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Teaching Romanticism XXIII: Lord Byron


As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. I thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts I invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those scholars who answered my call through NASSR-L, The BARS Review, and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced below with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact me with proposals for future subjects. We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months.

Jonathan Gross (DePaul University): Strategies for Teaching Don Juan, adapted to the stage, in conjunction with Humanities Festivals and Humanties Centers

When I teach Byron at DePaul University in Chicago I often find it necessary to give some background regarding cultural differences and similarities that separate England and the United States. Since many of Byron’s political allusions are not always obvious to American undergraduates, though many are, especially in the opening lines of the poem, I ask students to write 500-word biographies of one of the people mentioned in the opening five stanzas (Laura Dabundo’s Encyclopedia of Romanticism provides a model). The biographies I assign students to write include not just people such as Condorcet, Brissot, Castlereagh, and Metternich, but information about newspapers and magazines, such as the Moniteur and Courier, the Edinburgh and the Quarterly, Wellington, Pitt, and even Napoleon: what battles did Napoleon fight? Where was Napoleon in 1818, when Byron began his poem? I ask students to distinguish between the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune, based on the city where I teach. Many never really think about the political bias of newspapers, but Edward Said’s Covering Islam (1981), helps them see how and why the Sun Times might be thought of as more liberal than John McCormick’s Chicago Tribune (for the British context, Carl Woodring’s chapter on “Byron” in Politics in English Romantic Poetry is still essential criticism, along with Malcolm Kelsall’s Byron’s Politics). Why is it important that the Chicago Tribune owns WGNN, and how has the acquisition of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com influenced political thought in the United States? Was it important that John Murray owned the Quarterly Review and arranged for Walter Scott to review Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto III positively? (Maura O’Conner and Regina Akel have written two excellent books on John Murray, and Andrew Nicholson’s collection of Murray’s correspondence with Byron supplements the valuable work of Samuel Smiles two-volume history of Murray; I assign chapters from O’Connor, Akel, and Nicholson to give them the feel of a publisher’s day-to-day business). We discuss Rupert Murdoch and his predecessor, William Randolph Hearst, building on a previous lesson plan that included a brief viewing of Citizen KaneIn that class I prepared students for Byron’s opening stanzas of Don Juan by focusing on why Orson Welles chose to cite Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” as a cautionary tale about the power of the press and media to shape public perception of world events.

Returning to Byron’s Don Juan, I ask students to bring two articles from each local Chicago newspaper. We compare them, discussing the famous passage from Canto 5 in which Byron wonders if a bulletin in the newspapers justifies receiving a mortal bullet in the body. What is fame? — and can we rely on our best friend, Thomas Moore for example, to write our biography and get it right? Can we trust newspapers, or operas in three and plays in five acts, to depict reality? Then why do we trust Byron’s words about Castlereagh’s foreign policy or his dramatic asides in the poem? (Certainly Henry Kissinger did not, when he wrote his Ph.D dissertation at Harvard praising Metternich and Castlereagh, and using the latter’s “congress diplomacy” as model for his overture to China, as a hedge against Russia, during the Nixon Administration). What would Byron say today about “fake news”? What is the role of the public intellectual in society and how has this pompous phrase been misused, subject to cant? Bias in newspapers can be shown not only in the fact that the Chicago Tribune endorsed Bob Dole but also in their routine handling of topics that appear in Don Juan as well: adultery, violence, and warfare (the Napoleonic Wars or the War in Iraq). I find Tangean Lean’s The Napoleonists to be helpful in showing why and how a “leftist” leaning group of intellectuals became entranced by a figure — Napoleon — who was at war (thanks to George III and William Pitt) with their own country.

I treat Don Juan as though written in a foreign language, coming from a foreign culture, while also trying to make connections to American politics. Some of these connections are necessarily crude, but they start the ball rolling. Ted Kennedy’s private life (an old chestnut of mine) might be compared with Charles James Fox’s; the idea of virtuous Tories comes to life when compared with Republicans such as Ronald Reagan and George Bush, who depict themselves as church-going Christians. In Byron’s day, William Pitt rose to power in part because of his self-discipline, what one recent book has characterized as the “virility” of self-control. The Republican postures of purity and “family values” reflect a similar effort to suggest that liberalism in politics extends to libertinism in one’s private life. Byron explored such themes in his extended discussion of “cant” (reviewed positively by William Hazlitt in The Spirit of the Age); in Marino Faliero “Steno” exemplifies the kind of court dandy and wise-ass that Byron has in mind in creating the unreliable narrator of Don Juan, who makes scandalous assertions about public figures, while hitting on (i.e. flirting with) the protagonist of the poem (this can lead to a discussion of Romantic irony, especially as it plays out in the unpublished preface to the poem, included in the Penguin edition). Dan Quayle’s attack on the television show Murphy Brown comes to mind as an instance of the cant of public life Byron explores in his attack on Castlereagh (prose preface to Canto 6). As the students consider how popular culture has affected elections, I ask them to consider writing their own two cantos of Don Juan for a final paper, drawing on the Bush presidency (this was an assignment I gave between 2000-2008). Such a creative assignment, imposed upon English majors used to writing critical essays, leads them to stumble on ottava rima and appreciate Byron’s facility with words, the improvisational nature of his poem. Many of them submit clever poems, and begin to see that wit is a political weapon. If the conversation does not get off the ground, I’ll make comparisons with the political comedy of Saturday Night Live, and other skewering comedians like Lenny Bruce, Chris Rock, and Eddie Murphy.

In London in the mid-1990s I was lucky enough to catch two one-act plays on Byron and Austen. Inspired by the production I saw of “Love and Friendship” and “Don Juan”, Canto 1 — done on a shoe-string budget — I encouraged students at a local high school to stage a reading of Don Juan, Canto 5. They adapted the poem to the stage. Collaborating with Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago, known for Mary Zimmerman’s production of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Eleven Rooms of Proust, I worked with Kerry Caitlin, a teacher at Von Steuben High School who is also a trained and talented actress. With the help of Thom Cox, they chose parts and made dramaturgical decisions about how to depict certain scenes. They used a large blue cloth to make a campy reference to “Symplegades” reference in Canto 5. Several students who had been in gangs (I hope I don’t exaggerate) took major parts and the production ended with one of them lecturing his fellow students on the meaning of multiculturalism in this complex Canto after a performance at his high school. Students from Art, Spanish, and History also attended, but the class that put on the show was a “Speech and Drama” class. All it takes is an inspiring and energetic teacher, now chair of the department at Walter Payton, one of the three top public high schools in Chicago.

What did students learn from the exercise? Canto 5 compares the seduction of Don Juan by Gulbeyaz to Potiphar’s wife in Genesis and the Koran; the Koran and Genesis are held up side by side — with surprising results — in their treatment of women and sexuality. “Love is for the free!”, Juan asserts when he rejects Gulbeyaz’s advances. In two or three discussions of the play, leading up to the student performance, we consider slavery as a metaphor but also the dramatic irony of Don Juan’s assertion. Students who traditionally write fine essays but lack dramatic reading ability take second place, for a change, to more charismatic, dramatically inclined students who know how to bring a poem to life through inspired (that is, not bumbling and insecure) recitation. So this exercise reaches students who might otherwise be bored by traditional literary criticism, that act of grinding poetry into the fine powder of interpretive prose. By giving students the space to adapt the poem, and set “When We Two Parted” to a rap beat, I was able to show them that Byron’s rhymes are not unlike the rap music one hears in Chicago, much of which is as controversial in content as Byron’s own. More modestly, students at Lincoln Park High School performed their adaptation of Don Juan, Canto 5 in DePaul’s stately Cortelyou Hall, showing how Byron can be both a symbol of cultural power but also a figure subversive (like high school students themselves) of reigning orthodoxies.

Piya Pal-Lapinski (Bowling Green State University)

Byron is a challenging writer and sometimes a hard sell to students at a mid-size university in Ohio, where I teach 19th century British literature and postmodern theory. Most of our students also tend to favor American Culture/Popular Culture Studies because of the university’s strengths in these areas. It’s very easy to get students involved in the sensational details of the life of Byron itself; my students in the British survey course were enthralled by Johnny Lee Miller’s portrayal in the 2003 BBC version. However, whether I’m teaching Byron as part of a survey course, or an upper-level senior seminar in Romanticism, I’ve found that the actual text of the poems tends to remain opaque for students — unless framed very directly in contemporary terms and through concerns which are relevant to their experience of current trends in the news and popular culture. Moving from the life to the text is almost a shock for them; they’re taken aback and frustrated by the difficulty and subtlety of Byron’s language. The life is easy for them to consume; the text(s) of the poems are not.

I‘ve therefore used two different approaches using contemporary frames of reference to 1) ease students into “The Giaour” (in the 200-level British Literature Survey, a large lecture format where they expect a healthy dose of British Literature) and 2) introduce them to the idea of the Byronic style of “being” as a way of encountering the world — in a senior upper-level seminar on Romanticism. (Our students sometimes come to these seminars without much background knowledge on the Romantic period; typically they have however taken a required course on literary theory).

In the survey, for our unit on “The Giaour”, I begin by lecturing on the figure of the vampire in early 19th century Romantic literature. We discuss “Christabel” and Polidori’s “The Vampyre”, and I also use these lectures to point to a text like Dracula which we might be reading later in the semester. I link the vampire with racial difference, cultural conflict, and Orientalism, after having given them Said’s definition of the term. Moreover, I ask students to think about ways in which the relationship between Islam and the West is represented not only in current mainstream and social media, but how they map this conflict in their own lives and among their peers. Bowling Green is only 25 minutes away from Toledo, which has a large Muslim population.

One of my main visual props for this entry point into “The Giaour” is Delacroix’s “The Combat Of the Giaour and Hassan” (1826). I point out to the students that the figures of the Giaour and Hassan are almost indistinguishable from each other, and ask them to think about why Delacroix doesn’t show us the Giaour’s face. I suggest that they reflect on how the painting could change our reading of the poem, and also how it might serve to highlight the ambiguity surrounding the Giaour’s national identity. Rather than pushing a strictly postcolonial reading, I encourage them to use the text to critique any notion of a monolithic version of orientalism on Byron’s part, and to understand The Giaour’s struggle with questions of race and nationalism as an indication of Byron’s own cosmopolitanism. I then follow this up with a close reading of the extended passage on the vampire in the poem and ask them to consider why Byron writes the Giaour as an isolated vampiric figure cut off from family and community, and how this might affect our interpretation not only of the triangulation between the Giaour, Hassan and Leila, but also reveal a deeply nuanced approach to Islamic culture. Prior to this, I warn them that “The Giaour” will be a challenging read, and provide them with a key, so that they can spend more time on thematic issues and less on unraveling the plot. I feel that this approach, rather than a formalist focus on the structure/narrative voices of “The Giaour” is a more effective way of getting undergraduates to see why this work remains so fresh today.

In my upper-level senior seminar on Byron I used AMC’s television show Mad Men (set against the growing advertising industry in the 1960s), which has enjoyed unprecedented popularity and media attention in recent years, to structure a course on the concept of the Byronic hero. Among the texts assigned in the class were Manfred, “The Vampyre” and Edna O’ Brien’s gossipy biography Byron in Love. I opened the class with the first episode of Mad Men, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, and we discussed the way the protagonist Don Draper exemplified the elements of what we might begin to describe as a “Byronic style”. I asked the students to analyze the nature of this character’s appeal to a modern audience, especially in a post-feminist cultural moment. As a contemporary version of the 18th/19th century aristocratic libertine, Don Draper’s willingness to be seduced by advertising and by women is interrupted by moments of nihilism and Romantic melancholy. We talked about Draper’s libertine glamor, and read an article from Vulture, which connected Draper with Byron, Dracula and the Romantic movement. We also read Katie Roiphe’s piece in The New York Times on the cultural subversiveness of Mad Men, in which Roiphe claims that the show represents “the allure of messy lives” and rejects the notion of “productive” “regulated” and “healthy” contemporary lifestyles, looking back to a freer and more glamorous, rebellious past. The students then went on to read O’ Brien’s Byron in Love, an accessible and quick read, which emphasizes aspects of Byron’s life and career in a novelistic fashion. By the time we got to Manfred, they were able to think about Manfred’s despair, defiance and incest in the context of an emerging Byronic rhetoric or style, both visual and verbal. With regards to The Vampyre we discussed Ruthven’s mesmerizing influence on Aubrey and Byron’s relationship with Polidori via Draper’s relationship with Roger and Pete on Mad Men as well as homoerotic subtexts in both the novella and the show.

Mad Men has also proven to be a useful tool in confronting Byron’s identity as an aristocratic poet. Often, Byron is taught as a Romantic rebel. However, to a class of midwestern American students, many of whom are from a working-class background, a social and psychological barrier exists with respect to the concept of an aristocracy. Many students seem to confuse aristocrats with “the elite” or with “rich people” and have a tendency to be dismissive of writers from such a background. By juxtaposing Don Draper with Byron, the “Byronic” is divested of its connection with a privileged, foreign aristocratic culture and becomes a free-floating signifier that can be adapted to different contexts, including their own. And in reverse, the way in which a Byronic hero is caught up in, or rebels against, the pressures of capitalism (in the show), unsettles students’ notions of a progressive vision of history. It allows them to view the Romantic world within which Byron was writing, and the poet himself, as a liberal aristocrat poised on the edge of an emerging industrial/capitalist economy and developing celebrity culture — with more sophistication and empathy.

Naji Oueijan (Notre Dame University, Lebanon)

Most students of English Studies at Notre Dame University, Lebanon, have a very good command of English, which is the language of instruction in all majors except a few related to foreign languages and Arabic Literature. Also, most students have already studied a few of Lord Byron’s short verse works, such as “She Walks in Beauty”, “When we Two Parted” and the famous “Maids of Athens”. Some students are occasionally introduced to longer works such as “The Prisoner of Chillon” as part of their secondary schools’ education. Interestingly, the Lebanese-Armenian among them have an iconic notion of Byron because of his involvement in studying the Armenian language and culture at St. Lazaras Island in Venice. My students then come with an interest in learning more about a poet who supported the Greeks against the Ottomans, who conquered their country for four centuries.

Delacroix’s Gulnare Freeing Conrad

I teach Lord Byron at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Our BA English program offers two courses in which Byron is taught among other British writers: “Literature to the End of the Nineteenth Century” and “Nineteenth Century Literature”. The first course is a survey, so I introduce Lord Byron as one of the second-generation poets of the Romantic period. Romanticism is studied as a literary movement countering the empirical notions of the preceding age, and each romantic poet is given a maximum of three hours of study. The second course expands our study of each Romantic to three weeks. In the first course, I dedicate one hour for the study of selected poems of Byron’s Hours of Idleness, another for the Occasional Pieces, and a third for the Hebrew Melodies. In the second course, I first emphasize Byron’s tours of the East followed by Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and any two of the Oriental Tales. My students adulate the tales as they reflect on characters and traditions related to their heritage. The names of the characters may meet with the names of some male and female students, especially names like: Leila, Selim, Hassan, and Gulnare — which are still popular in today. My students seem to appreciate Byron’s Oriental narrative style, which they can immediately identify with the Eastern frame-tale of the Arabian Nights. In classroom debates, I encourage students to discuss the authenticity of Byron’s presentations of the East, Eastern peoples, elements, and cultures. Also, in a unit that caters for the philosophical dimension of Byronism, students discuss the Byronic hero and his representations in our age. I show students documentaries and scenes from movies on Byron before class discussions related to his works; especially interesting to my students are the paintings and illustrations by Eugene Delacroix, among others, representing scenes from Byron’s works; this entails discussions of the thematic and artistic differences and similarities between the representations and the real works.

On the graduate level and to the same cohort of students, I teach Byron in one of two seminars: “Special Topics in Literature” or “Romantic Narrative Poetry”. In the first seminar, I teach only Byron. I introduce the students to his life with emphasis on his Eastern tours and selections from his letters and journals. Then we embark on an in depth study of Byron’s major narratives, travelogues, and dramas. Of course the Oriental Tales, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Don Juan, Manfred, and “Cain” form the core material of discussions. Manfred attracts my students’ attention and prompts several discussions of Byron’s work and Goethe’s Faust in relation to the Byronic hero and the theme of blind ambition. Yet, recently, I realized how students are interested in eco-literature, so we discuss “Darkness” in relation to the natural and industrial causes of climate change in the nineteenth century and in our modern world. In the second course, I lay emphasis on “The Giaour”, “The Bride of Abydos”, and “The Corsair” besides selected cantos form Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan, especially the ones related to the Mediterranean countries. Canto III of Childe Harold and the Haidée cantos of Don Juan seem to attract my students — the themes of devotion and revolt against patriarchy stimulate several presentations by my students, especially the females among them. In teaching Byron, I always encourage my students to dwell on the dichotomy of writing out of experience and out of imagination.

With students at Byron’s House in Messolonghi

In the graduate courses on Byron I endeavor to build an on-the-spot personal link between my students and Lord Byron. After I introduce the International Student Byron Conferences in Messolonghi, Greece, I ask my students to write research papers on the conferences’ themes. Students with the best three papers are offered the opportunity to read their papers in the student conference in Messolonghi.

My university has always been generous in sponsoring part, and sometimes all of, the conferences’ travel and registration expenses. To those students, the conference experience is a highlight in Byron studies. Visiting the Garden of the Heroes, the memorial of Byron’s Messolonghi house where he breathed his last breath, the chapel where he used to meet with the Greek revolutionaries, and other related sites in Greece, besides engaging in talks with students and professors from around the world, has proven to be an edifying and enlightening experience, which frequently bring young scholars closer than ever to Byron studies.

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