THE CAMBRIDGE INTRODUCTION TO BYRON by Richard Lansdown, Reviewed by Omar F. Miranda
 

THE CAMBRIDGE INTRODUCTION TO BYRON
By Richard Lansdown
(Cambridge, 2012) xvii + 172 pp.
Reviewed by Omar F. Miranda on 2013-10-07.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

For the past few decades, Byron's reputation has been on the upswing. Influential studies like Jerome McGann's Fiery Dust (1968) and Jerome Christensen's Lord Byron's Strength (1992) helped transform his once tenuous status among his readers and critics. Crediting the artist with most things good about Romanticism, these texts argued that Byron's influence among his contemporaries was unprecedented. As his poetry and dramas entered the spotlight, so, too, in recent years has Byron's depth as a philosopher. Emily Jackson's The Development of Byron's Philosophy of Knowledge (2010) argues, for instance, that Byron grappled earnestly with epistemological and ontological debates of his day. All the while, scholars continue interrogating Byron's involvement with his political world and his prominence as an avid traveler absorbing various cultures. Peter Cochran's Byron and Orientalism (2006) is a landmark study of his interest in Eastern cultures. In Byron's War (2013), Roderick Beaton examines his influence on the Greek independence movement along with the rise of Europe's modern nation state. But in British Romanticism and Spanish America, 1777- 1826 (2010), Rebecca Cole Heinowitz treats not only Byron's interest in supporting Spanish American revolutions but also his plans to relocate to Venezuela--instead of Greece--in the early 1820s. Byron's life and works thus speak with uncanny precision to our contemporary moment as a globalized society. On the one hand, we may like being citizens of the world; on the other, we may feel exiled and estranged from or within our surroundings.

Though Byron speaks to us and our moment, his poetry is just as complex and often as elusive as the writer himself. Fortunately, Richard Lansdown's superb contribution to the Cambridge Introductions to Literature series now comes to our aid. As intricate as its object of scrutiny, this concise primer offers a comprehensive roadmap for students, beginning Byron scholars, and lecturers. The book thoroughly explains the life of this celebrity writer alongside his major works of poetry and prose. It also helpfully surveys Byron's turbulent age and tracks his vast influence on numerous artists and thinkers from Turner and Berlioz to Lermontov, Heine, Stendhal, and Nietzsche. However brief, this book takes the measure of Byron's talent, including his varied genres and styles, the social and political issues he championed, and his far-reaching influence across disciplines and national boundaries. An ideal entryway into the issues and tensions that make Byron's work so rich, it dovetails nicely with arguments like McGann's and Christensen's as well as with such landmark biographical works as Fiona MacCarthy's Byron: Life and Legend (2002) and Leslie Marchand's multi-volume edition of Byron's letters and journals (1973-1982). Offering its own elegant and stimulating prose, the present book more than fulfills its function as an insightful "introduction" and serves as an illuminating work of criticism in its own right.

Among its strengths is its vivid, intertextual picture of a multidimensional writer. Drawing from a rich variety of sources, including Byron's poems, letters, and journal entries, Lansdown also includes wide-ranging commentary on Byron by figures ranging from Jeffrey and Hazlitt to the Australian poet, Peter Porter (1929-2010). With the aid of these observers, Lansdown covers topics such as Byron's relationship with his publisher John Murray, his bisexuality, his addiction to shopping, his increasing debt, and the scandal that brought about his self-imposed exile from Britain. As he considers Byron's private, occasionally solipsistic thoughts, Lansdown carefully situates the writer amid complex social networks both at home and abroad and details his influence on nineteenth century European national movements through figures like Mazzini, Herzl, and Mickiewicz. Lansdown also alludes to the work of other scholars, such as McGann's account of Don Juan's "historical" theodicy in The Beauties of Inflection (1985). However, rather than simply accepting such accounts at face value, he occasionally quotes Byron's own words to challenge the critics' arguments and disentangle the intricacies of his thought.

Lansdown's Byron is not the gloomy misanthrope of "Byronic" legend. Insisting that Byron is "too complicated a personality and a writer for any neat formulas to catch him," Lansdown thoroughly probes the complexity of his personal, political, and artistic concerns, and helpfully explains the "two principles of Byronism" that are "symbiotic and mutually dependent": his stoical, reflective style and his comedic, satiric mode (49-52). But Lansdown also treats other crucial oppositions in Byron's life and shows how the poet customarily "trod a more careful line" (109). While acclaimed in Europe, he was infamous in England; while he held a title and served in the House of Lords, he was also a progressive emancipator of the Greek nation. Lansdown notes, too, that the "realistic" and amusing letter writer was also at times a "romantic" poet of sublimity. Finally, Lansdown juxtaposes Byron's belief in transcendent, transcultural human truths with the concepts of "cultural relativism" to be found throughout his travel writings.

One of the longest, most remarkable chapters of the book is titled "Context." Mapping the Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic eras, it links Byron's social, political, economic, and cultural worlds to many of the themes and questions raised in his works. As he tracks Byron's emerging fame, Lansdown also surveys the destruction wrought by Napoleonic wars and the human cost of the enduring conflict between France and Britain. With the aid of multiple statistics on suffrage rates and population increases, he considers how various economic shifts made Britain's middle class grow. As a springboard for discussing the political stakes of the era, he also examines the parliamentary issues that Byron encountered in the House of Lords. But since the contexts of Byron's career were literary and cultural as well as political, Lansdown includes a section explaining not only the major qualities of each Romantic movement in France, Germany, and Britain but also the varied national reactions to the Enlightenment. His summary of Isaiah Berlin's The Roots of Romanticism (2000), among other scholarly classics, is particularly insightful.

In his chapter on Byron's letters and journals, Lansdown contends that Byron's prose, recognized by Macaulay and others as "high art," deserves as much acclaim as his poetry and ranks with great biographical ventures like Pepys's diary or Boswell's journal (53). While enhancing in many ways the first chapter on Byron's life, Lansdown's discussion of Byron's letters and journals highlights the "supremely artistic effect of unmediated, unpondered transparency" in their display of the artist's mind. At the same time, Lansdown salutes Byron's "phrase-making" dexterity, underscoring the letters' "rhetorical pattern preserving both spontaneity and design . . . [and their] intuitive ability rhetorically to produce, repeat, and explore verbal patterns" (52). Here as throughout the book, he supports his contentions with fine close readings.

Lansdown gives particular scrutiny to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan. First, he explains how the comic satirist of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers becomes the "urgently innovatory" stylist of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which reframes "moral education in the form of travel" (67-70). Lansdown then distinguishes the "centripetal" effect of Don Juan, which "inexorably draw[s] its hero back to the state of mind Byron was in when he returned to England in 1811," from the "centrifugal" nature of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which tracks "the outward journey of its hero" from Spain through Constantinople (135). Both texts, Lansdown claims, are "open-ended . . . apparently incomplete [and] . . . apparently unplanned":

In both . . . the hero is a young aristocratic male turned loose into Europe for the purposes of moral education in the form of travel. Both exploit the relationship between hero and narrator. Both are attempts to make sense of the world, but from different perspectives . . . Both are given to digression, but in different manners: Childe Harold is disciplined and focused; Don Juan is radically diverse (70)

By reading Childe Harold as well as a few other short poems in light of "exile, nostalgia, and retrospection," Lansdown elucidates the numerous complexities of his poetry as well as the genesis of the poet's "legend-maker" status.

Tracking the growth of this celebrity, Lansdown considers how, with Murray as his publisher, Byron gained immense commercial success across Europe because of the "soul-beholding" hero he put up for sale in Childe Harold and his Eastern Tales (89). Helpfully citing evidence from William St. Clair's The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2007), Lansdown argues that by the height of the Regency era, Byron had become "an object of circulation and exchange in a marketplace of celebrity and notoriety" (82). In Childe Harold, Lansdown finally suggests, Byron embraces neither despair nor an Enlightenment faith in human progress but instead provides three "answers" for the "riddle of modern Europe" that incessantly perplexed him. First is the "hypnotically-alluring multiculturalism" celebrated by the poem's epigraph from de Monbron's Le Cosmopolite; second are the knowledge and benefits offered by a "university-derived classical education" (74-77); third is the stoical posture ascribed to Napoleon in Canto III (74-77). Here again, however, Lansdown stresses that Byron offers possibilities rather than absolutes.

Besides juxtaposing Childe Harold with Don Juan, he also treats the later poem separately in an entire chapter on the "comic epic" where he argues that Don Juan celebrates the "coincidences and contradictions of daily life" and represents the culminating reconciliation for the oppositions with which the poet wrestled (54). According to Lansdown, this "poetical Tristram Shandy" (as Byron called it) reflects Byron's greatest lasting legacy (129). Arguing that Don Juan ranks with other long English poems like the Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, and The Prelude, Lansdown suggests as well that Don Juan presents its own theodicy:

Ancient and timeless, pre and post-Christian, pre and post rational, [Don Juan] assumes that we live in a material world, and that the chief moral problems we confront are material ones; that there is no higher authority than humanity adjudicating our solutions to such problems, or that if there is the gods keep such judgments to themselves; and that a stoical self-reliance is the best protection we can cultivate against the ineluctable disappointments natural to the world in which we find ourselves (139).

As a guide to reading the poem, this whole concluding chapter--just before the Afterword--is one of Lansdown's most impressive contributions.

Though the book deserves high praise, it also displays some minor faults. One of them is an overstated predilection for certain poems. Lansdown classifies The Deformed Transformed, for example, as the "most interesting" among the poet's "mystical" works (126). Is it more interesting--or more valuable--than works like Cain or Heaven and Earth? I believe that readers should be allowed to decide such questions for themselves. In addition, since this book surprisingly contains no portraits of Byron, I would have strongly urged that it include at least one iconic headshot for the benefit of those new to Byron. On the cover in particular, an image of Byron would have served the book far better than does The Massacre at Chios, despite Lansdown's shrewd discussion of Byron's influence on Delacroix. What a choice!

Nevertheless, this book achieves much in its 172 pages. Viewing Byron not just as the creator of select canonical works, Lansdown gives us a multi-faceted account of him. He offers a helpful and responsible survey of Byronic terrain, including the nuances and debates surrounding the "legend-maker" and the extent to which he inspired talented writers, painters, musicians, thinkers, and politicians around the world.

Omar F. Miranda, a PhD candidate and MacCracken Fellow at New York University's Department of English, is writing a dissertation on Romanticism and exile in the Age of Revolution.


Leave a comment on Omar F. Miranda's review.

Name:
Email:
Comments:

 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search NBOL-19.org
Loading