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A literary lover

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Byron_Beppo.jpgIn Beppo, Lord Byron's verse play, the poet raises an intractable question: were 99 stanzas necessary?

A comic, bawdy Venetian adventure, Beppo ostensibly tells the tale of a woman, Laura, whose husband, Beppo, goes to sea and disappears without a word.  "And really if a man won't let us know/That he's alive, he's dead, or should be so," explains Byron.  So Laura takes a cavalier servente, an openly-accepted second husband.  Six years go by, and Laura and her cavalier servente are enjoying their life together, when - at a masked ball during Carnival - Laura catches the attention of a Turk . . . who turns out to be her husband.

Despite the drama of this situation, the plot is secondary to scene-setting and musings of tangential relevance.  In Beppo, Byron's digressions, quite self-consciously, rule the poem:  

. . . [F]or I find
Digression is a sin, that by degrees
Becomes exceeding tedious to my mind,
Byron complains in stanza 50.  Just thirteen stanzas later, he's moaning again:

To turn, -and to return; the devil take it!
This story slips for ever through my fingers.  
But however much Byron protests his poetic ADD, he devotes extensive energy to it.  As Jeffrey, writing in Edinburgh Review in 1818 observed, "This story, such as it is, occupies about twenty stanzas."  (My own count is not so condemnatory.  I allow the first 20 verses as appropriate background scene-setting, and I only count 27 or so verses of proper digression.  Nonetheless, even by my generous assessment, 47 verses of 99 do not advance the plot.)  

Explanations of Byron's digressions abound.  Jeffrey calls them "unquestionably by far the most lively and interesting parts of the work."  Harsh condemnation of the story then.

Jeffrey is not the only critic to slight Beppo's story.  Writing in The Guardian, Benjamin Markovits calls the story "scant" and explains the digressions in Beppo as follows:

The real hero of the piece is the poet himself . . . . [engaging in] a series of digressions on worldliness: on how to take pleasure from the world, on how to live.
While I agree with both these comments, I think in some sense they miss the larger picture of how the digressions deepen the reader's experience of the story and how the poem's constituent parts relate to the whole.  

If, as Jeffrey and Markovits suggests, the digressions don't relate to the story, but instead supplant the story, then my inquiry is irrelevant.  The constituent parts don't relate beyond allowing the story to serve as a frame for Byron's digressions.

But to explain the story in Beppo as a thin branch on which to hang the poet's "lively and interesting" observations "on how to live" seems (to my mind) to disserve Byron's skills as a storyteller.  Such an interpretation also fails to give meaning to the stanzas in which Byron calls attention to his own digressions.

My reading is that the digressions are integral to the story.  By calling attention to his digressions, Byron is signaling to the reader that they are not the sloppy tangents of a debauched mind, but deliberate and purposeful additions to the story.  Byron is telling the tale of a woman whose relationship with her cavalier servente is a digression in her marriage.  The digression is entertaining, worldly and broad-minded - just like Byron's digressions in the poem.  In Beppo, Byron is offering himself as cavalier servente to the reader; he is inviting his adoring fans to allow him to be a digression in their day, life, relationship.  (The poet isn't the hero of the poem; the reader is.) 

And, in the reader's acceptance of Byron's service, the reader is implicated in Laura's "sin."  Writing of immoral relations for a conservative British audience, Byron stealthily builds the reader's sympathy for Laura - as well as support for the poem's happy ending that allows Laura to escape without punishment - by inviting the reader to partake via literary effigy in Laura's naughtiness.  

Given such playfulness, 99 stanzas are not only necessary, but possibly insufficient.

(Cover of Beppo from Byronetc.com.)

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