Byron: Heritage and Legacy presents eighteen short essays derived from papers delivered at the 2001 International Byron Society conference in Boston, Delaware and New York City. It is, as Bernard Beatty observes in its introduction, “a book about Byron, man and poet, and ... a book about contexts” (2). There are three sections and a more than usually extensive Afterword.
Part One, on “Byron’s International Reception” brings us the references made to Byron in a 1990 court case in Indiana over disputed mosaics from Cyprus, a glance at the vogue for Byron in nineteenth-century America, and at Byron’s influence on Canadian Literature of the same period. Paul M. Curtis muses briefly on teaching the melancholy refugee-poet to “Acadians, a people who managed with great difficulty to return home, only to be threatened today with cultural assimilation” (42). Byron’s Bulgarian reception from the 1880s to the 1920s, and Miroslawa Modrzewska’s reflections on the changing nature of “the Byron legend” round out the section.
Part Two considers “Influences on Byron’s Work.” Marilyn Gaull’s striking piece, “Byron and the Dragons of Eden,” puts such productions as Cain and Heaven and Earth into the context of contemporary catastrophism and a concurrent enthusiasm for Georges Cuvier’s most memorable invention, the pterodactyl. Gaull connects the poet and the palaeontologist, claiming that “Cuvier’s beasts, like the Byronic hero ... conveyed the discomforts and anxieties of impotent power, unfocused rage, and frustrated longing for ideals that no longer or may never have existed” (77), an original comparison if every there was one. Wolf Z. Hirst also discusses Cain, supplementing his earlier work on the play with a reconsideration of Byron’s use of his biblical materials. Byron’s relationship to Virgil and to the literary market of the day also fall into this section, as does Catherine Addison’s rewarding formalist discussion of Byron’s use of the narrative stanzas he inherited from earlier poets. The section closes with one of the stronger articles in the collection, Beatty’s own thoughtful essay on Manfred. He notes that “the condition of melancholy is open to ethical scrutiny” (144) and develops his lifelong engagement with the play through a contrast of its “strong Nietzschean pulse” (146) and, more usefully in the end for Beatty, Kierkegaard’s diagnosis of the fundamentally aesthetic modes and purposes of the Romantic melancholic. The main question, for Beatty, is how and where the play and its protagonist change, as “Manfred could not say, ‘Old man ‘tis not so difficult to die’ at the beginning of the play” (145). He can at the end because “the play is about the relation of ‘is’...” (Manfred’s self-constituted, self-observed autonomy) to “the notion of becoming something.” This corresponds, “in Kierkegaard’s understanding ... [to] the relation between the aesthetical and the ethical” (147), and Beatty argues that the final line of the play announces or enacts a crucial “turning point” in Byron’s career, towards an ethically engaged “good humor” (147).
The third section groups articles on “Byron’s Literary Inheritors.” Austen, Wordsworth, and Heine are amongst those placed in this category, with differing degrees of persuasiveness or originality. More impressive is Christine Kenyon Jones’s account of the “three-cornered debate” (196), begun then and ongoing still, between the ideas of the Rev. William Paley (surely the progenitor of “intelligent design”), Byronic counter-visions of degeneration, and Darwinian evolutionary theory. Of particular interest is the question of the meaning and purpose of physical pain, an issue of more than abstract importance to the poet. Jones quotes him on the miseries of his misshapen foot and notes his strong rejection of “a doctrine which taught that bodily pain was in any way of benefit for the betterment of humanity” (192). In this he would be supported by Darwin, who “thought that the existence of animal suffering disproved the doctrine that pain was useful as a teacher” (192). While Darwin’s selective mechanism was unavailable to Byron as a context for unjust and meaningless suffering in nature, Paley’s Natural Theology of 1802 was certainly present to make the case for design. The poet “most likely” (188) read it, Jones claims, as did most Cambridge undergraduates even as late as the 1920s. “One of [the] unfathomable injustices, for Byron, was the existence of his deformed foot, and the parts of Paley’s argument that he must have disliked most were those which were based on the physical perfection of human and animal anatomy.” Paley even singled out “the muscular arrangement of the ankle as ... ‘decidedly a mark of intention’” (193). While Darwin may not have been directly influenced by Byron, they “both took the answers of Paley ... and turned them into questions” (195). The section concludes with Andrew M. Stauffer’s “Byronic Anger and the Victorians,” a suggestive look at some of Byron’s nineteenth-century literary heirs and their wary engagement with, and ultimate rejection of, his poetic wrathfulness.
As the survey above hopefully suggests, the contribution to Byron scholarship made by these essays is variable, from the fairly slight to the more substantial. It must be noted as well that there are a few editing problems with the volume. Here and there a sentence appears which clearly is not as the author intended, as for example on page 105 of Tom Mole’s otherwise useful essay on the market context of the publication of Hebrew Melodies. A bit more problematic, however, is a reference in Jonathon Shears’ piece on Byron and Wordsworth. Shears quotes from what he seems to designate, in italics, as a distinct work of Wordsworth: “his Annotations to Paradise Lost” (166). A passage is reproduced, with a parenthetical page reference. The individual notes to the essay provide no information on this work, however, but refer only to the now rather non-standard 1936 Oxford edition of the Wordsworth’s Poetical Works, edited by Hutchison and revised by De Selincourt. In the collected bibliography of the volume under review only this edition and Stillinger’s Selected Poems and Prefaces of 1965 appear under Wordsworth’s name. The passage is not in fact from any separate work of Wordsworth but from a section with a similar name in Wittreich’s The Romantics on Milton (1970), which is indeed listed in the general bibliography, although the reader would need to guess it was the source. And one would want to look it up, because the passage is misquoted, appearing to say the opposite of what it does. Shears has Wordsworth writing “And it is not to be lamented that [Satan] leaves us in a situation so degraded in comparison to the grandeur of his introduction...” (166). Wittreich gives us this transcription from Wordsworth’s copy of Milton at Dove Cottage: “And it is not a little to be lamented....”
The end material of the volume reflects a notable temporal and spatial circumstance. The conference took place a bare month before September 11, 2001, and many of the delegates were housed in the Millennium Hotel across the street from the World Trade Center. The Afterword compiles personal responses and memories from some of the writers in the volume. These range from the affecting and almost poetic to the inconsequential, some straining a bit for effect, others teetering between banality and simple sincerity as they witness the inadequacy of the words most of us can command upon such an occasion. They make somewhat curious, even uneasy reading, these eight years later. A few connections are made to Byron, but most of these are not too convincing. One exception might be--the reader must judge--Gaull’s musing on the affinities between Cuvier’s aerial beasts and the “monsters” (218) that flew into the towers. A New Yorker, she was in the subway below when the attacks occurred and narrowly escaped, and thus might be granted a little more latitude for such reflection.
Though I no longer believe ... that Byron or any of the Romantic poets prepare one for disaster, or for anything, I began to see behind the texts, the similarity between their time and ours, terror that exceeded literary depictions, helplessness, waste, fear, like ours. The political terror and the uncertainty of nature they lived with may account for catastrophic theory and its unlikely appeal, “the crash of onset” as Coleridge wrote in Fears of Solitude, the “undetermined conflict,” which goes on to this day....218
Ian Dennis is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Nationalism and Desire in Early Historical Fiction (Macmillan, 1997), Lord Byron and the History of Desire (Delaware, 2009) and four published novels.