Lord Byron - The Major Works Paperback – Nov 1 2008
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About the Author
Jerome J. McGann, Professor of Humanities, California Institute of Technology.
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author of "Poems From My Bleeding Heart"
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Now, granted, perhaps what's available here in the Oxford Edition will be enough for many readers, and it does still provide its usual advantages in paper, printing, font, notes, and intros. Byron was incredibly prolific, but like most prolific poets he tended to produce more bad poetry than good/great poetry. It's just a numbers thing; writing great poetry takes time and attention to small details. It's why it took Milton years to write Paradise Lost at a rate of 40-or-so lines a day. Every detail had to be worked out. At Byron's best he was as good as anybody, and his skill combined with his unique philosophical worldview makes him endlessly provocative, compelling, and readable, even at his worst. Byron didn't believe in Pope's maxim about how the real art of poetry was in rewriting and perfecting what one had written. He rarely tried to better his drafts, preferring to move on to the next project. I think this approach works best in his longer works where minor imperfections in the verse--be they occasionally bland, prose-like formulations, awkward meter, et al.--were less noticeable when set against the macro vision of the narrative and characters.
But, in light of realizing that Byron was at his best in the longer pieces, it's precisely those that are hurt most in The Oxford Edition. Lara and The Corsair are essential Byron, even if they're not as great as Don Juan or Child Harold's Pilgrimage, and they're almost non-existent here. And lesser (but still quality) works like The Siege of Corinth and The Prisoner of Chillon are gone entirely. So, I'll leave it up to each individual customer to decide if the Oxford's usual strengths compensate for the loss of these works. Another option is the Norton Critical Edition, which is more valuable for its critical apparatus than for the poetry itself.
This book claims to contain most of Lord Byron's major works and it certainly is a full volume, weighing in at over 1000 pages in paperback format. The larger works include the above-mentioned Pilgrimage and Don Juan. These take up at least 700 pages themselves. The remaining space is occupied by Manfred - a rather Nietzschean work about a magician; the Giaour - a tale of unrepentant love and loss; Mazeppa - a story of a man whose fortunes fall and rise dramatically; Beppo - a Venetian affaire de cour; Cain - an intense retelling of the biblical tale with Manichean overtones, and assorted shorter poems. There are also fifty pages of assorted correspondence with various individuals. The book comes equipped with a very short introduction (for a book of 1000 pages), a chronology of Byron's life, an index and end notes. There is very little in the way of explanation of why pieces are included and the end notes are mostly helpful but often explain the obvious while leaving the obscure, obscure. If you like books that contain no analysis, this is for you, but if you want things explained you will do better with something else.
Personally, I preferred the intensity and vision of Childe Harold, Cain and the Giaour to the more sarcastic and occasionally contrived style of Don Juan. Byron is at his best describing beauty - be it nature, art or woman. And much, if not all, of what he writes about is related to the fairer sex. You should write what you know about, they say, and Byron certainly knew women - in both the intellectual and biblical sense. His love affairs raged across all of Europe and brought him condemnation from his peers - particularly his dalliance with his half-sister. His books are full of the worship of the beauty of women and he objectifies them in a way that is entirely politically incorrect in our day and age and likely was then as well. If you can get past the fact that he seems like a teenage boy in rut most of the time, his descriptive powers, characterization, wit, sheer beauty and nobility of expression are sure to please.
The Major Works
Oxford University Press, Paperback, .
8vo. xxviii+1080 pp. Introduction [xi-xxiii] and Notes [1021-76] by Jerome J. McGann, 1986.
This edition first published, 1986.
First published, with revisions, as an Oxford World's Classics paperback, 2000. Reprinted, 2008.
Note on the Text
A Fragment (`When, to their airy hall, my fathers' voice')
The Farewell to a Lady
From "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers"
[Lines to Mr Hodgson]
Song (`Maid of Athens, ere we part')
Written Beneath a Picture
To Thyrza (`One struggle more, and I am free')
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
From "The Corsair"
Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte
Stanzas for Music (`I speak not - I trace not - I breathe not thy name')
She Walks in Beauty
Stanzas for Music (`There's not a joy the world can give')
When We Two Parted
Fare Thee Well!
[A Fragment] (`Could I remount the river of my years')
Stanzas to [Augusta]
[Epistle to Augusta]
[`So, We'll Go No More A Roving']
[Epistle to Mr Murray]
To the Po
[Stanzas] (`Could Love for ever')
[Stanzas] (`When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home')
The Vision of Judgment
[Thoughts on Freedom]
On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year
LETTERS AND OTHER PROSE
To Mrs Catherine Gordon Byron, 12 Nov. 1809
To Lady Melbourne, 15 Sept. 1812
To Lady Melbourne, 25 Sept. 1812
To Lady Melbourne, 8 Oct. 1813
Alpine Journal (1816)
To Augusta Leigh, 15 Oct. 1816
To Augusta Leigh, 19 Dec. 1816
To Thomas Moore, 24 Dec. 1816
To Lady Byron, 18 Nov. 1818
To John Murray, 6 April 1819
To John Cam Hobhouse, 17 May 1819
To John Murray, 1 Aug. 1819
From a letter to John Murray, 12 Aug 1819
To Lady Byron, 10 Dec. 1820
To Thomas Moore, 19 Sept. 1821
From Thomas Medwin's Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron (1821)
From Detached Thoughts (1821-2)
From Journal (1824)
To Augusta Leigh, 23 Feb. 1824
Index of Titles and First Lines
Index of Recipients of the Letters
The main virtues of this edition are the scope and the handsome printing. "Childe Harold" and "Don Juan" are complete, and so are six other of Byron's long poems ("The Giaour", "Beppo", "Manfred", "Mazeppa", "Cain", "The Vision of Judgment"). There are enough short verse and prose excerpts to appreciate Byron's variety and versatility. The font is neither miniscule nor squeezed in the page; so you don't have to ruin your eyes while reading and there is enough space to indulge in the barbarous practice of taking notes in the margins. The paper is thick and of remarkably high quality. In short, the edition is not complete, but it is comprehensive, very well produced for its size, and easier to read than such mammoth volumes usually are.
On the downside, though it may be easy to read, the book is not easy to handle. No 1000-page paperback is. Some of Byron's long poems ("The Corsair", "Lara") are so ruthlessly cut, that the two brief glimpses of them might just as well have not been included at all. Some Byron aficionados may also complain, perhaps not without justification, that his genius for short lyrical verse is insufficiently represented. All these vices can be easily turned into virtues. The book may be heavy and cumbersome, but the binding is sturdy and durable (don't believe the evil tongues who say the opposite). The brief excerpts from "The Corsair" and "Lara" are included, Mr McGann tells us, specifically to illustrate the characteristics of the Byronic hero, and they serve this purpose pretty well. Finally, the short poems may be few, but they are crème de la crème.
There doesn't seem to be much competition on the market. In a single volume, the Oxford World's Classics edition is hard to beat. This includes Oxford's "Complete Poetical Works", which is quite exhaustive in terms of contents, but so closely printed as to be nearly unreadable; and there are no extras like introduction and notes. The Wordsworth attempt (1995, 2006, ed. Paul Wright) is quite a nice introduction considering it's more than twice cheaper. It does contain the complete "Don Juan" and separate introductions to each section, but "Childe Harold" is incomplete, you get only four of the long poems ("The Giaour", "The Corsair", "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers" and "The Vision of Judgment"), and the Notes are rather perfunctory. Penguin is a fine alternative in two volumes for twice the price. One is occupied by "Don Juan alone" (ed. T. G. Steffan, 1973, 1977, 1982; reprinted in Penguin Classics, 1986; Introduction and revised further reading by Susan J. Wolfson and Peter J. Manning, 2004), the other is "Selected Poems" (2005, eds. Susan J. Wolfson and Peter J. Manning), a very thorough selection of short and long works, including the complete "Childe Harold" and even "Sardanapalus", one of Byron's plays in blank verse.
The Introduction and the Notes are concise, authoritative and helpful, but not terribly extensive, original or stimulating. Mr McGann's Byronic credentials are staggering. He edited Byron's "Complete Poetical Works" (7 vols., 1980-93) and wrote at least four books (all diligently listed in the Further Reading) on Byron and his times. Though his editorial contributions are something of a mixed bag, they still deserve a few words.
The Introduction is a succinct exposition of the political and social background against which Byron defiantly lived and wrote. It is marvellously devoid of gossip as far as his personal life is concerned. Mr McGann notes, with a fine sense of humour, that Byron was "(if the pun be permitted) man of affairs", describes his wife as "brilliant and priggish" and his first book, the privately printed "Fugitive Pieces" (1806), as "a loose collection of largely wretched verse", mentions his various liaisons in passing, and concentrates on much more important matters like his travels, works and personality. On the other hand, though only twelve pages long, the Introduction is not without its fair share of pretentious academic obscurity (I could do without phrases like "vulgaris eloquentia" or "vers de société"), and occasionally it takes for granted your PhD in English political history. Nice essay, but not an essential read.
The Notes are notable because they include Byron's own (very extensive in some cases, notably "The Giaour" and "Childe Harold", where the poet fancied himself scholar and historian) and because for each of the long poems Mr McGann has supplied a fascinating summary of its place in, and significance for, the Byronic canon. As far as Byron's numerous allusions to people, places, contemporary events, Roman history, Greek mythology and anything else are concerned, I wish the notes were more extensive and more incisive.
Note that all notes are endnotes, not footnotes. So a good deal of flipping back and forth can't be helped, but the poems are not fragmented by copious explanations on each page. Byron's own notes, exceptionally, are printed after their respective works, not in the end of the whole book. This is considerably more convenient and I wonder why the same method wasn't used more thoroughly. All notes are discreetly marked in the text (circles for the editor's, asterisks for Byron's), although pages and line numbers are also provided.
Last but by no means least, Mr McGann has included all of Byron's prefaces, advertisements, dedications, epigraphs and the like. These often contain information of considerable interest. For example, in an "Addition to the Preface" of Childe Harold, Byron hilariously addresses the criticism that his protagonist was "very unknightly" and in the end, as if by the way, offers this striking insight into one of his most famous characters:
"I now leave 'Childe Harold' to live his day such as he is; it had been more agreeable, and certainly more easy, to have drawn an amiable character. It had been easy to varnish over his faults, to make him do more and express less, but he never was intended as an example, further than to show, that early perversion of mind and morals leads to satiety of past pleasures and disappointment in new ones, and that even the beauties of nature and the stimulus of travel (except ambition, the most powerful of all excitements) are lost on a soul so constituted, or rather misdirected."
Get this Oxford edition (or the Wordsworth if you are short of cash) as a wonderful introduction to some of the most ravishingly beautiful and imaginatively challenging poetry even penned. Continue with Penguin's two volumes as a kind of "Nearly Complete Works" accompanied by robust scholarship. Avoid at all costs (including the lowest ones!) complete editions in a single volume: highly unhelpful and indeed unreadable these are. And remember that various sites (Wikisource, Internet Archive, Gutenberg) contain the complete edition of the poetical works edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge (grandson of Byron's famous contemporary) published at the turn of the last century (1898-1904, 7 vols.); it's a treasure trove of rare bibliographical information and a wonderful place to read as much Byron online as you can handle.
I leave you with a brief appetizer, the description of Conrad in "The Corsair" (Canto I, stanza 9, included by Mr McGann):
Unlike the heroes of each ancient race,
Demons in act, but Gods at least in face,
In Conrad's form seems little to admire,
Though his dark eye-brow shades a glance of fire:
Robust but not Herculean - to the sight
No giant frame sets forth his common height;
Yet in the whole - who paused to look again,
Saw more than marks the crowd of vulgar men -
They gaze and marvel how - and still confess
That thus it is, but why they cannot guess.
Sun-burnt his cheek - his forehead high and pale, -
The sable curls in wild profusion veil;
And oft perforce his rising lip reveals
The haughtier thought it curbs, but scarce conceals.
Though smooth his voice, and calm his general mien,
Still seems there something he would not have seen:
His features' deepening lines and varying hue
At times attracted, yet perplexed the view,
As if within that murkiness of mind
Work'd feelings fearful, and yet undefined;
Such might it be - that none could truly tell -
Too close enquiry his stern glance would quell.
There breathe but few whose aspect might defy
The full encounter of his searching eye; -
He had the skill, when Cunning's gaze would seek
To probe his heart and watch his changing cheek,
At once the observer's purpose to espy,
And on himself roll back his scrutiny,
Lest he to Conrad rather should betray
Some secret thought - than drag that chief's to day.
There was a laughing Devil in his sneer,
That raised emotions both of rage and fear;
And where his frown of hatred darkly fell,
Hope withering fled - and Mercy sighed farewell!
author of "Poems From My Bleeding Heart"