Don Juan annotated — a work in progress

For some time I have been work­ing, in desul­to­ry fash­ion, on an anno­tat­ed ver­sion of Don Juan. You can down­load the cur­rent ver­sion from that link. Would you kind­ly take a look and tell me whether I’m on the right track?

I am hard­ly the first per­son to have attempt­ed this. Per­haps the most famous — and most accom­plished —  is the emi­nent sci­ence-jour­nal­ist and sci­ence-fic­tion writer Isaac Asi­mov. He pub­lished a won­der­ful vol­ume of an anno­tat­ed Don Juan, illus­trat­ed by the fash­ion­able NY illus­tra­tor Mil­ton Glaser in 1972. I’m the delight­ed own­er of a copy ded­i­cat­ed by Glaser to his own pub­lish­er.

Still, the great­est of the anno­tat­ed texts of Don Juan, from a Byronist’s view­point, is that by the late, great Dr Peter Cochran. These are mag­nif­i­cent (not illus­trat­ed) texts of each Can­to that Cochran care­ful­ly com­piled from a vari­ety of man­u­script and pub­lished sources to re-cre­ate Byron’s own ver­sion of the poem — rather than the ver­sion “amend­ed” by his con­tem­po­rary and lat­er edi­tors at John Murray’s and else­where. Cochran’s text doesn’t shy away from Bryon’s eccen­tric punc­tu­a­tion or cru­di­ties (“mild-ities” today). It includes miss­ing vers­es, and mar­gin­al anno­ta­tions on the drafts and “fair copies” where rel­e­vant. Best of all, Cochran has added foot­notes that draw on his own unpar­al­leled Byron schol­ar­ship, his deep knowl­edge of Shake­speare and his broad research in the lit­er­a­ture famil­iar to some­one such as Byron who had absorbed an 18th cen­tu­ry clas­si­cal edu­ca­tion.

I owe a great deal to Peter Cochran’s ver­sion of Don Juan. But this draft text is my own attempt to make some­thing a lit­tle lighter than the Cochran ver­sion, a lit­tle less care­ful than Asi­mov (who tends to slide over the dif­fi­cult or naughty) and still look good on the page.

The PDF doc­u­ment attached here con­tains only Can­tos I — IV (with­out the Ded­i­ca­tion — I half-excuse myself on the basis that I have already pro­duced a free, illus­trat­ed, audio-book of the Ded­i­ca­tion and Can­to I). Can­tos I & III are ful­ly anno­tat­ed. Can­to IV has only a few notes at the start and Can­to II… well, noth­ing real­ly except the verse.

I’d be very grate­ful if you’d look this over and let me know your opin­ion of it — so far.

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 Ulysses 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” ( 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 Noël, 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 Noël name and some of the Noël mon­ey, enabling him to live more com­fort­ably in Italy. He imme­di­ate­ly takes the name of “George Gor­don, Baron Noël 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
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).