ANY GIVEN FORM presents a writer not with a certain type of poem, but with a field of possibility. The possibilities of ottava rima, the stanza rhyming abababcc, are many. For a start, the interlocking intricacy of the sestet could be deployed as vacillation, or oscillation, or even merely the reinforcement of a rhyme-sound. The sestet produces a sense that the poet could go on rhyming forever, particularly when the confident clinch of the couplet arrives, as if to say, ‘Everything skilful must end; there are other things to think about’. The stanza produces, in the words of Jeffrey C. Robinson, ‘a poetry of playful, outrageous reversals, deconstructions, and juxtapositions perfect for comic but also for transformative poetry’.1

Presented with ottava rima’s interesting aural conflation of interlocking intricacy in the sestet and noticeably distinct resolution in the couplet, Byron and Shelley went separate ways. Nevertheless, formal similarity influenced content: the common denominator of The Witch of Atlas and Don Juan is a fascination with flexibility, expressed in the former as an affinity for intricacy, a kind of ordering spirit, and in the latter as an embracing of change and disorder. One of Byron’s chosen metaphors for Don Juan, ‘A versified Aurora Borealis’ (CPW v. 337), chimes tellingly with Shelley’s description, in The Witch of Atlas, of a ‘stubborn centre’ which must disperse to become ‘a cloud of summer dust’ (Poems, iii. 584):2 both of these natural images evoke the intricate concision of the ottava rima stanza, expressing pleasing variation in short compass. The tussle of the ordering and the disordering spirit is explored by the stanza’s distinctive rhyme scheme: the fluctuations of the sestet might be seen as being brought to order by the couplet (as in the overarching spirit of Shelley’s deployments), or the couplet might be read as a vain or vainglorious attempt to rescue a little order from the proliferating turmoil of the sestet (as in Byron’s most characteristic usages). The stanza form’s aural effects work as a conduit for, in Walter Pater’s succinct word in the essay on ‘Style’, a ‘brain-wave’ – a term that Angela Leighton elaborates as a ‘cross between a sound-wave and an idea’.3 The ottava-rimic cadence, like any formal cadence, challenges the poet to tessellate a lexis and a set of concepts to fulfil its auditory expectation: form, as Peter McDonald writes, ‘is the pressing reality according to which metaphors and meaning must make their way’.4

The deliberateness of the divergence of ottava-rimic styles by Byron and Shelley is strongly suggested by the following compressed timeline. Byron burst into ottava rima in 1817, with Beppo. Don Juan (1819-24) and The Vision of Judgement (1822) entered soon after (CPW v. xiii-xv). Shelley followed suit with his translation of the Homeric ‘Hymn to Hermes’, as Hymn to Mercury, in late June 1820 and had finished the forty-seven stanzas by 14 July.5The Witch of Atlas was then composed towards the end of that same summer, astonishingly quickly for a 672-line poem, between 14 and 16 August (Poems iii. 552). That both Byron and Shelley produced translations from Italian models to complement their own forays into the form is indicative of their bookish, acculturating spirit as educated neoclassicists who, as Stuart Curran points out, rarely failed to subtitle their creations with terms like ‘an elegy’, ‘a literary eclogue’, ‘a romaunt’, ‘an ode’, ‘a fragment of a Turkish tale’, ‘a philosophical poem’, and so on.6 Shelley dubbed The Witch of Atlas a piece of ‘visionary rhyme’; Beppo was subtitled ‘A Venetian Story’ (CPW iv. 129). The taxonomical tendency of such a neoclassicist allows for an experimentalist approach to literary production, with each newly attempted genre and form presenting opportunities for fresh aesthetic exploration and fresh self-definition as a certain type of thinker.

Prior to its early nineteenth century uses, ottava rima was most notably and extensively used by John Harington in his translation of Ariosto, and Edward Fairfax in his translation of Tasso. These works represent two quite different modes of ottava rima in English: the ludic sprawl of Ariosto and the heroic orderliness of Tasso. Isaac D’Israeli, in his Curiosities of Literature, succinctly summarises the state of a long-raging Italian debate at the end of the eighteenth century: ‘It surprises one to find among the literary Italians the merits of Ariosto most keenly disputed: slaves to classical authority, they bend down to the majestic regularity of Tasso’.7 But, as H. T. Swedenberg charts in The Theory of Epic in England1650-1800, strict attitudes towards epic had broken down by the late eighteenth century. The fall of Le Bossu’s prescriptive exactitude had given way to the freer theorisations of the Warton brothers, with Joseph Warton influentially proposing that ‘a petulant rejection, and an implicit veneration, of the rules of the ancient critics, are equally destructive of true taste’.8 The resurgent popularity of ‘the nonclassical epics of Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser’ gave free rein to the idea of ludic sprawl.9 Adam Roberts outlines this evolution as a shift in ‘epic expectation’, away from eighteenth century architectonic unity: the Romantic period saw a rise in a style of epic constructed on ‘lucid monads, the juxtaposition of which modelled the world not as a smooth contiguity’ but on a more piecemeal world view structured around discrete events.10 In short, contemporary epic theory had shifted from love of a certain type of classical narrative orderliness to an allowance of relative disorder.

As Bernard Beatty writes, Byron avoids the trap of allowing the Don Juan-narrator’s resistance to systematisation to become ‘a system of its own’.11 The protean premise of Don Juan is ‘the resistless encroachment of that which is unknowable and unknown’, and it is this thinking disposition on which critical arguments for Byronic intellectual intrigue tend to be grounded.12 This is both a repudiation of and an evolution from the earlier assumption that Byron as a poetical stylist could be easily explained away – a view expressed, for example, by John Wain, remarking that ‘Composition, to him, was a dramatic performance’ and that Byron’s compulsion for ‘attitudinizing’ led him to enlist ‘two over-simplified characters to write his poetry for him’.13 Ottava rima was the second of the masks identified by Wain, the one that embodied his fascination with continuance, recovery, and the muddle of worldly variety. The philosophical implication of Byron’s deployment of ottava rima, especially in Don Juan, is that nothing is final, hence the poem’s fragmentariness and resistance to even minor narrative closures, because the world is chaotic, and meaning is a human superimposition on that chaos. This is not a nihilistic stance, but an acceptance of chaos – rather than an attempt to discover order in chaos.

By contrast, Shelley’s philosophical contention in The Witch of Atlas, inherited from Plato’s theory of forms, is an attempt to apply an ordering system to a page-world, and in the process he hints at the longstanding ‘nominalist’ critique of Plato’s idea of ideal forms. Correspondingly, Shelley’s characteristically vague, tremulous, and fluctuating diction suggests that the physical world is nothing more than a sheet of gossamer, behind which a more fundamental world of ideas might be lurking: the narrator of The Witch of Atlas mentions an ‘interlunar night’, ‘some wind-wandering / Fragment of inky thunder-smoke’, ‘A tapestry of fleece-like mist’, and ‘shoreless air’ (Poems, iii. 598-603). The witch insists, speaking of the natural world, that ‘the stubborn centre must / Be scattered, like a cloud of summer dust’ – a rhyming couplet in which the enjambment of ‘must / Be scattered’ tugs on the reader’s eye, just at the moment when the mind is being reminded starkly of the notion of universal entropy, in such a way as to present the measured division of lines of verse as a consequence of dispersive natural law. Nevertheless, the strength of the ‘must/dust’ rhyme, the ‘st’ sound coming to a halt emphatically on ‘t’ after the sibilant ‘s’, serves as a countervailing reminder that the poetical work of gathering words into patterned arrangements is itself a small defiance of the universal law by which ‘the stubborn centre must / Be scattered’; following through, the bizarre conclusion of The Witch of Atlas, in which death is vanquished and ‘The coffin’ is cast away ‘with contempt’, optimistically endorses the poet’s preference for seeking order instead of disorder (Poems, iii. 380). ‘The coffin’ itself is held in striking juxtaposition with the ‘cradle’ to reiterate the triumph and strangeness of the witch’s victory over mortality. The end of death is, the narrator insists, a victory for an idealist struggling towards Platonic ‘immortal forms’ – ideas that are, in this conception, undying, perhaps because they are never born into the real world of phenomena (Poems, iii. 607). Vitally, the Platonic theory of forms, which Shelley outlines for the reader with stylistic sprezzatura, articulate imagery, and inveigling narrative indirection, is a major and profound philosophical theory with ubiquitous ramifications and a heavy freight of possible emotional interpretations, hinting at a kind of heaven of ideas behind the everyday and the substantial.

In comparison with Shelley’s Platonism, Byron’s enthusiastic embracing of doubt and chaos might seem positively pessimistic in its anti-orderliness, if not altogether nihilistic. Byron was, as Wain comments, ‘mystified by life’, and Emily Bernhard Jackson has eloquently elaborated on Byron’s foregrounding of doubt in his ‘philosophy of knowledge’, remarking that he was ‘a man notoriously and outspokenly against systems of all kinds’: as Byron wrote to Thomas Moore in 1818, ‘when a man talks of system, his case is hopeless’.14 Hence the Byron-as-Maddalo of Julian and Maddalo appears as a scoffing cynic, a ‘spoiler’, in Paul West’s emphasis, declaring his scepticism of a ‘system refutation-tight / As far as words go’, with the implication that no argument is immune to counter-argument and words are not only limited but also open to doubts, to ‘refutation[s]’ (Poems, ii. 674).15 The contention of Byron’s style in Don Juan, an updated version of Ariostanism, is a continuation of ‘Ariosto’s tenacious love of poetry itself’, a stance that is ‘anti-theoretical in essence’: ‘to identify such a mode of dynamic sensibility with any philosophical-normative discourse’, George Steiner writes, summarising an argument of Benedetto Croce, ‘is ironical’.16 Ariostanism might reasonably be called an anti-philosophy; hence the Don Juan-narrator’s dismissive parting quip, having just ironically alluded to ‘My plan’, an instance of the recursive trope of mocking epic structural prescription, at the close of Canto XII: ‘read all the National Debt-sinkers / And tell me what you think of your great thinkers’ (CPW v. 522) – the implication being that the speaker’s thinking is more reliable because it follows no ‘plan’. Steiner identifies another of the cruxes of Ariostanism, as practised by Byron, in commenting that ‘Ludovico Ariosto is not an orator. He engages us in “conversation”’.17 Byron aspired to be one of the Italian improvvisatore (‘I feel the “Improvvisatore”’, CPW v. 594), a winning conversationalist, but Shelley prefers the part of august storyteller, dispenser of wisdom, fireside philosopher: the narrator of The Witch of Atlas offhandedly declares of an offshoot-story, ‘it is / A tale more fit for the weird winter nights’ (Poems, iii. 616) – a remark that seems close to Don Juan-ism in its casualness, but is crucially differentiated by its mysterious standoffishness. Shelley’s narrator shies away from interrogatively apostrophising the reader, as is frequently done by the Don Juan-narrator, pseudo-Socratically enquiring, ‘Nothing more true than not to trust your senses, / And yet what are your other evidences?’ (CPW v. 559).

One of the overarching differences between Byronic and Shelleyan ottava rima is that Shelley used the form to foreground ideas of interweaving and orderliness, whereas Byron used it to demonstrate authorial caprice, a fascination with serendipitously chiming contingency, and humorous digressiveness. It would be hard to find formal decisions more polarised, and this polarity is consistent with the portraits drawn by Shelley, in Julian and Maddalo. There, Byron is the one who can ‘make me know myself’ – but also the cynic who laughingly declares, ‘You talk Utopia!’ (Poems, ii. 673, 692). Shelley professed to love Don Juan: he called it a ‘noble’ poem (Letters, ii. 358).18 How to explain this peculiar emphasis? Donald Davie has spoken in favour of one Shelleyan mode, his ‘urbanity’.19 And ‘urbanity’ is certainly a word fitting to Shelley’s self-conception as a thinker and stylist following the courtly Philip Sidney: Sidney had also been deeply concerned with Neoplatonic ideas; Shelley’s ‘Defence of Poetry’ followed Sidney’s ‘Defence of Poesy’; Adonais, elegising Keats, was partly an allusive reimagining of the dynamic of Spenser’s Astrophel, elegising Sidney. In stanza XLV of Adonais, enumerating Chatterton, Sidney, and Lucan in an abbreviated pantheon of forebears, Shelley praised Sidney most highly, as one who ‘lived and loved, / Sublimely mild, a Spirit without spot’ (Poems, iv. 320). Shelley’s smoothly urbane control of the ottava rima stanza is apparent in his translation of ‘Homer’s Hymn to Mercury’ – for example, stanza XIII:

He drove them wandering o’er the sandy way,

But, being ever mindful of his craft,

Backward and forward drove he them astray,

So that the tracks which seemed before, were aft;

His sandals then he threw to the ocean spray,

And for each foot he wrought a kind of raft

Of tamarisk, and tamarisk-like sprigs,

And bound them in a lump with withy twigs.

(Poems, iii. 515)

The ‘Hymn to Mercury’ is of a lightly humorous kind that differs from the rapt attention to magical detail and imagery in The Witch of Atlas, but it presents Shelley’s consistent concern with being ‘mindful of his craft’: the ‘Backward and forward’ sway of the sea approximates to the backward-and-forward linking of the middle rhymes of an ababab sestet, while the gathering of tamarisk sprigs into a bundle is neatly enacted by the aural closure of the couplet. Comparably, almost every stanza of The Witch of Atlas contains some word that speaks of intricate connection: weaving, linking, and the Latinate prefix ‘inter-’ appear frequently. Consider: ‘volumes intervolved’ (VI), ‘intertangled lines of light’ (XXV), ‘All interwoven’ (XLIV), ‘interlunar night’ (XLVII), ‘intertexture of the atmosphere’ (LII). The same is true of cognates for ‘circle’, especially the participle ‘circling’: ‘magic circle of her voice and eyes’ (VII), ‘circling skies’ (XII), ‘every little circlet’ (XXV), ‘the circumfluous ocean’ (XXXIII; a borrowing from Milton), ‘circling sunbows’ (XLII), ‘Circling the image of a shooting star’ (LI) (Poems, iii. 552-615). This interconnective impulse, fittingly embodied by ottava rima, was the objective that Shelley had limned in writing ecstatically and climactically, in ‘To Jane: The Invitation’, of the moment when ‘all things seem one / In the universal sun’.20

Ottava rima proved itself adaptable both to Shelley’s ideas of orderly theorisation and to Byron’s disorderly anti-systematising impulse; and that this one stanzaic form prompted such divergent interpretations is an indication of its natural predisposition for articulating the cosmos/chaos divide. The philosophical contention of disorder-inclined ottava rima had already been made plain by Ariosto, but it was Shelley’s triumph to attach a suitable philosophical theory, the Platonic theory of forms, to the stanza’s knack for investigating order: the stylistic edge of Shelley over Byron may be understood as an expression of the edge that Platonism has over Ariostanism so far as system and order go. From one perspective, cosmos has the last laugh over chaos because consciousness is (or at least might be intuited to be) the child of universal orderliness and is, therefore, with its instinct for self-perpetuation, a seeker of systems and symmetries. Manfred, at a high pitch of disconnected disillusion, declares, ‘though I wore the form, / I had no sympathy with breathing flesh’ (CPW iv. 72), despairing of the physical world and offering no alternative; but the narrator of The Witch of Atlas, discerning a Platonic order underlying ‘the strife / Which stirs the liquid surface of man’s life’, declares more happily that ‘immortal forms abide / Beneath the weltering of the restless tide’ (Poems, iii. 607). Such moments are characteristic of the divide between Shelley’s wish to see an organising order in the world and Byron’s wish to debunk all systematic ideas – a dichotomy made explicit in Julian and Maddalo when Byron-as-Maddalo confronts his companion with the sight of a man locked in a state of ‘incommunicable woe’, which he imagines will disperse ‘aspiring theories’, and Shelley-as-Julian, unshakeably idealistic, insists that some orderliness and happiness might yet be redeemed from ‘the caverns of his mind’ (an image alluding to Plato’s allegory of the cave) (Poems, ii. 681, 674, 692). The state of the despondent man, Shelley-as-Julian contends, is the consequence of ‘a want of that true theory, still / Which seeks a “soul of goodness” in things ill’ (Poems, ii. 674), the neat clinch of the strong couplet-rhyme reinforcing the idea of discoverable order.

But to propose a dichotomy between Byronic disorder and Shelleyan order is to assert something too starkly: for in Byron’s acceptance of chaos, there was orderliness, namely the organising first-person perspective; meanwhile, Shelley’s references to the idealised order of Platonic forms still leave the chaos of visible matter. Though their allegiances are approximated by Shelley’s fictionalised summary of their interactions in Julian and Maddalo, with Shelley ‘Argu[ing] against despondency’ and Byron ‘tak[ing] the darker side’, the aggregate of their attitudes is best represented by the narrator’s statement, ‘We descanted’: Shelley claims to seek ‘deep meaning, as we never see / But in the human countenance’ (Poems, ii. 665-6), and this harmonises with Byron’s wish, in Beppo, to write lines of descriptive social observation such as ‘With fiddling, feasting, dancing, drinking, masquing’ (CPW iv. 129), a plethora of trochaic active participles uniting the variety of human pursuits at the carnival. Both Shelley and Byron consistently integrate a critical self-awareness into their ideas of order and disorder.21 As Peter Butter, in his study of Shelleyan Platonism, observed, ‘One advantage, for the poet, of Platonism is that it is attuned to moods both of pessimism and optimism’:

When despondent, the Platonist can reflect that this world is but a fleeting shadow of the real world of intelligible ideas … When looking at the world more cheerfully, he remembers that it is, even if only a shadow, yet still a shadow of the eternal, of which it is a copy, however imperfect[.]22

And the range of emotions open to Byron-as-Ariostan is comparably capacious, often minutely compressed in ambiguous tonal inflections. At the end of Canto X, for example, alluding to the tragic legendary betrayal of Roland by his uncle Ganelon, which had one of its most accomplished retellings in Orlando Furioso, the Don Juan-narrator remarks,

I have prated

Just now enough; but by and bye I’ll prattle

Like Roland’s horn in Roncesvalles’ battle.

(CPW v. 463)

The allusion is inescapably melancholic, comparing the narrator to the betrayed and soon-to-be-overwhelmed hero Roland, but the tone is lighthearted, with the comical weak rhyme of ‘prattle’ and ‘battle’ arguing some disconcerting connection between speech and warfare. The result is engagingly indeterminate: on the one hand, it is a concession to disorder, implying an element of arbitrariness in the narration, breaking off when the speaker has ‘prated / Just now enough’; on the other, it is an acknowledgement of the general, cyclical orderliness of history, with punctuations in the narrator’s life envisioned as small-scale re-enactments of events from legend.

The multi-layered tone of the Ariostan Byron’s attitude to order was further inflected by the reader’s awareness of two of Byron’s earlier manifestations: the would-be-orderly Popeian coupleteer of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers and the Shakespearian self-dramatisation of the mid-career Byron, as seen in Manfred. The Ariostan Byron of Don Juan was interpreted as an evolution, neither progression nor regression necessarily, from these earlier modes. The Byron of Don Juan is different to the Byron to whom Bertrand Russell dedicated a chapter in A History of Western Philosophy, in which Byronism was presented as an obsessively individualist, proto-Nietzschean pose.23 That was the popular ‘Byronic Byron’, in Gilbert Phelps’s phrase, proudly snarling, ‘I hate the touch of servile hands, / I hate the slaves that cringe around’; or plungingly lamenting, ‘I loved – but those I loved are gone’; or raptly rhapsodising, ‘There be none of Beauty’s daughters / With a magic like thee’ (CPW i. 121-2, iii. 379).24 The Byronic Byron had been the voice of passionate extremes who conspicuously believed that, as Hölderlin enthused, ‘Feeling speaks in a poem idealically – passion naively – the imagination energetically’.25 Byronic Byronism was such a boldly youthful pose, proud even of its most predictable naiveties, that it seemed predestined to be replaced by something different and more knowing. In ‘Some Recollections of my Acquaintance with Madame de Stael’ (1821), Byron retrospected and judged that, in 1813, he had been ‘too young – and too passionate to do full justice to those around me. – Time – Absence and Death – mellow and sanctify all things’.26 When Byron set aside unqualified extremes of emotion and imagination, contextualising them or brushing them off in a humorous narrative framework, he became a different person: he adopted the persona that had been worn by John Hookham Frere, who went pseudonymised as William Whistlecraft, author of The Monks and the Giants, first published in 1817. Introducing Byron For Today in 1948, Roy Fuller spotlights, as ‘One of the main points of [Don] Juan’, ‘its ability to turn from one subject to another, on several levels, weaving round the narrative’.27 This weaving playfulness, wryness, and digressiveness, partly an inheritance from Tristram Shandy, had also appeared in Frere:

Poets consume exciseable commodities,

They raise the nation’s spirit when victorious,

They drive an export trade in whims and oddities,

Making our commerce and revenue glorious;

As an industrious and pains-taking body ’tis

That Poets should be reckon’d meritorious:

And therefore I submissively propose

To erect one Board for Verse and one for Prose.28

This is Frere, but so much is characteristically Don Juan-ish. There is a comical triple rhyme: ‘commodities’, ‘oddities’, ‘body ’tis’. There is a wry rhetorical self-diminution, a captatio benevolentiae from the Ciceronian bag of tricks: ‘therefore I submissively propose’. For another dense example of Frereism as it pre-empts Don Juan-ism, consider the apostrophe to the public (‘Dear People!’) in Canto 1, which is followed by: a conspicuous concern with skill (‘if you think my verses clever’); an interest in national character (‘the language of the nation’); a playful breakdown of linguistic elements (‘osity and ation’); a pose as one fit to advise ‘Whig or Tory’; and a showing-my-working epicist’s allusion to ‘Homer’s plan’. To switch from Byronic Byronism to a mode typified by such sardonic detachment and conversational lightness was a puzzlingly ambiguous development, suggesting greater emotional resilience but also a correspondent dulling of erstwhile hopefulness, an abandoning of Manfred’s idealistic yearnings in favour of a delight in the quotidian and unsupernatural. When Auden declared that, of Byron’s works, ‘only three are of major importance, Beppo, The Vision of Judgement, and Don Juan, all of them written, incidentally, in the same metre’,29 his appreciation of the Ariostan Byron may be read as a judgement made in light of earlier Byronic manifestations: the world-challenging humour of late Byron was, in part, a result of Byron’s repudiation of his preceding voices.

Despite the many similarities with Frere’s work, there is a complicated self-analysing emotional intrigue to Don Juan that is not found in The Monks and the Giants. In his selection from Byron’s works, Roy Fuller’s four stanzas of introductory ottava rima, paying homage to Don Juan, strike at an emotional proposition implicit in the poem’s paradoxical tone, marrying enthusiastic caprice and weary fixity often in the same line: ‘crowded, I am lonely, / Bored though excited, bound but somehow free’.30 Hence the Don Juan-narrator’s humorously convoluted enquiry,

If people contradict themselves, can I

Help contradicting them, and every body,

Even my veracious self? – But that’s a lie;

I never did so, never will – how should I?

(CPW v. 614)

The proposition that a ‘veracious self’ may never contradict itself because everything done by the self constitutes itself is striking and suggests a belief in a peculiar kind of order: order as it emerges from authorial will, howsoever internally contradictory. This pervasive inflection of narratorial psychological complexity, exacerbated in the later books of Don Juan, served to remind the reader of the Byronic Byron who had once held sway in Byron’s mind: fused with the Ariostan Byron, the result was a simultaneously delighting and disconcerting reminder that selfhood is a complex phenomenon, comprising present and past selves. Hence the Don Juan-narrator’s interrogation of the idea of ‘sincerity’: his muse is said to be ‘The most sincere that ever dealt in fiction’; he insists, ‘My smiles must be sincere or not at all’; of Juan, he remarks, ‘Sincere he was –’, and then, with a sting of provisionality in the qualifying clause, ‘at least you could not doubt it, / In listening merely to his voice’s tone’ (CPW v. 619, 617, 592). Byron’s highly nuanced attitude to order is well expressed by the Don Juan-narrator’s stanza-straddling utterance,

Carelessly I sing,

But Phoebus lends me now and then a string,

With which I still can harp, and carp, and fiddle[.]

(CPW v. 487)

The narrator self-describes as ‘careless’ but the next line introduces a crucial musical caveat: poetic form serves as a flexible instrument on which he ‘can harp, and carp, and fiddle’. Thus, the act of poeticising is itself posited as proof of an order-making spirit – even at a moment when the formal order, the discreteness of the ottava rima stanza, is thrown into question by the inter-stanza enjambment of the sentence.

The Ariostan Byron’s insistence on unknowingness becomes itself a kind of knowingness. The exclamation ‘How little do we know that which we are!’ is a manifestation of a certain type of knowledge, the apprehension of mystery: this gives rise to Byron’s stoical ‘Nil Admirari’, which is contiguous with the Ariostan narrator’s tone of nonchalant detachment (CPW v. 618, 535). The Ariostanism of Don Juan is preoccupied with disorderly variance, ‘an heterogeneous mass’ starkly likening ‘The evaporation of a joyous day’ to ‘a system coupled with a doubt’, but it is nevertheless stylistically ‘urbane’ (CPW v. 552, 621) or, in Shelley’s term, ‘noble’ (Letters, ii. 358). Considering how ‘well she [Lady Adeline] acted all and every part’, the rhyme-thread of ‘versatility’, ‘mobility’, and ‘facility’ is a neat summation of the vocal shifts between genre and register that circumscribe the narrator’s whimsical trust that ‘they’re sincerest / Who are strongly acted on by what is nearest’ (CPW v. 649) – a logical and argumentative rhyming connection comically offset by those others that are deliberately illogical and frustrate all but the most specious causal gloss. This rhetorical principle of variation and contradiction according to expediency and authorial caprice, perpetually undercutting characters and ideas, is enshrined in the flickering dash that divides the reflection on how people may appear ‘false – though true’ (CPW v. 649).

Shelley’s portrait of Byron is correspondingly nuanced: the characterisation, in Julian and Maddalo, of Byron as a perceptive philosophical cynic, capable of making the narrator ‘know myself’, was shadowed in a more reprimanding fashion by one short fragment of autumn 1818:

O mighty mind, in whose deep stream this age

Shakes like a reed in the unheeding storm,

Why dost thou rule not thine own sacred rage

And clothe thy powers in some eternal form[.]

(Poems, ii. 445)

Shelley’s alternative draft for these lines reveals a more awe-struck attitude towards Byron’s world view and aesthetic achievement:

Thou Mind, who to our unawakened Nation

Hast been as is the unseen power which sways

The moving world

(Poems, ii. 445)

The former version rebukes Byron for not ‘cloth[ing his] powers in some eternal form’, failing to commune with the thought of ideal and eternal forms, whereas the latter acknowledges Byron’s mind as an ‘unseen power that sways / The moving world’ – a description that, with astonishing elevation, imagines Byron as a world-shaping force, guiding his surroundings much as the idealised Platonic world of forms inexactly influences the world of phenomena. Byron is metonymised as a ‘Mind’, grandly capitalised, with a capacity to alter and re-order the ‘moving world’ (Letters, i. 212). Shelley was evidently in accord with Byron’s opinion that his observations on the multifariousness of life, well embodied generically by the Ariostan ‘medley’ poem, were themselves a peculiar kind of endogenous order-making.

Shelley’s consideration of the order-disorder dialectic had an ambiguity of its own too. One short ottava-rimic lyric, ‘On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci, In the Florentine Gallery’, dated and placed from ‘Florence, 1819’ by Mary Shelley in 1824, described how

Upon its lips and eyelids seem to lie

Loveliness like a shadow, from which shine

Fiery and lurid, struggling underneath,

The agonies of anguish and of death.

(Poems, iii. 221)

The close juxtaposition of ‘shadow’ and ‘shine’ underpins the shock of lips and eyelids that seem to shine when apparently also hidden in shadow. The incongruity is not resolved but simply subsumed as an aspect of the strange variousness of things by the next stanza’s reference to ‘hues of beauty’ ‘Which humanize and harmonize the strain’ – a line which, in its parallelism of ‘humanize’ and ‘harmonize’, suggests that the human project lies in crafting order from disparate elements, which may be, as the ambiguity of ‘strain’ implies, at odds (Poems, iii. 222). Shelley’s vision of order and disorder in perpetual conflict is effectively represented by a draft fragment for the reflections on da Vinci’s medusa, in which

unconquered Nature

Seems struggling to the last – without a breath

The fragment of an uncreated creature.

(Poems, iii. 218)

The compact oxymoron, ‘uncreated creature’, leaves the medusa hovering between the world of ideal Platonic forms and the world of phenomena: fittingly, this zone is the artistic canvas, and thus Shelley presents the view that the artist can serve as intermediary between the real and the ideal. Placed between real incongruity and ideal order, Shelley’s view of his poetical task was expressed in another short fragment from the late 1810s:

What hast thou done then … Lifted up the curtain

Which between that which seems and that which is

Hangs o’er the scene of life?

(Poems, iii. 218)

The almost unscannable monosyllabicity of ‘that which seems and that which is’, combined with the off-beat ‘between’ staggering the rhythm of the iambic pentameter, throws into sharp relief the contrast of ‘that which seems’ and ‘that which is’. Shelley’s idea of his poetic undertaking – lifting the veil of chaotic phenomena to reveal the orderly ideal forms that lie beneath – is thus crucially differentiated from Byron’s idea of the self as maker of order. Byron sees ordering as a process, arising from an individual’s observation of the world; Shelley posits order as a property of a world of forms substructuring the universe, present independent of the individual’s apprehension of it. Nevertheless, both place the artistic consideration of order at the heart of their poetics: in Alastor; or The Spirit of Solitude, composed in 1815, Shelley’s narrator described a ‘voice’ that ‘Scatter[ed] its music on the unfeeling storm’, imagining linguistic mastery as a human bulwark against the entropic scatterings of disorderly natural phenomena (Poems, i. 458, 485). The recurrent imagery of scattering – ‘Scattering its waters to the passing winds’ – is integral to the aesthetic proposition of Alastor, a tale describing, as Shelley’s Preface notes, a disillusioned poet ‘Blasted by his disappointment’: the force working against the poet, a linguistic order-maker, is the disordering ‘storm of death’, a ‘devastating omnipotence’ (Poems, i. 462-3, 485). With the memorable frisson of abstract mythology, disorder and death are given a familial connection when ‘Ruin calls / His brother Death’, and this association places disorder in league with Shelley’s most fiercely despised adversary, the personified figure of Death: in the ‘Notes on Queen Mab’ he had written, ‘How much longer will man continue to pimp for the gluttony of Death, his most insidious, implacable, and eternal foe?’ (Poems, i. 486, 422).

Byron’s and Shelley’s creative engagement with the idea of orderliness has a resonance that stretches far beyond their respective Ariostan and Platonic allegiances to encompass many questions of aesthetic self-definition. Byron’s career shift from ‘Byronic Byronism’ to Ariostanism implied that a mature artist ought to chance upon order in the course of action, rather than yearning after it – as suggested by the Don Juan-narrator’s couplet-rhyming of ‘simplicity’ and ‘felicity’, as if to say that the simple course would lead on naturally to pleasing ‘felicit[ies]’ (CPW v. 650). Contrapuntally, Shelley’s belief in an orderly universal substructure to be sought out by the poet also entailed the idea of being accosted by disorderly phenomena and their ‘scattering[s]’ (Poems, i. 485). It would be an oversimplification, therefore, to typify either poet’s view of order as more optimistic or pessimistic than the other’s, because both are, in Butter’s phrase, ‘attuned to moods both of pessimism and optimism’.31 Shelley’s Platonism might lean him towards an idealistic quest to discover order, while Byron’s Ariostanism encouraged his restless resistance of systematisation: as Byron was already writing in a letter of June 1810, foreshadowing his later style, ‘I am quicksilver, and say nothing positively’.32 Nevertheless, that this later Byron also possessed an aesthetic ‘rage for order’, though more subdued and indirect than Shelley’s, is apparent in his faith in the capacity of the first-person perspective to record the variety of its surroundings.33 In the end, their kinship is more striking than their divergence. When Julian and Maddalo are confronted by disorderliness at the tragic and terrifying pitch represented by the long speech of the despondent ‘maniac’, as Julian puts it, ‘our argument was quite forgot’ (Poems, ii. 692, 690).


Jeffrey C. Robinson, ‘The Translator’, in Timothy Morton (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shelley (Cambridge, 2006), p. 109.
Quotations are from Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome McGann and Barry Weller, 7 vols. (Oxford, 1980-93), hereafter CPW, and The Poems of Shelley, ed. Geoffrey Matthews and Kelvin Everest, 4 vols. (1989-2000), hereafter Poems.
Walter Pater, Appreciations (1910), pp. 5-38: 18; Angela Leighton, On Form (Oxford, 2007), p. 36.
Peter McDonald, Serious Poetry: Form and Authority from Yeats to Hill (Oxford, 2002), p. 49.
James Bieri, Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography: Exile of Unfulfilled Renown, 1816-1822 (Newark, NJ, 2005), p. 198.
Stuart Curran, Poetic Form and British Romanticism (New York, 1986), prolegomenon.
Isaac D’Israeli, Curiosities of Literature (New York, 1835), p. 102.
H. T. Swedenberg, The Theory of the Epic in England 1650-1800 (New York, 1944), p. 95.
Ibid., p. 94.
Adam Roberts, Romantic and Victorian Long Poems (Aldershot, 1999), p. 11.
Bernard Beatty, reviewing Byron’s Heroines by Caroline Franklin, Byron: Don Juan by Anne Barton, and Don Juan by Nigel Wood in The Review of English Studies, 47 (1996), 101-3: 103.
David Punter, in Nigel Wood (ed.), Don Juan: Theory in Practice (Buckingham, 1993), p. 124.
John Wain, ‘The Search for Identity’, in Paul West (ed.), Byron: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1963), pp. 158-9.
Wain, ‘The Search for Identity’, p. 159; Emily Bernhard Jackson, The Development of Byron’s Philosophy of Knowledge (Basingstoke, 2010), p. 10; Byron, Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand, 12 vols. (1973–82), vi. 46.
Paul West, Byron and the Spoiler’s Art (1960), p. 3.
George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan (New York, 2011), p. 176.
Ibid., pp. 176-7.
Quotations are from The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1964); hereafter Letters.
Donald Davie, Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), p. 133.
Shelley, Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson (1929), p. 662. This text has not yet appeared in Matthews and Everest’s edition.
Never could they be arraigned as Robert Southey was by Coleridge: in a caustic tirade in his notebooks, Coleridge denounced Southey for not being ‘self-diffused’ and called him ‘a smooth stream with one current, & tideless, & of which you can only avail yourself to one purpose’. See S. T. Coleridge, Coleridge’s Notebooks, ed. Seamus Perry (Oxford, 2002), p. 54.
Peter Butter, Shelley’s Idols of the Cave (Edinburgh, 1954), p. 96.
Bertrand Russell, ‘Byron’, in A History of Western Philosophy (New York, 1945), pp. 774-80.
Gilbert Phelps, Introduction to id. (ed.), The Byronic Byron (1971), pp. 1-2.
Friedrich Hölderlin, Essays and Letters, trans. Jeremy Adler and Charlie Louth (2009), p. 299. Hölderlin continues: ‘the ideal in a poem acts on feeling (by means of passion), the naive on passion (by means of imagination), the energetic on the imagination (by means of feeling)’.
Lord Byron: The Complete Miscellaneous Prose, ed. Andrew Nicholson (Oxford, 1991), p. 185.
Roy Fuller, Introduction to Byron For Today (1948), p. 15.
John Hookham Frere, The Monks and the Giants (Cantos I. and II., 1817; Cantos III. and IV., 1818; repr. 1926). p. 65.
W. H. Auden, ‘Byron: The Making of a Comic Poet’, New York Review of Books (18 Aug. 1966), at (accessed 5 June 2015).
Dedication ‘To G.W.’, in Fuller, Byron For Today.
Butter, Shelley’s Idols of the Cave, p. 96.
Byron, Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand, 12 vols. (1973-82), i. 246.
Wallace Stevens, ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, in Collected Poems (1954; repr. 2006), pp. 110-11.