All the Rage: Wordsworth's Attack on Byron in Lines Addressed to a Noble Lord

Article excerpt

Let me only say one word upon Lord B. The man is insane.

--Wordsworth to John Scott

[Byron] looks on all things with an evil eye.

--Wordsworth to Henry Crabb Robinson

Pray keep clear of Lord Byron.

--Wordsworth to an unknown correspondent

Although Wordsworth repeatedly abuses Byron in letters and conversations, he never once mentions the younger poet by name in his verse.[1] In his published poetry there is nothing comparable to the poetic attacks Byron made against the "simple WORDSWORTH" in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers or the "unintelligible" Wordsworth in Don Juan. This silence makes Lines Addressed to a Noble Lord a rare and important public expression of Wordsworth's hostility. Written by Wordsworth and Mary Barker, a family friend, the poem was printed anonymously in April 1815.[2] While there is no evidence that Byron read it, there are many reasons to believe that Wordsworth wanted him to know of the poem. He distributed it among friends and critics, included in it sentiments about Byron he had often expressed to them, and made no attempt to disguise his style; as he suspected, people were able to identify sections as his (LWDW 3: 176). And the form of the poem itself--the genre known as "the letter to an eminent person"--is predicated on a direct public address to the offending lord.

For romantic scholars, the interest in Lines Addressed to a Noble Lord is more biographical than aesthetic; the poem is valuable for what it tells us about Wordsworth's attitudes towards Byron, especially in 1814-15. Henry Crabb Robinson wrote in his diary that the poem is "not a good satire" (Books 1: 167), and Wordsworth appeared to share this appraisal, noting inconsistencies in tone and telling his sister, Dorothy, that some of Barker's work "weakens it" (LWDW 3: 176). Yet when understood in the context of Wordsworth's letters and conversations about Byron prior to the poem's printing, Lines Addressed to a Noble Lord betrays Wordsworth's profound hostility towards Byron, profound because of its intimate relation to Wordsworth's sense of himself as a poet and public figure.

WORDSWORTH SCHOLARSHIP AND THE TEXT

Although aware of Wordsworth's animus, critics have traditionally underestimated its role in his writings. Comparative studies of Wordsworth and Byron often diminish, if not completely erase, this hostility. Overlooking Lines Addressed to a Noble Lord and a vast amount of additional evidence, romantic scholar Michael Cooke, for example, claims that Wordsworth felt "something like magnanimity" for the younger poet, and that "a measured and judicious quality must be taken as the hallmark of Wordsworth's treatment of Byron" (20, 21). Cooke skillfully discusses differences between their poetry but ignores the possibility that Wordsworth's deep-seated antagonism towards Byron and his poetics could be a source of such differences. When critic James Hill compares modes of consciousness in Wordsworth's and Byron's poetry, he fails to consider the place each writer occupied in the other's consciousness while writing; like Cooke, he ignores Wordsworth's antagonism as a possible catalyst for his poetry. But as Byron was often writing against Wordsworth, Lines shows us that Wordsworth wrote against Byron.

Jalal Khan's recent work on Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron suggests a path that comparative studies of the poets might take. Khan explores the ways in which Wordsworth's The River Duddon volume "may have been intended as a response to Byron" by looking at some of its poems as "lyrical dialogues" between the poets (62, 78). Although only a small portion of his article focuses on Byron, he offers insightful analysis about the role that Wordsworth's personal and poetical conflict with Byron plays in his poetry. Khan mentions Lines Addressed to a Noble Lord as an expression of such conflict; he offers no discussion, however, of the poem or the context that engendered it. …