Childe Harold Canto Three: Rewriting Reading
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In 1816, everything seemed to slide into crisis. With the breakdown of his marriage, his ostracism from polite society and his departure from England, never to return, Byron seemed to have become what he called ‘The careful pilot of my proper woe’.1 But it wasn’t a crisis in quite the way we tend to think. For a start, Byron’s celebrity was not truly imperilled by the scandalous rumours that flared around him. Scandal is not a crisis for celebrity, but another part of the apparatus; transgressions can be almost instantly reclaimed and made to function in its service. It was a crisis because Byron no longer felt able to use some of the rhetorical strategies on which he had come to rely. In the aftermath of his departure from England, Byron returned to the poem that had made him famous in the first place, but not in an effort to placate his erstwhile admirers. He was trying to rethink his position in the apparatus of individual, industry and audience that structured Romantic celebrity culture. In Childe Harold Canto Three, I argue, this effort took two forms: firstly, he re-imagined his relationship with the audience by experimenting with possible shifts in his hermeneutic paradigm; secondly, he renegotiated his relationship with the industry by changing his compositional and commercial practices. Neither of these efforts was entirely successful: Byron’s reviewers declined to endorse the new paradigms of reading he imagined, and his publisher found ways to circumvent his wishes.
KeywordsRomantic Period Polite Society Rhetorical Strategy Ideal Reader Gift Economy
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