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Jerome McGann, Byron and Romanticism & Drummond Bone, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Byron

Monday, March 5, 2007 - 11:29
Jerome McGann, Byron and Romanticism. Ed. James Soderholm. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 328 pp.  $85.00. (Hdbk: ISBN 978-0521809580).
Drummond Bone, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Byron. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 360 pp. $24.99 (pbk). (Pbk: ISBN 978-0521786768).

Reviewed by
Gillen D'Arcy Wood
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Byron plays Mephistopheles to Wordsworth's (and synecdochally, Romanticism's) Faust. Even at moments where he appears a poetic failure—in Childe Harold III or "Fare Thee Well"—he remains magister ludi, hoisting the reader on his own falsifiable expectations. But Byron at the last is also Faust himself. . . .

Such is Jerome McGann's Byron, whose articles on the poet, independent of his two early books, have now been collected in a single, indispensable volume. The first two-thirds of the collection, nine essays in all, constitute a Byron book unto themselves, but have been supplemented by seven further pieces, including a retrospective interview published here for the first time, that showcase McGann's crucial theoretical interventions—on the subjects of ideology, historical method, and deconstruction—and treat Byron mostly obliquely. Taken together, the volume offers both an assembly of vital essays by the most important Byronist of his generation, while pointing toward the Greater McGann of Social Values and Poetic Acts (1988) and the epoch-making Romantic Ideology (1983).

McGann's new introduction to the collection contains the worthwhile reminder that in writing a dissertation on Byron in the 1960s, then agreeing to undertake an edition of the poetical works while still a young scholar, he was committing (so it seemed) an elaborate form of professional suicide. New Criticism, and later Deconstruction, found no place for Byron, for whom verbal iconicity was subordinate to self-fashioning in verse. That I, a would-be Byronist, am now writing this review some thirty years later, alongside a newly published volume in the revitalized field of Byron studies, is a tribute to the McGann Effect. But, of course, Byron is only one measure of the man. McGann has been at the leading edge of much that is now normative in the scholarly undertakings of Romanticism: the centrality of textual editing and "history of the book," the constructedness of Romanticism as ideology, the turn to history, and most recently his dazzling meditation on the new digital textualities, which has, among other things, brought him full circle to his formative experience editing Byron. The remarkable scholarly outpouring shows no signs of ending for McGann (thank heaven), but it certainly all begins with George Gordon.

And so much of the new Byron studies begins with McGann's "Byron and the Anonymous Lyric," first published in 1992. That seminal essay viewed Byron through the lens of Baudelaire, as the arch-deconstructor of Romantic sincerity. For example, Byron's much-traduced valediction to his wife, "Fare Thee Well!" is, for McGann, a lyric poison calling card, an essentially theatrical performance of a broken heart, but one whose manipulativeness is essential to its layered structures of feeling. One of those rhetorical layers is sincerity, but sincerity deconstructed, a mirror held up to its hypocrite lecteurs. In Bryon, the "truth is masquerade" or, as McGann puts it in a related essay from 1990, "hypocrisy and the true voice of feeling cannot be separated" (115).

The majority of the essays in Byron and Romanticism are taken from the early 1990s and borrow from this single insight: that truth and falsity, and good and bad style, are barren claims for a reading of Byron, just as Wordsworthian sincerity, on which the history of disciplinary Romanticism rests, is deconstructed by Byronic theatricality: "Byron puts on a mask and is able to tell the truth about himself—a truth that comes across only because the text at the literal level is an imaginary execution of the denial of that truth" ("Hero With a Thousand Faces," 146) Reading Byron in this fashion is an abyssal experience. McGann has no truck with Freud; instead this is the textualisation of personality on the deconstructive model, where Byron is the Everyman of dis-integrated selfhood, a self orbiting always within the horizon of proper sentiment. That is, the possibility of truth in the performance of poetic confession can never be wholly discounted. Cynicism, after all, is as fakeable as sincerity. That we can't be sure of the mode is the beauty of reading Lord Byron.

McGann's "masquerade" reading of Byron places important limits on his influential critique of deconstruction in "A Point of Reference" from 1985. In the De Manian heyday, when Derrida was read (unhelpfully) as a radical skeptic something like Berkeley, McGann could justifiably compose a defense of referentiality and the historical method, while still perform essentially deconstructive turns of his own in his readings of Byron. With high theory in its permanent twilight, his Byron is of more enduring significance. McGann is the essential, unassimilable middle-term between his first teacher, De Man, and his student Marjorie Levinson, between the Romanticism-as-rhetoric of the 70s and 80s and the Romanticism-as-style of today, because he saw (as none of the Yale School did) that Byron had arrived at the party first, dressed to rhyme: "The grotesque features of Childe Harold's sublimities are essential to the work, and ultimately function to satirize and deconstruct the reader's correspondently sublimed poetic expectations" (147).

McGann's Byron "wakes up" (from) Romanticism in 1812, and discovers, in the energetic postures of madness and badness (and sincerity and goodness), a dry node within a saturated poetical discourse. McGann's insight is literary/rhetorical, but impossible without deep historical understanding. Responsible for so much that is new in Romantic studies, and steeped in textual scholarship and the historical method, McGann is, as he concedes, "old-fashioned." In the concluding interview with his editor, James Soderholm, he keeps cultural studies at arms length and regrets the "costs," to poetry, of theory. False consciousness is a fact of historicity, even and especially our own. Meanwhile, the most sincere form of literary scholarship remains the study of the history of texts and their transmission.

A number of the contributions to the new Cambridge Companion to Byron trace a direct lineage to the revisionary priorities laid out by Jerome McGann. McGann helped to restore the scholarly credibility of biography, and the collection opens with a helpful Paul Douglass essay on Byron's motley crew of nineteenth century biographers. The piece following it, by Peter Graham, is a terrific study of Byron's sometimes mercenary, often difficult, but ultimately hugely productive relationship with his publisher John Murray. As McGann first saw, Byron is an exemplary case of how literary texts cannot be properly understood outside the contexts—material, economic, commercial—of their production. McGann himself appears later in the collection, with a summation of his now definitive views on the self-fashioning Byronic lyric (a portion of which is borrowed directly from "Byron and the Anonymous Lyric").

In other respects, however, the new Companion represents a post-McGann moment with its strong interest in Byron's orientalism, celebrity, party political affiliations, and sexuality—what might tentatively be described as themes belonging to cultural studies. The most prominent critics in Byron studies, and the larger Romanticist ambit, are assembled. Some chapters, such as Malcom Kelsall's contribution on Byron's politics, Nigel Leask on philhellenism, Alan Richardson on the theatre, Andrew Elfenbein on sexuality, and Andrew Nicholson on the prose, offer creative revisitings of well-known previous work on Byron, while there are new offerings from Susan Wolfson on Byron's versified loathing of Southey ("The Vision of Judgment"). Of particular interest is Philip Martin's persuasive challenge to our now conventional fascination with Byronic psychology and personae: he reads Childe Harold as a more political "appeal to a new audience sympathetic to its coherent and anti-teleological explorations of history, politics and contemporary affairs" (77).

With this varied and always interesting menu, it is certainly not the fault of the individual contributors to the volume, all of whom offer up excellent work, that its overall representation of Byron is so deficient in one key respect: I mean the scandalous marginality of Don Juan. In a volume containing sixteen essays, not one takes Byron's greatest poem as its principal subject, let alone its exclusive concern. Though Don Juan is mentioned passim, of the three hundred pages in the Companion, barely ten (by my count) mark a direct engagement with the poem. We are accustomed to thinking of historicism and cultural studies (I include my own work in this description) as a necessary broadening or levelling of critical focus. If the Companion is any guide, however, the new Bryon studies is biased heavily toward pre-1816, with Childe Harold's Pilgrimmage and the Oriental Tales at the heart of the canon. Of the five essays devoted to close readings, four treat Harold and/or the Tales, and only one essay title, the editor's contribution, even mentions Don Juan. The Byron of the Companion is largely the Byron of 1809-11, on his Eastern caravanserai, and the subsequent Years of Fame. It's as if Don Juan went down with the ship in Canto II! Would the Prelude suffer the same fate in a Wordsworth Companion, or a Milton Companion stop at Lycidas?

What I think of this is less important than what a bright undergraduate or a beginning graduate student (presumably key target audiences of the volume) will learn from the implicit priorities of this Companion, in which Don Juan (and his narrator) is just one Byronic persona among many, and not the protagonist of what is, with The Canterbury Tales and Don Quixote, the greatest comic masterpiece in European literature (not that anyone reading this review requires reminding of this). Might the fact that Don Juan is not read as widely as Chaucer and Cervantes, even among a captive undergraduate audience, be our fault, and the fault of such volumes as the new Cambridge Companion?  Though a singular contribution to the ongoing Byron revival, this collection participates, however unwittingly on the part of its individual contributors, in our continuing, collective, self-destructive neglect of Don Juan. At a time of poetry's decline in the classroom and in the pages of our literary journals, if we cannot publicize that poem's greatness with the critical vocabularies we possess, the historical burden is ours, not Byron's. George Gordon is back in the limelight where he belongs, but we would be right to be concerned, with McGann, at some not-so-hidden "costs" of the new production.