Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 July 2021
As Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage I–II (1812) and Eastern Tales (1813–16) steadily gained ascendancy in the field of narrative verse, Walter Scott – hitherto the master of the form – realised the wind was changing. Years later, in the preface to the 1830 edition of Rokeby (1813), he acknowledged that his ‘manner, or style, which, by its novelty, attracted the public in an unusual degree had now […] exhausted the patience of the reader’ and, after Byron’s success, ‘[t]here would have been little wisdom in measuring my force with so formidable an antagonist’.1 With his metrical innovations, ‘licentious combination’ of rhymes, structure and style, historically documented settings and complex characterisations, Scott had made verse tales central to the period’s ‘Metromanie’, John Gibson Lockhart’s neologism for the Romantic-era craze for poetry.2 Taking on Scott’s mantle, Byron modified and revitalised the form; but for all his investment, his attitude towards it was decidedly mixed. It was after reading Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh in 1817 that he formulated his well-known condemnation of the current ‘wrong revolutionary poetical system’, disastrously bent on a collective swerve away from Augustan models (BLJ, V. 265). Besides himself, most of the names guilty of promoting this system were authors of ‘metrical tales’: Scott, Southey, Wordsworth and Campbell (he reprieved Rogers and Crabbe). Three years later, he asked his publisher to spare him from Hemans and George Croly, also narrative poets and published by Murray (BLJ, VII. 201). Even as Byron cultivated and promoted narrative poetry, he denounced it as the expression of a misguided poetic climate, and a derivative, repetitive and faddish form artificially propelled by an insatiable demand for novelty.
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