The First Line of Don Juan

Byron cheekily begins his greatest poem in precisely the wrong way for an “epic”:

I want a hero!…

Nothing could be more absurd than an Epic without a hero. The essence of an Epic is the struggle of the hero against his own nature and the enmity of gods! No hero, in an Epic, means no story and no plot.

Homer’s Illiad (via Alexander Pope) announces the hero in the first word!

Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!

Homer’s Oddessy (via Robert Fitzgerald) begins with the character of Odesseus:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
Of that man, skilled in all ways of contending,
The wanderer…

Virgil’s Aneid (via John Dryden) is about the role of one man in founding Latium:

Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.

The beginning of Don Juan is misdirection and farce, like much of the rest. Byron has, of course, already chosen his hero whom he finally introduces some forty lines later. But he makes this admission only after allowing himself hautily to dismiss contemporary heroes of revolution and counter-revolution in Europe and even the most romantic of British heroes (after Francis Drake): Horatio Nelson. Byron prefers to all of these a parody of a pantomime villain, Don Juan.

The satire is — or would have been in 1819, when classic literature was at the heart of grammar school education — evident to his readers. Still, since the mild young hero Byron offers cannot be taken too seriously either at the start or at any later point in the poem. So it’s not amiss of us to ask: Did Byron ever find the hero he was looking for?

It was evident to his contemporaries as to us that Byron chose his Juan — a victim not of divine malice and malign circumstance but only of the admiration of his acquaintance (especially female) and of good luck — as an autobiographical joke. A satyrical counterpoint to his own rakish reputation as a wicked exile. The passive Juan is hardly more than a device.

But something similar could be said of Achilles or Ulyusses or Aneas. None could be described as fully-developed dramatic actors: they have fixed, rather superficial characters that see no psychological development in the course of the narrative. As befits oral poetry, they are creatures of their own epithets. Juan is slightly more rounded than Achilles or Odysseus or Aeneas. He does develop some moral and even poltiical sophistication, especially after he arrives in England. But he is more often out of focus in “Don Juan” than is typical for an epic hero. He is ‘forgotten’ during long diversions from his, or any other, narrative — more than any of the classic epic heroes.

Then, when Juan is offstage — and often when he is onstage — Byron makes himself the center of attention. But “Byron” cannot be the hero he seeks in the poem’s first line. He claims centerstage only in a discursive way, as the voice of commentary and diversion; never part of the “epic” action. “Byron” has no fixed character or epithets. Nor is “Byron” a victim of fate and divine meddling any more than Juan. He holds himself — so he pleads — accountable for his own actions, however much he may regret some and believe others misconstrued.

Byron hints at dark memories and ‘sin’. But he does not dwell on these and does not confess. He offers sentimental regrets and then jokes about them (women, drunkenness, over-indulgence of other kinds); he seems to accept some blame; repents wasted opportunities and the loss of attachments. He hopes for the vindication of literary fame: securely, he contends, though not forever. Salvation never enters into it.

Nor is “Byron’s” end heroic in the epic sense, although Byron’s was romantic and in some ways even heroic. Wherever Juan might be headed — or “beheaded”: Byron once joked he might send Juan, at last, to the guillotine with the other Aristos in France — Byron’s own fate was, and will forever be, the end of the poem’s epic. As narrative, his journey breaks-off rather than concludes. Byron’s failure ever to return to home to England or to vindication, like Odysseus, or to found a race like Aeneas (his legitimate daughter, Ada, died childless), or even to transcend by a fateful death in battle like Achilles sadly disqualifies the ‘epic’ in his personal narrative.

Then, if we could interrogate his ghost, it would likely scorn the idea that Byron found the ‘hero’ he sought in himself as a sort of pathetic fallacy. He might answer that the mild Juan was his answer to precisely this question.

But, suppose we ask not whether he found his ‘hero’, but whether in the course of five years and sixteen finished Cantos he had found, at least, his protagonist? Lady Constance Blessington in her “Conversations of Lord Byron” argues that Byron could not find himself:

Byron has remarkable penetration in discovering the characters of those around him, and he piques himself extremely on it: he also thinks he has fathomed the recesses of his own mind ; but he is mistaken : with much that is little (which he suspects) in his character, there is much that is great, that he does not give himself credit for : his first impulses are always good, but his temper, which is impatient, prevents his acting on the cool dictates of reason ; and it appears to me, that in judging himself, Byron mistakes temper for character, and takes the ebullitions of the first for the indications of the nature of the second.

“Connie” is clever and insightful. This is entirely plausible. But I suspect it is a characterization of Byron. I suspect he had, by the time he left Genoa, arrived as some sort of pact with himself. Greece was the quietus he sought.

Stand-up poetry

The more time I spend with “Don Juan” the more I am convinced that it is crucial, for an understanding of the poem, to remember that it is a performance, not a conventional text.

I’ve been looking closely at Canto III again in the past couple of weeks, because — alas! — I have to re-record it. The reading I made nearly a year ago has some tiny, impossible-to-remove ‘clicks’ introduced somehow in the signal chain from microphone to audio file (damn!).

What stands out as I revise, is the evidence that Cantos III and IV mark a change in Byron’s ambitions for his poem. As if the contrasting reception of Cantos I and II — from his publishers and critics, on one hand, and his readers on the other — decided him to follow his inclination, and be damned.

Byron poured into Don Juan, more than in any other of his works, his extraordinary talent for verse, his reflexive obsessions and ticks, his doubts and guilt (public and private), a distinguished classical education, his spite for reaction and repression, his jokey-blokey-post-Enlightenment political incorrectness, his generosity to friends, and his restless conviction he had ‘lived’ too much (by his early 30s).

Still, it was a sort of extempore performance for the English public that had loved him before his exile and that remained fascinated by him — or by his legend — as he was by himself. He revised each Canto in making the fair copy before it went to the publisher and saw and corrected proofs of Cantos I and II. But he had no overview of the whole poem. It was never ‘whole’ in the sense of ‘complete’, since he left it unfinished at his death. Once the fair copy left Italy for London, it was more or less out of his hands.

Other great works of literature have appeared ‘serially’; Dickens’ novels for example. But they were planned in great detail; the plot ramified, the characters sketched before the first parts appeared. Byron boasted that he had no plan in writing “Don Juan”; he had only ‘materials’. He had no opportunity to rebalance the whole, to revise what he had written (once printed) or to adjust the pace or focus of anything he had written. He never saw the sixteen Cantos that he completed, in one published edition.

The extempore composition of a long work would have been risky even for a form heavily bound by convention, such as the epic poems of Classical Greece. But Don Juan was (is) far from conventional. On the contrary, today as two-hundred years ago it is remarkable for its innovation. Byron mocks poetic conventions claiming to respect epic precedent and ‘Aristotle’s rules’ of dramatic unity while paying them little heed.

Then the content is a riotous “mash-up”. It is part farce — lightweight, risky and fun — and part a bitter satire with sharp barbs for the pretensions of his own class, the institutions of Regency England and the triviality of the then-growing fashion for “polite” taste (in literature especially). Interspersed with these are meditations, jokes, teasing and misreporting of his own experience, beliefs, and tastes in tones that are sometimes ironic, sometimes pathetic and even maudlin (‘pathetic’ in another sense)..

Still, the greatest innovation of Don Juan is Byron’s willingness to leverage his own celebrity and the clever way in which he does so. No author had attempted this before him; few public figures have done it so well since. His notorious (although exaggerated) public image gave him a highly visible performance platform that he was more than willing to exploit from exile.

It is stand-up poetry. Byron is as provocative as Juan is mild; always witty, sometimes brittle, occasionally sentimental and even self-indulgent. He is the subject of his own performance. Or rather, “Byron” is the subject: for where the performer and the performance truly coincide is sometime anyone’s guess.

Everything about this complex layering of public satire and quasi-confession feels modern and without precedent. The greatest English satyrists (Dryden, Pope) were conventional in their use of the poet’s voice. Although both were famous in their own times they do not overtly draw attention to themselves as characters in their poetry except in the same mild, meditative way as e.g. Horace does in his epistles which, however, are cast as private communications. Lawrence Sterne mixed fictional forms and narrative voices in a tumult of styles in “Tristram Shandy” but never inhabited Tristram in the way that Byron inhabits “Don Juan”. Pulci and John Hookham Frere, two of Byron’s models for the ottava rima style, used an off-hand, conversational tone to deflate their grand subjects (the epics of Roland and of King Arthur: the Matter of France and the Matter of Britain) but neither steps out of the narrative frame to offer reflections on themselves.

His risky method of compostion meant Byron had to discover what he wanted the poem to be and how to do it while publishing the poem. He had a sort of “trial run” in Beppo, his imitation of Pulci that he offered to Murray in late 1817 along with the Fourth (and last) Canto of Childe Harold. But it is evident that he is experimenting with the tone and the framing of DonJuan as he worked on it.

Canto I begins as a narrative with an overt ‘framing’ device: a narrator. In the un-finished (draft, never published) prose preface to Canto I, Byron even invites the reader to imagine a scene outside a Cantina in Spain where the narrator is telling the tale. But the older, stuffy, friend-of-the-family who begins the tale disappears after few dozen verses, to be replaced by Byron himself. Or, at least, by the avatar of “Byron” that Byron proposes for the purpose of his performance.

Canto II is less farcical than Canto I and has a broader narrative canvas with a shipwreck, a survival tale and the romance with Haidée. Still, its episodes of cannibalism and ‘illicit’ love on the beach were just as provocative to Byron’s readers as the adultery and ‘blasphemy’ of the first part. Also, Byron’s diversions from the narrative are, like those in Canto I, somewhat related to the action and events, like a loose commentary.

But Canto III, begun nine month after he had finished Canto II breaks the narrative momentum. I have posted here before on the “Peculiar trajectory of Canto III” (http://madbaddangerous.com/2015/04/the-peculiar-trajectory-of-canto-iii-don-juan/). It is remarkable for having almost no action and for wandering off, first, into descriptions of Turkish luxury, then into a lyric intrusion condemning Greek complacency. A meditation on literary fame leads to a blistering attack on Wordsworth and the “Lakers” and, immediately after, a curious meditation on the evening sky that develops into Mariolatry, memories of evening liturgy and forest scenes and finally into a claimed pantheist devotion.

Still, the ever-watchful performer in Byron catches the poet before he becomes maudlin, threatens to award him the ‘wooden spoon’ of poetry for lacking imagination and calls an end to the Canto in order to get the narrative back on the rails. This ‘lapse’ has been, perhaps, a dramatic ruse to lull the reader before the “coiled up” Lambro, lurking off-stage, bursts in upon the lovers dozing on their divan. But it is also, no doubt, an experiment in tone that Byron refines in subsequent Cantos.

Canto VI and the tumult of 1822

Canto VI begins, in full naughty-Don Juan-style, with a politically incorrect (then as now, for diffferent reasons) defence of passion. Byron sidles into the story-line briefly to recall the last scenes of Canto V, then wanders away into a discussion of “boring” polygamy — as if it were a serious option for his Regency readers — leading thence to a debate on the relative merits of warmth and coolness in love.

But he fails to trace the threads of his argument when he decides to quote Horace’s recommendation of moderation in love as in all things. Problem is, he mixes up the quote, selects a line from Ovid instead1, and then in mid-flight, pauses to remark he’s not quite happy with the way the Latin scans in the English verse. It’s Byron showing-off and toying with the readers’ curiosity (and his own) about his thought processes.

Cantos VI, VII and VIII of Don Juan, all composed in the first half of 1822, mark a new turn in the six-year journey of composition for Byron. It was a stressful year: he abandoned his first and greatest publisher; his companion in exile, Shelley, drowns; relations with Teresa Guiccioli are cooling into a kind of domesticity, and; Byron’s entourage drew him into a serious conflict with local authorities. Still, what stands out from all of this is his devotion to Juan; he works at it steadily, convinced it is his best work.

The first drafts of Canto VI date to February 1822. Byron’s plans for the poem – that is, his narrative notions that he declined to fill-in – remained the same. But after years of cross-purposes and cross letters he decided to abandon John Murray’s conservative publishing house for the “radical” (i.e. popular) journal proposed by John Hunt. He was also, apparently, working under a ban at home. He had promised his mistress, the Countess Guiciolli, who considered the poem unsuitable to his genius and reputation to write no more of Don Juan. But he resumed in secret. No matter what others thought or how many other projects he began, Juan was essential to him.

The narrative of Canto VI picks up immediately after the torrid-comic cross-dressing scene with Gulbayez, the Sultan’s most beautiful bride, in Canto V. It is an anti-climax (what else could it be?). Juan spends a night-in-disguise  in the harem as “Juanna”. There are not enough beds to go around (darn!) so he has to share. His bed-partner, Dudú, wakes in alarm during the night to recount a sexually-charged dream, then returns to bed with her new friend. Gulbayez herself spend a sleepless night of longing and fear in the Sultans’ chamber and next morning sends to know what happened in the harem overnight. She guesses the worst — rightly or wrongly we don’t know — from the evasive replies she receives and orders Juan and his “paramour” be secretly expelled from the Palace by boat along the Tigris.

The next we see of Juan at the start of Canto VII he, and his companions (including Dudú?), are in what is now Ukraine, headed along the Danube for the city of Ismail, then an outpost of the Ottoman Turkish empire under seige by the Russian army.

1822 was a tumultous year for Byron. In late January, Lady Noel, his mother-in-law — Byron and Anabella are separated, not divorced – died. As part of the marriage settlement and separation arrangements, Byron will inherit both the Noel name and some of the Noel money, enabling him to live more comfortably in Italy. He immediately takes the name of “George Gordon, Baron Noel Byron” and begins to sign his drafts and correspondence “NB”: the same initials as Napoleon Bonaparte.

He is living in Pisa, having moved there at the urging of the Shelleys, who also live there, after the Guicciollis were exiled from Ravenna because of the family’s revolutionary sympathies. Then, in March, as Byron and a party of friends returned from a ride outside the city, there is a scuffle at a city gate in which an obstreporous police Sergeant-Major is pitchforked, but not seriously wounded, by one of Byron’s servants. The affray and the subsequent court action causes friction with the city and state officials who strongly suspect Byron, too, of being a republican sympathiser (he is at least that). On April 20th, he is deeply affected by the death of his daughter Allegra (by Claire Clairmont). She died of a childhood illness in the convent at Bagnacavallo where Byron had placed her to start her education. On July 1st, Leigh Hunt — poet and brother of John Hunt, Byron’s new publisher — and his numerous family arrive in Pisa; they become somewhat ungrateful dependents of Byron. Then, on July 8th, Percy Shelley, Edward Williams and Charles Vivian drown in a boating accident. Shelley’s decomposing corpse is found days later in the sea; Byron has a a pyre built on the beach to burn the body because the authorities will not permit its burial.

None of this slows, however, the extraordinary pace of Byron’s literary production. He finishes Cantos VI-VII by August of 1822. Mary Shelley, now widowed and also, in effect, a dependent makes the fair copies. In October, his outstanding satire, The Vision of Judgement is published, in the first number of John Hunt’s journal, The Liberal. Then Werner, the last of Byron’s works to be published by Murray, appears on November 23rd. Still at Pisa, Byron begins The Age of Bronze and The Island, two forgettable political satires that will be published by Hunt who also publishes. Cantos VI-XVI of Don Juan in July of the following year.

In September 1822, Byron puts the turmoil of Pisa behind him, moving to the sun-filled bayside of Genoa, his last home in Italy.

A sample recording Canto VI

This project is gathering steam… or, something possibly more energetic than steam.

Here is a sample from my never previously released recording of Canto VI of Byron’s Don Juan. It’s the first 61 verses that may give you some idea of what the whole recording will be like when, real soon nowTM, I release it.

Listen to a sample of Canto VI This .mp3 file is about 40Mb. If you prefer to DOWNLOAD the file (e.g. for your phone) just click on the download (down-arrow) button or here if on a mobile device.

PLEASE USE YOUR HEAPHONES TO LISTEN (or high quality external speakers). The excerpt is about 25 minutes long… good for the commute, or doing the ironing. I’d really appreciate your feedback in the Comments!

Here’s a bit of context

The Story So Far

Juan’s mother — the prudish, controlling, Donna Inez — dispatches her 16-year-old son by ship to Italy at the end of Canto I (in which the virginal Juan has an affair with the gorgeous young wife of one of her former lovers). The ship is blown off-course and destroyed in a terrible storm. The survivors, including Juan, take to a whale-boat only to drift for many days. Their supplies are exhausted and, in desperation, they turn to cannibalism. All perish, in the end, save Juan who swims ashore on an isolated Ionian island where, exhausted and unconscious on the beach, he is found and revived by Haidée, the lovely daughter of the ferocious pirate who owns the island.

Haidée and Juan become lovers. She “betrothes” Juan, falls pregnant, and proposes to marry him, believing her father dead. But Lambro, the pirate, returns unexpectedly in the midst of the marriage-feast. After a scuffle, his crew capture Juan and sell him into slavery in the slave-market at Constantinople. Juan is, without question, a hunk. He is hardly put on the auction-block before he is snapped-up by — it turns out — an agent for the fourth and most beautiful wife of the Sultan. Forced to wear women’s garments, dressed as a concubine, Juan is brought secretly in the night to the fabulous Gulbayez who wants him for her toy-boy. Her murmured invitation, “Christian, do you love?”.

The upright, sentimental Juan answers with tears! No, he cannot betray the vows he made to Haidée (who, he does not know, has died of love and loss). Then, just as this steamy, cross, potentially climactic scene is reaching a crisis, the Sultan followed by a procession of some of his 1500 other concubines arrives. What a pretty new slave, he remarks before dismissing Juan and the rest of the female chorus to their Harem for the night.

  • Now, read on…

A talk on Byron & Don Juan

A few weeks ago, the chair of a poetry group in one of the city Clubs in Melbourne (where such things still exist) invited me to give a talk on Don Juan. 

What I did, instead, was to provide a short paper in advance and to devote my 20 minutes to a reading (from Canto I, leading up to the ‘seduction scene’).

Here is the text of the paper:

Byron & Don Juan

About Lord Byron?

A parvenu; a Baron at 5 by a residual heritage 1. Very bright; a talented linguist; well-educated (Harrow, Cambridge) although indolent at school and the University. He had a rakish father who abandoned him as an infant; an hysterical, silly mother; an abusive nanny. He was slightly disabled from birth: when he walked, he half-dragged his right foot because the lower leg was dysplasic. He was not tall but neatly proportioned; obsessive, in bursts, about his weight and about sports such as swimming and boxing. He had an almost girlishly handsome face, evident ‘charisma’ and much personal charm. Bisexual, his deepest loves were his half-sister — whom he first met in his late teens — and one or two boyfriends early and late in life. Still, he was promiscuous even by the loose standards of the cot-hopping Regency upper-class.

Byron enjoyed spectacular early fame — due both to talent and to hard work — as an author of edgy but sentimental verse followed by a swinging satyrical reply to his critics. Politically a Whig; too sceptical of the Church to take formal religion seriously. An upper-class anti-reactionary rather than a liberal, although he later supported revolutionary causes in both Italy and Greece. He was scornful of the ‘cant’ of Tory governments and the odious Hanoverians whom they served. Not interested in English politics, except to satirise it. A ‘good hater’ of those whom he believed had traduced him or who profited from power; he was generous and kind to the unfortunate and to those of lower status. Jealous of his claim to nobility; he was no democrat but he was unpretentious. Without a patron or a steady guide when young but supported — and kindly, if ineffectually, advised —- by a leading Tory publisher (John Murray).

Against advice he married unsuitably, affectionately – at first – but lovelessly. It seems he did so to divert himself from an incestuous affair with his half-sister, who bore a child that may have been his, and possibly to avoid more serious rumors of ‘unnatural’ relations. He was irresponsible with money when young, beset by debt, unable to sell his considerable estate (Newstead Abbey) and foolishly cruel to his wife in the year or so they spent together. When she left him, taking their infant child, rumours of Byron’s supposed infidelities, and worse, were spread in London society by his half-crazed former lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, the wife of Lord Melbourne. He fled — as many others, including his father, had done — to the Continent to avoid the bailiffs, social censure and, perhaps, denunciation. He never returned to England. After seven years of astonishing poetic output in Italy, he died of illness at the age of 36 (1824) while leading an expedition to support the Greek revolt against the Turks.


About Don Juan?

One hundred eighty years after his death, Byron’s fame has dwindled. His poetry remained hugely popular until the 1830s when the Victorians’ prissy literary taste deprecated his “scandalous” verse. His reputation was restored but re-shaped by Matthew Arnold — the scourge of Victorian bourgeois dullness — who published (1865) his own selection from Byron that, however, paid little attention to Byron’s greatest poem. For the next hundred years, under Arnold’s influence, earnest Byronian ‘societies’ imbibed the wild declamations of Childe Harold and committed Byron’s lyrical poems to memory. But not Don Juan. It was too freewheeling, even brutal, for Arnoldian High-Church tastes. And too difficult to excerpt in anthologies.

These days, the ghost of Lord Byron — even less substantial (but, hey, who ever invokes the shades of Wordsworth or Southey?) — lurks on Twitter and Facebook and in the occasional TV or film cameo. There, it feeds on the celebrity of an imagined dandiness and rakishness2 and on snippets of some misread romantic verse.

Although his many lyrics are fine and highly quotable, Byron’s more secure claim on posterity is that he may be the greatest satirist in English poetry — he and his model, Alexander Pope, vie for that crown — especially for “The Vision of Judgement”. But that tremendous fake apotheosis of George III and his poet Laureate, Robert Southey, now is scarcely read outside academic circles. Also, he composed, in Don Juan, the funniest, boldest and most readable verse ‘novel’ in English literature. It is a satirical epic in ottava rima verses, comparable in scale to Cervantes’ Don Quixote but very modern in scope.

The poem comprises Sixteen (finished) Cantos, each of 100-or-so tightly-rhymed eight-line stanzas in an ‘Italian’ form: ottava rima 3 whose ostensible narrative concerns the adventures of its hero, Don Juan. Byron’s Juan – he rhymes the name with “ruin” on purpose – is not da Ponte’s “Don Giovanni”, the evil seducer of Mozart’s opera and pantomime. Instead, the first (and sustained) joke of the poem is that readers looking for a model of Byron-as-rake find in Juan an upright, modest, dashing and earnest young hero who is, rather, the passive victim of his own manly virtues. A gallant young lover secreted in the boudoir of another man’s wife; the sole survivor of a terrible shipwreck; cast on the beach of a remote Ionian island; rescued (and ‘bethrothed’) by the daughter of a ferocious pirate; enslaved in the galleys and disguised in the harems of an Ottoman Sultan; thrown by the fortunes of war into the arms of the Russian Empress; sent on a secret mission to the banqueting-tents of an English electoral campaign and to the bosom of a “ghostly” Duchess haunting a stately English manor home.

But Juan’s odyssey is only the canvas for Byron’s satire. Byron’s targets are famous and infamous personalities; money, religion, newspapers, warfare and fashionable science, and; the tempus & mores of England in the late Regency and Europe after Waterloo, simmering with political reaction and revolt. The narrative deploys familiar tropes: the deceptions of youthful hope, the cynicism of power, loves’ demands, the misalliance of men and women, the frailty of (non-literary, especially military) fame, the poverty of great riches, the hypocrisy of office and position and, above all, the clarion call of liberty. The satire is clever; the verse is often brilliant, if a little uneven.

Still, Don Juan is compelling mostly because Byron is too adventurous (or maybe ‘incautious’) a writer to be content with the familiar targets. He takes risks, and boasts about it.4 He sets out, in Canto I, to tell a story in comic verse; a sort of bedroom-farce that mocks but also begs the impression of him in London as a self-exiled rake and bounder. The first Canto even has a fictional ‘narrator’ to set the stage for the action and comment on the characters. But, by the time he comes to the end of Canto II — after indulging, for fun, in repeated “blasphemies” (not really), libels, attacks on national heroes, scandalous sex and even cannibalism — it has become clear to Byron that his ‘unplanned’ epic is also more than an entertainment. The epic; has developed into a more personal and more demanding poem.

Up to 1819 when the first two Cantos of Don Juan appeared, Byron’s oeuvre had been crowned by his long poem Childe Harold, a bildungsroman that established the model of the “Byronic” hero: world-weary (although a twenty-something); driven by a melancholic imagination; bearing a sense of deep, but obscure, guilt and; surrounded by dramatic landscapes. As he began to work on Don Juan, the earlier poem was still extremely popular with readers and writers all over Europe who identified The Childe with Byron himself. But Byron had evidently grown tired of the high-romantic posture and the stilted Spenserian verse. The ottava rima style offered him a more vernacular, ironic form in which to puncture reactionary dullness and while engaging in a half-sarcastic, half-serious examination of his own opinions, tastes, expectations, disappointments and errors. Or, at least, those opinions etc. that Byron claimed were really his. He would hold back nothing.5

Although Byron, disingenuous, continues to insist in later Cantos that his poem has the structure of a conventional epic with wars, feasts, sea-battles, goddesses, “loves” etc. his epic is, in reality, an interior adventure: Byron examining the travails of being Byron. His many diversions from Juan’s tale to remark on an interest, skewer a phoney, discuss a curiosity or muse over own history turns his epic into a “stand-up”, first-person performance that deliberately employs his “celebrity” as a platform. It is a style that rather shocked John Murray, his first publisher, but now seems familiar. Byron was the first to do it and few have ever done it so well. Even so, the degree to which the “Byron” who writes Don Juan is truly Byron is occasionally open to doubt. The cleverness of his verse, his allusions, his willingness to strike a rhetorical pose for effect and his ironical humour makes it apparent that, sometimes, we are seeing a mask adopted for the performance. And, sometimes, the mask seems to slip.

One of his keenest contemporary critics — an acquaintance made in Pisa shortly before he sailed for the Greek revolution and his death — was the ‘adorable’ Lady Constance Blessington; a clever, beautiful, Irish social climber and journalist who published, for profit, a serialized book of their conversations shortly after Byron’s death. She records that Byron asked her, at one point, for her assessment of his character:

“I replied, ‘I look on you as a spoilt child of genius, an epicycle in your own circle.’ At which he laughed, though half disposed to be angry.”

Blessington also, rather sniffily, accuses Byron of “flippancy and a total want of self-possession.” Clearly, his willingness to shock did not quite meet her standards of seriousness or decorum for an English poet or Peer. But, however ungenerous — however much she had her eye on her own reputation and the market for her book — she’s not entirely wrong. Just as in life Byron sometimes seemed to be not quite ‘in control’ of himself (or his reputation), so in Don Juan Byron arguably fails to quite grasp his own mercurial character. Still, his attempt reaches depths that, for example, Wordsworth’s endless, wordy psychologising in The Excursion never reaches.

The poem is, at heart, an entertaining story with a lot of well-deserved jabs at hypocrisy and abuse of power, with gorgeous set-dressing, bright ideas and lots of clever verse that make it much better reading than almost anything from his contemporaries. And Byron is, in every way, a fascinating subject for dissection.

Peter Gallagher
madbaddangerous.com
October, 2016


  1. His great uncle the “Wicked” 5th Lord Byron outlived his offspring .  
  2. Byron has only himself to blame for this image spread by, for example, his decision to have himself portrayed in Turkish costume. In reality he was not serious enough about costume to be a dandy and worked too hard to be a rake. 
  3. It has often been noted that every word in Italian rhymes with almost every other word in Italian. It takes uncommon genius to manage the trick over such an extended length in English. 
  4. Each Canto went to his publisher as he completed it over the years 1819 to 1824. He resisted all pleas for an outline or plan and dismissed most proposed revisions. So the epic became a lengthy, extempore performance whose targets and tone evolves as the poem continues.  
  5. Accordingly, after finishing the second Canto he composed an astonishing “Dedication” to Robert Southey designed to eviscerate the ‘turncoat’ Laureate and his companion in dullness, William Wordsworth. Since the Dedication also slandered Lord Castlereagh as an intellectual nullity and enemy of liberty, Murray refused to publish it and it did not appear until after Byron’s death. 

Highly recommended: A life of “Tita” Falcieri

A portrait of a gondolier, but not Tita

Battista Falcieri was, at first, Byron’s gondolier when he moved to the Mocenigo palace on the Grand Canal in Venice in 1818. He steered Byron through months of voluptuous adventures in the Carnival. He swam with Byron in the Grand Canal: even dined with his master in the Grand Canal. Then, in 1820 his craft hosted Byron’s earliest liasons with his last love, the Contessa Teresa Guiccioli. 

Tita — a swarthy, powerful man with a wonderful dark beard and a happy disposition — stayed with Byron, faithful, passionate, protective as a ‘courier’ and bodyguard for the next six years, enduring prison and exile for his patron, until the last days in Missolonghi. He even accompanied Byron’s body, embalmed in a butt of spirits, back to London, sleeping alongside in the hold of the ship.

All but destitute in a foreign land after the funeral, the resourceful Tita made his way somehow to Malta where he was ‘discovered’ by a youthful Benjamin Disraeli on his Grand Tour… It was the beginning of another remarkable relationship of service to a luminary of literature (and a panjandrum of Victorian politics).

Claudia Oliver, a descendant of Tita’s English family — he married in London and worked for many years in the India Office — has gathered the threads of this admirable man’s life from archival records in Europe and North America, including long-forgotten correspondence of the great and powerful families for whom he worked and the recollections of Byron’s circle and Disraeli’s. 

The culmination of her 20-year project is this eminently readable, inspirational book: “A Most Faithful Attendent: The Life of Giovanni Battista Falcieri“. 

Buy it and enjoy.

Progress in the recording of Don Juan

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.

Byron’s big fat Greek frustration

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 fifty hundred 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”.

Shelley and Byron (1822)

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (1840)
Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (1840)

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 VCross-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)

There’s more here at the British Library (including the manuscripts of Cantos VI & VII).

The British Library’s “Don Juan” collection

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:

Verse170-sm

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).