Matthew Arnold on Byron

The young Matthew Arnold. A touch ‘byron­ian’?
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.

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