BYRON, POETICS AND HISTORY. By Jane Stabler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xiv + 251. ISBN 0-521-81241-0. £40.00.
As Jane Stabler argues in her introduction to this excellent study of Byron's satires, the last few years have seen a renewed interest in the aesthetic and formal properties of Romantic poetry. Rather than signalling a return to New Criticism, however, this revitalized concern with formal matters has productively engaged with the issues of historical context and gender that have dominated much of the critical and theoretical work of the last two decades. As its title suggests, Byron, Poetics and History seeks to examine the relationship between Byron's use of form and the contextual issues that shape, and are shaped by its aesthetic properties. In this endeavour the book succeeds brilliantly, offering fascinating close readings that emphasize the richness, complexity and self-reflective sparkle of Byron's poetry while also drawing attention to the various texts (Shakespearean drama, Galignani's Messenger) and contexts (the divisions in the Whig party, Byron's anxiety about his changing readership) that inform the writing, and potentially the reading, of his works.
The particular characteristic of Byron's writing that Stabler examines as a focus for her consideration of the relations between poetry and history is digression, and the book could just as appropriately have been titled Byron and the Art of Digression. For Stabler, Byron's digressiveness is not simply a matter of narrative roving from topic to topic, like Childe Harold's wandering from scene to scene, but a more general quality of his writing enacted in jarring juxtapositions, rapid transitions and signalled allusions to other writers. The turns, breaks, and asides of Byron's discontinuous verse create a poetics of indeterminacy that has unsettled the poet's readers since the start of his career, as Stabler shows convincingly through analysis of contemporary responses to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage I and II and a comparison of Byron with writers who might seem to offer some precedent for his practice, including Churchill, Prior and Pope.
As Stabler argues, Byron's digressive manner also challenged the contemporary reader to participate in the construction of a poem's meaning, a process about which Byron was highly conscious and increasingly anxious as his career developed. Stabler's attention to reading is one of the great strengths of her book, both in the subtle and delicate scrutiny of the poems that she produces and in her investigation into Byron's sense of his own readership and its effect on his writing. Stabler's argument emphasizes what she terms the 'now' of the text and reminds us that much of the pleasure and excitement of reading Byron is derived from the opportunities taken or missed: 'the reader generates meaning from a verbal texture in which many strands are woven. …