Alexandre-Marie Colin: Byron as Don Juan with Haidee, 1831
I'd like to think of this post as a Byronic digression, but I don't want to push my luck. Please interpose a little smily icon after that sentence if you like. But seriously...
22. I was listening this morning to In Our Time, one of the best radio discussions in which learned academics chat about their subject. I say chat rather than discourse because the programme is intended for a lay audience not fellow professionals. The discussion can be sparkling, combative, and even bruising, but it is always high pace, brilliantly hustled through by Melvyn Bragg. On this occasion the subject was Byron’s first great success, his poem, Childe Harold’s Prilgrimage. You can listen to it here, for a while at least. The programme was as riveting as ever, it was just that the poem, as poem, was hardly part of the discussion – apart from a brief mention about the use of Spenserian stanza and its context, there was nothing. The concentration was on theme, occasion, history, significance, influence, personality and ideas. The programme is, after all, properly devoted to ideas in history so that’s hardly surprising. Nevertheless, it is odd that any literary text, let alone a poem, should be the occasion for talking almost exclusively about its subjects.
23. The biggest subject, of course, was Byron himself. Childe Harold the character becomes the figure I at a key point of the poem with the effect of overlaying two meta-subjects on top of all the other subjects, as discussed by the scholars by way of Byron's poem. Byron does, of course, treat of subjects in Childe Harold. Subject is where he begins and the subject of Byron himself is a vital part of it. Byron creates not only the world that is his subject, he himself knowingly creates himself, the figure, the figure that was to cut such a figure. The poem created the figure that arrived in London and was greeted there as subject. That figure was also a man. Byron the man became the subject not only of his readers but also of his society. Larkin said he couldn’t go around pretending to be himself. Byron discovers something of himself by pretending to be the Byron of language. Subject as figure is at the heart of lyric poetry. Subject as world is what is proposed in lyric poetry. Both arise out of language
24. As concerns language, form, and some possible way of close reading, I suspect producers and programme makers fear that any such notion would bore the listeners. They might think it too dry an approach. It need not be. Michael Rosen’s fine series, Word of Mouth, suggests one way of talking about language. The fact is that Byron’s choice and use of the stanza form, with the diction it invited and made possible, is not secondary. The poem is not a means of saying, nor even an aspect of saying – it is, to put it a little crudely, the saying. It is not what is said, but the saying. It is the speaker’s body; the way the speaker moves through space; the way he walks or strides or bows or buckles up; the way he gestures or grimaces or springs to attention. It is the way he enters the room. That which is said arises out of the movement, not vice versa.
25. In Byron’s greatest poem. Don Juan – one of the very greatest poems in the language – he deploys a form he imports from the Italian, ottava rima. This is a difficult form in Italian and is an ostentatiously virtuosic form in English. It requires great powers of invention, and in doing so, like all forms of virtuosity, offers a kind of commentary on itself. The poem is a verse narrative that is all but flooded by its own digressions, and yet, like its hero, Juan, it swims on. Byron’s first attempt at ottava rima was another marvellously amusing, swaggering, ironic poem, Beppo. There he learned what English ottava rima might do. There he could be a clear, apparently unambiguous I, an I whose performance is so far performance that it is constantly drawing attention to language, an I that owns itself as a figure of speech. Language and subject point to each other’s provisionality, note the alas of it, but glory in it. To return to my metaphor of the town, they paint the town red.
Speaking of towns and cities, in the next post I want to pick up on some points made by the excellent Tim of LitRefs in the comments on the previous post and the one before.