Cambridge Companion to Byron
This Cambridge Companion to Byron, edited by Drummond Bone, falls into three parts: “Part 1: Historical Contexts,” “Part 2: Textual Contexts,” and “Part 3: Literary Contexts.” Part One consists of four essays on the character of Lord Byron. The first essay, “Byron’s life and his biographers,” by Paul Douglass, raises the main issues about Byron’s problematic and at times still mysterious life. In “Byron and the business of publishing,” Peter W. Graham studies “Byron’s relations with the various publishers to whom he entrusted his works (notably the conservative John Murray and the radical John Hunt), and his fate at the hands of the pirates who brought out cheap, unauthorized editions of his works and the connections between details of book production and the evolving nature of Byron’s readership” .
The next chapter, “Byron’s politics” (Malcolm Kelsall), is about Byron’s political affiliations from his early days at Cambridge, through his speeches at the House of Lords, to his opinions towards Greece’s right to freedom: Byron’s wilful nihilism finally emerges, paving the way for a “neutral space” (The Vision of Judgment) denying “all forms of hegemonic power whether of government or opposition” . Andrew Elfenbein, in “Byron: gender and sexuality,” tackles the subject of early nineteenth-century womanising, paedophilia and incest in relation to the mooted point of Byron’s sexuality. Models of masculinity at the beginning of the nineteenth century generally demonstrated either a sincere earnestness or a melodramatic wickedness, but these feelings occur in mixed quantities in Byron’s heroes. The reception of such poems as Lara and Sardanapalus shows that his audience enjoyed his criticism of masculine models, whether they chose to imitate it or not.
Part Two is a group of seven essays about Byron’s work. Philip W. Martin (“Heroism and History: Childe Harold I and II and the Tales”) rereads Childe Harold as “an ambitious poem which constructs a world-view for the modern […] post-revolutionary intellectual”  against the prevalent conception of the poem as the expression of his author’s psychology. In chapter 6 (“Byron and the Eastern Mediterranean: Childe Harold II and the ‘polemic of Ottoman Greece’”), Nigel Leask delineates two rival perspectives which he calls the “Medoran” (sentimental philhellenism) and the “Gulnarean” (Byron’s critique of conventional ideology about Greece), after the names of Medora and Gulnare in The Corsair. Alan Rawes, in “1816-17: Childe Harrold III and Manfred,” sets his sights on the tension between forgetfulness and redemptive possibilities in these poems written during a transitional phase marked by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Alan Richardson (“Byron and the theatre”) endeavours to reassess Byron’s achievement in dramatic writing. Drummond Bone, the editor of this volume, explores in “Childe Harold IV, Don Juan and Beppo” Byron’s “secular view of meaning” , that is to say a redemptive vision as opposed to a tragic—and very Romantic—one. In “The Vision of Judgment and the visions of ‘author,’” Susan J. Wolfson shows how Robert Southey’s A Vision of Judgement eventually informed Byron’s own satiric poem which comes to signify the birth of Byronism, or, in other words, the birth of authorial celebrity. Andrew Nicholson rounds off this group of essays by focusing on Byron’s prose output (mainly his letters and journals) to show that prose too was a creative medium belonging to the field of Byron studies.
Part Three collects essays providing general perspectives on Byron’s achievements. Jerome McGann, in a chapter dedicated to “Byron’s lyric poetry,” traces Byron’s conception of the lyric in comparison to that of Wordsworth and within a Romantic frame, and concludes that Byron’s lyric, unlike Wordsworth’s, “begins and thrives in disillusion” . In chapter 13 (“Byron and Shakespeare”), Anne Barton analyses Byron’s ambiguous relation to the Bard, and underlines the difficulty one has in sifting Byron’s allusions to famous Shakespearian quotations or ideas, given that such phrases might also have come unknowingly, as it were, under Byron’s pen. Bernard Beatty (“Byron and the eighteenth century”) proceeds to decipher what the eighteenth century meant both to Byron and to the critical response to his character and poems. Peter Cochran (“Byron’s European reception”) considers Byron’s reputation overseas by looking at France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Poland. As a whole, European Byronism seems to have been two-fold: Byron’s character and works were either hailed for their revolutionary impact or recoiled from in horror for the very same reason, namely their subversive power. The last chapter of the Companion is written by Jane Stabler and is dedicated to “Byron, postmodernism and intertextuality.” Starting with a discussion of Mazeppa, Jane Stabler investigates the generic status of some of Byron’s most famous poems, Byron’s bittersweet relation to the notion of authorship and his “reflexive and complex modes of intertextuality” . The book contains a chronology of Byron’s life and times, a select biography, a “further reading” section, and an index. As a whole, the essays are well focussed, and this Companion serves its manifold purpose of clarifying difficult points about Byron and his work at the same time as it shows their complexity, and it invites the reader to come or to come back to them. The variety of angles and the crisscrossing of approaches provide an enriched perspective on one of the most significant poets of the Romantic era.