Jerome McGann: An Appreciation on His 70th Birthday

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I first came across Jerome McGann's name in Dissertation Abstracts, some time in the late 1960s. Since those very early days, I have considered myself a colleague of Jerry's (literally so during the time he spent at Royal Holloway in London), sometimes a friendly adversary and always an admirer of his immense scholarly energy. His great work for me remains Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works (1980-92), in the later stages of which he was helped by Barry Weller. I remember James Maxwell making sure that I, as a young literary critic, understood that any lasting contribution one might make to literary culture would be through the work of editing. This was not a message I particularly wanted to hear, but I have to admit that over the years I have recognised that there is a substantial element of truth in it. Criticism can inspire, and occasionally perhaps even clarify, but it is very nearly always of its time and place, and where it is more it usually aspires to literature rather than criticism. But a good edition, if not perhaps relevant for ever, is certainly relevant for a very, very long time indeed. As McGann himself puts it, 'textual theory and editorial practice [are] the foundation of all literary studies'.1

The lasting contribution of Fiery Dust: Byron's Poetic Development, first published in 1968, seems to be McGann's argument, now generally accepted, that Byron's poetry does actually develop in a coherent fashion, and does not suffer some kind of disjunctive gear-change around 1816. Thus perhaps an almost accidental organising factor of Fiery Dust, namely the essays on Childe Harold, came to represent a kind of coherence in Byron's own development. This was a view McGann himself (at least at one point) dismissed,2 but ironies of this kind abound. Fiery Dust ends with an essay on Beppo and thus it is reasonable to see Don Juan in Context, first published in 1976, as a sequel to Fiery Dust. McGann in a way makes this point himself in his preface to the later book, but also suggests (in contrast to the implication in Fiery Dust that Beppo can 'stand for' Don Juan)3 that Don Juan in some ways stands apart and could only be understood by McGann himself once he had appreciated it as 'both a critique and an apotheosis of High Romanticism', and in particular had appreciated 'the importance and meaning of context as a field of knowing, both in general and for Byron in particular'.4 This last remark of course gives us a clue to the way in which McGann's critical mind was going to develop. But one wonders whether the later McGann would agree with other striking formulations in Don Juan in Context, such as: 'the point of Don Juan's "piecemeal" [...] method is to prolong the experience, and activity, of learning in the human world'; 'to illustrate his argument for inflected poetry Byron wrote a poem which, from our point of view as inheritors of High Romantic and symbolist aesthetics, does not submit to the exegetical procedures we traditionally employ'.5 By the time we get to The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory, first published in 1985, we find the following:

Byron observes in this period a series of repetitions which suggest that the cycle of revolutionary disappointment is a general pattern which is found in many historical periods and which is replicated for the individual as well as for society. In terms of the narrator's historical frame (1818-1824) Don Juan is yet another revolutionary undertaking begun in a period of darkness.6

For McGann, in this book, 'historical explanation, in Byron, proceeds according to the mighty working of a poem which reveals [original italics] these odd and unapparent connections'.7 This certainly suggests an exegesis of some kind, even if it is not perhaps what McGann meant in the earlier work by 'traditional'. The earlier study brilliantly captures, and was one of the first to capture, not just the anti-teleological but the radically anti-theological nature of Don Juan - using the latter term with connotations that would be recognised by Coleridge. …