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  • Byron: The Poetry of Politics and the Politics of Poetry ed. by Roderick Beaton and Christine Kenyon Jones
  • Carl Thompson
BYRON: THE POETRY OF POLITICS AND THE POLITICS OF POETRY. Edited by Roderick Beaton and Christine Kenyon Jones. London and New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. xxi + 277. ISBN 978-1-4724-5963-3. £120.00.

‘Byron and politics’ might seem on the face of it a straightforward rubric, flagging up a topic clearly of interest, and important, to all serious students of the poet. Byron was on many different fronts and in a variety of ways a politically engaged figure: to give just a few examples, he made speeches in the House of the Lords (albeit only on three occasions), espoused and was conspicuously associated in his lifetime with many political causes, and ultimately lost his life in pursuit of one of those causes, that of Greek Independence. Yet when we try to scrutinise more closely the political dimensions of Byron’s life and works, a seemingly straightforward topic quickly becomes much more complex, generating a bewildering proliferation of questions and problems with regard to the scope of the enquiry and the definition of key terms. Firstly, what counts as ‘politics’ or as politically consequential? Should our focus fall principally on Byron’s engagement with what one might label the overt, ‘high’ politics of his era, the contestations [End Page 82] between Whigs, radicals and Tories at home in Britain, and between the forces of liberalism and conservatism more widely in Europe? Or should it also encompass—in keeping perhaps with the maxim that ‘the personal is political’—a wider array of issues and activities, such as Byron’s treatment of women and his apparent prefiguring of many modern environmental concerns? Whatever parameters one puts on the topic in this regard, further complexities arise when it comes to evaluating the influence and effectiveness, and the success or failure, of political activities, agendas and writings. Most political careers, according to another modern maxim, end in failure. Yet that surely doesn’t mean that all such careers were pointless and inconsequential: might they not have exercised an influence in oblique, indirect ways, shifting ‘the Overton window’ (as recent parlance has it), shaping terms of debate and the range of feasible actions and outcomes? This last conundrum, of course, bulks particularly large when considering anyone who enlists poetry to a political cause. The relationship between art and political engagement is another perennially thorny topic that cannot be avoided when tackling ‘Byron and politics’, and here again it is clear that if we want to make any claim for literature’s political influence and effectiveness we must acknowledge that this usually only comes about in a highly subtle, indirect fashion. ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, was Auden’s succinct verdict on this issue. But as he went on to add, in a less-frequently quoted line from the same poem, it can nevertheless provide ‘a way of happening, a mouth’ which enables new potentialities to be imagined, voiced and—just perhaps—enacted.

The difficulties of assessing the success and influence of political endeavours are especially pertinent to Byron. In a key monograph on this topic—Byron’s Politics (1987)—Malcolm Kelsall roundly judged Byron a failure in relation to his main political causes and aspirations, and concluded that ‘the life of Byron is of no political significance’. The essays brought together in this new volume, however, collectively suggest that this is an overly harsh and simplistic summation. Kelsall undoubtedly offers a meticulous reconstruction of Byron’s immediate political contexts, and conveys brilliantly the paradoxes and contradictions attendant on the poet’s position as an aristocratic Whig in the early nineteenth century. Yet in reaching his ultimate judgement on Byron’s political significance, Kelsall’s account is arguably hampered by a narrow, limiting conception of the issues broached above, namely what counts as ‘political’ and what counts, politically speaking, as ‘success’. The contributors here, in contrast, widen considerably the lens through which we view these themes; and if in places the focus perhaps becomes a little too diffuse, the collection as a whole undoubtedly refines and nuances our understanding of many aspects of Byron...


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pp. 82-85
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