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Byron and the Forms of Thought$

Anthony Howe

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9781846319716

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: May 2014

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781846319716.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Byron and the Forms of Thought

Anthony Howe

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter first traces the history of the critical reception of Byron’s works. It considers his cultural status as a writer, rather than as a thinker, and his exclusion from works of literary history. It then discusses how Byron can be placed — and, at times, consciously places himself — within a version of the critical tradition. It argues that his poetry, rather than being reproducible as a discrete branch of philosophy, engages philosophical thought as a prelude to self-understanding. It becomes its own investigation into the thoughtfulness and knowledge of form. The book’s manner, structure and aims are described followed by an overview of the subsequent chapters.

Keywords:   Bryon, poets, poetry, literary history, literary criticism, philosophy

In Julian Farino’s two-part BBC dramatization Byron (2003), the only writing of Byron’s to feature significantly is the manuscript of the poet’s memoirs, a work that only a handful of people ever read. The scene, we assume, is John Murray’s drawing room in Albemarle Street; present are Murray himself, John Cam Hobhouse, and other associates of the recently deceased poet. The book, amidst a series of uncertain and frightened looks, is thrown onto the fire, in the process burning into the biographical record one of its more famous holes. It is an effective opening scene, one that suggests a fruitful unshackling from history and an opportunity creatively to overwrite some intriguing blank spaces. But there is also in it something sadly symptomatic of how we have come to think of one of our greatest poets.

Byron persists in the popular imagination. He made himself – and has been made into – one of the defining qualities of his own tumultuous age: Romantic, passionate, radical and mysterious. ‘Byronic’ has a cultural immediacy that is not there with ‘Wordsworthian’ or ‘Shelleyan’. Biographies of the poet are produced with unfailing energy. He regularly features on television and film where his life needs few fictional additives to stimulate twenty-first century appetites. He is a seminal figure respecting the modern obsession with celebrity.1 This afterlife, however, has been a very different affair to that of other eminent nineteenth-century literary figures such as Dickens or Jane Austen, writers identified primarily with their books and characters. Byron, we might easily conclude from his broader cultural status, was not really important as a writer at all. As a thinker he barely registers.

Byron’s reconstruction as the definitive non-intellectual Romantic, as a poet of passion but not of thought, begins with weighty opinions such as Goethe’s: ‘Lord Byron is only great when he is writing poetry; as soon as he reflects, he is a child.’2 Matthew Arnold came to similar conclusions:

Byron, it may be said, was eminent only by his genius, only by his inborn force and fire; he had not the intellectual equipment of a supreme modern (p.2) poet; except for his genius he was an ordinary nineteenth-century English gentleman, with little culture and no ideas.3

For Arnold, Byron represented something from which the national life of the mind needed to shift away; he stood for a redundant emotivism summarized by words such as ‘force’, ‘genius’ and ‘fire’ when what was needed was ‘intellectual equipment’ and ‘ideas’, neither of which Byron had to offer. T. S. Eliot agreed, identifying Byron’s apparent linguistic poverty as the sign of his secondariness:

Of Byron one can say, as of no other English poet of his eminence, that he added nothing to the language, that he discovered nothing in the sounds, and developed nothing in the meaning, of individual words. I cannot think of any other poet of his distinction who might so easily have been an accomplished foreigner writing in English. The ordinary person talks English, but only a few people in every generation can write it; and upon this undeliberate collaboration between a great many people talking a living language and a very few people writing it, the continuance and maintenance of a language depends. Just as an artisan who can talk English beautifully while about his work or in a public bar, may compose a letter painfully written in a dead language bearing some resemblance to a newspaper leader, and decorated with words like ‘maelstrom’ and ‘pandemonium’: so does Byron write a dead or dying language.4

Byron may be a good storyteller, but he writes an ersatz poetry of surfaces in the ‘dead’ language of Romantic poetic diction; he works in decorative words lacking the modes of awareness essential to the poet’s grasp of things. What is perhaps puzzling about Eliot’s resonant criticism is his determination to read Byron in the singular, as if the Oriental Tales, all four cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan were all made of the same stuff. The distinctness of the latter, which is decidedly proto-Modernist in so far as it picks up the baton from Tristram Shandy, is not allowed.5 After all, it was Byron among the major Romantics who came to insist that one should be able to make a poem about a fried egg as well as a sunset. It was Byron, also, who subjected the linguistic deadness Eliot identifies in Romanticism to its most extensive interrogation in its own day. Where Auden, in his brilliant ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, threw out the ‘trash’ of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage but held to the ‘fine’ Don Juan,6 Eliot wants to purge us wholesale of a monotone Byron who is ridiculously stuck to his time.

Byron criticism is a history of more or less comprehensible swerves from Byron. The poet’s self-mythologizing has been taken on and extended by others to the extent that he has become one of the most (p.3) written poets in the language. Bertrand Russell, who devoted an entire chapter of his History of Western Philosophy to Byron, picked up on this twinning of Byron and ‘Byron’. For Russell, however, the latter was the significant one: ‘Like many other prominent men, he was more important as a myth than as he really was. As a myth, his importance, especially on the Continent, was enormous’.7 Whether Byron ‘as he really was’ can be distinguished from Byron the myth is another question, but Russell is certainly right that Byron had been overtaken by his cultural and political attributions.

The rewriting of Byron as his own pre-eminent text continued with the rise of the English literature professional: ‘He lives that eternity which is art. He is more than a writer […]. He is poetry incarnate. The others are dreamers: he is the thing itself’.8 The academic study of Byron, however, while maintaining this sense of the cultic, also allowed more space in which to acknowledge the poet’s fractures and contradictions as well as to ponder his place in the canon. Leavis, for instance, saw Byron not as a defining Romantic genius, but as a poet with a strong ‘eighteenth-century element’, something which is identified as ‘essential to his success’. The main effect of this ‘success’, however, was, according to Leavis, to bring out ‘how completely the Augustan order had disintegrated’.9

The 1950s and 60s were, on the whole, less backhanded in their appreciation and, while concerns remained about the poet being ‘an essentially uneducated spirit’,10 Byron studies had, by the late 60s at least, flourished as a serious academic concern, especially, although not exclusively, in the United States.11 As Jerome McGann pointed out from its midst, however, some of this work, and especially where influenced by the New Critics, was made uncomfortable by the sceptical, fragmentary and contradictory modes of thought characteristic of Byron’s oeuvre. These critics sought forms of intellectual and aesthetic coherence that Byron rarely provides, and their judgements of individual poems often hinged on whether or not they found what they wanted.12 With Byron’s poetry we often stumble into quiet clearings of lucidity, but we are rarely allowed to stray too far from the truths of disorder.

Byron again found himself at a disadvantage when critics turned to the idea of a Romantic canon. Although the problems and continuities of visionary experience are central to Byron’s thought, it remains difficult to place the poet in relation to the seriousness of High Romantic literary culture. He may be a definitive Romantic, but Byron also lampooned Wordsworth, championed Pope, and wrote much of his (p.4) best poetry in satirical and serio-comic modes. Thus we pick up M. H. Abrams’s magisterial 550-page Natural Supernaturalism, a defining work of Romantic period literary criticism, and find only one index reference to the literary colossus of Regency England: ‘Byron I omit altogether; not because I think him a lesser poet than the others but because in his greatest work he speaks with an ironic counter-voice and deliberately opens a satirical perspective on the vatic stance of his Romantic contemporaries’.13 This wasn’t necessarily a value judgement, just an acknowledgement that Byron did not fit with the Anglo-German, secularized-theological literary history that Abrams wanted to describe. As a massive reinforcement of the ‘vatic’ as a pre-eminent poetic quality, however, Abrams’s work did nothing for Byron’s reputation as a serious poet and thinker. His sidestepping of Byron, moreover, was followed by some of the most intellectually ambitious Romanticists of the 1970s, who found Shelley’s evanescent symbolism more germane to their theoretical ambitions.14

If Byron’s critical stance on the incipient aesthetic ideologies of his historical moment made him a misfit for Abrams, then for the Marxist-influenced ‘new’ historicists of the 1980s it made him a prescient ally (of sorts). Byron’s exclusion was for these critics not a necessary preparative to the understanding of literary history, but an unhistorical act of misdescription. The canon makers of the 60s and 70s were culpable ideologists, their work, as McGann put it, being ‘dominated by a Romantic Ideology, by an uncritical absorption in Romanticism’s own self-representations’.15 To exclude Byron from our readings of the period is to extend rather than analyse the assumptions of literary Romanticism. It was to fail Byron, but it was also to fail to learn from his clear-sighted critique of acculturation as a form of blindness. What was needed, in McGann’s view, was a more accurate understanding of the socio-historical realities of Romantic period literature and culture, one free from the tacit value judgements of the vatic critical tradition. This shift of emphasis from canon to history meant that Byron, a figure of enormous historical and cultural importance, could easily be reintegrated into the scholarship of the period.

This re-inclusion of Byron, however, has in turn been doubted due to its reliance upon interpretative frameworks that homogenize critical reading in the interests of non-literary analysis.16 Its price, as Jane Stabler puts it, has been ‘the realization of [Byron’s] poetry at the level of the reading experience’.17 The recovery of this experience, as Stabler and others have stressed, must now be seen as a priority. The (p.5) reasons for this, as well as having specific things to do with Byron’s thought, relate to fundamental questions about what literary criticism is for and what it tells us about. When we engage the scriptings of literary form the event in which we participate, as Derek Attridge puts it, ‘exceeds the limits of rational accounting’.18 Such a claim leads to another about the meliorative force of literature in compensating the shortfall of modernity in its reading of the human. Christopher Ricks writes of the

endemic and valuable resistance, not hostility, that literary studies (no less than literature) have always needed, of their nature, to put up to the fellow-humanities philosophy and history: history, with its claim that the establishing of facts is its province, and (more pressingly of late) philosophy, with its claim that the pursuit of truth is its province.19

In acknowledging the resistance of human experience to the discourses of fact, attentive reading liberates us from, in arresting, the rush to settle things in words. Literary form, as Angela Leighton has put it, ‘stops us in our tracks of thinking, and inserts itself in that moment of stillness. To attend to form is thus to admit some other kind of mental attention, which is not the quick route to a name or the knowledge of an object’.20 Form has claims to make in those places where to name is always to misname.

Ricks’s missable aside – ‘(no less than literature)’ – seems crucial here. It reminds us that the study of literature, if it is to follow its object for any distance, cannot depart entirely from that object’s ways of being. A poem’s projection beyond the remit of category cannot be tracked by critical discourse that insists upon an assimilation to scientific or quasi-scientific method. Literary criticism, as has been recognized since at least Horace, thus needs to be an act of participation as well as an act of contextual investigation. We need not go as far as Schlegel in dismissing reflexive analysis entirely,21 but neither should we miss the point of his mischief. The following study of Byron, while in part a work of historical and intertextual scholarship, tries to keep this in mind in its address of the poet’s forms. It also wants to argue that this approach is of especial importance in Byron’s case because of the part played by such thinking in the poet’s achievement. Byron, that is, can be placed – and, at times, consciously places himself – in a version of the critical tradition I have been describing with reference to Ricks, Leighton and others. He understood that any serious apprehension of poetry is unavailable to writing with no sense of form. To read Byron’s thinking is to be drawn into a poetics that is both enriched and withheld by the problems of (p.6) literary singularity. Byron’s poetry, rather than being reproducible as a discrete branch of philosophy, engages philosophical thought as a prelude to self-understanding. It becomes its own investigation into the thoughtfulness and knowledge of form.

This is to touch upon some of the central claims of this book and where they come from. Some further words about the book’s manner, structure and aims may be useful. The book is self-consciously essayistic. It does propose an argument or set of linked arguments, but it also allows itself to think against their grain and against the grain of argumentation in general. There is a degree of accident in this in so far as the pursuit of poetic meanings is not a science and (perhaps especially so in the case of Byron) likely to generate a degree of mess and misfitting. The deliberate side to the book’s essayistic approach has to do with an attempt to shape its thinking to Byron’s own. Byron, as is well known, places Don Juan in an essayistic tradition by bringing to our attention his debt to writers such as Montaigne and Sterne. Such formal choices, which also relate to Byron as a writer of prose, make their own claims about knowledge. This book is minded of and in agreement with Byron’s thinking on this matter.

I agree with recent studies by Hoagwood and Bernhard Jackson in their claim that the sophistication of Byron’s thought has been consistently underestimated. Where I differ with both of these critics is in my approach to rectifying the apparent oversight. I try to avoid, that is, subjugating the reading of poetry to the purposes of claiming Byron as a particular species of philosopher. Hoagwood’s specific argument about Byron’s thought as a type of vivified Pyrrhonism will be considered in due course; his methodology is of more immediate concern. Hoagwood makes a determined point of privileging Byron’s prose because he views it as a clearer and more reliable source of his subject’s philosophical ideas.22 Such an approach, as well as making questionable assumptions about the relative reliability of Byron’s prose voice(s), can only ever give us a limited account of Byron’s thought for precisely the reasons I have been discussing. The poet’s mistrust of direct argumentation and his corresponding faith in poetic form renders problematic any notion that his ‘philosophical’ importance can be understood with primary or exclusive reference to his attempts to articulate philosophical positions. (p.7) For Byron, such ways of knowing often seem secondary to the animation discovered in the processes of writing and reading poetry.

Bernhard Jackson, while rightly leaving behind Hoagwood’s disavowal of intention as well as his suspicion of poetry, does maintain and build upon the latter’s assumption that Byron’s recovery as an intellectual depends upon our capacity to (re)discover him as a philosopher, as a thinker with a ‘well thought-out and fully articulated philosophy of knowledge, one with significant practical implications’. This coherent philosophy, moreover, is seen as resulting from a process of intellectual development; it ‘arrives’, that is, by a ‘process of gradual intellectual consideration that begins early in [Byron’s] career and [which] solidifies by means of progressive speculation and testing’.23 The instincts forged in reading Byron leave me sceptical about such definitive assertions about the poet’s intellectual development.24 I also disagree with the claim that Byron’s ‘philosophical stance’ fixes Don Juan as a consistent, practical means of demonstrating to the reader that he is ‘faced with a world in which there is no objective or universal ground’ and thus that the individual is ‘free to determine what is understood, what is accepted, even what will be true’.25 I don’t think we can tie Byron to an individualistic, rationally determined ‘freedom’ of this kind. I also question the idea that the ‘philosophical’ function of a poem such as Don Juan is consistently to break down generalized knowledge claims. First, this turns poetry into a predictable, readily paraphrased system. As well as missing the poem’s undetermined uniqueness, such an approach cancels its surprizingness and reassigns it to the critic’s argument. Second, as I read it at least, Don Juan is deeply interested in trans-individual sublime states and their relation to human cognition. Granted, the poem does not put forward a coherent theory of universalized knowing, but it does think about (and through) poetry in terms of its collective, emancipatory and imaginative possibilities (I discuss this in my fourth essay). It would be fair to say that Byron is the major British Romantic who puts most pressure on objective knowledge claims at the level of poetic form, but he also knew that scepticism does not rule things out. Part of Byron is a seriously moral Romantic poet concerned with the role of poetry in tracing the forgotten paths between human culture and states of origin. What is interesting and unique in Byron’s thought is closer to Shelley’s poetics than Hume’s philosophy.

(p.8) The book is divided into three main parts, each subdivided into two extended, linked essays. Part 1 considers Byron’s relation to philosophical scepticism, the area of philosophy most commonly associated with the poet. Rather than describing Byron as a particular species of philosophical sceptic I trace the ways in which scepticism, particularly through the ideas of Montaigne, leads to an understanding of poetry as something with a ‘philosophical’ agency of its own (although not one we can understand by returning to the set terms of intellectual history). Form, for Byron, becomes a way of reading the world against the grain of its objectification. It offers the possibility of reinvigorating thought as a mode of existential and political challenge. I proceed to test these incipient ideas about a Byronic poetics with reference to Byron’s religious thought and also his famous critique of intellectual rigidity or ‘system’.

My second essay considers as a case study Byron’s most obvious work of ‘philosophical poetry’, Cain. In reading against those who have interpreted the play as a manifesto, I explore Cain (as Byron urges us to do) more as an encounter between ‘argument’ and ‘drama’ than as a political work interested in literary form only for purposes of disguise and misdirection. I read the play through its interest in the meeting point of rational speculation and literary cognition. While developing the argument of Essay I in retracing Byron’s shift from scepticism to poetics I also make specific claims about Cain as a unique intervention in vatic tradition.

Building upon the ideas of Part 1, the book’s central essays confront Byron’s thinking about literary writing more directly and from two different points of view. The first asks what Byron thought it meant to write about poetry through a detailed study of the poet’s attempts at prose literary criticism during his career, in the early 1820s, as a pamphleteer and controversialist. I argue that to understand Byron’s critical prose we need to place it in a tradition of reflexive critical writing that was most present to Byron in the figure of Samuel Johnson. Johnson’s literary scepticism is read as an important source for Byron’s ideas about the resistance of poetry to theoretical apprehension. I also, following the lead of Andrew Nicholson and others, wonder what a Byronic prose poetics might look like. Essay IV asks the same question, but with primary reference to poetry rather than prose. It (re) assesses, that is, Byron’s position within the territory of post-Lockean and Romantic poetics. Beginning with Byron’s shifting apprehension of the sublime I ask how Byron aligns his poetry with states of origin acknowledged as beyond description. Poetry for Byron, I argue, stands (p.9) in a similar relation to ‘Eternity’ as true criticism does to its object. Vatic agency, in this sense, is for Byron inherently critical, an idea I explore with reference to Romantic literary culture more broadly but also in relation to Byron’s self-critical shift from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to Don Juan.

Part 3 takes some of the principal ideas identified in Part 2 and explores them with reference to Don Juan both as a narrative and a political poem. The first essay suggests that thinking about poetry in Don Juan is something that happens not just in the narrator’s philosophical digressions but in the very forms of the poem’s narrative. Narrative’s self-knowledge, its acknowledgement of its own selectiveness, becomes a mode of reflecting upon what the poem cannot contain. The final essay construes this act of visionary reflection as inherently political through a consideration of Byron as a narrative war poet. Byron’s engagement of the sublime, I suggest, is echoed in the poem’s critical apprehension of political truth. His re-visioning of war poetry specifies a poetics of lyric immediacy as a necessary context for social melioration. To argue thus is also to challenge the dominant assumption that Byron’s politics is primarily or even exclusively available to the methods of historical scholarship.



(1) See Tom Mole, Byron’s Romantic Celebrity: Industrial Culture and the Hermeneutic of Intimacy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

(2) Quoted in E. M. Butler, Byron and Goethe: Analysis of a Passion (London: Bowes and Bowes, 1956), 115.

(3) ‘Lectures and Essays in Criticism’, ed. R. H. Super (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962), 132.

(4) T. S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), 200–1.

(5) Eliot’s first appearance in print, ‘A Fable for Feasters’ (1905), was an ottava rima poem in the style of Don Juan. See Poems Written in Early Youth, ed. Valerie Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), 13–16. Eliot recalls his verses with embarrassment in On Poetry and Poets, 193.

(6) The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927–1939, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), 169 (ll. 2, 5).

(7) Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy and its Connections with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (London: Unwin, 1946), 780.

(8) G. Wilson Knight, The Burning Oracle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), 198.

(9) F. R. Leavis, Revaluation (New York: Norton, 1936), 153.

(10) W. W. Robson, ‘Byron as Poet’ (Chatterton Lecture), in Proceedings of the British (p.10) Academy, 1957; reprinted in Byron: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Paul West (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963), 94.

(11) Andrew Rutherford, Byron: A Critical Study (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962); F. Gleckner, Byron and the Ruins of Paradise (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968); W. Paul Elledge, Byron and the Dynamics of Metaphor (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968); M. G. Cooke, The Blind Man Traces the Circle: On the Patterns and Philosophy of Byron’s Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969).

(12) Jerome J. McGann, Fiery Dust: Byron’s Poetic Development (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 65–6.

(13) M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 13. Harold Bloom found space for a smallish chapter on Byron (less than half the size of the chapter on Blake) in The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (London: Faber and Faber and Faber, 1962), where he notes that Byron’s is the ‘most social of Romantic imaginations and so the least Romantic’ (p. xv).

(14) Notably in Deconstruction and Criticism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), a seminal collection of essays by Bloom, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, in which an interest in Shelley’s The Triumph of Life dominates.

(15) Jerome J. McGann, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1983), 1.

(16) See Susan J. Wolfson, Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 2–3 and passim. Also see Alan Rawes’s Introduction to Romanticism and Form, ed. Alan Rawes (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

(17) Jane Stabler, Byron, Poetics and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 5.

(18) Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature (London: Routledge, 2004), 3.

(19) Christopher Ricks, ‘The Pursuit of Metaphor’, in Allusion to the Poets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 241–60 (242).

(20) Angela Leighton, On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 21.

(21) ‘It is not necessary for anyone to sustain and propagate poetry through clever speeches and precepts [...]; one cannot really speak of poetry except in the language of poetry’. Friedrich Schlegel, Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms, trans. Ernst Behler and Roman Struc (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968), 54.

(22) Terence Allan Hoagwood, Byron’s Dialectic: Skepticism and the Critique of Culture (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1993), 23.

(23) Emily A. Bernhard Jackson, The Development of Byron’s Philosophy of Knowledge (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 2.

(24) I am thinking in particular of Byron’s instinctive refusal of linearity and his tendency to write of his own work within dialectical narratives of nostalgia and loss. His most important and self-conscious intellectual ‘development’, I would suggest, is the one that takes us from the style of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to that of Don Juan, a move informed by Byron’s recognition that ‘we are upon a wrong revolutionary poetical system’ (BLJ, v, 265). I would not want to suggest, however, (p.11) that we should construe this change in simple progressive terms. Byron certainly did not. We could only understand this as the symptom of a developing ‘philosophy of knowledge’, moreover, with reference to a Byronic poetics that is evolving away from the claims of philosophy.