Don Juan Cantos Annotated

TL;DR An up-dat­ed draft of my “Anno­tat­ed Don Juan” is avail­able. It now pro­vides notes and illus­tra­tions for Can­tos I, III and IX. Get it here and read along with the nar­ra­tion.

At the end of the pre­vi­ous arti­cle I said “My sec­ond rea­son for lik­ing Don Juan is the mis­di­rec­tion and sub-texts…”.

Byron wants us to be com­plic­it in the com­e­dy of Don Juan. The fun comes from under­stand­ing what is real­ly going on. The poem is only super­fi­cial­ly about Juan and his slight­ly ridicu­lous adven­tures around pre-Napoleon­ic Europe. From the out­set — from the selec­tion of Juan as the nom­i­nal hero in the first stan­zas of Can­to I — and espe­cial­ly from Can­to IV onward, the poem is about Byron’s view of the world and of him­self; in so far as he can see him­self.

The dif­fer­ence between the sto­ry and the point is the first, and most obvi­ous, lev­el of mis­di­rec­tion in Don Juan. There are deep­er lev­els, too, that con­cern the things Byron might wish to hide, or should hide but won’t or can’t because they affect the way he sees the world and him­self. Here, the mis­di­rec­tion con­cerns his rela­tion­ship with his half-sis­ter; his mis­be­hav­ior toward his wife; his bisex­u­al­i­ty; his fear that he will die with­out being the hero he imag­ined; his belief that he “burned his can­dle” too ear­ly and, per­haps; his sus­pi­cion that the “full account” for his ear­ly promis­cu­ity is still to be paid. He alludes to each of these things in the poem — some, sev­er­al times — but not always direct­ly. He nev­er lingers on them. The dis­cur­sive verse that leads him to intro­spec­tion can just as eas­i­ly whisk him away from it. It seems he has only to look up from his pen for a moment to find a divert­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty for irony or to spot an ene­my of pub­lic virtues — lib­er­ty above all — that needs skew­er­ing.

I have no doubt there are also sub-texts in the poem than no read­er now appre­ci­ates. Hints and allu­sions that, on the sur­face seem unre­mark­able but, to a suf­fi­cient­ly informed read­er such as Cam Hob­house, the friend of his late teens and twen­ties, would recall much more res­o­nant ideas and events: in Spain, Greece and Turkey at the start of the 1810s, in Lon­don in the mid-decade and in Gene­va or Venice at the end of that decade. If we are search­ing for rea­sons that Hob­house tried, unsuc­cess­ful­ly, to tone-down the first four Can­tos (in Murray’s hands), or suc­cess­ful­ly to destroy the ear­ly sketch of a nov­el and then to burn the mem­oir bequeathed to Moore after Byron’s death, they prob­a­bly lie there. Hob­house may have argued his van­dal­ism was to pro­tect his friend’s rep­u­ta­tion. But it was very like­ly intend­ed to pro­tect his own as he climbed the greasy pole of polit­i­cal promi­nence. His cen­sor­ship ensured that the sub-texts we can no longer read in Don Juan would have no key to unlock them.

Still, the plea­sure of the poem is not the less for these unguessed mys­ter­ies. Don Juan still con­tains a remark­able depth of allu­sion in almost every stan­za. They give the poem a sub­stance of ideas that few extend­ed come­dies can match — Shake­speare (per­haps), Ben John­son, Pope — and sinews that bind it to its lit­er­ary fore­bears, while keep­ing up an extra­or­di­nary pace.

Then, Byron did not set out to write a poem of rid­dles. On the con­trary, he meant the poem to have a polit­i­cal impact. For that, it had to be acces­si­ble and pop­u­lar, as it was. The most fre­quent form of allu­sion in Don Juan is to clas­si­cal authors and mythol­o­gy. These ref­er­ences would have been more or less famil­iar to his con­tem­po­rary read­ers of every class who had at least some for­mal edu­ca­tion. Direct quotes from Latin or Greek authors (Horace, Homer) might not have been so famil­iar but in most cas­es — with one notable excep­tion in Can­to IX — Byron gloss­es the quote in the verse, mak­ing it less a mys­tery.

His quotes from Eng­lish authors — Shake­speare espe­cial­ly, but also the Bible in the KJV, some 17th cen­tu­ry drama­tists, pop­u­lar authors such Alexan­der Pope and Wal­ter Scott (and even to Wordsworth and Southey) — are not usu­al­ly acknowl­edged but the ref­er­ences are often to well-known pas­sages. Can­to IX alone con­tains per­haps a dozen quotes from Ham­let and Oth­el­lo that might be at least half-remem­bered by those who have seen or read the plays.

Then there are many half-bor­row­ings, unac­knowl­edged and usu­al­ly para­phrased or trans­formed, from his more obscure sources. Byron read very wide­ly and was reg­u­lar­ly sup­plied — often by his first pub­lish­er, John Mur­ray — with pack­ages of books from Eng­land. He must also have had an ency­clo­pe­dic mem­o­ry. In every Can­to there are authors in Latin, Ital­ian, French or Eng­lish whose ideas and images he bor­rows. Occa­sion­al­ly he men­tions them or their works: Horace, Vir­gil, Pope, Lui­gi Pul­ci. But as Peter Cochran — who dug up most of them — notes at some point in his schol­ar­ly notes, those that were most influ­en­tial on Byron he men­tions least or not at all, such as Thomas Hope’s eccen­tric com­ic nov­el Anas­ta­sius that Byron read while com­pos­ing the ear­ly Can­tos and that had a great influ­ence on the nar­ra­tive and some of the com­e­dy of Don Juan.

Aside from lit­er­ary ref­er­ences, the nar­ra­tive and digres­sions in Don Juan are pep­pered, too, with ref­er­ences to pub­lic events, promi­nent peo­ple, polit­i­cal and reli­gious ideas, his­to­ries, tech­nolo­gies and (to use a mod­ern phrase) memes of the late 18th and ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry in Europe. That was the peri­od when what we would call the “mod­ern world” began. Echoes of the social, polit­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal upheaval of those decades are still found in the con­sti­tu­tions of mod­ern States, in the forms and con­ven­tions of con­tem­po­rary art and lit­er­a­ture and in the tech­nolo­gies that still sur­round us.

Still, a lot of the con­text for the verse in Don Juan that would have been read­i­ly avail­able to a 19th read­er, or lis­ten­er, is not so read­i­ly avail­able to read­ers and lis­ten­ers in the 21st cen­tu­ry. For the read­er, today, there are new ways to com­pen­sate for that. Dis­persed around the pub­lic Inter­net is all the infor­ma­tion a read­er would ever need to grasp the con­text of even the obscure ref­er­ences in the poem. If the read­er has the time and patience.

For the lis­ten­er, the pace of the verse makes it hard to fol­low-up any of the ref­er­ences with­out los­ing track of the lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence.

Hence these anno­ta­tions. In com­pil­ing them, I’ve tak­en advan­tage of three valu­able anno­ta­tors before me. First, and fore­most, Peter Cochran whose exten­sive notes on all of Don Juan and whose edi­tions of ancil­lary mate­r­i­al such as the Hob­house diaries — still avail­able for down­load from his web­site — are invalu­able for any stu­dent of Byron. Sec­ond, the notes in the Ste­fan edi­tion of Don Juan (also used by Peter Cochran). Third, the notes by Isaac Asi­mov in his beau­ti­ful edi­tion of Don Juan from the mid-1970s that bet­ter indi­cate than either Ste­fan or Cochran where a con­tem­po­rary read­er might need some back­ground (although Asi­mov offers no com­ments on some of the naugh­ti­er bits of the poem).

Some­what fol­low­ing the Asi­mov edi­tion, I’ve includ­ed some illus­tra­tions that I hope will make the anno­ta­tions seem less of an exer­cise in dry schol­ar­ship and per­haps help to show what it is often hard to say in a short note.

Why I like Don Juan

Just now there’s a lot of inter­est in the­o­ries of behav­iour as ‘sig­nalling’. For exam­ple, edu­ca­tion choic­es and cur­ric­u­la are said to be “about” sig­nalling wealth or con­for­mi­ty with cor­po­rate ethics rather than about get­ting knowl­edge. Con­ver­sa­tion is said to be a about show­ing-off, dis­play­ing intel­lec­tu­al assets, groom­ing allies etc.

OK. It seems just yes­ter­day (in fact decades ago) it was “all about” nudges and hid­den moti­va­tors and… well. The­o­ries of incen­tives, val­ues and behav­iour are prob­a­bly use­ful giv­en the “hall-of-mir­rors” that is intro­spec­tion. But they are not a sub­sti­tute, espe­cial­ly on mat­ters of taste or pref­er­ence.

I like to per­form Don Juan (my record­ings). Does that mean that I like Byron’s poem because it’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to “show off”? The idea can’t be dis­count­ed. It must be part of the (unac­knowl­edged) cal­cu­lus. After all, it would just be too damned hard to make the effort and to put up with the frus­tra­tions of record­ing were it not for some self­ish return. The sat­is­fac­tion of cap­tur­ing or invent­ing a ‘voice’ for Byron’s poem in a way that oth­er record­ings do not is an impor­tant reward for me that I need not share with any one else.

But I can give oth­er, less embar­rass­ing rea­sons, too, for lik­ing this poem more than many oth­er lit­er­ary works and more than most of Byron’s oth­er poet­ry.

First; I like its clever dis­cur­sive verse. Byron’s man­age­ment of rhyme and argu­ment — sound and sense  — is remark­able. The con­ver­sa­tion­al tone and the struc­tured  sen­tences that weave through the rhythm and rhyme of his stan­zas —- often to a clever joke in the final cou­plet — makes it great fun to recite Don Juan. 

Despite its bound­less vari­ety, meter and rhyme are hard-won in the eng­lish lan­guage; more than in a romance lan­guage like ital­ian, for exam­ple where, noto­ri­ous­ly, “every word rhymes with every oth­er”. This dif­fi­cul­ty makes met­ri­cal verse in eng­lish espe­cial­ly prone to “acci­dents” or par­tic­u­lar qual­i­ties. These are quirks and inflec­tions: like the ways a pig­ment flows from the brush in dif­fer­ent paint media or the ways in which the soft­ness of a pencil’s lead and the angle of the point shapes a pen­cil line. Mas­tery of plas­tic arts means, at the low­est lev­el, mas­tery of — and con­ces­sion to — the acci­dents of the medi­um. This is true, too, of verse, I think. The ineluctible char­ac­ter of the lan­guage as a medi­um con­strains the poet both in the shape of the sound and also the shape of the argu­ment: what you can say is, in the micro-envi­ron­ment of a phrase, deter­mined, in part, by how you must say it.

So when Byron boasts that he has no plan for Don Juan but fol­lows where his ‘nose’ takes him, he is doubt­less telling (part of) the truth about the grand scheme. But he seems also to be telling us about the craft of verse (anyone’s verse) at the ‘micro’ lev­el. That craft is to find — or be found by — the inevitable word whose sound and sense lead from the first hint of an idea to its devel­op­ment and final form.

Of course, Byron tells us as much in Don Juan: in Can­to IX, for exam­ple, when he laments in an aside that he “needs must” (and does) rhyme “love” with “dove” even if it means allow­ing sound to over­rule sense.

Besides Pla­ton­ic love, besides the love
Of God, the love of sen­ti­ment, the lov­ing
Of faith­ful pairs (I needs must rhyme with dove,
That good old steam-boat which keeps vers­es mov­ing
‘Gainst rea­son — Rea­son né’er was hand-and-glove
With rhyme, but always leant less to improv­ing
The sound than sense)
Can­to IX, 403–7

Still, Byron’s ‘lament’ is disin­gen­u­ous (sur­prise!): his ‘for­mu­la­ic’ rhyme serves the pur­pose of his jokey admis­sion per­fect­ly well.

Now, even his ear­ly lyrics showed Bry­on was a supe­ri­or crafts­man of verse. Sus­tain­ing the ener­gy of the verse in long poems, like Childe Harold, con­firmed it. But I think what we see on the sur­face of the verse in Don Juan is still more remark­able. Childe Harold (like most of his oth­er verse before 1818) for all its orig­i­nal shock-val­ue has a for­mal, rhetor­i­cal qual­i­ty: poet­ic dic­tion and Spenser­ian stan­zas that, in eng­lish, sound mon­u­men­tal or maybe mar­mo­re­al. Like ranks of flut­ed columns.

But Don Juan is con­ver­sa­tion­al in tone. Although some­what strict­ly rhymed (Byron stretch­es a point, wit­ti­ly, here and there) in otta­va rima, the rhyme some­times deliv­ers the punch (espe­cial­ly in the last cou­plet) but often acts mere­ly to pro­pel the sense across a series of par­en­thet­i­cal or oth­er­wise sub­or­di­nate claus­es; to knit togeth­er the jostling notions and iron­ic (or pathet­ic) con­trasts that com­prise the appar­ent­ly inti­mate, fre­quent­ly manip­u­la­tive con­ver­sa­tion of a very clever com­pan­ion.

Even when embarked on pure nar­ra­tive in Don Juan, Byron’s genius for tun­ing his verse to a nec­es­sary effect is impres­sive. Con­sid­er this extract from Can­to VIII, where Juan, who has lost con­tact with his own troop in the assault on the fortress of Ismail, is about, acci­den­tal­ly, to lead an hero­ic infantry-charge.

Con­struct­ed from a mas­ter­ly con­cate­na­tion of enjambed lines (aster­isks) and con­cur­rent claus­es, the verse mim­ics Juan’s stum­bling advance across the bat­tle-field while the poet piles-on the images of death and con­fu­sion. With­out afford­ing end-of-line paus­es, the verse pro­pels us for­ward with­out us know­ing, at first, where we are head­ed. Notice that the sec­ond and third of these vers­es is one long, 16-line, sen­tence with the sub­ject (“Juan”) and the prin­ci­pal verb (‘Rush’d) found only in the last two lines. By the time the read­er reach­es the first line of the fourth verse — “He knew not where he was, nor great­ly cared” — he/she, too, feels a bit lost. Then Juan dash­es ahead into the fray, just as Byron lobs his own satir­ic bomb into the last cou­plet.

Then, like an ass, he went upon his way,
And, what was stranger, nev­er look’d behind;
But see­ing, flash­ing for­ward, like the day *
Over the hills, a fire enough to blind *
Those who dis­like to look upon a fray,
He stum­bled on, to try if he could find *
A path, to add his own slight arm and forces *
To corps, the greater part of which were cors­es.

Per­ceiv­ing then no more the com­man­dant *
Of his own corps, nor even the corps, which had *
Quite disappear’d — the gods know how! (I can’t *
Account for every thing which may look bad *
In his­to­ry; but we at least may grant *
It was not mar­vel­lous that a mere lad,
In search of glo­ry, should look on before,
Nor care a pinch of snuff about his corps): —

Per­ceiv­ing nor com­man­der nor com­mand­ed,
And left at large, like a young heir, to make *
His way to — where he knew not — sin­gle hand­ed;
As trav­ellers fol­low over bog and brake *
An “ignis fatu­us;” or as sailors strand­ed *
Unto the near­est hut them­selves betake;
So Juan, fol­low­ing hon­our and his nose,
Rush’d where the thick­est fire announced most foes.

He knew not where he was, nor great­ly cared,
For he was dizzy, busy, and his veins *
Fill’d as with light­ning — for his spir­it shared *
The hour, as is the case with live­ly brains;
And where the hottest fire was seen and heard,
And the loud can­non peal’d his hoars­est strains,
He rush’d, while earth and air were sad­ly shak­en
By thy humane dis­cov­ery, Fri­ar Bacon!
Can­to VIII, 233–264

If that analy­sis sounds too com­pli­cat­ed, it’s my fault. Byron’s verse is great fun when he’s being clever or naughty, and affect­ing when he’s being seri­ous. The ironies are a delight; the con­trasts wit­ty and often unex­pect­ed. His ideas cas­cade, some­times, in tor­rents.

Fol­low­ing the twists and turns of Byron’s sen­tences in Don juan is like watch­ing an expert surfer flick across the waves or some grace­ful kid on a roller-board do stuff that almost ter­ri­fies you to watch. When, at last, he lands the plea­sure is part won­der and part relief. The plea­sure of his satire is ten­sion released.

Brave! It’s the only word for what Byron essays, against the oppo­si­tion of his pub­lish­er (Mur­ray), the lit­er­ary mag­a­zines (the Review) the “seri­ous” Press, and even his erst­while friends (Hob­house). At every point in the extem­pore per­for­mance of Don Juanstand up poet­ry — Byron insists on tak­ing a risk. Say­ing what he can or must and trust­ing to the judge­ment of his “com­mon” read­ers or of his­to­ry to com­pre­hend what his crit­ics and cen­sors could not.

How ful­ly his deter­mi­na­tion has been jus­ti­fied!

My sec­ond rea­son for lik­ing Don Juan is the mis­di­rec­tion and sub-texts… No. This post is long enough already. I may come back to that idea in a future post.

Catching up… and an announcement

Vis­i­tors to this site who know some of Lord Byron’s ear­ly lyric and love poet­ry — per­haps encoun­tered at school — are some­times puz­zled by his longest work, Don Juan. Even repelled.

They’re struck by the rad­i­cal dif­fer­ence in the verse and the tone of the poem. It’s cer­tain­ly not lyric. It’s sort-of-philo­soph­i­cal, but more jokey than seri­ous, and sar­cas­tic and sala­cious and slan­der­ous. They won­der, per­haps, whether they should both­er to find out what this ram­bling, snarky nov­el-in-verse is all about.

If you’ve come to lis­ten to the record­ing of Can­to IX, you may be puz­zled, too, to find this young solid­er with a famous Span­ish name and a rep­u­ta­tion for being a rake trans­posed to Rus­sia. Did the Empress Cather­ine real­ly seduce him? Isn’t Don Juan sup­posed to be the pants-man in his own leg­end?

Good ques­tions! But hard to answer in brief. It’s a bit like some­one who watch­es an episode of Twin Peaks or Game of Thrones for the first time. If they ask you to explain what’s going on, your first thought might be: “this could take all night”! Let’s just say: if you like this episode of Don Juan it will real­ly repay you to start with ear­li­er stuff such as the free, illus­trat­ed, nar­rat­ed Apple IBook of the Ded­i­ca­tion and Can­to I  (from which the Map at the top of this post is tak­en).

If you don’t have an Apple device (Mac, iPhone or iPad) the iBook won’t play. But I’ll be releas­ing the com­bined audio of Can­tos I and Can­to II lat­er this year (Sept-Dec 2018) on the 200th Anniver­sary of their com­po­si­tion. Please stay tuned for details.

Mean­while, for new lis­ten­ers to Can­to IX, here is an “even-short­er-than-Cliff-Notes” sum­ma­ry of Don Juan and it’s con­text.

  • Lord Byron (lat­er Lord Noël-Byron, chris­tened George Gor­don) pub­lished this long poem (16 Can­tos or ‘books’; nev­er fin­ished) in episodes, as it was being writ­ten, in the ear­ly 1820s. He was in his ear­ly 30s and still — five or six years after flee­ing Eng­land for Italy — pos­si­bly the most pop­u­lar, scan­dalous, admired and reviled lit­er­ary fig­ure of Britain. He had hur­ried out of Lon­don just ahead of the debt-col­lec­tors and to avoid cen­sure for mul­ti­ple rumoured (but then obscure) offences includ­ing incest with his half-sis­ter, ‘sodomy’, a pub­lic scrap with the mad-infat­u­at­ed Car­o­line Lamb (she had a knife), his wife’s “escape” with his infant daugh­ter from his (ver­bal, men­tal) abuse etc etc.
  • The real sub­ject of Don Juan is Byron him­self whom both Goethe, for exam­ple, and Matthew Arnold agreed was one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing stud­ies of 19th cen­tu­ry Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture. The sto­ry is nom­i­nal­ly the adven­tures the Span­ish noble­man whose rep­u­ta­tion as a bound­er and a rake every­one knows “from the pan­tomime”. Byron’s ver­sion of the tale is, how­ev­er, entire­ly orig­i­nal, as is the telling: full of diver­sions, inter­rup­tions, jokes, philo­soph­i­cal rumi­na­tion, near­ly-frank con­fes­sions and, above all, clever and fre­quent­ly sav­age satires of con­tem­po­rary auto­crats in Europe, their repres­sive gov­ern­ments and the hypocrisy of their allies in the press, par­lia­ments and in the church. He is also a mer­ci­less, and very fun­ny, crit­ic of con­tem­po­rary poets such as Wordsworth and the Poet Lau­re­ate, Robert Southey.
  • Byron’s Juan — he rhymes the name with “ruin” on pur­pose — is not the evil seduc­er of Mozart’s opera. 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 far from being a cyn­i­cal lothario is, rather, the pas­sive vic­tim of his own man­ly virtues.
  • The sto­ry starts as a bed­room-farce. Juan as a pret­ty, smooth, inex­pe­ri­enced, teenag­er, is dis­cov­ered hid­den in the boudoir — OK, in the bed — of the young wife of one of his prud­ish mother’s for­mer suit­ors. Sent abroad by his moth­er to a “moral” edu­ca­tion in Italy, he is the sole sur­vivor of a ter­ri­ble ship­wreck fol­lowed by can­ni­bal­ism among the crew. Cast on the beach of a remote Ion­ian island, he is res­cued and ‘bethrothed’, after some steamy but-off-stage sex-on-the-beach, by the nubile, inno­cent daugh­ter of a fero­cious pirate. Dad returns from sea in dis­guise and dis­cov­ers the young pair liv­ing it up at his expense. After a brief strug­gle he cap­tures Juan and sells him into slav­ery in the Turk­ish gal­leys. His daugh­ter dies of grief.
  • The pow­er­ful Sul­tana of Istan­bul spots the hand­some lad when he is put on dis­play in the slave mar­ket. She has her chief eunuch buy Juan and deliv­er him to her dis­guised as a female con­cu­bine, in the harem of the Ottoman Sul­tan. After some hair-rais­ing, cross-dress­ing hilar­i­ty, the sen­su­al, pow­er­ful Gul­bayez and Juan are about to hit it off when the Sul­tan unex­pect­ed­ly turns up. So Juan, still in dis­guise, has to spend the night hid­ing in the Sultan’s harem where the ladies fight over the oppor­tu­ni­ty to share a bed with this love­ly new con­cu­bine.
  • Juan escapes Istan­bul in the com­pa­ny of an Eng­lish mer­ce­nary and togeth­er they join the army of Rus­sia, under the leg­endary gen­er­al Alexan­der Suvorov, in the siege of Ismail, the euro­pean-fron­tier fortress of the Ottoman empire at the mouth of the Danube. Juan — some­what by lucky acci­dent — dis­tin­guish­es him­self in bat­tle. Suvorov pro­motes him Lieu­tenant and sends him back to the Empress of Rus­sia with a Dis­patch announc­ing the bloody vic­to­ry. As Can­to IX explains, the sat­is­fac­tion of slaugh­ter at Ismail was not the only joy Cather­ine had in this news.
  • In the fol­low­ing Can­tos, Juan is sent by Cather­ine on a secret diplo­mat­ic mis­sion to Lon­don where he nav­i­gates the “mar­riage mar­ket” of the Lon­don Sea­son under the close watch of a myr­i­ad match­mak­ers but with­out com­ing to harm. The Sea­son over, Juan joins the Coun­try house-par­ty of some noble friends for the hunt­ing (‘abom­inable’) and the social-sex­u­al intrigue. He wit­ness­es the ban­quet­ing-tents of a cor­rupt Eng­lish elec­toral cam­paign and — when we see him last — is solv­ing the mys­tery of a haunt­ed Abbey, where he encoun­ters the gen­er­ous bosom of a “ghost­ly” Duchess.

An audio recording of Canto IX of Byron’s Don Juan

Here’s a record­ing — about 2-years old — of Can­to IX of Don Juan.

The record­ing (MP3) is in three parts. It’s best to read along with the text of the poem if you can because the verse is quite com­plex. Also please use head­phones. You’ll find the qual­i­ty much bet­ter.

[There is 5–10 sec­onds of silence at the head of each record­ing]

  1. Vers­es 1–21
  • An attack on the Duke of Welling­ton for being a Tory and a leech; too vain to know the true impact his vic­to­ries had on Euro­pean free­dom
  • An apos­tro­phe (“Death laughs..”) to death —- the sub­ject is nev­er far from the sur­face of Don Juan
  • A mean­der­ing philo­soph­i­cal rumi­na­tion on “being” that is short and wit­ty enough to hold its place in the poem
  • An abrupt tran­si­tion to…

2. Vers­es 21–42 

  • A brief glimpse of Juan en-route to St Peters­burg whose dis­tant prospect leads to…
  • An aside on autoc­ra­cy, dem­a­goguery and the abuse of pow­er that ends when Byron seems to remem­ber him­self and returns briefly to…
  • Juan on the snowy road with Leila. Short­ly after­wards, in the midst of a rhetor­i­cal fig­ure about Fame, Byron pre­tends to have lost the thread of his argu­ment and bequeathes it to pos­ter­i­ty… which results in…
  • A spec­u­la­tion about the future and how the Geor­gian era (and George IV) will appear when reduced to being the sub­ject of a future arche­ol­o­gy.
  • Then, once more, Byron pulls him­self up and deter­mines to restart the nar­ra­tive. He cuts straight­way to the court of the Empress Cather­ine where Juan is to present gen­er­al Suvorov’s dis­patch­es from the suc­cess­ful siege of Ismail.

3. Vers­es 43–85 

  • Juan’s appear­ance at Court
  • Catherine’s court, courtiers, her appear­ance, blood­i­ness and promis­cu­ity
  • Juan’s pre­sen­ta­tion to the Queen and her infat­u­a­tion with him
  • A series of asides on lust and pow­er and an apos­tro­phe, to the vagi­na
  • Juan’s flat­tered but ‘gen­tle­man­ly’ acqui­es­cence in an ‘assign­ment’ — in Catherine’s boudoir — like­ly to make him wealthy and pow­er­ful at Court
  • A clos­ing scene in which Juan is tak­en in hand by a woman who “checks-out” the Queen’s prospec­tive lovers.

I hope you enjoy the read­ing. Com­ments are wel­come.

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” (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 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
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.