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Reviews

Andrew Elfenbein, Byron and the Victorians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0-521-45452-2 (hardback). Price: £35 (US$54.95)Donald A. Low, ed., Byron: Selected Poetry and Prose. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. ISBN: 0-415-07317-0 (paperback). Price: £10.99.

  • Matthew Scott

…plus d’informations

  • Matthew Scott
    Magdalen College, Oxford

Corps de l’article

Since Pseudo-Marxist Romantic Studies long ago provided us with the noisy rehabilitation of the noted Tory, Robert Southey, we should be used to the little ironies of literary criticism. Byron never suffered similar neglect to Southey, but his popularity seems greater now than it has been for some time. After being rather self-consciously overlooked by the "Romanticisms" of the 1970s and 80s, Byron was perhaps the last of the 'major' poets of the period to receive re-evaluation. Some of the reasons for his re-emergence rely upon his very appeal to critics working in non-canonical areas. We may, therefore, be thankful for Byron, about whom it is still possible to write broadly appealing work while remaining trendy.

Of course, Byron never really went away, and there is still a small culture industry based upon a very non-academic figure, who is perhaps not all that different from the 'Byron' created by industry-mongers in the years after his death. Nevertheless, renewed academic interest is based on several factors. Foremost in these is the production of an accurate scholarly edition by Jerome McGann which brings together all the poetry and compliments the work done earlier by Leslie Marchand on the letters and journals. For anyone who doubted it, there is now readily available evidence of a vast and extremely varied corpus of work which can, and indeed has, been incorporated into very varied studies by young critics.

An older generation of writers, (McGann, Gleckner and Cooke) produced an interesting, if small, body of work, which has been added to by Jerome Christensen, Susan Wolfson and Peter Manning amongst others. Some of the renewed interest in Byron can be explained by reference to three particular areas of interest: Feminism; Orientalism and Drama. Both Wolfson and Caroline Franklin have written on women and gender in Byron's poetry; Nigel Leask and Frederick Garber have produced excellent work on the neglected Oriental Tales; and a number of chapters and essays have focused on the largely forgotten dramas, in particular a special edition of Studies in Romanticism dealing with Sardanapaulus , and including an important essay by Marilyn Butler. Furthermore, Byron has become the focus of a certain amount of new historicist interest dealing with the re-construction of the literary climate in which Byron was writing, and treating Byron as representative of the period, in contrast to other 'canonical' writing: for this both the work of McGann and Christensen has been significant.

Since Byron has become 'hot property' once again, it is unsurprising that Routledge have chosen to include a selection in their Routledge English Texts . Donald Low, as the editor, follows the series practice in aiming at the large undergraduate market, and he intends presumably to rival his main opposition, McGann's Oxford Authors edition. Given McGann's fame, the selling power of OUP, and the fact that for a slightly greater price Oxford offer a text nearly three times as long, it looks like Routledge are in for some trouble. Low's editorial policy, furthermore, is somewhat ambiguous: he admits to both consulting early nineteenth century editions and those of McGann and Marchand. The policy taken by another recent edition, Wolfson and Manning's for Penguin was to revert to the Murray edition of 1832/3. This at least provides one with a clear indication of where the texts are coming from.

Routledge presumably foresee little competition in their market from Penguin, who publish Don Juan separately, and ignore the prose. Instead, following Oxford there are selections from Byron's prose, including the very interesting speeches from the Lords, left out elsewhere; the Alpine Journal which is handy for students working on travel literature; and a sound-bite selection of Byron's comments on poetry, presumably following Marchand's similar offering in the Selected Letters and Journals . There are also very brief biographical notes; a similarly selective bibliography, and explanatory notes aimed at the completely uninitiated.

The real disappointments lie however in the selection of poetry included. Only Beppo , Mazeppa , and The Vision of Judgment are complete, and although these are all wonderful works it does seem surprising that given recent critical emphases, there are no selections from the important Oriental Tales, nor from the dramas. It is perhaps more excusable given the restrictions of both space and the average undergraduate attention span that Childe Harold should be represented by Canto III, and Don Juan by Cantos I and II. More positive inclusions however, are the longer lyrics "Darkness" and "Prometheus" among other shorter poems. The collection is framed by an introduction which takes us back to a pre-lapsarian period before even 'Romanticism' had a definition with which to worry; and a critical commentary which is a little better, but retains the critical idiom of Brodies Notes . Are students really this ill-informed?

Fortunately, Byron Studies are not in this sorry state, and Andrew Elfenbein's Byron and the Victorians is an intelligent and informative work which fills a necessary gap in the field. At first glance, it seems incredible that no one has covered this ground before, but as Elfenbein fleshes out his arena it becomes apparent why. As he is eager to point out throughout the study, Byron was, and remains to some extent, a peculiar cultural phenomenon, only to be pigeon-holed at the critic's peril. An effective treatment of Byron's lasting cultural importance cannot rely upon a critical program which depends upon a study of literary influence, nor upon cultural reputation. If the whole study reads at times like a rather old-fashioned literary history, taking us back to Bertrand Russell's discussion of Byron in The History of Western Philosophy , then this is because Elfenbein is keen to acknowledge the persistence of the Byron myth, and the necessity of its inseparability from Byron's literary legacy.

As a whole the study is perhaps less informative than its parts, and indeed it reads rather like a series of essays collected under a common theme, which in turn is left deliberately ambiguous. Elfenbein begins by providing an outline of recent theoretical work on influence, and, apparently conscious of this ambiguity, he presents his aim in the study as a whole as an attempt "to avoid essentializing either 'Byron' or 'influence' even while recognising that their historical power has come from their role as perceived essences." As such Elfenbein dismisses a Bloomian or even Kristevan model of textual subjectivity, suggesting instead that an investigation of the presumed history of an author's influence over future generations "demands exploring the construction of the author as a figure who can have influence."

This in turn requires not so much a return to source study, or even the empirical effort of reading for allusion, but rather a re-examination of the history of literary reputation and reception. To this end, Elfenbein acknowledges his own debt to both Jauss and, more significantly, Bourdieu. He takes issue with what he sees as Jauss's elevation of the theory of reception to an aesthetic of production, instead favouring Bourdieu's conception of the sociology of art, in which specific literary histories condition the reception of authors by later readers. By contrasting Bloom and Bourdieu, Elfenbein suggests that the latter provides the critic with an unsurprisingly more complete picture of the practicalities of cultural production, which can in turn by transported into a model for influence. He writes:

A writer's influence involves far more than the texts that she or he writes. It depends on the apparatus whereby that work is produced, disseminated, reviewed, consecrated, or forgotten. Equally important, it depends on how this apparatus constructs the writer's life in relation to the work. Later writers encounter differing versions of an earlier one, so that their authorial positions in the cultural field are conditioned not only by their role in the literary system but also by the access that they have had to models of authorship. This book will demonstrate the importance of expanding and complicating the notion of pretext or precursor by insisting on the range of discourses through which earlier writers become accessible to later ones.

Elfenbein claims priority in the literary history of influence in his appropriation of Bourdieu, and indeed given this passage, the whole book may as well have been subtitled "Toward a theory of influence". Nevertheless, his work must be set in context. It must be pointed out that no study of Byron's influence has been produced for the very reasons that he suggests: namely, because Byron and 'Byronism' are very largely inseparable in the nineteenth century. With a few exceptions, Wilde, for example, this cannot be said to be true of other authors. Indeed any study of Byron's influence which dealt with the problem in Bloomian terms would seem even more than usually incomplete. To talk of the influence of Byron, involves an engagement with a cultural phenomenon.

Later on Elfenbein writes, "I take as axiomatic that the pull between treating texts as the products of individual authors and as products of larger systems of discourses, practices, and institutions is not simply a problem that can be solved by thinking about it hard enough." But with Byron this pull is more than usually obvious. There is rather clearly an individual author somehow waiting to be reconstructed in the text, and there is equally a clear system of discourses and institutions constructing 'Byron'. To say that the middle ground must somehow be occupied in a study of Byron and influence is not to say that this is a satisfactory means of addressing the problem of other authors and influence. What Elfenbein effectively states is that the two are inseparable, and that any attempt to separate them falls into the trap of old empiricist humanism, with its dependence upon a clear apprehensible literary history. In reading his study, it is worth asking oneself the degree to which he provides a history or theory of influence at all, and how much he depends upon conjecture in constructing incomplete cultural histories, which as so often with theoretical studies are validated by reference to just the empiricism the critic seeks to avoid.

As his basis for recreating literary history, Elfenbein takes the issues of subjectivity, sexuality and canonicity. I say that the study reads like a series of separate essays because although the focus in the background remains upon these issues the individual emphasis alters. He begins with a chapter on Byron's own poetry, contrasting the construction of a specific Byronic self in The Corsair , Manfred , and Don Juan with the poetry of Scott, in which no peculiar identification of the self of the poet and the subject of the poem was supposed. This introduces some of the issues of gender and sexuality which will come up later, linked to the subjectivity of the author. The study then moves into a survey of the reception of Byron by the community of readers in the period, aiming to re-cast critical assumptions of the audience Byron was writing for, while exposing the culture industry which created and fostered the myth of Byron. The remainder of the book consists of four chapters which focus upon very different aspects of the way in which the composite figure of Byron the poet, and 'Byron' influenced Victorian writers. The first of these deals with Carlyle, and presents a reading of Sartor Resartus in terms of Byron's representation as an established literary figure. The second deals with the composite problem of the Byronic figure in relation to questions of gender and sexuality in Wuthering Heights . The third turns to Byron specifically as a poet in a complex literary relationship with Tennyson, and offers a close reading of Maud , as Tennyson's quintessential Byronic poem. The final chapter is a long and interesting discussion of the issue of Byron's homosexuality and its influence on a generation of writers, who used the Byronic persona as a way of creating a literary self which facilitated their entry into the literary culture of the period, and upon Wilde who identified with Byron as the troubled and outcast poet of the time.

Even such a brief over-view as this quickly suggests the way in which the study moves backwards and forwards from traditional literary history, in what looks suspiciously like fairly old-fashioned literary allusion hunting in the chapter on Tennyson, to cultural studies, or gender studies. There is a considerable amount here, and one problem may be that the whole book reads rather like six theses roled into one. In many ways the first chapter on Byron is the best because it is the one which displays the closest knowledge of the texts, moving with ease from The Corsair to Don Juan , and constructing a clever argument around the construction of subjectivity in Byron and its dependence upon both the portrayal of females counters to male heroes, and the understanding of a readership which wanted 'Byronism" pure and simple.

Nevertheless, Elfenbein is also convincing in his reading of Brontë and of Tennyson. In the former he returns to the discussion of female and male roles in Byron's poems and shows these subtly over-turned in Wuthering Heights . With Tennyson, Elfenbein is close to the poetry and picks out remarkable links between the Tennyson and Byron, basing his reading in biography but acknowledging something pretty close to a Bloomian anxiety of influence. Even in the chapter on Carlyle, Elfenbein manages to produce a fairly exciting reading which ingeniously suggests Moore's biography of Byron as an unacknowledged model for Sartor Resartus . The chapter on reception reads rather like a token effort, and is frankly not terribly exciting although it is very informative about the readership. Meanwhile, the final long section which is really rather tangential to the rest of the study brings us back to the discussions of sexuality and gender that occupied chapters one and four. Presumably, a work on Byron's influence upon homosexual images is in the offing somewhere in the world, unfortunately this section seems a little confined here, and makes only bizarre sense after the chapter on Tennyson. Nevertheless, it is curiously appropriate in a book which aims at demonstrating that influence can never be a clear cut critical term, but rather depends upon the investigation of culture in all its variety.