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  • ‘Lord Byron: Poetry in Manuscript, Poetry in Print’ Modern Language Association Session 600: 7 January 2012
  • Katherine Kernberger

‘Lord Byron: Poetry in Manuscript, Poetry in Print’ was the title of the Byron session arranged by the Byron Society of America for the MLA Convention held in Seattle, Washington, in January of 2012. Three presenters – Alice J. Levine (Hofstra), Michelle Nancy Levy (Simon Fraser) and Gary R. Dyer (Cleveland State) – shared with the audience a wide range of texts and offered varied approaches to the distinctions between Byron’s poems as they appear in manuscript and print form.

Alice Levine’s talk, ‘Indeterminacy and Method: Editing Byron’s Accidentals’, distilled for us one pervasive issue she faced in preparing her edition of the Norton Critical Edition of Byron’s poetry and prose. Because the poet usually left the punctuation, capitalisation and formatting of his works to the discretion of his editors, modern editors have no satisfactory means of deciding between a holograph manuscript and a printed version that Byron saw and could have revised, but did not correct. For this paper, Levine added one further wrinkle: she shared her struggles over several of Byron’s posthumous poems, including ‘Epistle to Augusta’ and ‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’, helping us compare the accidentals in Byron’s drafts with those in published texts. In these cases she felt that the manuscript provides a ‘higher authority’ than the 1832 John Murray version, edited by John Wright, and should be generally (but not always) preferred.

Michelle Nancy Levy’s presentation, ‘Byron’s Social Readers and the Limits of Manuscript’, argued that Byron initially believed that ‘print was functionally identical to manuscript culture’. Levy suggested that, beyond the convenience of offering duplicate copies, print had not attained a status that guaranteed either higher quality or longer survival than the handwritten text. In the Dedication and Prefaces to his early volumes – Fugitive Pieces and Poems on Various Occasions – Byron excuses his poems as ‘trifles’ and blames his ‘errors’ on his ‘youth and inexperience’. He claims to prefer a personal audience to a public one. Since such privately printed volumes were given as gifts to friends, they were clearly not intended as money-making commodities and did not reach a larger audience than the writer already enjoyed. When Byron published Hours of Idleness for a larger public in 1807, poems from the earlier volumes were omitted and new ones were added. Up to this point, Levy sees the poet as treating print as a text that could be revised and distributed according to his wishes, just as [End Page 165] script could be. With the success of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, Byron acquired a public reputation he could no longer fully control.

Gary Dyer’s discussion on the subject of ‘Byron’s Hand’, focused on holograph manuscripts that Byron intended for print. He listed the sources of holograph texts that scholars consult, indicating the various categories of manuscript available, and reminded us of Byron’s command to Murray, ‘Consult the MS always’ (Letter of 24 September 1818). Dyer pointed out that Murray’s 1832 publication of Byron’s works, edited by John Wright, shows no awareness of the stemma of the poems’ texts, and therefore does not offer modern editors a way of evaluating which version might have a greater claim to authority. One must go back to the manuscripts. For his paper, Dyer examined the use of capitalisation in the case of grenadiers, a word capitalised four times in the War and Russian Cantos of Don Juan. He noted that, since this is not an abstraction, no reason exists to capitalise it, except perhaps for its sexual implication (Grenadiers are the only soldiers Byron makes guilty of rape in the battle of Ismail.) The placement of text on the page in an actual manuscript may also contribute to the effect of a stanza. In Beppo, the poet writes, ‘My pen is at the bottom of a page’ (99), as it was in the actual manuscript and also in the fair copy. Dyer reminds us that, in such cases, we lose the experience of the original when we read the printed text. In...


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