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BOOK REVIEW: TLS, 26 May, Seamus Perry

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

Thank you to the TLS and Seamus Perry for the recent review.

Excerpt here:

"Coincidentally, a welcome book of essays by Bernard Beatty

has just appeared, which makes its own case for the “dark

poems”, and it arrives with a generous preface of tribute by

McGann himself. The scholars make common cause in their

love of Byron, but actually, as Beatty notes, they see rather

different things to praise. McGann describes a writer with

the modern, secular sensibility of an ironist living in a

contingent world, a sort of poetical Richard Rorty; Beatty is

intent on tracing in the poems what he calls a “Catholic

trajectory”, a learning curve that takes Byron deeper and

deeper into the recesses of the human soul. He offers,

among other things, compelling accounts of “the darkness of

sin” in “Lara” and the unexpected orthodoxy of Byron’s

play Cain, usually characterized as a sceptic’s charter.

"Beatty writes throughout with enviable lucidity and

expository grace, while allowing himself a few moments of

the senior clubman. (Immanuel Kant appears at one point

as “our old unorthodox friend from Königsberg”.) He

concedes that Byron does have an “enlightenment” side,

and does not pretend to claim that, whatever appreciative

noises he might make about Italian Catholicism, the poet

ever came close to faith: it might seem the worst of both

worlds to have arrived at “a Christian diagnosis” without

grasping “the Christian salve that it indicates”. Ellis,

meanwhile, highlights his instinctive resistance to the

doctrine of vicarious atonement through Christ’s sacrifice,

which, thought Byron, drawing on a homely comparison, “no

more does away with man’s guilt than a schoolboy

volunteering to be flogged for another would exculpate the

dunce from negligence, or preserve him from the rod”. That

strikes a robustly “enlightenment” note; but Beatty allows for

the presence of alternative readings, and, nicely, he deploys

Byronic parentheses to do so: “what I would call Byron’s

Catholic trajectory (not of course his only trajectory)”.

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