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.
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.