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William J. P. Neish, The Speaking Eye: Byron's Aberdeen – Places, People and a Poem

Thursday, May 15, 2003 - 09:26
William J. P. Neish, The Speaking Eye: Byron's Aberdeen - Places, People and a Poem. Sussex, England: Book Guild Ltd., 2001. xviii + 312pp. Illus.: 4 halftones. £10.50/$22.50 (Ppbk; ISBN: 1-85776-593-1).

Reviewed by
Ann R. Hawkins
Texas Tech University

In 1866, William Neish's great-great-grandmother received a bequest of the entire estate of John Raeburn, a childhood schoolfellow of George Gordon, Lord Byron, that included an oil portrait, several engraved portraits, manuscript copies of three poems by an Aberdeenshire poet, and a piece of Delftware tile with a motif of a sailing ship reputed to have come from the house of the Byrons (xiv).  But among those items Neish discovered a manuscript of an elegy memorializing Professor William Duncan by "Old Pupil" that was published in the Aberdeen Journal on September 6, 1815.

Neish's The Speaking Eye records his exhaustive research to discover who Professor William Duncan and the "Old Pupil" who memorialized him were.  Along the way Neish uncovers a significant amount of data about Raeburn, Duncan, Byron's schoolfellows, and the Byrons' Aberdeen neighbors.  Neish chooses to provide much of this data--even when somewhat tangential to his argument--having discovered a number of discrepancies between published information about these figures and the archival evidence.  Ultimately, Neish considers that Byron might have written the elegy, and he compares "Old Pupil['s]" phraseology with Byron's poems of the period, particularly Parisina.

Each of the book's early chapters approaches a discrete problem posed by investigating the identity of "Old Pupil."  The first chapter outlines the status of Aberdeen at the turn of the nineteenth-century.  Beginning with census data and a replica of a street map, Neish offers a sort of walking tour of Aberdeen, noting sites of intellectual, political, and social importance.  Neish also carefully notes locations that would have held strong significance for the young Byron, such as the Aberdeen Grammar School; the Tolbooth, notorious as the spot where one of Byron's ancesters murdered a kinsman; and the Wallace Tower, which Byron mentions later in letters.  Reproductions of mid-nineteenth-century street-views show the facades of buildings as they might have appeared in the 1790s.

The second chapter considers John Raeburn's personal relationship with Byron.  Raeburn may have been the anonymous "J. R." whose criticism of Byron's "Ode to Napoleon Buonoparte" appeared in the Morning Chronicle in 1814.  Additionally, Raeburn might have been an unidentified correspondent of Byron's--"J. R**"--who wrote to him in 1815 about the "Ode."   But most importantly, Raeburn is possibly the unidentified young lame boy who played with Byron in Broad Street and who accompanied Byron across the Brig o' Balgownie.   Byron's note to Don Juan Canto X, stanza 18 reveals an old folktale surrounding the bridge: that it would stand until a widow's only son and a mare's only foal crossed it.  Byron tested this folktale with a friend and a borrowed pony.   Neish traces the extant anecdotes about this episode, comparing their assertions with evidence he has uncovered and notes when an anecdote is mistaken.  This is a common rhetorical move for Neish in the book: he marshals different versions of a story, episode or even a "fact" and then compares them to discoveries in his research.   As a result, his research is a valuable corrective to nineteenth-century sources often regarded as accurate.

In carrying out this discussion, however, Neish tends to get caught up in marshalling many individual facts and details--for example, tracing John Raeburn's purchase and sale of toddy ladles.  Though recognizing that "much of this material about Raeburn is irrelevant for his association with Byron and their Aberdeen connection," Neish includes it, believing it "worthwhile to present as detailed a record as possible of Raeburn's life and effects in case other materials, perhaps from the Aberdeen Bank archives and relating to Byron and himself, ever come to light" (23).

Chapters 3 and 4 examine historical data surrounding William Duncan and "Old Pupil," respectively. Chapter 3's investigation is complicated by the fact that two William Duncans had either taught at or been associated with Aberdeen Grammar School at the time of Byron's schooling, but Neish argues that the subject of the elegy had been the handwriting instructor.  Chapter 4 focuses on examining other old pupils to discover "Old Pupil['s]" identity.  After narrowing the field to journalist John Scott and to Byron, the chapter considers other efforts to commemorate the late teacher, including a subscription for a memorial.

When external data fails to prove Byron's involvement in the elegy, Neish examines next the elegy's "stylometry" (55).  The ensuing five chapters compare the elegy's phraseology, rhymes and punctuation to Byron's other works.   In particular, Neish focuses on tracing unique phrasings across their history and to their most likely contemporary practitioner.  Most unique of the phrases is the "speaking eye" from which the book draws its title, and Neish's persistence in tracing usages of the phrase to its earliest practitioner is admirable.  Neish concludes that "[d]uring the period up to 1815, Byron's works were found to contain not only the phrases 'speaking eye', 'choral song' and 'modest worth', but also rhymes such as GIVEN-HEAVEN, AGE-PAGE, DAYS-PRAISE, SEA-BE, and one example of the eye-rhyme PROVE-LOVE (in the form of BELOVED-APPROVED) all of which appear in the OP poem" (195).  Ultimately, chapter 9 presents evidence of similarities between Byron's poetry and "Old Pupil['s]" elegy gathered through A. J. Morton and S. Michaelson's method of stylistic analysis.  Morton conducted the analysis of the poem, and, after two trials, he concluded that "there is no obstacle to claiming [the author] as Byron" (98).

The remaining sections of the book offer simply more data.   Chapter 10 argues that goldsmith John Leslie was likely a Byron relative; chapter 11 describes Aberdeen community life, by briefly mentioning the lives and occupations of the Byrons's neighbors--men such as John "Bodsy" Bower, James Ross, John and Joseph Patterson, Gilbert Falconer, Alexander Watson, George Pirie, James Beattie, John Stewart, Nathaniel Gillet, and John Ewen.  Neish concludes from these biographical sketches that "in his formative years in Aberdeen, there can be little doubt that Byron had learned much about poetry and perhaps about scientific/mechanical matters from his neighbors and teachers living in the small community of Broad Street, the Gallowgate and Schoolhill" (153).  Neish's afterword also provides some "partly speculative" material about "the movements of Mrs. Byron and her son after they left London around April 1788 until they quit Aberdeen for Newstead Abbey in August 1798" (158).  The remaining 100 pages of text offer more analysis of the "speaking eye" phrase in the attempt to trace it to its earliest practitioners, as well as lengthy explanatory notes that provide still more information about people, places, and occupations in 1790s Aberdeen.

A number of factors that may arise from disciplinary differences--Neish worked as a chemist and cancer researcher--will irritate literary scholars.  Neish's use of acronyms approaches obsession.  He shortens every possible name, phrase or title to its initials, including names not necessary for abbreviation such as F for Fitzgerald or H for Hemans.  Abbreviations are not always intuitive, such as WDC for World's Classics, and the (incomplete) key to abbreviations is hidden near the end of the volume.  Further, Neish's use of APA rather than MLA results in long intrusive parenthetical citations, with explanatory notes indicated idiosyncratically by numbers in square brackets.  Together these factors frustrate easy reading of the text, as the example below indicates:

After Murray published the first edition of ONB consisting of 15 stanzas (printed by W. Bulmer of Cleveland Street, St James's, see E. H. Coleridge, "The Words of Lord Byron: Poetry", Vol. III, pp. 301-315, 1904 and McGann, 1981, Vol. III, p. 456) on 16 April 1814, omitting Byron's name at the request of the poet [23], he asked Byron to write three more stanzas for the next edition [24] which was published around 20 April 1814. (24)

Neish should have shown a greater awareness of his humanities audience by using a more appropriate documentation style.

Neish's research will be useful to those interested in the history of Aberdeen, its life and people, as well as to scholars of Byron's poetry.  His willingness to extend his expertise in scientific research to a literary topic is admirable, and the book shows a tenacity of purpose.  However, its construction and methodology substitutes a wealth of sometimes pertinent and sometimes oblique detail for a strongly organized argument.  Neish's work will perhaps prove most useful as a sort of almanac to the Aberdeen of Byron's youth.