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.

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Byron fan (not fanatic); poetry lover (not tragic); doctor of melancholia (not gloom).

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