ISBN 10: 1846319714 / ISBN 13: 9781846319716
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Rezension: This fine new study engages with the critical debate over Byron's philosophical ideas, a debate which has developed from Arnold's and T. S. Eliot's declarations of the poet's intellectual nullity, through to recent attempts by critics such as M. G. Cooke, Terence A. Hoagwood and Bernhard Jackson to identify Byron's philosophical tenets. Anthony Howe's contention is that, while philosophical trends are certainly relevant to Byron's poetry, the poetry is not 'reproducible as a discrete branch of philosophy'. Rather, Byron distrusts overt argumentation, but makes 'philosophical thought [...] a prelude to self-understanding' (6). Crucial to Byron's enterprise, according to Howe, is poetic form. It is this that engages, investigates, subverts and energises thought, such that in the poetry, 'we often stumble into quiet clearings of lucidity, but we are rarely allowed to stray too far from the truths of disorder' (3). The central chapters of Howe's book constitute a series of six essays: a deliberate strategy that evokes Byron's admiration of Montaigne and the form associated with him - suggesting, as it does, gestures or speculations, rather than a fully worked-out world-view. The first two essays, under the rubric 'Philosophy', explore Byron in relation to the tradition of philosophical scepticism, and go on to examine his ambiguous (and critically neglected) 'Mystery', Cain. Howe makes a convincing case for locating the play's 'uniqueness and experimental force' in Cain's combination of Enlightenment thinking and potential as a vatic poet (65), and for seeing Adah's take on human experience as an important counterweight to that of Lucifer. The next two chapters consider Byron's involvement in the Pope-Bowles controversy, via his prose compositions, and trace out the implications for his poetics of the ideas at stake here, invoking as well the legacy of Locke and Burke. Bowles's crude misrepresentation of Pope (as he saw it) was baneful for Byron, Howe argues, because it was 'linked to the kinds of linguistic dishonesty that expedite moral and political degeneration' (77). By contrast, Dr Johnson, although somewhat critical of Pope, exemplifies 'lived experience' via his own performance of writing (84): Byron held a similar aspiration, and also insisted 'that we might think in more ways than one and at the same time' (98). Thus the apparently idealistic sections of Childe Harold 'suggest a mind more than aware of the forces that loom up against the possibility of vision', whereas in Don Juan, the 'threat of total scepticism ... finds mitigation in poetry's "outlines" or "hints", which [...] offer an unspecified hope' (112-15). Hence the later poem 'is not so much a clean break from or abandonment of earlier 'romantic' Byronic texts as a haunting of their problematic possibilities' (118). The final two chapters, 'Outlines', develop the earlier themes of the study. Although all the chapters contain excellent close readings of the poetry, these last ones concentrate more fully on it, and focus especially on Don Juan. The first considers the differing tonalities through the representations of Juan's actual and potential love-interests, Haidee, Adeline, and Aurora Raby. The last is for Howe 'Byron's most resplendent symbol of poetic possibility' (141), yet she does not enable the poet to escape 'his own far muddier sceptical mire' (144). The following chapter takes up the issue of 'linguistic dishonesty' in relation to the siege cantos of Don Juan, looking back at Byron's earlier treatments of battles and their 'heroes'. Byron comes to 'think about how and why the individual emerges from the variety of "Brave men" who have "shone not on the poet's page"' (158), and the siege cantos do demonstrate a probing critique of language - but they also suggest that 'words can be instinct with virtue' (160). If the achievement of poetry is more complex than the polemic of argument or the claims of philosophical discourse, then that is partly because of Byron's intellectual energy, the passion he both feels and registers, and, of course, his own subtle and varied use of language. But for Byron, according to Howe, the impact of poetry was crucially dependent on readers, and, moreover, readers whose reactions the poet was less certain about once he no longer published with John Murray. One way in which the book delineates the difference between philosophical argument and Byron's poetry is through illustrating the latter's implicit or explicit reliance on reader response. The 'lively reader's fancy' invoked in Don Juan (VI, 98) is 'an object of great anxiety but also of great hope' (144). Thus we later readers understand Byron's legacy, Howe concludes, by accepting 'his invitation to think, read and imagine' (175). Anthony Howe's study is well-written (if occasionally gnomic) and full of insights, combining a strong awareness of Byron's various intellectual engagements with consistently persuasive interpretations of the poetry. -- Joanne Wilkes The BARS Review, No. 44, Autumn Anthony Howe's study is well-written (if occasionally gnomic) and full of insights, combining a strong awareness of Byron's various intellectual engagements with consistently persuasive interpretations of the poetry. The BARS Review, No. 44, Autumn Early readings of Byron as shallow and unintellectual (vide Goethe and Arnold) led many twentieth- and some twenty-first century critics to defend the poet's philosophical underpinnings. But Byron's oeuvre presented a problem for those searching for a sustained philosophical system. Contradictory ideas appear across the texts and one need only compare the first canto of Childe Harold to the last canto of Don Juan to understand the difficulty of speaking of Byron's 'philosophy'. In response to this conundrum, critics have repeatedly used Byron's seemingly contrary viewpoints to trace his skeptical philosophy. This approach appears periodically in Byron studies, from early works such as Edward Marjarum's Byron As Skeptic and Believer (1938), to the field-shifting studies in the mid-1980s by Anne Mellor and Donald Reiman, to Emily Bernhard Jackson's recent The Development of Byron's Philosophy of Knowledge (2010). Anthony Howe's book also discusses skepticism, but unlike some scholars (such as Terrence Hoagwood and Bernhard Jackson) Howe does not subordinate poetry in order to classify Byron as a particular kind of philosopher. Rather, Howe argues that in order to understand Byron's engagement with philosophy, we must first understand the role poetry plays within the formation of thinking about and knowing the world. This study shifts the conversation about Byron's philosophical theories from purely intertextual or historical points to questions of literary form. Redirecting our focus to poetry allows Howe to demonstrate the ways in which the forms of Byron's works mimic the very philosophical questioning apparent in their content. Such an approach yields several rewards and also corrects an all too common problem in Byron studies: 'There is a bad habit in Byron criticism of deciding that the poet is not being serious when he says things that don't fit with the critic's reading of him. This leads to critics choosing what they listen to rather than listening'. Part of the joy of reading this study comes from the author's dedication to listening. What Howe hears in Byron is a unity of form and content that asks and invites readers to engage with poetry in order to overcome prevailing political ideologies. Two other guiding spirits dictate the shape of Howe's study: its form and its interest in argument. Written as a collection of essays rather than a study broken into chapters, Howe's text deftly follows patterns of thought and form through Byron's work in different genres. Divided into three sections, the essays focus on the intersection of philosophy, poetry, and politics. The first two parts of the book follow a pattern of theory-practice, with a first essay tracing the idea and a second essay explicating it. In Howe's first section, 'Philosophy', the two essays examine skepticism in Byron's works. The first essay demonstrates how Byron's reading of Montaigne led him to view poetry as 'something with a philosophical agency of its own' that through form 'becomes a way of reading the world against the grain of its objectification'. Rather than forcing poetry into the service of recording philosophy, Howe argues that poetry itself enables and encourages a kind of skeptical thinking. By focusing on Cain in the following essay, Howe is able to demonstrate the ways in which poetry allows for a skeptical approach to knowledge in both its form and content. Howe argues that 'Byron's relentless interest in language as a staging of philosophical and political intention' recasts Cain as more than visionary poetry; the play functions as a dramatisation of 'our rise and slide into the mind of modernity'. Part II offers an even more pronounced examination of form - the 'way of being' of a textual thing - by juxtaposing Byron's critical prose in one essay with his critical poetry in the next. In a much needed engagement with the influences and impulses behind Letter to John Murray and the Bowles debate, Howe unpacks Byron's debts to Johnson and the impact of skepticism on the poet's opinion of theoretical poetry. Howe points to Byron's objection to Bowles's articulation of his critique of Pope and unpacks the concept of 'cant'. Here Howe's dedication to the text and listening to the poet serves his study well, particularly in moments such as his interpretation of the dashes in a section on cant: 'Byron's dashes [...] resist [the conspiracy to enchain the collective mind of society] by scoring the links of the chain across the page; they cut into the paper to re-inscribe a truth that has filtered itself out of consciousness'. The same keen reading appears in the following essay, a reassessment of Byron's position vis-a-vis post-Lockean Romantic poetics. Through the frame of Byron's shifting notions of the sublime, Howe interprets the shift from Childe Harold to Don Juan as part of a critical project that has at its heart an interest in the potentiality of writing. Such a ...

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