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An 1809 pen and ink caricature sketch by Scrope Berdmore Davies depicts ‘Ld B. as an Amatory Writer’. It is one of a group of four head-and-shoulders sketches, in profile, that includes their mutual Cambridge friends John Cam Hobhouse and Charles Skinner Matthews, depicted as ‘Two Authors of the Satirical Miscellany’, and a fourth figure, ‘The Satirist’ – possibly Davies himself, but more likely Hewson Clarke, a Cambridge enemy who had criticized Byron’s first published volume Hours of Idleness (1807) in The Satirist.2 But the ‘Satirist’ could also be Byron, for the poetic identity of ‘satirist’ had replaced that of ‘amatory writer’ with the publication of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers in March 1809. Coinciding with Byron’s first trip to Greece, which took place after the publication of English Bards, Davies made the sketch on the back of a letter he sent to Byron in June 1809, when Byron and Hobhouse were in Falmouth, waiting to sail for the Eastern Mediterranean. In its counterpointing of Byron as an amatory poet against the satirist, Davies’ sketch commemorates Byron’s turn from the amatory to the ‘Satirist’ style.
The literary canon notoriously ignores context. Canonization removes authors from their particular domain of production and reception, ushering them into the transcendent realm of the classical pantheon – remote, unchanging and monumentalized. All those pesky contingencies of time and place fall away, and the canonized work is left, supposedly, to speak for itself.
Contradiction was Byron’s keynote. He initiated his career in rhyme with a gesture of disavowal: “Poetry, however, is not my primary vocation” (CPW I: 33), the young Lord announced in the preface to Hours of Idleness (1807). Any consideration of Byron and literary theory needs to be alive to his testy relationship with what he famously dismissed as “the mart / For … poetic diction” (CPW V: 391, ll. 685–6). But it is also clear that Byron lived and breathed literature, conceiving of it as a total system. It was the material system of publishing; a court-styled marketplace run by “the Allied Sovereigns of Grub-Street” (BLJ 8: 207); a social institution that transacted the business of authorial fame and afterlife; a conversation; an experiment in thought and sense; a tribute to and tributary of the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life; and a source of life itself. As Byron asked rhetorically of Don Juan, “is it not life, is it not the thing?” (BLJ 6: 232).
George Gordon, the sixth Lord Byron (1788–1824), was one of the most celebrated poets of the Romantic period, as well as a peer, politician and global celebrity, famed not only for his verse, but for his controversial lifestyle and involvement in the Greek War of Independence. In thirty-seven concise, accessible essays, by leading international scholars, this volume explores the social and intertextual relationships that informed Byron's writing; the geopolitical contexts in which he travelled, lived and worked; the cultural and philosophical movements that influenced changing outlooks on religion, science, modern society and sexuality; the dramatic landscape of war, conflict and upheaval that shaped Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic Europe and Regency Britain; and the diverse cultures of reception that mark the ongoing Byron phenomenon as a living ecology in the twenty-first century. This volume illuminates how we might think of Byron in context, but also as a context in his own right.