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Lord Byron’s Canons: Introduction[Notice]

  • Jeffery Vail

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  • Jeffery Vail
    Boston University

“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: 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. 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: 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”: 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, 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 …

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