culture in ways beyond his control. An enthusiast could purchase photographs of him, a miniature bust, stereoscopic slides showing him in oratorical poses, or a locket containing his miniature (Kruppa 102-105). Spurgeon appeared in cartoons in Punch, he was portrayed on the cover of Vanity Fair, and his waxwork featured at Madame Tussaud’s. His image appeared on packets of tobacco (Spurgeon had a penchant for large cigars) and his name was used to advertise cough syrup. Once he was installed in the imposing neo-classical building of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Spurgeon became something of a tourist attraction. A writer in The North American Review remarked “we ask our friend who has happened to visit London, ‘Did you see the Queen?’ and next, ‘Did you hear Spurgeon?’ There is scarcely any name more familiar than his throughout our land” (Sermons 275). Bus conductors headed across the Thames towards Southwark reportedly shouted, “Over the water to Charlie!” (Bacon 47).
Spurgeon was adept at using familiar comparisons to make his points. “A sermon without illustrations”, he remarked, “is like a room without windows” (Autobiography 1: 63). He wrote a whole book, Sermons in Candles (1890), designed to show that even ordinary objects could offer the inventive preacher plenty of illustrations to help him spread God’s Word. Literature was a rich source for Spurgeon, which he ceaselessly mined for useful material, leading one hostile reviewer to call him “a scavenger of the literary world” (Ellison 73). He read poetry aloud to students in the Pastors’ College, and shared with them his early love for Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which he claimed to have read over one hundred times (Drummond 412; Kruppa 22). Some books, however, were beyond the pale. “I do not care to read books opposed to the Bible”, Spurgeon said, “I never want to wade through mire for the sake of washing myself afterwards” (Kruppa 368). When such books did fall into Spurgeon’s hands, he did not scruple to destroy them. According to his wife, “his usual method of dealing with a thoroughly bad book – either morally or doctrinally, – was to tear it into little pieces too small to do harm to anyone, or to commit it bodily to the flames” (Kruppa 367). Spurgeon read voraciously, especially among the Puritan classics, and collected a library of twelve thousand volumes by the end of his life. But whether he was reading Bunyan or Foxe, Dickens or Trollope, Spurgeon was always gathering material that would aid him in his evangelical mission. His understanding of literature was strictly instrumental: “I value books for the good they may do men’s souls”, he asserted (Kruppa 217).
Spurgeon had an extraordinary ability to recall what he had read. As a boy his grandmother paid him a penny for every hymn by Isaac Watts that he learned by heart (Kruppa 25), which helped to train a memory that was “as tenacious as a vice and as copious as a barn” according to his brother (Drummond 96). “I have a shelf in my head for everything,” Spurgeon claimed, “and whatever I read or hear, I know where to store it away for use at the proper time” (Brastow 391). He used primers, synopses and anthologies extensively in his search for new material. On his mental shelf, Spurgeon kept quotations, plot details and biographical anecdotes which he could call on while preaching extempore, sometimes using the same remembered fragment several times over a number of years in almost identical words. Spurgeon’s mental shelf included a surprising number of references to Byron. In some cases these are broad references to Byron’s life or his perceived character; in some cases they are direct quotations from his works. Overall, Spurgeon mentions Byron or his works on almost forty occasions, which puts Byron on a par with Shakespeare among the authors Spurgeon invoked. While he does not turn to Byron nearly so often as to more obvious choices such as Milton, Cowper or Bunyan, he invoked Byron more often than Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats put together. It’s important to distinguish between references to Byron as an individual and citations of his works. When he invoked Byron the man, Spurgeon almost always used him as a cautionary tale, a warning about the wages of sin. But when he cited lines of his poetry, his attitude could also be approving. When lines of Byron’s poetry were broken off from the body of his oeuvre, they could cast off their association with the sinful man who produced them. When he quoted Byron, Spurgeon encountered the radically fragmentary nature of citation, the way that quoting a text entails what Walter Benjamin called ‘the interruption of its context’ (148). But the violence that citation does to context cuts both ways: the quotation is torn from its original context and leaves it behind, and yet it retains the power to trouble the new context in which it is cited and sited, or recited and re-sited.
Spurgeon was careful about how he used Byron in his preaching. People who were “deeply read in […] Byronic poetry,” he knew, “bec[a]me dissolute and sceptical, and none could wonder. You cannot send the mind up the chimney, and expect it to come down white” (Spurgeon Metropolitan Tabernacle, 16: 584). Byron therefore needed to be handled with care. In 1876 Spurgeon rehearsed the story of his visit to Byron’s statue in order to contrast the flawed nature of humanity with the perfection of Christ: Byron looked beautiful from one side, but devilish from the other, whereas Christ was perfect in every aspect (Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 22: 296). Two years later, Spurgeon made the same point, but this time he left Byron out. Where he had previously used Byron’s statue as his example, he now said:
A great many [statues] in London are hideous from all points of view – others are very well if you look at them this way, but if you go over yonder and look from another point the artist appears to have utterly failed. Now, beloved, look at Jesus from any point you like, and he is at his best from each and every corner.
Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 24: 668
The particular anecdote that suggested the comparison was generalized to refer to “a great many” statues. It is as though Spurgeon felt it was a breach of decorum to put Byron in such discursive proximity to the Saviour, even for the purposes of contrasting the two. Spurgeon was well aware of Byron’s seductive qualities, noting that “half the youth of England used, at one time, to be infatuated with Lord Byron. The glare of his genius blinded them as to the terrible hue of his character and the atrocity of his conduct” (Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 62: 148). When he deployed Byron as an illustration in his preaching, Spurgeon took care not to encourage those he called “men of the Byron type” to make the poet their idol (Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 36: 421).
But, carefully handled, Byron became a powerful part of Spurgeon’s homiletic arsenal. The celebrity poet became his stock example of the gifted but graceless individual whose genius would not avail him before the judgement seat, because it had not been turned to righteous ends:
I reckon that the meanest Christian that loved his God, though he could only speak stammeringly the profession of his faith, is nobler far than he who possessed the genius of a Byron or the greatness of a Shakespeare, and yet only used his ten talents for himself and for his follow men, but never consecrated them to the great Master to whom the interest of them altogether belonged.
Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle 16: 462
For Spurgeon, literary or intellectual abilities could be an aid to one’s own salvation and that of others, but, if misused, they could also be a dangerous distraction from one’s impending damnation. In using Byron to illustrate this thought, he drew in part on George Bowen’s Daily Meditations (1865), which he quoted approvingly in his commentary on the Psalms, The Treasury of David:
The genius of a Voltaire, a Spinoza, a Byron, only makes their folly the more striking. As though a man floating rapidly onwards to the falls of Niagara, should occupy himself in drawing a very admirable picture of the scenery.
Spurgeon, Treasury 89
Whether linked to a more admirable figure like Shakespeare or a more reprehensible one like Voltaire, Byron helped Spurgeon to make a distinction between gifts and grace, which was crucial to his Protestant soteriology:
Hast thou, my brother, ever learned to distinguish between grace and gifts? For know that they are marvellously dissimilar. A man may be saved who has not a grain of gifts; but no man can be saved who hath no grace. […] [O]ne particle of grace is far more precious than all the gifts that a Byron ever had, or that Shakespeare ever possessed within his soul, vast and almost infinite though the gifts of those men certainly were.
Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 6: 200-01
Whenever he wanted to distinguish between gifts and grace, Spurgeon had only to reach onto his mental shelf for the example of Byron, secure in the knowledge that his congregation would understand the illustration. These references invoked Byron’s celebrated persona rather than citing his works, and therefore relied on the extraordinary panoply of biographies, memoirs, prints and journalism that mediated Byron’s image and reputation to Victorian audiences, rather than the editions, anthologies, and collections of quotations that mediated his works.
Spurgeon returned repeatedly to a small number of Byronic quotations. I will examine four of these, considering in each case the places in which Spurgeon encountered the quotation and the uses to which he put it. Tracing these citations reveals three important properties of the process of cultural transmission. Firstly, it is overdetermined and reinforced: in every case, Spurgeon encountered the passages he subsequently quoted in several places. Each of these sources would have been sufficient for the quotation, but the passage stuck in Spurgeon’s mind because the memory was reinforced by reading the passage more than once, both in its original context and cited in other books. Secondly, it is subject to contingencies of mediation: no programmatic intention or intrinsic quality led to the selection and repetition of these passages, or dictated that Spurgeon would read and remember these rather than others. Thirdly, it is selective and unreliable: Spurgeon’s sources introduce variants, and his own quotations do not reliably transmit the text, making the process inevitably transformative.
The preservation of Spurgeon’s library in a largely intact condition provides an exceptional opportunity to study this process in detail for an individual who was not himself a major literary figure. Of the approximately twelve thousand volumes he collected, it is still possible to consult the majority. Spurgeon gave away some books during his lifetime, and destroyed others (as noted above). After his death, his executors gave some books to the Pastors’ College that he had established. These were mostly theological, devotional and vocational works, and are still available at Spurgeon College in London. Some books went to the Village Preachers’ Circulating Library established by his wife and cannot be traced. The remainder – more than six thousand volumes – were sold in 1905 to William Jewell College, in Liberty, MO, and subsequently acquired in 2006 by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO, where I examined the collection in February 2007.
Spurgeon read poetry attributed to Byron in a number of different books. He owned a five-volume reprint edition of Byron’s works, published in Leipzig by Bernhard Tauchnitz and imported to England. His library contained other volumes by Byron, including a first edition of Childe Harold Canto Four and two nonce volumes uniformly bound from separate editions of Byron’s works. He encountered Byron in the various anthologies and primers he owned, such as Carey’s Beauties of the Modern Poets in Selections from the Works of Byron, Moore, Scott &c. (1826) and the volumes of Beautiful Poetry: A Selection of the Choicest of the Present and the Past, issued annually for seven years (1853-1859) by the London literary journal The Critic. Spurgeon also owned collections of sententiae which quoted Byron’s words. The most important book in this category is Truths Illustrated by Great Authors (1855), a gilt-edged volume containing “nearly four thousand aids to reflection” drawn from canonical writers and arranged into alphabetical categories such as “Folly”, “Fortitude” and “Forbearance”. Compiled by its publisher William White, the book includes quotations in prose and verse from a large number of authors. It contains plenty of references to Byron, including three of the four quotations that I will examine. Finally, Spurgeon owned several books that included biographical sketches of Byron, such as The Civil Service Handbook of English Literature and Galleries of Literary Portraits. As I will show, in each of these cases Spurgeon could have read the lines he quoted in several different places, all of them unreliable in different ways. Overall, the anthologies, primers and books of quotations seem to have been more important as media of transmission than the editions of Byron’s poetry.
Spurgeon sparingly annotated his books, giving some indication of which Byron poems he read with most care, and what he valued in them. His usual method was to mark lines or stanzas with a line in the margin, although occasionally he also wrote comments. Most of Spurgeon’s annotations are what H.J. Jackson calls “mundane marginalia”, straightforward evidence of a reader working with a book (60). Often, Spurgeon simply marks points of high feeling or rhetorical drama in Byron’s poetry, such as Conrad’s return home to find Medora dead in The Corsair, or the two stanzas beginning “I have not loved the world, nor the world me” at the end of Childe Harold, Canto Three. In the left margin alongside the remarkable “lightning” stanza from Childe Harold (“Could I embody and unbosom now / That which is most within me” (3.97)), Spurgeon has written “how extraordinary!” Sometimes, however, Spurgeon engages with or questions Byron, or simply expresses his confusion, in something closer to Jackson’s sense of “socialising with books” (Jackson 121-23). Alongside a stanza on Clarens beginning “He who hath loved not, here would learn that lore, / And make his heart a spirit” (3.103), Spurgeon has written “How can we make the heart a spirit?” There are marks in Spurgeon’s copies of Childe Harold, Canto Three, Childe Harold, Canto Four (both copies), The Prisoner of Chillon, The Giaour and The Corsair. As I will show, these are not the poems to which Spurgeon returned most often in his sermons.
The first quotation I will examine in detail comes from Byron’s lyric “Euthanasia” and illustrates Spurgeon’s repeated claim that, as a gifted but graceless man, “Byron […] flew through the hell of this world’s pleasures” but derived no lasting peace from them (Metropolitan Tabernacle, 13: 532). Byron became for Spurgeon a type of the unhappy sinner, who does not know the peace of God. Whenever Spurgeon makes this point he quotes the same lines from “Euthanasia”:
Ungodly men at bottom are unhappy men. […] Their Marah is never dry, but flows with perennial waters of bitterness. What says their great poet Byron: –
“Count o’er the joys thine hours have seen,
Count o’er the days from anguish free;
And know whatever thou hast been,
’Tis something better not to be.”
Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 17: 187; quoting Byron, “Euthanasia” 33-36
That line, “’Tis something better not to be”, became intimately linked in Spurgeon’s mind with the nihilistic rejection of spiritual life which he campaigned against. He quoted the line on at least another five occasions, using it on one Sunday in both morning and evening services (Spurgeon, Treasury, 4: 190; 7: 43; Metropolitan Tabernacle, 35: 332; 37: 64; 39: 302). “Euthanasia” appeared in the fourth volume of Spurgeon’s Tauchnitz edition of Byron’s works. We know that Spurgeon also found these lines quoted in Edwin Paxton Hood’s Dark Sayings on a Harp: and Other Sermons on Some of the Dark Questions of Human Life (26), because he cited them from that source in his commentary on the Psalms, The Treasury of David (190).
The second quotation comes from a poem called “Farewell to England” (“O land of my fathers and mine”), although Spurgeon never mentions the title. He cites it to support his claim that Byron understood the source of his own unhappiness, and confessed it in his most candid poetry. When Spurgeon wanted to make this point, he invariably turned to the same quatrain from this poem:
I fly like a bird of the air,
In search of a home and a rest;
A balm for the sickness of care,
A bliss for a bosom unblest.
These lines may have stuck in Spurgeon’s head because they recalled Psalm 55, verse 6, “O that I had wings like a dove; for then would I fly away and be at rest”. In 1855, when he first quoted these lines, Spurgeon included a cautious parenthesis. “Read some of Byron’s verses and you will find him (if he was truly picturing himself) to be the very personification of that spirit who ‘walked to and fro, seeking rest and finding none’” (Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 1: 350, quoting Luke 11.24). But four years later his certainty had hardened, and he introduced the same quotation with the words, “There is a verse which tells you what he felt in his heart. The man had all he wanted of sinful pleasure, but here is his confession” (Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 5: 154). The quotation appeared again in his Words of Wisdom for Daily Life and again in Spurgeon’s autobiography, immediately after the story of his encounter with Byron’s statue (Spurgeon, Wisdom 126; Autobiography 298). Unfortunately for Spurgeon these lines were not Byron’s most heartfelt confession: in fact, Byron didn’t write them at all. They came from a spurious volume entitled Lord Byron’s Farewell to England: and other Poems, written by John Agg and published by James Johnston in 1816. Byron disowned these poems almost immediately (“it is enough to answer for what I have written”, he wrote, “but it were too much for Job himself to bear what one has not”) and an injunction was granted against the publisher (Byron, Letters 5: 84, 138). Spurgeon owned this volume, bound into one of the nonce volumes in his library along with five authentic Byron editions. Farewell to England did not appear in any authorized edition of Byron’s works, nor in Spurgeon’s Tauchnitz reprint edition of Byron. The quatrain that Spurgeon quoted was, however, reproduced in Truths Illustrated from Great Authors, where it is attributed to Byron and appears under the heading “Mental Anguish” (White 354).
Byron provided Spurgeon with a readily familiar example of the unhappy sinner whose gifts could not bring him grace, but Spurgeon also valued some of Byron’s poetry for the religious sensibility it expressed. Spurgeon’s Byron was a soul divided between a gift of genius and a deficit of grace: beautiful and damned. His invocations of Byron and his works reflected this division: Byron was both a sinner who denied God’s laws and a poet who could open the way to God in men’s hearts. He twice invoked Byron’s Ecclesiastean poem “All is Vanity”, and approvingly quoted his moralising stanzas on William Beckford from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1.22-23) in The Treasury of David (Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 13: 532; 15: 139; Treasury, 2: 423). In fact, Spurgeon repeatedly commends Byron as a religious poet, recommending his paraphrase of Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon”), quoting with approbation “The Destruction of Sennacherib” from Hebrew Melodies, and referring with approval to moments in Byron’s poetry when the Deity seems to be revealed in nature. The third quotation that caught Spurgeon’s imagination was Byron’s address to the ocean, from the end of Childe Harold, Canto Four, as “Thou glorious mirror, where the Almighty’s form / Glasses itself in tempests” (4.183); he recalled these lines imperfectly in two sermons. On one occasion, he writes “Byron speaks of God’s face being mirrored in the sea”, on the other, “‘The God of nature,’ as Byron puts it, ‘mirrors himself in tempests as well as in green fields’” (Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 45: 172; 61: 450). He could have read this poem in his Tauchnitz edition of Byron, but he also owned a first edition of Childe Harold, Canto Four, bound separately. He could also have found the lines about the Almighty “glass[ing] himself in tempests” quoted in Beauties of the Modern Poets, which he owned (Carey 26). And the lines appeared in Truths Illustrated from Great Authors, attributed to Byron, under the heading “The Sea” (White 448). The fact that Spurgeon could quote Byron’s poetry approvingly, even while he invoked his biography disapprovingly, suggests the extent to which citations become severed from their contexts and even their authors. But the extent to which Spurgeon’s citations were mediated by other sources also suggests that this severance did not happen all at once, but was a process of citing and re-citing, mediating and re-mediating, that unfolded in the pages of a variety of printed texts.
The final quotation shows this process at work. When he praised Byron as a poet who saw God revealed in nature in The Saint and his Saviour, Spurgeon singled out lines from Don Juan, the most notoriously immoral of all his poems:
There’s music in the sighing of a reed
There’s music in the gushing of a rill;
There’s music in all things, if men had ears;
Their earth is but an echo of the spheres.
Spurgeon, Saint and his Saviour 165; quoting Don Juan 15.5
The choice is especially surprising, since Byron expresses similar thoughts in less objectionable poems (e.g. Childe Harold, 3.86, 87 or 90; each of these stanzas was marked with a pencil line in the margin in one of the two copies of this poem that Spurgeon owned). The lines from Don Juan were, of course, in the Tauchnitz edition of Byron’s works. But the crucial lines also appeared in Truths Illustrated from Great Authors (White 381) and in the fifth volume of Beautiful Poetry, both of which Spurgeon owned (Poetry 191). In these books the lines were credited to Byron, but the poem from which they came was not named. If either of these was his source for this quotation, Spurgeon may not have associated these apparently orthodox lines with the dangerously sceptical and seductive poem in which they appeared. In each of the four cases I have examined, Byron’s writing was mediated to Spurgeon in contingent and thoroughly overdetermined ways. Spurgeon had access to those bits of Byron that became important to him through multiple channels. In the process of mediation, shards of Byron’s poetry became detached from their original contexts, other people’s poetry was attributed to him, and the practice of calling on Byron’s poetry in support of moral arguments was modelled by those who cited him.
Spurgeon became another link in the chain of mediation, relaying ideas about Byron and his works to new audiences, no doubt including many who never read Byron’s works for themselves. This process was inevitably transformative, because Spurgeon had no a priori commitment to fidelity in transmission. Unlike editors concerned to restore texts to an ideal purity, critics aiming to offer accounts of Byron’s thought and close readings of his texts, or biographers careful to get their facts straight, Spurgeon was not concerned with the authority of his texts, the validity of his interpretations or the accuracy of his anecdotes. All that concerned him was the effect he had on his hearers. In a parable, Spurgeon imagined the complaints if the place names on signposts were substituted by “stanzas from Byron, or stately lines from Milton, or deep thoughts from Cowper or Young”. His business, he went on, was not to “indulge in poetical thoughts and express them in high-flown language,” but “to set up the hand-posts marking out the way of salvation, and to keep them painted in letters large and plain, so that he who runs may read” (Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 23: 193-94).
When Byron was conscripted to signpost the route to salvation, his biography and his texts both became unstable. Spurgeon claimed that “a spiritually dead man” could “stand, like Byron, under the shadow of Mont Blanc, and write himself ‘Atheos,’ without God where God is everywhere” (Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 60: 27). In fact, it was Shelley who wrote “atheist” in Greek next to his name in a hotel register in the Vale of Chamouny, and Byron who scratched the word out (Marchand 647). On the other hand, Spurgeon approvingly noted “Byron wrote, – ‘He is a freeman whom the truth makes free, / And all are slaves besides’”; this sentiment is certainly Byronic, but the words are Cowper’s (Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 48: 72; Cowper, 5: 733-734). On another occasion, Spurgeon felt “compelled to apply to Israel the language which Byron applied to Rome” and he quoted the following lines:
What are our griefs and sufferance? Come and see
Jerusalem in heaps, and plod your way
O’er steps of broken thrones and temples.
Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 57: 149, misquoting Childe Harold 4.78
In the original, from Childe Harold Canto Four, these lines read “Come and see / The cypress – hear the owl – and plod your way”. In Spurgeon’s copy of the Tauchnitz edition, this stanza is marked with a pencil tick in the margin. When he quoted the lines, however, Spurgeon spliced Byron’s poetry with a memory of Psalm 79, verse 1: “they have laid Jerusalem in heaps”. At one moment Byron (standing in for Shelley) becomes an example of the sinner’s inability to see God revealed in nature, at another (in his image of the ocean as a mirror of divinity) he becomes a witness to exactly that revelation.
Spurgeon’s practice is radically situational and citational. In his hands, Byron’s writing is shattered, and its shards turn up in unexpected places, conscripted for unfamiliar purposes. Spurgeon’s use of Byron is not primarily concerned either with borrowing authority from Byron or with conferring authority on Spurgeon. Marjorie Garber writes that quotation “instates an authority elsewhere, and, at the same time, it imparts that authority, temporarily, to the speaker or the writer” (2). For Spurgeon, however, the preacher’s authority comes only from God. For him, then, quotation is not the site of authority, but the dispersal or deferral of authority, as Derrida observes when he claims that “every sign […] in a small or large unit, can be cited, put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable” (Derrida 185). Retracing these iterations leads us onto unfamiliar ground, as we set aside narratives of poetic influence or a “critical heritage” in favour of a capillary model of cultural transmission that pays attention to previously unexamined moments of citation, appropriation and redeployment. The unpredictable and unreliable capillaries through which knowledge of Byron and his works was transmitted require us to attend to contingencies of mediation. While there is evidence that Spurgeon read a number of Byron’s poems in reliable editions, his understanding of Byron was also – and more importantly – mediated by anthologies, collections of anecdotes, books of quotations, citations in other texts and the statue of Byron in Cambridge. Spurgeon mediated Byron to others in his turn, including both those who were already familiar with his works and those who had no first-hand knowledge of them. When a number of anecdotes about Byron and quotations from his works became part of the fund that Spurgeon could draw on when speaking extempore, they became open to appropriation and redeployment. As a result, Byron’s texts were broken into fragments, placed in new contexts, spliced with other people’s words, misremembered, misattributed and rendered strange.
Instead of lamenting this process, we might learn to understand it by developing new models of cultural transmission. Rather than acquiring a monolithic cultural authority, Byron’s writing, his image, and elements of his biography developed what Charles Martindale calls a distributed “iterability” (28). But whereas the iterations that Martindale examines are mostly in the mainstream of the classical tradition – the arteries of cultural transmission – the example of C. H. Spurgeon reveals the importance of other kinds of iteration, insignificant in themselves but in aggregate potentially more important than the landmarks of Byron’s reception history. These are the capillaries of cultural transmission. Byron remained in the public eye not because the “sincerity and strength” that Swinburne and Arnold found in his poetry enabled it to endure the vicissitudes of time, but because his writing was continually appropriated and iterated in new ways (Swinburne 121). Texts continue to speak because they are perpetually being made to speak anew, in ways that address local, specific needs. The capillaries of cultural transmission inevitably transform what they transmit; each iteration allows a text from the past to “resonate”, in Wai Chee Dimock’s terms, with its new context. A single iteration of this kind may be insignificant in itself, and the process is therefore historically fugitive, but examining how Spurgeon read, remembered and redeployed Byron provides one way in which to recover its operations and suggest their aggregate impact.
Tom Mole is Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar in the English Department at McGill University. He is the author of Byron’s Romantic Celebrity: Industrial Culture and the Hermeneutic of Intimacy (Palgrave, 2007) and the editor of Romanticism and Celebrity Culture: 1750-1850 (Cambridge, 2009). He is currently working on a study of the reception of Romantic authors in later-nineteenth-century Britain.
The best modern biography of Spurgeon is by Kruppa. Recent apologetic treatments of his life are provided by Bacon and Drummond. Chadwick and Meisel also provide biographical information. Kruppa says Spurgeon preached to “nearly twenty-seven thousand” people in Crystal Palace in 1857 (68), Chadwick says it was twenty-four thousand, Meisel gives the figure from the turnstiles as 23,654 (129).
For further details on Spurgeon’s reading, see Bacon 108-109 and Kruppa 209, 366-68.
The first six volumes of Spurgeon’s sermons were published while he was Pastor of the New Park Street Chapel and were entitled The New Park Street Pulpit. The title Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit was adopted from volume seven onwards. After his death in 1892, Spurgeon’s associates continued to issue new volumes of the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, containing transcribed but (usually) unpublished sermons, for another fifteen years.
I gratefully acknowledge the assistance I have received from the staff of the seminary, especially its librarian, Craig Kubic, and from the librarian of the Spurgeon College in London, Judy Powles.
These volumes were part of Tauchnitz’s reprint series of British authors, inaugurated in 1841. After the international copyright act of 1844, Tauchnitz paid small fees to British publishers or authors, as did Galignani in France, and so was not technically a pirate (St Clair, 523; Nowell-Smith). Only the second of this edition’s five volumes remains in the Spurgeon collection at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It seems very likely that Spurgeon originally owned all five volumes, and I have made this assumption in what follows.
The first nonce volume contains Childe Harold, Canto Three (1st edition), The Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems (1st edition), The Giaour (9th edition), The Corsair (3rd edition), The Bride of Abydos (5th edition) and the spurious volume Lord Byron’s Farewell to England with Three Other Poems. The second nonce volume contains Hebrew Melodies (1st Murray edition), Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte (8th edition), The Siege of Corinth and Parisina (2nd edition), The Lament of Tasso (2nd edition) and Manfred (1st edition).
The similarity of the marks suggests that those volumes of Byron in Spurgeon’s collection which are annotated were all annotated by the same person, and although it cannot be proved that this was Spurgeon himself, this seems overwhelmingly likely.
These lines appear in later editions of Truths Illustrated by Great Authors, but they do not appear in the fourth edition, which Spurgeon owned.
For further comments on the incident see Byron, Letters, 5: 143, 150, 151, and 159. Samuel Chew reminded readers of Notes and Queries in 1919 that these poems had long been disattributed (113-115), and Howard Mumford Jones identified the author as John Agg (129-131).
Byron’s paraphrase of the 137th Psalm is praised as “perhaps the best” in Spurgeon’s commentary to that Psalm in The Treasury of David 7: 193. “The Destruction of Sennacherib” is quoted in the same book: 3: 405.
Charles Martindale argues for a reception hermeneutics in which “a classic becomes a text whose ‘iterability’ is a function of its capacity, which includes the authority vested in its reception, for continued reappropriations by readers” (28).
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