Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Not Donne, but Byron: American Criticism and the Mid-Century Classroom

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Not Donne, but Byron: American Criticism and the Mid-Century Classroom

Article excerpt

Lord Byron almost never turns up in the writing of the American New Critics. He does not figure in their work as the subject of a book-chapter, of an article, or even of a protracted close reading.1 He is minimally represented in Understanding Poetry, the era-defining textbook edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, allotted just three lyrics in the first edition of 1938 and none at all in the second edition of 1950.2 Unlike Shelley, whose poetry the New Critics engaged if only to attack, the neglect of Byron is thorough and, only very occasionally, barbed. 'Human nature being what it is', Brooks later joked, 'a good many people [...] would much rather read a life of Byron than any of his poetry'.3 Such was the outer limit of an occasional critique that never really shaded over into hostility. In a turn that would have disappointed him deeply, Byron merely provoked the New Critics' indifference.

Yet, despite his peculiar non-significance in their work, Byron's poetry continued to be widely and enthusiastically taught in American classrooms between the 1930s and 1950s. A staple of the British literature survey and a mainstay in courses on the romantic period, he remained unmistakably 'canonical'; even those who paid him little heed in their published work found a regular place for him in their syllabi.4 Byron's curious double-status presents a fascinating problem for histories of literary studies in America. The contradictory treatment of his poetry complicates Catherine Gallagher's argument that the American New Criticism paved the way for the modern study of literature by effectively joining the research mission of literary studies (located in the Graduate School and centred on specialised scholarship) with its public service mission (focused on undergraduate teaching and the dissemination of culture).5 When it came to the criticism and the teaching of Byron, these competing missions were not so readily conciliated.

To take up the contradictions of Byron's status among the New Critics is not only to interrogate anew the emergence of modern literary studies; it also means taking up the disciplinary narrative itself. For while the New Criticism is often made to stand in for mid-century literary studies more broadly, a closer look reveals that, in the case of Byron, its treatment was at odds with the field at large. By attending to trends in publication as well as to teaching practices, we discover an institutional context from which Byron never really disappeared. More than just a case-study in critical inattention, therefore, the following consideration of Byron's academic reception between the thirties and the fifties is also an opportunity to re-open the dynamic critical and curricular moment that gave rise to literary study as it is still, in the main, practised today.


There is no shortage of explanations for the New Critics' disregard of Byron. His poetry operates in a patently different register than the one that most interested them, on multiple fronts. He tended to write long rather than short, fast rather than slow, and his ingenious rhyming seems to invite swift scansion rather than close reading, its formal energies skimming the auditory surface rather than convoluting in poetry's inner circuits. As readers are propelled forward from one clinching vowel-sound to the next, his verse feeds the appetite for sonic closure that it simultaneously produces. He 'must be read very rapidly', Auden said, 'as if the words were single frames in a movie film; stop on a word or a line and the poetry vanishes'.6

Slow or intensive reading was, in part, a strategy for escaping from authorial personality into the impersonality of aesthetic form-and here was another crucial site of disconnect between Byron and the leading edge of the American New Criticism. Byron encouraged what Tom Mole refers to as a 'hermeneutic of intimacy', which 'worked by suggesting that his poems could only be understood fully by referring to their author's personality, that reading them was entering a kind of relationship with the author and that that relationship resembled an intimate connection between individuals'. …

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