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

Infidelity
What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
Is much more common where the climate’s sultry.
Fiction
’Tis strange, but true, for truth is always strange, 
Stranger than fiction.
(Yes… Don Juan is the origin of that, now trite, idea)
Hate
Now Hatred is by far the longest pleasure; 
Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.
Life
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

The Peterloo Massacre

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