- Byron and the Best of Poets by Nicholas Gayle
One of the charming features of this charming book is the way in which Nicholas Gayle takes 'the passionate sincerity of Byron's defence of Pope' entirely at face value. When Byron vowed (with suitably Scriblerian panache) he would sooner see all his own poetry lining trunks than one leaf torn from Pope's laurel, he was very conscious that 'there are those who will believe this—and those who will not'. Most of his contemporaries did not. Crabb Robinson jibed that if Byron's love for Pope had been genuine 'it would have produced fruits' and even Moore read the turn towards Pope as an attempt to 'throw overboard all us poor devils' who had embarked with Byron upon revolutionary forms of poetry only to see these now conveniently deemed monotonous and mannerist. However, Byron did have strong grounds for asserting that the Lakers and Cockneys were 'fighting for Life' by deliberately over-deprecating Pope, who had become—in Shelley's oft-quoted phrase—'the pivot in a dispute in taste'. While Gayle is in some ways right to suggest that Byron's advocacy of Pope summoned up the 'moral force' of 'both the Classical and the Christian traditions', Byron's campaign can equally be interpreted as an attempt to distinguish between those traditions, in the same way Peacock reduced the future of poetry to a choice between a return to Mount Parnassus or an excursion to Mount Sinai. It is true that Byron is driven to describe Pope as 'the Christianity of English Poetry' in resistance to the anti-Catholicism of the Reverend Bowles and the attempts of Bowles's Wykehamist teachers (Young and the Wartons) to deny Pope the title of poet because he 'soared not in the Christian beam' of imagination, originality and blank verse. Yet Byron's expectation that Pope would prove 'the National poet of Mankind' and comparison of Pope's oeuvre to a 'Grecian temple' not only betrays his own 'classical turn of mind' but also a deep-seated suspicion that transcendentalism tends towards barbarism. What have been described as 'Byron's zestful and idiosyncratic equivalent to A Defence of Poetry' (Michael O'Neill) and 'the canonical canon controversy in English literary history' (James Chandler) still await a study which fully considers their inter-relation and their ramifications.
Although Gayle provides a good flavour of the Pope/Bowles Controversy in his opening chapter, he finds it by turns 'curious', 'frustrating' and 'sterile'. Instead, his equally ambitious project—the first full-length study of Byron's 'lifelong interaction with Pope'—focuses almost exclusively on 'verse intertexts' while drawing upon 'elements of biography and psychology'. Two of the book's generously acknowledged presiders are Peter Cochran (whose influence is evident in the unhurried quotation of primary material and the idea of Southey as Byron's 'doppelgänger') and Bernard Beatty (whose presence is felt in the engagement with created characters on their own terms and the sense of Aurora Raby as a 'radiant serene figure'). But Gayle has his own distinctive voice and his own original insights. After a second chapter [End Page 81] addressing the use of antithesis, enjambment and caesura in couplet and octave, he embarks upon two hundred pages of lively close reading.
Chapter 3 examines Byron's 'various' poetic responses to Pope's Eloisa, finding both 'discernible slight echoes' and connections of 'intimate thought' in Byron's verse epistles to his sister. The analysis then moves on to the 'deep congruences' between 'Byron's little miracle' (Julia's valedictory letter in Don Juan I) and Pope's 'volcano of beauty'. Gayle seeks to demonstrate how the two poets view their subjects through a lens which is both 'cinematic' and 'empathetic'. Central to the next chapter is the argument that Juan's journey 'into the heart of the harem' in Canto V is modelled on Belinda's descent to the Cave of Spleen, itself a mock-epic take on classical katabasis. A coda to...