scholars and rogues

Our first Scholar/Rogue

Mrs. Miggins, there’s nothing intellectual wandering around Italy in a big shirt, trying to get laid. – Edmund Blackadder

That dashing, slightly dangerous character gracing the masthead above is none other than George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824). We have selected him as the coverboy for our first masthead, and if from this you deduce that other personages will feature on that mast in the future, good on ye.

While Byron is best known as one of the premier poets of the late Romantic era, along with Keats and Shelley, as well as for a string of decidedly roguish behavior involving ale and married women, we honor him here for a far more obscure accomplishment.

[Byron’s] maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1812 compassionately argued against a bill proposing, among other repressive measures, to make frame-breaking punishable by death. “Are you not near the Luddites?” he wrote from Venice to Thomas Moore. “By the Lord! if there’s a row, but I’ll be among ye! How go on the weavers – the breakers of frames – the Lutherans of politics – the reformers?” He includes an “amiable chanson,” which proves to be a Luddite hymn so inflammatory that it wasn’t published until after the poet’s death. The letter is dated December 1816: Byron had spent the summer previous in Switzerland, cooped up for a while in the Villa Diodati with the Shelleys, watching the rain come down, while they all told each other ghost stories. By that December, as it happened, Mary Shelley was working on Chapter Four of her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (Thomas Pynchon: “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” New York Times Book Review October 28 1984: 1, 40-41).

Few groups in history have been more misunderstood than the Luddites.

While the term “Luddite” popularly connotes someone who is anti-technology, the actual rebellion was more critically aimed at technology which threatened the sanctity of culture (W. Rybczynski, Taming the Tiger: The Struggle to Control Technology. New York: Penguin Books, 1983; and Pynchon). Their reaction was not against progress – they gladly used the newest weaving technology available, and were “interested in innovation and technical improvements to make their work easier” – but were instead opposed to the dehumanizing dislocations of the industrial economy. At the turn of the 19th Century, factory looms were the latest innovation, and a factory job meant arriving at dawn for a 15 to 18 hour working day, and the door was locked behind you in the morning and not opened until the end of the shift. To the Luddites, the factory looms spelled the end of a way of life, of craftsmanship, of community and of family (Gary Lawrence Murphy, “Are We the Neo-Luddites?” February 1998).

In a sense, many of us here at Scholars & Rogues are Luddites in the true sense – we embrace technology that advances the wellbeing of the culture and are deeply suspicious of uncritical technophiles acting out of a pathological addiction to false progress. If you build it they will come, but … then what?

We salute George Gordon, Lord Byron, who along with his friends and fellow travelers was among the first to stop and question – what exactly are these machines good for?

11 replies »

  1. Was it not Lady Caroline Lamb who became besotted by George Gordon, Lord Byron and described him as ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’?