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 ...
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.