The category was pioneered in the nineteenth century, with Byron's Don Juan and Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, and matured in the twentieth century, with works such as Derek Walcott's Omeros. While such novels are indeed written in verse, with its different rhythmic implications, they are also much like modern novels. They have strong narratives, strive for mimetic realism, and focus on human agency.
Byrne, the story of one Michael Byrne and his progeny, told by a hack journalist in five chapters of differing meters divided into stanzas, qualifies as a novel in this sense. However, the book goes beyond this definition in an interesting way, which only emphasizes its distance from conventional poetic forms.
Byrne's stanzas almost always end periodically, with a natural pause. Yet the book contains other “visual” elements that cannot be realized as pauses – or anything else – when read aloud.
One such feature of Anthony Burgess's style is the way he ends verses with particles or words split between syllables. The clash between phrases and the metrical structure draws attention away from the rhyme scheme, and also, at times, helps complete some difficult rhymes. For example:
November thirtieth, feast of St. Andrew.
He limped from Green Park tube. The air was tepid.
Unseasonable warmth possessed the land. Rheu-
Matically wincing but intrepid
He made for Curzon Street. His bare right hand drew
A hanky out, to wipe. Westward, a lepid-
Opterous sky, filigree, polychrome,
Called secretaries, sparrows, salesmen home. (page 48)
This curious graphic characteristic has no effect on how a line sounds – it does not suggest a pause, as with the stanza or chapter breaks. It is a reasonable breaking up of words into syllables to complete two metrical feet.
But there are many instances in Byrne where not syllables, but mere consonants, are transposed across the printed verses, for which there is no metrical justification:
…Had perhaps that tout
Of Brian’s, called an agent, stood him lunch? “I kn-
Ow one thing. Always do your homework, sunshine. (148)
This is a feature that can only be appreciated when the text is looked at, instead of heard. Is this Burgess being overly clever, or is this Burgess’s narrator, the reporter Tomlinson, demonstrating that he is, as he claims, a mere “poetaster” (147) by indicating the rhyme so pedantically so as to mangle the text? It is hard to say.
Even if the poetry is meant primarily to be heard, or at least recited, one would expect less effort to force words into “proper” physical spaces on the page. But if Byrne is primarily a novel, there are other considerations at work.
Literary critics have long noted how novels are implicitly read in silence. To cite one example, in “The Storyteller”, Walter Benjamin writes that the novel “neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it” (page 87). Unlike the epic poem, the novel comes from a print culture, where each reader reads his own copy to himself, and graphic effects become an inevitable result of mechanical reproduction.
From this perspective, Byrne, a posthumous work which may never have been read aloud, at least in its entirety, qualifies as novelistic, despite its verse form. It is something that depends on the printed page for both its dissemination and full effect.