A talk on Byron & Don Juan

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

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

Here is the text of the paper:

Byron & Don Juan

About Lord Byron?

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

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

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


About Don Juan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Gallagher
madbaddangerous.com
October, 2016


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

Highly recommended: A life of “Tita” Falcieri

A portrait of a gondolier, but not Tita

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it and enjoy.

Progress in the recording of Don Juan

The image shows Catherine the Great in a walking cloak; painted by V.Borovikovskiy about 1794

It’s nine months at least since I last posted here: not what readers expect, of course, so I assume I have no readers any more. Alas! My own fault.

But I have not been quite so idle on the recording front. One way or another, in fits and starts (mostly ‘fits’), I’m getting through the Cantos. The last I reported on here was Canto III. But I’ve also recorded Canto IV and Cantos VI through IX. I recorded Canto I, Canto V and Cantos XIII-XVI for Librivox several years ago. I’ve left until last a second visit to those cantos. I also have (re-)recordings of I and II that I made a couple of years back in my planned series of iBooks (a project dropped after the illustrated, read-aloud Canto I failed to sell: it is now available for free download).

Canto IX, set around 1790, sees Juan, the ‘hero’ of the battle of Ismail (Russia vs Ottoman Turks), as the toy-boy of an ageing — but amorous — Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. The Canto is an hilarious, clever, scandalous satire on sex and imperial power with a few Byronic rockets for the reactionary government of 1820’s England. Juan is flattered by the Empress’ attention and, naturally, fully capable of fulfilling the duties of his ‘post’ (… yes, there are plenty of double entendres and paraphrases of bawdy Roman verse that educated English men and women of the Regency no doubt recognized). But he falls ill in the Russian snows and is given an embassy to England as a reward for his ‘services’ to Catherine.

I am now recording Canto X, composed in 1822. It brings Juan, as a Russian speaking Spaniard, to London; the city Byron had fled seven years before. Some of his finest satire is just ahead.

Byron’s big fat Greek frustration

Ok! That title is a cheap attempt at click-bait. Implausible, too. Byron hated “big fat” anything. He was obsessive about his weight… certainly neurotic, possibly anorexic from time to time.

But he was deeply frustrated by the Greeks, whom he loved from the time of his first youthful visit to the region in 1810-11. In Don Juan he rages at their unwillingness, or inability, to assert their national spirit in the face of a tired, half-attentive, but rapacious Turkish occupation.

Did the Greek’s even have a “national spirit”? Was there a Hellenic homeland? Or just a bunch of Ionian, Doric and Peloponnesian regions of “cis-Eurasia” that Western Europe romanticized as the territorial heritage of ‘classical Greece’? Was Byron’s assumption that any red-blooded Greek should be a pan-Hellenist just another example of his own hot-headed, lordly, liberalism getting ahead of the facts?

Honestly, I’m not sure. But that does not detract from my enjoyment of Byron’s eloquent radicalism in the Greek cause nor my sympathy with his frustration. He deserves sympathy on this account almost more than on any other. Not only (in the mid-1820s) did he put his “money where his mouth was” but he laid down his life — if not willingly, with determined resignation — in its cause.

In Canto III of Don Juan, Byron celebrates the fateful nuptial feast of Juan and his lover-savior Haidée the Pirate’s Daughter. The centerpiece of the feast is a lyric that has become one of the best-known and most anthologised of Byron’s verses; “The Isles of Greece…“. The song is not part of the ottava rima ‘rootstock’ of Don Juan, but a ‘sport’ of lyric verse that is both a poetic and narrative diversion. An unnamed Poet, a professional entertainer who is also the butt of several of Byron’s jokey allusions to his self-serving contemporaries, the ‘Laker’ poets, sings “The Isles of Greece” apparently because he believes his hosts will approve it. This ‘staging’ creates some distance between the sentiments in the verse and Byron; but, in truth, very little. The satire is too pointed, the verse too refined, to be any but Byron’s.

The verse is easy and the opening lines have the wistful character of “poesy”… Poetry editors for a hundred fifty hundred hundred years,* seeking some short, self-contained segment of Don Juan for their anthologies ignored the untypical character of the song and excerpted it for their collections.

But how many who know it’s opening lines would recall the sharpness of its later satire on the Greeks under Ottoman rule? Or it’s anger?

If, about now, you too are feeling some frustration at the character of Greece or even, perhaps, the rapaciousness of their neighbors… you might enjoy reviewing this surprising wedding address. Here is an extract from my recording of Canto III containing the “Isles of Greece”. If you like it, please let me know and I’ll push the whole Canto ‘out the door’.

Oh… and one last thing. The image at the head of this post is of the eccentric, brilliant aesthete Thomas Beechey Hope, the — initially anonymous — author of a much-praised comic satire on the “Greek” identity, Anastasius (available from the Internet Archive) published by John Murray published in 1819. Anastasius clearly inspired parts of Don Juan.


* Hmmm… the earliest evidence I can find is Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1900 Anthology “The Oxford Book Of English Verse 1250–1900”.

Shelley and Byron (1822)

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

For the first few years of his self-imposed exile in Italy, Byron’s strongest literary friendship was with the similarly self-exiled Percy Bysshe Shelley. PBS was a wild, truly radical genius married, but frequently unfaithful, to the witty, loyal, liberal Mary (Woolstonecraft Godwin) Shelley; the author of Frankenstein (and several other novels) and later copyist of several of Byron’s Canto’s of Don Juan.

Shelley was an impetuous, often brilliant character whose poetry leaped a generation, at least, to influence major British poets writing at the end of the 19th century. But he honoured — adored, in truth — his friend Byron.

I am thinking again of their relationship because I am starting to prepare to record Canto VI of Don Juan, which Byron composed in the first few months of 1822 in Pisa. He had moved there from Ravenna, possibly at Shelley’s urging, accompanied by Teresa (now separated by Papal decree from the mercurial, ageing Count Guiccioli) and her father (Count Gamba), who had been exiled from Ravenna for supporting political intrigues against the Austrian occupation.

Shelley and Mary were now resident in Pisa; the importunate Claire Claremont — Mary’s half-sister-by-marriage and mother of Byron’s daughter Allegra — having been banished to Rome (Byron had placed their daughter at a convent near Ravenna). Yes, it’s complicated.

Byron was on top of his game. Happy to move to the sunny city of Pisa from the harsher climate of Ravenna. Murray had, finally, agreed to pay 2500 guineas for Cantos 3, 4 & 5 of Don Juan plus three dramas: Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari and Cain. But Bryon was planning to take his profitable poems elsewhere. Canto’s 1 and 2 of Don Juan were already a roaring success (even in Murray’s expensive Quarto edition). His cuttingest satire of English poesie and poets The Vision of Judgment was ready for publication and would mark the transition from John Murray to the radical Leigh Hunt as his publisher. He had completed the silly, steamy romp of Canto VCross-Dressing in the Seraglio — in December of 1821 and now he took a break, in part because Teresa disapproved of the poem, urging him to abandon it, and in part because of Murray’s reluctance to publish it.

Byron gave himself over, for a while, to riding and shooting and long drunken dinners with the small english literary community he drew around him. He also came into a welcome inheritance following the death of his mother-in-law (part of the separation settlement) that boosted his annual income from his English estates. He resumed work on Don Juan, however, in February of 1822.

Shelley was both in awe of Byron’s intellect and unable to fathom his friend’s refusal to be ‘serious’ about the things that Shelley himself took terribly seriously. Here is Leslie Marchand’s report (referring to the late dinners where Shelley would not stay):

“Despite the fact that Shelley was sometimes annoyed by Byron’s flitting from subject to subject without arguing any point through, he too was drawn by the personality and brilliance of the man whose genius so overawed his own that for the first months of Byron’s residence in Pisa the younger poet wrote but little. He had written from Ravenna in August: “I despair of rivalling Lord Byron, as well I may, and there is no other with whom it is worth contending.”” And he later told Horace Smith: “I do not write I have lived too long near Lord Byron and the sun has extinguished the glow-worm …. ” He wrote to John Gisborne apropos of Cain: ”What think you of Lord Byron now? Space wondered less at the swift and fair creations of God, when he grew weary of vacancy, than I at the late works of this spirit of an angel in the mortal paradise of a decaying body. So I think — let the world envy while it admires, as it may.” Even after he had begun to feel the strain of Byron’s parties and wished he might gracefully withdraw from them, he continued to hold exaggerated views of the merits of Cain.” (from Vol. 3 of Marchand’s Autobiography of Byron, p. 951)

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

The British Library’s “Don Juan” collection

The BL has a number of Byron’s manuscripts and some early editions of the published Don Juan from the 1820s. Pages from some of them are on-line as image files: well worth exploring.

I have taken the illustration at the head of this post from an 1826 pirated edition (Smeeton) of Canto I that featured plates by Isaac Cruickshank (brother of the better-known George). The image depicts Juan and Julia her maid — the ‘adept’ Antonia — shooing Juan from Julia’s bedroom (he had been hidden in the closet) while her husband, Don Alfonso, searches the rest of the house for her lover.

The verse (No. 182) is Byron at his most suggestive… Julia pleads with Juan who, still love struck, tarries:

“Fly, Juan, fly! for heaven’s sake — not a word —

The door is open — you may yet slip through

The passage you so often have explored —
…”

For comparison, Lynette Yencho’s illustration of the same verse for my audio-iBook of Canto I of Don Juan:

Verse170-sm

It’s amusing that the British Library notes that the Cruickshank images are “Free from any copyright retrictions”. It was the refusal of the Crown to grant copyright to Cantos 1 & 2 that lead to their widespread piracy by the publisher of this edition (among others).

An appreciation of Peter Cochran (1944-2105)

“…And Glory long has made the Sages smile;
‘Tis something, nothing, words, illusion, wind,
Depending more upon the Historian’s Style
Than on the name a person leaves behind,
Troy owes to Homer what Whist owes to Hoyle;”

Don Juan, Canto III, verse 90
(Cochran edition)

Peter Cochran is awarded his PhD from Glasgow

I never met or corresponded with Peter Cochran, who died last week. But his writing was witty, well-informed and opinionated so that it was impossible after reading quite a lot of it not to imagine a personality and voice.

Dr Cochran’s scholarly work on the text of every Canto of Don Juan, his 20-year labor on the Hobhouse diaries from the Byron years and his precise editions of Byron’s correspondence with Hobhouse, Lady Melbourne, Douglas Kinnaird and John Murray and several of his critical essays have been enormously helpful to me in preparing to read and to annotate/illustrate Don Juan.

Peter Cochran produced an erudite, annotated text of the poem based directly on the manuscripts and the fair copy (supervised by Byron) rather than on the emendations or approximations of Byron’s early editors as so many later editors have done. The result, as he argues, is more fluid (much less orthodox in punctuation) and sometimes more ambiguous in meaning. But the Cochran text gives the impression of being all the more faithful to Byron’s own voice than the ‘corrected’ versions produced by John Murray or even later scholars such as E.G. Stefan and Jerome McGann. (I also consult the Steffan text).

Better, for all its scholarly value, Cochran’s edition of Don Juan is a lot of fun. PC’s annotations — like his essays — often extract or fill-out relevant details of Byron’s life, or reading (or pets) not found, or passed over, even in Leslie Marchand’s monumental 3-Volume biography or (selected) Journals and Letters. Best of all, PC appreciates Byron’s humour, temper and (many) foibles to an extent that many of his – chiefly American – editors apparently do not.** It would not be too much to say that Byron’s modern glory may owe something to Peter Cochran’s ‘Historian’s Style‘.

He generously made all this work — and much more – available on his website in PDF format. His daughters, who seem to be his literary executors (and Twitters) say they will maintain his site; for which I am grateful. I expect to rely on it for some time to come as I work through this project to narrate and illustrate Don Juan.

Hail and farewell.


** I make one exception to this observation: the spectacular Isaac Asimov Annotated Don Juan, illustrated by Milton Glaser. IA is an annotator rather than an editor whose commentary on the poem sometimes seems to skirt the sensibilities of his 1970’s American audience. But Asimov, like Peter Cochran, got the comic genius and the singular scope of Byron’s great work.

The sound and the sense of Don Juan

Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier painted 1802 by François (Baron) Gérard
Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier painted 1802 by François (Baron) Gérard

Sam. Johnson famously observed that only a blockhead would write for no money. He might also have said that only a fool tries to self-publish; a sad fool if it’s poetry. So, foolishly, I’ve been looking for a better way to distribute my newer recordings of Don Juan so that they’ll be accessible for more people and, I hope, more visible.

I used to make my recordings available to Librivox.org. But I don’t like their insistence on branding the recordings to themselves and their indifference to marketing. I have no present intention of charging for these recordings but I no longer have any intention, either, of placing them in the public domain. The effect of doing so is to loose all control of the distribution and quality. Fortunately, so far, the re-publishers of whom I’m aware – YouTube and other streaming sites – have not bothered to change anything; only putting a ‘cover’ on the recording.

The sound and the sense

Besides, I am equally interested in both the sound and the text of the poem. The narration is only a performance of the poem; fleeting, a figment. Of course it’s supposed to sound as Byron may have wished it to sound. He must have had some sound in mind, or why bother with the demanding constraints of ottawa rima? He certainly chose words in part for their metre and sound and the narration must convey this music. But Byron chose among themes and expressions for reasons the narration can barely hint at, and never fully capture.

You need the text for that; and even commentary on the text. Does that ruin it for my listeners?

I hope the opposite might be true. Don Juan is great entertainment, but it is still more fun when you understand the jests, satirical barbs, personal confessions and evasions and that, today, are no longer evident on the surface that narration skims. For his contemporaries, the poem contained so many provocations that John Murray could bring himself to publish only the first five Cantos of the greatest comic epic in English and then anonymously. It is a great pity to miss out on them.

Byron brings to his greatest work a classical education and a sense of his social environment that is now antique, although combined with elements that were radical for his time. Too, he has a fascinating personal history — somewhat obscured by a rakish, romanticised reputation — and a fascination with his own psychology as an author that is entirely modern. Alas, only notes on the text can give every punch-line the weight it deserves or reveal where Byron pulls a punch to save himself some pain.

Publishing and distributing my own narrations and texts, however, needs an economic and easily accessible channel to readers and listeners. One upon a time I might have considered, for example, including a sound recording on CD with a printed book. (If you purchased any of those huge computer-related tomes popular in the 1990s you will remember the format; the plastic CD sleeve pasted in the back cover.) But the Internet has made that formula expensive and nearly obsolete. The assault of music-streaming means fewer people bother to own a CD player. Besides, only big publishers and big stores can now provide a book+CD distribution network. It would still be possible to combine print and audio with an on-line ‘companion site’ for the printed book. I may go in that direction one day. But, as of now, the market for my narration is too small to warrant it and my annotated texts are only an experiment. So digital distribution is likely to remain my choice if only for economic reasons.

Audio-enabled ePub

Which digital format, then? I’ve tried only one, so far: ePub. Specifically, a form of ePub defined by the International Digital Publishing Forum as ePub 3.1 that provides for a standard ‘audio overlay’ format for the ePub text. When I published Canto I of Don Juan in September 2012 only Apple iBooks fully implemented this format but – as is inevitable with Apple – using some proprietary extensions. Unless you have a Mac or iPhone, iPad (or a later iPod) you will have trouble playing it.

Slowly, other companies are producing software capable of playing the ‘page-by-page’ overlay; more or less accurately.

On a Mac or PC the Adobe Digital Editions software (version 4.0) or, on the iPad, IPhone and Android platforms the Menestrello app will play the iBook ePub while doing different kinds of damage to the presentation.

Still better than both of these, at present, is the Readium plugin for the Google Chrome browser. If you download the free ePub of Canto 1 from the Apple iBook Store (use this iTunes link) and save it to your local disk, you should be able to import it into Readium with acceptable results.

PDF with embedded audio

What about other formats for text + audio?

Adobe has released a sort of ‘slide presentation’ format based on their Adobe Air (ShockWave-replacement) platform. I’ve made a short Adobe Voice presentation on the Dedication to Don Juan with some verse extracts. But Voice files are huge; Adobe evidently intends that they be brief (~1 min.) presentations streamed from Adobe’s own cloud. Not really an option for Don Juan.

There is, too, a (chiefly) Adobe means of embedding audio in a PDF file. Now it happens that PDF is probably my favoured format for distribution of an annotated text. As a page description language, PDF provides strong control over layout, ensuring that what I devise appears in just that form on every platform that displays PDF (there are dozens of these). Furthermore, PDF is a ‘first class citizen’ in the Apple OSX equipment that I use. There are many editing platforms that natively output PDF using the facilities provided by the Apple operating system.

I do not however prefer Apple software to produce PDF. Instead, I use LaTeX (actually the LuaLaTeX engine) to produce PDF. This gives me a more consistent output, typographically superior to any of the WYSIWYG editors on OS X that produce Apple-flavoured PDF. It also allows me to use a low-level library (LaTeX macro) for embedding audio files in the PDF in such a way that they will play automatically, requiring no user configuration or intervention.

As an experiment I have embedded an extract from my earliest recording of Canto I of Don Juan (the first 36 verses) into an annotated text that I created sometime in 2010-11. Here is a link to the audio-PDF file. I have not optimised the images or the audio in this file so it’s 19 MB in size (a 2-3 minute download if you’re on a consumer-level DSL link to the Internet).

Please note that you must view this file in the free Adobe Acrobat reader (or in Acrobat Pro) for the audio to play. (It relies, internally, on Adobe javascript extensions to the PDF file format.). Also, you may have to download a free Adobe Flash Player plug-in if you do not already have such a thing on your computer. This file will display on some iOS devices (iPad etc) but only one or two iOS apps that display PDF will allow access to the audio (PDF Expert from Readdle, for example) ; and then, only as an attachment, not embedded.

Please let me know whether this is a successful experiment in your opinion. I’d be grateful if you’d give me some feedback – even if only thumbs-up or down – on this format.

Audio options

Still, I know that some of my listeners are not at all interested in reading the poem, much less notes on the poem. For them, the audio relieves them of the need to read it to themselves. They might like simply to listen, possibly to enjoy their imagined scenes. Or perhaps they like to have the distraction of listening while they do other, less imaginative, things like washing the dishes or commuting to work.

I am still thinking about how best to serve them.

Canto IV in the can

Leon Gerome's painting of the Capture of Blackbeard (not much like Juan's voyage with  the pirates)
Leon Gerome’s painting of the Capture of Blackbeard (not much like Juan’s voyage with the pirates)

Who knew? I had the time suddenly, and the opportunity. So into my ‘studio’, a few practice runs — helped by the recent (laborious) work on Canto III — and the violent, sad, quirky conclusion of the Juan-Haidée episode is done!

Canto IV was written at the same time as Canto III: they’re one story. It was split into two. Byron says (in Canto III) ‘for money’. But that’s a fib. He offered John Murray, his publisher, both Cantos for the price of one. Murray was, as ever, squeamish about both.

Number Four is the terrible tale of the inevitable end of the Juan-Haidee romance; his injury, capture and transport into Slavery at the hand of her father, the Pirate Lambro. Her desolation at the loss of Juan and her hopes; her death (and the death of another); the decline and disappearance, with Haidée, of all her father had built.

Juan, wounded and (alas!) incapacitated by his grief over the loss of Haidée, is chained to a beautiful female slave on board the slavers’ ship. His companions in the hold are a traveling Italian opera company whose impresario has sold them into slavery. He gets all the goss on the sexual jealousies, character faults and stage weaknesses of the troupe from the ‘buffo’ of the party. But they arrive, pretty quickly at the warves below the Seraglio of Constantinople and disembark for the slave mart, to learn their fates.

Now… on to Canto V (that link to Peter Gallaghers recording of Don Juan Canto V, once — a few years ago — for Librivox).

Heaven, Hell and Marriage

Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law Paulo Malatesta, with husband Giovanni, spying on them (Ingres).
Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law Paulo Malatesta, with husband Giovanni, spying on them (Ingres).

Over the past few days I’ve finished editing my recording of Canto III of Don Juan. That makes 8 of the sixteen complete Canto’s that I’ve recorded (Canto I, twice).

Cantos I and IV and XIII-XVI are available from Librivox.org. Canto I (a second recording) is also available on the iBook store (button to the left) as a free, illustrated, read-along audio book.

My recordings of Cantos II and III have not been released. I’m not sure yet how, or when, I’ll release them. Canto II is nothing if not a ‘rip-roaring tale’ of storms at sea, shipwreck, cannibalism and sex on the beach. It was published, anonymously, with Canto I and in spirit, at least, the two form a sort of unit. They both focus on Juan’s narrative — with Byronic excursions, of course.

Cantos III and IV, drafted first as one long book and then split and slightly reworked, are quite different from the first two. Canto III has almost no narrative action. It’s one long build-up to the fate of the lovers Juan and Haidée at the hands of her father, the pirate and slaver Lambro — with even longer Byronic excursions.

The ‘excursions’ include essays on fame and literature, satires on love and marriage, skewering attacks on the flaccid verse and fame of the “Laker” poets (Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge), reflections on religion, families and a sharply-worded call to Greeks to rise up against their Turkish overlords. This last — Byron’s first foray into the rebellion that would take his life just a few years later — is in the form of a ‘song’ composed for a feast offered by Juan and Haidée.

“The Isles of Greece” is half-familiar to many people who know nothing else of Byron’s epic (because it has been included in many anthologies). But I wonder how many who recognize the title recall its revolutionary content and its exasperation with Greek complacency.

A couple of weeks ago, I published here an annotated text of Canto III. For now, I’m releasing just a sample of the recording that goes with it. Here are verses 5-11 of the Canto: Byron on heaven, hell and marriage.