READING BYRON: POEMS - LIFE - POLITICS by Bernard Beatty, Reviewed by Madeleine Callaghan

By Bernard Beatty
(Liverpool, 2022) xvi + 266 pp.
Reviewed by Madeleine Callaghan on 2022-12-30.

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Bernard Beatty wants us to read Byron's work. Perhaps this sounds like an obvious goal for a specialist in any author. But Beatty is onto something with Byron. For Byron is all too often patronized, caricatured, and turned into a sloganeer known more by reputation than by reading. Beatty's monograph, which is the fruit of decades of reading, teaching, and writing about Byron, aims to counteract this critical tendency. The book's opening gambit reminds us of the high stakes of reading and of writing about Byron: "[t]here is no single way of reading Byron, though there are wrong ways." To read Byron, Beatty insists, "is to be prepared to open both mind and heart. That is the proper responsibility of the reader" (xvi). The admirable aspiration of Beatty's book is to help us rise to this responsibility by learning how to read Byron all over again.

This book examines Byron from three discrete but related perspectives. After two introductions (one by Jerome McGann, the other by Beatty himself), Beatty treats first the poetry and drama, then specific episodes from Byron's life, and then his politics. To conclude, Beatty reports two conversations with Gavin Hopps, an eminent Byron scholar who was also Beatty's student. Within this frame, Beatty shows how Byron rewards careful reading.

McGann's brief introduction suggests the tenor of the book to come as well as his affection for Beatty's work. "Bernard," writes McGann, "keeps his head on straight when he reads Byron because he grasps the intimate relation between the life and the work" (2). McGann's compliment suggests an important link between these two important critics of Byron. For at first glance, McGann and Beatty might seem opposed, as Gavin Hopps points out later in the book. But their "connecting point," Beatty explains, is "a dark Byron" (222). Taking Byron seriously, both critics construe his work as profoundly engaged with important questions. How his life and work intertwine is the great preoccupation of this monograph.

Beatty's own introduction explains why Byron has not been well served by a particular strand of critical response to his work dating from the Victorian period. Noting the plethora of theorization that has privileged "seen" rather than "heard" poetry, from Keats to Mill and onwards, Beatty argues that "[i]n different ways the expectations of most modern readers of poetry are governed by these successive diktats, and none of them help in reading Byron" (13). The "diktats" Beatty enumerates treat poetry as "difficult, unusual, removed from norms of language and not immediately accessible" (13). By these lights, Byron is no poet.

But Beatty is fighting shadows. Partly because of what McGann and Beatty himself have done for Byron, critics have re-evaluated him. Beatty also seems to fault critics whom he declines to cite. "It is now assumed," he writes, "that the sceptical side of Byron, which he sometimes flaunts, is his only side" (15). Who assumes this? Would it be Terence Allen Hoagwood in Byron's Dialectic: Skepticism and the Critique of Culture (1993), or Emily A. Bernhard Jackson in The Development of Byron's Philosophy of Knowledge: Certain in Uncertainty (2101)? But this is speculative. Neither book is quoted, and neither appears in the bibliography. Beatty does not reckon with their arguments, nor with any significant recent work that might problematize his own conclusions; he does not "try conclusions with those Janizaries" (Don Juan XI. 62: 495). Instead, we are left to imagine Beatty's adversaries.

Yet his introduction cogently argues its main point: as a theatrical poet or a poet of voices, Bryon cannot but disappoint any critic who expects his work to conform to alternative aesthetic standards. Beatty also seeks, he says, to "foreground Byron's religious sensibility in the 'dark' poems, and tentatively suggest a religious trajectory in his poetic career, partly to restore a perspective that has been lost" (15).

By means of these two points, which are tremendously important, Beatty aims to reinvigorate ways of reading that have not received their due in recent criticism. He also argues that Byron cannot and does not become a cheerleader for any specific ideology, creed, or system, not even nihilism or skepticism. Nor can he be readily understood from an exemplary quotation or a viral meme. "Byron," says Beatty, "does not think in some systematic and consecutive fashion in his poetry; he does so by holding his attention to certain paradoxes and imponderables over and over again on a very large scale and to some purpose" (16). To read Byron properly, Beatty insists, is to open oneself up to difficulty. This point is not original but bears repeating. What is new is the pleasure Beatty takes from his way of reading Byron.

In the erudite, strikingly original first chapter of Part I, Beatty links Childe Harold's Pilgrimage to the Scriptures. "The Scriptures," he writes, "are shaped and ordered but retain an existential character because they preserve as well as conceal the history of their formation, which parallels the haphazard but cohering history that they record. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is like this and The Prelude, a confessional epic, is not" (33). Though this formulation is not wholly fair to Wordsworth, Beatty traces the "proliferation of apparently unrelated voices within quite short reaches of text" that co-exists with "a single, recognizable character to all four cantos" (18). Educing a number of parallels between the Scriptures and CHP, Beatty shows that "it is the habit of scripture-reading and its mode that is transferred to Byron and operates within him" (26). Beatty thus reveals an important way to rethink and reimagine the structure of a poem that has often been faulted for its lack of coherence beyond what Hazlitt mockingly calls the "everlasting centos of himself" (William Hazlitt, Selected Writings, ed. Duncan Wu [1998] 7: 136).

Turning from CHP to Lara, chapter 2 asks us to take this often-patronized poem seriously by noting the force of words such as "glowing," which "Byron most frequently associates with sexual attraction' (43). Chapter 3, on Manfred, highlights the change of tone from version IIIa of the play to version IIIb, deftly interweaving close textual attention with more general reflections on the tone, trajectory, and "moral" of the play, in a way that challenges long-dominant readings of the work. Arguing that "Byron's least classical play is, in some ways, his most classical" (64), Beatty offers us real food for thought.

He enumerates three ways of reading the final act of the play: the "New Critical," the "'steady state' view of Byron," and the opposite of that view (71). Choosing option three and version IIIa of the final act, he contends that this approach "tries to determine the meaning of the play's ending in relation to Byron's changing life and development as a poet" (72). I suspect there are many more ways to proceed. Despite its thoughtfulness, this argument does not convince me, and I also think, as Byron did, that version IIIa of Manfred was markedly inferior to version IIIb. Beatty himself quotes Byron's scathing critique of IIIa as "certainly d--d bad--& [...] has the dregs of my fever--during which it was written.--It must on no account be published in its present state;--I will try & reform it--or re-write it altogether--but the impulse is gone--& I have no chance of making any thing out of it" (BLJ V, 211). Given Byron's damning opinion of IIIa, Beatty's preference for it is hard to justify, and the need to align the life neatly with the art mars his otherwise excellent critical judgment.

After eliciting the theological complexity of Cain: A Mystery, Beatty prompts us to reconsider the relation between the darkly Romantic works cited above and the "light," "burlesque" Don Juan (116) in chapter five. Along with Lady Adeline Amundeville and the Duchess Fitz-Fulke, Beatty finds Aurora Raby key to the English cantos. Associating each of these characters with a type of writing, he argues that Aurora exemplifies the Shakespearean type, which "is central because it can accommodate the others" (122). I question how easily Lady Adeline can be thus marginalized, and how neatly Byron's women fit into the categories Beatty has erected. Though Beatty makes a plausible, well-constructed case for the centrality of Aurora, as he has elsewhere done (see his essay, "Fiction's Limit and Eden's Door" in Byron and the Limits of Fiction, ed. Beatty and Newey [1988]), viewing Aurora as imbued with every virtue and Lady Adeline as losing by the comparison plays down the uncertainties and changing perspective of Byron's narrator. But this might be Beatty's unspoken aim. For the chapter provokes us to think harder about Byron's poetry and to apply pressure to our own assumptions. Beatty does not want to make us think as he does, but rather, he aims to make us think.

Part II, on Byron's life, is apparently motivated by what Beatty sees as the failings of Byron's recent biographers. "Modern professional biographies, of which Fiona MacCarthy's Byron: Life and Legend (2002) is an excellent example, assiduously gather and sift material in impressively workmanlike ways but, in their haste to grasp Byron's singularity and decode what is mysterious and elusive in it, tend to fit him into a bourgeois version of pop psychology that could scarcely be budged by their crudely confident but alarmingly sparse acquaintance with his difficult poems. Indeed, confidence never seems to be lacking in those who explain Byron to us" (138). Much of Beatty's scorn, which he periodically expresses, may spring from his antipathy to the widespread fascination with the sensuality of Byron's life, which so often overtakes attention to his work.

Beatty came of age, he says, at a time when Byron was persona non grata to many critics: "When I started off with Byron in the early 60s, the whole world around me was contemptuous or, even worse, praised him as an extraordinarily talented, secondary author who just happens to have the right views on war. I was surrounded by this" (233). This explains at least some of his ire, though Byron's biographers might wince at his criticism. Byron's recent biographers do not suggest that Byron is a "secondary author," but each responds primarily to his life rather than his art. I am rather more sympathetic to these biographers given that they write for an audience less interested in the construction of a well-tuned couplet than an image of a well-turned ankle. But Beatty's point is important: in recent biographies, Byron's art is so often placed in the shade that a novice reader might scarcely realize that Byron wrote poetry. A review by Kathryn Hughes of Fiona MacCarthy's biography finds that "she believes, despite all the silliness, that Byron was indeed someone special. Not, perhaps, because of his poetry, which is hardly read now (most people would find it difficult to quote a single line)" ( This remark accidentally cuts to the quick of what Beatty resents about approaches to Byron that don't place his poetry at the center of the biography. Byron scholars might justly envy Shelley his biographers, where writers like Richard Holmes offer discerning readings of Shelley's art as well as his life. For Beatty recognizes that "[Byron's] poetry and life do intertwine in obvious ways" (139). But a real knowledge of Byron's work, Beatty argues, can enhance our understanding of the man.

In his conversation with Beatty, Gavin Hopps perfectly sums up the episodes that--for Beatty--define the life of the poet: "in the Albany chapter, instead of a dashing, posturing, swashbuckling Byron, we see a quieter, more bookish Byron, contemplative as well as adventurous. In the Seaham chapter, instead of the listless suitor and monstrous husband, we find a Byron who fits in, who's willing to settle--almost, dare I say, a domesticated Byron. And in the Venice to Ravenna chapter instead of, or perhaps alongside, the portrait of Byron as concupiscently challenged or a heartless rake, we are presented with the Byron who is capable of fidelity" (233). Replacing the legendary figure that we have inherited, Beatty thus re-constitutes what he believes to be the real Byron.

Lest Beatty's Byron sound duller than the Byronic myth, it should be added that these episodes are beautifully written and shed fresh light on a fascinating life. Considering Annabella Milbanke's first account of her reunion with Byron before they married, Beatty writes: "[s]he is both out of control and in control. The passage reads a little bit like Elizabeth Bennett with Darcy but Annabella bifurcates herself into two. Her 'I', or perhaps her id, wishes to be Cathy to Byron's Heathcliff, presumably a new feeling for her" (157). If Beatty's humor is a little barbed here, it is elsewhere more urbane and in places resembles the narrative tone of Don Juan. For example, when recounting Thomas Moore's story that Byron and Annabella consummated their marriage on a sofa, Beatty writes with Byron's flawless comic timing: 'I don't know whether the sofa survived or whether it was moved to the British Museum next to Shakespeare's "second-best bed"' (162). According to Beatty, Byron's love for Teresa Guiccioli "domesticated" him. For all the tempestuousness of their relationship, their jealousies and their games, Beatty brings out their mutual devotion. He also makes the poetry converse with the life. "Juan's imagined escapades," he writes, "predate Byron's real ones. So, if his poetry is allusive to his own adventures, it is so in prospect. A statement that might give us pause" (175). It does. Byron's life, in Beatty's hands, is less of a tabloid scandal. But the richer and more complex portrait he provides casts new light on the relationship between "Byron's changing life and development as a poet" (72).

Part III, on politics, laudably refuses to simplify Byron. "The question arises," Beatty writes, "whether Byron's political attitudes are simply contradictory. I don't think that they are, though they can seem so' (186). Beatty succeeds in rendering them complex, but they remain difficult to unpick. Chapter 9,"Liberty and Licence," seems to contradict its own claim that Byron is not simple: "We cannot simply take Byron, as Verdi or Mazzini take him, to be the unqualified apostle of the libertarian ideals of Romantic nationalism. Neither can we endlessly deconstruct him or follow his deconstructions into a morass of indeterminacies as though this is definitive too. We can simply say that Byron loved freedom and we can mean something by it. Literary criticism needs to be capable of asserting simple 'Truths that you will not read in the Gazettes' (DJ IX, 10) as well as insisting upon the infinitely complex ways that truth has to 'navigate o'er fiction' (DJ XV, 88)" (195). I'm not sure Beatty has "simply" said anything in this book, but in arguing that that critics need to go beyond sterile forms of theorization as well as easy sloganeering, he makes a point that requires a serious response from anyone wishing to write about Byron in the future. Some of the most important work on Byron in the last few decades has offered fertile use of theory and history, exciting readings of canonical and neglected work, and nuanced portraits of Byron's political bent. We might see Beatty as encouraging new and current Byronists to keep going; we must continue to take Byron's work seriously so as to keep his reputation from falling back into the doldrums of the mid-twentieth century's patronizing response to the poet.

Chapter 10, "The Paradoxes of Nationalism," moves from a winning picture of Byron as a tourist to thinking through Rome's import in Byron's eyes. Chapter 11, on Byron as an icon, makes the important argument that Byron's legacy has and will continue to endure through his espousal of two freedoms, political and sexual. Unlike Shelley in proselytizing mode, Beatty writes, "Byron does not ask you to sign up to socialism or to free love" (219). Beatty's Byron grants us freedom from his own views. A crueler reading might suggest that Shelley's opinions were more profoundly held.

The final section, "Conversations with Gavin Hopps," does the work of a good reader or reviewer as Hopps asks the very questions that we might wish to pose to Beatty. According to Hopps, Beatty discovers in Byron "a real, deep seriousness. It makes him a thinker in some deep, proper sense" (225). Beatty insists that Byron, though readable, is not shallow. This point bears some repeating. Hopps is well-cast as the reader that we might aspire to be.

This superb and thought-provoking book asks a lot of but offers a great deal to any reader of Byron. In Beatty's willingness to read Byron carefully, to seek and find in him ideas of depth and significance, while being able to laugh with him, we receive a blueprint for how to work with poets who, perhaps because and not in spite of their fame, have become more talked about than read. Reading Byron should become one of the cornerstones for anyone--student, scholar, or fan--who would go deeper and pay Byron's poetry the same attention that brought Beatty's work into being.

Madeleine Callaghan is Senior Lecturer of Romantic Literature at the University of Sheffield, UK.

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