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Stephen Cheeke. Byron & Place – History, Translation, Nostalgia

Marc PORÉE
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Stephen CHEEK. Byron & Place – History, Translation, Nostalgia. Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003, 288 pp., €63.17, ISBN 1403904030.

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1William Hazlitt repeatedly suggested that Byron's poetry consisted of fine-sounding commonplaces and observed that the author of Childe Harold described the “stately cypress, or the fallen column, with the feeling that every schoolboy has about them”. This pretty damning judgement, shared by Arthur Hugh Clough (in his hexameter poem Amours de Voyage), may account both for the popularity of Byron's verse during his life-time and for the kind of posthumous fragmentation of the work into the “magnificent” passages appended to guidebooks. The notion of the commonplace—the second-hand and inauthentic emotional response—shadows Byron's writing in all its phases, particularly in its relationship to places of historical significance and fame, such as the Coliseum or the plain of Waterloo. Authenticity is a central topic of Byron and Place, part of the argument of which is to suggest that anxiety about responding to places of historical fame is a central part of Byron's imagination, but that the idea of the commonplace becomes transformed in the use Byron makes of his actual experience and direct knowledge of such places gained in his travels. Byron and Place avails itself of a broad field of enquiry known as the “new geography” or the “cultural geography” that emerged in the eighties, drawing on a wide range of cognate disciplines and aiming at a sustained rethinking of space and place (calling these rethinkings “philosophical” raises expectations which the present work cannot quite meet, it should be observed in all fairness). It also dovetails with one of the aims of New Historicism, namely the recovery of lived experience. As such, and because of its chronological orientation, prompted and conditioned by Byron's manifold travels, Byron and place also reads like a well-informed “topo-biographical study”.

2Starting from the irrefutable premise that Byron had a passion for History, as well as for the “halo” of the past in place, Cheeke devotes his first chapter to the years 1807-1812, when Byron travelled in the East, and became famous for doing so in the West. Being in Greece in particular is for the western traveller always a question of authenticity, but also focuses authenticity about belonging to a western imperial power and initiates a struggle with the notion of the classical genius loci that will extend throughout Byron's writing life. One consequence of this anxiety is that Byron and his friend Hobhouse discover and present Albania to their readers as a challenge to the hegemony of the classical, the first of many such challenges and questionings in Byron's writings. On returning to England in 1811, Byron's literary orientalism relied upon just such firsthand knowledge, but it was a knowledge that was carefully prepared for the reading public's consumption. The first section of the second chapter examines the way in which Byron's oriental poems are predicated on the notion that in the East the fantastical could be real, and the real fantastical. The chapter then goes on to explore the relationship between the body or materiality of significant historical sites and the notion of a spirit of place in the third canto of Childe Harold. The work immediately following Byron's departure from England in 1816 repeatedly turns over the notion of the mind as its own place, both in its metaphysical and its political aspect, and tests the limits of self-sufficiency against the encroachments of place and situation. During these first years in exile Byron writes dramatic monologues of historical prophecy and vindication based upon his direct experience of places associated with Bonnivard, Tasso and Dante, poems which are meant to influence contemporary European politics. The second part of the study addresses itself to metaphors of displacement and the condition of exile. Byron's own exchange of places, his gradual acculturation within Italian society is the subject of chapter 3, dealing with Beppo, Mazeppa, Venice: An Ode, The Prophecy of Dante, Marino Faliero, Don Juan V, and translations from the Italian. The comedy, or to put it another way, the impossibility of translation, is best evidenced through the discussion of the preface to Don Juan, intended as a scathing indictment of Wordsworth”s parochialism, and leads to a penetrating evaluation of the poem as being structured around the dangerous closeness of such notions as apostasy, mobilité (Byron's idée fixe, as it were), hypocrisy and betrayal (120). The final chapter examines Byron's particular susceptibility to and sharp suspicion of nostalgia, in particular his complex nostalgia for England, both for the early years of the Regency which he had directly experienced and for ideas of a recent English past of which he had no direct knowledge. Cheeke finally suggests that a powerful sense of having been there (coming after the being there of the first phase, and the being in-between of the second) floats over the journey of Juan to England, in the famous “English Cantos” of Don Juan, standing as it does for the vicarious repatriation of Byron himself—not a terribly original conclusion, one might object. Sadly, the wind seems to have gone out of Cheeke's critical sails by the time he reaches Missolonghi along with his peripatetic and doomed hero; some of his statements read as so many commonplaces: “Byron's exile and the “lost” world of the Regency are therefore wholly connected and interdependent” (191). Unsurprisingly, the “Conclusion” centres around Byron's last poem, “This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year”, viewed, yet again, as a return to the most enriching sources of his imaginative power, “the belief in the significance of being on the spot” (196): Byron is thinking of posterity and anticipating a future moment when the advice he gives himself here—to choose a soldier's death—, will have been heeded, and therefore when the full significance of the here and now (Greece, The War of Independence) will have been realised.

3Cheeke is more convincing when he discusses Childe Harold as a sequence of geo-historical spots with pre-existent narratives, spots that in some sense speak for themselves: Byron thus comes to be seen as a brilliantly individual amanuensis too whom the European landscape is dictating its histories, while his psychological interiority is an effect produced by the poem's numerous places as their histories are articulated. It is like reading a poem without a human author at all, writes Cheeke, “a poem that has somehow always inhered in the European landscape” (41). Much to be praised, too, is his fine evaluation of the tension inherent to Byron's art of travelling: while the impulse to re-enact narratives through the experience of place and too establish a material contact with history has obvious relation to the notion of pilgrimage, at the same time, there is a curiosity and a desire for comparison and evaluation in Byron's method which, in a secular sense, is closer to that of latter-day tourism (73). To sum up, Byron and Place can pride itself on its fine premise, pithily formulated in those early pages: “from the beginning of Byron's writing life, the place simultaneously speaks for itself and for Byron, so that geo-history and self-identity are interchangeable, or assumed to be so” (22). The argument is trenchant, and utterly convincing, but its repetition somewhat blunts it along the way. While it may appear unfair to reproach Cheeke for having produced a comprehensive and painstaking study of the theme of “being there” (consistently declined in its various modes), one can't help feeling that being made to plod through each of the stages of Byron's development as a writer, at the same studious pace and irrespectively of the quality of the (too) many works discussed here, is bound to miss Byron's ironic delight at never being… where one expected him to be!

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Marc PORÉE, « Stephen Cheeke. Byron & Place – History, Translation, Nostalgia », E-rea [En ligne], 3.2 | 2005, document 5, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2005, consulté le 28 juin 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/574

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Marc PORÉE

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