Steel engraving (1873) by Alonso Chappel.
Houghton Portrait File.

On June 20th, 1815, the day news reached London of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the American scholar George Ticknor called on Byron at his Piccadilly residence. After presenting a letter of introduction from William Gifford, the editor of the Quarterly Review, Ticknor engaged the poet in a conversation that centered mostly on America. But he was fortunate afterwards to hear Byron reflect on his own works, particularly English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers (EBSR). “He said he wrote it when he was very young and very angry,” Ticknor noted in his journal, “which, he added, were ‘the only circumstances under which a man would write such a satire.’” Byron had come to regret much of what he said in the poem and tried without success to suppress it in England. At the same time, however, he was gratified by Ticknor’s report that the satire “circulated in America almost as extensively as his other poems.” It seems that Byron, in spite of his expressed misgivings about EBSR, may have felt some pride in having fulfilled the poetical commandments he would memorably articulate in the first canto of Don Juan (1819):

Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey.

This exhibition examines the publication history, literary background, and early transmission of this transitional text, in which Byron employs the rhetorical modes of Augustan satire to ridicule his Romantic contemporaries. The introductory section features important works by his satiric forebears, from “great Dryden” to Lady Anne Hamilton. Case II traces the origins of EBSR, from John Cam Hobhouse’s annotated copy of Hours of Idleness (1807) to the earliest extant manuscript of EBSR. Sections III-VII present a selection of books, printed ephemera, manuscripts, and prints pertaining to the procession of contemporary authors, critics, and cultural figures mentioned in EBSR: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Moore, Sheridan, and Scott, among others long forgotten but for Byron’s mention of them. Captions from EBSR introduce these entries to provide a literary context for Byron’s generally low regard for “the scribbling crew.” The final section of the exhibition documents the satire’s afterlife with a selection of rare, spurious, and extra-illustrated editions as well as early readers’ manuscript copies. While many of his critical judgments have not withstood the test of time, Byron’s wit and humor remain as vigorous today as when English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers was first published over two hundred years ago.

I wish to thank William P. Stoneman, Florence Fearrington Librarian, and Thomas A. Horrocks, Associate Librarian for Collections, at Houghton Library, for supporting the exhibition “Let Satire Be My Song”: Byron’s English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers, and the XXXVI International Byron Conference “Byron and the Book,” held at venues in Boston and Cambridge, July 26th - 31st, 2010.  David McClay, Senior Curator of the John Murray Archive, Peter Marsden, Registrar, David Kerr, Conservator – all at the National Library of Scotland – and William Zachs deserve special mention for generously arranging the loan of EBSR “MS. M” to the exhibition.  An early draft of the exhibition checklist benefited from a close reading by my colleague, Dennis C. Marnon. Fredric Woodbridge Wilson, late Curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection, directed my examination of materials relating to the dramatic and operatic stage of Byron’s London. I would also like to acknowledge my fellow directors of the Byron Society of America, for their encouragement and ongoing contributions to Byron scholarship.  I am especially indebted to Charles E. Robinson of the University of Delaware, who carefully reviewed the printed exhibition catalogue in proof and who contributed the Foreword. 

The web presentation of this exhibition was developed by Enrique Diaz and Laura Totten in the Communications Office at Widener Library.  I am grateful to my colleague Kerry Cronin for her assistance in preparing the digital images that follow.

Peter X. Accardo, Exhibition Curator
Houghton Library