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"Byron and the Best of Poets"

"One of the charming features of this charming book is the way in which Nicholas Gayle takes ‘the passionate sincerity of Byron’s defence of Pope’ at face value…Although Gayle provides a good flavour of the Pope/Bowles Controversy in his opening chapter, he finds it by turns ‘curious’, ‘frustrating’ and ‘sterile’. Instead, his equally ambitious project—the first full-length study of Byron’s ‘lifelong interaction with Pope’—focuses almost exclusively on ‘verse intertexts’ while drawing upon ‘elements of biography and psychology’. Two of the book’s generously acknowledged presiders are Peter Cochran…and Bernard Beatty…But Gayle has his own distinctive voice and his own original insights. After a second chapter addressing the use of antithesis, enjambment and caesura in couplet and octave, he embarks upon two hundred pages of lively close reading…Gayle’s incursions into what he calls the ‘quagmire of psychology’ are usually delicate and thought-provoking.

"Gayle’s determination to ‘follow the thinking wherever it leads’ is admirable but three of the strengths of his approach carry with them potential dangers…One of the book’s most brilliant observations is that Byron’s ‘eighteenth-century’ preoccupation with genre taxonomy appears to subside at a critical juncture: ‘he wrote a “Romaunt”, a “Mystery`’, a “Venetian Tale”, a “Fragment of a Turkish Tale”, a play as “Dramatic Poem” etc.—and yet strangely put no title to the first manuscript page of “Don Juan”.’ Here Gayle makes us better acquainted with what we should have known familiarly…Gayle’s finest comparison of Pope and Byron concentrates on ‘a particular quality of conversational tone’ in the portrayals of Pitholeon and Raucocanti. He demonstrates how the caricature of Pope as a poet of uniform pace and pause was such a wilful (if in many ways understandable) Romantic misreading. He also helps us begin to see how keeping ‘tune and time’, the anxious burden of the post-Augustan heroic couplet, becomes a relished part of the performance in anglicised ottava rima. Applause, in spite of faults, is due this book for the passionate sincerity with which Nicholas Gayle champions Byron and Pope and for his insistence that ‘the poetry is the thing."

DAVID WOODHOUSE, The Byron Society, 2018

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