Grace Rexroth, “Byron and the Problem with Memory Arts: Writing Don Juan for an Age of ‘Uncertain Paper’” (pp. 1–28)

In the first canto of Don Juan (1819–24), George Gordon, Lord Byron describes Juan’s mother as a woman whose memory needs no artificial aid: “Her memory was a mine. …For her Feinagle’s were an useless art.” The mention of “Feinagle” is a reference to a memory system designed by Gregor von Feinaigle, outlined in a book titled The New Art of Memory (1812). While the reference might appear insignificant, I argue that concerns about memory and mnemonic arts actually animate Byron’s poem. I view Feinaigle as a touchstone for a set of memory practices that proliferated into what Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine would later decry as an “explosion of mnemonics.” As the print landscape of the Regency era rapidly expanded, such systems promised to help readers deal with the resulting information overload by helping them to remember everything they read. Set within this context, Don Juan seems to respond to the same anxieties that animated the fad for mnemonics. However, rather than attempting to help readers remember everything, Byron foregrounds the question of what should be remembered and why—especially when it comes to memorializing war. In this way, Don Juan becomes an alternative Romantic memory palace animated by a cultural anxiety about how to read and recall what the powers-that-be would have us forget.

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