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Lord Byron’s Canons: Introduction

  • Jeffery Vail

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  • Jeffery Vail
    Boston University

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“When a man talks of system, his cause is hopeless” (BLJ 6: 46). Byron made this memorable declaration in a letter to Thomas Moore, who was just as skeptical as Byron about “systems” of all kinds, be they philosophical, political, poetical, or critical. Byron’s tendency to view the world, its human inhabitants (including himself), and the mental structures they create as irremediably irrational and inconsistent finds expression in his fascination with mobilité and in his endlessly discursive, self-contradicting masterpiece, Don Juan. The narrator of that poem, in a brilliant digression on truth, seems to crystallize Byron’s frequent attitude in his letters, journals, and other prose toward categorical or systematic thinking of all kinds:

 [...] whene’er I have exprest
Opinions two, which at first sight may look
 Twin opposites, the second is the best.
Perhaps I have a third too in a nook
 Or none at all, which seems a sorry jest.
But if a writer should be quite consistent,
How could he possibly tell of things existent?
If people contradict themselves, can I
 Help contradicting them and everybody,
Even my veracious self? But that’s a lie;
 I never did so, never will. How should I?
He who doubts all things nothing can deny.

DJ XV.88-89

Byron does not seem to base his critical and aesthetic opinions upon a single discernible set of principles, nor, of course, should we expect him to, given his skepticism regarding “system” and self-consistency. Byron’s writings are full of strongly-felt and trenchantly-expressed statements about individual authors and their excellence or lack thereof, but a stable canon of great contemporary writers or writings cannot be extrapolated from the extensive and variegated mass of literary criticisms, musings, satires, invectives, and encomia that Byron has left us.[1]

Byron’s diary entry for 24 November 1813 contains a telling example of Byron’s unwillingness to commit himself to any systematic ranking of literary greatness. Byron draws a triangle representing the most prominent living British authors of his day, with Walter Scott at the apex and “THE MANY” at the base. He explains:

[Scott] is undoubtedly the Monarch of Parnassus, and the most English of bards. I should place [Samuel] Rogers next in the living list (I value him more as the last of the best school)—Moore and [Thomas] Campbell both third—Southey and Wordsworth and Coleridge [fourth]—the rest, οι πολλοι—thus:—There is a triangular Gradus ad Parnassum!—the names are too numerous for the base of the triangle [...] I have ranked the names upon my triangle more upon what I believe popular opinion, than any decided opinion of my own.

BLJ 3: 220

Byron clearly seems to be stating his personal opinions of these authors’ literary merit (“I value him more” etc.), until he suddenly claims that the triangle is merely the canon of popular opinion, and not his own—and that he has no “decided” opinion. Four years later, in a letter to his publisher John Murray after reading Moore’s Lalla Rookh, an Oriental Romance (1817), Byron would damn all of the above writers (excepting Rogers) and himself into the bargain, pronouncing them all equally guilty of practicing a “wrong revolutionary poetical system”:

With regard to poetry in general I am convinced that [Moore] and all of us—Scott—Southey—Wordsworth—Moore—Campbell—I—are all in the wrong—one as much as another—that we are all upon a wrong revolutionary poetical system—or systems—not worth a damn in itself—& from which none but Rogers and [George] Crabbe are free—and that the present & next generations will finally be of this opinion.

Byron goes on to assert the “ineffable” superiority of Alexander Pope’s poetry in every respect to the writings of “us of the Lower Empire.” “Depend upon it [it] is all Horace then, and Claudian now among us—and if I had to begin again—I would model myself accordingly” (BLJ 5: 265). This letter has been quoted numerous times as evidence of Byron’s supposedly fundamental preference for “Augustan” over “Romantic” poetry. However, on 2 February 1818, Byron wrote a letter to Moore which seems to make nonsense out of his “Lower Empire” argument. Referring to the letter to Murray, Byron writes,

I called Crabbe and Sam [Rogers] the fathers of our present Poesy; and said, that I thought—except them—all of “us youth” were on the wrong tack. But I never said we did not sail well. Our fame will be hurt by admiration and imitation. When I say our, I mean all (Lakers [i.e. Southey, Wordsworth, and Coleridge] included), except the postscript of the Augustans. The next generation (from the quantity and facility of imitation) will tumble and break their necks off our Pegasus, who runs away with us; but we keep the saddle, because we broke the rascal and can ride. But though easy to mount, he is the devil to guide; and the next fellows must go back to the riding-school and the manège, and learn to ride the “great horse.”

BLJ 6: 10

Byron wrote this letter, perhaps, partly to console Moore, who may have been offended by his “Lower Empire” remarks, relayed to him by Murray. But this further elaboration of Byron’s critical position is so confusing that one wishes that Byron would “explain his explanation” (Don Juan 1.2). Byron seems to claim, now, that the Lake Poets, Moore, himself, et. al. “sail well” and skillfully ride their poetical Pegasus, and that the reputations of the poets he earlier compared to Claudian will only suffer because their imitators in the next generation will be numerous and incompetent. Indeed, despite Byron’s enduring respect for eighteenth-century neoclassicism in general and Pope and particular, Byron was nevertheless an admirer of many “Romantic” works. He expressed great love for Moore’s passionate songs and lyric poetry (and imitated them), had extremely high praise for Scott, admired Coleridge’s “Christabel” and “Kubla Khan”, spoke of the brilliance of Percy Shelley, claimed to appreciate Keats’s Hyperion, and praised the works of Campbell and Joanna Baillie, among others.

In his essay, “Byron’s ‘Wrong Revolutionary Poetical System,’” Hermann Fischer attempts to piece together a set of aesthetic standards for Byron by trying to assemble evidence for what kinds of poetry Byron generally did not value. According to Fisher, such poetry, generally,

is mainly narrative, often sensational, exotic, or sentimental. It deals with emotions and is created out of the poet’s subjective emotional reactions to his subject-matter. It puts wit and formal precision or design in the background in the interest of narrative content and continuity. It leads the reader away from the pressing problems of the day, sometimes into regions that have very little in common with empirical reality. It lacks the gentlemanliness of the much more controlled poetry of the neo-classical age as well as the genuine greatness of the classics or Milton. In seeking to appeal to all classes of readers it dispenses with that degree of literary culture which had made all poetry from Ben Jonson to Samuel Rogers an intellectual pleasure rather than a constant appeal to the feelings.


This is an admirable summary of Byron’s dislikes, though all of these qualities, of course (as Byron well knew) can easily be found in much of Byron’s own poetry. Neatly summarizing those literary qualities that Byron consistently valued is more difficult. He admired the cool-headed polish and elegance of Rogers, yet he also responded to intensely passionate verse, called poetry “the lava of the imagination that prevents an earth-quake” (BLJ 3: 179), and declared “I can never get people to understand that poetry is the expression of excited passion” (BLJ 8: 146). He was delighted by “Christabel” and William Beckford’s Vathek, but claimed that he “hat[ed] things all fiction” (BLJ 5: 203). He professed a hatred of cant in poetry but confessed in Don Juan, “[...] feeling, in a poet, is the source/ Of others’ feeling; but they are such liars,/ And take all colours—like the hands of dyers” (3: 87). If Byron ever arrived at a consistent and comprehensible set of criteria for assembling a personal canon of great contemporary writers or writings, he never articulated it in very specific terms.

The contributors to this collection consider the impact of a number of contemporary (or near-contemporary) authors upon Byron’s own work, as well as the impact of the canon of Byron’s writings upon his literary peers. Paul Douglass, in “Lord Byron’s Feminist Canon: Notes toward Its Construction”, examines the influences of a range of women authors (including Harriet Lee, Elizabeth Inchbald, Madame de Staël, Charlotte Dacre, and Caroline Lamb) upon Byron’s work, as well as his many personal relationships with women who wrote. Peter Cochran’s “Byron and Shelley: Radical Incompatibles” offers a wide-ranging reading of Byron’s and Shelley’s poetry and the responses (positive and negative) each poet articulated to the ideas and challenges presented by the other. Sharifah Aishah Osman analyzes Byron’s reactions to his successful poetic rival Felicia Hemans as well as the deep impact of Byron’s writings upon her own work, in “‘Mightier than death, untamable by fate’: Felicia Hemans’s Byronic Heroines and the Sorority of the Domestic Affections.” The volume of Sade that a horrified Lady Byron found stashed away in her husband’s trunk is a central topic in Joshua D. Gonsalves’s “Byron—In-Between Sade, Lautréamont, and Foucault: Situating the Canon of ‘Evil’ in the Nineteenth Century”, which concerns the sexual and intellectual appeal of Sade’s forbidden canon for Byron, as well as for other nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers. Angela Esterhammer’s “Improvisational Aesthetics: Byron, the Shelley Circle, and Tommaso Sgricci” considers the famous and flamboyant improvvisatore as a brilliant storyteller whose astonishing performances helped teach Byron about the art of poetic improvisation. Maria Schoina discusses the ways in which Byron’s canon of writings helped define “Italianness” for Mary Shelley and others in “‘To engraft ourselves on foreign stocks’: Byron’s Poetics of Acculturation.” “The Harold of a New Age: Childe Harold I and II and Byron’s Rejection of Canonical Knowledge”, by Emily Bernhard Jackson, explains how the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage begin to construct a Byronic concept of knowledge that will lead eventually to the “radical skepticism” of the later work.