Byron and History: Two Points of View

In this debate two writers make cases for and against the idea that Byron should be read in relation to his own historical environment. Do we necessarily understand poems better, the more we know about the issues of their day? This is a key debate in literary scholarship.

1. Byron through the Lens of History

Writing in favour of a historical approach, research fellow Emily A. Bernhard Jackson argues that key features of Byron's poetry - including the 'Byronic hero' himself - are so entwined with the events and concerns of the early 19th century that we are liable to misunderstand them if we ignore that context.

Lord Byron is a poet for whom Historicist Criticism is not so much a choice as a necessity.  A highly political writer whose beliefs, and thus works, were ineradicably influenced by the society he lived and by his place in it, he is impossible to understand unless he is re-placed in that society.

Of course, we might say of any poet that he or she cannot be fully understood unless placed in his or her historical milieu, but this is especially true of Byron.  To take but one example, we can consider his greatest poem, Don Juan.  Its first cantos attack the morals and of his day with gusto, certainly, but only after he changed publishers in the middle of the poem - so that the rest of the work was published by the radical publisher John Hunt - did Byron's attacks on English morals and ideals become nakedly savagely satirical.  We cannot understand the poem's change to a darker and more savage poem unless we consider this historical fact.  Or we might consider the poem that made him famous, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.  Certainly Harold appealed to readers because of its brooding, glamorous anti-hero, but it also appealed to them because it was one of the few poems published between 1793 and 1815 (when the Napoleonic Wars made travel to Europe next to impossible for most Britons) that presented its audience with glimpses of the landscape and peoples of a continent from which they were barred: without the Napoleonic Wars, Harold would never have been so popular, and Byron's career might have been very different.  Similarly, recent critics have argued that poems such as The Giaour, The Corsair, and Lara, which seem at the first few glances to be nothing more than Oriental melodrama, are in fact linked to Byron's ongoing commitment to politics and its liberal ideals.

Finally, viewing Byron through a historical lens allows us to understand both the poet himself and the phenomenon for which he is now best known:  the Byronic Hero.  A member of the early 19th-century Whig gentry, Byron used his poetry to adhere to certain that mark him out as a member of that gentry; the cosmopolitanism, urbanity, liberalism, and even sexual and class attitudes that are hallmarks of his works are intimately linked to his place in time.  In the same way, the Byronic Hero is utterly a product of Byron's age:  a wanderer at a time when few were free to wander, a secret sinner in a period in which privacy was coming under ever-heavier political threat, the most individual of individuals in a period when political and moral non-conformity were increasingly frowned upon, the Byronic Hero came out of and spoke to Byron's society.  That this Hero remains a popular figure in our culture today is in part because he took such strong root in his own historical milieu.  In a very real way, then, history made Byron the central cultural figure he remains today.

2. Byron as Ahistorical Poet

Undergraduate Alistair Billingsley responds on behalf of a Byron who transcends history.

To view Lord Byron through the lens of history is to diminish and delimit his literary power.  While historical criticism certainly allows readers to see the background against which Byron was writing, and thus to understand influences upon his poetry, it risks reducing Byron to little more than a poet trapped in a particular time, writing particularized works for a particular audience.  And he is much more than such a poet.

Byron's work invites its readers to ponder questions that transcend historical periods and political stances.  Consider Don Juan.  Byron alleged both inside the text and out that it was a moral work:  in Canto I, for example, he writes, 'If any person should presume to assert / This story is not moral... I pray, / ... they'll read it o'er again.' Yet Juan is by no means a poem that upholds what we might call traditional moral values - or 19th-century ones.  In what way, then, is it a moral poem? Rather than asking us to consider 'morals' as a historically limited concept, Juan asks us to consider the larger definition of the word 'moral' - might Don Juan be a moral poem precisely because it sets canonical notions of morality on their heads and invites us to question them?  If we simply read the poem as a a product of a particular time and place, we risk missing the larger issues at stake in it.

Similarly, one might argue that Byron repays attention in the area of form - another area of study.  His skill with metaphor - 'She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies' - and the nimble way in which he manipulates rhythm and structure to produce effect - 'But - Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual, / Inform us truly, have they now hen-peck'd you all?' - need no historical contextualization to render them worthy of study.  They offer enough food for thought on their own.

Finally, let us consider the Byronic Hero.  While one could argue that he sprang from specific historical circumstances, it is impossible to argue that he remains dependent on them.  The Byronic Hero has re-appeared countless times over the past 200 years: as Heathcliff, as James Dean, as Roy Batty in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.  That he continues to be reiterated long after the death of the author and the society that spawned him suggests that he stands outside history, and that his value is greater than simple historical value.  That Byron also continues to be read and studied suggests the same about him.


Which side are you on? You can add your views below if you like.

The essay for history might make us wonder how much historical knowledge is enough. Do you think there is a point after which one knows enough to read properly? If that seems like a difficult thing to place, what does this mean for the practice of historicist interpretation?

The essay against history says that literary form is 'ahistorical' - it does not relate to historical circumstances or historical change. Do you agree?

Customs and/or habits; pronounced 'moor-rays', it is originally a Latin word.
Although political groupings in Byron's time were far looser than they are today, the Whigs were one of the two main political parties of the time. The other was the Tories. Whig politics had various aspects: one key interest was promoting parliament at the expense of the monarchy.
A useful word that denotes a belief held by an individual or group.
Not concerned with history.

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