Academic journal article The Byron Journal

'A Tale Untold': The Search for a Story in Byron's Lara

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

'A Tale Untold': The Search for a Story in Byron's Lara

Article excerpt

The purpose of this essay is to situate Byron's Lara in relation to a certain aspect of Romanticism, in which the possibility of an ethical judgement of the action of a text is resisted or deferred by that text. Shelley's The Cenci is a characteristically Romantic work in this sense - deliberately compromising the reader's sympathy for Beatrice's plight with the knowledge of her parricide and making us unable to thoroughly support or condemn her actions. The core of the drama is the irresolution achieved through the imaginative displacement of a moral judgement with what Kierkegaard labels 'being' as opposed to 'becoming'. While we await Beatrice's execution, we notice only what she 'is' rather than what she has 'become'. A comparable effect, in which the theatrical, or imaginative, dominates the moral, occurs at the end of Byron's tragedy Sardanapalus. However, I want to suggest that Lara is much less straightforward than this, for here Byron continually complicates ethical judgements but does distract us from them. In Lara he is keen to inhabit both a world of Romantic scepticism and one of moral choice. His ability to do so is achieved, not through development in the psychology of the Byronic hero, but through the poem's repeated offering of, then resisting, a defining narrative principle. It both invites moral judgement and makes that judgement impossible.

Many Romantic narratives reveal an anti-narrative compulsion. As Andrew Bennett argues of Wordsworth and Coleridge, 'what both [...] are attempting to do is to negotiate a satisfactory compromise in relation to narrative, to find an altered focus of organization'.1 In The Prelude, for example, the focus is the spot of time, the lyrical moment sustained by its own atemporal significance.2 A similarly non-narrative focus is found in the 'conspicuously fragmentary' poem The Giaour:3 the variety of narrative viewpoints is accompanied by an innovative formal structuring that makes the reader aware as much of the processes of telling as of the events of the tale. As John Jump noted, in writing the Turkish tales Byron was almost certainly influenced by Samuel Rogers' comments on his own Voyage of Columbus: 'These scattered fragments may be compared to shreds of old arras, or reflections from a river broken and confused by the oar; and now and then perhaps the imagination of the reader may supply more than is lost.'4 The description suits The Giaour, and there is something of this in the figure of Lara too.

But the narrative of Lara is not as overtly experimental as The Giaour's, and is certainly not structured in the same 'conspicuously fragmentary' way. It is true that the poem seems acutely aware of its own fictive status, but this appears to be cosmetic rather than substantial. J. Hillis Miller has argued that 'narrative is the narration of the impossibility of narrative in the sense of a coherent, logical, perspicuous story with beginning, middle, end, and paraphrasable meaning'.5 In Miller's view there are no tales corresponding to an agreed reality but only different ways of telling, and of reading. In the case of Lara, Miller's point is a useful one for being partially although not entirely accurate. Byron's narrator frequently advertises his limitations, and often gets things wrong, as when he first draws attention to Kaled's femininity before dismissing it:

So femininely white it might bespeak

Another sex, when match'd with that smooth cheek,

And but for his garb, and something in his gaze,

More wild and high than woman's eye betrays.

(I, 576-79)

At other times the narrator is at pains to draw the reader's attention to what is left untold - indeed to the search for a story to tell: 'All was not well they deem'd - but where the wrong? / Some knew perchance - but 'twere a tale too long' (I, 149-50). But Lara is not without its own story. The events that occur have a definite temporal sequence and only once, in the peasant's tale at the end, do they appear out of chronological order. …

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