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.