Lara: a Tale

Title page from the First Edition

Lara, A Tale was first published anonymously by Lord Byron in 1814 alongside another poem that was not written by Byron. In this version, there is nothing to distinguish between Lara and Jacqueline (written by Samuel Rogers), as they were published anonymously and without any indication that there are two separate authors within the text. This tragic narrative poem is seen as a continuation of another poem of Byron’s, The Corsair. It details Count Lara’s return home after spending a few years travelling abroad. With a page as his only company, Lara’s story continues as he encounters problems with his fellow men. First, this leads to a duel that Count Lara ends up winning and as the story progresses, he must also fight both friends and foes. Count Lara is successful in his battle against all odds, until one night he encounters a large group and attempts to fight them. Unfortunately, he is mortally wounded in the process and dies at the end of the poem.

Jerome McGann, editor of Byron: The Complete Poetical Works Volume III, offers commentary at the back of the collection detailing the bibliographical history of Lara. It begins in 1814 with the first drafts of the poem. The copy text that Byron wrote for the first edition was made somewhere between June 14 and June 23, 1814. There were subsequent corrections made but none of the materials have been found. Sometime after August 5, 1814, Lara was published with Jacqueline for the first time. The first three editions were published together and anonymously, selling almost 7000 copies. When the fourth edition was released, it was published by itself and under Byron’s name. (McGann 452)

The front and back cover

The physical details of the first edition published in 1814 are interesting to look at. Analyzing the cover, this edition has no ornate details; it is very simple but well executed. Perhaps it is more simple in nature because it is an anonymous publication. The details on the front and back cover are eye-catching without being overwhelming, and the corners are reinforced with the same material as the spine in order to protect from wear and tear. Although we cannot tell if this is the original binding, a note at the back of the book says that the spine and corners have been redone. Since these areas are weaker and get used more, they require a bit more care. All in all, simplicity and practicality are the two main points of focus.

Format: It appears to be an octavo because it has eight leaves. This appears to be the standard format of publication, as many of the texts we have looked at this semester are in the octavo form.

Title page: Looking at the first image above, the title page lays out the necessary information in simple details. It lists the two poems, distinguished by separating them with a line. The font choice appears to be the same throughout the page, reinforcing the simple nature of the first copy. The titles are in bold with no signed authors as it was anonymously published. The publisher is John Murray and the printer is T. Davison.

Half title page: Set as the featured image, the half title page has the name of the poem as well as the canto. Again, it is simple with only the required details on the page. There’s another similar page later on as Canto II begins. (not pictured) The font choice on the half title page appears to be the same as the full title page, using bold and italics letterings to differentiate between the information.

Advertisement: While advertisements for other works were often found inside, this one is an advertisement for Lara. The purpose it serves here is not to sell the poem, but to inform the reader of the details to come; kind of like a summary. It also hints that it is a “sequel to a poem that recently appeared,” suggesting that the work might belong to Byron. Even though it was published anonymously, it indicates that due to “the cast of the hero’s character, the turn of his adventure, and the general outline..” the poem can be attributed to Lord Byron. Some of the typical Byronic features in the poem include: the Byronic hero, elements of travel, and its autobiographical nature. Ultimately, the author leaves it up to the reader to decide.

Note: It is later on in the fourth edition that Lord Byron publishes Lara under his name, proving that the poem originally was his to begin with. Before this, it is likely that the audience would know due to the Byronic features and the fame surrounding Byron at the time.

The advertisement for Lara inside of the text

White space: One of the features I found interesting from the first edition is the use of white space throughout the text. Throughout the pages, there is equal spacing in the margins which makes it easier to read. There are a few blank pages at the beginning of the book, as well as one page which reads “Poems.” in thick, Gothic black text. It lets the audience know that there are multiple poems in the publication. This page seems a bit unnecessary, given the cost of paper and waste as there is only a singular word printed on the page. All of this suggests that money and the cost of publishing was not a concern, despite it being published anonymously. Murray must have expected that there would be a high demand for the publication, otherwise there would not be the same amount of white space.

One of the pages inside which reads “Poems.”

As with Byron’s other works, Lara contains autobiographical features that mirror Byron’s personal life. Before 1814, he went on the Grand Tour throughout Europe and Asia, inspiring the travels that Count Lara went on. Byron returned to England in 1811, and found success after the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812. At this point, Byron became a celebrity, as the public sought out his publications and details of his private life. Lara was published during the whirlwind of chaos and scandal that ultimately would cause Byron to leave England for good in 1816. Count Lara also returned home to England after travelling abroad. Although he is not a celebrity, he is well known in the community and gets caught up between two sides of a battle.

The notion of the lone man fighting against the world is the driving force to the Byronic hero. Inspired by Byron himself, the typical Byronic hero is a man full of melancholy, who spends his time in solitude. He gives the impression of being independent and above mankind, as he chooses to be alone. He is alienated, passionate and proud, while still haunted by his past sins. Count Lara is a Byronic hero, as shown in Stanzas 5 and 6.

Stanza V.
And they indeed were changed–’tis quickly seen,           65
Whate’er he be, ’twas not what he had been: 
That brow in furrow’d lines had fix’d at last, 
And spake of passions, but of passion past; 
The pride, but not the fire, of early days, 
Coldness of mien, and carelessness of praise;           70
A high demeanour, and a glance that took 
Their thoughts from others by a single look; 
And that sarcastic levity of tongue, 
The stinging of a heart the world hath stung, 
That darts in seeming playfulness around,           75
And makes those feel that will not own the wound: 
All these seem’d his, and something more beneath 
Than glance could well reveal, or accent breathe. 
Ambition, glory, love, the common aim 
That some can conquer, and that all would claim,           80
Within his breast appear’d no more to strive, 
Yet seem’d as lately they had been alive; 
And some deep feeling it were vain to trace 
At moments lighten’d o’er his livid face. 

Stanza VI. 
Not much he loved long question of the past,           85
Nor told of wondrous wilds, and deserts vast, 
In those far lands where he had wander’d lone, 
And–as himself would have it seem–unknown: 
Yet these in vain his eye could scarcely scan, 
Nor glean experience from his fellow-man;          90
But what he had beheld he shunn’d to show, 
As hardly worth a stranger’s care to know; 
If still more prying such inquiry grew, 
His brow fell darker, and his words more few. 

By specifically looking at Lines 69-74, 79-80, and 85-90, the character traits associated with the Byronic hero come through. Count Lara is a man who is proud, but lacks the passion he once had. He searches for “ambition, glory, [and] love” (Line 79) while dealing with “the stinging of a heart the world hath stung.” (Line 74) His values and beliefs match the Byronic hero figure, who faces the challenges of the world alone. In the past, he had the company of mankind; but not anymore. He has returned from his travels but keeps to himself. No longer does Count Lara “glean experience from his fellow-man”, (Line 90) but instead “his words [grew] more few.” (Line 94) He is introspective and has vast knowledge due to his intellect. As seen in the stanzas above, there is a sense of darkness and melancholy surrounding the character, who cannot escape from his own mind.

Here, the purpose of the Byronic hero in this text is to use the figure as a connection back to the author, when there is nothing else to link it back to Byron. During the time, it was a popular character archetype that gives the audience a hint to the name behind the anonymous publication. Byron utilizes his fame and noteriety to his advantage by using the Byronic hero as well as giving clues at the beginning of the text in the Advertisement. These two elements combined help to conclude that the anonymous author behind the text is Lord Byron, before the release of the fourth edition.

What I found most interesting about this poem was the fact that it is an anonymous publication. In the first edition, there is no distinction between Lara and Jacqueline except for an epigraph at the beginning of Jacqueline. Nothing differentiates between the texts, physically or within the poems. Byron made the decision to detach this poem from his celebrity, a choice I would have not expected given his heightened fame. Given what we know of his character, it seems to go against it. Although there are various hints placed throughout the advertisement and poem that lead readers to guess that Byron is the author, he is not the signed author in this copy.

The purpose of the anonymous publication is then inconclusive. Through further research, there is no clear answer as to why Byron opted to publish the first three editions of Lara anonymously. McGann’s commentary in The Complete Poetical Works acknowledges that Byron anonymously published it with Rogers’ poem, but does not give a definite reason. Through speculation, some reasons may include:

  • Byron wishing to prove that he could successfully publish without relying on his name
  • Since John Murray was the publisher, maybe he believed that the two poems would pair well together
  • Perhaps Byron wanted to publish something with Rogers. On page 453 of The Complete Poetical Works, there is a note that states Byron wished that Rogers’ poem Jacqueline “should occur the first pages of the following volume”, (McGann 453) but Rogers refused.

So, what does the anonymous publication of Lara accomplish? It gets people to talk. It invokes the unknown. It creates mystery and generates the audience to look deeper into the text to find clues. It allows for the audience to read the poem without prior external information. The narrative can be enjoyed in a more pure form, without looking into all of the autobiographical features in the poem.

This poem is similar to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Canto III, another poem of Byron’s that we looked at this semester. Both of these poems by Lord Byron use nature as an escape from the social and political world. McGann notes in his commentary that “Lara makes the political dimension of [The Corsair] even more explicit. The two pieces form an objective narrative that parallels the subjective history represented in CHP I and II.” (McGann 452) He later adds that the history of the Italian Republics was likely an important influence on both The Corsair and Lara. Published after these two poems in 1816, CHP III looks at how nature is an escape from problems associated with mankind. This is after Byron permanently leaves England, and finds freedom from the judgement of his society. In contrast, Lara looks at how the protagonist returns and encounters great difficulties once surrounded by English society again. This was published before the height of Byron’s personal scandal, but both poems have a male figure who retreats back into nature.

Spine of the text: note the lack of details

By : Debora Ross

See course bibliography for works cited


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