The Byron Journal at Forty

Article excerpt

In 1967, Robert Gleckner devoted two chapters in his still impressive Byron and the Ruins of Paradise to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage I-II. This was a bold thing to do. Byron's poetry at that time, apart from what were pigeonholed as 'the satires' (Beppo, Don Juan and The Vision of Judgement), was almost universally patronised. Andrew Rutherford, an intelligent man and one of the time's foremost Byronists, could take for granted in a 1988 article in The Byron Journal that 'so much of Byron's poetry is downright bad or mediocre'.1 Gleckner noted that it 'is not only fashionable but critically "correct" to dismiss the first two cantos [of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage] almost as if they never existed'.2

In 2012 in London, a symposium was held mainly on 'Byron in 1812' to commemorate the bicentenary of the poem's publication. Some very distinguished Byron critics (and these are now sufficiently numerous to be no longer a protected species) took Childe Harold's Pilgrimage I-II very seriously indeed. Times have changed. Another anniversary in 2012 might help to explain this change. Forty years ago, The Byron Journal was founded by Elma Dangerfield and Dennis Walwin Jones. It was initiated in 1972 but the first issue was on Byron's birthday, 22 January 1973. Almost unbelievably, 22 January was to be the date of Elma Dangerfield's death in 2006.

It would be wrong to over-estimate the rise in Byron's reputation over this period, he is still barely taught in schools and under-taught in universities. The public at large remain convinced that Lord Byron is a Rupert Everett look-alike with a limp. It would smack of hubris, too, to explain his increased critical stature simply by the foundation of the journal but there has certainly been a change and The Byron Journal has certainly both mirrored and assisted this.

The history of academic journals is an interesting and complicated one. I am no expert on the matter but it seems that they may be said to have originated with the Journal des Sçavans (later Savants) in 1665, followed three months later by The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The former lasted until the French Revolution. The latter was not a regular publication but became one in 1800. Their purpose was to promote the public exchange of scientific ideas. Earlier in the seventeenth century, even Robert Boyle - 'the father of modern chemistry' - was still a believer in alchemy and it may be hazarded that anyone who thought that they had discovered a method of creating gold would not rush into print with the secret. The Royal Society gradually changed all that. Science was a public domain and knowledge a public good.

Interestingly, when the Journal des Savants was refounded in 1816, it changed from being primarily a scientific journal into a literary one. The early nineteenth century was the birthplace of the academic literary journal though the contributors to and main readers of the Edinburgh (1802) and Quarterly Review were not academics. Earlier famous journals in the eighteenth century, such as The Spectator and The Tatler, sometimes featured extracts from new works but they were not journals of literary criticism. The new journals in Byron's time contained articles on many subjects, had a clear political bias, but devoted much space to the criticism of new literary books and introduced a new and powerful phenomenon - 'the reviewer'. Byron's title English Bards and Scotch Reviewers relies on the new usage, where a 'reviewer' is primarily someone who writes in a literary journal.3

If we jump to the literary scene a century later, we find a diverse pattern. Academic literary journals have arrived such as the American Modern Language Review (1905) and the British Review of English Studies (1925). The Times newspaper has initiated The Times Literary Supplement (1902) with anonymous scholarly reviews. On the other hand, there are many journals that carry literary reviews which are not written or intended for an academic readership. …