Another section of the preface to my Annotated Cantos I & II (with audio narration) planned for the bi-centenary of Don Juan in 2019
The popularity of Byron’s poetry even today owes much to an influential 1881 edition of selected poems edited by Matthew Arnold, poet and Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.
Almost six decades after Byron’s death, Arnold rescued his reputation from the stuffy disapproval of mid-Victorian taste, praising the powerful, sincere personality that his works reveal and placing him at the forefront of the romantic poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Still, Arnold’s preface to his edition — which never once mentions Don Juan — faults Byron for a lack of emotional insight and “seriousness”.
Arnold declared that Byron had not been properly appreciated by the Victorian public: his “puissant personality… inevitably shattered [itself] to pieces against the huge, black, cloud-topped, interminable precipice of British Philistinism”.
Still, he thought Byron “was eminent only by his genius, only by his inborn force and fire; he had not the intellectual equipment of a supreme modern poet”. His main fault, Arnold argued (quoting Goethe) is that Byron “is quite too much in the dark” about himself, and “the moment he begins to reflect, he is a child”. He does not, Arnold says, have the moral intelligence to “lead us from the past to the future”. In this, Byron is inferior to Wordsworth who
… has an insight into permanent sources of joy and consolation for mankind which Byron has not ; his poetry gives us more which we may rest upon than Byron’s, more — which we can rest upon now, and which men may rest upon always.
Arnold decided that he would be improving Byron’s fame to make only selections from “the mass of poetry he poured forth”. He included 15 brief passages from Don Juan to which he gave suggestive abstract titles.
He explained that this editorial approach reflected his treatment of Wordsworth in an earlier volume and because “he too gains, I think, by being so presented”. He dismissed the contrary argument put by Swinburne that Byron “can only be judged or appreciated in the mass the greatest of his works was his whole work taken together”.
I question whether by reading everything which he gives us we are so likely to acquire an admiring sense even of his variety and abundance, as by reading what he gives us at his happier moments.
But it does not follow — as Arnold implies — that Byron should be read only in selection. After all, if literature were reduced to the “Cliff Notes” versions there would be little point in having the “Notes” at all. Alfred Austin — a journalist, critic and unhappy “Poet Laureate” who was a contemporary of Arnold — mocked the idea:
Mr. Arnold has done Byron injustice by making selections from his works, and asserting that selections are better than the whole of the works from which they are selected. You might as well select from a mountain. (From “Wordsworth and Byron” in the Quarterly Review, Vol 154, 1882)
Still, Arnold’s choice prevailed: his approach, backed by a new “convenient” edition arbitrated the future for Byron’s fame. Although the volume of academic Byroniana has swelled journals and library stacks around the world, his greatest work has never really recovered the popularity it had when it first appeared or the readership it deserves. Don Juan became inacessibly long and mostly unread.