Byron’s Outrageous Dedication (video)

A week or so back I wrote a short post on the Ded­i­ca­tion to Don Juan — one of his most acid satires.

But it seemed to me I should be able to do bet­ter than that; so I’ve made a short ‘video’ using Adobe Voice that intro­duces the Ded­i­ca­tion. Click on the image to go to the pre­sen­ta­tion.


The first slide of my Adobe Voice presentation on the Dedication to Don Juan
The first slide of my Adobe Voice pre­sen­ta­tion on the Ded­i­ca­tion to Don Juan

What would have become of Juan

Don Juan is unfin­ished. At the end of the last com­plet­ed Can­to (XVI), Juan is in the midst of an amorous mid­night tan­gle with a “ghost” in the gallery of a restored Eng­lish Abbey (Byron’s ances­tral home at New­stead).

You can down­load record­ings I made a few years ago of the last Can­tos (for Lib­rivox) from the Inter­net Archive.

Only a few pre­lim­i­nary vers­es of Can­to XVII were found among Byron’s papers in Missa­longhi, Greece, where he died. Although the unfin­ished Can­to was intend­ed to con­tin­ue the roman­tic intrigue involv­ing Juan’s host­ess, Lady Amundev­ille, and the mys­te­ri­ous Auro­ra Raby — includ­ing, Byron sug­gests, a sur­prise on a bil­liard table (!) — we will nev­er know the details of Juan’s escapes from (yet anoth­er) design­ing lover. Or, indeed, the ulti­mate fate of Byron’s hand­some, brave, but pas­sive hero.

Byron insist­ed to his pub­lish­er, John Mur­ray, that he had only the loos­est plans for Don Juan

I meant to take him [Juan] on the tour of Europe – with a prop­er mix­ture of siege – bat­tle – and adven­ture – and to make him fin­ish as Anachar­sis Cloots – in the French Rev­o­lu­tion. –
To how many Can­tos this may extend – I know not – nor whether even if I live I shall com­plete it – but this was my notion. – I meant to have made him a Cav­a­lier Ser­vente in Italy, and a cause for a divorce in Eng­land – and a Sen­ti­men­tal ‘Werther-faced man’ in Ger­many – so as to show the dif­fer­ent ridicules of the soci­ety in each of those coun­tries – – and to have dis­played him grad­u­al­ly gâté and blasé as he grew old­er – as is nat­ur­al. But I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell – or in an unhap­py mar­riage – not know­ing which would be the sever­est – The Span­ish tra­di­tion says Hell – but it is prob­a­bly only an Alle­go­ry of the oth­er state. You are now in pos­ses­sion of my notions on the sub­ject

It’s easy to believe that this is true and not just Byron teas­ing the straight-laced Mur­ray with a plan that the busi­ness­man could only have con­sid­ered chaot­ic. Byron had the facil­i­ty to make it up as he went along. It’s a mode of com­po­si­tion — if not a plan — appar­ent­ly suit­ed to Juan’s picaresque adven­tures.

The idea that hell is an alle­go­ry of mar­riage is a sign that Byron is not (entire­ly) seri­ous about this out­line. But there’s a pathet­ic irony in his throw-away sug­ges­tion that the poem might not be com­plet­ed before his own death.

Of the fates out­lined for Juan, per­haps the most dra­mat­ic is the first: to have Juan guil­lotined in the French Rev­o­lu­tion. Anachar­sis Cloots, whom Byron men­tions — and whom he rejects, among oth­ers, as the sub­ject for his Poem in Stan­za 3 of the First Can­to — was an eccen­tric Pruss­ian noble­man who was con­vinced that the prin­ci­ples of the French Rev­o­lu­tion should be enlarged to a World gov­ern­ment and who styled him­self as the “per­son­al ene­my” of Jesus Christ. Although he adopt­ed French cit­i­zen­ship and played a part in the pros­e­cu­tion of Louis XVI, he was him­self false­ly accused and exe­cut­ed by bloody Robe­spierre in 1794.

My guess is that Byron would nev­er have com­posed an end to “Don Juan” (or Don Juan) in the sense of a final dis­po­si­tion of the hero after some cli­mac­tic event with all the threads tied off and the moral under­lined (as Da Ponte does, rather heavy-hand­ed­ly, in his libret­to for Mozart’s opera).

The last Can­tos of Don Juan (XIII-XVI) are among his best. But had he sur­vived his Greek expe­di­tion, I think Byron would have giv­en up on the epic — per­haps after com­plet­ing Can­to XVII — leav­ing Juan in “the midst of life” (this was the fate of Childe Harold… the char­ac­ter that brought him inter­na­tion­al fame in the 19th cen­tu­ry).

By 1822 — five years after flee­ing Eng­land — Byron seemed to be look­ing for a life oth­er than the one he had made for him­self with There­sa in Italy. Per­haps not a lit­er­ary life at all. I don’t think he knew def­i­nite­ly what he want­ed or expect­ed from the adven­ture in Greece. I think he want­ed some new direc­tion. I sus­pect he would have aban­doned Juan to an unfin­ished nar­ra­tive, just as he want­ed to aban­don his own recent nar­ra­tive.

Sad­ly, in April 1824, he aban­doned both…

The Dedication to Don Juan

A ded­i­ca­tion?! For an Epic??

Not the usu­al style. But how typ­i­cal of Byron to ded­i­cate his poem to some­one he hates: the Poet Lau­re­ate, Robert Southey!

The illus­trat­ed audio-iBook of Don Juan — avail­able free on the iBook store (see the link to the right of this sto­ry) — includes the Ded­i­ca­tion. See a sam­ple here!

In con­trast to the usu­al syrupy style of poet­ic ded­i­ca­tions, the Ded­i­ca­tion to Don Juan is filled with spleen, calum­ny and bit­ter irony. It’s a rant, to be truth­ful. Byron attacks Southey for being a turn­coat, sell­ing-out his once-lib­er­al views and embrac­ing the reac­tionary pol­i­tics of the Tory gov­ern­ment in return for pro­mo­tion and his Lau­re­ate fees. He accus­es Coleridge of con­fu­sion and Wordsworth of being unin­tel­li­gi­ble and bor­ing.

Lots of fun.

But then he turns to much big­ger tar­gets. In vit­ri­olic verse, he labels the For­eign Sec­re­tary, Lord Castlereagh, an “intel­lec­tu­al eunuch”, a blood-suck­er, a jail­er, a bun­gler and a botch­er… Strong stuff reflect­ing Byron’s (mis­tak­en) belief that Castlereagh — who had a bloody rep­u­ta­tion as Sec­re­tary for Ire­land — was in league with the Aus­tri­an Chan­cel­lor Met­ter­nich and the oth­er repres­sive reac­tionary gov­ern­ments of Europe to crush pop­u­lar demand for lib­er­ty after the col­lapse of the Napoleon­ic cam­paigns.

Byron was fear­less; he was, after all, a Peer of the Realm and, self-exiled in Venice, some­what out of the reach of the Eng­lish gov­ern­ment.

As a mon­u­ment of invec­tive, the Ded­i­ca­tion to Don Juan has no equal in Eng­lish verse (… it pos­si­bly owes a tip of the hat to Pope’s Dun­ci­ad and Dryden’s MacFlec­k­noe)

By the way, don’t you love this image: The Laugh­ing Fool? How well does it con­vey the utter foolis­ness he wit­ness­es? He removes his spec­ta­cles (well-to-do fool?) because… why? He laughs to tears? He has seen enough… ? What do you think?

The Her­mitage Muse­um says it the paint­ing is pos­si­bly by Jacob Cor­nelisz. van Oost­sa­nen, work­ing in about the year 1500 in the then provin­cial town of Ams­ter­dam.

The peculiar trajectory of Canto III (Don Juan)

This is an intrigu­ing Can­to. It con­tains one of Byrons great­est char­ac­ters — the pirate Lam­bro, mod­elled (prob­a­bly) on Ali Pasha — and some of his best-known verse. Yet, it has a weak­er-than-usu­al nar­ra­tive struc­ture, no cli­mac­tic events, some heavy-hand­ed scenery, an odd diver­sion into Mar­i­o­la­try, his most sar­cas­tic attack on Wordsworth and, an abrupt end due to a deci­sion to split the orig­i­nal draft into two Can­tos.

But this Can­to also con­tains the first hints of Byron’s fate­ful attach­ment to an ide­al of Hel­lenic lib­er­a­tion that (with help from his own doc­tors) would send him to his grave just a decade lat­er.

Down­load an anno­tat­ed (& illus­trat­ed) PDF of Can­to III.

Although 111 vers­es long, Can­to III cap­tures just one event in Don Juan’s sto­ry: the return home of the pirate Lam­bro to find Juan installed as the con­sort of his daugh­ter Haidee, (pre­sump­tive) mis­tress of the Isle. Juan has no active role in the Can­to, and no speak­ing part. The only action in the Can­to is Lambro’s.

After a long absence ply­ing his craft as a slave-deal­er and ‘sea attor­ney’, the old pirate returns unde­tect­ed to his island (Byron draws a par­al­lel with the return of Odysseus to Itha­ca). He beach­es his ship and leaves his crew to ‘careen’ her while he mounts the hill above his house and descends the oth­er side, toward it. From a dis­tance he sees his house­hold ser­vants danc­ing and feast­ing on the lawn. His daugh­ter Haidée, con­vinced by his long absence that he had died at sea, has assumed his place and has installed Juan — her lover in the famous sea-cave scene of Can­to II — by her side. Lam­bro, whom the idlers in his gar­den do not even recog­nise, learns from them of the island’s new “Mis­tress and Mas­ter”. He is aston­ished, clear­ly dis­pleased by the lav­ish expen­di­ture and, sur­prised no doubt by the news of his own death. But he shows no out­wards sign of his anger as he enters his house by a back way; find­ing, of course, no greet­ing.

At this point, after only some 6o vers­es, the main thread of the nar­ra­tive falls away. What fol­lows, first, is descrip­tion of the rooms of the house, the feast, the car­pet, the wall hang­ings, the plate and Juan and Haidée’s oufits. Next, dur­ing an inter­lude in the feast­ing an unnamed poet regales the host and host­ess with the much-anthol­o­gised song “The Isles of Greece”, writ­ten in a lyric style unlike the otta­va-rima verse of the rest of the Can­to. It is a call to con­tem­po­rary Greeks to aban­don their supine accep­tance of Turk­ish rule, acknowl­edge their her­itage and to rise up in arms against their occu­piers.

Mus­ing briefly on the song, Byron fol­lows yet anoth­er thread of diver­sions that leads him through the ironies of poet­ic truth and fame to sar­cas­tic reflec­tions on the mar­riages and intel­lec­tu­al pre­ten­sions of Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth. He explains what he claims is his own ‘reli­gious feel­ings’ and recalls the numi­nous beau­ty of a twi­light can­ter in the woods south of Raven­na where Bocac­cio set a par­tic­u­lar­ly gory tale lat­er imi­tat­ed by Dry­den. Then, after a curi­ous­ly mawk­ish hymn to the vir­gin Mary, prompt­ed by the Angelus, heard at a dis­tance in woods, Byron inter­rupts him­self to say he’s decid­ed to break the Can­to he is draft­ing into two, end­ing the first half at this point. He’d promised in Can­to I that each book of his epic would be two-hun­dred vers­es (as Can­tos I and II are). He explains he can make more mon­ey by divid­ing the books into two (but this is a mis­di­rec­tion on his part).

An unsurpassable poem

Amit Maj­mu­dar in the Keny­on Review:

At this point I should insist that, if you haven’t read Don Juan, please put it on the top of your list. Just as it was a cor­rec­tive for the Roman­tic Era in Eng­lish verse, it is triply a cor­rec­tive for 21st-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can verse, which has spliced Roman­tic self-absorp­tion with Mod­ernist obscu­ran­tism with a pro­sa­ic for­mal slack­ness all its own: We have sucked up and dis­tilled the worst ten­den­cies of the past two cen­turies. This is a trag­ic phe­nom­e­non but not with­out rem­e­dy: Byron’s Don Juan, specif­i­cal­ly. The book ought to be required read­ing in poet­ry-writ­ing pro­grams nation­wide…

Extract from The Two Unsur­pass­able Poems in the Eng­lish Lan­guage « Keny­on Review Blog

Annotated Canto III of Don Juan

Here’s a down­load for Byron fans. An illus­trat­ed, anno­tat­ed Can­to III of Don Juan.

This project went into the freez­er for a cou­ple of years after the pub­li­ca­tion of the audio-book of Can­to One. Alas, there were only a few sales. The iBook has been free for down­load from the iBook Store for the past cou­ple of years and, still, there are only a very small num­ber of down­loads.

The Lib­rivox record­ings I made of sev­er­al Can­tos of Don Juan (here, here, and here) have been down­loaded tens of thou­sands of times. But there seems to be almost zero demand for a read-aloud book of the same mate­r­i­al, or I have failed to con­nect with the audi­ence; or both.

I have, how­ev­er, con­tin­ued the project in oth­er ways from time to time. I’ve record­ed the audio for Can­tos II and III that have not been post­ed to Lib­rivox (I don’t like their insis­tence on ‘brand­ing’ my work for them­selves). Those record­ings may appear here in due course: or I may wait until I have some more Can­tos ready and release them as a group.

I have also con­tin­ued to work on an approach to anno­ta­tion whose motive is to help 21st cen­tu­ry read­ers “get” some of the ref­er­ences — lit­er­ary, auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal — that made the satire so amus­ing for sophis­ti­cat­ed 19th cen­tu­ry read­ers. Don Juan is not a lit­er­ary puz­zle like, for exam­ple, Joyce’s Ulysses. But it is a much denser com­po­si­tion than Byron’s appar­ent­ly friv­o­lous tone and loose struc­ture make it appear, on the sur­face.

Here is the anno­tat­ed ver­sion of Can­to III. I hope you like it. Please con­tact me (there’s an email link in the PDF file) and let me know what you think.

Don-Juan Can­to III Anno­tat­ed

By the way: the image is a half-imag­i­nary por­trait of one of Byron’s would-be (de fac­to? We’ll nev­er know!) lovers: the sat­ur­nine Ali Pasha of Tepe­lenë, a brig­and, sadist, ped­erast and Ottoman tyrant of Alba­nia and West­ern Greece. For more about his con­nec­tion to Bry­on, and role in Don Juan, please read the Anno­tat­ed Can­to III.