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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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‘I doubt if doubt itself be doubting’

‘I doubt if doubt itself be doubting’

Scepticism, System and Poetry

(p.15) Essay I ‘I doubt if doubt itself be doubting’
Byron and the Forms of Thought

Anthony Howe

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers the significance of philosophical scepticism – and the word ‘system’ – for Byron’s poetry. It argues that for Byron scepticism is not so much a philosophical position as a way of thinking that helps to identify the unique cognitions of the poet. Byron’s reading of Montaigne is put forward as especially significant in this regard.

Keywords:   Byron, scepticism, system, philosophy, Montaigne

What kind – or kinds – of thinker was Byron? What were his philosophical sources and how did these shape the peculiar structures of thought exhibited in his poems, letters and more formal prose? Those who have discussed such questions have usually identified philosophical scepticism, something about which the poet was demonstrably informed, as an important point of reference. M. G. Cooke somewhat reluctantly concluded that Byron ‘is so strongly disposed to mistrust strictly clean categories that the primary bent of his philosophy must be termed skeptical’. For Cooke, scepticism is something to be admitted rather than celebrated: it ‘becomes a question’, Cooke worries, ‘and indeed a vexed question, whether we can find in Byron’s verse some affirmative philosophic position, befitting a poet of his rank and of his years’.1 Donald H. Reiman was less concerned about the fittingness of Byron’s scepticism, finding in it a philosophical correlate for the situation of Byronic exile: ‘as a universal outsider, Byron self-consciously employed Academic or Pyrrhonist skepticism to distance himself from the creeds that competed for his allegiance’.2 Hoagwood goes further to claim this universal distancing as an intellectually coherent and sophisticated response to the world:

Byron’s rehearsal of the traditional skeptical principles and tendencies is more than a reproduction of a source or of sources. It is rather the articulation (often a disorderly articulation) of a critical method of greater intellectual sophistication than has been normally allowed to the poet.3

Byron does more than toy with the ideas of philosophical scepticism; he articulates, rather, a distinct critical practice or ‘method’, one that allows us to place him in intellectual history with more confidence than has traditionally been the case. Contrary to Cooke’s sense of Byron’s scepticism as problematic, moreover, Hoagwood associates it, via the (p.16) Pyrrhonist’s ataraxia, with ‘delight’ and the ‘enrichment of human experience’.4

While there can be no doubt about Byron’s interest in philosophical scepticism or its importance for his writing, no clear consensus has emerged about how best to describe this aspect of the poet’s thought. Not helpful here is the fact that ‘scepticism’ is a rather nebulous term, both in its popular (ranging through various senses of wariness, cynicism and pessimism) and technical uses;5 it is not always clear, in this respect, that critics have used it to mean the same thing. There are historical considerations also. In the eighteenth century, the word, mainly due to its anti-religious ramifications, was often associated not with a successful mode of life (as for Hoagwood) or even reasoned caution (although it can be for Hume), but with optimistic intellectual programmes, ‘enthusiasm’, or even fanaticism. The outlandish schemes of Walter Shandy, for instance, are described as ‘sceptical, and [...] far out of the high-way of thinking’.6 For Pope, the ‘sceptic’, mired in his doubt, lacks vigour and presence; he is no more than a footnote to the life of the mind:

  • Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
  • The proper study of Mankind is Man.
  • Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
  • A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
  • With too much knowledge for the Sceptic’s side,
  • With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
  • He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
  • In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
  • In doubt his mind and body to prefer,
  • Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;7

This kind of ‘sceptic’ is an intellectually atrophied extremist, one who programmatically doubts everything. He is too certain, too closed down in his thinking, to grasp the non-categorical truths of Man’s ‘middle state’, the energized but wearing inbetweeness that Pope captures in the rhythms of his punctuation.

Byron, who at no point identifies himself as a sceptic, takes a similar if less theologically certain line: ‘I have formed no decided opinion – but I should regret any sceptical bigotry as equally pernicious with the most credulous intolerance’ (BLJ, iv, 60). ‘Sceptics’ for Byron tend to be either militant bigots or risible reactionaries, such as the ‘sceptics who would not believe Columbus’ (Don Juan, xvi, 4).8 When Byron does become interested in scepticism it tends to be at those moments where it collapses into its own definitions. This is famously and deliberately the (p.17) case with the Socratic ‘I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance’. At the same moment Socrates claims to ‘know nothing’ and also to know a ‘fact’ (that Socrates is ‘ignorant’). By loading his words beyond their capacity the philosopher turns a static epistemological claim into a shifting experiment in thought.

Byron knew this famous crux from Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Eminent Philosophers and quoted a version of it in Don Juan (vii, 5). He was fascinated by its implications and placed them at the intellectual centre of his poem, notably in this stanza which he spins out of Montaigne:

  • ‘Que sçais-je?’ was the motto of Montaigne,
  •  As also of the first Academicians:
  • That all is dubious which Man may attain,
  •  Was one of their most favourite positions.
  • There’s no such thing as certainty, that’s plain
  •  As any of Mortality’s Conditions:
  • So little do we know what we’re about in
  • This world, I doubt if doubt itself be doubting.

(Don Juan, ix, 17)

Rather than reproducing conventional sceptical arguments (‘all is dubious which Man may attain’), Byron writes them only in order to cross them out again.9 His interest lies in those moments where argument breaks down – or flourishes – into paradox and form. Thus it is ‘plain’ (or certain) that ‘There’s no such thing as certainty’, a reflection intensified and escalated in the gleeful alliteration of ‘I doubt if doubt itself be doubting’. This wriggling out of normative argument into absolute possibility is also a nod to tradition in so far as it participates in the ironic, dialogic status of Montaigne’s physically inscribed but uncertain motto. Byron’s printed and vocally dense utterance becomes a perfectly timed claim on behalf of literary presence. At precisely the moment in which philosophy – as Locke understood it at least – seems to lose its grip, the evasions of poetic form assume a quasi-tactile immediacy that offers to mitigate what might seem a dismal epistemological predicament.

This connection between scepticism and poetics, a major concern of what follows, will be easier to understand if we first assemble some context.10

(p.18) Philosophical scepticism can be dated back at least as far as Arcesilaus of Pitane (c.315–242 BC), founder of the Middle Academy, and later Carneades (c.213–129 BC). Pyrrhonism, a development of this ‘Academic’ scepticism that takes its name from the peripatetic philosopher Pyrrho of Elis (born c.365–270 BC) – who travelled to India with Alexander the Great, and whose teachings were based upon a sceptical sense of cultural difference – is concerned more with ethics than epistemological procedure. It was later codified (c.AD 200) by Sextus Empiricus. Byron knew about classical scepticism from a range of sources, including Montaigne, Bayle and Hume; he also (as has been noted) read Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Philosophers,11 which includes an account of Pyrrho’s life and thought, and which refers to the apocryphal stories about the philosopher’s refusal to avoid, on extreme sceptical grounds, onrushing chariots and steep precipices, and his constantly having to be saved by a contingent of dedicated followers.

Classical scepticism can be subdivided into a number of stages or procedures. The first is isostheneia, a sceptical balancing that involves juxtaposing conflicting views with the aim of undermining belief in any single opinion or system. Traditionally, this was carried out through a series of standard arguments or ‘tropes’, which balance, as Diogenes Laertius has it, ‘the equal value of contradictory sayings’.12 The sceptic may argue, for instance, that the fact that there are many different forms of religious belief itself undermines the likelihood of any particular form being true. This process justifies for the sceptic a situation of suspended judgement or epoche, a complete indecision with respect to any definitive claims about the nature of reality. He does not argue that a particular system is necessarily false, only that it appears to be impossibly difficult, given our unreliable and limited resources, to say with certainty that it is true. Academic scepticism, which sought to undermine (primarily Stoic) dogma, found in epoche an end in itself: since certainty can be challenged on any question, the sceptic refuses to assent to his opponent’s claims and also withholds any dogmatic alternative. Gibbon read Bayle as a determined sceptic of this kind, as a universal critic of religious and philosophical systems:

His critical Dictionary is a vast repository of facts and opinions; and he balances the false religions in his sceptical scales, till the opposite quantities, (if I may use the language of Algebra) annihilate each other […]. ‘I am most truly (said Bayle) a protestant; for I protest indifferently against all Systems, and all Sects’.13

The very constitution of Bayle’s magnum opus, its being a ‘vast repository of facts and opinions’, entails a huge act of isosthenia; sceptical activity, as (p.19) with Montaigne, seems an inevitable consequence of amassed learning. The sceptic’s wisdom, moreover, is expressed not through a direct argument but through an act of form: it is the dictionary’s textual fabric, its manner of compilation, that determines the direction of its meaning.

Another version of the argument from variety – again an important one for Byron – is Hume’s case against miracles.14 Hume’s probabalistic relativism appealed to Byron as a strongly reasoned response to the world, but also as a rich store of comically pliant imagery. This is Hume:

in matters of religion, whatever is different is contrary; and that it is impossible the religions of ancient ROME, of TURKEY, of SIAM, and of CHINA should, all of them, be established on any solid foundation. Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles), as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so has it the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system.15

With Byron, here in Beppo, the stamped presence of argument – which is so clear in Hume’s prose – is modulated and energized by the mind of the poet and ironist:

  • And there are dresses splendid, but fantastical,
  •  Masks of all times and nations, Turks and Jews,
  • And harlequins and clowns, with feats gymnastical,
  •  Greeks, Romans, Yankee-doodles, and Hindoos;
  • All kinds of dress, except the ecclesiastical,
  •  All people, as their fancies hit, may choose,
  • But no one in these parts may quiz the clergy,
  • Therefore take heed, ye Freethinkers! I charge ye.

(Beppo, 3)

Byron borrows Hume’s Romans and Turks and swells their ranks to create a vibrant pluralism that stands in contrast to an authoritarian establishment determined to assert its exemption from the threatening energies of variety. The question of what Byron is arguing, however, seems a difficult one to answer. We could take the stanza as a critique of organized religion from the perspective of the ‘Freethinker’, as an assertion of the individual’s right to ‘choose’ without the coercion of a morally unreliable and philosophically unjustified Church. This, however, as well as being too straightforward for Byron’s complex take on religion, would be to crowbar deft and tonally evasive poetry into a position of over-easy liberalism. The first problem is that Byron is not thinking straightforwardly in philosophical terms in the way Hume is. What for Hume is the space of argument is for Byron crammed full of (p.20) life and the questionable, participated truths of carnival as an ethically particular form of human activity. The idea of choice, moreover, is not given a clear philosophical outcome: if we wish to construe our ability to ‘choose’ as our ‘fancies hit’ as a straightforwardly good thing then we do so because of what we have already decided rather than because of anything that has happened in the process of reading Byron’s poetry. The question of how desirable such freedom might be is left unanswered behind the poet’s irony. Second, Byron is interested in his language as its own form of comic life; the rhymes that carry through ‘fantastical’ and ‘gymnastical’ and that link up ‘doodles’ and ‘Hindoos’ don’t argue anything, but they contribute to a reading experience that projects beyond the assumptive framework of the argued.

One of the most provocative questions thrown up by classical scepticism is where we go (if anywhere) from the suspended state of epoche. Hume argued that in the absence of certainty we should weigh the merits of each case and decide which is most likely. The classical Pyrrhonist takes a rather different line. Pyrrhonism is conceived of by its followers as a way of life outside the Academy; it is more concerned with the broken surfaces of life than the procedures of theory. Academic scepticism, it has been said, ‘leads nowhere’, whereas ‘Pyrrhonism is a universal attitude’.16 The Pyrrhonist withholds belief about the nature of reality as it is presented to him through the senses, but he does (contra the amusing but misleading stories about Pyrrho and onrushing chariots) ‘assent to appearances, over which he has no control’,17 as well as accepting the social and cultural configurations within which he finds himself (in this sense it is a conservative philosophy). He is not, as the stories suggest, a lunatic who refuses instinct, will and nature at the behest of philosophical principles, but one who seeks a life untroubled by what are seen as fruitless conflicts over questions that cannot in any case be settled in a philosophically satisfactory manner. Pyrrhonists ‘follow’, as Sextus Empiricus writes, ‘a line of reasoning which, in accordance with appearances, points us to a life comfortable to the customs of our country and its laws and institutions, and to our instinctive feelings’.18 The end of Pyrrhonism is not to win an argument but to achieve a state of ataraxia;19 it encourages, that is, a way of life grounded in a ‘suspension of judgment [that] brings with it tranquillity like its shadow’.20

For Byron, Pyrrhonism was just another crazy pre-Christian sect he had read about in Bayle (and others), as we see in this pointedly double suspension:

(p.21) I am no Platonist, I am nothing at all; but I would sooner be a Paulician, Manichean, Spinozist, Gentile, Pyrrhonian, Zoroastrian, than one of the seventy-two villainous sects who are tearing each other to pieces for the love of the Lord and hatred of each other.

(BLJ, ii, 89)21

Influenced by Hume’s sense of Pyrrhonism as irrelevant, as something that will ‘vanish like smoke’ when exposed to the realities of life,22 Byron would have thought of the Pyrrhonist as a version of the philosopher in Johnson’s Rasselas.

On the other hand Hume (arguably) misrepresents Pyrrhonism by conflating it with Academic scepticism, the latter, seemingly, being more susceptible to his accusations of excessive abstractness and irrelevance to real life.23 The Pyrrhonist has in fact thought about his inability to deny the ‘principles of our nature’ and his ataraxia, especially where developed (as Hoagwood does in Byron’s case) away from simple conformism, is perhaps not quite as hopeless as Hume suggests. If Hume does misunderstand Pyrrhonism then he also bequeaths his misunderstanding to Byron who, as Hoagwood and others note, makes a number of claims that seem (at least partly) consistent with the tripartite Pyrrhonian structure described above. His insistence upon being ‘nothing at all’, for instance, sounds just like the kind of non-dogmatic disengagement typical of classical scepticism. Byron frequently self-diagnoses such states of mental disengagement, thus falling more or less into line with the procedures recommended in Diogenes Laertius and by Sextus Empiricus: ‘I will neither read pro nor con. God would have made His will known without books, considering how very few could read them when Jesus of Nazareth lived, had it been His pleasure to ratify any peculiar mode of worship’ (BLJ, ii, 98). Such refusals to ‘read’ either way (especially if we ignore the complications entered by Byron’s devout tones) might certainly be extrapolated into a state of epoche. Whether we want to go as far as to commit Byron, with Hoagwood, to a neo-Pyrrhonist ‘conceptual and preconceptual frame’ is another question.24

Hoagwood, it seems to me, overcommits his subject through a selective use of evidence. He cites this extract from a pre-wedding letter to Annabella Milbanke:

The only part [of mathematics] I remember which gave me much delight were those theorems (is that the word?) in which after ringing the changes upon – A–B & C–D. &c. I at last came to “which is absurd – which is impossible” and at this point I have always arrived

(BLJ, iii, 159)

Of this it is claimed that ‘Byron intensifies the pleasure of mental (p.22) suspension, putting “delight” where the ancients put “tranquillity”, but the total suspension of mind is welcomed by Byron no less than the early philosophical sceptics’.25 In another letter to Annabella, Byron writes: ‘in the midst of myriads of the living & the dead worlds – stars – systems – infinity – why should I be anxious about an atom?’ (BLJ, iv, 78). Of this Hoagwood claims that the ‘deficit of a conclusion, comforting or otherwise, can generate a sceptical ataraxia and a freedom from angst. [Byron] expresses in his own voice – not in the fictionality of a poetic projection – this skeptical quietude and its basis’.26 The first problem here is the assumption that in these letters we encounter a more authentic, stable or reliable voicing of Byron’s philosophical views than we do in the poetry. Byron’s pre-wedding letters to Annabella emerge from a very specific and complex set of social and psychological factors, and project a different personality to the one encountered, for instance, in the letters to Hodgson. They are certainly a performance, and not necessarily less of one than the often movingly honest narrator of Don Juan, who also represents a more intellectually developed Byron. It is true that a form of rational suspension is welcomed in the case of mathematics (part of a larger joke about Byron’s future wife) and in the second example Byron plays the world-weary philosopher who has apparently given up in the face of his own insignificance; but, taken as a whole, his articulations are too richly contradictory and evasive to justify any conceptual privileging of ‘skeptical quietude’ or ‘freedom from angst’ (intended or otherwise). Byron often suggests the opposite, as when he (allegedly) remarked to the composer Isaac Nathan, in 1814, that ‘they accuse me of atheism – an atheist I could never be – no man of reflection, can feel otherwise than doubtful and anxious, when reflecting on futurity’ (HVSV, 83).

Hoagwood is right to draw attention Byron’s ‘vitality’ and ‘life-enhancing power’,27 but while these energies certainly draw from the imagery and structures of the sceptical tradition they also exceed that tradition’s frames. Byron’s philosophical significance will not be found by invoking (or adapting) established philosophical descriptors, but in following the ways his poetry transforms linear thought amidst the energizing possibilities of language:

  • For ever and anon comes Indigestion,
  •  (Not that most ‘dainty Ariel’) and perplexes
  • Our soarings with another sort of question:
  •  And that which after all my spirit vexes,
  • Is, that I find no spot where man can rest his eye on,
  •  Without confusion of the sorts and sexes,
  • (p.23) Of being, stars, and this unriddled wonder,
  • The World, which at the worst’s a glorious blunder –

(Don Juan, xi, 3)

For Byron, the world’s ‘wonder’ and ‘blunder’ are firmly linked, and while the former may be glimpsed in passing there remains nowhere ‘man can rest his eye’. Vexation, which is the opposite of the Pyrrhonist’s aim, is for Byron a necessary precondition of speculative and spiritual action and defines the environment in which true attentiveness and engagement become possible. The narrator of Don Juan may find moments of tenuous stability – ‘I perch upon an humbler promontory, / Amidst life’s infinite variety’ (Don Juan, xv, 19) – but to be perched is not to suggest the kind of committed intellectual residency assumed by the notion of having a philosophical position or ‘stance’ such as the Pyrrhonist’s. Byron is not writing philosophy here but transforming its terms as part of a critical investigation into thought and its relation to metaphor. To write ‘For ever and anon comes Indigestion’ is not to commit to scepticism but to wonder (with Montaigne) about the staging of such commitments in language.

Pyrrhonism is important in Don Juan, not because it provides an intellectual frame for the poem, but because it suggests images to the poet. Where the narrator, imperilled but not quite overwhelmed, sails ‘In the Wind’s Eye’ upon the ‘Ocean of Eternity’ (Don Juan, x, 4), the Pyrrhonist (in a stanza not discussed by Hoagwood), is hopelessly becalmed:

  • It is a pleasant voyage perhaps to float,
  •  Like Pyrrho, on a sea of speculation;
  • But what if carrying sail capsize the boat?
  •  Your wise men don’t know much of navigation;
  • And swimming long in the abyss of thought
  •  Is apt to tire: a calm and shallow station
  • Well nigh the shore, where one stoops down and gathers
  • Some pretty shell, is best for moderate bathers.

(Don Juan, ix, 18)

Pyrrho’s ‘sea of speculation’ may offer the prospect of a ‘pleasant float’ (ataraxia), but, in what looks a version of Hume’s critique, it is questioned as an ethical conclusion. Byron places limits on speculative philosophy (‘swimming long in the abyss of thought’) in the direction of life. Where Hume turns away from philosophy to the benefits of sociability, however, the Byronic poet and exile drives on towards the eternal. He also allows his metaphors to complicate things, to invite paraphrase but to resist its (p.24) wish for conclusion. Alongside the hard-pressed poet and the hapless philosopher he introduces another figure, the ‘moderate bather’ (Byron was of course anything but); this seemingly ordinary fellow is counselled to stay ‘well nigh the shore’ and content himself with a ‘pretty shell’. Rather than ditching philosophy entirely, however, this returns us to it by suggesting another version of Pyrrhonism. Rather than the tranquillity-directed procedures recommended by Sextus Empiricus, Byron seems to be thinking more of the artefact-mediated (‘pretty shell’) fideism he encountered in Montaigne. To complicate things further, the object of Byron’s apparent condescension is associated with one of the poem’s great symbols of genius and intellectual humility, Isaac Newton.28

Where classical Pyrrhonism, as we find it in Sextus Empiricus, can only take us so close to Byron because it isn’t interested in writing, Montaigne’s version offers a more plausible line of enquiry. Byron found in Montaigne a philosopher whose meanings are conditioned by the ironies of ego and (essayistic) form. He also found a thinker fascinated by the sublunary, but never content with its boundaries.

Montaigne’s influential playing of theology was dictated by the intellectual turmoil of his times. When the writings of Sextus Empiricus, which had largely disappeared from the European intellectual scene, were published by Henri Étienne (in a Latin translation) in 1562, they caused a ‘sensation’ amidst the intellectual ferment of the Reformation.29 From the perspective of the Catholic Church, assailed as it was by energetic reformers, philosophical scepticism threatened to create a ‘crise pyrrhonienne’ in religion.30 In response, Catholic intellectuals, including Pierre Charron, Pierre-Daniel Huet and, less straightforwardly, Montaigne, turned Pyrrhonism to their own advantage; they accepted the sceptical impasse identified by their classical forbears but, instead of using it to attack religion, used it to argue that there can be no rational basis for departing from the established Church. Adapting the classical Pyrrhonist’s conformism, these Christian Pyrrhonists proposed that the only alternative to the chaos of absolute relativism is obedience to what is established.

Montaigne admired classical Pyrrhonism, claiming that there is ‘nothing in human Invention, that carries so great a shew of Likelyhood and Utility’.31 In his ‘Apologie de Raimond Sebond’, an important text within the Christian Pyrrhonist tradition, he follows classical procedure by compiling an extensive list of religious forms that he uses to undermine confidence in any one particular system. Faced with this diversity, he challenges the would-be dogmatist to ‘brag, that you have (p.25) found the Bean in the Cake’ (Essays, ii, 277). At this crucial point (epoche), however, he departs from classical precedent to assert the necessity of placing our faith in a metaphorically vibrant Church:

She [reason] does nothing but err throughout, but especially when she meddles with Divine things. [W]e daily see [...] that if she swerve never so little from the ordinary Path; and that she strays from, or wander out of the way, set out and beaten by the Church, how soon she loses, confounds and fetters herself, tumbling and floating in this vast, turbulent and waving Sea of Human Opinions, without restraint, and without any determinate end.

(Essays, ii, 283–4)

Montaigne’s ‘turbulent and waving Sea of Human Opinions’ flows into Byron’s ‘sea of speculation’. The latter’s ‘pretty shell’, moreover, by offering something reassuringly comprehensible (and aesthetically pleasing) to hold to in the face of boundlessness, touches the metaphorical space occupied by Montaigne’s rock-like Church. This also recalls Byron’s comments on the Italian Catholicism in which he was immersed for much of his adult life.32 Sharply contrasting the cold, austere doctrines of the ‘Calvinistic Scotch School’ with which he was ‘early disgusted’ and for which he was ‘cudgelled to Church for the first ten years of [his] life’ (BLJ, iii, 64),33 the vibrant presences of Catholicism sparked and held Byron’s imagination: ‘I am really a great admirer of tangible religion’, he wrote to Thomas Moore from Pisa, ‘and am breeding one of my daughters a Catholic, that she may have her hands full [...]. What with incense, pictures, statues, altars, shrines, relics, and the real presence, confession, absolution, – there is something sensible to grasp at’. Byron continues this well-known letter by withholding earnestness while at the same time foregrounding the kind of metaphorical language already noted in Don Juan: ‘Besides it leaves no possibility of doubt; for those who swallow their Deity, really and truly, in transubstantiation, can hardly find anything else otherwise than easy of digestion’ (BLJ, ix, 123). The simple yet profound idea that the aesthetics of faith might hold off the claims of scepticism is typically complicated by the (comic) possibilities of metaphor. This leaves us on shaky ground if we want to claim Byron for Catholicism in any straightforward way, but we should also notice that in the very process of scrambling his voice Byron is participating in precisely the kind of dynamic he describes. By activating his own poetic imagination he projects an aesthetic construct (of sorts) between the site of thought and its ultimate, unknowable object. If ‘pictures, statues, altars, shrines, relics’ have a common capacity to mitigate the void, then might not the shapings of the poet do something similar?

(p.26) Another way of approaching this begins with the observation that Byron makes a poor show, in his pre-Italian years, of being a non-Catholic fideist. Without ‘something sensible to grasp at’ he runs into tensions between official morality and poetic presence, as here in the Gibbon and Voltaire stanza of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

  • Lausanne! and Ferney! ye have been the abodes
  • Of names which unto you bequeath’d a name;
  • Mortals, who sought and found, by dangerous roads,
  • A path to perpetuity of fame:
  • They were gigantic minds, and their steep aim,
  • Was, Titan-like, on daring doubts to pile
  • Thoughts which should call down thunder, and the flame
  • Of Heaven, again assail’d, if Heaven the while
  • On man and man’s research could deign do more than smile.

(Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, iii, 105)

The bottom line certainly looks fideist in bestowing a kindly smile upon the greatest efforts of human reason. What comes across, however, is not God’s infinite wisdom, mercy or compassion, but His blandness. All of the interest is with Gibbon and Voltaire who are recast as Promethean heroes, their Babel-like pile of doubts and intrepid pursuit of ‘dangerous roads’ (rather than Montaigne’s beaten path) dominating the stanza. Byron was not a scoffer at religion, but his attempt at orthodoxy here is failed by the distribution of poetic force. With no tangible presence available from his theological context he is left to create his own on terms that seem unflattering to doctrine.

What is missing here is not any openness to religion on Byron’s part but the opportunity to align it with the mediating efforts of the imagination. By way of comparison we might take the description in the later, Italian-written cantos of Don Juan, of Norman Abbey, a version of Byron’s own Newstead. The place is described through a fine historical, aesthetic and reflexive awareness, its riven statues attesting to a now-stilled, diachronic violence:

  • Within a niche, nigh to its pinnacle,
  •  Twelve saints had once stood sanctified in stone;
  • But these had fallen, not when the friars fell,
  •  But in the war which struck Charles from his throne,
  • When each house was a fortalice – as tell
  •  The annals of full many a line undone –
  • The gallant Cavaliers, who fought in vain
  • For those who knew not to resign or reign.

(Don Juan, xiii, 60)

(p.27) Unlike the massive and massively political fragments of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ which crumble beneath the absolute of time, Byron’s statues register a graded sense of history; they survived the machinations of Thomas Cromwell only to fare less well amidst the ravages of Oliver. In relation to this we may detect a few Cavalier sympathies and even a touch of the house-proud aristocrat (‘fortalice’ is a little technical and not a little Shandean), but nothing in the way of clear theological positioning. As the narrator rattles on, however, the statues, which have witnessed history’s passing and absorbed it shocks, persist in their inscrutable but tangible profundity. They make their own silent claim (upon us). Their partial erasure, moreover, is compensated by the sheer verbal presence of Byron’s poetry. That concentration of stress – ‘stood sanctified in stone’ – participates in eroded meanings that hover between presence and absence.

This recalls us, also, to the densities of (Byron’s) Montaigne’s motto, the background to which is worth looking at. When Leigh Hunt arrived in Pisa to live with Byron in June 1822 he brought with him Charles Cotton’s translation of Montaigne. Byron had read the philosopher before he left England (and owned 1802 and 1811 editions), but now returned to the essays, extensively rereading them over a summer in which he was also occupied with cantos viii and ix of Don Juan.34 It was Hunt’s copy that the poet apparently read and in which he marked several pages that appear to have particularly interested him with ‘a double dog’s ear’.35 On one of these dog-eared pages Montaigne discusses, in the essay ‘Use Makes Perfectness’ (usually translated ‘On Practice’), his Byronic choice of subject: ‘’Tis now many Years since, that my Thoughts have had no other aim and level than myself, and that I have only pry’d into and study’d myself’ (Essays, ii, 71). In developing this discussion, Montaigne reveals the difficulties that have attended his endeavour: ‘I chiefly paint my Thoughts, an Inform Subject, and incapable of Operative Production. ’Tis all that I can do to couch it in this airy body of the Voice’ (Essays, ii, 72). Thought is an ‘Inform Subject’ and as such is not easily captured by the writer’s words. A similar problem crops up in the ‘Apologie de Raimond Sebond’ when Montaigne is discussing how the ancient sceptics tried to describe the attitudes or mental states that characterize their philosophy:

The Pyrrhonian Philosophers, I discern, cannot express their general Conception in any kind of speaking: For the World requires a new language on purpose. Ours is all form’d of affirmative Propositions, which are totally antartick to them. Insomuch that when they say, I doubt, they are presently (p.28) taken by the Throat, to make them confess, that at least they know, and are assured that they do doubt. By which means they have been compell’d to shelter themselves under this medicinal Comparison, without which, their Humour would be inexplicable. When they pronounce, I know not: Or, I doubt; they say, that this Proposition carries off it self with the rest, no more, no less, than Rhubarb, that drives out the ill Humours, and carries it self off with them. This Fancy will be more certainly understood by Interrogation: What do I know? (as I bear it in the Emblem of a Balance).

(Essays, ii, 295–6)

Language is an accumulation of ‘affirmative Propositions’ and as such fundamentally unsuited to expressing the Pyrrhonist’s philosophical attitude, something that would require a ‘new language’. Lacking any such thing, these philosophers enlist the suggestiveness of metaphor to hint at what cannot be described directly. Similarly, Montaigne suggests that we might approach his own thought not in terms of arguments and answers, but by forming in our minds the question that Byron carries forward into his poem. The motto, which Montaigne (in or around 1576) had stamped on a medal with the image of a balance or weighing scales, is posited between subject and indefinable object as an acknowledgement of scepticism that is also a prompt to mental attentiveness.

Unlike later philosophers, such as Locke, who downplay literary language as mere entertainment, Montaigne invests such language with a distinct philosophical agency:

Why will not Nature please once and for all to lay open her Bosom to us, and plainly discover to us the Means and Conduct of her Movements, and prepare our Eyes to see them? Good God, what Abuse, what Mistakes should we discover in our poor Science! I am mistaken, if that weak Knowledge of ours hold any one thing, as it really is, and I shall depart hence more Ignorant of all other things than my own Ignorance. Have I not read in Plato this Divine Saying, That, Nature is nothing but an Aenigmatick Poesie! As if a Man might peradventure say, a veil’d and shady Picture, breaking out here and there with an infinite Variety of false Lights to puzzle our Conjectures […] And certainly Philosophy is no other than a falsified Poesie.

(Essays, ii, 310–11)

Echoing Socrates, as Byron would in Don Juan, Montaigne admits the certainty of his ‘Ignorance’. The truths of nature are not laid open to us and are thus like an ‘Aenigmatick Poesie’ that will always ‘puzzle our Conjectures’.36 Literary cognition thus occupies and describes the moment in which conventional philosophy breaks down. The latter, in its selectiveness, is correspondingly relegated to the status of ‘falsified Poesie’.

In Don Juan, Byron comes very close to such a view of things through (p.29) his own questions – ‘But what’s reality? Who has its clue?’ – and rejected answer: ‘Philosophy? No; she too much rejects’ (Don Juan, xv, 89).37 He also, as we have seen, follows Montaigne in recognizing the potential for certain linguistic formulations to mitigate epistemological breakdown. Where Montaigne’s motto is a question, however, Byron’s ‘I doubt if doubt itself be doubting’ raises the stakes by pressurizing affirmation into paradox. Montaigne’s question seeks to render his meaning sufficiently ‘Inform’ to express his (adapted) Pyrrhonism. Byron’s paradox doesn’t stay with anything so philosophically determined and is thus both more radically sceptical and more open to undetermined possibility. It would not be correct, therefore, to understand Don Juan’s uptake of Montaigne, with Lilian Furst, as articulating ‘resignation in the face of an impenetrable enigma’.38 Poetry may resign on behalf of an autonomous ‘Philosophy’ on the grounds that it is a ‘falsified Poesie’, but in so doing it rescripts its own role as ‘philosophical’ agent, as tenuous intervention upon the ‘Ocean of Eternity’.

Scepticism, as presented in Don Juan, enters the problematic moment of encounter between philosophy and poetry. To limit this self-disowning ‘scepticism’ to non-literary frames of analysis is thus to miss its imaginative trajectory. I now want to think more about what scepticism might mean for Byron and specifically about how his doubts about the written practice of others shape his own writing.

If we ask what Byron is being sceptical about in places such as Don Juan then one word that immediately springs to mind is ‘system’, that most flexible and persistent of Byronic pejoratives. During his courtship of 1814 Byron complained, in a letter to Lady Melbourne, that with Annabella, his future wife, ‘the least word – or alteration of tone – has some inference drawn from it – sometimes we are too much alike – & then again too unlike – this comes of system – & squaring her notions to the Devil knows what’ (BLJ, iv, 231). Annabella’s systematic mind, rather than taking things as they come, pre-decides a world it is not used to encountering on its own terms. Her squaring of the unshaped writes small something Byron would come to understand as a profound cultural and moral malaise.

Although Byron’s critique of ‘system’ is often conflated with his ‘scepticism’, the two emerge from distinct traditions. David Simpson has described the anti-systematic attitude as one which continues (p.30) to be available even today for the articulation of a British (and, with some differences, an Anglo-American) way of doing and seeing things, one based on common-sense, on a resistance to generalized thought, and on a declared immersion in the minute complexities of a ‘human’ nature whose essence is usually identified in an accumulation of mutually incomprehensible details rather than in a single, systematized personality.39

A classic example of this attitude is that of Shaftesbury, who took issue with progressive, but, as he saw them, humanly unrealistic philosophical theories concerned with abstruse, generalized concepts rather than specific ethical realities:

But for the philosopher who pretends to be wholly taken up in considering his higher faculties, and examining the powers and principles of his understanding, if in reality his philosophy be foreign to the matter professed, if it goes beside the mark and reaches nothing we can truly call our interest or concern, it must be somewhat worse than mere ignorance or idiotism. The most ingenious way of becoming foolish is by a system. And the surest method to prevent good sense is to set up something in the room of it.40

Voltaire, in similar terms, laid the blame for ‘system’ at the door of Descartes, who, he claimed, was ‘born not to discover the errors of Antiquity, but to substitute his own in the Room of them; and [was] hurried away by that systematic Spirit which throws a Cloud over the Minds of the greatest Men’.41 ‘System’ can be the mark of the weak mind, but it can also be an expression of the powerful mind’s hubris and involution. It involves an act of replacement or insertion that, unlike Byron’s use of motto and paradox, lacks the self-knowledge bequeathed by scepticism. Byron traced the problem back further than Voltaire did:

  • Oh Plato! Plato! you have paved the way,
  •  With your confounded fantasies, to more
  • Immoral conduct by the fancied sway
  •  Your system feigns o’er the controlless core
  • Of human hearts, than all the long array
  •  Of poets and romancers: – You’re a bore,
  • A charlatan, a coxcomb – and have been,
  • At best, no better than a go-between.

(Don Juan, i, 116)

For Byron, as for Pope, to be human is to be a ‘Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d’ (Essay on Man, ii, 13); we are not built around a coherent and explicable centre, but a ‘controlless core’ that defies reason. ‘Systems’ such as Plato’s are in these terms fundamentally (p.31) dishonest in their feigning (‘to fashion fictitiously or deceptively’ (OED)) over or will to control an unforthcoming human nature. Where Plato’s original swerve into ‘system’ involves a brilliant untruth, however, its legacy has been at best ambivalent. Using the same allusion to Milton’s Satan through which Shelley weaves subtle menace into the apocalyptic ending of his Ode to Liberty,42 Byron concludes that the great philosopher has ‘paved the way’ for lesser minds to enervate where he has energized.

As Simpson makes clear, the critique of ‘system’ is politically freighted. In Byron’s day it was central to the British establishment’s response to revolutionary politics, ‘repeatedly defined as French obsession’ and seen as ‘explicitly un-English’.43 Somewhere behind this attitude was Burke’s argument against the theorization of complex and particularized human situations:

I cannot stand forward, and give praise and blame to any thing which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.44

Byron’s politics have generated much debate,45 and it would be a brave commentator who seeks to pin them down.46 It seems fair to speculate, however, that the poet would have approved Burke’s suspicion of any attempt to manage human ‘concerns’ through thinking that is better suited to the ‘solitude of metaphysical abstraction’. He despised what he saw as Malthus’s attempts to bring human specifics under the rule of scientific generalization, scorning his ‘turning marriage into arithmetic’ (Don Juan, xv, 38).47 He also objected, on similar grounds, to the attempts of the Benthamite Philhellene Leicester Stanhope, ‘a mere schemer and talker’, to manage revolutionary Greece; the latter’s ideas, Byron apparently complained, were conceived ‘without reference to any body, or any thing’.48 But where Burke, who blamed ‘system’ for the bloody implosion of the French Revolution, fixes such problems to anti-establishment politics, Byron could see them at both ends of the politcal spectrum. He could construe reformist and revolutionary ideas as thoughtlessly bent on destruction, but he also recognized the post-Waterloo European political structure as ‘A prop not quite so certain as before’ (Don Juan, ix, 3).

As Byron was acutely aware, sceptical thought is always vulnerable to (p.32) its own energies. If the anti-systematic impulse becomes as predictable as the systematic activity to which it is opposed, then it has undone itself. ‘System’ thus cannot be dismissed without thought and must, in some cases, be embraced, as Byron does through system-driven figures such as Plato and Napoleon. Systems offer energy, drive and verve; they are, moreover, the basis of life and provide the psychological and formal contexts within which life’s vitality is expressed. This may result in foolishness – or worse – but such aberrations need to be understood with reference to the formidable and enervating alternatives. Sterne recognizes this in the comic and sympathetic psychology of Walter Shandy, an amateur philosopher described as ‘all uniformity; – he was systematical, and, like all systematick reasoners, he would move both heaven and earth, and twist and torture every thing in nature to support his hypothesis’.49 These mental oddities, however, are not merely held up to ridicule (as we might get with Swift), but are analysed within a comic frame that acknowledges ‘systematical’ tendencies to be necessary psychological adaptations in the face of a life that is hurtling inescapably towards the unspeakable fact of death. Walter and Toby may ride their hobby horses roughshod over the gardens of common sense, but in the process they generate energy, empathy and optimism; they stumble into a life of comedy that offsets the immediacy of an otherwise, for Sterne, containing and undeniable tragedy.

Similar patterns can be traced in Don Juan, a poem strongly indebted to Sterne:50

  • The evaporation of a joyous day
  •  Is like the last glass of champagne, without
  • The foam which made its virgin bumper gay;
  •  Or like a system coupled with a doubt;
  • Or like a soda bottle when its spray
  •  Has sparkled and let half its spirit out;
  • Or like a billow left by storms behind,
  • Without the animation of the wind;

(Don Juan, xvi, 9)

As Shaftesbury tells us, the narrative of experience leads to wisdom; it is also, Byron recognized, a story of loss. The sceptic’s puncturing of ‘system’ with his doubts can be no simple victory; it may be justified philosophically, but for the nostalgic poet it maps onto the ways in which life is leached from the world. If, in the final analysis, ‘system’ is a mode of delusion, then it is only so in the sense that pleasure is a frivolity when measured against the cold span of experience. Poetry, in these terms, (p.33) both describes the problem and musters a defence. Scepticism is built into the form of the stanza in its listing acknowledgement that each individual simile must fail. Their very proliferation, however, discovers new energies where bland theoretical prose would find none. Scepticism remains intact, but it is not allowed to inscribe defeat.

Byron’s critique of ‘system’ is more complex and sympathetic than is sometimes thought. Where it often seems most aggressively direct is in the poet’s attacks on some of his prominent literary contemporaries. If ‘system’ lays claim to the unique grounds of poetic meaning, he concluded, then we risk losing one of our most profound challenges to the narrowing of apprehension in which modernity is busily involved. Although unlikely allies, Byron would in these terms have had some sympathy with Hazlitt’s attack on the literary ‘system-maker’ as one who lacks a ‘tremulous sensibility to every slight and wandering impression’ and who thus cannot ‘follow all the infinite fluctuations of thought through their nicest distinctions’.51 Among those Byron saw as missing these fluctuations in his writing was Leigh Hunt, to whom he wrote: ‘I have not time nor paper to attack your system – which ought to be done – were it only because it is a system’ (BLJ, iv, 332).52 There was also Wordsworth, ‘the great Metaquizzical poet’ (BLJ, viii, 66) with his ‘new system to perplex the sages’ (Don Juan, ‘Dedication’, 4) as well as Coleridge:

  • And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,
  •  But, like a hawk encumber’d with his hood,
  • Explaining metaphysics to the nation –
  • I wish he would explain his Explanation.

(Don Juan, ‘Dedication’, 2)53

The problem here, as Byron saw it, was the extent to which philosophy and theory, in works such as Wordsworth’s Preface and Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, were assuming responsibility for poetry (and poetics). This had to be a bad thing for poetry, Byron thought, because it is precisely in breaking free from the assumptions of philosophy that poetic writing finds its epistemological value.

The intelligent critique of system is a double-edged sword. As one of the defining poets of his day, Byron could not insulate himself entirely from his own critique of Romantic overdetermination. We sense this when he claims of his (relatively Wordsworthian) third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage that he had been ‘half mad during the time of its composition, between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love unextinguishable, thoughts unutterable, and the nightmare of my own delinquencies’ (BLJ, (p.34) v, 165). Writing of the same poem’s final canto, Thomas Love Peacock complained to Shelley, in May 1818, that it is ‘really too bad. I cannot consent to be an auditor tantum of this systematical “poisoning” of the mind of the reading public’.54 When Peacock made a point of satirizing Byron on these grounds in his Nightmare Abbey (1818), Byron took the criticism with good grace, even sending Peacock a rosebud with a message that he bore him no ill will for his satire.55 Indeed, Byron had, by this stage, been questioning the ‘systematical’ tendencies of his own work for some time, notably in this well-known letter to Murray:

With regard to poetry in general I am convinced the more I think of it – that he [Moore] and all of us – Scott – Southey – Wordsworth – Moore – Campbell – I – are all in the wrong – one as much as another – that we are upon a wrong revolutionary poetical system – or systems – not worth a damn in itself – & from which none but Rogers and Crabbe are free – and that the present & next generations will finally be of this opinion.

(BLJ, v, 265)

Written in September 1817, around the time Byron was moving away from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and towards Don Juan, Byron’s letter is intriguingly poised between reaction and innovation. Byron praises the old-fashioned couplets of Rogers and Crabbe for being free from the contemporary malaise of ‘system’,56 yet the last thing he has in mind is any suggestion that either writer should be taken as a model for the present or the future. Don Juan is a strikingly original poem, one that is ‘wholly new & relative to the age’,57 as Shelley, the period’s most exhilarating invocator of poetic possibility, describes it.

Byron’s attack on literary ‘system’ is not a curmudgeonly or reactionary reflex; it is informed, rather, by the poet’s acute sensitivity to the generic priorities of his day.58 His critique was thus not simply a question of indulging a genius for ad hominem satire; it was about, and needed to come through, the claims of literary form. This is most obviously indicated by Byron’s self-conscious placement of Don Juan in the essayistic tradition: ‘Read, or read not, what I am now essaying / To show ye what ye are in every way’ (Don Juan, vii, 7). Byron witnessed and admired the critical force of essay in Montaigne, Sterne and (among others) Johnson.59 Take, for instance, Johnson’s definition of ‘systematic’, which quotes Bayle on one side of the question: ‘I treat of the usefulness of writing books of essay, in comparison of that of writing systematically’. Bayle, as a profuse sceptic, was naturally drawn to essayistic modes, and would have associated their philosophical ‘usefulness’, as Montaigne did, with their provisional and incomplete formal suggestiveness. As well as quoting Bayle, however, Johnson also quotes Isaac (p.35) Watts (a favourite author of his) complaining about the eighteenth-century vogue for hammering ‘system’: ‘now we deal much in essays, and unreasonably despise systematical learning; whereas, our fathers had a just value for regularity and systems’.60 Johnson’s definition becomes genuinely essayistic – or unpredetermined – by keeping in mind the fact that even a preference for the essay can become systematic (and thus disempowered), depending upon cultural norms. By setting aside the claims of category Johnson ironically, but powerfully, enlists for his cause forces that threaten the very possibility of meaningful definition.61

Don Juan, with a similar if more chaotic kind of irony, articulates the challenge of essay in the very process of philosophical speculation:

  • IF from great Nature’s or our own abyss
  •  Of thought, we could but snatch a certainty,
  • Perhaps mankind might find the path they miss –
  •  But then ’twould spoil much good philosophy.
  • One system eats another up, and this
  •  Much as old Saturn ate his progeny;
  • For when his pious consort gave him stones
  • In lieu of sons, of these he made no bones.
  • But System doth reverse the Titan’s breakfast,
  •  And eats her parents, albeit the digestion
  • Is difficult. Pray tell me, can you make fast,
  •  After due search, your faith to any question?
  • Look back o’er ages, ere unto the stake fast
  •  You bind yourself, and call some mode the best one.
  • Nothing more true than not to trust your senses;
  • And yet what are your other evidences?

(Don Juan, xiv, 1–2)

The intellectual skeleton of this comes from philosophical scepticism in its identification of systematic philosophy as a long trail of delusion and hubris, one ‘system’ consuming and usurping the next, thus reversing ‘the Titan’s breakfast’. If this is all that results from our reading, however, then we are not reading what has been written. What is arresting here is the reach of the language and imagery beyond philosophical positioning into the surrounding richness of human history and imagination. Byron’s metaphors do not think of themselves as cloudy inconveniences but as assertions against the static; his ‘bind’ and ‘stake’, for instance, remind us of the terrors that attend the history of intellectual dispute. Where Locke would consider himself forced to accept the physical basis of intellectual language,62 Byron revels in the comic and expansive (p.36) possibilities thrown up by linguistic dependence. He constructs his stanzas in order to call into question the autonomy of mind and its pretensions to abstract objectivity: to write ‘our own abyss / Of thought’ is not the same as writing ‘our own abyss of thought’. Neither Byron nor Saturn can digest what they eat, but between them they oversee the breakdown of metaphoric function. There is no skilful, elegant, mutually elucidating compression of physical and mental of the kind we might get from Shakespeare,63 only an increasingly messy, energetic language found in the process of throwing off the duties of description imposed by intellectual history. It is the words themselves (‘stones’ cannot make ‘bones’ but the word can be broken down into ‘sons’) rather than their apparent objects that come to dominate.64

Byron is less interested in making philosophical arguments than he is in acknowledging the world through the process of recognizing what such arguments leave out:

  • WHEN Bishop Berkeley said ‘there was no matter,’
  •  And proved it – ’twas no matter what he said:
  • They say his system ’tis in vain to batter,
  •  Too subtle for the airiest human head;
  • And yet who can believe it! I would shatter
  •  Gladly all matters, down to stone or lead,
  • Or adamant, to find the World a spirit,
  • And wear my head, denying that I wear it.
  • What a sublime discovery ’twas to make the
  •  Universe universal Egotism!
  • That all’s ideal – all ourselves: I’ll stake the
  •  World (be it what you will) that that’s no Schism.
  • Oh, Doubt! – if thou be’st Doubt, for which some take thee,
  •  But which I doubt extremely – thou sole prism
  • Of the Truth’s rays, spoil not my draught of spirit!
  • Heaven’s brandy, – though our brain can hardly bear it.
  • For ever and anon comes Indigestion,
  •  (Not that most ‘dainty Ariel’) and perplexes
  • Our soarings with another sort of question:
  •  And that which after all my spirit vexes,
  • Is, that I find no spot where man can rest his eye on,
  •  Without confusion of the sorts and sexes,
  • Of being, stars, and this unriddled wonder,
  • The World, which at the worst’s a glorious blunder –

(Don Juan, xi, 1–3)

(p.37) Again the bare bones come from identifiable philosophical sources but to call this a ‘materialist critique of […] philosophical idealism’ (BMW, 1060) is to push it into precisely the kind of misapprehension it would resist. It is true that Byron has Johnson’s famous rebuff to Berkeley in mind, but rather than kicking a stone (and knowing exactly what will happen), he crashes into language without any comprehensive overview of the likely results. Any success the stanzas might claim as a riposte to Berkeley derives not from argument but from the creative and dislocating energies of language and form that Byron sets in motion. The object of criticism here is not Berkeley’s brilliant theory, but the more general assumptions of ‘system’ about how mind and language apprehend the world.65 Thus Byron scatters, in enriching, the word ‘matter’ by associating it with at least three concepts (substance, relevance, individual cases). By unfitting the word for the purposes of systematic philosophy he suggests that the problem lies not with language but with our assumptions about how we know things. Nothing has been proven and no epistemological stance established. A challenge, however, has been entered, one we feel in our receptiveness to the possibilities of literary language. Poetry suggests to us that we don’t need to despair just because we can’t get past the arguments of the sceptic on the sceptic’s own grounds. This means hope, and thus where we might expect to end on ‘at the best is’ we get a more promising ‘at the worst’s’.


(1) Cooke, The Blind Man Traces the Circle, 144, 175. Before Cooke, the only sustained study of Byron’s scepticism of which I am aware is Edward Wayne Marjarum, Byron as Skeptic and Believer, Princeton Studies in English, 16 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1938).

(2) Donald H. Reiman, Intervals of Inspiration: The Skeptical Tradition and the Psychology of Romanticism (Florida: Penkevill, 1988), 309.

(4) Hoagwood, Byron’s Dialectic, 36. Broadly in agreement, Bernhard Jackson suggests that Don Juan is an ‘ample demonstration that for Byron skepticism, and the relativism it engenders, are liberating and empowering’ (The Development of Byron’s Philosophy of Knowledge, 6).

(5) The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy notes that scepticism ‘can be either partial or total, either practical or theoretical, and, if theoretical, either moderate or radical, and either of knowledge or justification’ (846).

(6) Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Florida Edition, ed. Melvyn New and Joan New, 3 vols (Florida: Florida University Press, 1978), I, 170. All quotations from Tristram Shandy taken from this edition.

(p.38) (7) An Essay on Man, ii, 1–10. Pope’s poetry is taken from The Poems of Alexander Pope, one-volume Twickenham edition, ed. John Butt (London: Methuen, 1963; repr. 1996).

(8) Compare Don Juan, viii, 108.

(9) Compare Beatty’s observation that Don Juan ‘exhibits scepticism in operation’ but also keeps it ‘at bay’. Bernard Beatty, Byron’s Don Juan (London: Croom Helm, 1985), 79.

(10) Some of what follows overlaps with helpful work in this area (among others) by Hoagwood and Reiman (especially on Byron and classical scepticism) and Bernhard Jackson (notably on Byron and British Empiricism).

(11) CPW notes allusions to the work at Don Juan, ii, 84 and xiv, 1–9.

(12) Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Loeb Classical Library, trans. R. D. Hicks, 2 vols (London: Heineman, 1965), II, 487. Also see Gisela Striker, ‘The Ten Tropes of Aenesidemus’, in The Skeptical Tradition, ed. Myles Burnyeat (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 95–115.

(13) Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life, ed. Georges A. Bonnard (London: Nelson, 1966), 64–5.

(14) As ‘to miracles’, Byron wrote, ‘I agree with Hume that it is more probable men should lie or be deceived, than that things out of the course of nature should so happen (BLJ, ii, 97). The lawyer Thomas Smith, who met Byron in Cephalonia in 1823, reported that Byron ‘had just been reading, with renewed pleasure, David Hume’s Essays. He considered Hume to be by far the most profound thinker and clearest reasoner of the many philosophers, and metaphysicians of the last century. “There is,” said he, “no refuting him, and for simplicity and clearness of style, he is unmatched, and is utterly unanswerable.” He referred particularly to the Essay on Miracles’ (HVSV, 418).

(15) David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 178.

(16) Pierre Couissin, ‘The Stoicism of the New Academy’, trans. Jennifer Barnes and Myles Burnyeat, in The Skeptical Tradition, 31–63 (57).

(17) David Sedley, ‘The Motivation of Greek Scepticism’, in The Skeptical Tradition, 9–29 (19–20).

(18) Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Loeb Classical Library, trans. R. G. Bury, 4 vols (London: Heinemann, 1933–49), I, 13.

(21) Compare Don Juan, xiii, 84.

(23) See Richard H. Popkin, The High Road to Pyrrhonism, ed. Richard A. Watson and James E. Force (San Diego: Austin Hill Press, 1980), 126. On the wider issue of eighteenth-century responses to ancient scepticism see Constance Blackwell, ‘Diogenes Laertius’s Life of Pyrrho and the interpretation of ancient scepticism in the history of philosophy: Stanley through Bruckner to Tennemann’, in Scepticism and Irreligion in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, ed. Richard H. Popkin and Arjo Vanderjagt (Leiden: Brill, 1993), 324–57.

(28) ‘I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undisclosed before me’. Joseph Spence, Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters, of Books and Men. Collected from the Conversations of Mr. Pope, and other Eminent Persons of his Time (London: John Murray, 1820), 54. Byron also alludes to Newton’s (alleged) famous words at Don Juan, vii, 5 and x, 1–4.

(29) Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism, ed. Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), xi.

(30) Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley: California University Press, 1979), 4.

(31) Essays of Michael Seigneur de Montaigne, trans. Charles Cotton, 4th edn, 3 vols (London, 1711), II, 261. Hereafter referred to in the text as Essays.

(32) On Byron’s ‘fundamental seriousness about religion’ see M. K. Joseph, Byron the Poet (London: Gollancz, 1964), 305 and G. Wilson Knight, Lord Byron: Christian Virtues (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952). On Byron’s Catholicism see Beatty, Byron’s Don Juan (especially Chapter 4).

(33) According to William Harness, who stayed with the poet at Newstead Abbey from December 1811 to January 1812, ‘Byron, from his early education in Scotland, had been taught to identify the principles of Christianity with the extreme dogmas of Calvinism. His mind had thus imbibed a miserable prejudice, which appeared to be the only obstacle to his hearty acceptance of the Gospel’ (HVSV, 44). Also see Bernard Beatty, ‘Calvin in Islam: A Reading of Lara and The Giaour’, Romanticism, vol. 5, no. 1 (1999), 70–86 and Truman Guy Steffan, Lord Byron’s Cain: Twelve Essays and a Text with Variants and Annotations (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968), 26–8.

(34) James Hamilton Browne, who travelled with Byron by sea from Leghorn to Cephalonia towards the end of Byron’s life, and later published his conversations with the poet, recalled that Byron ‘made it a constant rule to peruse every day one or more of the Essays of Montaigne. This practice he said, he had pursued for a long time; adding his decided conviction, that more useful general knowledge and varied information were to be derived by an intimate acquaintance with the writings of that diverting author, than by a long and continuous course of study’ (HVSV, 387).

(35) Hunt reproduced, with some modernization and commentary, the pages thus marked for The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, 19 (Jan and March 1827), 26–32; 240–5. Also see Richard I. Kirkland Jr., ‘Byron’s Reading of Montaigne: A Leigh Hunt Letter’, Keats-Shelley Journal, 30 (1981), 47–51.

(36) Again Montaigne has Socrates in mind, specifically Alcibiades, II in which Socrates remarks that ‘poetry as a whole is by nature inclined to riddling, and it is not every man who can apprehend it’. Plato (vol viii), Loeb Classical Library, trans. W. R. Lamb (London: Heinemann, 1955), 261.

(37) Compare Keats: ‘I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning – and yet it must be – Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever (when) arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections’. The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), I, 185.

(p.40) (38) Lilian R. Furst, Fictions of Romantic Irony in European Narrative, 1760–1857 (London: Macmillan, 1984), 118.

(39) David Simpson, Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt against Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 4.

(40) Anthony, Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, etc., ed. John M. Robertson, 2 vols (London: Richards, 1900), I, 189.

(42) ‘As waves which lately paved his watery way / Hiss round a drowner’s head in their tempestuous play’ (Ode to Liberty, 284–5). Unless otherwise stated Shelley is quoted from Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York: Norton, 2002). The original is Paradise Lost, ii, 1026–7: ‘Paved after him a broad and beaten way / Over the dark abyss’. Paradise Lost is quoted from John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Alistair Fowler, 2nd edition (London: Longman, 1998).

(44) The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, general editor Paul Langford; vol. 8 ‘The French Revolution 1790–1794’, ed. L. G. Mitchell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 58.

(45) Contrast Malcolm Kelsall, Byron’s Politics (Brighton: Harvester, 1987) with Michael Foot, The Politics of Paradise: A vindication of Byron (London: Collins, 1988).

(46) ‘Our sentiments agreed a good deal, except upon the subjects of religion and politics, upon neither of which I was inclined to believe that Lord Byron entertained very fixed opinions’ (Sir Walter Scott, after meeting the poet in 1815; HVSV, 114).

(47) Compare BLJ, ii, 98, BLJ, ix, 19 and Don Juan, vi, 19.

(48) William Parry, The Last Days of Lord Byron (1825); quoted in HVSV, 563. Also see F. Rosen, Bentham, Byron, and Greece (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 301 and passim.

(49) Tristram Shandy, I, 61.

(50) ‘I mean it for a poetical T[ristram] Shandy – or Montaigne’s Essays with a story for a hinge’ (BLJ, x, 150).

(51) Quoted in Roy Park, Hazlitt and the Spirit of the Age: Abstraction and Critical Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 37.

(52) Byron also complained to Thomas Moore, after questioning Hunt about Hunt’s own poetry, that his ‘answer was, that his style was a system, or upon system, or some such cant; and, when a man talks of system, his case is hopeless: so I said no more to him, and very little to any one else’ (BLJ, vi, 46).

(53) Coleridge, perhaps unwisely, wrote to Byron, of the Biographia, that ‘my object [is] to reduce criticism to a system, by the deduction of the Causes from the Principles involved in our faculties’. Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956–71), IV, 598.

(54) Quoted in Carl van Doren, The Life of Thomas Love Peacock (New York: Russell, 1966), 112–13.

(55) He also remembered Nightmare Abbey when writing the English cantos of Don Juan. See, for instance, xv, 97.

(56) For some of Byron’s other (mixed) comments on both authors see BLJ, iii, 107 and v, 266.

(57) The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), II, 323 (To Mary Shelley, 10 August, 1821).

(p.41) (58) As Clifford Siskin has pointed out, the ‘system’, as a literary genre (one traditionally contrasted with the essay), was on the rise in the period. ‘Through most of the [eighteenth] century’, Siskin notes, ‘the number of works that explicitly called themselves “systems”, or invoked “system” in their titles, trailed – in a ratio of 1 to 3 (or higher) – the total of those efforts self-identified as, or with, essays. After 1798, however, production of self-described systems regularly outpaces essay output’. Clifford Siskin, ‘The Year of the System’, in 1798: The Year of the Lyrical Ballads, ed. Richard Cronin (London: Macmillan, 1998), 9–31 (12).

(59) The ‘antisystematic impulse’, writes Adorno, in its ‘relationship to scientific procedure and its philosophical grounding as method […] draws [its] fullest conclusions from the critique of system’. It ‘allows’, Adorno continues, ‘for the consciousness of nonidentity, without expressing it directly; it is radical in its non-radicalism, in refraining from any reduction to a principle, in its accentuation of the partial against the total, in its fragmentary character’. ‘The Essay as Form’, in Notes to Literature, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, 2 vols (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), I, 3–23 (12, 9).

(60) Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols (London: J. Johnson, 1806).

(61) Fred Parker describes such thinking-through-form as something that ‘cannot be expressed as an intellectual position, a completed thought; it cannot be registered as a simple item within the history of ideas, or translated into a moral exhortation’. Fred Parker, Scepticism and Literature: An Essay on Pope, Hume, Sterne, and Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 29–30.

(62) ‘[W]e can find no word or description for any of the intellectual operations which, if its history is known, is not seen to have been taken, by metaphor, from a description of some physical happening’. I. A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), 91.

(63) As with Richard Gloucester’s invitation to Buckingham: ‘Come, let us sup betimes, that afterwards / We may digest our complots in some form’. Richard III, III.i.196–7. Shakespeare is taken from The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: Norton, 1997).

(64) Byron directs his language towards what John Gibson describes as ‘a territory of understanding that is left unmentioned by our standard talk of knowledge’. ‘Between Truth and Triviality’, British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 43, no. 3 (July 2003), 224–37 (231). Gibson has in mind Cavell’s distinction between knowing and acknowledgement: ‘we think skepticism must mean that we cannot know that the world exists’, Cavell writes, ‘and hence that perhaps there isn’t one […]. Whereas what scepticism suggests is that since we cannot know that the world exists, its presentness to us cannot be a function of knowing. The world is to be accepted; as the presentness of other minds is not to be known, but acknowledged’. Stanley Cavell, Must we Mean what we Say? A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 324.

(65) I am fairly close here to Bernhard Jackson’s reading of the stanza (The Development of Byron’s Philosophy of Knowledge, 175–6), but differ from her sense (as I understand it) that Byron both agrees and disagrees with Berkeley in the interests of breaking down objective knowledge claims in order to promote ‘individual determination’. This is to place the work of form in the service of a coherent, clearly articulated (p.42) (positive, individualistic) sceptical position, thus limiting Byron’s language by precisely the kind of macro-assumption it wants to challenge. If we want to theorize what is happening here then our frames need to be those of (visionary) poetics rather than philosophical scepticism.