The Foreshadowings. My next novel.

Dr. Corin Throsby, a Cambridge academic, writes in The Times’ Literary Supplement:

Byron knew, more than any author before him, the power of an ellipsis. Foreshadowing twentieth-century theorists such as Wolfgang Iser, who posited that it is primarily the reader who creates a poem’s meaning by navigating gaps in the text, Byron filled his work with tantalizing omissions to fire the imagination.

I laughed, though silently. You’ve got to love the idea of Byron “foreshadowing” some obscure Continental “theorist”. Byron’s wit, vitriol and verve foreshadowed interminable pages on the phenomenological approach to the reading process.

I must admit I only came across a mention of Iser in the 2010s and have no intention of reading his work. Judging by the summaries, his ideas make perfect sense but should also seem perfectly obvious to a mature reader. Byron’s contemporaries, even those who only read him in French translations, were smart enough to figure things out by themselves without help from theorists.

And even now – let’s say a Russian child reads a poem assigned at class, one of those intolerably familiar ones that border on self-parody – by a 19-year-old youth with seven more years left to live:

I am not Byron – I am another chosen one, yet unrevealed: like him, a wanderer persecuted by the world, like him, but with a Russian soul. I started earlier and earlier I shall finish; my mind will not accomplish much. In my soul, as in an ocean, a load of broken hopes lies sunk. Who can, o gloomy ocean, penetrate your secrets? Who will narrate my thoughts to the crowd? I – or God – or no one.

Does she need a theorist to ask, who was that Byron and why would a Russian cadet – soon a lieutenant in the Caucasus war – speak of him as a hounded prophet? Eventually she might even find out that, had Lermontov been older by two-three years, he might have met the mother of Byron’s least fortunate child in Moscow – the woman who would later write of Byron as a “human tyger slaking his thirst for inflicting pain upon defenceless women,” which could equally be said of Lermontov’s best-known character, Pechorin.


  1. Excellent post. “Foreshadowings” indeed!

    I’d never heard of Iser and, after Googling him, I’m not in a hurry to find out more. He sounds more dull than crazy, which is probably why he hasn’t attracted the attention enjoyed by his lunatic French counterparts.

    • Thank you. After reading this obituary, it looks like he was quite a character in person and left an strong impression on his students – who went on to tout him as a great “theorist.” I’m sure he was a man of great learning but… “The paradigmatic axis of reading is prestructured by the negations in the text?”

      • Good God! Byron would have had a ball mocking modern literary theory. In his letters, he complains about the “strange style” of Leigh Hunt’s poem “Rimini”: “[Hunt’s] answer was that his style was a system, or ‘upon system’, or some such cant. When a man talks of system, his case is hopeless.”

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