Byron and the Sea-Green Isle
This study of Byron’s last complete long poem, the comparatively neglected The Island, is the first to devote a whole book to the examination, contextualization and motivation of both the poetry and its poet. It is much more than just a monograph, however; aside from biographical considerations, it illumines aspects of study that embrace feminism, racial politics and social considerations in relation to Polynesian island society, all of which are contrasted with the loose anarchy of an eighteenth century group of British mutineers. Two historical contexts – the infamous 1789 mutiny on the Bounty and Byron’s life in the year that led up to the poem’s composition – serve as an extended prelude to a deep analysis of the major symbols and characters in the poem, while its main chapters range beyond The Island, conducting a literary conversation with Shakespeare, Pope, 18th-century writers of memoirs and nautical sea history, classical authors and even Chinese poets, as well as other Romantic poets. Consideration is given to aspects of racial and feminist theory in relation to the poem’s extraordinary central female character; in particular there is a focus on her promotion of the poem’s happy ending, one that is quite unique in Byron’s oeuvre. The Appendix contains the first-ever published transcript of the holograph of the poem, allowing readers to appreciate Byron’s idiosyncratic and expressive punctuation—as well as his first thoughts before editing.
Nicholas Gayle was the Head of Classics at Exmouth Community College before becoming seduced by the poetry of Lord Byron and changing direction in life. He is the author of Byron and the Best of Poets (2016), the only full study of Byron’s engagement with the work and thought of Alexander Pope, described by Pat Rogers as likely to be “the standard treatment of the topic for a long time to come”, as well as four essays published in The Byron Journal in recent years. He is a contributor to the Oxford Handbook of Lord Byron.
“Nicholas Gayle’s book on Byron’s last complete poem The Island is a remarkable achievement. It is the first full length treatment of a poem that, apart from Ruskin’s praise, has been little noted until the 1960s. It is thorough, erudite, and well-informed. It is written with lucidity, grace, and, at times, a persuasive passion. Gayle both has a convincing thesis about the character and direction of the poem which is developed throughout the book and, at the same time, he approaches it from a number of quite distinct angles. The effect of this two-pronged approach is to open up the poem and present it as a working whole. The argument is an important one. We have become used to two or three dominant versions of Byron the poet, but this book forces its readers to rethink their assumptions. This is partly because it adroitly relates the poem both to earlier works which The Island recapitulates and sends in another direction, as well as Byron’s other writings at the time. Particularly important here is the link between the writing of this poem and the last cantos of Don Juan. There is real brilliance in some of the writing here and in the interpretation of major passages in the poem. Gayle adds, in an Appendix, the text of the earliest MS version of the poem, revealing for the first time Byron’s idiosyncratic and fluid punctuation. I have no doubt whatsoever that this book will be well received, well reviewed, and seen as a substantial and original contribution to Byron Studies. It is the only book in its field but it illumines the whole of Byron’s poetry, much of his personality, and his complex attitudes to writing in the last years of his life.”
Senior Fellow, School of English, University of Liverpool; Associate Fellow, School of Divinity, University of St Andrews
"Byron’s extraordinary poem, The Island, has here met a reader who can do justice to the historical, formal and theoretical concerns of the work. With unerring sensitivity and deftness of touch, Gayle traces the intertextual and symbolic richness of Byron’s poetry and offers a fresh consideration of recent contextual discussions. Utterly brilliant on Byron’s ‘pliant use of the dash’, Gayle’s careful manuscript reading leads to a new and authoritative understanding of the voice and measure of this most beguiling of Byron’s verse narratives. Anyone interested in Byron and the exciting new currents in the manuscript-based study of his poetry should acquire of copy of Gayle’s book."
Professor Jane Stabler, Editor of the Longman Annotated English Poets Edition of Lord Byron's poetry University of St Andrews, UK
"The Island is the most neglected of Byron’s longer poems, even though it was written in his full literary maturity along with sections of Don Juan, and though it alludes at length to the famous story of Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian. Surprisingly, the new study by Nicholas Gayle is the first full-length analysis of the work. It is marked by a judicious but not over-stretched use of the historical and biographic context, as well as by alert readings of the text. The mythical subtexts proposed are more convincing than most that have been heaped on Byron. The argument is cleanly organised and the scholarship utterly reliable. Best of all, the book contains the first transcript of Byron’s holograph, used throughout as a guide to Byron’s (usually well justified) revisions of his original draft."
Professor Pat Rogers Department of English, University of South Florida
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