When contemporary critics like McGann and Christensen link the figure of the dandy with the category of “the thing,” they participate in a rich and enduring cultural pattern that dates back at least to the Restoration. “Reification and the Dandy” elaborates this cultural history through an examination of eighteenth-century British rhetorics of foppishness and their reliance on the category of the thing in order to situate its contemporary iterations in their historical context. Recalling this history also underscores the extent to which Byron’s poetics in Beppo are disarmingly queer in their performance of a refusal to feel the degradation of foppishness, thinghood, and impotent triviality. Beppo neither resolves nor exorcises the double binds and blinds of poetic composition in a reified culture, but it performs those binds for us in a slight work, next of kin to a nonentity. In Beppo Byron offers foppery as poetics itself, making the slight, the trivial, the barely there, turn his career. The ottava rima may have been inspired by Frere and Pulce, but the foppish poem, itself a dandiacal confrontation with Wordsworthian poetics, was Byron’s own.
All reification is a forgetting.Adorno, in a letter to Benjamin, 29 February 1940
In “Byron and the Anonymous Lyric,” Jerome McGann diagnoses what he calls “the (paradoxically) cold style of the dandical poet” (93) in Byron’s lyric procedures. Citing stanza 123 of canto 4 of Childe Harold, McGann argues, “Such writing is exactly what Baudelaire called ‘anonymous’—mannered and theatrical, the poetry of dandyism. The verse performs a kind of Faustian rite in which Byron agrees to use himself up—to use himself, treat himself like a thing to be coldly anatomized and observed” (99). A rich cultural history undergirds McGann’s formulation of a poetry of dandyism that consists of treating oneself as a thing. In this essay, I will attempt to elaborate this cultural history through an examination of eighteenth-century British rhetorics of foppishness and their reliance on the category of the thing. In the conclusion, I hope to suggest the extent to which Byron’s foppish poetics in Beppo are disarmingly queer in their performance of a refusal to feel the degradation of foppishness, thinghood, and impotent triviality.
It was, Byron claimed in a letter to Murray of 25 March 1818, to “repel the charge of monotony and mannerism” that he wrote Beppo (Byron’s Letters and Journals [BLJ] 6: 25). Despite the distance Byron travelled in 1817 between canto 4 of Childe Harold’s tragic if sometimes naughtily enjambed Spenserian stanzas and the light ottava rima of Beppo, the two poems were closely associated with each other for Byron, and both implicated in the reconsideration of poems, poetry, poets, and authorship that mark this productive pivot in Byron’s career. Byron connects the two poems, for instance, in the bit of doggerel he sent to Murray on 8 January 1818:
My dear Mr. Murray,
You’re in a damned hurry
To set up this ultimate Canto,
But (if they don’t rob us)
You’ll see Mr. Hobhouse
Will bring it safe in his portmanteau.—
BLJ 6: 3; Beppo 4: 161-4
For the Journal you hint of.
As ready to print off;
No doubt you do right to commend it
But as I have writ off
The devil a bit of
Our Beppo,” when copied I’ll send it.—
This bit of doggerel is part of a flurry of doggerel verses on poets and poetry which surrounded the transit of canto 4 of Childe Harold and Beppo from Venice to London. The doggerel verses, as much as the two poems in question, signal and constitute the extremely challenging nature of Byron’s shifting poetic project; the doggerel of the doggerel verses pushes against every standard of poetic value the Byron knew—as, of course, does Beppo. Beppo, with its broken dandy narrator, was offered to Murray along with canto 4 of Childe Harold, the real poem, as trade for some debts that Byron owed to his publisher in a direct affront to Romantic-era poetry’s presumed rejection of commerce and exchange. Despite the possible coincidence inhering in the conjunction of McGann’s description of the Baudelairian “poetry of dandyism” in canto 4 of Childe Harold and the fact that Beppo is narrated by a dandy, the two poems could safely be described as dissimilar. In fact, for many of the first reviewers, Beppo scarcely constituted a poem at all. For Francis Jeffrey for instance, in a formulation whose significance this essay will explore, Beppo was clearly a “thing of nothing [. . .] entirely composed of common words, in their common places” (303). As a “thing of nothing,” Beppo turns its back on the poetry of canto 4 of Childe Harold by drawing on and playfully inhabiting the rich rhetorical traditions that dismiss men of fashion as mere things.
This essay may be understood as contributing in a modest way to what Bill Brown has somewhat apologetically called “thing theory”: “Is there something perverse, if not archly insistent, about complicating things with theory? Do we really need anything like thing theory the way we need narrative theory or cultural theory, queer theory or discourse theory? Why not let things alone?” (1). Of course there are no things in my essay, no shoes or trousers or snuff boxes or quizzing glasses—only men who in their public performances of engagement with shoes and trousers and snuff boxes and quizzing glasses affronted the standards of the emerging bourgeois public sphere. But things, the category as well as the word itself, are crucial to a full understanding of the queer confrontations staged by Byron’s later poetics.
Any theorization of Byron’s poetics, as I will begin to argue here, must be acutely attentive, as Byron himself was, to the economic and discursive vicissitudes of the thing.The very word thing—although perhaps locally straightforward in McGann’s reading of canto 4 of Childe Harold and Jeffrey’s dismissal of Beppo—presents peculiar problems in what Brown describes as its “audacious ambiguity”: “It denotes a massive generality as well as particularities [. . .]. Things is a word that tends, especially at its most banal, to index a certain limit or liminality, to hover over the threshold between the nameable and unnameable, the figurable and the unfigurable, the identifiable and unidentifiable” (4-5). In Beppo, a thing of nothing and a currency to cancel debt, prattling in construction, narrated by a dandy, populated by fashionable nothings and one returning Corsair who apparently lacks underpants, Byron both engages and puts paid to the thinging of the man of fashion; he also begins what will become his final project: devising a dandiacal poetics, a poetry saturated in the thingness of the human worlds he knew.
1. Foppish Things: A Cultural History
One cannot understand Beppo without understanding the rhetorical history of the fop. The dandy, as Byron well knew, was a phenomenon of his lifetime, but one with complex roots in the past. Although Beppo is narrated by a dandy, the poem in many ways harks back to the older traditions of literary foppery. The dandy, fittingly, resists any easy genealogical accounting, but he does have forebears although their relations are difficult to pin down. In fact, the many species of men of fashion in Restoration, eighteenth-century, and Romantic-era Britain defy taxonomy in at least two important ways. Sparks, fops, beaux, swells, coxcombs, popinjays, macaroni, dandies, and their kin defy taxonomy in that they can neither be clearly distinguished, nor simply collapsed, nor easily grouped. They also, again inconsistently and in varying degrees, defy taxonomy in the ways in which they do and do not map onto other nonce taxonomic distinctions between the masculine and the feminine, the animate and the inanimate, the human and the non-human, the present and the absent. While the richness of available terms could suggest something like a taxonomy, then, in practice the terms were and are markedly unstable, both in relation to each other and in relation to other terms that cluster in their vicinity (monkey, butterfly, thing, essence bottle, wit, insect). Its enduring familiarity makes the term fop a convenient shorthand for this rich array of identities, attributes, and slurs, and masculine pronouns offer a certain ease for writing about the fop, but it should be remembered that both the term and its pronouns have been extremely unstable throughout their history.
The closest thing to a taxonomic solid ground in the vicinity of the fop arguably lies in his persistent proximity to the thing. This could be called reification of a sort, but it bears little resemblance to the term familiar to English readers as a translation of Marx’s verdinglichung; as things, fops are tiny, impotent, concrete and harmless rather than abstract and uncontrollable. In Wycherley’s The Plain Dealer (1677), in a typical example, Manly refers to Novel and Plausible as “these two Pulvillio Boxes, these sense Bottles [. . .] these things” (2: 422). The metonymic representation of the fop as perfume bottle or snuff box recurs insistently across eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British writing. The thingness of the fop, then, is both far from simple and far from what Lukács is attempting to articulate when he argues:
The transformation of the commodity relation into a thing of ‘ghostly objectivity’ cannot therefore content itself with the reduction of all objects for the gratification of human needs to commodities. It stamps its imprint upon the whole consciousness of man; his qualities and abilities are no longer an organic part of his personality, they are things he can ‘own’ or ‘dispose of’ like the various objects of the external world. And there is no natural form in which human relations can be cast, no way in which man can bring his physical and psychic ‘qualities’ into play without their being subjected increasingly to this reifying process.100
As unconnected as these two phenomena may seem, they need to be understood in the context of one another. Discursively dismissed as a thing, the fop apparently inoculates all other men who are able to escape reifying processes simply by not being fops. Long before Lukács, what Timothy Bewes has diagnosed as “the anxiety of late capitalism” makes itself felt in the comic reifications of men of fashion; prior to industrialization and the emergence of the class structures that concerned Lukács, anxieties about reification are articulated at the expense of the man of fashion.
The persistence of strictly patterned metonymy in the vicinity of the man of fashion—the same petite items, the same investments—suggests a fairly stable ideological formation. The fops of Restoration comedies perform something like a willing and even delighted submission to the forces of reification that take on nightmare potency in Lukács’s formulations. Their rhetorical specificity—in general fops and their kin are quite easy to recognize and distinguish from actual men—not only diminishes the more threatening patterns of reification but may even suggest persistent recognition of the pleasures as well as the perils of watching things take on a life of their own, the erotics for men of being the object of the gaze as well as of gazing, of willingly embracing degraded things.
Other rhetorical patterns even more literally diminish the fop and make themselves felt in Beppo; the imputation of diminutiveness obsessively follows them around. In Joseph Andrews Fielding introduces us to:
a young Gentleman of about four Foot five Inches in height. [. . .] His Face was thin and pale: the Shape of his Body and Legs none of the best; for he had very narrow Shoulders, and no Calf; and his Gait might more properly be called hopping than walking. [ . . . ] No Hater of Women; for he always dangled after them; yet so little subject to Lust, that he had, among those who knew him best, the Character of great Moderation in his Pleasures. [. . .] Such was the little Person or rather Thing that hopped after Lady Booby into Mr. Adam’s kitchen.306-307
Beau Didapper’s miniature thingly self is neither accidental nor unusual; the man of fashion as miniature toy or accessory abounds throughout Fielding’s work. In “Of True Greatness,” he details the opposite of greatness, littleness:
The lowest Beau that skips about a Court,
The Lady’s Play-thing, and the Footman’s Sport,
Whose Head adorn’d with Bag or Tale [sic] of Pig,
Serves very well to bear about his Wig;
Himself the sign-post of his Taylor’s Trade,
That shews abroad, how well his Cloaths are made;
This little, empty, silly, trifling Toy,
Can from Ambition feel a kind of Joy;
Can swell, and even aim at looking wife,
And walking Merit from its Chair despise.222-231
emphasis in original
Reduced to a toy, neutered by its, little and empty, hardly more than an advertisement for his tailor, the lowest Beau skips inconsequentially about the Court. This persistent miniaturization of the man of fashion, the fop, polices the boundaries of the bourgeois public sphere, which, presumably, will be reserved for the fully human, excluding tiny toys and signposts. Again, this miniaturization seems nearly the perfect obverse of Lukács’s looming abstractions. There is certainly invective here—this is Swift after all—but the little, empty object of scorn represents something like the perfect absence of agency in Swift’s own rhetoric. Nevertheless, the creeping thingness of certain men works to diminish reification itself, as well as to abject fashion-conscious men from the emerging bourgeois public sphere (at least in ideological fantasy).
Another term frequently found in the vicinity of the fop, species, suggests a particularly complex ideological formulation. In Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift (1695-6), the elder Worthy describes Sir Novelty Fashion as “One that Heaven intended for a Man; but the whole Business of his life is, to make the World believe he is of another Species. A Thing that affects mightily to ridicule himself, only to give others a kind of Necessity of praising him” (9). As Hazlitt put it of Brummell, over a century later, “We look upon Beau Brummell as the greatest of small wits. Indeed, he may in this respect be considered as Cowley says of Pindar as ‘a species alone,’ and as forming a class by himself” (431). The persistence of species as a trope suggests the power of the quasi-taxonomic urge to eject the man of fashion from humanity. Species was a term of biological categorization long before Linnaeus or Darwin, and here it is used not only to suggest that whatever the fop as a thing is, he has little to do with the rest of us, but also to articulate a fantasy that, unable to reproduce, the fop will vanish—a peculiar singularity rather than a representative of a transmissible oppositional cultural formulation. Thus, as is perhaps not surprising in regards to “a species alone,” the fop is quite often explicitly impotent—a tradition carried through to the “broken” dandy who narrates Beppo. This impotence is not always subtly articulated; as Henry Carey writes in “The Old Beau; or, A Full and True Account of a Certain Apothecary, That Turned Gallant at Sixty Three,”
Ladies all blow up the Fire,
And swell the empty Thing;
They let him prate his Belly full,
For he has lost his Sting.
That the fop, the man of fashion, as a thing is tiny to the point of vanishing, a distinct species, unable to reproduce, marginally human at best, and yet discursively ubiquitous reminds us that anxieties about reification predate large-scale industrialization and may in fact be a function of the emergence of consumer culture more than a function of industrialization or late capitalism.
The category “thing” when applied to the fop is complex, intricate and unstable, for finally, the fop’s thingness, perhaps paradoxically, often approaches mere nothingness. As Robert Anderson writes in “Spring: A Fragment,” from his Poems on Various Subjects, published in 1798,
How different seems the tulip, gaudy flow’r!
How gaily deck’d, yet priz’d but for its shew!
So shines the witless beau—vain, tinsell’d thing!—
That glides thro’ life unnotic’d but for dress.
Here the nothingness is the natural result of being displaced by one’s dress, but this is not always the case. The following passage from The Book of Elegance; or, The Ladies’ Mirror (c. 1832) addresses male fashion victims: “The male part of the Creation are equally guilty, so to speak: but a man who devotes his time to these frivolities is looked upon as a nonentity—a thing—a Cipher—and as a thing of naught” (26). This is perhaps the most surprising association of thing in the vicinity of the fop: rather than signaling the stubborn opacity of matter, the fop is a thing full of mists and empty air, as like to vanish into wispy insubstantiality as to be solidly, if minutely, held in one’s hand. As impotent things, fops ought simply to have vanished, but of course they did not. Instead, moving through the wakes of his various historical and fictional forebears, Beau Brummell, a person, a name, and a congeries of anecdotes, made an indelible impression on his contemporaries; indeed for Byron, according to report, he was the greatest man of their shared age. Byron did not just make oppositional statements about Beau Brummell in Beppo: Byron also experiments with folding the rhetoric of foppery into his own poetics and in doing so brings his own poetry into direct engagement with the thinging of human worlds.
2. Fops, Dandies, and Other Things
Before we continue, it is important to keep in mind that thinging men does not begin with fops and that not every thinging of a person is pejorative. According to the OED, with modification, the use of the word thing to address a person can be affectionate or compassionate, as in “old thing,” “dear old thing,” “you bad thing,” or “poor thing” (a usage, according to the second edition, which appears from 1290 to 1975), while without modification this usage is typically derogatory. The OED traces derogatory uses of thing to denominate a person from Shakespeare to someone called Motley in 1860, but none of the examples cited exactly resembles those that interest me here. Collectively, however, the OED examples suggest that the derogatory uses of thing to suggest that a man of fashion is no more than an inanimate object (a perfume bottle or snuff box as the first passage from Wycherley suggests) may derive from the older tradition that uses thing along the perhaps uncertain border between man and beast. When Prospero says of Caliban, “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (V.i.275-276), he draws attention not only to Caliban’s monstrosity, but also to his physicality, his proximity to matter. This semantic tradition is still current in reference to creatures like “The Thing” of the The Fantastic Four or the Swamp Thing. In this tradition, the term thing as near insult denotes a masculinity veering away from the category of the human, as is the case with the fop, but moving away in the opposite direction—towards the natural, the hulking, the overly physical, and the dangerous. Both fops and brutes move away from the animate and towards inanimate matter, but the male things noted by the OED gravitate towards matter as uncontrollable nature, the fops towards diminutive manufactured items. The first are dangerous, the second decidedly not. As Robert Heilman notes, in Restoration comedies, “The fops are consistently good-natured, despite frequent provocation” (381). Caliban is a thing of force, Beau Didapper a thing of nothing. Unlike Caliban, Beau Didapper simply fails to feel the degradation of his condition.
There are traces of the man of fashion being referred to as a thing earlier, but the habit seems to coalesce strongly around the time of the Restoration, and for good reason. Throughout the tumultuous seventeenth century, the relations between masculinity and fashion were violently contested as the various Stuart courts were accused of conspicuous consumption, luxury, and effeminacy (along with a regrettable tendency towards faith in their own divine rights), as Puritans pointed to the theological meanings of clothes, as domestic manufacturers (as opposed to as traders) sought an economic voice, and as the stakes and status of imported fabrics changed. It was in this context, as David Kuchta has argued, that Charles II adopted the three-piece suit as the new sartorial model for masculinity. As Kuchta reminds us:
Though the monarchy was restored in 1660, certainly nothing was fixed, as Charles II had inherited the instabilities and criticisms of his father’s reign, including criticisms of the lux which men so much condemned in the court’s apparel. In the eyes of contemporaries like Evelyn, sartorial stability was a first step toward political stability [. . .]. Six years after his restoration, Charles II did attempt to become a pattern to his own people, an attempt that led to the introduction of the modern three-piece suit [. . .]. In introducing the three-piece suit, Charles II attempted to appropriate an iconoclastic, oppositional ideology and use it to redefine court culture, thereby restoring the crown’s moral authority and political legitimacy.78-79
In this context the man of fashion as thing comes fully, if equivocally, to life.
Heilman usefully reminds us that:
The spread of the new narrowed meaning of fop in the 1670s [hitherto it had been closer to fool] does not mean, of course, the sudden birth of a new concept. Euphuists, pedants, précieux, various “humors,” pretentious worldlings of earlier vintage were forerunners if not actual contributors to the idea of the Restoration fop. But it took the Charles II court, with its reactions against the Commonwealth, its secular sense of the elect and the non-elect and the too-elect, and its awareness of French style that could be both compelling and overbearing and hence conducive to both xenophilia and xenophobia, to create, within the immense realm of fopdom, the new foppery of hyperbolic stylishness.365-6
This particular tug-of-war around masculine display, inaugurated in the crises of the seventeenth century and coalescing in particular ways during the Restoration, was not to seem fully resolved until the nineteenth-century period of “men in black,” and even then, in the midst of what apparently felt like massive cultural consensus and what Kaja Silverman has called masculine aphanisis of specularity, resistances flourished and continue to flourish. David Kuchta argues that “historians since Max Weber have long characterized Puritan iconoclasm as a disenchantment of the lived world, but precisely the opposite was true. In order to purge the world of idolatry and luxury, Puritans invested objects with all the evil associations that their rhetoric could muster” (66). The enchantment of the object—“decorative commodity” might be more precise—is clearly at work in the trope under investigation: mere interest in the things of fashion magically transforms men weak enough to indulge it into things themselves, to shrink them, dissolve them, render them ineffectual—if charming.
In Beppo, the Count, Beppo, and the narrator all circulate in the wake of these foppish things: Beppo swapping shawls with Laura and meeting the Count with equanimity (despite being “a person of both sense and vigor” ), the Count happily staying as close to Laura “as a part of dress” (39), and, obviously, the “broken” (52) dandy who narrates what action there is. Although Byron recurs repeatedly, if obliquely, to the traditions of Restoration fopdom to enact his thingly poetics, the word fop never appears in the poem. Our narrator is a dandy, a word of recent popularity strongly associated with one of the other most famous men of Byron’s time, Beau Brummell.
The precise origin of the term dandy to signify a man of fashion is obscure. Ellen Moers notes that:
As we use it today, for a species of well-dressed man about town, Dandy derives from the cant of the Brummell period—the first years of the nineteenth century. Dictionaries trace it back no farther than the seventeen-eighties, as a term of vague significance in Scottish border songs, and offer as a source merely the local diminutive for Andrew (or the English “Jack-a-Dandy”).11
Whatever the origins of dandy, it would be useful to have a stronger sense of its utility. What need did dandy address that fop and coxcomb did not? Why did the word spread so swiftly and remain so potent? The terms surrounding dandy, like those surrounding fop, collapse into each other and distinguish themselves from each other inconsistently, depending upon context and usage. Thus, in some appearances, dandy seems synonymous with fop or nearly so. But some distinctions do hover in the vicinity of these terms. Like the related fop, dandy coalesces at a particular time and place—the fop around the Court of Charles II, the dandy in Regency-era London, both periods marked by particular crises around masculinity, performativity, and political authority. Whether fops and dandies should be understood as related or distinct species, however, remains to be seen. The most famous fops were fictional, visible on the Restoration stage, but the most famous dandy, Beau Brummell performed in the elite social spaces of London rather than on stage. Perhaps most importantly, Brummell in his heyday was neither ornamental nor powerless; indeed, part of the fascination of Brummell lay in witnessing how powerful a nothing (in terms of status, birth, wealth, and accomplishment) could serve what was putatively another nothing: fashion. Brummell, still a thing, a nothing, was also a man of fashion with power. Thus he perfectly embodied sneaking suspicions about how powerful that nothing—fashion—could be.
Brummell’s contemporaries were certainly aware that dandy was a new coinage. In his “Detached Thoughts” of 1821-22, Byron relates some anecdotes of his times in London:
The following is—(I believe) better known.—A beau (dandies were not then christened) came into the P[rince] of W[ales] and exclaimed—“Waiter bring me a glass of Madeira Negus with a Jelly—and rub my plate with a Chalotte” This in a very soft tone of voice.— —A Lieutenant of the Navy who sate in the next box immediately roared out the following rough parody— —“Waiter—bring me a glass of d— —d stiff Grog—and rub my a—e with a brick-bat.[”]Byron, BLJ 9: 29
This familiar aesthete—attuned to the minutest of sensory details—was a beau but might now be called a dandy. The beau, fop, and dandy all exist in relation to the detail—of wine, of plate, of fabric. Like a detail himself with his soft voice, this beau performs the significance of the trivial. The Navy Lieutenant parodies all of this with his roaring, swearing call for a rough instrument to be applied to his arse. Reading intimations of sodomy here does not seem too much of a stretch, but the important detail for our purposes is Byron’s awareness of the recent “christening” of the dandy.
Captain James, Beau Brummell’s first biographer, similarly notes of Brummell’s years at Eton (roughly the early 1790s), “At that time the term ‘dandy’ was not the vogue; ‘bucks’ and ‘macaronies’ were then the nicknames of such as affected peculiar elegance in their dress; and, according to one authority now living at Eton, [Brummell] was distinguished from his fellows by the sobriquet of ‘Buck Brummell’” (1: 23). Leaving aside the rather startling idea of the name “Buck Brummell” resonating through history, we should note that James, like Byron, records his awareness of the term dandy as a neologism. Like most of these terms, its boundaries are dodgy. For instance, having in mind the butterfly dandies who followed Brummell, James denies that Brummell was a dandy: “It would be unjust indeed to Brummell’s memory if I neglected to show the impropriety of calling him a ‘dandy’: the few associations connected with the term all teem with vulgarity” (1: 42). James concedes that “the thing, the ‘dandy’ [. . .] still exists, and will do so to the end of time; but the term is nearly obsolete, and has been replaced by the ‘tiger’ in England, and, oddly enough, by the ‘lion’ in France” (1: 43). In the following passage James both offers his own definition of the dandy and clarifies why Brummell was not one:
If, as I apprehend, glaring extravaganzas in dress—such, for instance, as excessive padding, trousers containing cloth enough for a coat besides, shirt collars sawing off the wearer’s ears and the corners threatening to put out his eyes, wristbands intruding upon his plate, or an expansive shirt-front like a miniature bleach-green, etc., etc.—constitute dandyism, Brummell most assuredly was no dandy. He was a Beau, but not a Beau of the Sir Fopling Flutter or Fielding school; nor would he, like Charles James Fox, have been guilty of wearing red-heeled shoes! He was a Beau in the literal sense of the word—“fine, handsome.” As an auxiliary to his success in society, he determined to be the best-dressed man in London, and, in the commencement of his career, he perhaps varied his dress too frequently. The whim, however, was of short duration, and, scorning to share his fame with his tailor, he soon shunned all external peculiarity, and trusted alone to that ease and grace of manner which he possessed in a remarkable degree. His chief aim was to avoid anything marked.1: 44
James is exactly right about Brummell’s image and legacy: the original man in black was austere in his sartorial habits. His dandyism lay in a perverse insistence on valuing the details of clothing more than the person who wore it; most of the anecdotes that circulated around Brummell attest to his refusal to value persons more than clothes—the stance that so irked Carlyle. In a typical example, Brummell was putatively asked if he was going to bring his brother to White’s; according to legend Brummell replied, “Yes, in a day or two; but I have recommended him to walk in the back streets till his new clothes come home” (James 1: 47). George Brummell may have walked this earth, but all that remains is what Hazlitt called “Brummelliana.” As Jerome Christensen puts it, “However full of ‘pith’ the wisdom of the dandies (see Leigh Hunt’s preface to the Liberal), it was programmatically oral. Brummell wrote little and that little was deliberately ephemeral” (395n45). Christensen is right that Brummelliana is “programmatically oral”—never intended to be other than performative, enduring only in its repeatability. Perhaps not surprisingly given the academic cultures in which he himself operates, the standard of value for Christensen here is clearly “the book,” a standard in which Byron clearly invested much, but which in Beppo and arguably in Don Juan he is also willing to challenge.
Programmatically oral, the “rhetorical postures” (to use McGann’s phrase) of Brummelliana differ significantly from those of the fop. As Heilman reminds us, “In Wycherley’s Love in a Wood (1671), Dapperwit uses the phrase ‘Let me perish’ dozens of times. Supposed to be eloping with Martha, he almost forgets her as he tries to think up a ‘Similitude’ (word and practice are dear to several fops) for a ‘Wit without vanity,’” (367). Restoration fops, in addition to being (collectively) tiny, impotent, decorative and insubstantial, are loquacious in particular ways. Addicted to similes (as the narrator of Don Juan will be), fops like Dapperwit become so embroiled in their verbal performances that they forget to focus on their amorous challenges. Restoration fops also resort habitually to catch phrases—“dear heart,” “stap my vitals,” “let me perish,” “let that pass,” and so forth—repeated to the point that any hint of semantic reference is emptied out of the words, until the phrases are as empty as the fops themselves. The phrases come to stand only for the fops who utter them, as metonymically rich as the perfume bottles and snuff boxes that make the fops what they are. Byron himself was fond of employing such catch phrases in his letters—particularly “stap my vitals,” associated with Lord Foppington in Vanbrugh’s The Relapse—as he does in a letter to Murray of 20 February 1818 written in the midst of preparations for the publication of canto 4 of Childe Harold and Beppo.
Brummelliana consists of another rhetoric all together. As Hazlitt puts it:
So we may say of Mr. Brummell’s jests, that they are of a meaning so attenuated that ‘nothing lives ‘twixt them and nonsense’:—they hover on the very brink of vacancy, and are in their shadowy composition next of kin to nonentities [. . .]. Exempli gratiâ—for in so new a species, the theory is unintelligible without furnishing the proofs:—Thus, in the question addressed to a noble person (which we quoted the other day), ‘Do you call that thing a coat?’ a distinction is taken as nice as it is startling. It seems all at once a vulgar prejudice to suppose that a coat is a coat, the commonest of all common things,—it is here lifted into a ineffable essence, so that a coat is no longer a thing; or that it would take infinite gradations of fashion, taste, and refinement, for a thing to aspire to the undefined privileges, and mysterious attributes of a coat.430-31
emphasis in original
In Hazlitt’s rich formulations Brummell’s rhetoric, like that of his thingish predecessors, nearly does not exist, but in the opposite direction. Fops prattle on, vain of their simile-rich stylishness; their repeated catch phrases tend towards an emptying out of content—all sound, no fury. Brummelliana, on the contrary, consists of verbal minimalism stretched to the very edge of vacancy. Obsessively attentive to things and their “infinite gradations,” the Beau himself has very little need of language. If foppish chatter consists of vapid styling and exhausted catch-phrases, the dandy’s rhetoric consists merely in minimalist insults directed to the end of marking minutely nuanced distinctions as the ne plus ultra of human affairs: the details of clothing. Fictional fops failed to feel the degradation of their minute impotence, their status as empty ornament; Brummell, stalking Regency society for a time, ornament free, book free, with speech as empty as his attire was unadorned, not only failed to feel the degradation: he represented then as he still does today the sublime apotheosis of the man of fashion.
4. Beppo, Byron, and the Romantic Thing
While the narrator of Beppo characterizes himself as a “nameless sort of person / A broken dandy lately on my travels” (st. 52), while Byron reportedly listed the three greatest men of his age as “Brummell, Bonaparte, and myself,” while the mid-nineteenth-century French writer Barbey D’Aurevilly maintained that Don Juan was essentially dandyesque in tone, and while Stendhal famously observed that “during at least a third part of the day, Byron was a dandy” (His Very Self and Voice 201), there has been a strain of Romantic criticism which has insisted on holding that Byron’s persona is fundamentally and almost ontologically distinct from that of the dandies. Christensen’s Lord Byron’s Strength offers a most interesting text in this regard; central to Christensen’s argument is an implicit claim that in escaping the condition of being a dandy, in abjecting fashion, Byron escapes the condition of the thing.
Byron’s selection of “Brummell” to head his list of the greatest men of his age is genuinely startling, and perhaps for this reason Christensen is particularly categorical in establishing the opposition between Brummell and Byron. Christensen argues that Byron not only ultimately but even entirely escapes what he sees as the dandy’s collapse into thinghood: “Become indistinguishable from a commodity, the dandiacal body suffers the commodity’s fate” (160). Even more strikingly, in what seems to be an unnecessarily hostile aside, Christensen remarks that “Calais was the place where people could visit the Brummellian thing and watch it degenerate to its organic elements” (161). By this point, the rhetorical history of Christensen’s phrasing should be clear: the “Brummellian thing” and it and its locate Christensen’s reading of Brummell and Byron firmly in the anti-fop tradition dating back to the Restoration period. The stakes of this rejection for Christensen are explicit: dandies become things in ways that Byron utterly evades.
The fact that Brummell was certainly parodied as a thing in Regency-era London did not denote his inefficacy or lack of social power and just as certainly did not diminish his appeal for Byron, who increasingly makes an exploration of the man of fashion, his proximity to things, and in fact the proximity to things of all of us a more and more central and explicit aspect of his poetic project. Despite the efforts of one of Byron’s most influential—and most loving—critics to sunder Byron and Brummell, Byron’s dandiacal poetics may still have more to tell us about living as people in an age when, as Lukács believed, the commodity form “is dominant, permeating every expression of life” (84). They certainly have more to tell us about the possible registers of poetry in a highly commoditized culture. In Beppo Byron performs a more searching investigation of the thingness of poetry and persons, precisely because he engages rather than repudiates foppish poses and dandiacal heroes. The stakes, for Byron and for us, could not be higher.
Despite the many and energetic challenges to what Jerome McGann once called the Romantic ideology, a sense that Romanticism is, by definition, opposed to the endemic reifications of commodity capitalism has been remarkably persistent. Many scholars, Marxist and otherwise, have worked to historicize the relationships between Romantic literature and commodity capitalism and pointed to this very bifurcation as a kind of mystification, but a persistent dis-ease with fashion and with manufactured things has complicated these efforts. While Guinn Batten’s 1998 book The Orphaned Imagination: Melancholy and Commodity Culture in English Romanticism does offer a theoretically nuanced account of the opposition between Romantic literature and commodity capitalism, finally, in her analysis, it is only poetry, and Romantic poetry in particular, which offers a space of resistance to what Lukács meant by reification. As Batten puts it, the Romantics did not fall into “making of art simply another fetishized and uniformly produced commodity that leaves unaltered how we think” because “in the procreative poetics of the Romantics, we may witness a resistance to forms of thinking, whether idealist or empiricist, shaped increasingly, like production and consumption, by standardization and specialization” (2). Romantic poetics, for someone like Batten, are procreative in that they heroically resist the forces of standardization and specialization which enable production and consumption. In effect, in resisting standardization and specialization, Romantic poems refuse to become things and in their refusal embody a promise that so may we.
Beppo represents Byron’s pivot back against the anti-materialist strain in Romantic poetry, but the pivot rests on such a slight foundation that it is not at all easy to see—even though the slightness is the foundation. The “pivot” image is Peter Manning’s: “[Beppo] marks the pivot in Byron’s turn on the Romantic excesses of his generation” (302) and is thus “at once trivial and critical to that trajectory of a name that we call a career” (300). Jerome McGann chooses another image, calling Beppo “the threshold of Don Juan,” making Manfred “the hinge work of Byron’s career” (“Byron and Wordsworth” 179). Not surprisingly, the poem does not warrant so much as an aside in Christensen’s Lord Byron’s Strength, if an index is to be trusted; perhaps it may make its presence felt in Christensen’s assertion that “a dandy is a dandy especially to his valet de chambre” (160), although Christensen mentions only Hume and the Prince of Conde as source materials for his riff. A slight poem with slighter plot, taking as its title the “short name for Giuseppe” (BLJ 5: 269), Byron casually tossed the poem to Murray, “into the balance of the 4th Canto—to help you round to your money” (BLJ 5: 269). It was always explicitly fungible, a minor accessory to Byron and Murray’s transaction for Childe Harold’s fourth canto: “I presented you with Beppo as part of the contract for Canto fourth—considering the price you are to pay for the same—& intending it to eke you out in case of public caprice or my own poetical failure” (BLJ 6: 34-5).
Beppo, an imitation (of Frere, Pulci, et. al.), an experiment, a pivot, a threshold, a form of currency, is in the words of Francis Jeffrey’s review,
absolutely a thing of nothing—without story, characters, sentiments, or intelligible object;—a mere piece of lively and loquacious prattling, in short, upon all kinds of frivolous subjects,—a sort of gay and desultory babbling about Italy and England, Turks, balls, literature and fish sauces [. . .] entirely composed of common words, in their common places.303
This “thing of nothing” was still clearly worth something, at least enough to cancel a few debts; it can also be seen, I would argue, as probably the profoundest meditation on poetic value to this point in Byron’s career.
And yet the poem has always been seen as centrally about both Byron and Byronism. And certainly Beppo seems a version of Byron’s Corsair and others, returned from beyond the horizon to settle into marital irritations and friendship with a “Cicisbeo.” Manning approvingly quotes the reviewer in Blackwood’s Magazine who equates Byron (and Harold) with the Count (312n19). Byron himself was touchy about that comparison—not surprisingly since he saw himself as a “Cicisbeo”:
I am not tired of Italy—but a man must be a Cicisbeo and a singer in duets and a Connoisseur of operas—or nothing here—I have made some progress in all these accomplishments—but I can’t say that I don’t feel the degradation.—Better be a[n] unskillful planter—an awkward settler—better be a hunter—or anything than a flatterer of fiddlers—and a fan-carrier of a woman.BLJ 6: 226
The Count in Beppo, who “carries fan and tippet, gloves and shawl” (40), who is “a critic upon operas” (31), and who “wrote rhymes, sang songs, [and] could also tell a story” (33), differs from Byron only in that, like his foppish predecessors, he does not appear to feel the degradation.
The narrator, too, fails to feel the degradation of not being an actual poet. The famous stanza in which the narrator steps forward as a distinct personage—albeit one without a name—also contains an early statement of the new phase of Byron’s dandiacal poetics:
The gentle reader, who may wax unkind,
And caring little for the author’s ease,
Insist on knowing what he means, a hard
And hapless situation for a bard.
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, mix’d with western sentimentalism,
Some samples of the finest Orientalism.
But I am but a nameless sort of person,
(A broken Dandy lately on my travels)
And take for rhyme, to hook my rambling verse on,
The first that Walker’s lexicon unravels,
And when I can’t find that, I put a worse on,
Not caring as I ought for critics’ cavils;
I’ve half a mind to tumble down to prose,
But verse is more in fashion—so here goes!
Here, then, is foppish poetry with a dandy’s power: written in the mellifluous ottava rima, enjambed, rich with puns, paronomasia, eye rhymes, slant rhymes, and alliteration, these two stanzas present Byron’s previous career in synopsis and announce the formal measures of his future. The stagey carelessness is Brummell’s, the brokenness harkens back to the fop, and the lexicon is Byron’s own devising, his poetic dress casual and yet perfectly measured. It is all here—and for sale, to boot.
Rhetorically, certain strands in eighteenth-century culture sought to abject the man of fashion under the sign of the thing—become a thing, the man of fashion would become nothing—and did, in poetry, fiction, and drama, again and again, only to return, loquacious and petite as ever. Brummell changed all that: before his departure to Calais, Brummell stood for a particular, if potentially meaningless, power. Deeply concerned with the small, the ornamental, preoccupied with the detail, Brummell wielded discrimination, performing taste as power (in his case, the only power). This is why Byron named him the greatest man of their shared age, a gesture that Byron knew to be distinctly confrontational in the best Brummellian sense. Elisa Glick has argued, primarily in relation to The Picture of Dorian Gray, that the dandy “is the incarnation of a distinctly queer form of subjectivity that inhabits (rather than resolves or exorcises) capitalism’s double binds” (139). What better way to put what Byron learns from the fops and dandies? Beppo will neither resolve nor exorcise the double binds and blinds of poetic composition in a reified culture, but it will perform those binds for us in a slight work, next of kin to a nonentity. In Beppo Byron offers foppery as poetics itself, making the slight, the trivial, the barely there, turn his career. The ottava rima may have been inspired by Frere and Pulce, but the foppish poem, itself a dandiacal confrontation with Wordsworthian poetics, was Byron’s own.
For ease of reference, here is the stanza together with McGann’s reading of it:
Childe Harold, canto 4, st. 123
Who loves, raves—’tis youth’s frenzy—but the cure
Is bitterer still, as charm by charm unwinds
Which robbed our idols, and we see too sure
Not wealth nor beauty dwells from out the mind’s
Ideal shape of such; yet still it binds
The fatal spell, and still it draws us on,
Reaping the whirlwind from the oft-sown winds;
The stubborn heart, its alchemy begun,
Seems ever near the prize—wealthiest when most undone.
If passages like this—they are all over Byron’s work—appear demonic, they measure the cost of that ‘being more intense’ summoned by Byron. Indeed, they incarnate the presence of that being and hence draw our ‘gaze of wonder,’ like the Giaour. What they do not draw, or even cultivate, is a reader’s sympathy or empathetic response. What avenue for sympathy lies open for readers when the lyric voice clearly has no sympathy for himself? The verse is at once intense and indifferent, a poetry of self-expression in which the self has nothing to gain except further encounters, calculated and implacable, with its own folly and pain, blindness and insight. (“Byron and the Anonymous Lyric” 98-99).
Other examples include “No infant Sotheby whose dauntless head” (BLJ 5: 252); “Dear Doctor—I have read your play” (BLJ 5: 258); “He has twelve thousand pounds a year” (BLJ 6: 27); “Some in the playhouse like a row—” (BLJ 6: 28); “Mrs. Wilmot sate scribbling a play—” (BLJ 6: 28-29); and “Strahan—Tonson—Lintot of the times” (BLJ 6: 29). Throughout these bits of silly verse, Byron consistently explores what might constitute the value of poetry.
See Erin Mackie’s Market à la Mode for a richly productive reading of the formation of the bourgeois public sphere in The Tatler and The Spectator.
As Marchand’s footnote to the phrase helpfully puts it, “Byron frequently repeated this phrase of Lord Foppington” (BLJ 6: 12n6).
This strong anti-fop, anti-Brummell, anti-dandy bias leads Christensen into some strange misreadings of Byron. According to Christensen, for instance, it is Byron’s nearly mythopoetic ability to “live to proportions”—to incorporate without embodying both Brummell and Bonaparte—that allows him to escape anachronism, although to make a distinction between Byron on the one side and Brummell and Bonaparte on the other on the grounds that only the latter two were prisoners of their bodies certainly involves its own ironies, and not only because of Byron’s own preoccupations with, say, disability, ability, or weight control. As Stendhal observed, “Lord Byron always entertained a great horror of corpulency. His antipathy to a full habit of body might be called a fixed idea” (His Very Self and Voice 201). More importantly, imagining a Byron free of the prison house of the body perhaps overlooks Byron’s repeated reminders in Don Juan and elsewhere that we all are, in the last analysis, prisoners of our bodies and appetites. Put another way, if Don Juan reifies anything in Lukács’s sense, it is desire.
Beppo was apparently worth enough to erase some of Byron’s debts to Murray for books and other items, as Byron recalled in 1821:
In alluding to Murray’s book-bill &c. in my last letter—I forgot to mention that it ought only to date from Spring 1818—it being then agreed upon at his own request that the present of “Beppo” on my part—was to cancel all former stationary or book-accounts between us.—Perhaps he may have forgotten this—BLJ, 8: 239
As is typical, Byron noted again on 19 January 1822 that Murray’s “Bill ought only to date from the publication of Beppo in 1818, which at his own desire was to cancel all former bookselling accounts between us up to that period” (BLJ 9: 84), and on the twenty-third that “There is one thing I wish you to state to Mr. Murray—it was understood and exprest? (by his particular wish) that the Copyright of Beppo was to cancel all bills of his up to 1818 the date of that publication.—Now your House date his bill from March 1816—If this is not a mistake—all I can say is that it ought to be one” (BLJ 9: 93).
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