Byron and the Poetics of Adversity 
by Jerome McGann.
Cambridge, 214 pp., £19.99, December 2022, 978 1 009 23295 1
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Reading Byron: Poems – Life – Politics 
by Bernard Beatty.
Liverpool, 266 pp., £90, January, 978 1 80085 462 8
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Byron’s ‘Don Juan’: The Liberal Epic of the 19th Century 
by Richard Cronin.
Cambridge, 248 pp., £85, June, 978 1 009 36623 6
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Byron​ knew just how good Don Juan was. Part way through the poem’s ninth canto, drafted in Pisa in the summer of 1822, he takes a break from a digression on Pyrrhonian scepticism to assess how things are going:

’Tis time we should proceed with our good poem,
    For I maintain that it is really good,
Not only in the body, but the proem,
    However little both are understood
Just now, – but by and by the Truth will show ’em
    Herself in her sublimest attitude:
And till she doth, I fain must be content
To share her Beauty and her Banishment.

For a man who mocked the notion of writing for posterity, Byron had an accurate sense of how his work would fare. It was true that Don Juan was little understood ‘just now’. His once loyal publisher, John Murray, had backed out after the first five cantos, and the leading periodicals of the time refused on principle to review any of its instalments. (‘We knew not any severity of criticism which could reach the faults or purify the taste of Don Juan,’ the Quarterly Review noted in a piece pointedly not about Don Juan.) Contemporary readers admired the force and intensity of Byron’s narrative poems, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the ‘eastern’ tales that followed it, and the heavyweight classical tragedies he produced in the early 1820s. They tended either to disparage or ignore the work of which he was proudest, but he was right to predict that, ‘by and by’, things would change. When, from the mid-20th century, he began to be appreciated as a writer whose intelligence didn’t need defending (T.S. Eliot’s comments about his superficiality and ‘callowness’ had a long afterlife), his misbehaving epic was the reason. Don Juan, almost single-handedly, as Jerome McGann writes in Byron and the Poetics of Adversity, ‘shaped the recovery of Byron the Poet’.

Don Juan is a difficult poem to see past. McGann’s starting point is a belief, shared by Bernard Beatty in his essay collection Reading Byron, that the ‘poetic character’ of large swathes of Byron’s work – the non-comic material, much of it produced before his turn to the ottava rima stanza in 1817 – has been ‘obscured by Don Juan’s celebrity’, underestimated and misunderstood. Form is part of the problem. Don Juan’s playfulness and extreme self-consciousness endear it to ambiguity-inclined, sophisticated modern readings; the Spenserian stanza of Childe Harold (Auden called it a ‘disastrous choice’) required of Byron a sometimes off-putting dignity. Other charges go beyond form. Taking Childe Harold seriously, Beatty argues, involves countering established opinions of its flashiness, its indulgence of its hero’s ‘rather silly’ concerns, the thinness of the poetic intelligence underlying it. The early verse tales, The Giaour (1813), The Corsair (1814), Lara (1814) and others, have long been read as revealing in the worst way – reliant on ‘facile techniques’, uncommitted and unconvinced, marred in their judgments by a ‘fatal distaste for self-criticism’, as Philip Martin puts it. In J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, the dodgy English professor David Lurie’s seduction of his student is bound up with his admiration for Byron’s poetry, Lara in particular.

It’s easy to forget, in this context, that Byron was the same poet who could picture possible incest and a poisoning in The Bride of Abydos (1813) and St Peter’s sweaty forehead in The Vision of Judgment (1822). There are some uniquely ill-judged moments in the early work, unmatched by anything in the later (‘And therefore came I, in my bark of war,/To smite the smiter with the scimitar,’ Conrad the pirate growls in The Corsair). But once you look for them, the continuities are everywhere. You can see them in Byron’s way with a good story, at the heart of the early tales just as much as Don Juan; in the textual instability he liked to create, his way of distressing, like a pair of jeans, the smooth surfaces of his poems; the images he returns to again and again (mountain landscapes, rivers, oceans, fire, ice); his interest in speech and conversation and their rhythms; even the jokes he found funny in 1813 and still funny almost a decade later. (In one of the unsettlingly urbane prose notes to The Giaour there’s a comment about the role of Munkar and Nakir, the two Islamic angels of judgment, as being ‘no sinecure’; in The Vision of Judgment, St Peter remarks on Cerberus’s tough job at the gates of the underworld: ‘His is no sinecure.’) The most important continuity, extending from the verse tales through to Don Juan, is the poetry’s emphasis on thought: on mental states and the ways poetry can inhabit them, and the part thought plays in plot.

Auden took it for granted that Byron wasn’t interested in representing complex states of mind, his own or other people’s. John Wain felt he ‘lacked the confidence to disclose, even to himself, the basic mechanisms of his mind’. But early readers of Childe Harold and the verse tales, Beatty argues, noticed the opposite: ‘a depth in his thought’, in Walter Scott’s words, a combination of force or intensity with difficult thinking, and a fascination with the question of the intellect’s relationship to the will. You don’t expect it, because the tales are so swashbuckling, so ostensibly about deeds, but much of what happens in them is mental rather than physical, activated by verbs such as ‘think’, ‘deem’, ‘reck’, ‘imagine’, ‘remember’ and ‘forget’. Actions may be straightforward, but the mental torture that produces them – and which they produce – isn’t. ‘The rest thou dost already know,’ the hero of The Giaour tells the friar who shrives him at the end of the story, ‘all my sins, and half my woe.’ (Someone’s sins you can know fully; good luck trying to understand their ‘woe’.) The Byronic hero is many things, but one of the qualities he always possesses is thoughtfulness. Harold is ‘the wandering outlaw of his own dark mind’, we learn in Canto III, his history marked by ‘the furrows of long thought’. In The Corsair, Conrad’s control over his pirate troop isn’t attributed to physical strength but to a subtler ‘commanding art’: a ‘power of Thought’ that guides and moulds. One way to know that we’re not supposed to like the tyrannical potentates whom the Byronic heroes come up against (beside their sinister Oriental characterisation) is their unthinkingness. ‘I search’d, but vainly search’d, to find/The workings of a wounded mind,’ the Giaour says disparagingly after murdering Hassan. Seyd, the Turkish ruler in The Corsair, is all business, suspicious of the least ambiguity. ‘The supper done – prepare thee to reply,/Clearly and full – I love not mystery.’ (Years later, in Don Juan, the narrator tells us that the reason he hates tyrants is because they are ‘Thought’s foes’.)

Byron took from Milton the idea that the mind, being ‘its own place and time’, could be its own hell. Torment in the tales and other ‘dark’ poems may be both a physical space – a dungeon, a set of chains – and a mental environment, built out of the dominant images within which Byron’s figures live. ‘Below the surface of the bay/The dark vault lies wherein we lay;/We heard it ripple night and day,’ the speaker of The Prisoner of Chillon (1816) recalls, lingering in a triplet rhyme that sits on the verse like a manacle. Harold knows that

    thought seeks refuge in lone caves, yet rife
With airy images, and shapes which dwell
Still unimpair’d, though old, in the soul’s haunted cell.

‘Airy images, and shapes’ dance through the ‘haunted cell’ of the brain and shadow its perceptions. In Manfred (1817), Byron’s protagonist is caught on a mountain in rising mists and warned to descend before he loses his way. He refuses, but Byron is interested less in the real dangers of the situation than in the way Manfred understands it: how peril is received by a mind trapped in a ‘half-maddening’ memory, a single, all-encompassing ‘thought’, ‘within me and around me’. To Manfred, the mists appear ‘like foam from the roused ocean of deep Hell,/Whose every wave breaks on a living shore,/Heap’d with the damn’d like pebbles’. The sight triggers a wild imaginative spiral, where two similes (‘like foam’; ‘like pebbles’) are needed to convey its disproportion. In Don Juan, when the verse wanders in this way, wandering is something that happens to it, digression imposed from above by the poet’s chatty, controlling voice. Here, it’s a dramatised habit of mind, the verse’s attempt to track the obsessive course of an idée fixe.

By concentrating on thought, Byron appeals to it. In his reading of the ‘dark’ poems, McGann emphasises their capacity to bewilder or stymie the reader’s intellect, at once forcing attentiveness and making it hard to sustain. Rapid reading, as Susan Wolfson has pointed out, seems to be what the tales call for, with their ‘famous energy’, their ‘forward press’. But a closer look reveals strategies designed to ‘arrest attention’, to prevent the reader falling too easily for the narrative’s dominant sexiness. McGann calls these odd moments of resistance ‘perversifications’, because they show Byron at his most obdurate and unflippant: blocking the reader’s path not to titillate her, or string things along, but to impose real confusion. At the micro-level, rhymes appear straightforward, and seem to say something straightforward, but then turn out to ring false, or hold a calibrated weirdness (‘I had no thought,’ the Prisoner of Chillon tells us, ‘no feeling – none –/Among the stones I stood a stone’). In his storytelling, Byron likes both to withhold information and provide too much of it, sometimes contriving ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. In The Giaour, one character’s ‘swarthy visage spake distress’ – ‘but,’ Byron adds, ‘this might be from weariness.’ Either or both? Perversity and haziness run through even admissions of difficulty. ‘By those, that deepest feel, is ill exprest/The indistinctness of the suffering breast,’ the narrator observes at the end of The Corsair. How can you ‘ill’ express ‘indistinctness’?

The ottava rima narratives take up and make explicit what the verse tales, in their underground ways, already experiment with. What will become, in Don Juan, an easygoing, conversational habit of digression begins in The Giaour, a poem which is given to us broken up into confusingly asterisked fragments, like scraps of manuscript. The gaps unsettle narrative flow and the transfer of information. Early in the poem, the narrator encounters a band of Turks bearing a mysterious, bundled object. The band’s leader instructs the narrator to row them out from the shore, into deep water:

‘Rest from your task – so – bravely done,
Our course had been right swiftly run,
Yet ’tis the longest voyage, I trow,
That one of’ – *        *        *        *
*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *
    Sullen it plunged, and slowly sank,
The calm wave rippled to the bank

Plot – here, the ritual drowning of Leila, Hassan’s bride and the Giaour’s lover, for her infidelity – happens incidentally, secretively, in the places where the text breaks down. Information is provided obliquely (‘Sullen it plunged’ is typical of the indeterminacy Byron maintains around subjects and objects), or elided altogether. What matters – the question Don Juan relativises almost to death – is first raised here, in the form of a challenge. How do you know what ‘meaning’ really is, let alone where to look for it? Why shouldn’t a gap or a blank signify?

Interruption is everywhere in Byron. ‘He often seems to think that this is what poetry is,’ Beatty observes. Fragmentation, the sudden interposition of a new voice or a new form, supplies ‘an ever shifting repertoire of strategies for changing the subject’, as Jane Stabler has argued. Byron’s attraction to disruption began early. Hours of Idleness (1807), the collection he published when he was nineteen, contains a distracting mixture of styles and subjects, fragments inhabiting one voice and then another. In Cantos I and II of Childe Harold (1812), short lyrics, sung by Harold and others, interpose to break up the narrative, including the startling war song of the Albanian Souliotes, a piece of belligerence ‘half sang, half scream’d’, like a punch thrown at the poem’s genteel reflections. The verse tales slip in and out of the forms and rhythms they’re supposed to inhabit: hexameters disturb the measure of The Giaour; triplets, quatrains and sonnets muddle in with the heroic couplet of The Corsair. (Medora, Conrad’s faithful wife, is given her own song in elegiac quatrains, which is then swallowed up and forgotten when her husband leaves her once more to go buccaneering.)

The most virtuoso mixture is Manfred, in which a multitude of Spirits, Destinies and disembodied Voices clamour for the magician’s attention in individualised verse forms. Supernatural power, the ability to shapeshift, alter fates, change the weather, comes to be associated with the inventiveness of song, with rapidly metamorphosing rhymes (‘perish’, ‘cherish’, ‘vanquish’, ‘anguish’) and dancing, careless rhythms: ‘This wreck of a realm – this deed of my doing –/For ages I’ve done, and shall still be renewing!’

In his long narratives, Byron’s medleys are places where he can overlay different kinds of experience. Transitions in poetry are liable to feel disruptive, but they’re also a way in which it makes connections. The later cantos of Childe Harold, Beatty argues, are built on the ‘transferability of two types of history’: they interweave the story of Europe with the story of self, holding narrative and lyric forms of experience in parallel. In the years after the breakdown of his marriage in 1816 and his departure from England, Byron looked for sympathies between his own, disastrous history and larger patterns; he sought to map himself onto external things, just as, during his earlier travels in Greece and Albania, he had located and stood on the spots where great historical events had taken place. In Canto III, lyric interludes – such as the love song to Augusta, his half-sister, that he smuggles into a description of the Rhine – bring desperate hopes into contact with grander histories of misfortune. An elegy for a lost friend blurs into an elegy for a fallen nation; a bad marriage becomes a battlefield. When, at the beginning of the canto, ‘self-exiled Harold wanders forth again,’ the young hero finds himself, not coincidentally, ‘upon this place of skulls,/The grave of France, the deadly Waterloo’. Why not glimpse personal calamity in a generation’s burial place? (‘He hangs the cloud, the film of his existence over all outward things,’ Hazlitt wrote disapprovingly of Byron in The Spirit of the Age.)

InByron’s ‘Don Juan’: The Liberal Epic of the 19th Century, Richard Cronin sees the same parallels and collisions in Byron’s last poem. ‘There is a public world in Don Juan, a world of facts, a world of pumps and barbettes and periwigs, and a private world of feeling,’ he argues. ‘One is forever being interrupted by the other.’ The poem’s transitions, its switches from the narrative third person to the lyric ‘I’ and back again, are the points at which the two worlds meet, where a list of vanished public names (‘Where’s Brummell? Dished. Where’s Long Pole Wellesley? Diddled./Where’s Whitbread? Romilly? Where’s George the Third?’) can shift into a remembrance of names significant to the poet: ‘Where are the Lady Carolines and Franceses?’ Since incongruence is a fact of life (as well as of the poem), the seams between public and private kinds of experience are left visible. At the beginning of Canto V, a passing mention of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu prompts a disjunctive switch of manner:

I have a passion for the name of ‘Mary,’
    For once it was a magic sound to me;

All feelings changed, but this was last to vary,
    A spell from which even yet I am not quite free:
But I grow sad – and let a tale grow cold,
Which must not be pathetically told.

Memory – of Byron’s ‘desperate love’, as a Harrow schoolboy, for his unattainable 17-year-old friend Mary Chaworth – is here figured as a trap the poem has to avoid. Sentiments that linger, or are slow to ‘vary’, don’t accord with Don Juan’s mercurial nature, still less with the breezy, uncommitted style of the ‘Byron’ who narrates it, and are dangerous to relive. ‘A spell from which even yet I am not quite free’: the extra syllable (‘quite’) makes the metre drag its heels, sit uncomfortably with its feelings for longer than it wants to. In the next stanza, as if with a sigh of relief, a piece of factful description supervenes (‘The wind swept down the Euxine, and the wave/Broke foaming o’er the blue Symplegades’), and geography allows Byron to indulge in one of his favourite spoiling rhymes, ‘pukes in/Euxine’. We are back on safe ground.

But we would be within our rights to ask: what kind of writer does this? What does it say about Byron that his most characteristic move is to interrupt himself? Contemporary reviewers, Cronin notes, found his ‘quick transitions’ both alien and morally suspect. Francis Jeffrey wondered how it was possible for a poet to have ‘all fine and noble feelings, or their appearance, for a moment’, then to cast them off with ‘no particle of respect’. In Don Juan, Byron puts it down partly to boredom, partly to a sense of the world’s general multifariousness, and partly to ‘mobility’ – a quality of flickering, agile responsiveness to the moment, possessed by his favourite heroine, the icily English Lady Adeline, and, tacitly, by his own narration. ‘The dishes/Of this our banquet we must sometimes change,’ he announces at the close of Canto VI, leaving Juan in trouble with the Sultana of Constantinople: ‘As such digressions are fair,/The Muse will take a little touch at warfare.’ Changeability this disarming can be thought of as ‘false – though true’, as Canto XVI has it: after all, ‘surely they’re sincerest/Who are strongly acted on by what is nearest.’

Another word for it, which Jeffrey doesn’t quite name, is hypocrisy. In Canto III, at a lavish feast on their paradisal island, Juan and Haidée are entertained by a tame court poet, a bard who many years ago was ‘independent in his lays’ but now sings for his supper. ‘He was a man who had seen many changes,/And always changed as true as any needle;/His polar star being one which rather ranges,/And not the fix’d.’ The face we’re bound to recognise in this portrait is that of Byron’s great literary enemy, Robert Southey, the former Jacobin radical, now the Tories’ Poet Laureate, a man to whom Byron once declared: ‘With you I have nought in common, nor would have –/Nor fame, nor feelings, nor the very Earth.’ Behind Southey’s, though, as Cronin and McGann both point out, we might make out another face. When the turncoat bard performs a heartfelt elegy for Greece’s lost liberty, we recognise it as being just the kind of thing Byron himself might produce: a lyric interlude, or interruption, typical of a disjunctive poetic style we read as mobile or agile but could also see as uncommitted or opportunistic. What makes the satire in the passage confusing is how self-directed it is allowed to become. Cronin calls it ‘a caricature always on the point of morphing into a selfie’.

Byron wasn’t interested in positioning himself above the human faults or weaknesses he diagnosed. (In most cases, in all conscience, he couldn’t.) Instead, his poems tend to adopt what McGann calls an ‘inner standing point’: a way of writing from inside his own acknowledged limitations and susceptibilities, rather than claiming a greater than ordinary share of moral clarity or comprehensiveness. In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), his early attack on the literary scene in the tradition of Pope’s Dunciad, his swipes seem as much self-reflexive as targeted at others. ‘Shall Peers or Princes tread pollution’s path,/And ’scape alike the Law’s and Muse’s wrath?’ he asks at one point, with a barely concealed wink (since Cambridge, he had been engaged in heroic levels of dissipation). Elsewhere, he admits to being ‘least thinking of a thoughtless throng,/Just skilled to know the right and chuse the wrong’, and instructs his reader to ‘Prepare for rhyme – I’ll publish, right or wrong.’ In Hints from Horace, another early satire, he demands: ‘Shall I, thus qualified to sit/For rotten boroughs, never show my wit?’, where absurdity is shown to underpin both assumptions of authority. The heroes of the verse tales, uncertain of themselves and their motives, share this compromised ground. ‘’Twere vain to paint to what his feelings grew –/It even were doubtful if their victim knew,’ the narrator of The Corsair says of Conrad. Harold, in Canto III, considers himself ‘secure in guarded coldness’, his spirit ‘firmly fix’d/And sheath’d with an invulnerable mind’; really, the narrator tells us, he is ‘within the vortex’, part of the world’s ‘giddy circle’, open to all comers.

It’s possible​ to think of all Byron’s works, from English Bards onwards, as a series of reflections on moral authority: on self-judgment and the judgment of others; on the self-positioning that judging involves and who might be entitled to it. ‘How then shall we judge each other,/Who are all earth?’ the Doge of Venice asks in The Two Foscari (1821), summing up the central problem. Many of Byron’s poems and dramas have acts of judgment behind them or at their heart: not only the early satires, but also Manfred (whose hero is trapped in an agony of self-judgment and longs for the finality of judgment from above); Parisina (1816), one of the later verse tales, in which Azo, the duke of Ferrara, has his illegitimate son executed for sleeping with his wife; the classical drama Marino Faliero (1821), set in medieval Venice, which closes with a grand court scene sentencing the ‘traitor’ Faliero to be decapitated; and, in a lighter mode, The Vision of Judgment, a kind of supernatural courtroom drama in which Satan argues persuasively before the Archangel Michael and his heavenly host that the deceased George III belongs in hell.

‘Deem’ and ‘seem’ form one of Byron’s favourite rhyming pairs. Deeming (judging, reckoning) is intimately connected to seeming because the claims to authority on which it grounds itself are questionable, illusionary, reliant on obfuscation or mystery. One important difference between Byron and Pope, the poet he most admired, is the degree of confidence each places in poetry’s ability to order the world. Mock-epic, a genre that gets its laughs from yoking high and low together, or making them switch places, ‘is right for Dryden and Pope’, Cronin argues, ‘because it is the mode that best registers confusions that they do not share’. It doesn’t work for Byron, who frequently advertises his confusions and distrusts those who claim a vantage point above them. Judging, as he presents it, is typically partial and autocratic, conducted by vengeful, inscrutable means: the ‘midnight carryings off and drownings’, ‘mysterious meetings,/And unknown dooms’ that Marina, wife of the condemned Jacopo in The Two Foscari, laments; or, in English Bards, in a less desperate scenario, the merciless ‘sentences’ handed down by the ‘tyrant’ critics of the Edinburgh Review, a cabal of ‘Self-constituted Judge[s] of Poesy’ only too eager to ‘decree the rack’.

Men who take the business of judging out of God’s hands are invariably the kind of men you don’t want in charge. Lord Henry Amundeville, Adeline’s ‘cold, good, honourable’ husband in Don Juan, is a magistrate as well as an MP, required now and then to pass judgment on local miscreants. In Canto XV, on a typical afternoon, two sets of offenders are paraded before him: a couple of poachers destined for jail, and a poor unmarried girl, evidently pregnant. The narrator explains:

Now Justices of Peace must judge all pieces
    Of mischief of all kinds, and keep the game
And morals of the country from caprices
    Of those who have not a licence for the same;

Preserving partridges and pretty wenches
Are puzzles to the most precautious benches.

Byron’s language here betrays the shaky moral ground on which Lord Henry judges. The stanza is full of verbal slippages: there is the punning transition from ‘peace’ to ‘pieces’ (where ‘pieces’ itself, emphasised by the line break, is a sexual double entendre); the zeugma that yokes together ‘game/And morals’, as if they were commensurate; the double meaning of ‘licence’, referring both to hunting and marriage laws; and the second zeugma, ‘Preserving partridges and pretty wenches’, which doubles down unpleasantly on the first. Lord Henry, Byron suggests, works within a network of confusions and elisions, handing down judgments, like puns, that falsify distinctions: he judges by forcing together things that ought to be considered separately, in their complexity and particularity.

Southey, the author of the original Vision of Judgment (1821), a dutiful celebration of the old king’s ascension to heaven, is the Lord Henry figure in Byron’s satirical Vision. ‘The way in which that poor insane creature, the Laureate, deals about his judgments in the next world, is like his own judgment in this,’ Byron observes with a shake of the head in his preface. ‘If it was not completely ludicrous, it would be something worse.’ His satire makes a point of either avoiding judgment altogether, or, where it judges, judging candidly, emphasising rather than trying to hide the ‘inner standing point’ it occupies. Its theological pronouncements, unlike Southey’s, are full of doubt, of both institution and self. On the thorny question of damnation, it stages a kind of suspended, jokey collapse: ‘God help us all! God help me too! I am,/God knows, as helpless as the devil can wish,/And not a whit more difficult to damn/Than is to bring to land a late-hook’d fish.’ Language, the medium in which judgment makes its determinations, is shown up as both arbitrary (via absurd rhymes, ‘pinions’, ‘dominions’, ‘opinions’; ‘bladder’, ‘sadder’) and only dubiously logical, its structures folding under pressure. ‘Upon the verge of space,’ Byron writes, ‘about the size/Of half-a-crown, a little speck appear’d,’

Like an aërial ship it tack’d, and steer’d
Or was steer’d (I am doubtful of the grammar
Of the last phrase, which makes the stanza stammer; –
But take your choice;)

Cant, the thing Byron hated almost as much as he hated Southey, meant to him a bad-faith way of speaking: a habit of relaying society’s lying languages and, in the process, reinforcing its fictions. Its antidote in his poetry is a certain perverse candour, or ‘perversification’, which he compels even ottava rima, the most glib of poetic forms, somehow to accommodate. ‘I am doubtful of the grammar/Of the last phrase, which makes the stanza stammer.’ His verse is hopelessly attracted to the unassimilable: it wants the things that are likely to give it most trouble, whether abstract or concrete, drawing in like a magnet those ‘random particulars of the world’, in Stabler’s phrase, native to newspapers or history books or dictionaries or scientific treatises, which his Romantic contemporaries were careful to write around. In the third volume of Modern Painters (1856), Ruskin drew on lines from The Prisoner of Chillon to illustrate this way with ‘particulars’. Byron’s verse, he wrote, proceeded by ‘the addition of details’. ‘Instead of being characterised by regard only of the invariable, we find its whole power to consist in the clear expression of what is singular and particular!’

To this sort of poetry, it matters – or, more accurately, it matters as much as anything can be said to – that there are multiple condiments you might use to spice up your Lenten fish, per Beppo (‘Ketchup, Soy, Chili-vinegar and Harvey’). It matters that if you are going to write about a military siege, as in Don Juan’s eighth canto, or a shipwreck, as in its second, that you get the specialised vocabulary right. (‘I told both you and Mr Hobhouse years ago – that [there] was not a single circumstance of it – not taken from fact,’ Byron wrote to Murray in 1821 of the wreck passage.) Small facts matter – a note to a line in The Bride of Abydos informs us that coffee is taken at Turkish bathhouses ‘before the sherbet’ but ‘after dressing’ – and very large, impossibly complex speculations matter, as when Byron pauses in The Vision of Judgment to wonder how much further heaven and hell are from one another compared with the earth and the sun (‘ten million times’), and, relatedly, how fast the average sunbeam travels. Not all facts need signify morally or politically; some remain merely factive, free-floating, little obstinate bits of quiddity. The accidental can feel like a kind of inspiration. In this respect, Byron’s famous letters are continuations of what his poetry, early and late, already does. Here he is signing off a letter to his friend John Cam Hobhouse from Venice in 1819:

What shall I do! I am in love – and tired of promiscuous concubinage – & have now an opportunity of settling for life. –

[ever yours]

P.S. – We have had a fortnight ago the devil’s own row with an Elephant who broke loose – ate up a fruitshop – killed his keeper – broke into a Church … I saw him the day he broke open his own house – he was standing in the Riva & his keepers trying to persuade him with peck-loaves to go on board a sort of Ark they had got. – I went close to him that afternoon in my Gondola – & he amused himself with flinging great beams that flew about over the water in all directions.

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