- The Cambridge Introduction to Byron
Written with the undergraduate market in mind, The Cambridge Introduction to Byron aims to introduce the reader to Byron’s life, work, critical reception, and some contemporary historical context. The book is concise and easy to navigate, with each chapter subdivided into smaller sections which are not only signposted on the contents page, but are also listed at the start of each chapter. As such, the reader can quite easily identify individual sections to read in isolation; alternatively, the text is short enough to read in its entirety in a single sitting. Lansdown’s style is accessible, generally lively, and can be witty at times, which overall makes for an engaging and easy read. The text is supported by some useful plates and illustrations, including a map of Byron’s Europe and a table of the dates of composition and publication of Byron’s major poems.
Chapter 1 offers a succinct account of Byron’s biography, introducing a summary of some of the key events and figures in his life. The narrative is supported by quotations from letters and poems, and Lansdown begins to explain how some of Byron’s major works link in with events of his life: his exile in 1816 and the production of Manfred, for example. Chapter 2 then offers a set of contexts for Byron’s life and work: politics and aristocracy, Napoleonic Europe, and the Romantic movement. This section is thorough, although sometimes unnecessarily so; there are plenty of short introductions to the historical, political, and ideological contexts of the Romantic period available, and all too often Lansdown is simply repeating general material available elsewhere. For pages at a time, he fails to mention Byron at all, leaving the reader to make the connection between the historical events listed and Byron’s writing.
Chapter 3 examines the significance of Byron’s letters and journals, making a convincing case for the importance of these documents. Lansdown is keen to point out the complexities and literary merit of these writings and his examination of rhetoric and creativity in the letters will no doubt encourage the reader to seek out these works to read for himself or herself. In identifying links between Byron’s letters and his poetry, Lansdown enhances the reader’s understanding of both groups of texts, and discourages the simplistic and limiting generic compartmentalisation of Byron’s creative output. Chapters 4 to 8 proceed to examine Byron’s poetic development, taking in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, The Giaour, Manfred, The Prisoner of Chillon, Beppo, Mazeppa, The Island, The Deformed Transformed, and Don Juan, among others, along the way. Although these poems are considered in turn, they are by no means examined in isolation from one another, and Lansdown frequently makes links between texts and identifies common sets of issues surrounding particular groups of poems. He gives a solid sense of the publishing history of these works, and highlights the length of time that it took Byron to complete some of the poems. Although confined by the brevity of this study, Lansdown manages to cover circumstances of composition, themes, form, authors by whom Byron was influenced (Pope, for example), and the ways in which Byron’s work was innovative. The necessary summarisation that must come with such breadth is interwoven at times with close analysis, and Lansdown leaves the reader with a number of interesting ideas and approaches to consider. [End Page 185]
The final chapter, Chapter 9, is titled ‘Afterword’, and considers some of the ‘afterlives’ of Byron’s work. Looking at how Byron influenced art, music, literature, politics, and philosophy throughout Europe and Russia in the nineteenth century, Lansdown emphasises the complex cultural heritage left by the poet. Although it is admirable that Lansdown seeks to move beyond a consideration of Byron’s influence solely on literature, the scope of this section means that certain ideas are rushed through, and statements left unexplained. Indeed, the idea that Mr Rochester is Byronic because he is in the habit of ‘galloping around the...