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This chapter examines how Byron draws attention to the material forms in which his works are mediated, beginning with Beppo, which ends because ‘My pen is at the bottom of a page’. It suggests that, in the artistic process of composition, Byron pondered questions that have concerned later critics and theorists from Walter Greg and F. W. Bateson to René Wellek and Nelson Goodman. By attending to the ways in which Byron marked his manuscript page, the chapter suggests that he thought of the literary work as having a distinctive, layered ontology. It situates his implied understanding of the nature of the literary work in relation to that of recent textual scholars such as John Bryant, Peter Shillingsburg, Jack Stillinger, and Paul Eggert. Byron wrote with a keen attention to the materiality of pens, ink, and paper, but he was also well aware that his poems could become mass-produced printed commodities. He was therefore concerned with how remediation changed the effect of a poem, and even its meaning, as effects specific to manuscript did not translate into print. Beppo provides a case in point, as it imagines itself as script, print, and voice by turns, or sometimes all at once.
Byron’s works pose formidable challenges for textual scholarship. His manuscripts are sometimes barely legible. He usually wrote on whatever scraps of paper came to hand, with many words scratched out and second thoughts squeezed in between the lines. He sometimes turned the page sideways and wrote new lines of verse crosswise over the existing ones. He rarely dated his manuscripts. He wrote fast and not always carefully. He often relied on other people to copy his manuscripts and edit them for publication. He harassed his publishers with letters containing additions, corrections and revisions. He treated proofreading as an extension of composition, often making significant changes. Modern editors have a dauntingly large amount of material to work with, including multiple manuscripts of poems, fair copies in other hands, corrected proofs, and letters between Byron and his publishers. His mature works all appeared in several editions in his lifetime and the texts of these editions vary significantly. Sometimes Byron made revisions or corrected errors in new editions, and sometimes other people introduced changes, with or without his consent. Many spurious or dubious poems have at different times been considered part of Byron’s oeuvre. For all these reasons, his works descend to us with very high levels of bibliographical and textual complexity.
When Byron's corpse arrived back in England in 1824, immersed in spirits and encased in a double coffin, his long-serving and longsuffering valet Fletcher accompanied it. Fletcher was reunited with his wife, whom he had not seen since 1816, and also with his wife's employer, Lady Byron, who wanted to know about her ex-husband's final hours. In particular, she implored Fletcher to recall his master's last words. But Byron – delirious with fever and weakened by the repeated and misguided bleedings administered by his doctors – did not leave a resonant final statement to posterity. His last words were ‘I want to sleep now.’ Perhaps Lady Byron was moved by what Byron had called ‘the late remorse of love’ (Childe Harold IV, l. 137), but she was also responding to an ideology of the good death that was widely shared by her contemporaries. Several people tried to influence how Byron faced his death, or left accounts of his final hours. James Kennedy sent Byron a tract that recounted Rochester's deathbed conversion. But Julius Millingen recorded, ‘with infinite regret’, that, while he ‘seldom left Lord Byron's pillow during the latter part of his illness, [he] did not hear him make any, even the smallest, mention of religion’. Edward John Trelawny claimed to have written an account of Byron's death, from Fletcher's dictation, resting his paper on Byron's coffin. They all shared Annabella's belief that the final hours were particularly revealing.
Byron repeatedly returned to this idea in his poetry, reflecting and interrogating the Romantic ideology of the good death. This ideology was formed out of both Classical and Christian traditions of thinking about death, which sometimes coexisted uneasily. The Classical tradition emphasised facing one's death with equanimity, surrounded by one's friends. Philosophy would free one from the fear of death, and even allow one to welcome it as the end of earthly ills. In Plato's Phaedo, Socrates approaches his death squarely and rationally, without distress or regret, talking philosophically with his friends to the end. Phaedo reports that ‘the man appeared happy in both manner and words as he died nobly and without fear’.
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