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Given the prominence of historicist methodologies in Romantic studies over the past twenty or so years, and given the tendency of such work to underscore prominently the political implications of nearly every aspect of Romantic culture, it would hardly seem surprising to see a study on “Byron, Politics, and History.” The way for such a study would have been paved by the now familiar pantheon of 1980s historicist scholarship by such critics as David Simpson, Marjorie Levinson, and Marilyn Butler, but perhaps most thoroughly and most profoundly by Jerome McGann in The Romantic Ideology and in his magisterial new Oxford edition of Byron’s works that began to appear in that decade. Indeed, such a title, “Byron, Politics, and History,” might serve as a fitting subtitle to all of McGann’s work on Byron. But alas, while one could be forgiven for mistaking it as such with a quick glance, “Byron, Politics and History” is not the title of Jane Stabler’s recent monograph on Byron. Her title, rather, is Byron, Poetics and History, and in the shift from politics to poetics, Stabler’s work might be considered as indicative of recent critical trends that return to poetic form, but form here conceived as responsive to and contingent upon historical context—an emphasis seen also in the work of Stuart Curran, Susan Wolfson, and others.
Byron claimed famously that he wrote “what’s uppermost, without delay” (Don Juan, xiv.7), and throughout her study, Stabler is most concerned with the way that this and similar moments constitute what she terms Byron’s “poetics of digression,” by which she means to characterize Byron’s tendency to sway from the thread of his narrative or argument in reference to other texts or contextual events through parenthetical asides, passing allusion, and explicit quotation. Such moves recur throughout Byron’s work and were noted even by his earliest critics. The abruptness and discontinuity of these digressions, in Stabler’s account, complicate the reading experience by making the reader aware of other routes, other interpretations and hence while Byron’s work produces a rich intertextuality, it also produces an often puzzling indeterminacy. Stabler, however, does not want to resolve such moments, nor does she wish to claim that they invite infinite unresolvability. Rather, for her, they point to a middle ground, to what we might call an ethics of reading where the reader must cast a deciding vote in what Jerome McGann has characterized as Don Juan’s “procedural rule of ‘both/and.’”
This represents a possibility with which some critics might be uncomfortable, and indeed, Stabler argues that the discontinuity of Byronic digression is insufficiently recognized due to critical attempts to fix meaning as part of a larger system. In her call for a return of critical attention to poetics and the formal qualities of Romantic verse, Stabler is critical of accounts of Byron’s work, like that of McGann, that unify his style under a particular philosophical or moral ideal and of those that, like Jerome Christensen in her reading, resort to a more general conception of the whole of Byron’s work. Such accounts, according to Stabler, tend to “regulate Byron’s digressions and to systematize the strange conjunctions of violence and polish in his poetics” (14), and thus they sacrifice what she terms “the particularity of the reading experience” (5). Instead of producing a general theory of Byron, or even a survey of his entire corpus, Stabler prefers to focus on local effects, on the contingent and the individual case, a move that she aligns with the rejection of wholeness and totality in the work of such French feminists as Kristeva, Irigaray, and Cixous. Her endeavor is less to fix meaning and more to suggest possibilities of meaning and to explore the conditions through which meaning is made. As she argues, “Byron’s poetics offers the possibility of an affirmative texture of indeterminacy because its meaning is not located in transcendence of the text, but in the local negotiations between the text and its reader” (15). As this claim would suggest, the reader plays a central role in Stabler’s interpretation of Byron and each of her six chapters contributes to the development of her critical and carefully theorized account of the relationship between Byron’s texts and the responses of their contemporary readers.
The first chapter examines reviews of Byron’s early work from Childe Harold I forwards and shows how Byron’s digressive poetics were seen from the start by many critics as unsettling and destabilizing. There is thus, Stabler argues, a “politics of poetic style” (25), for often, Byron’s digressions, the abrupt juxtapositions of pathos and humor that characterize all of his work, were seen as “perverse,” as socially transgressive, especially for female readers without a classical education. Furthermore, Stabler reads Byronic patterns of inconsistency as threatening to Burkean (and later Coleridgean) organic principles of criticism, with their fear of ambiguity and indeterminacy. We might thus note a certain sympathy between Byron’s poetics and Stabler’s rejection of the more systematic claims of the grand theories of Romanticism. This anti-totalizing theme continues in the next chapter in which Stabler distinguishes the more unsettling features of Byron’s digressive style from attitudes to digression in eighteenth-century criticism, where digression is seen as a means to reinforce the concept of a unified whole. She traces Byron’s handling of digression back to three prominent influences: the satire of Charles Churchill; sentimental novels and poetry; and dramatic prologues and epilogues. Byron has often been linked to Sterne, but one of the (many) contributions of Stabler’s work is her strong case that it is Churchill, with his more risky flirtation with moral and aesthetic relativity, that both links Byron to and distinguishes him from Sterne. Through a careful reading of Byron’s farewell odes to Malta and to Hobhouse, she shows how “Two key modes of Byronic digression—parenthetical asides and signaled topical or literary allusions—allow us to see how the allegedly opposite modes of satirical and sentimental writing developed parallel relationships with the reader” (60).
After the focus of the first two chapters on readers’ responses to Byron, the third chapter considers Byron as a reader of his own work, one who recognized “the contingencies of readerly participation and the historical matrices of literary composition” (10). This chapter is, to my mind, the book’s finest and Stabler’s most original and insightful contribution to Byron scholarship. It focuses on Hints from Horace, which Byron had delivered to the printer Cawthorn in 1811 and then revised, but again did not publish, in 1820-21 as his engagement with the Pope controversy intensified. Stabler introduces Hints as an example of “Byronic intertextuality” for the way that its layers of allusion create a dialogue with different audiences. Its two distinct moments of composition mean that Byron anticipated two different audiences for Hints, and Stabler’s argument is distinguished by its use of unpublished letters from the Murray archive to consider how the meaning and implications of the poem change as a result of changing dynamics with Murray and Hobhouse. For the Tory Murray, Byron’s involvement with the Pope controversy, especially as translated into the revision of Hints, was seen as a conservative literary enterprise. The Whig Hobhouse, in contrast, saw Byron’s persistence with Hints as a substitution of literary impulses for political ones, and thus part of Byron’s failure to commit to the Whig cause, while Byron himself saw the poem as a chance to weigh against prevailing modes of social morality and taste. Indeed, the intensity of Byron’s interest in Hints can be explained, in Stabler’s reading, because he converts the cause of literary taste into the cause of political reform. In other words, Stabler argues that Byron saw his aesthetic campaign as a substitute for an active reformist role in English politics. The irony of this for Stabler, is that just as Byron moves closer to the literary values of Gifford and Murray, he moves away from their political culture.
Byron returned to Hints between writing the fifth and sixth cantos of Don Juan, and one key question is how his work on Hints affected the composition of Juan. Stabler argues that Byron’s reworking of Hints produced the tense awareness that readers both constituted the main locus of meaning and that they could not be relied upon, which resulted in a change in tone in Don Juan from canto vi forwards. This was also the point where Byron switched publishers. Although Stabler notes that the change from Murray to John Hunt produced an “instantaneous” effect on the poem’s reception, I was surprised that there was not a more explicit consideration of how the material circumstances of the poem’s publication might also have shaped this change in tone. Indeed, Hunt is not mentioned at all in the two chapters devoted to Don Juan, both of which focus on the sections of the poem that he published, from vi forward. These cantos, Stabler suggests, “are increasingly alert to the relativity governing their reception and they foreground the relationship between context and literary conventions rather than the Lake School convention of ‘natural’ lyrical overflow” (102). Chapters four and five then elaborate this argument through a close and careful reading of particular passages in Don Juan. In chapter four, for example, Stabler suggests that Othello functions as a shadow text for the harem scene of canto VI and she performs a virtuosic reading of a range of literary allusions, marked and unmarked, linking the narrative thrust of Byron’s story not only with Shakespeare’s play, but also with the prurient details of contemporary interest in Queen Caroline’s trial. In demonstrating this elaborate network of reference, Stabler’s readings are sometimes more convincing than others. I remain somewhat skeptical, for example, about whether the warning about the dissembling of women that constitutes stanza 14 of canto six is really “closely patterned” after Iago’s scheming in the opening of Othello just because both passages use the participle “trimmed.” My unwillingness to be convinced by such moments, however, precisely confirms Stabler’s larger point, for the overall argument of her reading of Don Juan is that the broad range of reference produces competing—and coexisting—possibilities for meaning that force Byron’s readers to recognize the very contingency of meaning itself, and if this is the case, then each reader’s relationship to Byron’s allusions will be different. As Stabler later argues,
Beside the pleasure of contact with the richness of the text, we are also aware that the link might not have been made; we might have missed the turn and another route would have provided a different experience. This is why source hunting is not adequate to the texture of Don Juan: a catalogue of references cannot tell us what actually happens when digressive intertextuality encounters different readers or the same reader in a different reading.167
The reading experience is contingent, the construction of meaning is contingent, and such contingencies are complicated by the way that Byron himself thematizes contingency. Stabler focuses on three interlinked instances of this. She notes, in chapter four, how increased references to contingency in the siege of Ismail cantos link the language of gambling, financial speculation, and warfare; she connects this, in chapter five, to the handling of ‘feminine caprice,’ a form of contingency associated with Adeline’s ‘mobility’ in the English cantos that shows how Byron not only reserves judgment on feminine sexual digression but also often codes his own digressiveness as feminine, and which Stabler uses to counter feminist critics like Moyra Haslett and Caroline Franklin who read Juan as part of a masculinist ideology. Lastly, in what seems the most original contribution of Byron, Poetics and History, Stabler documents Byron’s borrowings from contemporary newspapers, most notably Galignani’s Messenger, to show how Don Juan is full of journalistic allusions and daily chance events in a way that enlists the reader in the construction of what is accidental. This reinforces Stabler’s argument about the role of the reader and the contingency of meaning in Byron’s work, but it also forces us to reconsider one of our most firmly grounded beliefs about Don Juan, one encouraged by Byron himself and held by members of Byron’s coterie in London like Murray, Hobhouse, and Kinnaird, but also by most contemporary Byron scholars: namely, the belief that Byron was a Regency dandy out of touch with English society. From the description of Juan’s arrival in England to Byron’s use of slang and beyond, Stabler documents Byron’s awareness of contemporary events through his use of newspapers; the most brilliant of these, though, relates to the comparison of Adeline to a bottle of frozen champagne, an image frequently traced to Scott’s review of Childe Harold IV, but which Stabler demonstrates to be closer to a speech of George Canning as reported in Galignani’s Messenger. The expansion of this and other similar intertexts means that we need to read the English cantos less as a nostalgic revisiting of Byron’s triumphant years in London, and more as an acutely thought reflection on the present, on the state of England following the years of fame, and on the fragmented and increasingly global culture shared by Byron and his readers even after his departure from England.
Byron, Poetics and History is meticulously researched, engagingly written, and equally thought provoking in its treatment of Byron’s frequently read and his more overlooked works. Stabler brings not just new readings to Byron’s poetry, but also—in her handling of unpublished letters from the Murray archive and her introduction of Galgnani’s Messenger—a new archive. This is a major new contribution to Byron studies, one that will also be of interest to Romanticists, and indeed literary scholars more generally, for its close attention to the historical contingencies of form, its handling of the way that a text’s relationship with its readers impacts its form, and its willingness to think about the politics of certain formal properties without turning this into the kind of grand generalizations seen frequently in Romantic criticism. This, however, raises a final question: in her elaboration of the contingencies of the reading experience, Stabler proudly focuses on the local and avoids “grand theory.” But given the distinct parallels between the Romantic period and our own and the way that Romantic writing might function as a tool for critique—as eloquently described by Jerome Christensen in Romanticism at the End of History (Johns Hopkins, 2000)—we might wonder if this is the time for a re-emphasis on the particular at the expense of the general. I do not propose to answer this question, nor do I present it as a criticism of Stabler’s book; indeed, one of the great strengths of this work might be the way that its scrupulous attention to the local provokes an informed debate about the relation between careful reading and grand pronouncements.