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William D. Brewer, The Shelley-Byron Conversation

Tuesday, July 7, 1998 - 05:50
William D. Brewer, The Shelley-Byron Conversation. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994. xiv + 189pp. $42.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8130-1300-3).

Reviewed by
Jonathan Gross
DePaul University

William Brewer's The Shelley-Byron Conversation is an elegantly written account of the moments of influence and intertextuality that occurred between Byron and Shelley during the six years in which they engaged in their diabolical conversations. Brewer's book differs from Robinson's Shelley and Byron: The Snake and Eagle Wreathed in Fight (1976) and Stephen Behrendt's Shelley and His Audiences (University of Nebraska Press, 1989) in seeing a "conversation" between Byron and Shelley rather than a debate "between Shelley's meliorism and Byron's pessimism" (Preface). One point of Brewer's study is that the Shelley-Byron conversation was exploratory in nature. By the time Byron wrote The Island and Shelley wrote The Triumph of Life, they had not only learned from each other, but seemed to be experimenting with positions antithetical to the views they held when they first met. The Island is Byron's most Shelleyan poem, and The Triumph of Life is Shelley's most pessimistic work.

In his first chapter, entitled "Shelley, Byron, and Their Conversations," Brewer follows Reiman in noting that Shelley not only encouraged Byron to appreciate Wordsworth, but also introduced his own notions of "the autonomy of the human spirit" (8) as reflected in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto 3, "Sonnet on Chillon," and Manfred. Byron's influence on Shelley is less clear. Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" was the only major work actually written when Byron was present, for Shelley had difficulty composing in Byron's presence (17). Yet Shelley's "Sonnet to Byron," which Byron never saw, reflects the impact the older poet had on Shelley.

In his second chapter, Brewer notes how Shelley and Byron successfully deflected the competition between them as rival poets by focusing on Wordsworth's verse and on their mutual interest in theories of catastrophism. Brewer sees traces of Wordsworth's pantheism in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto 3, "[Epistle to Augusta]," and "The Dream," and in Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc," all of which were written in 1816 (24). Where Robinson argued that Byron followed Shelley in developing "hero and heroine as double representations of a single personality,"1 Brewer notes stylistic resemblances between Shelley's Alastor and Byron's "Darkness" and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, 3 (25–27). He then takes up theories of catastrophism, arguing that Shelley and Byron were influenced by their conversations about the theory of natural history as documented in Georges Buffon's Histoire naturelle, James Parkinson's Organic Remains, and the writings of George Cuvier. Brewer effectively explores the political implications of Byron's and Shelley's attraction to scientific theories "which represent the universe as dynamic and revolutionary rather than static and reactionary in nature" (35).

In his third chapter, Brewer highlights similarities between Julian and Maddalo and The Prisoner of Chillon (47): "it is almost as if in The Prisoner of Chillon Byron takes on Julian's point of view, that 'much may be endured / Of what degrades and crushes us'" (183–84), while Shelley's Maniac embodies Maddalo's conviction of man's basic weakness (46–47). Byron's and Shelley's prisoners are solipsists who cannot "accept the very freedom they profess to love" (48). Brewer also sees stylistic similarities between Peter Bell the Third, The Witch of Atlas, and Don Juan, though he admits that "Byron may never have seen the posthumously published Witch [of Atlas]" (55). I finished this chapter more struck by Shelley's borrowings from Byron than vice versa, in particular Shelley's use of Byron's "conversational style" in such poems as Peter Bell the Third and The Witch of Atlas (52–55). Brewer succeeds in highlighting thematic similarities that other critics have not noted, and he does so in a style free of jargon and pretension.

In "The Cenci and Sad Reality," Brewer explores the results of Shelley's conversation with Byron in his tragedy, The Cenci (1819). Byron was not very complimentary regarding Shelley's play. He described the subject as "essentially undramatic" and preferred the Greek playwrights to Shelley's use of Shakespeare as a model (57). Shelley returned the favor, informing Mary Shelley that Byron "affects to patronize a system of criticism fit only for the production of mediocrity" (57). Nevertheless, Brewer is able to document a number of ongoing allusions and echoes between Shelley's The Cenci and Byron's "Prometheus" (60), and between The Cenci and "Darkness." Both Shelley and Byron were influenced by "Coleridge's presentation of human nature as an intertwined combination of good and evil" (62), yet in The Cenci Shelley takes the Byronic hero "to its final logical absurdity" (65). Brewer's comparisons between the thematic concerns of The Cenci and Marino Faliero are less successful. I found it hard to see similarities between Beatrice's choice of "being repeatedly raped by her demonic father" and killing him, and the Doge's choice "between violent rebellion and submission to tyrants who transform his people into 'mere machines, / To serve the nobles' . . . pleasure'" (1.2.302–3) (75). Beatrice's options seem much more limited—more personally and physically threatening—for the Doge is the leader, even if only the nominal head, of the government to which he only feels he is submitting.

In an excellent chapter on Sardanapalus, Brewer notes that the hero's "literary knowledge and wittiness is that of a nineteenth-century Englishman rather than an ancient Assyrian: he alludes to Herodotus, Childe Harold, Canto 1; and Biographia Literaria, and plays on the similarity between 'King' and 'kine' (Act 5, 480-87)" (Brewer 80). Jerome Christensen has pointed out the importance of anachronism in this play,2 but Brewer successfully illustrates how Byron's use of Horace's "middle style" in this work continues his conversation with Shelley in Julian and Maddalo. Brewer suggests interesting similarities between Sardanapalus and Epipsychidion: "As the speaker of Epipsychidion seeks to take his loved one to his 'pleasure-house' (491) to be the 'lady of the solitude' (514), so Sardanapalus wishes he could throw away his crown 'And share a cottage on the Caucasus' (1.2.452) alone with Myrrha, 'and wear no crowns but those of flowers' (1.2.453)" (Brewer 84).

Brewer's sixth chapter is entitled "The Diabolical Discourse of Shelley and Byron." Both Byron, in The Deformed Transformed, and Shelley, in his translation of scenes from Faust, found themselves responding imaginatively to Goethe's Mephistopheles. Byron represented a "coldly intellectual Lucifer" in Cain, a "haughty, aristocratic Satan" in The Vision of Judgment, and "the Mephistophelian Stranger/Caesar of The Deformed Transformed" (101). Shelley's "diabolical beings" are represented in Peter Bell the Third, in his fragmentary prologue to Hellas (indebted to Goethe's prologue to Faust), and in his essay, On the Devil, and Devils (101). Brewer then compares Shelley's futurism as expressed in Queen Mab and Prometheus Unbound with Byron's "virtual despair" (104) in Cain. "While Shelley and Byron's outlooks for the future differed, they seemed to agree that the real threat to modern man comes not from a devil with horns and a forked tail but from the nihilistic despair a limited rationalism such as Lucifer's can inspire" (107). Brewer notes how Shelley's obsession with Goethe's Faust represents, in some ways, a response to Byron's Mephistophelian example.

In an interesting chapter on The Triumph of Life, Brewer considers this poem "in the context of Shelley's relationship with Byron, whose presence in Pisa both stimulated and disturbed him, and also with regard to his and Byron's shared interest in Faust" (110). Brewer takes issue with the assumption that The Triumph of Life reflects Shelley's optimistic, melioristic views and agrees with Robinson (222-5) that The Triumph of Life was written by a man who had "come to question his own poetic gift, and who appears to have abandoned his once cherished notion of man's power to shape his own world" (116). Brewer draws some interesting connections between the treatment of martyrs in The Prophecy of Dante and The Triumph of Life, and between Prometheus Unbound and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. He ranges comfortably through the corpus of each poet, finding phrases and lines of poetry that suggest how Shelley's and Byron's ideas came to resemble each other.

Brewer's eighth chapter title ("Byron Puffs the Snake") refers to Trelawney's account of Byron's refusal to "puff" Shelley's reputation in Byron's own poetry written after Shelley's death (Robinson 233). Brewer convincingly challenges Trelawney's unflattering portrait of Byron by arguing that The Island is Byron's "most Shelleyan poem" (131), a true elegy to his friend. In doing so, he extends Robinson's fundamental insight that Byron's The Island echoes Shelley's Epipsychidion, The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, and Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills (Robinson, 239). According to Brewer, Byron came to recognize the limitations of the Byronic hero and in The Island he offers a critique of this figure, showing how "a potential Corsair (Torquil) turns into a Shelleyan hero and achieves the kind of paradise the narrator of Epipsychidion desperately longs for" (132).

In The Shelley-Byron Conversation, Brewer faults Robinson for seeing the relationship between Byron and Shelley as antagonistic, yet he also sees a "poetic competition" between these poets, especially during their years in Italy shortly before Shelley's death (15). Ultimately, I found the stylistic resemblances Brewer traces in Byron's and Shelley's verse to be more interesting than his dispute with Robinson over whether to categorize their association as a "conversation" or a "fight", though Robinson does at times overstate Shelley's antagonistic relationship with Byron (Robinson 212-217).3 The real benefit of Brewer's work, however, is that it encourages us to attend to the poems themselves and to do so in a way that is free of posturing and pedantry. For this reason, The Shelley-Byron Conversation is both lucid and a pleasure to read.

I have only one, minor quibble with this work. Brewer's treatment of The Liberal, a periodical Byron, Shelley, and Hunt planned to edit together in Pisa, is confined to a few lines in Appendix B (with no reference to William Marshall's study4) and it is not made clear how the poets' discussions about so "sordid" (Brewer 157) a subject as money—Byron was more reluctant to support Leigh Hunt than Shelley—affected their "conversation" with each other. Yet Byron's and Shelley's differing responses to Leigh Hunt as friend, poet, and fellow-traveller in 1822 is surely as significant as their response to Wordsworth's verse in 1816. Their reaction to Hunt and to each others' company can be documented in their letters, moreover, whereas our knowledge of their conversation regarding Wordsworth is almost entirely limited to what they said to each other on a boat in a lake in 1816 (Brewer 8). How might including The Liberal as a point of reference alter Brewer's thesis about the Shelley-Byron conversation? Scholars interested in the relations between Shelley and Byron will also want to consult Marion Kingston Stocking's two-volume edition of Claire Clairmont's letters, published after Brewer's book, to further consider how Clairmont's pregnancy affected the Shelley-Byron conversation, from Clairmont's perspective.5

Brewer's focus on the Shelley-Byron conversation as it is reflected in their poetry is nevertheless extremely valuable and will be very useful to teachers of undergraduate and graduate surveys who wish to place both writers in juxtaposition to one another through a focus on primary texts. Brewer's book does not replace Robinson's study, which still contains much valuable information and is "meticulously researched" (2) as Brewer notes, but it does present an alternative reading of the relationship between these two poets based on the evidence of their verse.


1. Charles Robinson, Shelley and Byron: The Snake and The Eagle Wreathed in Fight (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 43.

2. Jerome Christensen, Lord Byron's Strength (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

3. See Leslie Marchand, Byron: A Portrait (Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1971), 377. For a view in line with Brewer's (though not well supported), see Phyllis Grosskurth, Byron: The Flawed Angel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 407.

4. William Marshall, Byron, Shelley, Hunt and "The Liberal" (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960).

5. Claire Clairmont, The Clairmont Correspondence: Letters of Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont, and Fanny Imlay Godwin, 2 vols., edited by Marion Kingston Stocking (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).