Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron's Networks and Scottish Romanticism

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron's Networks and Scottish Romanticism

Article excerpt

Abstract

The Scottish elements of Byron's nationality have been receiving renewed attention in recent years. As yet, however, attention has been centred on Byron's poetry rather than on his biography, which is still often presented in a traditional format which does not reflect this new level of understanding. This essay addresses this disparity by demonstrating the importance of Scottish figures in Byron's social networks, not least Scots with a north-eastern Scottish background or Gordon family connexion. The Scottishness of some of these well-known figures continues to be ignored in discussions of the poet's life. Byron is also shown to have had links to the 'fratriot' mentality of other Scots espousing small nationalisms abroad. This essay reinserts the poet into his Scottish national context, not only as a writer, but also as a man.

Byron's Scottishness as a writer has been receiving renewed attention in the last twenty years, beginning with Angus Calder's collection on Byron and Scotland (1989), and developing through a sequence of further work by Alan Rawes, Andrew Nicholson and others, culminating in the 2008 special issue of Studies in Romanticism on 'Byron's Scots and Byron's Scotland'. Strong sensitivity to the Scottish dimension of Byron's experience and family background is also being advanced in less obvious locations, such as Stephen Cheeke's Byron and Place (2003), while Jonathan Gross's recent article in The Byron Journal, 'Flyting in the Declaration of Independence and The Vision of Judgment' has begun to move appreciation of the 'important Scottish inheritance' in Byron's poetry in a new direction. At the 2008 International Byron Conference in St Andrews, Fiona Wilson spoke on 'Byron, Scottishness and Portable Identity', and a new Scottish Byron Society was launched on 16 October 2008. The time thus seems ripe to further develop our understanding of Byron's nationality and its implications for his life and work.1

Views of Byron as a culturally hybrid figure - or, a little more tendentiously, simply a Scottish writer - have been somewhat slower to have any impact on biographies of the poet, however, and this is important because Byron is a poet whose life still has a dominant role to play in the reception of his image, as he of course intended it would. Leslie Marchand's 1957 biography mostly sees Byron as an unproblematically 'English' writer, and this continues to be true of Marchand's more popular inheritors, such as Fiona MacCarthy, who uses 'English' and 'British' more or less interchangeably in her 2002 account of the poet's life,2 although language use and our sensitivity to nationality have altered considerably in the interim. This continuation of what is essentially nineteenth- century usage is confusing. When Byron was described as 'English', it did not necessarily mean he was not Scottish: this was quite simply the way language was used at the time, particularly abroad. It was not until the twentieth century that significant numbers of Scots seem to have objected to being described thus overseas when not active in specifically Scottish contexts (Caledonian Societies and Burns Suppers, for instance). But such language use is seriously out of date. These biographies also - and potentially even more seriously - tend to treat Byron's friends and acquaintances, both in the United Kingdom and in continental Europe, with the same crude measure of nationality, as 'English': unless, like James Kennedy, they can be associated with a 'Scottish' peculiarity such as religious enthusiasm.3 Interestingly, Thomas Moore's 1830 biography is much more alert to Byron's Scottishness than some of its twentiethcentury successors have been. Moore argued that 'but little weight is to be allowed' to any anti-Scots sallies of which Byron may have been guilty.4 As will be evident in the conclusion to this essay, Cosmo Gordon's potboiler of a biography, published very shortly after the poet's death, was even more decided in its claims for Byron's Scottish nationality. …

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