BYRON AND THE POETICS OF ADVERSITY by Jerome Mcgann, Reviewed by Jonathan Sachs

By Jerome Mcgann
(Cambridge UP, 2023) xi + 214 pp.
Reviewed by Jonathan Sachs on 2024-02-09.

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Jerome McGann is perhaps best known for his pithy and polemical argument about the "Romantic Ideology," the tendency of Romantic poets to believe that their writing could transcend the material circumstances that produced it and the tendency of Romantic scholars to accept uncritically this self-representation by Romantic poets. A claim like this merits a "perhaps" because McGann, over the course of a long and fiercely productive academic career, has produced so much more than the slim, eloquent "critical investigation" that first appeared in The Romantic Ideology (1983). There are books that focus on single authors--Byron, Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rosetti; books that develop theories of textual editing, "radiant textuality," and the humanities in a digital age; books on Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist poetry; books on American literature, on the literature of sensibility. Books, books, books! And behind all of these there is that masterpiece of textual editing, Byron: The Complete Poetical Works (Oxford UP, 1980-93), which stretches to seven comprehensive volumes.

To this profoundly influential corpus we can now add Byron and the Poetics of Adversity, which returns us, ouroboros-like, to the work that initiated this extraordinary career, Fiery Dust (1969)--as fine and engaged a close reading of Byron's pre-Don Juan poetry as ever there was. As one might expect from this legacy, McGann's new volume comes laden with praise from top scholars in the field. The word "dazzling" recurs in a number of these blurbs. Jane Stabler calls this a "genuinely revolutionary book," while for Charles Bernstein it is "a defense of poetry for our time." Marjorie Levinson describes "its perfectly measured disorders" as "a min(e)d-field to blast the pieties of the present," and an excerpt from James Chandler's praise declares on the book's front cover above its title that "A new book by Jerome McGann is an event. A new book by him about Byron is a special kind of event."

McGann himself calls this a "little book" (8). He's not wrong. The volume, which measures 12 x 19cm has a footprint more like a pocket-sized livre de chevet or a handy airport paperback than a typical Cambridge UP monograph; it contains just over 180 small pages, plus notes and an index. Its diminutive contours, however, are deceptive. The book bursts with erudition, punching far above its weight as it strikes a delicate balance between grand, almost gnomic claims--made with the sort of concision that only one with McGann's full command of the material could make--and the acute, nimble close reading that sustains these pronouncements.

It would be difficult to encapsulate a single argument that runs throughout the book, but there is a chorus of claims that echo through each chapter. McGann regularly insists on the centrality of language in Byron's work, and much of the book might be read as a sustained retort to T. S. Eliot's (in)famous claim that "Of Byron one can say, as of no other English poet of his eminence, that he added nothing to the language, that he discovered nothing in the sounds, and developed nothing in the meaning, of individual words." (On Poetry and Poets [1957] 201). Rubbish, the defender of Byron might respond, a perverse error. But McGann's great virtue here is that he takes the claim seriously as a way to clarify the character of Byron's work and therefore to elucidate what Byron might have meant when he claimed in Childe Harold canto 4 that "I twine/ My hopes of becoming remembered in my line/ With my land's language" (stanza 9). Byron, McGann explains, everywhere engaged the English language, which he used not "to deliver ideas but to provoke and unsettle his readers" (2). Eliot, however, misses this because Byron, unlike Wordsworth and Coleridge, is not a poet for whom Imagination serves "as both the index and the vehicle of ideal encounter"(10); rather "for Byron, rhetorical address, not imagination, was the determining element in poetic discourse"(10). Byron adds to the English language "an across the board allegiance to the borderless condition of vox populi" (26); he's invested in idioms and commonplaces, which he uses to push "a radical extension of poetry's materials" (27) as he traffics in multiple ancient and modern languages and makes connections across Latin, French, and Italian especially but always keeping at the core "a mash-up drawn from congeries of British vernacular usage" (34).

Byron, McGann declares, is "hyped on language" (34) because he wants to show what poetry can do. This is a second recurring theme: Byron's is a poetry of action, of words as deeds. This is why we are mistaken when we think that Byron isn't much of a theorist of poetry--Byron cares deeply about the craft of poetry and about the language of poesis but he works this out not, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, through the prose construction of a "poetical system," but, like Pope, in his poetry itself. For Byron the proof is in the pudding (to use a commonplace) and he "theorizes poetry only when he is actually carrying out a poetic practice" (10). Writing, then is a form of doing, embedded in a practical engagement with the world. Insights like this come easily to a sophisticated reader of Don Juan like McGann, but he also wants to insist (and this is a third recurrent claim) that the investment in language and its potential to act on a reader's understanding does not arise ab ovo after Byron leaves England in 1816; rather "the dark backward and abysm of Byron's time--the world of Childe Harold, the tales, and the plays--is never far from the language games of Don Juan" (35).

This insistence on the significance of Byron's pre-Don Juan writing represents the major critical intervention of McGann's book. The celebrity of Don Juan, McGann explains in his introduction, has driven the recovery of Byron's poetry but also prevented us from seeing the importance of Byron's earlier work. This work, from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage to the Eastern tales to Manfred, McGann tells us, "is plainly every bit as deliberated as Don Juan" (4); more, the poems "are more impressive than the ottava rima masterpieces: for better and for worse, more driven, perhaps more dangerous, mostly less urbane" (1). That slightly coy tone, simultaneously advancing a strong claim and hedging it, continues throughout the book as McGann explains the crucial relationship between poetry and action in Byron's work. This is poetry meant to provoke and unsettle, to work on its readers' understanding and thought to probe the possibilities and limits of what poetry (and language itself) might do.

McGann lays out his case for Byron's use of language, for Byron as a poet of action, and for the overlooked importance of Byron's earlier work in his brief introduction and his first chapter on Don Juan. Two further chapters move us across the pre-Don Juan writing (chapter 2) and into Manfred (chapter 3), after which McGann elaborates Byron's engagement with the problem of poetic systems (chapter 4), then offers a luminous juxtaposition of Byron and Blake (chapter 5), before closing the book with a sustained examination of Byron's "poetry of action" (chapter 6). Each of these chapters contains its own highlight reel of critical acumen.

Typically, McGann opens a chapter with a strong claim linking Byron and another past luminary like Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Nietzsche, Blake, or Mallarmé. He then dives headlong into the poetry to track the claim. But as he moves--and he moves very quickly and dextrously through the poems and across the work, indeed across the thousands of years of literary tradition that make Byron's work (and McGann's criticism of it) so vital--McGann zooms down from the heights of generalization and fastens his critical talons on a word or phrase that most readers would perhaps glide past. The fastening reveals a glitch or a wrinkle that demands explication. Then McGann teases out the implications of the glitch not so much to resolve it as to expand the contradictions to which it gives rise, which then eventually returns him to the broader claim now seen more clearly.

Chapter 4's juxtaposition of Byron and Blake offers a particularly telling example of this pattern. The chapter opens with a counter-intuitive linking of Byron and Blake. But as McGann unpacks the link through Blake's address to Byron in The Ghost of Abel he clarifies that both might be read as prophets against empire in which "Blake's antinomian religion and Byron's Enlightenment skepticism often spoke a common tongue" (121), a tongue that hinges on matters of judgment: how does one garner the moral authority by which we judge ourselves and others? The link now starts to become more intuitive. McGann develops this claim first through a reading of Blake and then turns to Byron and his skeptical self-judgment in a "two-year long trial by poetics" (133) that leads from Childe Harold canto 3 to the Forgiveness Curse in Childe Harold canto 4 stanzas 130-37 before ultimately freeing Byron for the "poetic flights" of Don Juan. McGann guides us through Byron's use of the Harold mask and the "cursed poetics" of canto 3. Eventually he lands on stanza 113 with its opening claim that "I have not loved the world, nor the world me" and its conclusion that Byron stood among the crowd

But not of them; in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could,
Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.

Immediately after the offset quotation, McGann jumps in with a confrontational shout "half s[u]ng, half scream'd" like the Albanian Soulites in Childe Harold (canto 2, stanza 72) : " 'And still could'? What does that mean?" (136). He unpacks the phrase not by resolving his question but by multiplying and expanding the questions it prompts, which then moves us backwards into the poem and ultimately to what McGann calls Byron's "commitment to full...self-disclosure," active since 1809 and productive of new possibilities for poetic expression, which then leads us into the Forgiveness Curse.

Deft and explosive, the close reading here depends on its juxtaposition of a particular poetic moment with a broader understanding of the details of Byron's entire oeuvre and it moves gracefully between them. Similarly labile explications resound throughout the book, from the reading of Byron's use of simile in chapter 1, to the punctuation of Lara in chapter 2, to Manfred's summoning of Astarte in chapter 3, through to Childe Harold's performance of Greek balladry in chapter 6. These and other examples of what McGann calls Byron's "perversifications" --by which he means to indicate Byron's consistent attempts to obstruct his reader's attempts to make sense of language and hence to create a kind of wilful confusion--offer an explosive expressivity that is "not just physically grounded in the actual world; it is (literally) a way of living literally that holds out the practice of language as an ideal model for all human intercourse" (165). McGann's dizzying explications, in other words, are enabled by Byron's own dizzying ability to pack his lines with possibility and "perverse candor" (169)--all while leaving judgment out. Poetry written at zero degree, indeed.

With its relentless critical acumen, Byron and the Poetics of Adversity is worthy match for Byron's relentless self-disclosure and self-interrogation as it moves, like Byron himself, with admirable dexterity between the general and the local. At one point McGann says of Don Juan "It is a poem organized, like Murray's dictionary to come, 'on historical principles,' the languages in question spread across largely Western domains three thousand years in the making. Don Juan is a time-lapse snapshot taken in 1817-1823 by an itinerant and very worldly Englishman" (35). He continues to declare that considered this way the clear inheritor of Juan is Finnegans Wake. Provocative, as ever. But, we might add, if Joyce inherits Byron's literary legacy, McGann himself might be its critical legatee.

Jonathan Sachs is Professor of English at Concordia University, Montréal.