Quotation, Citation, and the WWW (World Wilde Web)


Tupac Shakur

Oscar Wilde

“If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad. As to that regular, uninterrupted love of writing. I do not understand it. I feel it as a torture, which I must get rid of, but never as a pleasure. On the contrary, I think composition a great pain.”

click Lord Byron‘s name for the quotation’s source

Since this is a writing course, I thought I’d begin our second unit by discussing one of those “inspirational” sayings, available at the linked site in pre-packaged form ready for consumption all over the web!

I have two purposes in linking you to this quote.

First, just a reminder:  to let you know, in the aftermath of our initial essay process, that writing is supposed to be a struggle!  That is, writing is a struggle sometimes for every writer; and Byron’s word “composition” carries with it the sense that some kinds of writing can feel forced, artificial, unnatural (the word would soon be made into a technical term, the ancestor of today’s “freshman comp.”)  Yet the other side of that artificiality is the sense of being compelled to write–Byron here puts a negative spin on that feeling; the positive version of it gets described with words like “inspiration.”

My second purpose is to begin a conversation about how writing works on the wild, wild web–a space where citations circulate constantly, appearing and reappearing in new contexts.

We are beginning with a Byron passage simply because the phenomenon of literary quotation predates Wilde.  Early in the 19th century, passages of poems would be copied into “commonplace books” by hand, books which functioned as personal anthologies; published anthologies of poetry were themselves extremely selective, often “cutting and pasting” with little care for context. (Throsby gives a hint of that culture in her article.)  And the use of quotations on the 21st century WWW follows in this line of popular reading.

What do you think the purpose of quotehd.com is?  What do we learn by the way they handle that particular quotation; by the way they handle quotation in general?  Are they misusing Byron’s writings; are they getting it right?

†The correct word here would be “quotation.”  I use “quote” because that’s how people write informally in 2017.  I will let you use “quote” in discussion forums; I will suggest revision if you deploy it in formal essays.  I say all this in a footnote because I am incorrigibly nerdy!–& because I am trying to decide if footnotes even work in this format…


Knowing that we are beginning our second unit, you will be able to guess who wrote this poem.  However…

…imagine, please, that you find it, in handwritten form, on a thick, rather expensive-seeming sheet of paper, seemingly abandoned–or left intentionally?– on an empty table (cafe?) at which you are the first person to arrive one morning.

What would you guess about the author?


To drift with every passion till my soul
Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play,
Is it for this that I have given away
Mine ancient wisdom, and austere control?
Methinks my life is a twice-written scroll
Scrawled over on some boyish holiday
With idle songs for pipe and virelay,
Which do but mar the secret of the whole.

Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God:
Is that time dead? lo! with a little rod
I did but touch the honey of romance—
And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?


“Fare Thee Well!” (click for comments)

You will already know the story of the separation between Byron and his wife from several different sources: the biopic, the encyclopedia entry. Byron and Annabella had married on January 2, 1815. We are now going to zoom in on a particular episode. I’ll cite two brief summaries of the events of early 1816:

    1. W. Paul Elledge (1985)

Following the birth of Augusta Ada on 10 December 1815, relations between Byron and his wife continued the rapid deterioration notable from early November when normal anxiety over the approaching confinement was exacerbated by a bailiff’s occupation of the house. Byron appears to have vented a good deal of rage and frustration over financial pressures in occasional verbal abuse of his wife, some of it hinting at his amorous relations elsewhere and at plans for a foreign excursion without her. Bewildered and apprehensive,she cultivated a suspicion that he was mentally deranged (possibly a murderer) and delayed a scheduled visit to her parents’ home in the hope of securing medical verification of it. On 15 January 1816 she left Piccadilly Terrace for Kirkby,but wrote Byron admonishingly and yet with good will that evening, in route. By private messenger on Friday, 2 February, after the letter had been intercepted and returned by a well-meaning Augusta the previous Monday, Byron received notification from his father-in-law that separation arrangements were underway. After weeks of distressed appeals and stubborn resistance on his part, coolly determined letters but often distraught behavior on his wife’s, and feverish consultations among their associates-during which time Byron’s mood ranged from initial astonishment through an agitation and depression that led Augusta to fear his suicide, finally to an exhausted and nearly despairing exasperation rendering him particularly susceptible to the importunities of Claire Clairmont- the preliminary Separation Agreement was signed on 17 March. The next day Byron wrote “”Fare Thee Well”” but held it for forty-eight hours before posting it along with a brief note to his wife. Two days later, Hobhouse found him in good spirits, eager to embark for foreign shores. On Byron’s instructions,””Fare Thee Well”” was first printed for private circulation on 8 April, and then without authorization was reproduced with “”A Sketch”” on 14 April in the Champion newspaper. Amidst the scandalized public outcry, directed almost entirely against “”A Sketch,”” Byron fled to Dover on the 23rd, the day after signing the final separation agreement, and thence to the continent on the 25th.

2. Susan Wolfson (2010)

In a match that seemed absurd to all, Lord Byron and heiress Miss Milbank wed on 2 January 1815. Daughter Ada was born in December, and within a month, a little month, on 15 January 1816, Lady Byron packed her up and left for her parents’ home. Early in February Lady Byron’s father sent Byron a letter notifying him of her wish for a separation. Byron was stung; rumors and gossip bubbled and boiled, the press got involved in mid-April…”Fare thee well!” [began as] some lines of poetry that Byron sent to his “Dearest Bell” in late March or early April (BLJ5: 51-52), just after the draft Separation Agreement, before the finalization five weeks later. “I had a copy of Verses from his Lordship yesterday-very tender and so he talks of me to Every one,” Bell wrote to her mother (Elwin 448). Intimacy notwithstanding, copies were legion. Byron showed his friend Moore the lines (“the tears, as he said, falling fast over the paper as he wrote”), then sent either this paper, blotted, or a fresh copy off to Murray, who quickly shared it (Byron knew he would) with Gifford, Rogers, Canning, Frere, and many others, even Caroline Lamb. Byron then asked Murray to print it up, along with a nasty “Sketch” on Lady Byron’s Maid. Murray relished this last piece, cheering for the general male-clubbing. “It is tremendously exquisite,” he wrote to Byron on 1 April; “the most astringent dose that was ever presented to female Character” (L 159). Byron’s private label debuted a week later, on April 8, for distribution to fifty close friends. The network quickly went wide. Old nemesis Henry Brougham poached a copy, dashing it over to the Champion’s editor John Scott, who featured the two poems in the 14 April Sunday paper, elaborated with attacks on Byron’s character. A feeding frenzy ensued, piracies erupted, and within days everyone from Wordsworth to Stael had weighed in…The whole world interacted. Shops filled with cartoons and caricatures; pamphlets volleyed parodies, gossip, poems cast in the voice of Lady Byron (in a range of tones), spuriously attributed to her or the Lord, and so forth.

Talk about a poem with a detailed biographical context!  And yet, it names no names.

It existed for different audiences in turn:

1) Lady Byron;

2) a small group of Byron’s friends and associates;

3) the newspaper reading public (who knew Byron only by reputation)

4) the readers of Byron’s 1816 Poems, issued at year’s end by his authorized publisher John Murray, who prefaced that volume with the following notice:


As some of the Verses in this Collection were evidently not intended for general circulation, they would not have appeared in this authentic form, had they not been already dispersed through the medium of the public press, to an extent that must take away the regret which, under other circumstances, the reader might perhaps experience in finding them included amongst the acknowledged publications of the Noble Author.

5) Byron became a “classic”; this poem was collected in countless volumes after his death, arranged by editors, included in anthologies of English poetry….

Finally, a few questions to start discussion. What is the “best” way to read this poem? How much about Byron’s life do you need to know; how much do you want to know? What do you need to remember, or forget, to sympathize with this speaker; what do you need to remember or forget to find the speaker a villain?

Childe Harold – general discussion

This is the poem whose publication in the spring of 1812 made Byron an overnight sensation. Our selections include the first parts of Cantos I, and shorter selections from Cantos III and IV.   The BBC biopic  gives only a brief glimpse of Byron’s “professional” life, when he meets other poets at his publisher’s, after the success of Childe Harold. Our next few readings will let us trace that story more closely

CHP  was much illustrated in the 19th century; you’ll recognize the following image, meant to accompany stanza 11 of the first Canto:


The British library has an exhibition on the popularity of Byron illustrations, focusing on this text’s source, the 1833 Byron Gallery:  check it out!

The figure of Child Harold represents the first example of an ongoing confusion between Byron “himself” and the protagonist(s) of Byron’s poetry. This compound figure would eventually be called the “Byronic Hero.” Even if we don’t know the name, we are all familiar with this figure, who still plays a large role in our culture. As an example, the first three Google hits on a search for that term brings up Wikipedia, an academic website, and TVTropes–a perfect example of how widespread this figure has become!

But we’re going back to the root. So let me start with a simple discussion question: what makes the protagonist of Byron’s poem/sequence so appealing?  In your replies, cite evidence from the text!

(If you find him more appalling than appealing, you could argue for that position as well…)

“Byron”: the BBC biopic (click title for comments)

Our assigned viewing for the class, the two-part BBC production Byron (2003) can be found here:

I want to use the Byron biopic to introduce Lord Byron in particular, and the idea of the “Poet-Rockstar” in general.  For the generic name of this course’s protagonist, I chose “Poet-Rockstar” rather than “Rockstar-Poet” for a couple of reasons:

1) The first version has the two terms in historical order
2) In “Rockstar-Poet”, the “Rockstar” sounds like an adjective; whereas “Poet-Rockstar” sounds more like…a weird hyphenated noun. Which is what I want it to be!

So we’re looking with a kind of double vision: there is a certain cultural role, once best played by Poets, that is now best played by Rock Stars. That’s our hypothesis. Not every poet, not every rockstar, will fit the role–because not all of them have the same relationship to fame. And the term “poet-rockstar” allows us to think about that role as a tradition: how it develops over time.

The biopic is a “source” for us in two ways: it gives us a portrait of Byron’s life with no major inaccuracies, and it makes an “argument” about what kind of figure Byron was (each of the three films we watch will do this about their respective protagonist).

A question (finally!): how do you think Byron, as he is represented in the movie, feels about the role of poet? When replying, make specific reference to a scene in the movie (the easiest way to do this is to use running time–approximate times will help us all return to a scene–eg: “at 17:00 Byron says he woke up and “found himself famous”…)

You may make a claim of your own, or respond (bringing something new) to a claim made by someone who’s already posted…