Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Talking through the Grate: Interdict and Mediation in Byron's 'Pilgrimage,' Canto 3

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Talking through the Grate: Interdict and Mediation in Byron's 'Pilgrimage,' Canto 3

Article excerpt

Writing from Ouchy on 17 September 1816, five months after leaving England on the tide of his wife's desertion, and two weeks after dispatching to his publisher the third canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Lord Byron ends a letter to his half-sister Augusta Leigh with this warm declaration:

I shall never find any one like you - nor you (vain as it may seem) like me. We are just formed to pass our lives together, and therefore - we - at least I - am by a crowd of circumstances removed from the only being who could ever have loved me, or whom I can unmixedly feel attached to. Had you been a Nun - and I a Monk - that we might have talked through a grate instead of across the sea - no matter - my voice and my heart are ever thine - (1)

Earlier portions of the letter cite the "wretchedness," "mental torture," and "destruction" of the poet at Lady Byron's hand and oppose her to the more compatible Augusta, herself implicated in the breakup of Byron's London household. Disclaiming vengefulness, the poet nevertheless foresees the "recoil upon her own head" of his wife's conduct toward him. And as a balancing counter to the charge that "She has . . . separated me from my child - & from you," Byron invites Augusta to join him for a spring tour, only to identify his dependent and self-absorbed brother-in-law as "the great obstacle" to any such "scheme of recreation or relaxation" for his sister. Regretting Augusta's marriage and his own, Byron concludes the letter with a profession subverted by the monastic hypothesis quoted above: Augusta uniquely qualifies as his object of "unmixed" emotion, but between them he figuratively erects a barrier as evocative of imprisonment as of conventual discipline, and, perhaps guiltily, exposes a retroactive wish for chaste association. At least twice in this letter Byron reaches out affectionately to his sister and withdraws from her, declares her proximity desirable and imagines it impeded. And although claiming a constitutional fitness to live with her, he returns for the love Augusta is capable of extending him not reciprocal love but a cooler if avowedly unalloyed "attachment." One might assume that Byron's subtle checks against the expression and enactment of stronger passion respond to the social abuse he and his sister sustained as suspicions of their sexual intimacy sizzled through London salons in the days just before his embarkation. But the rhythms of advance and retreat, of affective approach and withdrawal in the letter typify both Byron's relational history and his textualized alliances.(2) Paradigmatic of affiliations sought and denied, established and ruptured in his canon, they prove peculiarly compelling in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage 3 for the immediacy of their autobiographical provenance.

Jerome J. McGann calls Canto 3 of the Pilgrimage "Byron's personal self-examination and a public justification... [his] expressed attempt to come to terms with the collapse of his marriage and the public response to that event in England."(3) I will argue that the poem graphically inscribes separation - rewrites The Separation - along with an anxiety about relationship and its absence that structures Byron's approach to re-engagement with an audience from whom he felt and feared alienating betrayal through a process attributable and analogous to Lady Byron's abandonment of him. Mapped across Canto 3, the dissociative trope defines the impact of his wife's estrangement on Byron's creative consciousness, and shapes a radical relational indeterminateness registered in the valedictory occasions intrinsic to pilgrimage but here framed by farewells to the poet's daughter, Augusta Ada. Embedded in Harold's alternating impulses toward separateness and connection lie Byron's own mixed feelings about the biological and textual products of his authorship. Such associational ambivalence particularly informs his closural protocol, where he uses the child to facilitate reception of the Childe by readers courted and critiqued, and to negotiate severance from both text and daughter. …

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