English Bards And Scotch Reviewers "Fools Are My Theme, Let Satire Be My Song"

Lord George Gordon Byron

"Fools Are My Theme, Let Satire Be My Song"

Context: In January, 1808, the Edinburgh Review, one of the most influential of literary journals, published a very unfavorable review of Byron's Hours of Idleness. The poet believed it the work of the Review's founder, Francis Jeffrey (1773-1850), who had blasted Wordsworth's Excursion in a devastating criticism beginning, "This will never do!" Later Henry Peter, Baron Brougham (1778–1868), who afterward became Lord Chancellor, was revealed to have written the article. Previously Byron had written a short satire titled "British Bards," in which he expressed his low opinion of a number of current writers: "simple" Wordsworth because of his commonplace themes and sometimes prosy language; "Obscure" Coleridge; and "verbose" Southey. It was set up in type but never offered for sale, because of the poet's hesitation. However, the harsh words of the Edinburgh Review decided Byron to revise it, broaden the concept to include the Scotch critic he blamed for the article, and publish it anonymously, in 1,070 lines. Eight months later he reprinted it under his own name. Then in 1810 and 1811 he published other versions, with an additional ninety lines. Finally a fifth attempt had been set in type when Byron began to have doubts about his indiscriminate satire, and he tried to suppress it. But a few copies got out, and the definitive version, included in his complete work, uses this last form. Byron's complaint is that it is silly to expect sensible literary reviews from critics. He calls Jeffrey a "self-constituted judge of poesy." He devotes more than a hundred mocking lines to him, and also makes comment on many other contemporaries now practically forgotten. Though in later years Byron expressed regret at having shot barbed arrows so indiscriminately, many of his judgments are still acceptable today. At the conclusion of the poem, he says he can endure the opinions of the critics, but comes nearer the truth in his boast that he can "break him on the wheel he meant for me." The poem begins with a defense of his "grey goose quill" that he is picking up again to express an uncommon theme. William Thomas Fitzgerald was for thirty years the poetaster who read an original and boring ode at the annual banquet of the Literary Fund. The first six lines of the poem declared:

Still must I hear?–shall hoarse Fitzgerald bawl
His creaking couplets in a tavern hall,
And I not sing, lest, haply, Scotch reviews
Should dub me scribbler and denounce my muse?
Prepare for rhyme–I'll publish, right or wrong:
Fools are my theme, let satire be my song.