On Wednesday 23 May Edge Hill University welcomed undergraduate and early postgraduate students for the second annual student Byron Conference. This year’s theme ‘Byron Now’ prompted a variety of papers ranging from Byronic philosophy to Scottish politics.
David McClay, senior curator at the National Library of Scotland, gave the opening paper: ‘Byron in the Twenty-First Century, an Archival Perspective’, which served as an introduction to the John Murray archive. Entwining practical advice with illustrative anecdotes, McClay provided an insight into the life of the curator and the digital restorative work that is being carried out at the library. His animated and open tone set a precedent for the rest of the day, which offered a supportive atmosphere for many first-time delegates.
The first session began with a paper delivered by Julie Coole (Keele), titled ‘“Now we’ll turn to Juan”: Spontaneity and Survival in Don Juan Cantos I–IV’. She began with a discussion concerning the definition of ‘now’ and the semantic problems elicited by such a dynamic concept. In her paper she explored how the structure and form of Don Juan encourages the reader to embody the ‘now’ via ‘in the moment’ tenses and changes that suggest a dynamic concept of time. Drawing on the direct translation of Carpe diem as ‘crop the day’, Coole developed a sophisticated argument for the use of performative syntax as forcing the reader to act ‘in the moment’ and adapt to change, mirroring the pragmatic actions of Byron’s protagonist. She championed the contemporary importance of Byron as a figure whose politics and philosophy transcend time, his poetry representing a ‘now’ that ‘determines the future and impacts on the past’.
Paula Kelly-Ince (Edge Hill) gave the second paper of the session. Titled ‘Byron’s Philosophy and Faith’, her talk explored the relevance and integrity of Byron’s philosophy throughout time. Again using Don Juan as a basis, she explored the philosophy represented in Byron’s poetry and identified his reactive politics through his use of satire. Kelly-Ince argued that Byron presents the ‘incomprehensibility of life, death and faith’ through the interpolation of real events, which develop a sense of uncertainty and the construction of an anti-hero in Don Juan, questioning morality itself by the inversion of guilty and innocent. By contrasting Byron’s poetry with his personal politics and religious affiliations, she identified an ‘anti-philosophy’ which demonstrates the futility of any philosophy which deals in absolutes. Relating this to contemporary [End Page 171] global politics and religious extremism, she concluded by suggesting that such a Byronic anti-philosophy breeds cohesion and tolerance in times of extremist polarity, and in this way Byron is as much relevant ‘now’ as he has ever been.
The next paper given by Wendy Gillett (Edge Hill) explored the ways in which Byron’s multi-layered narratives take us on imaginative journeys in Beppo and Don Juan. Titled ‘Byron: Travel Writer’, Gillett’s paper investigated travel as a physical, mental and philosophical journey, equating the cultural education of the Romantic ‘Grand Tour’ to both the modern-day ‘Gap Year’ and the reading of poetry itself. She highlighted the blending of personal and impersonal narratives inherent in travel writing as representative of the playing out of cosmopolitan and xenophobic perspectives by the assimilation of foreign cultures. In a similar manner to both Coole and Kelly-Ince, Gillett negotiated the relationship between action and inaction, questioning the semantic boundaries of self and other and citing travel writing as ‘a way for a person to occupy two places at the same time’. This notion, along with the paradoxical idea of time both standing still and passing by during this mental escapism, endows Byron’s poetry with a perception of the world that goes beyond the initial encounter.
The final paper of the morning was given by Hannah Cronje (Edge Hill), and was titled ‘Byron and the Orient: A Contemporary Reflection’. Cronje analysed the construction of social roles and the representation of the female as mediated by Oriental discourse in The Giaour. She concentrated on the plight of the female slave and...