Academic journal article The Byron Journal

'A Certain Portion of Uncertain Paper': Byron's Venetian Letters, November 1816-February 1817

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

'A Certain Portion of Uncertain Paper': Byron's Venetian Letters, November 1816-February 1817

Article excerpt

On 27 November 1816, Byron told Douglas Kinnaird, 'if I could but remain as I now am - I should [...] be [...] contented [...] I have books - a decent establishment - a fine country - a language which I prefer [...] as much of society as I choose to take - and a handsome woman - who is not a bore. [...] I will never willingly dwell in [England, that] "tight little island"' (135-36).1 In contrast to England, Venice was 'this city of seventy islands' (175). On 3 February 1817, a fortnight before the Carnival ended and a day after the full moon, he told Kinnaird: 'of England I know nothing - hear nothing', adding, approximately half a page later, 'of Venice I say nothing' (168). The rhetorical symmetry makes the England-Venice binary opposition stand out from the surrounding prose.

This was the blueprint of his letters between 17 November 1816 and 28 February 1817. He added unpleasant little details about England in successive letters until it was clear that Venice was to be his new home. England had Lady Byron, the scandals whose memories had been revived by the publication of Glenarvon, his mother-in-law who would be happiest if he were dead, his compatriots who could not bear the silence of the canals - the very thing he loved - and the jeweller who sold him twelve gold snuff boxes that turned out to be of silver-gilt, not gold.2 These letters show Byron setting up the choice of a home as one part of a binary, then sliding more and more decisively towards staying on in Venice. Neither the choice nor the method is clear to begin with, yet by February 1817 it was as if he had never doubted what he wished to say or how he would say it.

But why single out these letters in particular? One possible justification is the enormous change in Byron's poetry from Manfred to Beppo and the possibility that the letters of this period might throw light on this change.3 Of course, Byron was yet to write Beppo, but suppose we read the letters as if we had no idea what he wrote later. Looking backwards from his drama, it is possible to trace Byron's development as a playwright - in February 1817, for example, he asked Murray for a story he used three years later in Marino Faliero. But these letters do not point that way. What they do have is recurring questions. Should he write prose? Should he give up poetry altogether? Should he write a tragedy?4 There is a creative chaos of possibilities in them, some of which Byron did not pursue.

Another justification is more impressionistic. Byron's letters, from the 'greenest island' letter of 17 November 1816 through to the letter of 28 February 1817, in which he virtually announced an end to his roistering with 'So we'll go no more a roving', seem to form a certain kind of discrete unity. Why they do so, and how such a unity might be described and analysed, are the topics of this essay.

The sequence begins and ends with letters to Thomas Moore. Like any good frame, this one makes certain patterns visible. One can identify at least one pattern more or less arbitrarily. If Byron was trying to make himself anew, it seems reasonable that we remain open to unusual possibilities. The letters suggest at least one such possibility: that Byron was leaving himself open to the influence of natural rhythms such as the lunar cycle. The idea is suggested by his letter of 28 February, which, he said, was his fourth to Moore in as many moons. Byron doesn't normally use clichés, and this is not one. He did indeed write four letters to Moore, each begun soon after the half moon, which may mean absolutely nothing except that one of the many internal patterns within this particular sequence of letters turns out to be that Byron's letters to Moore and Kinnaird are linked to the lunar cycle. His letters to Moore tend to be written four or five days after the half moon, the ones to Kinnaird on the new moon.

The moon and the possibility of a new home are among the motifs that are closely woven together in this sequence of letters. …

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