Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, Vol. VII
The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics: Lord Byron, Vol. I, Poems, 18071818
The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics: Lord Byron, Vol. II, ‘Don Juan,’ Cantos IV Manuscript
The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics: Lord Byron, Vol. III, Poems, 18191822
The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics: Lord Byron, Vol. IV, Miscellaneous Poems
The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics: Lord Byron, Vol. V, ‘Don Juan,’ Cantos VIVII Manuscript
The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics: Lord Byron, Vol. VI, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: A Critical Composite Edition
The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics: Lord Byron, Vol. VII, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto III
In 1937, T. S. Eliot described Byron as the Romantic poet “most nearly remote from the sympathies of every living critic,” and called for “half a dozen essays” in order “to see what agreement could be reached.” Eliot’s own contribution to this putative critical consensus makes curious reading now. After some brilliant if glancing appreciations and aperçus—Byron as a Scottish poet, the narrative gifts exemplified in a verse tale like The Giaour, the precision of the satire on English society in the last cantos of Don Juan—Eliot insists that he has addressed only “the qualities and defects visible in his work, and important in estimating [Byron’s] work,” not “the private life, with which I am not concerned.”
Yet he proved no more capable than anyone else of disentangling the two. Not only does the essay continually pass judgment on Byron the man, in slippery conjunction with what he wrote, it reveals an oddly personal animosity. “Were one a person who liked to have busts about,” Eliot declares, “a bust of Scott would be something one could live with.” Even a marble Byron, however, must be an insufferable presence: “that weakly sensual mouth, that restless triviality of expression, and worst of all that blind look of the self-conscious beauty.”
Eliot is particularly severe when he refers, in disingenuously general terms, to those juvenile enthusiasms calculated to embarrass any adult return to Byron’s poetry. These might include, painfully, “the recollection of some verses in the manner of Don Juan, tinged with that disillusion and cynicism only possible at the age of sixteen, which appeared in a school periodical.” “A Fable for Feasters,” Eliot’s own excursion to Don Juan‘s Norman Abbey, had indeed appeared in the Smith Academy Record of February 1905, when its author was sixteen. Yet this exuberant imitation betrays none of the adolescent “disillusion and cynicism” Eliot was attributing in 1937 not only to such prep-school exercises but to the Byron of Canto XV’s concluding stanza (“Between two worlds life hovers like a star…”): verses “not too good for the school magazine,” whose author never managed to outgrow them. The youthful Eliot’s delighted experiments with Don Juan‘s comic rhymes, moreover, sit uneasily with his assertion now that Byron, imperceptive to the English language, “discovered nothing in the sounds, and developed nothing in the meaning, of individual words.”
Like Eliot, the New Critics tried to ignore the biographical context of Byron’s poetry. Finding this next to impossible, they tended to denigrate the verse as not only careless and diffuse, but aesthetically “impure.” Meanwhile, the life—in particular Lady Byron’s real reason for leaving her husband—continued to fascinate. The year 1957 saw the publication of both Leslie Marchand’s magnificent biography and G. Wilson Knight’s Lord Byron’s Marriage, the latter book momentarily swamping the longterm argument about whether Byron did in fact commit incest with Augusta, his half sister, by its even more sensational claim that buggery …
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