Surprises for newcomers to Don Juan

It’s long

Newcomers to Byron’s poem are more likely to find it on the web than on a bookshelf. So their first surprise, often, is its length. Sixteen books (“Cantos”), 20,000 lines, 130 ,000 words. It’s as long as a modern fantasy novel.

It can seem even longer because…well, a practiced reader finds it easy to scan whole pages of prose, paying as little or as much attention as needed. But it’s almost impossible to do that with poetry. The rhymes, the inversions, the shape of the verse slow us down and frequently demand at least an interior reader who speaks the words to us.

That’s as it should be, and the main reason why my forthcoming edition of Canto 1 of Don Juan will speak the words to the reader. The performance takes about an hour and forty-two minutes with another eight minutes (or so) for the Dedication that precedes the poem.

It’s great fun

But with Byron there’s a great reward in reading for sense rather than reading to finish. For one thing, he’s such fun. That’s usually the second surprise for newcomers. Byron’s attention wanders a good deal in Don Juan — that’s the spirit of the thing — but his writing is tight and his comic timing, like his metre, is impeccable. He’s serious, sometimes, but never solemn and has a punch-line in the final couplet of nearly every stanza.

It’s for grown-ups

This is not your old Aunt’s “poesie”. Byron has few qualms — pretended, maybe — about dissecting lust, infidelity, fantasy, blasphemy, the disappointments of faith and the betrayals of ‘tyranny’. There’s even some “dwarf tossing” in Canto Five! His themes are closer to those of his hero Horace, the free-wheeling, humane essayist of the early Roman empire, than the cerebral refinements of his contemporaries, the English Romantic poets. This may be the third surprise: Don Juan has the space, and Byron the inclination to discuss liberty, self-knowledge, the passions– sex, of course, but also power and wealth — happiness, the dialog of the sexes, growing old (or growing up, Byron scarcely did either) and the illusion of fame.

… And he does it in a conversational, half confessional, half ironic tone that is essentially modern.

It’s modern

A fourth surprise for many newcomers is that although the poem is nearly two centuries old, it is filled with modern ideas and attitudes. The tone is conversational and personal. Byron looks his readers in the eye, rather than address them from a pedestal. The language, here and there, carries an eighteenth century ring and his etiquette is not necessarily ours: “gay” means happy, even frothy; more gratingly, moneylenders are “jews”. He is skeptical of the claims of the Church (not religion), the servility of politics and overblown science. Although an aristocrat, and a bit of a snob, there’s nothing feudal or condescending about Byron. Personal liberty is probably his highest value and, like his near contemporary, Jane Austen, Byron makes women the strongest characters in his poem. His heroines have ideas, passions, ambition and a freedom of action that Austen’s women only dreamed of.

It’s highly quotable

What use is poetry, unless it’s memorable? Great poetry, like great painting or sculpture, changes our way of seeing things. Don Juan has done that — more than you realise until you read it. Here are a few snippets that you might recognize even if you have not read the Poem

What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
Is much more common where the climate’s sultry.
’Tis strange, but true, for truth is always strange, 
Stranger than fiction.
(Yes… Don Juan is the origin of that, now trite, idea)
Now Hatred is by far the longest pleasure; 
Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.
A little breath, love, wine, ambition, fame, 
Fighting, devotion, dust – perhaps a name.
Men and women
‘Man’s love is of his life a thing apart, 
’Tis woman’s whole existence.

Don Juan and the year of revolt

It is astonishing to us, now, that the amusing, clever, mostly-light-hearted tales in Cantos I and II of Don Juan were condemned by the English establishment for blasphemy, depravity and inciting misbehaviour (among the lower classes). Byron protested, accurately, that his poem was innocent when measured by the standards of Classical Roman verse, or or Dante or even Milton.

But Byron knew well what he was up to — whom his satire would sting and whom it would please — and clearly delighted in it.

To appreciate the daring, as well as the fun, of Don Juan we must bear in mind the bitterly charged politics and near class-warfare that gripped England in the the year (1819) that the poem first appeared. The propertied classes — nobility, gentry, the army, church and parvenu industrialists — feared riot, revolt or even bloody revolution by workers and their radical allies of the constitutional Reform movement.

I could not tell the story of that year better than this excerpt from David Erdman’s 1944 talk “Byron and Revolt in England”

“In January the laborers of Manchester paraded with red flags surmounted by red caps of liberty. In February and March there were strikes (the word was new) of weavers and colliers, and a month-long hubbub in Westminster where a stormy bye- election was won by the pooling of Tory and Whig votes against a field of Radicals led by Byron’s associate Hobhouse; crowds in Covent Garden attacked the successful candidate shouting “Hobhouse for ever.”

In April the Quarterly [Review] came out with a tardy but copious denunciation of Shelley’s Revolt of Islam as a production of “that industrious knot of authors” whose work “loosened the hold of our protecting laws . . . and blasphemed our holy religion.”

The Peterloo Massacre
The Peterloo Massacre from a pamphlet published by Richard Carlile

In June the weavers were making wage demands again, and a wave of Reform meetings swept the counties, continuing in July to fill news- papers with accounts of banners, placards, and (at Rochdale, one of Lord Byron’s fiefs) female Reformers marching 5,000 strong. Reform was in their mouths, said Sidmouth, “but rebellion and revolution in their hearts.” That month the government arrested several “malicious, seditious, evil-minded persons,” including the editors of the [radical weekly newspaper] Black Dwarf and the Manchester Observer, as well as Major Cartwright, whose Radical Hampden Club Byron had joined in 1813.

[In July] John Murray, in spite of politics, published what another Tory called a diabolic burlesque poem “loosely written in every sense of the word called the Two First Cantos of Don Juan.” It appeared, because of politics, without the names of author or pub- lisher, but [radical publisher William] Hone soon “unmasked” “Don John (Murray),” and everybody knew it was Byron’s.

Bankruptcies and the distress of the laborers increased. In Keswick [Poet Laureate, Tory mouthpiece and Byron’s antagonist Robert] Southey heard the poor talk of “parceling out” estates. And then on the 16th of August 60,000 men and women “marched” to St. Peter’s Fields, near Manchester, where, said the government papers, they would have been incited to treason by the “democratical” Orator [Williamn] Hunt, but for the timely, if bloody, action of the magistrates, mostly clergymen, on whose orders Constables and Yeomanry dispersed the crowd with sabre and pistol, killing 11 and wounding 600.

Following [the] Peterloo [“Massacre”] the more extreme Radicals, [radical London publisher Richard] Cariile for instance in his new Republican, openly defied the government, urging huge protest meetings and calling upon the people to “arm against the coming evil,” boasting “we can beat off the combined Yeoman Cavalry of the whole country.”

In September the government was still finding signs of the coming “simultaneous insurrection,” especially in an ominous silence on the part of the Radicals. [Arthur Wellesley, Lord] Wellington sent “troops with cannon . . . into Cheshire, Lancashire, and Yorkshire.” The Duke of Hamilton reported that he had seen Radicals surveying his park. Lord Dudley, in a more inclusive view, saw “the whirlpool of democracy” swirling nearer. Alarm swept the Emergency session of Parliament that opened November 23rd, shortly following a panic among the moneyed men. The question was not whether Reformers were marching “in military array” but how many thousands? Bootle Wilbraham claimed to have seen pistols and pikes and the plans of the poor to divide the land “by force.”

In October hundreds of pulpits rejoiced over the defeat of “Satan and Carlile” when the latter was convicted of selling the “Theological Works” of [the author of the “Rights of Man”] Tom Paine.

[In November, William] Cobbett’s recent return from America -“to die for Reform,” wrote one Radical- had been followed by an ominous reconciliation of the Radical factions. Alarming enough to Tories and Conservative Whigs was the appearance, within Parliament itself, of two new Radical members: Douglas Kinnaird and John Cam Hobhouse, bosom friends of Byron [since their days as students in Cambridge], who was known to have joined their “Radical Rota Club” in absentia.™ … [In the debate on the trial of the Peterloo demonstrators] Hobhouse spoke so very much like an inciter to rebellion that the House, in mounting hysteria, voted him to a cell in Newgate jail.”

Rhyming Rowland’s Macassar

Byron includes once piece of “product placement” in Canto 1 of Don Juan; a mocking encomium to Rowland’s “Incomparable” Macassar oil whose superior qualities alone could match those of Donna Inez.

“In virtues nothing earthly could surpass her,
Save thine ‘incomparable oil’, Macassar.”

Thomas Rowlindson's 1814 cartoon satrising the fashionable use of Rowlands' Macassar oil a a treatment for baldness
Rowlands Macassar Oil- An Oily Puff For Soft Heads

The joke worked so well because the Alexander Rowlands, father and son, were incessant puff-merchants for their own products — which included Essence of Tyre (for dyeing grey or red hair a dark auburn color) and Alsana Extract (for “eradicating disorders of the teeth”) — frequently the form of verse advertisements in the Gazettes. The following indicative extract is taken from Rowlands Jnr.’s A Practical and Philosophical Treatise on the Human Hair, published in 1814

In antient times a flow of Hair,
Reclining on the shoulders bare,
Was view’d a mark of beauty’s pride,
A fact which n’er can be deny’d

Proof that “advertising works” may, in fact, be the lasting legacy of The Incomparable Macassar Oil, for it became a wildly fasionable treatment for baldness — or maybe wig-hair — among the trivial, newly-wealthy, fasionable (middle) classes of Regency England, as John Rowlindson’s cartoon suggests.

Title page of Alex. Rowlands Jnr's 1814 "Practical and Philosophical Treatise on Human Hair"
Alex. Rowlands Jnr., "A Practical and Philosophical Treatise on Human Hair", 1814

Curiously, Byron’s backhanded “compliment” to the product was not the end of the joke. The Rowlands returned the “compliment” in an advertisement among the back-papers of the Tenth (monthly) installment of Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers published on a freezing, snowbound last-day of December of 1836 (London roads were impassable, snow lay at a depth of 5-15 feet in places with drifts up to 20ft).

The full-page advertisement, reproduced below, purported to be “missing verses” from Don Juan, further detailing Inez’ use of Rowlands’ products for the hair and teeth in a hacker’s version of ottava rima but, naturally, without the satire that enlivened Byron’s reference to the products.

An image of an advertisement in the tenth instalment of the Pickwick Papers (Dec 31, 1836) purporting to show "missing verses" from Byron's Don Juan
"Missing verses" from Don Juan

You can find a full account of the influence the advertisement may have had on an episode in the twelfth instalment of The Pickwick Papers here