Byron and 'The Liberal': Periodical as Political Posture

By Gross, Jonathan | Philological Quarterly, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Byron and 'The Liberal': Periodical as Political Posture


Gross, Jonathan, Philological Quarterly


On October 15, 1822, Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt published a journal that appeared in four issues between 1822 and 1823. Byron's choice of title for this periodical, The Liberal, represents one of the most significant uses of the word as a noun in the English language.(1) Having left England in 1816, however, Byron did not know the English meaning of the word when he chose it for the title for his periodical.(2) Influenced by revolutionary movements in Italy and Spain, Byron defined a liberal as one interested in national sovereignty, not social reform.(3) He may have been encouraged in this definition by Holland House and its publication, El Espagnol (1810-14), which brought the word liberales into the English vocabulary. In any case, Byron's choice of title can only be understood by examining the political and linguistic events that preceded it. Rather than assume the existence of something Peter Thorslev aptly names "Post-Waterloo Liberalism," then, I will move inductively, tracing the shifting significance of the word liberal until it became the signature of the second generation of Romantic writers.(4)

1

The root of the word liberal (liber) anticipates many of the meanings and connotations that ultimately clustered around its usage in English. In the very root of the word liberal, we have the sense of someone who "acts according to his own will and pleasure, is his own master."(5) His acts are unrestricted, unrestrained, and his political views are frank, open, and bold.

The OED informs us that the word was originally used in English in the sixteenth century to describe men of leisure, "persons of superior social station," whose activities and education were characterized as "liberal." As a social term, it acquired both negative and positive connotations, depending upon how liberal gentlemen alternately used and abused the privileges they enjoyed. On the one hand, the word liberal could refer to a gentleman's generosity; on the other, to his licentiousness. Shakespeare captured both senses of the word in the following simile from Much Ado About Nothing: "Who hath indeed most like a liberall villaine / Confest the vile encounters they have had" (4.1.93).(6)

Byron's life, as documented in his poetry and correspondence, offers a helpful vista from which to survey the subtle transformation of the adjective into a noun. Surprisingly, the word liberal only appears in Byron's poetry on ten occasions;(7) it does so, however, with a significant shift. Before 1818, Byron used the word as an adjective for generous in Childish Recollections ("Candid and liberal, with a heart of steel," 271), Hints from Horace ("Longman's liberal aid," 547), The Waltz ("Liberal of feet," 114), Age of Bronze ("liberal thaw," 440), and Manfred ("liberal air" 1.311); after this date, he began to use the word in a political sense. We hear that Marino Faliero's "mind is liberal" (2.687)(8) and his reluctant but nevertheless revolutionary decision to overthrow his aristocratic peers gives the word a distinctly political connotation: aristocratic, republican, liberty-loving. In Don Juan, the word is used in an exclusively political sense ("This is a liberal age, and thoughts are free" [4.7, 54]; "O'er congress, whether royalist or liberal" [12.5, 34]; "Thou, and the truly liberal Lafitte" [12.6, 41]), except for the reference to Adeline who is described as "liberal by nature" [15.42, 4141).(9)

Byron's prose illustrates a similar shift in the poet's use of the word liberal. Before 1818, Byron followed English usage in applying the term to describe an aristocratic sense of comportment. That same year, however, he used the word liberal as a noun for the first time in his suppressed preface to Don juan (1818), referring to the Spanish "Liberals." He repeated the usage in a letter to Hobhouse (Sept. 22, 1820; 7:235), this time referring to the Carbonari or "Liberals." By 1821, Byron was storing arms for this Italian group bent on driving the Austrians from Italy. …

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