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Glory and nothing: Byron remembers Wordsworth.


THE HISTORY OF THE CANON, THE STORY OF ITS CHANGING SHAPE, MIGHT be summed up thus: remembering and forgetting. In the last 25 years or so, we have remembered much of what the immediately previous generations of critics forgot. Byron, for instance, has benefited enormously from our remembering what might be called, simply, his "context." We have been able to remember Byron's stardom; "history" has helped us conjure up (something like) the presence of the Real Byron, the person who once lived, and who helped create and then underwrote the Byron Phenomenon, or "Byronism." (1) Valuing his pan-cultural presence in this way has involved not so much a recall of fact (for people always have remembered Byron, and his fame), but rather the broad re-creation of a former way of valuing Byron: creating the Byron Phenomenon was cultural work, and a kind of accomplishment we have remembered to recognize.

Byron's poetic purpose, seen from the point of view of Byronism, is the dramatization of his titanic Self. Drama of Self also describes, of course, how so much of his poetry actually functions, the way the presence of the Real Byron underwrote, while he lived, the psychological drama of the poems. Byron's poetry, described this way, is both a cause and an extension of the Bryon Phenomenon, the multimedia event his life and works became; or, to employ a word he used often, his poetry is both a cause and an extension of his fame. Byron's poems had a palpable yet deliciously intangible relationship to Byron the person, someone you might meet, and he energized that relationship by circulating in London high life performing the role of the famous Lord Byron, "Bold Bad Bard Baron B.," as Wordsworth put it in 1816. (2) Had a relationship, instead of the has of the Critical Present: because Byron the person is dead and gone, and this relationship died with him.

That is: remembering Byronism is not the same as experiencing it firsthand. In a famous and perhaps true story from the summer of 1816, the announcement of Byron's arrival at Mme. De Stael's villa, Coppet, was enough to render a woman at the party (a Lady Hervey, whom Byron describes as a novelist) unconscious. Like the sun, Byron radiated power, and those who got in his way felt it. But also like the sun, the Real Byron eventually set over the horizon of time, and even though so many later planets continued to reflect his light, eventually that reflection has diminished too. Without the burning source of Byron himself, the living person who makes it all happen, this kind of power, the power underwritten by the person, the person who looks a certain way, speaks to and touches others, becomes a name: a distant reflection of a reflection, a memory of the everyday phenomenon of fame. We forget; and the world forgets too. The radiation of our mortal effects out into the world--the evidence of our existence--eventually fades into darkness. The losses of mortality make room for the remembering of the" scholar, however, and these losses are enabling also. Forgetting creates the space for the story we call history. We want to remember Byronism, but we don't want to remember all of it. We do not faint upon remembering Byron, nor do we wish to.

This part of the Byron Phenomenon is just like Anyone's Phenomenon, a story of mortality. Byronism may have been a pan-cultural development, but it depended on the bodily Byron, and eventually became writing on his tombstone. When we work to understand Byronism, we dig in his grave and exhume the past, but we have only remains to work with: his bones, his writings, the memories of others. Byron isn't coming back, no matter how many magazines from 1819 we read, and so, at the center of the story of the Byron Phenomenon, there is a hollow spot where Byron's body was. We can get some stuff back, but not all of it.

Much of the textually centered criticism of the 20th century was proud of its refusal to fool around with moldering poetic bodies, and this refusal was entwined with a different way of valuing poetic work. In that criticism the great poets are to be read "sub specie aetemitatis," as Cleanth Brooks puts it in the "Preface" to The Well-Wrought Urn. Most plainly, Eternity means, in this context, being read in the future, by future (good) poets and others, a kind of persistence which is very plainly and very directly set against the expiration of the body and the (unpleasant, and discouraging) effects the body creates. Thinking this way, good poetry, poetry worth remembering, allows us--even encourages us--to forget about the lost body of the poet. Major poets are measured not by their mortal weight, but by their immortal weight: how often and how intently their poems are remembered by the future, which is made up of readers (of poetry). (3) The story created by considering the process of remembering and forgetting is called "influence," which Harold Bloom, in his role as a late textual critic, saved from "those carrion-eaters of scholarship, the source hunters" by making it carry all the weight of eternity. (4)

A brief survey of the MLA Bibliography demonstrates that future poets' memories of past poets, as a subject critics might write about, has fallen upon hard times. Bloom's Anxiety of Influence set off a flurry of writing in the early '80s, but this flurry died away quickly in the face of a growing interest in the mortal parts of art. (5) We might remember (especially as we think about Byronism) that Bloom was noticeably prone to forgetting about Byron. Ringing his gloomy, Wordsworthian change on Brooks, Bloom insists that the creation of great poetry--and, not incidentally, the reading of great poetry--should be an agonized remembering. In the grand manner of the great practitioners of textual criticism Bloom easily and often makes lists of great agonizers in the history of poetry in English. Milton is always at the center, and of the Romantic poets, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats typically make the cut. These are the "Great Originals"; what Bloom means by this is not primarily that these poets are especially good at agonizing over their precursors (though he does mean that, to some degree, depending on the essay) but rather that they are a problem for the future. They cause future poets agony. (6) Great Originals are also influenced in interesting ways, but they are, especially, "influencers."

Bloom calls Wordsworth and Milton "the most profoundly contemplative poets in the language." (7) Milton is at the center, or perhaps source, but Wordsworth is the modern exemplar, the paradigmatic influenced influencer. So no wonder Bloom has a hard time finding ways to value Byron's accomplishments. Wordsworth causes Byron trouble, in various ways, but that trouble doesn't often look like agony: at least not the kind of agony Bloom is talking about. Byron's trouble with Wordsworth often looks something like this, an energetic four-line squib included by Byron in a couple of letters written in January of 1821:
   Of Turdsworth the great Metaquizzical poet
   A man of great merit amongst those who know it
   Of whose works, as I told Moore last autumn at Maestri
   I owe all I know to my passion for Pastry. (8)

It is not that Byron doesn't remember Wordsworth's poetry in detail, since Wordsworth's words appear in Byron all the time. There is an especially large number of recalls of Wordsworth, for instance, in the poems written in the summer of 1816, the same summer he knocked the Lady out, poems published together in the volume called The Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems. During this summer Shelley, whose memories of Wordsworth are of course agonized in the way Bloom values, "dosed" Byron with Wordsworth "even to the point of nausea." (9) Poetic memories of Wordsworth in the Chillon book begin right away, at the beginning of the "The Prisoner of Chillon," in the Prisoner's recall of his now-dead family: "we were seven." (10) "The Prisoner of Chillon" is about the deaths of the speaker's siblings--there were seven of them--and it is about the speaker's feelings about those deaths, yet these resemblances to "We Are Seven," one of the most peculiar and challenging of the many odd lyrics in Lyrical Ballads, seem almost perfectly without psychological affect. "We were seven" is a memory of some words of Wordsworth's, but these words don't seem worth anything more because of that connection. Byron has remembered Wordsworth's words mortally; he remembers only the words, as things, and even seems to take pleasure in refusing them power. Byron just uses the same words Wordsworth did.

Bloom, in short, was quite right to forget Byron when telling his story of Romanticism, given Byron's casual refusal to agonize in the right way over Wordsworth. Historically driven descriptions, the correctives to stories like Bloom's, in their turn, have been right to lose interest in stories of influence, and the textual relationships they emphasize, when remembering Byronism. But both of these kinds of stories only hope to make the losses of time feel less severe. Both of them are as much forgetting as remembering, and, I would argue--I will argue, in what follows--this is something Byron knew, something he knew in the most painful and precise way. He was unmoved, perhaps even actively repelled, by the claim to bodiless persistence through influence; this shows through in the aggressively bland affect of his pointedly unmoved recall of "We are Seven." But Byron also felt, painfully and thoroughly, how completely the palpable power of Byronism, which seems to create a "Byron" radiating away from, and even surpassing, the plain body of the man, also depended upon his body, and so would, like his body, utterly pass away.

In gauging Byron's greatness (something we are still always doing), I think it is his profound resistance to any diminishment of the weight of mortality which can and should catch our attention now, lodged as we are somewhere between history and text, between Here and Eternity. Being remembered might produce a sort of escape from time, a relief from mortality, but even in the midst of his fame Byron insists on us remembering how completely different being remembered is from being alive, how being absent is different from being present. He has nothing but scorn for the idea that being an influence will save him (and us) from time; but he also knew that causing people to faint in his presence wouldn't save him either. There is something powerful and even tragic in Byron's resistance to the pleasures of future history, and in what follows I try to remember some of his resistance. The method will be to find my way to "Churchill's Grave," contained in the Chillon volume, a poem that is directly about remembering poetry and poets, and that claims to also be about remembering Wordsworth.


Since for Byron and for Bloom the story of influence is a Wordsworthian story, I will begin by recalling Wordsworth's terrible need to be remembered. This will require going over some familiar territory; but the plainest features of Wordsworth's project are what we need in order to gloss the word "influence" effectively, which will in turn help us understand the really very curious point of "Churchill's Grave."

First, most painfully, most intensely, as Bloom really does help us understand, Wordsworth wants to be an influence: he wants to affect the soul of his reader. He wants to be a fixated memory for someone else, a spot that produces the agony of meaning. This desire is especially intense in the early poems, and is described at repetitive length in the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads. He has something to teach, having "thought long and deeply" and his definition of literary success is to have the reader know and remember it. (11) Slipping into a sort of royal poetic "we," Wordsworth describes, in the 1802 version of the "Preface," the effect his long thinking will--could--have on the reader:

we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections ameliorated. (Lyrical Ballads, 394)

That he might not be able to influence the reader, the "being" he addresses, is a parallel and continuing focus for Wordsworth. The well-known anxiety this possibility generates produces, in turn, the various equally well-known notes he appends to poems, like the note to "The Thorn," where he carefully tries to steer the reader to a sound reading of the poem. This anxiety is all the more noticeable, and all the more interesting, given Wordsworth's risky withholding of explanations in his early poetry. Wordsworth's earlier poems ask the reader to follow him into strange territory, and in their obdurate peculiarity they both express and undermine his faith the reader will follow him, and will learn the right things once there, even when he refuses to say what the reader should actually learn. Wordsworth wants to affect the reader, but what if the reader just won't allow it, or is just plain uninterested? He wants the reader to remember, but he also wants the reader to remember the right thing. What if she reads it the wrong way, or what if she thinks the idea is not worth learning? Wordsworth is fixated (on Martha Ray, say), his narrators are fixated, Martha Ray is fixated too: but all these fixated figures do not guarantee the reader will be fixated in turn. He can write his note, he can call after the wandering reader, but he cannot actually control the outcome.

This feature of Wordsworth's practice is so familiar, we might sometimes forget to say the obvious thing: Wordsworth really could have said more about what he meant. The slippage between his insistence on our learning and his frequent refusal to say what we should learn became, eventually, one of the basic marks of "poetry" in the West. This slippage and Wordsworth's anxious attempts to both create and minimize it look like what Bloom means by "agony."

The agonized and directed interest in being an influence generally, and affecting the reader in particular, is also, of course, a deep poetic structure in Wordsworth, one way of describing what much of his poetry is about. "Tintern Abbey," most familiarly, is about being influenced or affected (by nature and poetry). At the end of the third movement, describing the "recompense" he has received after the loss of his early, inexpressible relationship to nature, Wordsworth says he is
      well pleased to recognise
   In nature and the language of the sense,
   The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
   The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
   Of all my moral being.

He has learned something from nature: he has been affected by its presence. The depiction of this obligation, this debt, is the direct content of his poetry. His recompense, a reciprocal acknowledgement of (poetic) influence, is what he looks to receive from his reader, figured in "Tintern Abbey" by his sister: "with what healing thoughts / Of tender joy wilt thou remember me / And these my exhortations!" (145-47). In this poem Wordsworth writes out wisdom acquired from nature; his reader, his "dear, dear sister," will, he hopes, reproduce this obligated relationship by remembering Wordsworth as Wordsworth remembers nature. Wordsworth's "healing" of the reader is generated by his influence on her, just as Wordsworth "owed another gift / Of aspect more sublime" (37-38) to nature. In the picture of poetry Wordsworth produces in the Lyrical Ballads, his poetry is meant to be for the reader what nature was to him: the effect nature had upon him is the same effect Wordsworth's descriptions (of nature's effects) are to have upon the reader.

The debt Wordsworth owes to nature, its influence upon him, is perceived and accounted for by remembering. Memory, that is, is the medium through which the effects are understood and received. In the primal time described in "Tintern Abbey," the vital relationship the poet had with nature in his boyhood is not an obligation, a retrospectively acknowledged production of effects, but a possession, an immediacy, a part of the self. Only when time displaces him from his own experience does Wordsworth develop a sense of debt, of a lesson learned, of something gotten, used, profited from. Only through memory can the story of influence be told.

Profits are measured after casting up accounts in a moment of evaluatory retrospection like the one Wordsworth depicts in "Tintern Abbey." Memory provides, here and in so much of Wordsworth's poetry, the critical distance through which obligations are counted and reported. This kind of spiritual activity is what Wordsworth calls long and deep thinking, and he hopes to transfer it, as a "habit," to the reader. With anxious uncertain certainty, he assumes the reader will accurately confess her obligations to Wordsworth himself when she comes to depict the (spiritual) bottom line. He can't be sure, though, and the repetitive structure of "Tintern Abbey," its anxious replacement of one version of influence by another is the expression of this anxiety, equivalent to the notes he added to other poems.

"Tintern Abbey" could go on forever, but it doesn't. Its honest collision with Wordsworth's tombstone at the end cuts off further supplements. That collision shows us what influence would do--does do--for Wordsworth. Influence will save Wordsworth from his own body. It will save him from death; it will launch him into Eternity. Wordsworth wants to be a Great Original, and his method of becoming a Great Original is to depict his displacement from great original moments, the moments whose recall is the action his reader is meant to imitate, when recalling Wordsworth's recall (while reading a poem). Byron jokes, Wordsworth is "A man of great merit amongst those who know it"; it is a good joke because Wordsworth quite plainly insists on acknowledgement of his own merit as the very source of the value of his poems.

Given the high stakes for him, Wordsworth is rather more reticent than you would think he would be, as every sophomore English major knows, or used to know. He tells us about his reticence in that slogan-poem, "Simon Lee, with an Incident in Which He was Concerned":
   O Reader! had you in your mind
   Such stores as silent thought can bring,
   O gentle Reader! you would find
   A tale in every thing.
   What more I have to say is short,
   I hope you'll kindly take it:
   It is no tale; but, should you think,
   Perhaps a tale you'll make it.


There is a delicate balance here between asking the reader to follow an interesting path of thought in an independent way and implying that the reader is in fact not ready to do it: "had you in your mind / Such stores as silent thought can bring...." Do we have these stores, or not? When we get to the lesson of the poem--the lesson the poet says he learned--about gratitude and mourning, we might be left wondering just what exactly the "tale" was. Did we do the right thing, when we made something of the poem?

The poem implies or even presents a profound faith in the reader, reading: a faith in the power of influence. But since there is no old-style stanza in the poem which begins "So therefore, reader ..." "Simon Lee" contains the same anxious dynamic as "Tintern Abbey." The "incident," standing in for "nature," was the object of Wordsworth's thought, but his description of his memory of that incident, which is his poem, is meant to take the place of the original incident in the "silent thought" of the reader. Wordsworth asks the reader to ponder not the old man but rather Wordsworth's own deep thinking about the old man, his memory of the "incident." Since he does not tell us the content of his thinking, in the end Wordsworth asks the reader to be affected in a similar way, by thinking about and remembering Wordsworth himself." by thinking about and remembering Wordsworth, being affected.

More slippage, and in the space between the reader and Wordsworth created by that slippage, we have Wordsworth, posed: affected, but withholding any description of the effects.

Because Wordsworth's idea of the power of poetry is at heart a theory of influence, it provides us, the readers, with something to do, with a kind of responsibility. The insides of the reader--the future--is the place where the real work of the poems is accomplished, and so our work in reading (and teaching) Wordsworth is work the poetry asks us to do. For Wordsworth, remembering poetry is very important in general, certainly, but it is especially important in specific, in reading and being transformed by his poems. When we find "Tintern Abbey" important, we are both remembering it, as members of the future, and also entering into the model of remembering and growing through memory that the poem describes and promotes: we are saving Wordsworth from time. Because it is intensely aware of us, and gives us something to do, Wordsworth's poetry has powerfully determined the ways we think about the functioning of poetry. (12) For instance, Bloom's depiction of poetic "strength," his name for poetic accomplishment, works in this Wordsworthian way. In Bloom's story, a great poet takes up his responsibilities as a reader and also as a producer of readers as if it were quite literally a matter of life and death. This characterization of the work of poetry as influence, this notion of how poetry functions and should function, is quite precisely what much of Byron's poetry actively repudiates. Along the way, Byron's repudiation of influence wants to expose Wordsworth's agonized fixation on influence as some variety of--well--baloney.


When Byron recalls his Wordsworth "dosing" by Shelley, he is remembering the summer of 1816, when he left England and cohabited with Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. He was never to return to England, but of course his writings returned constantly, and it would have been difficult for a literate Londoner to forget Lord Byron, bodily absent though he was. The first reminder Byron sent back was the collection of poems I have mentioned already, the little book The Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems, published by Murray in December of 1816. (13) This book is full of the regret and melancholy one might expect in a person who has left England trailing scandal, never to return. All of the speakers who appear in the book, from the Prisoner to the Byronic dreamer of "The Dream" to Byron himself are continually if unwillingly remembering something about the past that makes them sad and that presents certain (bitter) lessons. The past sits heavily upon all these poems; they all contain something like these lines from the last stanza of "To --""
   From the wreck of the past, which hath perish'd,
   Thus much I at least may recall,
   It hath taught me that what I most cherish'd
   Deserved to be dearest of all.

      (Byron Works [#299], 4:41-44)

In his letters and journals from this summer Byron left ample records of his own melancholy remembering, his own passionate bitter involuntary returning to the past, a past he spurns, along with his wife, and which he cannot forget--along with his wife. Here is a typical moment, from a letter to his half-sister Augusta written in September 1816:
   As for me I am in good health--& fair--though very
   unequal-spirits--but for all that--she--or rather--the
   Separation--has broken my heart--I feel as if an Elephant had
   trodden on it--I am convinced I shall never get over it--but I
   try.--I had enough before I ever knew her and more than enough--but
   time and agitation had done something for me; but this last wreck
   has affected me very differently,--if it were acutely--it would not
   signify--but it is not that,--I breathe lead.-- (14)

This passionate yet composed turning over of his own past is of course the essential posture of Byronism, and of the Byronic hero as it appears in its various guises. The "Chillon" volume very carefully, very thoroughly tends both sides of the Byron phenomenon: it re-presents the heroes Byron's public had come to adore, and it reminds the reading public (through transparently fictionalized self-presentation) of the deep and unhappy resemblance Byron himself (claims he) bears to his heroes.

Through sales figures if nothing else, we know how much Byron's readers wanted to read about the wreck of his past, and about his past's effect upon him through his melancholy memory of it: his heroism. This sounds quite a lot like the kind of power Wordsworth wants, even down to its insistence that the reader meditate on Byron, affected. But Byron's deeply un-Wordsworthian method is that his melancholy memory is openly heroic. What Byron's heroes gain from their experience is of great value but frankly and plainly beyond us, and valuable in precisely that way. Byron's memory of past, intense original experience is the performance of a kind of greatness, the gathering of a dark profit, a powerful effect derived from memory we are meant to (only) witness and admire. Behind this performance--underwriting the act of imagination he made possible for his readers--was Byron himself, the famous person whom everyone knew. Byron--everyone knew--didn't just have a bad marriage: his love for his wife did not just fall away. His marriage was terrifically bad; his subsequent hatred of his wife was fantastically great, and documented in "The Curse," published in the "Chillon" volume and later incorporated into "Manfred." Byron's more valuable, more profound and more agonized relationship to his own past is like that of Prometheus, described in the final lines of the final poem in the book:
   An equal to all woes,
   And a firm will, and a deep sense,
   Which even in torture can descry
   Its own concentered recompense,
   Triumphant where it dares defy,
   And making death a victory.

      (Byron Works [#298], 4:54-59)

Here is Byron's "recompense": a (titanic) power gained from measuring the distance between the past and the present. Because it is openly heroic, this recompense is profoundly different from Wordsworth's recompense in (say) "Tintern Abbey." The effect Byron's past had upon him cannot be (is not meant to be) passed on to the reader. Byron--or Prometheus--has, by having experience and then remembering experience, gained a certain kind of power. Through that power he has gained a certain power over us, the affected reader, but we do not take on that power. We are (meant to be) affected: but we are not meant to experience the same effects. In "The Dream," one of the longer "Chillon" volume poems, the power discovered in agonized, heroic memory is mysteriously depicted and quite specifically unavailable to the reader:
      he lived
   Through that which had been death to many men,
   And made him friends of mountains; with the stars
   And the quick Spirit of the Universe
   He held his dialogues: and they did teach
   To him the magic of their mysteries;
   To him the book of Night was opened wide,
   And voices from the deep abyss revealed
   A marvel and a secret.--Be it so.

         (Byron Works [#296], 4:193-201)

The depicted self in this poem keeps his power to himself. It is a secret. Byron is not sharing this power--he is not even really sharing its description, except as a kind of potentially goofy over-suggestive suggestion. The power is his. We (are supposed to) admire Byron for the magnitude of this power, and for his being able to hold it and conceive of it, but we are not expected to share in it, or learn from it. His fixation, his immobile contemplation of past meaning, generates power, but that power is his power. We are allowed to witness it, but Byron does not care if we reproduce it; in fact, he would be surprised if we did, given how small we are. He is agonized, but he doesn't care if we are. His agony is greater. Byron wants to be a great original, but not of Bloom's sort, not of Wordsworth's sort. He doesn't care if he is a great original for others; he does not want to be an influence. He does not care if he is an origin in the causal sense. Other people have to take care of themselves.


This uncaring inward-turned heroic singularity goes the other way too; it produces the blandness we see in Byron's oddly casual recall of Wordsworth in the "Chillon" poems, that I began with. Byron doesn't care if we are transformed or not (his transformations are what counts); and he doesn't seem to be interested in the (potentially) transforming power of Wordsworth upon him either. Byron, in these poems, is the Bad Reader--the unaffected, uninfluenced reader--Wordsworth feared and Bloom deplores. Even so, Byron was, in his diffident way, thinking hard about Wordsworth, in addition to remembering offensively small bits of the poetry. While the reference to "We Are Seven" has all the trappings of accident, in "Churchill's Grave" remembering Wordsworth is at least ostensibly the point of the poem. (15) The poem brings with it an interesting and even Wordsworthian note, written by Byron but not published by him, describing the poem's relationship to Wordsworth, and Byron's own attitude towards him:
   The following poem (as most that I have endeavoured to write) is
   founded on a fact; and this detail is an attempt at a serious
   imitation of the style of a great poet--its beauties and its
   defects: I say, the style, for the thoughts I claim as my own. In
   this, if there be anything ridiculous, let it be attributed to me
   at least as much as to Mr. Wordsworth, of whom there can exist few
   greater admirers or deplorers than myself. I have blended what I
   would deem to be the beauties as well as defects of his style--and
   it ought to be remembered that in such things, whether there be
   praise or dispraise, there is always what is called a compliment,
   however unintentional. (16)

This note was not published during Byron's lifetime, and when it was, in 1832, "deplorers" was left out (Wordsworth was still alive, of course, listening in). It is both simply accurate and interestingly, perhaps knowingly unclear. Byron says he only imitated Wordsworth's style, which is a direct way of describing the way he has laid a Wordsworthian veneer over a routine Byron poem. At its heart "Churchill's Grave" is plainly Byronic; it closely resembles the poems it was published with, for instance, in its barely-veiled relationship to Byron's life. It describes some of Byron's last moments in England. Delayed by contrary winds, Byron went to visit Churchill's grave; Hobhouse says, "Byron lay down on his grave and gave the man a crown to fresh turf it." (17) "Churchill's Grave" also contains reflections on fame of the sort a very famous person (Lord Byron, say) might make. It is worried about how a very bright light--"the comet of a season"--might grow dim.

The poem also has an unpleasant manhandling air about it that, for one thing, makes it relatively hard to understand. Though Wordsworth, and Byron's relationship to him, is one of the subjects of the poem, the uncaring feel of the poem, its lack of fondness for Wordsworth as a subject, becomes a surface to be seen through, For instance, the subtitle ("A Fact Literally Rendered"; Byron Works, 4:1) calls Wordsworth to mind, but not in any specific way" it is a bit like the subtitle of "Goody Blake" ("A True Story") and a bit like the subtitle to "Simon Lee," which calls the related story an "incident," but it is not exactly like either and it is unclear anyway. What does he mean by "fact"? Claiming he is literally rendering a fact recalls Wordsworth's methods in a broad way, but there isn't really anything in the poem that "fact" seems the right name for. "Churchill's Grave" tells its story in a distinctly parallel way to "Simon Lee," drawing wisdom out of a humble encounter, and yet the Sexton is not clearly the focus of the story. The poem seems to ask the reader to draw a lesson from its "homely phrase," but it also aggressively asserts a lesson, and calls its readers fools for not recognizing it. Byron, in all his Greatness, is interested enough to sketch out a resemblance to Wordsworth; but, he insists, he is not interested enough to really work it out.

The poem tells a story, and the story has its obscurities too. Generally speaking, the poem seems to claim, at the beginning, that Churchill and his grave have been forgotten. The grave is "neglected turf" (Byron Works [#290], 4:5). And yet Byron himself remembers Churchill, of course, since he has come quite specifically to see the grave, and many others remember Churchill's grave too, those Byron says have made their way "through the thick deaths of half a century" to see it. The Sexton at first claims a sort of ignorance about Churchill: "Well, I do not know / Why frequent travelers turn to pilgrims so" (4:10-12). But then of course the Sexton does know why, and, hoping for a tip, says so: "I believe the man of whom / You wot, who lies in this selected tomb, / Was a most famous writer in his day ..." (4:27-29). The turn from "neglected" to its sonic relative "selected" marks the Sexton's turn. Byron asks him for information, and the Sexton delivers--but only with information Byron knows already, for which Byron (reluctantly) tips him anyway.

The tone of the poem is plain in a Wordsworthian way, telling the tale in "homely phrase"; and it also breaks into a frantic eloquence that very knowingly balances between Wordsworthian and Byronic famousness: "and do we rip / The veil of Immortality?" The Byronic Speaker humbly tells his story, and then begins--Byronically--to berate the reader: "You are the fools, not I--for I did dwell / With a deep thought ..." (4:15-16, 39-40).

The poem is less interested in being funny than in producing a kind of comic feel, as when Byron describes his pocket (from which he takes the tip for the Sexton) as an "avaricious nook"; and yet the closing comments about Fame seem perfectly serious, sincere in the way the other poems in the "Chillon" volume are:
      I did dwell
   With a deep thought, and with a softened eye,
   On that Old Sexton's natural homily,
   In which there was Obscurity and Fame,--
   The Glory and the Nothing of a Name. (18)

Much of this tone can be accounted for, of course, by emphasizing the "deplorer" in Byron's note. The slightly off quality of the narrative is a not very appreciative imitation of Wordsworthian strangeness. That the narrator must pull his coin out of the avaricious nook is even, in the end, a relatively subtle joke, and a perceptive one at that. Taking encounter poems like "We are Seven" and "Simon Lee" as the direct models, Byron understands that the interest in these early poems lies in the sudden psychological deepening that takes place as the poems come to their ends. Byron also understands the slippage which occurs just there, as Wordsworth asks us to meditate on the psychology of both the narrator and the poet, and gather up--something--of value as we do so, the something Wordsworth withholds.

In manhandling Wordsworth's methods, Byron provides a bit of odd psychological detail for us to meditate upon, but it is detail of a ridiculous sort, even of an unintelligible sort. The speaker in Byron's poem helps out an old man, and demonstrates psychology while doing so (confessing to avariciousness), but this detail is simply unused in any immediate way by the poem's story. Byronic diffidence turns, here, into making fun, into a kind of truth-telling. The same interests are at work in the hectoring at the end, when he calls his readers "fools," a skewed recall of the lines in "Simon Lee." Byron catches the egotism, the hidden heroism, in Wordsworth's suggestiveness, and in Wordsworth's claim to silent thought the reader has not engaged in (yet). Here is Byron's version, with several lines already quoted:
      Ye smile,
   I see ye, ye profane ones! all the while,
   Because my homely phrase the truth would tell.
   You are the fools, not I--for I did dwell
   With a deep thought, and with a softened eye,
   On that Old Sexton's natural homily,
   In which there was Obscurity and Fame,--
   The Glory and the Nothing of a Name.

Byron's narrator hectors openly; he abuses his readers instead of condescending to them, When talking with Thomas Medwin, Byron referred to Shelley's dosing him with "Wordsworth physic": and here he emphasizes the bitter taste of the medicine.

The real interest of this poem, beyond the joke, is its veneering of an interest in Wordsworth over a genuine meditation on fame, the way the real (plainly Byronic) substance of the poem lies underneath the surface of the irritated meditation on Wordsworth, seemingly almost unaffected by it. That is, if the joke is actually funny, it is funny because Byron's hectoring of his reader is sincere, in its own way; it is Byronic greatness talking down to us, as usual. He does it all the time.

The final lines of the poem describe posthumous literary life as both a remembering and a forgetting, and the poem seems in this way to genuinely lament something about Churchill which has been forgotten. There is, in other words, an end to the uncaring hardness of the poem, but not to its essential resistance to Wordsworth. Wordsworth is produced as the subject of the poem and then simply pushed aside with a snort, pushed aside by a recognizably Byronic reflection on fame, and on the general inadequacy of being remembered. This poem was no doubt a rusty dagger for Wordsworth, since his desire to be a Great Original is depicted as concealed egotism, or, worse, a sort of maudlin dopiness: a posture without content, the product of a "metaquizzical" poet. If we want to admire a Heroic Posture, at least Byronism gives us something big.

The Sexton, in this respect, is a representative recollector, and the little story of Byron's interaction with the Sexton is a drama of remembering. When the Sexton says he cannot recall anything about the grave, Byron laments the voracious consumption of life by the passing of time, in the way usual to such poems:
   And is this all? I thought,--and do we rip
   The veil of Immortality? and crave
   I know not what of honour and of light
   Through unborn ages, to endure this blight?
   So soon, and so successless?


And then, in one of the suddenly beautiful lines that often crop up amongst routine Byronic poetry, the Sexton remembers: "as he caught / As 't-were the twilight of a former Sun, / Thus spoke he...." Byron pays the Sexton for this reflection of the set sun of Churchill's life: he does not need to be told about Churchill. Byron, of course, wants someone else to be able to tell him, and so reassure him of the possible actuality of fame. Churchill, "the comet of a season," is a clear parallel to Byron himself, and Byron pays out of his avaricious nook for evidence supporting the possibility that the light from his own comet will still be visible in the future.

But what does the Sexton remember? Not very much; he remembers a "name," as Byron says, and a brief description. The Sexton will put fresh turfs on the grave, once he is paid. The twilight the Sexton reflects is the last fading sign of Churchill's life, shining on without his body but diminishing. Byron detects, in the world, evidence of Churchill's life, but these signs are seen to be only signs, fading as they radiate further from their source. The Sexton's memory is both glory and nothing, Churchill's body, in the grave people visit, still underwrites the act of imagining his presence, but what the recollectors remember is now small, even uninteresting. Churchill was a "most famous writer." The Sexton remembers that people remember Churchill, that Churchill once had a radiative presence, but his fame has become only a name. The content of Churchill's current fame is that he was famous.

Unlike Wordsworth, Byron is not asking for acknowledged recompense, for readerly testimony to the transformative memory of his exhortations. He is not asking for the agony of remembered effects, for influence, for eternity. Byron does experiment, in "Churchill's Grave," with wanting a simple acknowledgement of him, of his greatness: fame. This seems a natural direction to turn after refusing the Wordsworthian future. The trouble he turns up in "Churchill's Grave," though, is something like fact: the disappearance of the body and the effects of presence. In other words, Byron's way of thinking about us, the readers, gives us nothing to do except admire him, to bask in his light, to reflect it back, and he also understands that we will stop doing even that. His conception of influence is resolutely unhistorical, and he does not picture out the chain of transformations, leading off into the future, which Wordsworth depends upon and worries about. This method leaves him heroically posed, admirable, we might say, but also alone.

Maybe we should call Byron's reflection on fame an anxiety, but it is neither the anxiety of influence, nor its twin, the anxiety of effluence. Self- sufficient in a dysfunctional way, Byron is aristocratically disdainful of givers and takers alike, as indifferent and potentially warming as the sun. He is interested in his readers, figured here so pathetically in the Sexton, but only as they perceive the presence of the brooding, potentially quite real Lord Byron, agonized recollector of his own past, agonized creator of characters who agonizingly recall their pasts for tragic, personal, therapeutic reasons that we can imagine, but are not expected to share. As readers, we are not expected to save Byron from anything. This sounds like accusation, but one of the remarkable things about "Churchill's Grave" is how clearly conscious Byron is of the dynamic he is depicting.


At almost the same moment Byron was calling him a Turd, Wordsworth, it turns out, was producing his own recall of Byron. Wordsworth's recall has the added bonus of being about Byron's recall of him. In a letter to Henry Taylor from December 1823, Wordsworth wrote:
   I have not, nor ever had, a single poem of Lord Byron's by me,
   except the Lara, given me by Mr Rogers, and therefore could not
   quote anything illustrative of his poetical obligations to me: as
   far I am acquainted with his works, they are most apparent in the
   3rd canto of Childe Harold; not so much in particular expressions,
   tho' there is no want of these, as in the tone (assumed rather than
   natural) of enthusiastic admiration of Nature, and a sensibility to
   her influences. Of my writings you need not read more than the
   blank verse poem of the river Wye to be convinced of this. (19)

Wordsworth wants to let the issue slide, to play the poetic hero just barely thinking about some small inferior human; he tries to play Byron. It doesn't quite work, of course, since Wordsworth seems to have been looking carefully for signs of influence, and in the end finds evidence which he can only pretend to find uninteresting. To wave away the anxiety of influence is not in him. Wordsworth does accurately describe the superficial feel of many "nature" passages in Byron, but that is of course part of the problem.

In his Conversations of Lord Byron, one of the first publications to profit from remembering Byron after his death, Thomas Medwin recalls a conversation with Byron about Byron's debt to Wordsworth. He puts the question to Byron in a curious way, and he gets a curious response (parts of which I have already quoted) in return. No doubt Medwin was disappointed, since the man who calls Wordsworth a Turd might be expected to produce something good:

"You are accused of owing a great deal to Wordsworth. Certainly there are some stanzas in the Third Canto of 'Childe Harold' that smell strongly of the Lakes: for instance-
   I live not in myself, hut I become
   Portion of that around me;--and to me
   High mountains are a feeling!"

"Very possibly," replied he. "Shelley, when I was in Switzerland, used to dose me with Wordsworth physic even to nausea; and I do remember then reading some things of his with pleasure. He had once a feeling for Nature, which he carried almost to a deification of it--that's why Shelley liked his poetry." (20)

Sure, he remembers some of Wordsworth's poetry, and his poetry might sound a little Wordsworthian sometimes. What of it? He remembers reading some of Wordsworth's poetry with "pleasure." Even his description of Shelley's interest in Wordsworth doesn't fit into the profound categories of value contained in stories of influence: Shelley "liked" Wordsworth's poetry.

Byron returns the uninterested favor to Wordsworth, but Byron's diffidence is rather more convincing. His effect upon Wordsworth goes backwards, of course, along the strictly temporal stream of influence, but Byron causes trouble for Wordsworth, and that trouble is caused by Byron's power, the power textual critics could not value, and a power which is also absent from the broader picture of Byronism. Having insisted that Wordsworth's methods are (only) a concealed heroic egotism, like his own but unacknowledged, Byron shrinks Wordsworth down to size by reading him without effects.

Here is a last example of the way Byron remembers Wordsworth, from "The Dream." The beginning of this poem depicts a boy and a girl standing together in a landscape:
   I saw two beings in the hues of youth
   Standing on a hill, a gentle hill,
   Green and of mild declivity, the last
   As 'twere the cape of a long ridge of such,
   Save that there was no sea to lave its base,
   But a most living landscape, and the wave
   Of woods and cornfields, and the abodes of men
   Scattered at intervals, and wreathing smoke
   Arising from such rustic roofs--

      (Byron Works, 4:27-35)

This could not be a clearer memory of "Tintern Abbey," the poem Wordsworth thought was most present in Childe Harold III, or at least a memory of some parts of "Tintern Abbey." Two people, a young man and a young girl, look out over the smoky woods. "The Dream," like "Tintern Abbey," as Michael Cooke notes, also depicts a moment of evaluatory recall. (21) But Wordsworth, in spite of this very specific memory, does not seem to be involved in Byron's (depicted) learning--words from "Tintern Abbey" seem simply to be there, as a memory, but not as a memory that puts Byron under any sort of obligation, or that produces any sort of effect. His use of Wordsworth's exhortations is not the use Wordsworth hopes for and recommends in "Tintern Abbey"--Byron is not finding healing power in Wordsworth's poetry. "The Dream," in fact, goes quite strongly the other way. The boy's female companion ends insane, and is not a figure for the reader anyway; and we see the effect of the past upon the young man only from the outside. If there is content to this memory of Wordsworth's poem, it is simply in the strong feelings the poem depicts. In both poems, looking out over the woods is the source of strong feelings, but the two poems put strong feeling to quite different poetic use. Byron's depicts his memory of Wordsworth as an aggressively unobligated taking. He does not do what Wordsworth hopes the reader will do. Byron meditates upon Wordsworth meditating: and then turns away. He takes what he wants and leaves the rest.

Byron has great scorn for the Glory and Nothing of poetic eternities where writers live on forever, no matter what form that eternity takes. Not that such an idea doesn't call to him occasionally, as it does in "Churchill's Grave," but Byron resists succumbing to it, in that poem and generally. His forgetful, offhand manhandling of Wordsworth is a figure for his dismissal of influence of the Wordsworthian sort. It is a critique of Wordsworthian egotism, but it is also a bald rendering of the importance of the body, of simple physical presence, in the powers and purposes of poetry. And so Byron substitutes a rude noise for the acknowledgements Wordsworth longed for; Byron also shows us, along the way, just how desperately Wordsworth longed for those acknowledgements. And he also, proleptically, makes a rude noise at Harold Bloom's dismissal, a noise we can hear all the way from here.

And: when Byron depicts the absence of Churchill at his graveside, and when he shows us the dim, cold skylight Churchill-ism became, he also refuses to be comforted by the radiative power of Byronism. He refuses the pleasures of the future, fit audience, but he is not a drinking-song poet either. He loved being famous--he was deeply invested in being the Great Lord Byron--but he retained a rather pitiless perspective on the evanescence of our effects. Byron's thorough, plain understanding of the limits of the living power of the body, the good side of his fascination with fame, appears often, of course, in his satires, all amid the jokes. Here is a familiar and good example:
   Man's a phenomenon, one knows not what,
   And wonderful beyond all wondrous measure;
   'Tis pity though, in this sublime world, that
   Pleasure's a sin, and sometimes sin's a pleasure;
   Few mortals know what end they would be at,
   But whether glory, power, or love, or treasure,
   The path is through perplexing ways, and when
   The goal is gain'd, we die, you know--and then-What
   then?--I do not know, no more do you-And
   so good night.--Return we to our story. (22)

Byron fails to participate in the story of the Great Originals because he wants to fail. His failure is an act of resistance. When he describes Byronism as Glory and Nothing, he means it, and he knows what he is refusing. This double resistance is not dark moping at heart, though, which from a simple human point of view is quite remarkable, and in it we see Byron's powerful investment in the actual present, the very thing that is always passing away.

Williams College


Bennett, Andrew. Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Bloom, Harold. "The Covering Cherub or Poetic Influence." In Poetics of Influence, edited by John Hollander, 78-101. New Haven: Henry Schwab, 1988.

--. A Map of Misreading. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Brooks, Cleanth. The Well-Wrought Urn. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1975.

Byron, George Gordon Baron. Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works. 7 Volumes. Edited by Jerome McGann. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980-1993.

--. The Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems. London: Murray, 1816.

--. Byron's Letters and Journals. Volume 8. Edited by Leslie Marchand. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

--. Lord Byron: Selected Letters and Journals. Edited by Leslie Marchand. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Chandler, James. "Romantic Allusiveness." In Critical Inquiry 8, no. 3 (Spring 1982): 461-87.

Christensen, Jerome. Lord Byron's Strength. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Cooke, Michael. "Byron and Wordsworth: The Complementary of a Rock and the Sea." Wordsworth Circle 11 (1980): 10-18.

Hollander, John. The Figure of Echo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Lovell, Ernest, ed. Medwin's Conversations of Lord Byron. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.

McGann, Jerome. "Byron and Wordsworth," 173-201. In Byron and Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Murphy, Peter. "Climbing Parnassus, and Falling Off." In At the Limits of Romanticism: Essays in Cultural, Feminist, and Materialist Criticism, edited by Mary Favret and Nicola Watson, 40-58. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Russett, Margaret. Fictions and Fakes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Stabler, Jane. Byron, Poetics and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads. Edited by William Richey and Daniel Robinson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

--. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, The Middle Years. Edited by Ernest de Selincourt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937.

--. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, The Later Years. Edited by Ernest de Selincourt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939.

(1.) By "helped create" I mean to summon and agree with Jerry Christensen's insistence that Byronism was a joint production: "that systematically elaborated, commercially triumphant version of himself devised and promoted by his publisher, celebrated and denounced by his reviewers and readers," From Lord Byron's Strength, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 88. Jerome McGann, of course, is the foremost recollector of the Byron Phenomenon in the 1980s, and the most insistent.

SiR, 50 (Winter 2011)

(2.) The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, The Middle Years, ed. Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937), 2:712.

(3.) The "Preface" to The Well-Wrought Urn (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1975) is a good place to remember the urgent, even plangent fear of time which lies behind the invention of the New Criticism. This is the last paragraph: "The men whose poems are considered in this book evidently thought that they were able to transcend the limitations of their own generation. As one of them put it:
   Or who [Time's] spoil of beauty can forbid?
   O none, unless this miracle have might
   That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

We live in an age in which miracles of all kinds are suspect, including the kind of miracle of which the poet speaks. The positivists have tended to explain the miracle away in a general process of reduction which hardly stops short of reducing the 'poem' to the ink itself. But the 'miracle of communication,' as a student of language terms it in a recent book, remains. We had better not ignore it, or try to 'reduce' it to a level that distorts it. We had better begin with it, by making the closest possible examination of what the poem says as a poem" (xi).

(4.) A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 17.

(5.) One of the best of these books is John Hollander's wonderful and subtle The Figure of Echo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981). An excellent and more specifically Romantic meditation from that time can be found in James Chandler's "Romantic Allusiveness" in Critical Inquiry 8, no. 3 (Spring 1982): 461-87. For a subtle (and rare) contemporary engagement with the interests and failings of Bloom's Romantic criticism, see the Chatterton chapter of Margaret Russett's Fictions and Fakes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

(6.) I take "Great Originals" (the capital letters are Bloom's) and the list from "The Covering Cherub or Poetic Influence," an essay contained in the collection Poetics of Influence, ed. John Hollander (New Haven: Henry Schwab, 1988), 84. Bloom of course mixes eternity with mortality, in his focus on struggle and loss. We might see this as Brooks's plangent note played in a melancholy key. Here is a sentence from A Map of Misreading: "The splendors of the firmament of time blaze with a greater fury even as time seems to droop in its decay" (17).

(7.) Bloom, "Covering Cherub," 85.

(8.) From Byron's Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie Marchand (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 8:66. The joke is, of course, that old one about wrapping food in the discarded pages of (boring) books.

(9.) From Medwin's Conversations of Lord Byron, ed. Ernest Lovell (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 194. There are also many recalls of Coleridge, especially the "Rime," as there are in another work of that summer, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

(10.) I have benefited from studying the copy of The Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems (London: Murray, 1816) contained in the Chapin Library at Williams College. I quote here from Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980-), 4:4, line 17 (poem # 292). Subsequent references to Byron from this edition are cited as Byron Works and appear in the text by poem number, volume and fines. There is actually another use of this line in a letter of July 1810 to Scrope Davies. This letter is not contained in Marchand's collected edition; it is in Marchand's Lord Byron: Selected Letters and Journals (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 41.

(11.) Quoted from the Riverside Edition of the Lyrical Ballads, ed. William Richey and Daniel Robinson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 393. Subsequent citations to Lyrical Ballads are from this edition and appear in the text.

(12.) I wrote about this feature of Wordsworth in my essay, "Climbing Parnassus, and Falling Off," in At the Limits of Romanticism: Essays in Cultural, Feminist, and Materialist Criticism, ed. Mary Favret and Nicola Watson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).

(13.) The poems in this volume are: "Sonnet on Chillon"; "The Prisoner of Chillon"; "Sonnet" ("Rousseau-Voltaire ..."); "Stanzas To--"; "Darkness"; "Churchill's Grave"; "The Dream"; "The Incantation"; "Prometheus."

(14.) Letters and Journals, 5:91 (Sept. 8th, 1816).

(15.) I have learned much from two excellent, recent discussions of the poem. Jane Stabler, in Byron, Poetics and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), glances quickly at this odd poem and goes on to discuss Churchill in great and interesting depth (47 ff.). Andrew Bennett, in his Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) reads the poem very subtly (179 ff.). I am indebted especially to Bennett's reading, and to his discussion of Romantic relationships to posterity in general.

(16.) McGann prints this letter in his notes to the poem, in Byron Works, 4:447- 48 ("Churchill's Grave" is #290). McGann also discusses the poem in some excellent paragraphs in his "Byron and Wordsworth," in Byron and Romanticism. That essay's ambitions are rather broader than my oven, and in spite of its closely parallel subject matter, its interests are in the end quite different from mine. The paragraphs on "Churchill's Grave" are representative of this difference. We do share a sense of the complex interest of the poem, whose net effect McGann describes in this pithy way: "The poem's complex mixture of ironies ranges widely: from parodic game, through brilliant wit--part playful, part malicious, supremely cool--to its mordant, Byronic sententiousness" (181).

(17.) Quoted by McGann in Byron Works, 4:447.

(18.) 4:39-44. In these lines one also hears Byron thinking about "Resolution and Independence," of course, a poem which would naturally catch Byron's eye, given its typical strangeness, and its interest in something like "fame."

(19.) The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, The Later Years, ed. Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939), 1:130.

(20.) Medwin' s Conversations, 194.

(21.) Michael Cooke examined these lines as an example of Wordsworth's influence on Byron. Cooke's essay is a high-quality example of the older style, where the focus of the investigation is, in the end, to find places where Byron takes Wordsworth's ideas "seriously." See "Byron and Wordsworth: The Complementary of a Rock and the Sea," Wordsworth Circle 11 (1980): 10-18.

(22.) Don Juan, Canto I, stanzas 133-34, in Byron Works, 5:51.
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Title Annotation:George Gordon Byron and William Wordsworth
Author:Murphy, Peter T.
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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