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Byron and the Forms of Thought

Byron and the Forms of Thought

Volume: 61
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Byron and the Forms of Thought
    Book Description:

    Byron and the Forms of Thought is a major new study of Byron as a poet and thinker. While informed by recent work on Byron’s philosophical contexts, the book questions attempts to describe Byron as a philosopher of a particular kind. It approaches Byron, rather, as a writer fascinated by the different ways of thinking philosophy and poetry are taken to represent. After an Introduction that explores Byron’s reception as a thinker, the book moves to a new reading of Byron’s scepticism, arguing for a close proximity, in Byron’s thought, between epistemology and poetics. This is explored through readings of Byron’s efforts both as a philosophical poet and writer of critical prose. The conclusions reached form the basis of an extended reading of Don Juan as a critical narrative that investigates connections between visionary and political consciousness. What emerges is a deeply thoughtful poet intrigued and exercised by the possibilities of literary form.

    eISBN: 978-1-78138-091-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    In Julian Farino’s two-part BBC dramatizationByron(2003), the only writing of Byron’s to feature significantly is the manuscript of the poet’s memoirs, a work that only a handful of people ever read. The scene, we assume, is John Murray’s drawing room in Albemarle Street; present are Murray himself, John Cam Hobhouse, and other associates of the recently deceased poet. The book, amidst a series of uncertain and frightened looks, is thrown onto the fire, in the process burning into the biographical record one of its more famous holes. It is an effective opening scene, one that suggests a fruitful...


    • ESSAY I ‘I doubt if doubt itself be doubting’: Scepticism, System and Poetry
      (pp. 15-42)

      What kind – or kinds – of thinker was Byron? What were his philosophical sources and how did these shape the peculiar structures of thought exhibited in his poems, letters and more formal prose? Those who have discussed such questions have usually identified philosophical scepticism, something about which the poet was demonstrably informed, as an important point of reference. M. G. Cooke somewhat reluctantly concluded that Byron ‘is so strongly disposed to mistrust strictly clean categories that the primary bent of his philosophy must be termed skeptical’. For Cooke, scepticism is something to be admitted rather than celebrated: it ‘becomes...

    • ESSAY II A ‘Voice from out the Wilderness’: Cain and Philosophical Poetry
      (pp. 43-72)

      To read Byron’s poetry as philosophy without reference to form is to miss the poetry’s philosophical significance. This seems most pressingly true in the case ofDon Juan, a poem in which language is untethered within the precincts of intellectual history with effects that are at once critical and creative. In what follows I want to think about this complicated meeting of philosophy and poetry, something, I suggest, in which Byron was deeply interested, with primary reference to what seems in many ways the poet’s most obviously ‘philosophical’ literary work,Cain.

      Byron began writingCainin Ravenna on 16 July...


    • ESSAY III The Need for ‘all this’: Johnson, Bowles and the Forms of Prose
      (pp. 75-103)

      On 31 March 1821 Byron, by publishing the prose essay known as theLetter to John Murray, publicly entered the controversy surrounding William Lisle Bowles’s provocative editing and subsequent pamphleteering which queried Pope’s status in the English canon.¹ Appalled by what he saw as Bowles’s modish but ill-considered depreciation of Pope, Byron gave vent to his ire in an extended and uneven prose broadside. He was the only major literary figure of the day to become so involved; his prominent contemporaries, although they would have been aware of the controversy through its dissemination in the literary press, tended to be...

    • ESSAY IV ‘I wish to do as much by Poesy’: Amidst a Byronic Poetics
      (pp. 104-128)

      According to Peter Atkins

      poets may aspire to understanding, [but] their talents are more akin to entertaining self-deception. They may be able to emphasise delights in the world, but they are deluded if they and their admirers believe that their identification of the delights and their use of poignant language are enough for comprehension. Philosophers, too, I am afraid, have contributed to the understanding of the universe little more than poets […]. They have not contributed much that is novel until after novelty has been discovered by scientists […]. While poetry titillates and theology obfuscates, science liberates.¹

      Such diminutions of...


    • ESSAY V The Flower and the Gem: Narrative Form and the Traces of Eden
      (pp. 131-145)

      Byron’s ‘wish to do as much by Poesy’ remains partially and crucially submerged in poetry itself. Its incompleteness as a moment of poetics is its first claim. Its second, perhaps surprisingly, is on behalf of theory, although not of the kind Byron associates with Bowles or Wordsworth. The narrator ofDon Juanis always keenly susceptible to the advances of doubt, but he resists the sceptic’s satisfaction and conclusiveness; there is a restless search for origin with Byron that has something of Shelley but nothing of the Pyrrhonist. While sneering at ‘system’, Byron commits to theory where it recognizes itself...

    • ESSAY VI ‘Glory’s dream Unriddled’: Politics and the Forms of War
      (pp. 146-173)

      Byron’s participation in the Bowles controversy coincided with an increasing involvement in revolutionary politics, prompted by the poet’s relationship with the Gamba family in Italy and his consciousness of revolutions in Spain and Portugal in the summer of 1820. It is perhaps not surprising then that Byron’s defence, via Pope, of the sustaining values of literary tradition is charged with a political awareness that is very much of its moment. The polemical energies generated by the controversy, in turn, flowed intoDon Juan, a poem that takes on a new philosophical and political directness from its new beginning with the...

  5. Coda: ‘In short’
    (pp. 174-180)

    The first two – easily ignored – words here are important. To understand Byron as a thinker we need to pay close attention not just to his direct philosophical claims, but to the self-conscious forming of his articulations. ‘In short’ is more than throat clearing because it acknowledges the fragmentary relation of the utterance to the eternity of thought in which it participates. Something of this is also recognized in the form of the claim itself which acknowledges the intellectual force of scepticism but also the possibilities that attend scepticism’s self-cancellation. Doubt is an encompassing inevitability for the thoughtful life,...