BYRON AMONG THE ENGLISH POETS by Clare Bucknell and Matthew Ward, eds., Reviewed by Emily A. Bernhard-Jackson
 


BYRON AMONG THE ENGLISH POETS
Eds. Clare Bucknell and Matthew Ward
(Cambridge, 2021) xvi + 316 pp.
Reviewed by Emily A. Bernhard-Jackson on 2022-03-16.

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In some ways, Lord Byron's whole life was referential. His greatest work, Don Juan, is explicitly linked to the Don Juan character; the heroes of his poems were understood as references to himself (no matter how much he might deny it); he was both acutely aware of and acutely insecure about the title and history that came to him through his family. It is therefore surprising that it has taken so long to produce a volume like this one.

This is an ambitious book. In their introduction Bucknell and Ward assert that Byron's "writing evinces a deep and plural understanding of the ambiguities as well as the assurances that invoking other voices could bring" (9) and that one "major ambition of our volume is to reveal the variousness and extent of Byron's poetic afterlife" (11). To this end, contributors study both the voices that Byron invokes and the later voices that invoke him. Ranging from Shakespeare to A.E. Stallings and working through three parts, "Inheritances," "Contemporaries," and "Afterlives," the book really does offer a global view of Byron's relation to the poets who influenced him as well to the poets he influenced. Indeed, since Stallings is American, and since the post-Byron poets examined here include Paul Muldoon and Louis MacNeice (Irish), Dom Moraes (Indian), Dylan Thomas (Welsh), and Hugh MacDiarmid (resolutely Scottish), the collection might just as easily have been titled Byron Among Poets Writing in English.

"Inheritances" considers how Byron made use of his precursors. Here one finds not just the usual suspects -- Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope -- but also some less expected influences, such as the Della Cruscans, the Earl of Rochester, and late-eighteenth century English satirists. In an essay that makes one wish more critics paid such close attention to poetic form, Anna Camilleri shows how Byron molded or simply defied English verse forms to suit his needs throughout his career. In one of the most revelatory essays here, Tom Lockwood explains how Byron first encountered the poetry of the Earl of Rochester and how that shaped his understanding and use of this poetic forebear. In another excellent piece, Fred Parker uses Byron's well-known attachment to Pope to shed new light on his understanding and performance of identity. "Byron's playing at being Pope," Parker suggests, "taught him how to play a being Byron" [70]).

In the "Contemporaries" section, which considers Byron's links to poets of his own time, one once again finds a mix of the expected and the unexpected. Madeleine Callaghan reads Byron and Wordsworth through the lens of their mutual enmity, a connection often more revealing than friendship -- and certainly more fun to read about. Reading this essay made me wish the collection had included an essay about Byron's other great enemy, Robert Southey. Though not a formal influence on Byron, he was certainly a psychological one. A consideration of this other type of impact would have added an interesting perspective.

That isn't to say that the "Contemporaries" section feels incomplete. Ross Wilson cogently links Byron to Shelley through their use of ottava rima and, less expectedly, Susan Wolfson connects him to Anna Laetitita Barbauld. But the strongest essay in this section is Simon Kövesi's scrupulous analysis of John Clare's responses to Byron. There was much more to it than madness and imitation, Kövesi argues, untwisting the complex weave of wariness, anger, and admiration that made up Clare's fascination with the poet he once called "the man wot writes the werses." This is one of the few pieces in the collection that locates Byron's value not in himself but in his influence on another writer, and it is thus one of the clearest indications of Byron's cultural power.

Kövesi's analysis of Byron's influence on Clare aptly leads the way to the final section, "Afterlives." Here Byron's influence is brought up to present day, although to judge by the majority of examples in the final essay, Gregory Dowling's "Byron Among Our Contemporaries," one would wish the twenty-first century had let him alone. Dowling's essay focuses on the 2014 anthology A Modern Don Juan, and for all his attempts to show how its writers "have extended...formal lines of connection with Byron in their own work" (333), the extracts he presents mostly serve to remind one of Byron's astounding ability to work within the form and content of ottava rima. Only the final portion of the essay, focusing on the poetic possibilities that Byron has opened up to A.E. Stallings, makes plain his intellectual value in the contemporary age.

This section also offers other revelations. Foregrounding Letitia Landon among the "late Romantic to mid-Victorian" poetesses whom Byron influenced, Sarah Wooton highlights the rich unexpectedness of Landon's work, full of admiration for Byron's less positive traits even while containing those traits itself. Even better is Jane Stabler's "Byron and Browning: Something and Nothing." Stabler has long been one of the finest contemporary readers of Byron, and this piece proves her to be remarkably insightful about Browning, too. Her reading of the two poets' uses of obscurity offers genuinely new ways of understanding this element of their work as well as how they use obscurity to portray the human mind. I hope she writes further on the links between these two poets.

Despite all this excellence, the book does have some flaws. For one, most if not all of the work here would have been intellectually much richer if it had been given more space. What is here is good, but it is good enough to make one wish for more. Instead, there is a sense that arguments and ideas are truncated.

In addition, the essays in the early part of the collection overwhelmingly consider how Byron deployed or rewrote other poets, rather than explaining how those poets affected him: what cultural or social meanings they brought with them, what he meant to show or do by choosing to use them. In his essay on Byron and Rochester, Tom Lockwood quotes art historian Michael Baxandall's complaint that "If one says...that X influenced Y it does seem that one is saying X did something to Y rather than that Y did something to X. But in the consideration of good pictures and painters the second is always the more lively reality" (qtd. 51). This is equally true of many of the essays here.

Nonetheless, Bucknell and Ward deserve praise for producing such a wide-ranging and thought-provoking volume. And it's a delight to find it dedicated to Michael O'Neill, a scholar whose acumen was matched only by his conviviality. One can hardly think of a more fitting dedicatee for a group effort, or for a book about influence.

Emily A. Bernhard-Jackson is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Exeter.


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