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This article is taken from PN Review 166, Volume 32 Number 2, November - December 2005.

Byron, Auden, and the Poetry of Disenchantment Roger Caldwell

Byron famously reneged on Romanticism. Believing himself - as we now think mistakenly - to be living in 'the declining age of English poetry', he thought that he and his fellow-Romantics were 'upon a wrong revolutionary poetical system' and advocated instead a return to an earlier one: 'Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope, / Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey.' In fact, though Byron from the beginning of his career advocated an Augustan aesthetic, he can hardly be said to have practised it. Don Juan, whatever else it is, is not a return to the eighteenth century.

The case of the Romantic Byron renouncing Romanticism can be paralleled by the case of the Modernist Auden - himself, of course, the author of a 'Letter to Lord Byron' - renouncing Modernism, and for remarkably similar reasons. The attempt by some critics to turn Byron into a sort of postmodernist comes up against the fact that Byron, however devious a writer he may be, had something of a puritan conscience when it came to telling the truth, however 'slant' it may need be told: 'If the essence of poetry is to be a lie, throw it to the dogs, or banish it from your republic, as Plato would have done.'

In a similar spirit the late Auden, who had struggled in his earlier writings with the influence of Yeats, came to see him as a symbol of 'everything which I must ...


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