Academic journal article The Byron Journal

The Byron Society Lecture Jonathan Bate: 'Byron and the Age of Sensation' 8 November 2012

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

The Byron Society Lecture Jonathan Bate: 'Byron and the Age of Sensation' 8 November 2012

Article excerpt

A well-attended lecture organised by the Byron Society in association with the Institute of English Studies brought Jonathan Bate RSL FBA, Provost of Worcester College and Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, to London's Senate House in Bloomsbury on 8 November 2012. His topic was 'Byron and the Age of Sensation' (http://www.ies.sas.ac.uk/about-us/news/Lectures/Byron).

Bate described his lecture as part of his first sketch for a book about Romanticism commissioned by Penguin and Yale, taking a new look at the old question of how Byron embodied the spirit of his age. Construing 'sensation' not only in its modern sense of 'a state of widespread public excitement, or anything that causes such a state', but also in terms of its older, quasi-medical usages relating to the power of perceiving through the senses, Bate explained why he had chosen 'Sensation' instead of 'Romanticism' to characterise this 'Age' in the title of his work. Other possibilities he had explored and discarded included 'The Age of Personality', 'The Age of Heroes' and 'The Age of Enthusiasm'.

Central to Bate's discussion was the famous passage about 'Sensation' from one of Byron's 1813 pre-nuptial letters to Annabella (surely intended as a clear warning to her about his unsuitability as a husband). 'The great object of life is Sensation', Byron wrote, '[T]o feel that we exist - even though in pain - it is this "craving void" which drives us to gaming - to battle - to travel - to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description whose principal attraction is the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment.' Bate related Byron's 'craving' for sensation to the legacy of the French Revolution, which had created such astonishment and appetite for the extraordinary that its impact could be felt on contemporaries' physical organisms, as well as in their consciousnesses.

Other key players in Bate's argument were Francis Jeffrey, William Hazlitt and, perhaps more surprisingly, Jane Austen. He discussed Austen's well-known, rather dismissive, references to Byron in Anne Elliott's literary conversation with Captain Benwick in Persuasion. (In the same vein he might also have added Austen's letter of 5 March 1814 to her sister Cassandra: 'I have read The Corsair and mended my petticoat and now have nothing else to do'.) He also considered the 'superfluity of sensation' Austen identified in the eccentric, health-obsessed Parker family in her unfinished novel Sanditon, pointing out how, by 1817, in the aftermath of his marital separa- tion, Byron had become unmentionable in the fictional Sanditon's polite society. As a result his lines on the sea are mistakenly attributed by Austen's Sir Edward Denham to Walter Scott.

Bate's book will cover the popular culture of Byron's age, as well as high culture, and one particularly interesting point he made was how different our modern, selective, literary canon of the 'Romantic period' is from that which was identified by the readers - and writers - of the time. In this context he reminded us about Byron's triangular diagram illustrating what he called his 'Gradus ad Parnassum' in his journal entry for 24 November 1813. …

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