Anthony Howe - Byron and the Forms of Thought. Reviewed by Chris Washington
Francis Marion University
Like any good study of Byron does, Anthony Howe takes his subject seriously as both a writer and thinker, but unlike other studies Howe’s book features a methodology perfectly in line with Byron’s own compositional practices. Howe intentionally plays with the scholarly book form in order to demonstrate how form evinces its own complicated thought process, just as, the book argues, the forms of Byron’s poems do. Howe’s book adopts an essayistic approach, as does Byron on Howe’s reading, even in Byron’s most seemingly non-essayistic works like Don Juan (1819-1824). Positioning himself against the idea that Byron was an important literary and cultural historical figure but not an important writer as famously encapsulated by Goethe and Arnold’s opinions, both of who labeled him an anti-intellectual, Howe seeks to reclaim Byron from this critical judgment, which Byron has never fully shaken off.
The larger context against which Howe approaches his subject is Byron’s own “self-mythologizing” which “has been taken on and extended by others to the extent that he has become one of the most written poets in the language [sic]” (2-3). While it is perhaps unsurprising that popular writings on the poet un-self-critically take Byron’s image- and myth-making at face value, and so perpetuate and allow them to exponentially assume new complications in new directions, Howe finds similar tendencies in scholarship. He surveys Byron’s treatment by New Critics, deconstructions, and New Historicists—ultimately acknowledging Byron’s rescue by the latter—before noting that they, too, tend to press Byron to their own ends. For Howe, though, “the study of literature, if it is to follow its object for any distance, cannot depart entirely from that object’s ways of being” (5). Poetry’s “ways of being,” we learn by the end of his book, are what Howe means by the somewhat elusive term “form.” Indeed, for all its sophisticated thinking and impressive and valuable readings, if the book has a shortfall then is what exactly is meant by “form” tends to get a little obscured (6). Nevertheless, by tasking us to mind the literariness, or form, of a literary text in favor of its cultural or theoretical value, Howe, like other recent scholars, makes an appeal for a return to a type of close reading that is worth listening to.
This methodological appeal is linked to the main concern of Howe’s reading of Byron’s form. Overlooking literary or poetic forms, he writes, hinders understanding poetry at all: “any serious apprehension of poetry is unavailable to writing with no sense of form” (5). Byron’s work provides proof of this dictum in that “to read Byron’s thinking is to be drawn into a poetics that is both enriched and withheld by the problems of literary singularity. Byron’s poetry, rather than being reproducible as a discrete branch of philosophy, engages philosophical thought as a prelude to self-understanding. It becomes its own investigation into the thoughtfulness and knowledge of form” (5-6). Of the major Byron studies, Howe situates his in relation to Terence Allan Hoagwood’s Byron’s Dialectic: Skepticism and the Critique of Culture (1993) and Emily A. Bernhard Jackson’s The Development of Byron’s Philosophy of Knowledge (2010). He differentiates his work from theirs in that he attempts to avoid “subjugating the reading of poetry to the purposes of claiming Byron as a particular species of philosopher” (6). In Byron’s poetry, form “becomes a way of reading the world against the grain of its objectification” and “offers the possibility of reinvigorating thought as a mode of existential and political challenge” (8).
The book is divided into three sections, each featuring two essays: “Philosophy,” “Poetics,” and “Outlines.” The first section traces some of the intellectual currents and debates of Byron’s time as well as those Howe sees as most influential on Byron, including Montaigne and a longer lineage of skeptical thinkers. But even given Byron’s awareness of the skeptical tradition and our still-frequent reading of him as a skeptic, for Howe, Byron’s skepticism does not systemically control his work. Indeed, Byron uses skepticism to resist and attack systems that he sees as enabling his culture’s infatuation with and zealousness for “cant.” Relatedly, according to Howe, Byron’s satirical critique of these cantical systems “needed to come through literary form.” Thus a reading Don Juan’s description of system “as a long trail of delusion and hubris” must account for “the reach of the language and imagery beyond philosophical positioning into the surrounding richness of human history and imagination” (34-35). Byron’s return to literary form seeks to prove that “the problem lies not with language but with our assumptions about how we know things” (37). In other words, literary form, as a manifestation of language, never allows skepticism to overwhelm poetry’s uniqueness with philosophical conundrums and confusion. Indeed, poetry’s formal structure, in Byron’s hands, forestalls any such attempt by philosophical content to overmaster it and, instead, can even undercut philosophy’s claim to universal, primary importance for thought. The second essay in this section features a bravura reading of what Howe characterizes as Byron’s most philosophical poem, Cain (1821) (43). Although much of the poem is “driven by argument and polemical force,” form affects the nature of the argument, too. Howe writes, “argument is not left untouched by dramatic staging: it is altered and unsettled at the edges in ways that raise questions about the sufficiency of rational explication. Other kinds of intelligence—dramatic form, irrational action, tradition and allusion, love and vatic apprehension—enter and complicate the play” (44).
Part II turns away from Byron’s philosophical concerns to his poetics via an examination of Byron’s response to William Lisle Bowles’s assertions that depreciated Alexander Pope’s exemplar status in English poetry. Byron, of course, had long upheld Pope as an ideal model to be emulated, but in entering this debate with his Letter to John Murray (1821), Byron begins to sketch something like a philosophy of poetics even if it “cannot be wholly reconstituted as a theory or philosophical position” (84). This poetics ultimately congeals into a belief that “we might think in more ways than one and at the same time” (98). Holding a multitude of viewpoints allows for, as Howe reads it, making “poetry” dependent on “specific configurations of human and environmental reciprocity” like “the encounter between the precariousness of human life and its final, demolishing yet wondrous context” (98). The next essay traces the manifestation of this poetics in Byron’s poetry in the post-Lockean context of using specifically concretized language to gauge how closely our experience hews to reality. Howe finds that Byron, although writing in this historical context, emerges in poems like Don Juan as a poet invested in traversing “historical and cultural process that have conspired to diminish the vitality of thought and language through acts of controlling categorization and narrowed circumscription” (125). It is the upside-down equivalent of post-Lockean thinking. Rather than seeing language as the wobbly malefactor that prevents understanding of the world, it is historical and cultural processes that derail language by seeking to homogenize it as prattling but uniform cant.
The final set of paired essay takes on “Outlines,” which for Howe is another aspect of how form shapes thought in poetry and vice versa. Here Howe finds that “Byron’s ‘wish’ is to write a critical and wary visionary poetry that throws off Romantic acculturation and its post-Enlightenment sense of division to touch upon ‘Eternity’ (131).” Whereas so far in the book Howe has explored “these ideas mainly through the narrator of Don Juan as digressive ‘philosopher’ and weaver of reflexive images,” in this section he examines Byron “as a narrative artist, in the forms and symbolic characters that shape Juan’s experience” (131). Freed from Murray’s conservatism, Howe shows that, beginning with Canto VI of Don Juan, Byron felt a new freedom to engage politically through a “re-vision of war poetry” that Byron found burdened down by ‘Cant Political’ (147).” To revise “the traditions of war poetry he would first need to step outside of their agreed parameters” which “would require a mode of poetry highly sensitized to its own representations” (158): in other words, a return to thinking about poetic form. Thus Byron “relentlessly associate[s] the politics of war with the politics of authorship” in these later siege cantos (162). By entangling war with literature Byron shows how they have both abandoned “the honesty of genuine craft” (162).
Ultimately, Howe’s reading of Byronic form discovers in Byron an “interest […] in a different kind of truth-telling, one that comes through the selective processes that define his role as narrative poet” (179). For Byron, poetic “visions can occupy and emerge from a spirit of truthfulness that […] only the forms of literature can host and preserve” (179). This poetics of truth-telling, according to Howe, braces us to see through the various forms of cant, in history, culture, politics, and literature that obscure the varied possibilities of thought itself. Byron’s self-reflexive poetry, skeptical of its own skepticism, of its own thought embodied in its form, stands as a bulwark against the very cynicism and nihilism often leveled at Byron by his critics. If, as Howe says, Byron never appears as a poet with a fully outlined philosophy of thought (only in “outlines;” hence this third section) then this is because fragmentation is necessary to preserve thought itself.