Byron and the Forms of Thought

Byron and the Forms of Thought

Byron and the Forms of Thought

Byron and the Forms of Thought

Excerpt

In Julian Farino’s two-part BBC dramatization Byron (2003), the only writing of Byron’s to feature significantly is the manuscript of the poet’s memoirs, a work that only a handful of people ever read. The scene, we assume, is John Murray’s drawing room in Albemarle Street; present are Murray himself, John Cam Hobhouse, and other associates of the recently deceased poet. The book, amidst a series of uncertain and frightened looks, is thrown onto the fire, in the process burning into the biographical record one of its more famous holes. It is an effective opening scene, one that suggests a fruitful unshackling from history and an opportunity creatively to overwrite some intriguing blank spaces. But there is also in it something sadly symptomatic of how we have come to think of one of our greatest poets.

Byron persists in the popular imagination. He made himself – and has been made into – one of the defining qualities of his own tumultuous age: Romantic, passionate, radical and mysterious. ‘Byronic’ has a cultural immediacy that is not there with ‘Wordsworthian’ or ‘Shelleyan’. Biographies of the poet are produced with unfailing energy. He regularly features on television and film where his life needs few fictional additives to stimulate twenty-first century appetites. He is a seminal figure respecting the modern obsession with celebrity. This afterlife, however, has been a very different affair to that of other eminent nineteenthcentury literary figures such as Dickens or Jane Austen, writers identified primarily with their books and characters. Byron, we might easily conclude from his broader cultural status, was not really important as a writer at all. As a thinker he barely registers.

Byron’s reconstruction as the definitive non-intellectual Romantic, as a poet of passion but not of thought, begins with weighty opinions such as Goethe’s: ‘Lord Byron is only great when he is writing poetry; as soon as he reflects, he is a child.’ Matthew Arnold came to similar conclusions:

Byron, it may be said, was eminent only by his genius, only by his inborn
force and fire; he had not the intellectual equipment of a supreme modern

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