British Culture and Society 1700 to the Present – Essays in Honour of Professor Emma Harris
Byron: The Outcast Playwright
One of various aspects of the tragedy of Byron is how inadequately his contemporaries, and posterity, have paid attention to his remarkable ability to write tragedy. In the twentieth century’s rush to acclaim his ‘true’ talent for comedy of a kind, in Don Juan, and of conversational wit, in the letters, insufficient weight was given to those productions which occupied at least as much of his effort during his Italian years: his seven plays. I was once guilty of this, like the rest. When I persuaded Duckworth to bring out a little volume, The Sayings of Lord Byron, in 1990, I was no doubt too influenced by the neo-Augustan tastes of my publisher, the late charming rogue Colin Haycraft, and so concentrated almost entirely on the letters and Juan. That one avoided Childe Harold and the ‘Eastern tales’ does not worry me so much in retrospect: several years of trying to teach Byron has taught me that one must look for the pith of the man – the mature man most worth being remembered – elsewhere. The fact is that, as students have often noted, Harold is, despite its enormous charm, marked, if not marred, by a vain young man’s self-indulgence. And even Don Juan, though a send-up of all that, is in some senses too personal and ‘Byronic’ to be truly great – not if we take greatness in literary art to require some sturdy, symmetrical (or consciously asymmetrical) construction, supported in its corners by secondary characters of substance and...
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