T.S. Eliot once wrote that ‘Byron added nothing to the language […] and developed nothing in the meaning, of individual words’. Even after putting my love for Lord Byron aside, I’m not sure that I agree.
Lord Byron’s poetry is a poetry of suggestion and of withholding, of teasing and withdrawing. Particularly in his poems Lara, A Tale and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, it is the spaces that Byron leaves in his poetry that allows the reader to imagine and inquire that ultimately impresses. Byron, through his vague and suggestive language, gently compels his reader to think illicit thoughts, to become complicit in immorality and to imagine themselves as having a profound connection with the poet himself. His language creates an intense intimacy, an impenetrable connection between poet and reader and in this, Byron certainly ‘add[s] to the language’.
Peter J. Manning denies Eliot’s claim that Byron’s ‘refusal to exalt the individual word’ means that he was writing ‘a dead or dying language’. He, instead, argues that through this refusal, Byron ‘is able to display the multiple functions of language itself’. In his discussion of Don Juan, he writes,
‘The poem’s insistence on its own indeterminacy and arbitrariness is its style of freedom: by rejecting the points of fullness, origin and end, Byron devotes himself to a discourse of absences, fragments, and losses which can yet keep the moment open […] [Byron] unmasks the illusion of full meaning dear to Eliot and the symbolists, asking us to recognize that poetry can be made not only by saturating the individual word, but also by ceaselessly uncovering the paradoxes in the use of ordinary words’.
Manning carefully and astutely notes the moments in Don Juan in which Byron denies the reader something whole, something stable and lasting, and argues that Eliot sees this as a flaw in Byron’s poetry only because of the ‘narrowness of [his] criteria’: ‘other premises for poetry are possible, and attitudes other than awed contemplation are appropriate ends’. Byron’s poetry, for Manning, is a poetry of words, rather than word, and is effective precisely for that reason, yet he declines to directly refute Eliot’s claim that Byron ‘added nothing to the language’. Instead, Manning argues that Byron’s style of developing ‘nothing in the meaning, of individual words’ is what makes his poetry great, despite Eliot’s claim that it is, in fact, a flaw. I ultimately agree with Manning’s conviction that Byron refuses to ‘exalt the individual word’, and that much of Byron’s poetry is marked by a kind of indeterminacy, but I want to attempt to establish the conclusion that in this indeterminacy, Byron does, in fact, ‘add to the language’. In both Lara, A Tale and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron perpetually suggests things of a subjectively immoral nature such as eroticism, crime, and homoeroticism, while, ultimately, leaving these things unsaid. In his perpetual offering and withholding, teasing and suppression, Byron creates a distinctive and profound intimacy between poet and reader by coaxing the reader to think in new, deviant ways and sharing in their dark thoughts, a kind of intimacy that it is difficult to imagine can be achieved by other any means. This post will be split into two parts. In the first, I will focus on Lara, and in the second, I will write about Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (part two will be coming next week!).
In Byron’s 1814 poem, Lara, A Tale, Count Lara returns to his patrimony accompanied by a page named Kaled. Kaled is a woman disguised as a young male page, a fact that is hidden from the reader until the very end of the poem, after Lara’s death. This, of course, is an indisputable withholding from the reader but what is particularly interesting in the revealing of Kaled’s true identity is the slow, teasing unveiling of the truth. As Lara lies, dying, Kaled gazes at him. Byron writes:
That trying moment hath at once reveal’d,
The secret long and yet but half concel’d;
In baring to revive that lifeless breast,
Its grief seem’d ended, but the sex confess’d;
And in life return’d, and Kaled felt no shame —
What to her was Womanhood or Fame?
Line by line, Byron both suggests and withholds something from his reader: something is ‘reveal’d’, but he will not say what; he presents a ‘secret’, but it is ‘half conceal’d’; the words ‘baring’, ‘breast’, ‘sex’ and ‘shame’, too, are given to the reader, yet their presence admits nothing: neither homoeroticism or a gender reveal. These lines are a build-up to the reveal of Kaled’s true identity as a female but they “feel” like something else; the language that Byron uses and his own ‘half concealing’ of the truth in these lines seem like a build up to the admittance of a homoerotic relationship between Lara and his boy page. When Byron begins to use ‘her’, the female third person pronoun, to refer to Kaled, and continues to do so until the poem’s close, he finally makes it explicit that the reader has borne witness to an entirely conventional, heterosexual, relationship, rather than the homoerotic relationship that is subtly suggested in the previous lines. When the ‘secret’ is finally revealed, the reader is forced to acknowledge what they had been thinking, something that in the nineteenth-century was deemed perverse and immoral: the sexual relationship between a Count and a page, a traditionally young, male servant. Byron’s teasing, his subtle suggestion of an illicit relationship and his refusal to wholly reveal the ‘secret’ for six lines — even on line 519, it is not yet made explicit that Kaled is, in fact, a woman, disguised as a page — allows him to manipulate his reader into thinking improper thoughts; as soon as he does so, however, he swiftly announces that the reader’s assumptions had been misplaced by revealing Kaled’s true identity. In this moment, Byron shares in a secret with his reader; he knows what they had been thinking, he had made them think it, but what has taken place between Byron and his reader in these lines is never acknowledged in the poem; it is a secret shared between poet and reader, an unparalleled intimacy created in language, a profound addition to the English language and what it is capable of achieving.
In Byron’s poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the first two cantos of which were published in 1812, Byron does something very similar, but I’m going to do a Byron and withhold that information for another week — see you there!