The image shows Catherine the Great in a walking cloak; painted by V.Borovikovskiy about 1794
It’s nine months at least since I last posted here: not what readers expect, of course, so I assume I have no readers any more. Alas! My own fault.
But I have not been quite so idle on the recording front. One way or another, in fits and starts (mostly ‘fits’), I’m getting through the Cantos. The last I reported on here was Canto III. But I’ve also recorded Canto IV and Cantos VI through IX. I recorded Canto I, Canto V and Cantos XIII-XVI for Librivox several years ago. I’ve left until last a second visit to those cantos. I also have (re-)recordings of I and II that I made a couple of years back in my planned series of iBooks (a project dropped after the illustrated, read-aloud Canto I failed to sell: it is now available for free download).
Canto IX, set around 1790, sees Juan, the ‘hero’ of the battle of Ismail (Russia vs Ottoman Turks), as the toy-boy of an ageing — but amorous — Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. The Canto is an hilarious, clever, scandalous satire on sex and imperial power with a few Byronic rockets for the reactionary government of 1820’s England. Juan is flattered by the Empress’ attention and, naturally, fully capable of fulfilling the duties of his ‘post’ (… yes, there are plenty of double entendres and paraphrases of bawdy Roman verse that educated English men and women of the Regency no doubt recognized). But he falls ill in the Russian snows and is given an embassy to England as a reward for his ‘services’ to Catherine.
I am now recording Canto X, composed in 1822. It brings Juan, as a Russian speaking Spaniard, to London; the city Byron had fled seven years before. Some of his finest satire is just ahead.
Ok! That title is a cheap attempt at click-bait. Implausible, too. Byron hated “big fat” anything. He was obsessive about his weight… certainly neurotic, possibly anorexic from time to time.
But he was deeply frustrated by the Greeks, whom he loved from the time of his first youthful visit to the region in 1810-11. In Don Juan he rages at their unwillingness, or inability, to assert their national spirit in the face of a tired, half-attentive, but rapacious Turkish occupation.
Did the Greek’s even have a “national spirit”? Was there a Hellenic homeland? Or just a bunch of Ionian, Doric and Peloponnesian regions of “cis-Eurasia” that Western Europe romanticized as the territorial heritage of ‘classical Greece’? Was Byron’s assumption that any red-blooded Greek should be a pan-Hellenist just another example of his own hot-headed, lordly, liberalism getting ahead of the facts?
Honestly, I’m not sure. But that does not detract from my enjoyment of Byron’s eloquent radicalism in the Greek cause nor my sympathy with his frustration. He deserves sympathy on this account almost more than on any other. Not only (in the mid-1820s) did he put his “money where his mouth was” but he laid down his life — if not willingly, with determined resignation — in its cause.
In Canto III of Don Juan, Byron celebrates the fateful nuptial feast of Juan and his lover-savior Haidée the Pirate’s Daughter. The centerpiece of the feast is a lyric that has become one of the best-known and most anthologised of Byron’s verses; “The Isles of Greece…“. The song is not part of the ottava rima ‘rootstock’ of Don Juan, but a ‘sport’ of lyric verse that is both a poetic and narrative diversion. An unnamed Poet, a professional entertainer who is also the butt of several of Byron’s jokey allusions to his self-serving contemporaries, the ‘Laker’ poets, sings “The Isles of Greece” apparently because he believes his hosts will approve it. This ‘staging’ creates some distance between the sentiments in the verse and Byron; but, in truth, very little. The satire is too pointed, the verse too refined, to be any but Byron’s.
The verse is easy and the opening lines have the wistful character of “poesy”… Poetry editors for a hundred fiftyhundred hundred years,* seeking some short, self-contained segment of Don Juan for their anthologies ignored the untypical character of the song and excerpted it for their collections.
But how many who know it’s opening lines would recall the sharpness of its later satire on the Greeks under Ottoman rule? Or it’s anger?
If, about now, you too are feeling some frustration at the character of Greece or even, perhaps, the rapaciousness of their neighbors… you might enjoy reviewing this surprising wedding address. Here is an extract from my recording of Canto III containing the “Isles of Greece”. If you like it, please let me know and I’ll push the whole Canto ‘out the door’.
Oh… and one last thing. The image at the head of this post is of the eccentric, brilliant aesthete Thomas Beechey Hope, the — initially anonymous — author of a much-praised comic satire on the “Greek” identity, Anastasius (available from the Internet Archive) published by John Murray published in 1819. Anastasius clearly inspired parts of Don Juan.
* Hmmm… the earliest evidence I can find is Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1900 Anthology “The Oxford Book Of English Verse 1250–1900”.
For the first few years of his self-imposed exile in Italy, Byron’s strongest literary friendship was with the similarly self-exiled Percy Bysshe Shelley. PBS was a wild, truly radical genius married, but frequently unfaithful, to the witty, loyal, liberal Mary (Woolstonecraft Godwin) Shelley; the author of Frankenstein (and several other novels) and later copyist of several of Byron’s Canto’s of Don Juan.
Shelley was an impetuous, often brilliant character whose poetry leaped a generation, at least, to influence major British poets writing at the end of the 19th century. But he honoured — adored, in truth — his friend Byron.
I am thinking again of their relationship because I am starting to prepare to record Canto VI of Don Juan, which Byron composed in the first few months of 1822 in Pisa. He had moved there from Ravenna, possibly at Shelley’s urging, accompanied by Teresa (now separated by Papal decree from the mercurial, ageing Count Guiccioli) and her father (Count Gamba), who had been exiled from Ravenna for supporting political intrigues against the Austrian occupation.
Shelley and Mary were now resident in Pisa; the importunate Claire Claremont — Mary’s half-sister-by-marriage and mother of Byron’s daughter Allegra — having been banished to Rome (Byron had placed their daughter at a convent near Ravenna). Yes, it’s complicated.
Byron was on top of his game. Happy to move to the sunny city of Pisa from the harsher climate of Ravenna. Murray had, finally, agreed to pay 2500 guineas for Cantos 3, 4 & 5 of Don Juan plus three dramas: Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari and Cain. But Bryon was planning to take his profitable poems elsewhere. Canto’s 1 and 2 of Don Juan were already a roaring success (even in Murray’s expensive Quarto edition). His cuttingest satire of English poesie and poets The Vision of Judgment was ready for publication and would mark the transition from John Murray to the radical Leigh Hunt as his publisher. He had completed the silly, steamy romp of Canto V — Cross-Dressing in the Seraglio — in December of 1821 and now he took a break, in part because Teresa disapproved of the poem, urging him to abandon it, and in part because of Murray’s reluctance to publish it.
Byron gave himself over, for a while, to riding and shooting and long drunken dinners with the small english literary community he drew around him. He also came into a welcome inheritance following the death of his mother-in-law (part of the separation settlement) that boosted his annual income from his English estates. He resumed work on Don Juan, however, in February of 1822.
Shelley was both in awe of Byron’s intellect and unable to fathom his friend’s refusal to be ‘serious’ about the things that Shelley himself took terribly seriously. Here is Leslie Marchand’s report (referring to the late dinners where Shelley would not stay):
“Despite the fact that Shelley was sometimes annoyed by Byron’s flitting from subject to subject without arguing any point through, he too was drawn by the personality and brilliance of the man whose genius so overawed his own that for the first months of Byron’s residence in Pisa the younger poet wrote but little. He had written from Ravenna in August: “I despair of rivalling Lord Byron, as well I may, and there is no other with whom it is worth contending.”” And he later told Horace Smith: “I do not write I have lived too long near Lord Byron and the sun has extinguished the glow-worm …. ” He wrote to John Gisborne apropos of Cain: ”What think you of Lord Byron now? Space wondered less at the swift and fair creations of God, when he grew weary of vacancy, than I at the late works of this spirit of an angel in the mortal paradise of a decaying body. So I think — let the world envy while it admires, as it may.” Even after he had begun to feel the strain of Byron’s parties and wished he might gracefully withdraw from them, he continued to hold exaggerated views of the merits of Cain.” (from Vol. 3 of Marchand’s Autobiography of Byron, p. 951)
The BL has a number of Byron’s manuscripts and some early editions of the published Don Juan from the 1820s. Pages from some of them are on-line as image files: well worth exploring.
I have taken the illustration at the head of this post from an 1826 pirated edition (Smeeton) of Canto I that featured plates by Isaac Cruickshank (brother of the better-known George). The image depicts Juan and Julia her maid — the ‘adept’ Antonia — shooing Juan from Julia’s bedroom (he had been hidden in the closet) while her husband, Don Alfonso, searches the rest of the house for her lover.
The verse (No. 182) is Byron at his most suggestive… Julia pleads with Juan who, still love struck, tarries:
“Fly, Juan, fly! for heaven’s sake — not a word —
The door is open — you may yet slip through
The passage you so often have explored —
For comparison, Lynette Yencho’s illustration of the same verse for my audio-iBook of Canto I of Don Juan:
It’s amusing that the British Library notes that the Cruickshank images are “Free from any copyright retrictions”. It was the refusal of the Crown to grant copyright to Cantos 1 & 2 that lead to their widespread piracy by the publisher of this edition (among others).
“…And Glory long has made the Sages smile;
‘Tis something, nothing, words, illusion, wind,
Depending more upon the Historian’s Style
Than on the name a person leaves behind,
Troy owes to Homer what Whist owes to Hoyle;”
Don Juan, Canto III, verse 90
I never met or corresponded with Peter Cochran, who died last week. But his writing was witty, well-informed and opinionated so that it was impossible after reading quite a lot of it not to imagine a personality and voice.
Dr Cochran’s scholarly work on the text of every Canto of Don Juan, his 20-year labor on the Hobhouse diaries from the Byron years and his precise editions of Byron’s correspondence with Hobhouse, Lady Melbourne, Douglas Kinnaird and John Murray and several of his critical essays have been enormously helpful to me in preparing to read and to annotate/illustrate Don Juan.
Peter Cochran produced an erudite, annotated text of the poem based directly on the manuscripts and the fair copy (supervised by Byron) rather than on the emendations or approximations of Byron’s early editors as so many later editors have done. The result, as he argues, is more fluid (much less orthodox in punctuation) and sometimes more ambiguous in meaning. But the Cochran text gives the impression of being all the more faithful to Byron’s own voice than the ‘corrected’ versions produced by John Murray or even later scholars such as E.G. Stefan and Jerome McGann. (I also consult the Steffan text).
Better, for all its scholarly value, Cochran’s edition of Don Juan is a lot of fun. PC’s annotations — like his essays — often extract or fill-out relevant details of Byron’s life, or reading (or pets) not found, or passed over, even in Leslie Marchand’s monumental 3-Volume biography or (selected) Journals and Letters. Best of all, PC appreciates Byron’s humour, temper and (many) foibles to an extent that many of his – chiefly American – editors apparently do not.** It would not be too much to say that Byron’s modern glory may owe something to Peter Cochran’s ‘Historian’s Style‘.
He generously made all this work — and much more – available on his website in PDF format. His daughters, who seem to be his literary executors (and Twitters) say they will maintain his site; for which I am grateful. I expect to rely on it for some time to come as I work through this project to narrate and illustrate Don Juan.
Hail and farewell.
** I make one exception to this observation: the spectacular Isaac Asimov Annotated Don Juan, illustrated by Milton Glaser. IA is an annotator rather than an editor whose commentary on the poem sometimes seems to skirt the sensibilities of his 1970’s American audience. But Asimov, like Peter Cochran, got the comic genius and the singular scope of Byron’s great work.
Sam. Johnson famously observed that only a blockhead would write for no money. He might also have said that only a fool tries to self-publish; a sad fool if it’s poetry. So, foolishly, I’ve been looking for a better way to distribute my newer recordings of Don Juan so that they’ll be accessible for more people and, I hope, more visible.
I used to make my recordings available to Librivox.org. But I don’t like their insistence on branding the recordings to themselves and their indifference to marketing. I have no present intention of charging for these recordings but I no longer have any intention, either, of placing them in the public domain. The effect of doing so is to loose all control of the distribution and quality. Fortunately, so far, the re-publishers of whom I’m aware – YouTube and other streaming sites – have not bothered to change anything; only putting a ‘cover’ on the recording.
The sound and the sense
Besides, I am equally interested in both the sound and the text of the poem. The narration is only a performance of the poem; fleeting, a figment. Of course it’s supposed to sound as Byron may have wished it to sound. He must have had some sound in mind, or why bother with the demanding constraints of ottawa rima? He certainly chose words in part for their metre and sound and the narration must convey this music. But Byron chose among themes and expressions for reasons the narration can barely hint at, and never fully capture.
You need the text for that; and even commentary on the text. Does that ruin it for my listeners?
I hope the opposite might be true. Don Juan is great entertainment, but it is still more fun when you understand the jests, satirical barbs, personal confessions and evasions and that, today, are no longer evident on the surface that narration skims. For his contemporaries, the poem contained so many provocations that John Murray could bring himself to publish only the first five Cantos of the greatest comic epic in English and then anonymously. It is a great pity to miss out on them.
Byron brings to his greatest work a classical education and a sense of his social environment that is now antique, although combined with elements that were radical for his time. Too, he has a fascinating personal history — somewhat obscured by a rakish, romanticised reputation — and a fascination with his own psychology as an author that is entirely modern. Alas, only notes on the text can give every punch-line the weight it deserves or reveal where Byron pulls a punch to save himself some pain.
Publishing and distributing my own narrations and texts, however, needs an economic and easily accessible channel to readers and listeners. One upon a time I might have considered, for example, including a sound recording on CD with a printed book. (If you purchased any of those huge computer-related tomes popular in the 1990s you will remember the format; the plastic CD sleeve pasted in the back cover.) But the Internet has made that formula expensive and nearly obsolete. The assault of music-streaming means fewer people bother to own a CD player. Besides, only big publishers and big stores can now provide a book+CD distribution network. It would still be possible to combine print and audio with an on-line ‘companion site’ for the printed book. I may go in that direction one day. But, as of now, the market for my narration is too small to warrant it and my annotated texts are only an experiment. So digital distribution is likely to remain my choice if only for economic reasons.
Which digital format, then? I’ve tried only one, so far: ePub. Specifically, a form of ePub defined by the International Digital Publishing Forum as ePub 3.1 that provides for a standard ‘audio overlay’ format for the ePub text. When I published Canto I of Don Juan in September 2012 only Apple iBooks fully implemented this format but – as is inevitable with Apple – using some proprietary extensions. Unless you have a Mac or iPhone, iPad (or a later iPod) you will have trouble playing it.
Slowly, other companies are producing software capable of playing the ‘page-by-page’ overlay; more or less accurately.
On a Mac or PC the Adobe Digital Editions software (version 4.0) or, on the iPad, IPhone and Android platforms the Menestrello app will play the iBook ePub while doing different kinds of damage to the presentation.
Still better than both of these, at present, is the Readium plugin for the Google Chrome browser. If you download the free ePub of Canto 1 from the Apple iBook Store (use this iTunes link) and save it to your local disk, you should be able to import it into Readium with acceptable results.
PDF with embedded audio
What about other formats for text + audio?
Adobe has released a sort of ‘slide presentation’ format based on their Adobe Air (ShockWave-replacement) platform. I’ve made a short Adobe Voice presentation on the Dedication to Don Juan with some verse extracts. But Voice files are huge; Adobe evidently intends that they be brief (~1 min.) presentations streamed from Adobe’s own cloud. Not really an option for Don Juan.
There is, too, a (chiefly) Adobe means of embedding audio in a PDF file. Now it happens that PDF is probably my favoured format for distribution of an annotated text. As a page description language, PDF provides strong control over layout, ensuring that what I devise appears in just that form on every platform that displays PDF (there are dozens of these). Furthermore, PDF is a ‘first class citizen’ in the Apple OSX equipment that I use. There are many editing platforms that natively output PDF using the facilities provided by the Apple operating system.
I do not however prefer Apple software to produce PDF. Instead, I use LaTeX (actually the LuaLaTeX engine) to produce PDF. This gives me a more consistent output, typographically superior to any of the WYSIWYG editors on OS X that produce Apple-flavoured PDF. It also allows me to use a low-level library (LaTeX macro) for embedding audio files in the PDF in such a way that they will play automatically, requiring no user configuration or intervention.
As an experiment I have embedded an extract from my earliest recording of Canto I of Don Juan (the first 36 verses) into an annotated text that I created sometime in 2010-11. Here is a link to the audio-PDF file. I have not optimised the images or the audio in this file so it’s 19 MB in size (a 2-3 minute download if you’re on a consumer-level DSL link to the Internet).
Please let me know whether this is a successful experiment in your opinion. I’d be grateful if you’d give me some feedback – even if only thumbs-up or down – on this format.
Still, I know that some of my listeners are not at all interested in reading the poem, much less notes on the poem. For them, the audio relieves them of the need to read it to themselves. They might like simply to listen, possibly to enjoy their imagined scenes. Or perhaps they like to have the distraction of listening while they do other, less imaginative, things like washing the dishes or commuting to work.
Who knew? I had the time suddenly, and the opportunity. So into my ‘studio’, a few practice runs — helped by the recent (laborious) work on Canto III — and the violent, sad, quirky conclusion of the Juan-Haidée episode is done!
Canto IV was written at the same time as Canto III: they’re one story. It was split into two. Byron says (in Canto III) ‘for money’. But that’s a fib. He offered John Murray, his publisher, both Cantos for the price of one. Murray was, as ever, squeamish about both.
Number Four is the terrible tale of the inevitable end of the Juan-Haidee romance; his injury, capture and transport into Slavery at the hand of her father, the Pirate Lambro. Her desolation at the loss of Juan and her hopes; her death (and the death of another); the decline and disappearance, with Haidée, of all her father had built.
Juan, wounded and (alas!) incapacitated by his grief over the loss of Haidée, is chained to a beautiful female slave on board the slavers’ ship. His companions in the hold are a traveling Italian opera company whose impresario has sold them into slavery. He gets all the goss on the sexual jealousies, character faults and stage weaknesses of the troupe from the ‘buffo’ of the party. But they arrive, pretty quickly at the warves below the Seraglio of Constantinople and disembark for the slave mart, to learn their fates.
Over the past few days I’ve finished editing my recording of Canto III of Don Juan. That makes 8 of the sixteen complete Canto’s that I’ve recorded (Canto I, twice).
Cantos I and IV and XIII-XVI are available from Librivox.org. Canto I (a second recording) is also available on the iBook store (button to the left) as a free, illustrated, read-along audio book.
My recordings of Cantos II and III have not been released. I’m not sure yet how, or when, I’ll release them. Canto II is nothing if not a ‘rip-roaring tale’ of storms at sea, shipwreck, cannibalism and sex on the beach. It was published, anonymously, with Canto I and in spirit, at least, the two form a sort of unit. They both focus on Juan’s narrative — with Byronic excursions, of course.
Cantos III and IV, drafted first as one long book and then split and slightly reworked, are quite different from the first two. Canto III has almost no narrative action. It’s one long build-up to the fate of the lovers Juan and Haidée at the hands of her father, the pirate and slaver Lambro — with even longer Byronic excursions.
The ‘excursions’ include essays on fame and literature, satires on love and marriage, skewering attacks on the flaccid verse and fame of the “Laker” poets (Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge), reflections on religion, families and a sharply-worded call to Greeks to rise up against their Turkish overlords. This last — Byron’s first foray into the rebellion that would take his life just a few years later — is in the form of a ‘song’ composed for a feast offered by Juan and Haidée.
“The Isles of Greece” is half-familiar to many people who know nothing else of Byron’s epic (because it has been included in many anthologies). But I wonder how many who recognize the title recall its revolutionary content and its exasperation with Greek complacency.
A couple of weeks ago, I published here an annotated text of Canto III. For now, I’m releasing just a sample of the recording that goes with it. Here are verses 5-11 of the Canto: Byron on heaven, hell and marriage.
Don Juan is unfinished. At the end of the last completed Canto (XVI), Juan is in the midst of an amorous midnight tangle with a “ghost” in the gallery of a restored English Abbey (Byron’s ancestral home at Newstead).
You can download recordings I made a few years ago of the last Cantos (for Librivox) from the Internet Archive.
Only a few preliminary verses of Canto XVII were found among Byron’s papers in Missalonghi, Greece, where he died. Although the unfinished Canto was intended to continue the romantic intrigue involving Juan’s hostess, Lady Amundeville, and the mysterious Aurora Raby — including, Byron suggests, a surprise on a billiard table (!) — we will never know the details of Juan’s escapes from (yet another) designing lover. Or, indeed, the ultimate fate of Byron’s handsome, brave, but passive hero.
Byron insisted to his publisher, John Murray, that he had only the loosest plans for Don Juan
I meant to take him [Juan] on the tour of Europe – with a proper mixture of siege – battle – and adventure – and to make him finish as Anacharsis Cloots – in the French Revolution. –
To how many Cantos this may extend – I know not – nor whether even if I live I shall complete it – but this was my notion. – I meant to have made him a Cavalier Servente in Italy, and a cause for a divorce in England – and a Sentimental ‘Werther-faced man’ in Germany – so as to show the different ridicules of the society in each of those countries – – and to have displayed him gradually gâté and blasé as he grew older – as is natural. But I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell – or in an unhappy marriage – not knowing which would be the severest – The Spanish tradition says Hell – but it is probably only an Allegory of the other state. You are now in possession of my notions on the subject
It’s easy to believe that this is true and not just Byron teasing the straight-laced Murray with a plan that the businessman could only have considered chaotic. Byron had the facility to make it up as he went along. It’s a mode of composition — if not a plan — apparently suited to Juan’s picaresque adventures.
The idea that hell is an allegory of marriage is a sign that Byron is not (entirely) serious about this outline. But there’s a pathetic irony in his throw-away suggestion that the poem might not be completed before his own death.
Of the fates outlined for Juan, perhaps the most dramatic is the first: to have Juan guillotined in the French Revolution. Anacharsis Cloots, whom Byron mentions — and whom he rejects, among others, as the subject for his Poem in Stanza 3 of the First Canto — was an eccentric Prussian nobleman who was convinced that the principles of the French Revolution should be enlarged to a World government and who styled himself as the “personal enemy” of Jesus Christ. Although he adopted French citizenship and played a part in the prosecution of Louis XVI, he was himself falsely accused and executed by bloody Robespierre in 1794.
My guess is that Byron would never have composed an end to “Don Juan” (or Don Juan) in the sense of a final disposition of the hero after some climactic event with all the threads tied off and the moral underlined (as Da Ponte does, rather heavy-handedly, in his libretto for Mozart’s opera).
The last Cantos of Don Juan (XIII-XVI) are among his best. But had he survived his Greek expedition, I think Byron would have given up on the epic — perhaps after completing Canto XVII — leaving Juan in “the midst of life” (this was the fate of Childe Harold… the character that brought him international fame in the 19th century).
By 1822 — five years after fleeing England — Byron seemed to be looking for a life other than the one he had made for himself with Theresa in Italy. Perhaps not a literary life at all. I don’t think he knew definitely what he wanted or expected from the adventure in Greece. I think he wanted some new direction. I suspect he would have abandoned Juan to an unfinished narrative, just as he wanted to abandon his own recent narrative.