You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view


“To engraft ourselves on foreign stocks”: Byron’s Poetics of Acculturation

  • Maria Schoina

…more information

  • Maria Schoina
    Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Article body

Byron’s acclimatisation to the Italian way of life and his versatile identification with the Italian and, more specifically, with the Venetian and Romagnuole society of his day, remain inspiring chapters in the legendary history of the Regency aristocrat’s six-year sojourn in the peninsula (1816-1822), particularly in the light of recent studies on Byron’s relation to place. The portrait of Byron as an exemplary Italianised Briton occurred frequently in both the English and Italian cultural discourses of the time, and long after the poet’s death, a result of his popularity in both countries and of his own efforts to promote a bicultural image of himself through his poems and letters. Not surprisingly, Mary Shelley identified Byron with the qualities of “Italianness” through the eccentric figure of the “Anglo-Italian” in her review essay “The English in Italy” (1826) and in her review of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Bravo: A Venetian Story (1832), establishing Byron’s insider knowledge as a pattern of acculturation among her compatriots, and marking his experience as the standard to which all other prospective “Anglo-Italians” must measure up.

Considering this largely unacknowledged connection/dialogue between Byron and Mary Shelley on the logistics which pertain to the experience of crossing-over cultures, my paper investigates the notion of “authentic” Italianisation as exemplified in their related texts, and discusses its problematics in the context of the dominant themes and preoccupations in Romantic culture. Mary Shelley’s arresting botanical metaphor cited in the title of this paper could well qualify Byron’s systematic efforts to naturalise his relation to Italy and to “ground” himself in a foreign land, both literally and figuratively. Indeed, Byron sought to legitimate his “all Meridian [. . .] blood” on the premises of authority, intimacy and on-the-spot experience, an approach largely determined by what Roger Cardinal calls “the [Romantic] passion for differentness, and the anticipation of being immersed in ‘local colour’” (137). Thus, on the one hand, my paper examines how this “immersion” is articulated – or rather performed – by Byron himself, by examining specific rhetorical strategies and figures of filiation he used to describe his attachment to Italianness. More specifically, I contend that although Byron’s polymorphic identification to Italian systems of meaning is constructed in the imagination, it is essentially grounded in time- and space-bound actions and involves a structure of social relations – hence the slippery nature of Byron’s positioning in the Italian scene of his day. On the other hand, the paper delineates how Byron’s idiosyncratic interiority in the Italian society is theorised by Mary Shelley and configured as a model of second culture acquisition.

According to sociologist Erik Cohen, authenticity is “a socially constructed concept and its social (as against philosophical) connotation is, therefore, not given but negotiable into society” (374). The increased accessibility of Continental travel after the Napoleonic Wars gave rise to new formulations about what constitutes “original” and “touristic” cultural experience. In addition, questions of authenticity in cultural production became more pressing, partly with the renewed ideology of the subject within “the emergent professional middle-class discourse of merit” (Kelly 74) but also with the rise of the reading public. The popularisation of travel – and of travel writing – at the time called up, through specific cultural gestures, the emergence of an anti-touristic rhetoric aimed at distinguishing authentic from spurious or merely repetitive experience. Significantly, reviews of travel-writings of the time, which appeared regularly in periodicals and anthologies, bear testimony to the public feeling by revealing the readers’ (often frustrated) expectations. In the April 1825 issue of The Westminster Review, the anonymous reviewer of André Viesseux’s Italy and the Italians in the Nineteenth Century claims that Vieusseux’s work lacks the authenticity and integrity of an insider’s experience:

we did expect that a work written expressly upon the Italians, by one who was “acquainted from infancy with the language and manners, brought up under their sky, and nursed in their homes,” would contain some valuable and interesting details of the people; of whom, however, Mr Viesseux tells us nothing that a stranger could not as well have told; and we cannot but lament that he had not said more of the domestic life, and habits, and peculiarities of the Italians, and less of the thousand-times described scenery and sights of Italy [. . . ] And if Mr Viesseux would (which it appears he could) have been to us a [little] devil, and like little Asmodeus, have opened to our view the interior of the houses, the sayings and doings of the people, their pursuits, and habits, and modes of life, he would have been the most popular –


According to the reviewer, Viesseux has failed to offer his readers an authentic, demystified experience of “the domestic life, and habits, and peculiarities of the Italians”. Interestingly, the literary reference to the little demon Asmodeus suggests not only an intimate, but a prying and voyeuristic look behind the scenes and in back regions of Italian society. The desire to flee dull repetitions and be vicariously immersed in the intimate spaces of the other – construed as a quintessentially bourgeois experience – discloses the preoccupations and anxieties of a nation and a class in the making. Alienated from their own past by political and industrial modernity, the emerging English middle-class sought to appropriate Italian culture. The semi-feudal society and rural landscape of Italy represented the past to a Britain leading the world in industrialisation, and fearing the onset of democracy.

In addition, the reviewer’s plea for differentness is compelling in its implications: as the nineteenth century wore on, Romantic travel was threatened by the spectre of belatedness. As James Duncan and Derek Gregory argue, “the sheer number of tourists present in some places made the illusion of discovery, or even immersion in the local, harder to sustain” (7). Even though this desire to be immersed in local colour was not unqualified or uncomplicated, yet it became a major topos in the literature of the years, and authors employed it variedly and enthusiastically in order to sustain their imaginative geographies.

Having been a participant-observer in the culture of Italy, and a member of the notorious Pisan circle, Mary Shelley would often engage with the subjects of acculturation and authentic knowledge of other places in her works. More particularly, after her return to England in 1823, her reviews of literary or artistic works about Italy offered suitable space for extended, vigorous comparative portraits of Italy and England and for the exploration of “betweenness” as “the place of the subject, as the issuing point of the subjective or subjectifying utterance” (Saglia, Poetic Castles 144). Interestingly, Mary Shelley did not simply register the strong emotional tie between Byron and Italy but identified him with the qualities of the place, and labelled him the initiator of an intercultural literary movement. Thus, in her retrospective appraisal of the circles of her Italianised compatriots in her review essay “The English in Italy”, Mary Shelley observed that “Lord Byron may be considered the father of the Anglo-Italian literature, and Beppo as being the first product of that school” (343). However, we should bear in mind here that in Mary Shelley’s texts the qualification “Anglo-Italian” departs from the standard dictionary meaning of the compound form, and is used to designate the literature which derives from “Italianized” English proper: namely, from cultured, sophisticated emigrant English in Italy who have “lost the critical mania in a real taste for the beautiful”, are well-versed in the language, are open and receptive to the Italy of their day and to the most refined Italians, and aspire to impart the knowledge they have acquired in the peninsula to their compatriots. The Anglo-Italians, according to Mary Shelley, are “a well-informed, clever, and active race” (“English” 343).

Nonetheless, a much more inclusive and substantial appreciation of Byron’s Anglo-Italianness came a few years later (1832) in a relatively unknown document, namely, Mary Shelley’s review of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Bravo: a Venetian Story published in the Westminster Review. Speaking of the American author’s efforts to describe Venice to the reader, Shelley sneeringly comments that

[i]t is thus that the mere tourist may view this city. But it becomes a matter more difficult to treat, when the curtain is attempted to be withdrawn, and those contradictions described, which reign in Venetian society. Lord Byron, in his poem of Beppo, and in his private and familiar letters, by only dwelling on his own experiences, and not pretending to elaborate explanations, gives such a view of manners as may content us, for we scarcely desire to dive beyond. Lord Byron was one of the few strangers who was admitted, or would choose to be admitted, behind the scenes of that singular stage [. . .] The extreme ease with which he acquired and used the idiom of language, and the facility with which he amalgamated himself with, and gave a zest to their customs, by an openness of practice which transcended even their liberality of sentiment, all tended to initiate him into the very arcana of Venice. But all this would be a sealed book to Mr Cooper. Mr Cooper has visited Venice, we imagine; he has probably dwelt there some time, but he has not Italianized himself, nor is he in the slightest degree familiar with the language; when he brings in an expression, it is Italian, not Venetian; nor does he attempt to lead us into the interior of families, nor to dwell upon the forms of life belonging to the aera he has undertaken to describe.

220-221; emphasis added

The first interesting feature of this “traveller versus resident” discussion is that the Venetian society is imaged as a theatre, whose backstage stands for the inner operations and private doings of that community. Although this area is, by rule, inaccessible and impenetrable to outsiders, entry to that exclusive region is granted only to those who, like Byron, Italianise themselves in the full sense of the word. To remember an earlier review, Byron is the little demon Asmodeus who penetrated to the reality that lay beneath the external glitter or gloom of Venice, demystifying “the domestic life, and habits, and peculiarities of the Italians” to the curious English reader. Mary Shelley, by restructuring the geography of Venice with a deft “architectural” move into stage and backstage, reproduces, in effect, a common rhetorical strategy in travel writing, that of assigning to places an aura of mystery and intrigue. On the other hand, in this suggestive extract, the “make” of the Anglo-Italian is further qualified: attachment to the Italian culture (a word Mary Shelley uses in “The English in Italy”) gives its place to amalgamation with the Italian culture. Evidently, the limits of identification are extended. Italianisation – or, better still, Venetianisation – evolves in stages: the crossing of a spatial divide, the subsequent formal introduction (initiation) to a realm of secret yet authentic mechanisms (“arcana”), and the solid merging of oneself with the “other”. The Anglo-Italian is, ideally, an amalgam of the two cultures, and is best exemplified, according to Mary Shelley, in Byron’s persona.

Mary Shelley’s elaborate observations on Byron’s mediation between the English and the Italian culture become particularly meaningful if we assess them in the context of the poet’s acculturating practices. Byron wished to ascertain his Italianisation and reinforce his identification with the Italians by complying with the country’s written and unwritten cultural codes and social customs, and by entering in realms where most foreigners would fear to tread. In Venice, for instance, he lived as an aristocratic libertine and experienced the Italian system of licensed adultery (serventismo). The city also attracted him for its resounding contradictions, its comprehensive fabric of decay and beauty, life and death: “Venice & I agree very well” Byron wrote to his friends in England, adding suggestively that the city “has always been (next to the East) the greenest island of my imagination. It has not disappointed me; though its evident decay would, perhaps, have that effect upon others. But I have been familiar with ruins too long to dislike desolation” (BLJ 5:129). In Milan, he befriended the members of the Milanese intellectual circle Silvio Pellico and Ludovico di Breme, who constituted the core of the so-called Italian Romantic movement. Pellico initiated Byron to the satirical colloquial verse of Pietro Buratti written in Venetian dialect, which Byron was keen to translate. However, Buratti’s poems circulated secretly in manuscript form, and thus Byron was involved in the clandestine activities of the Italian liberals. As far as religion is concerned, despite his Protestant heritage, Byron was, like many of his compatriots, favourably impressed by some aspects of the Catholic religion as practised in Italy, particularly aesthetic ones. However, in a letter he wrote to Thomas Moore from Pisa, Byron seems to endorse Catholicism and integrate it into his identification process: “I am no enemy to religion, but the contrary. As a proof, I am educating my natural daughter a strict Catholic in a convent of Romagna; for I think people can never have enough of religion, if they are to have any. I incline, myself, very much to the Catholic doctrines” (BLJ 9: 119).

As Jerome McGann argues, besides Byron’s earlier sympathy with the traditions of the South, it was to a great extent “his acceptance and, indeed, his idolization at Venice and Ravenna [which] convinced him that his blood was ‘all meridian’ ” (“Byron to Guiccioli” 555). Indeed, Byron’s reputation seemed to precede him wherever he went in Italy, and a large number of stories, accounts, and anecdotes of that period have survived, giving a variety of information – not always reliable – about l’Anglico Mylord. Records of his brief sojourn at Bologna in 1819 register, on the one hand, admiration and sympathy on the part of his Italian acquaintances, and, on the other hand, strong suspicion and alarm on the part of the Austrian and Papal Governments’ emissaries. In fact, Byron’s literary pursuits and amorous adventures were seen as a smokescreen for the “true” object of his residence in Italy which was, purportedly, to incite an insurgency against the established regime.

It is for all these reasons that throughout his residence in Italy Byron used to differentiate his experience from that of the majority of English travellers or expatriates, who were looked upon as foreigners, and considered himself as one who had managed to enter into the spirit of the country and its people. Comparing his own experience with that of tourists, he confidently avowed – and flaunted – the high degree of intimacy he enjoyed with the Italian society. Such tone characterises the well-known letter Byron sent to his friend Thomas Moore from Ravenna in August 1820:

However, I suspect I know a thing or two of Italy – more than Lady Morgan has picked in her posting. What do Englishmen know of Italians beyond their museums and saloons [. . .] ? Now, I have lived in the heart of their houses, in parts of Italy freshest and least influenced by strangers, – have seen and become (pars magna fui) a portion of their hopes, and fears, and passions, and am almost inoculated into a family. This is to see men and things as they are.

BLJ 7: 170-71

Beneath the customary Byronic wit lie a surprising intensity and crudeness which seem to suggest Byron’s deep-rooted bitterness against his compatriots. With a certain amount of condescension and spite, Byron pits his experience against Lady Morgan’s, who was a potential “rival” in the book market as an “Italianized” Briton, after her Italian tour of 1819-1820. Byron was quite clear that he knew and understood the Italian way of life – not least because he mixed with people from all social ranks, “from the Conte to the Contadino” – and that his own relationship with Italy was deeper and more significant than that of most English travellers. The use of the word “inoculation” to describe this bond is arresting in its implications (the insertion or implantation of a foreign body into an organism) and suggests his total and unreserved immersion in the Italian element, as well as the superiority and sophistication he felt he drew from it. Of course, the reference to the family concerns his liaison with Teresa Guiccioli, which literally made him part of an Italian family in a way which was unusual for any foreigner, namely, as Teresa’s cavalier servente, sanctioning, thus, the allegiance he enjoyed with Italian society. Consequently, Byron legitimised his representations of Italy and the Italians by hailing them as a fruit of his careful observation and deep knowledge of their society. In the extract from the letter to Thomas Moore quoted earlier, Byron figures his representations as faithful depictions of the real, the authentic: “This is to see men and things as they are” he asserted, and purposefully assumed the role of the mediator who tried to explain the peculiarity of the Italian character to his “un-Italianized” countrymen, whom he considered unable to comprehend it. The rhetoric of superiority that inhabits this text capitalises on Byron’s genuine cultural experience, as well as on his comprehensive and authoritative opinion.

Out of his many “Italian” works, Beppo and The Prophecy of Dante contain numerous self-referential echoes which project Byron’s complex feelings of alienation from his country, as well as his ambiguous positioning within the Italian society. Byron was resentful of his compatriots because his exile meant the end of a desired political career (McGann, Don Juan in Context 47). Many a time he declared his aversion and sullenness towards “the tight little island” and derided the English on tour, once he had settled in Venice and Ravenna as a “legitimate” resident, as an Anglo-Italian. Conversely, his engagement with Italy’s revolutionary politics was multifarious and ranged from his impassioned involvement in the Carbonari movement, to the production of propaganda works like The Prophecy of Dante, with which he wanted to inspire support for the Italian revolution. However, for all his desire to distance himself from England, “a country where I neither like nor am liked” (BLJ 6: 256) and for all his desire to be inoculated in Italian life, Byron essentially remained a detached observer and a critic of another culture. Thus, in the Preface to the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, although Byron did not omit to assert his authority and credibility on very specific grounds, yet he admitted to the difficulties that beset his acculturating mission: “It is also a delicate, and no very graceful task, to dissert upon the literature and manners of a nation so dissimilar; and requires an attention and impartiality which would induce us, – though perhaps no inattentive observers, nor ignorant of the language or customs of the people amongst whom we have recently abode, – to distrust, or at least defer our judgement, and more narrowly examine our information” (122-123).

As Stephen Cheeke correctly argues, Byron’s letters of 1818-1821 to Moore, Murray, Hobhouse and Kinnaird “should be read not only as serving the function of conveying information about Italian culture to friends and acquaintances at home, but, crucially, as resisting the notion that another culture could be readily or easily known and understood” (114). The letters of this period also register his pessimism and alienation towards Italianness, fuelled, on the one hand, by the emotional instability caused by his turbulent relationship with Teresa and her family at the time, and on the other, by the slow progress of the Italian revolution. Thus, in a letter to Teresa in January 1820, originally written in Italian, Byron attributed his indecisiveness about the future of their relationship to his “non-meridian” heart: Byron realised that the more he entered into Italianness, the more of a foreigner he felt: “What does he [Alessandro Guiccioli] want? That I, a foreigner, far from my own country and from the manners and customs and ways of thought and behaviour of my fellow-country-men – that I should decide things for the people of another land!” (BLJ 7: 21).

Byron’s construction of identity invites discussion of many (post)modern concerns, particularly as regards “the invented, fluid, multiple, relational, and [. . .] intentional qualities of identity” (Roberson xvii). In my opinion, his mobility and his avoidance of being fixed – epitomised in the complex compound of distancing and self-involvement as regards his relationship to Italy – does not cancel his propensity to create an illusion of unity and containment, nor does it efface the uneasy relations of power that connect him with other places and peoples, which become the object of his identifications. Byron’s affiliations are ways of belonging and his fantasy of incorporation and natural attachment to Italianness result in identity building through processes of inclusion, commitment, involvement, merging. The “amalgamation” through which these identifications arise is partly constructed in the imagination. However, this immersion in difference is also grounded in time- and space-bound actions with real, material effects. Byron also lives in the places he imagines, and his direct experience of Italy may enrich his verses with first-hand observations, yet it naturally complicates his identification process.

Byron’s poetics of acculturation showcase his effort to “go native” and enter dynamically the domestic, social, and political spaces of his adopted country. Nonetheless, much as he sought to practise and prescribe acculturation and translation in the broadest sense of the word, his writings are consistently sensitive to questions which revolve around the impossibility, discontents, risks or pitfalls of acculturation. Hence, Byron would gradually come to realise that although his “inoculation” into the Italian milieu had been successful, he had, in the end, remained a foreign body into the target organism. Similarly, Mary Shelley’s defence of Byron’s identification processes, as well as her own acculturating strategies, are not uncomplicated or without contradiction. Thus, in “The English in Italy” Mary Shelley mentions in passing: “We can none of us attempt, with impunity, to engraft ourselves on foreign stocks; the habits of our childhood cling to us, and we seek in vain for sympathy from those who have travelled life quite on a different road from that which we have followed” (344). Mary Shelley further admitted to the difficulty of sustaining authority and of speaking as a privileged insider to the Italian culture in her travelogue Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843. Issues of acculturation gain particular resonance in Byron and Mary Shelley precisely because they are posed in a self-reflexive, even self-canceling manner. In my opinion, their multifaceted connection apropos of issues of identity construction, intercultural perception and representation opens a new chapter in the history of their tense but productive relationship.