In July 2008 I attended the 34th International Byron Conference which was held at St Andrews from the 14th to 18th July. As usual it takes me 6 months to a year to get around to writing anything about it!
My only point of comparison for this event was the Exeter Trollope Conference. The Byron Conference was a very different sort of event. In part the reason for this is obvious – the Trollope Conference was a purely academic affair without any participation by the Trollope Society, whereas the Byron Conference was both an academic affair and a social occasion. This is not to say there was no socialising at the Trollope Conference! But nothing along the formal lines of the grand dinner, complete with Pipe Band and formal speeches, which concluded the Byron Conference. Obviously there were people at the Byron Conference who came mainly for this social side (I am not being critical here merely observing) and many of these clearly knew each well from years of attending annual Byron Conferences. This is not to say that it was cliquey, and meeting Conference goers was one of the most pleasurable parts of the experience.
However the academic side certainly did appear cliquey. Of course many of the nuances of this passed me by but even the most outside of observers could not have failed to spot them. The most glaring example which came to my attention will make this obvious. There were not that many ‘split’ sessions but when there were I chose solely on the basis of what subject matter appealed to me, having no special idea who any of the speakers were. So I selected on this basis and turned up for one session which was attended by the 3 lecturers, the facilitator and I think two or at most three others (including me); the facilitator himself expressed surprise that anyone had turned up. The reason for this was that a ‘big name’ was performing in the other session. In actual fact I heard a couple of the most interesting talks of the whole Conference in that session! But there were clearly whole ranks of academic prestige involved – all of which are completely meaningless to an outsider like myself. Now I have no doubt that there were undercurrents of this nature at the Trollope Conference ,but to me they remained undetected ; certainly they were nothing like as apparent and overt as at the Byron Conference.
In addition to this I would have to say that for me the papers at the Byron Conference were by and large something of a disappointment and certainly not as revelatory or challenging as at the Trollope one. There was rather less engagement with the subject. This again applies mainly to the lecturers and there was much more of a divide between the lecturers and the attendees than at Trollope. I never felt confident enough, or indeed passionate enough, to ask a single question at the Byron Conference and most of the questions and post-talk discussion seemed to involve other speakers which added to the impression of a charmed circle. I will freely admit that by the Friday I was fairly tired and missed most of the sessions that day which for all I know might have wholly corrected my impressions!
Looking back now at my notes I find even less to remark on than I had imagined I would find. But here are some comments on the sessions and talks which I found of greatest interest.
TONY HOWE ON ‘THE VISION OF JUDGEMENT’
This paper challenged the notion that VJ is pure satire. Argued that B is concerned with expressing the inexpressible in a Miltonic way. Byron always arguing that we need to be self-aware which means we must be aware of limitations. VJ is not set in heaven but in neutral space. For Byron all language is fallen so ridiculous to suggest ‘high’ language (Southey) is special. Language is a series of attempts to talk about what it can’t talk about.
BYRON, AUDEN AND ELIOT
There were separate papers on how Auden and Eliot related to Byron. Gregory Dowling explained that Auden divided Byron into the Byronic Byron and the comic Byron – approving the latter but disliking the former. In his poem ‘Letter to Byron’ Auden is concerned with the relationship of the poet to their audience. Auden campaigned against the exclusion of ‘light’ verse from the canon (although his definition of ‘light’ verse was rather peculiar and connected to the use of ordinary language). In what was, naturally, a centre-piece of the Conference Christopher Ricks explored Eliot’s extremely hostile 1937 essay on Byron. Ricks postulated that one reason for Eliot’s venom was that of the lapsed enthusiast. In his youth Eliot had adored Byron, even written a youthful piece in the Don Juan mode. But beyond this there was the question of Eliot’s suspicion of the actorly/histrionic and the value which Eliot (and Leavis) placed on what they called ‘maturity’ [what others might call pomposity]. Ricks raised the question as to at what point does the difference between acting something and being something cease to have any significance – he gave the example of Charles 1st on the scaffold; he might have been acting bravely but to pretend at that point to be brave is to be brave [it would have been fascinating to hear this line of argument developed – Ricks cited Mailer’s book on Monroe as being very good on actors and identity].
MIRKA MODRZEWSKA ON BYRON AND THE BAROQUE
This was a wide-ranging paper full of interesting suggestions. There is a problem with reading Byron in the context of different cultural and national traditions. In the Polish tradition as a rule neo-classical is bad, Romantic good. Can the concept of the Baroque be used as a bridge to cross over from the one to the other and hence deal with the problems in Byron’s reception? Baroque itself is a mixture Modrzewska claimed; it comes of the crisis of 17th Century Europe; oppressive monarchical power, concerned with social dissolution and dissoluteness, moral laxity. Baroque themes are those of change, decay, revolt, deviance. This began in Spain with Calderon and Lope de Vega. The image of the human corpse was very important. Growth of anatomic knowledge, questions about the essence of existence [this links to Roy Porter’s work in this area]. Other motifs are those of madness, chaos, carnival, the world as stage. The Baroque is also based on the dynamism of opposites; harmony coming from contraries – see Beppo stanzas 19/20 – gondolas as coffins. The Baroque world is dominated by mobility, mutation, change which leads to artistic mannerism. In literary terms this meant excessive presence of the story-teller (obvious relation to Byron).
NORA LIASSIS ON THE AGE OF BRONZE
(sadly this and the following paper were given at the poorly attended session I referred to earlier) The Age of Bronze [AB] was Byron’s last satire in the heroic mode. Stanzas 8-10 deal with the Congress of Verona (opened October 1822) which established tyranny over continental Europe (as Byron saw it and as history concurs). Byron gives full range to his vitriol. He wrote AB between December 22nd 1822 and Jnauary 23rd 1823; it is a sweeping current affairs update, lacking decorum and edification. Hunt sold 2000 copies in its first week of publication but Byron dismissed the popularity as ‘temporary’ and Carlyle called it a ‘squib’. AB is in fact not a celebration of a wonderful year but exactly the opposite. Congresses are the obvious targets for satire; Verona was last meeting of Holy Allinace and culmination of Congress of Vienna. Kissinger wrote his PhD thesis on Verona and highly praised it! [this was my favourite ‘obscure but devestatingly telling’ observation of the whole week]. Teresa Guiccioli reported that Byron wrote AB in a fit of anger over events at Verona, leaving aside work on DJ to do so.
Horace criticised his own satires for being too benign, too full of laughter (satire, Liassis observed, was the one literary form which the Romans did not inherit from the Greeks). Part of the entertainment laid on at Verona was a triumphant celebratory piece by Rossini. Is Byron a mean satirist? In DJ he criticises Juvenal, but in AB he viciously lampoons Alexander 1st in Juvenalian mode. Liassis observed that Achilles’ anger is doomed and ruinous but asked whether Byron ever moved on from his childhood cult of Achilles?
[This is one paper which I particularly hope is published at some point as it was rich and fruitful. I have missed many points. Much of it was central to the much contested ground of Byron’s politics. Byron is a writer whom many claim for their own. Indeed anyone who reads him and loves him claims him for their own and makes their own Byron. Anyone who denies this – and I heard too many claims to objectivity – is either deceiving themsleves or foolish. A poem like AB is a problem for those who want to deny the radical Byron. I do not deny that there are all sorts of difficulties in claiming that Byron was ‘a radical’. But to deny that there is a radical Byron is an utter and complete absurdity. And this is ‘my’ Byron ; the one I cherish. And his radicalism lay in many different directions – political, sexual, philosophical, theological, personal. Do we rage at the world or laugh at it? One thing Byron never does is to just accept its’ claims.]
KATHERINE KERNBERGER ON WAR AND THE HEROIC IN DON JUAN
War does not seem a suitable topic for laughter but Byron takes it on [a paper actually referring to the Conference’s theme!].
- Byron’s first target is descendants of Iliad and Odyssey – right at the start of DJ – ‘I want a hero’. He mocks epic tradition and holds it up against modern reality.
- Byron plays with the whole tradition of the libertine by making Juan an innocent. Constantly places him in female role in different ways in different countries to examine gender relations.
The war canto opens ‘O love O glory’ and Byron then proceeds to show falseness of those abstract virtues in modern age. It is crystal clear that the war in DJ is an unjust war.
So where do we find the humour? In the verse itself, the ottava rima form.
Homer never examines state of mind of Trojan women and Byron perpetuates the myth of women who want to be raped [I may have this wrong. It would be good to re-read the war cantos alongside Wolf’s Cassandra].
ROBERT KOEPP ON BYRON’S EARLY BIOGRAPHERS
Medwin (1824) said it was impossible to know when Byron was serious and early biographers came to many differing judgements on this. His ridicule and mockery made the biographers uneasy but even more so did his mood swings, what Moore called his mobility [was Byron bi-polar? a depressive? my own fascination]. Byron’s flippancy particularly upset Lady Blessington, and also Hunt who deplored what he saw as a lack of ‘sincerity’ (of course Byron wanted to distance himself form Hunt et family).
Moore’s life is much the best of the early biographies and this comes from the closeness of their relationship and Moore’s possession of a decent sense of humour! This enabled Moore to perfectly frame letters which held their own brilliant humour.
SHONA ALLEN ON ‘SCOTLAND DIES LAUGHING’
There is not a great deal of research on Byron’s relationship to Burns. McDermid considered Byron the most Scottish of Scots poets. ‘Scottishness’ would be a better way to define the multiplicity of voices of Scotland. Scottish literature is formed and defined by religion – darkness/bleakness; Holy Willie’s Prayer – which can be interpreted as a mean sycophant’s prayer but can also be seen as a vast comic blast. But Burns’ satire is not just comic of course; his knowledge of the Bible and Calvinism as the high-flown language of evangelical fervour runs into the ordinary ‘low’ Scots to puncture seriousness with laughter. Is this similar to Byron’s technique in DJ? Take the shipwreck scenes in Canto 2 where religion is constantly invoked but offers no relief whatever; however comedy itself offers no relief either.
Scott saw Burns as much more like Byron than any other poet to whom he had been compared and modern poets such as Liz Lochhead also see a Burns/Byron comparison. The relationship of Byron to Scots poetry and Scottishness is complex and difficult but should not be underestimated [I wonder how well Byron knew the great late medieval Scots? there strikes me as something peculiarly Byronic in Dunbar’s Lament for the Makars for instance; a poem which might well be considered serious laughter].
I had a great time at St Andrews because of the company and the setting. I heard a few really good papers as well. But overall I would have to conclude that the academic side was perhaps a touch disappointing – maybe this was my own lack of stamina and mental agility to deal with a packed programme.