A talk on Byron & Don Juan

A few weeks ago, the chair of a poet­ry group in one of the city Clubs in Mel­bourne (where such things still exist) invit­ed me to give a talk on Don Juan. 

What I did, instead, was to pro­vide a short paper in advance and to devote my 20 min­utes to a read­ing (from Can­to I, lead­ing up to the ‘seduc­tion scene’).

Here is the text of the paper:

Byron & Don Juan

About Lord Byron?

A par­venu; a Baron at 5 by a resid­ual her­itage 1. Very bright; a tal­ent­ed lin­guist; well-edu­cat­ed (Har­row, Cam­bridge) although indo­lent at school and the Uni­ver­si­ty. He had a rak­ish father who aban­doned him as an infant; an hys­ter­i­cal, sil­ly moth­er; an abu­sive nan­ny. He was slight­ly dis­abled from birth: when he walked, he half-dragged his right foot because the low­er leg was dys­pla­sic. He was not tall but neat­ly pro­por­tioned; obses­sive, in bursts, about his weight and about sports such as swim­ming and box­ing. He had an almost girl­ish­ly hand­some face, evi­dent ‘charis­ma’ and much per­son­al charm. Bisex­u­al, his deep­est loves were his half-sis­ter — whom he first met in his late teens — and one or two boyfriends ear­ly and late in life. Still, he was promis­cu­ous even by the loose stan­dards of the cot-hop­ping Regency upper-class.

Byron enjoyed spec­tac­u­lar ear­ly fame — due both to tal­ent and to hard work — as an author of edgy but sen­ti­men­tal verse fol­lowed by a swing­ing satyri­cal reply to his crit­ics. Polit­i­cal­ly a Whig; too scep­ti­cal of the Church to take for­mal reli­gion seri­ous­ly. An upper-class anti-reac­tionary rather than a lib­er­al, although he lat­er sup­port­ed rev­o­lu­tion­ary caus­es in both Italy and Greece. He was scorn­ful of the ‘cant’ of Tory gov­ern­ments and the odi­ous Hanove­ri­ans whom they served. Not inter­est­ed in Eng­lish pol­i­tics, except to satirise it. A ‘good hater’ of those whom he believed had tra­duced him or who prof­it­ed from pow­er; he was gen­er­ous and kind to the unfor­tu­nate and to those of low­er sta­tus. Jeal­ous of his claim to nobil­i­ty; he was no demo­c­rat but he was unpre­ten­tious. With­out a patron or a steady guide when young but sup­port­ed — and kind­ly, if inef­fec­tu­al­ly, advised —- by a lead­ing Tory pub­lish­er (John Mur­ray).

Against advice he mar­ried unsuit­ably, affec­tion­ate­ly – at first – but love­less­ly. It seems he did so to divert him­self from an inces­tu­ous affair with his half-sis­ter, who bore a child that may have been his, and pos­si­bly to avoid more seri­ous rumors of ‘unnat­ur­al’ rela­tions. He was irre­spon­si­ble with mon­ey when young, beset by debt, unable to sell his con­sid­er­able estate (New­stead Abbey) and fool­ish­ly cru­el to his wife in the year or so they spent togeth­er. When she left him, tak­ing their infant child, rumours of Byron’s sup­posed infi­deli­ties, and worse, were spread in Lon­don soci­ety by his half-crazed for­mer lover, Lady Car­o­line Lamb, the wife of Lord Mel­bourne. He fled — as many oth­ers, includ­ing his father, had done — to the Con­ti­nent to avoid the bailiffs, social cen­sure and, per­haps, denun­ci­a­tion. He nev­er returned to Eng­land. After sev­en years of aston­ish­ing poet­ic out­put in Italy, he died of ill­ness at the age of 36 (1824) while lead­ing an expe­di­tion to sup­port the Greek revolt against the Turks.

About Don Juan?

One hun­dred eighty years after his death, Byron’s fame has dwin­dled. His poet­ry remained huge­ly pop­u­lar until the 1830s when the Vic­to­ri­ans’ pris­sy lit­er­ary taste dep­re­cat­ed his “scan­dalous” verse. His rep­u­ta­tion was restored but re-shaped by Matthew Arnold — the scourge of Vic­to­ri­an bour­geois dull­ness — who pub­lished (1865) his own selec­tion from Byron that, how­ev­er, paid lit­tle atten­tion to Byron’s great­est poem. For the next hun­dred years, under Arnold’s influ­ence, earnest Byron­ian ‘soci­eties’ imbibed the wild decla­ma­tions of Childe Harold and com­mit­ted Byron’s lyri­cal poems to mem­o­ry. But not Don Juan. It was too free­wheel­ing, even bru­tal, for Arnoldian High-Church tastes. And too dif­fi­cult to excerpt in antholo­gies.

These days, the ghost of Lord Byron — even less sub­stan­tial (but, hey, who ever invokes the shades of Wordsworth or Southey?) — lurks on Twit­ter and Face­book and in the occa­sion­al TV or film cameo. There, it feeds on the celebri­ty of an imag­ined dandi­ness and rak­ish­ness2 and on snip­pets of some mis­read roman­tic verse.

Although his many lyrics are fine and high­ly quotable, Byron’s more secure claim on pos­ter­i­ty is that he may be the great­est satirist in Eng­lish poet­ry — he and his mod­el, Alexan­der Pope, vie for that crown — espe­cial­ly for “The Vision of Judge­ment”. But that tremen­dous fake apoth­e­o­sis of George III and his poet Lau­re­ate, Robert Southey, now is scarce­ly read out­side aca­d­e­m­ic cir­cles. Also, he com­posed, in Don Juan, the fun­ni­est, bold­est and most read­able verse ‘nov­el’ in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture. It is a satir­i­cal epic in otta­va rima vers­es, com­pa­ra­ble in scale to Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote but very mod­ern in scope.

The poem com­pris­es Six­teen (fin­ished) Can­tos, each of 100-or-so tight­ly-rhymed eight-line stan­zas in an ‘Ital­ian’ form: otta­va rima 3 whose osten­si­ble nar­ra­tive con­cerns the adven­tures of its hero, Don Juan. Byron’s Juan – he rhymes the name with “ruin” on pur­pose – is not da Ponte’s “Don Gio­van­ni”, the evil seduc­er of Mozart’s opera and pan­tomime. Instead, the first (and sus­tained) joke of the poem is that read­ers look­ing for a mod­el of Byron-as-rake find in Juan an upright, mod­est, dash­ing and earnest young hero who is, rather, the pas­sive vic­tim of his own man­ly virtues. A gal­lant young lover secret­ed in the boudoir of anoth­er man’s wife; the sole sur­vivor of a ter­ri­ble ship­wreck; cast on the beach of a remote Ion­ian island; res­cued (and ‘bethrothed’) by the daugh­ter of a fero­cious pirate; enslaved in the gal­leys and dis­guised in the harems of an Ottoman Sul­tan; thrown by the for­tunes of war into the arms of the Russ­ian Empress; sent on a secret mis­sion to the ban­quet­ing-tents of an Eng­lish elec­toral cam­paign and to the bosom of a “ghost­ly” Duchess haunt­ing a state­ly Eng­lish manor home.

But Juan’s odyssey is only the can­vas for Byron’s satire. Byron’s tar­gets are famous and infa­mous per­son­al­i­ties; mon­ey, reli­gion, news­pa­pers, war­fare and fash­ion­able sci­ence, and; the tem­pus & mores of Eng­land in the late Regency and Europe after Water­loo, sim­mer­ing with polit­i­cal reac­tion and revolt. The nar­ra­tive deploys famil­iar tropes: the decep­tions of youth­ful hope, the cyn­i­cism of pow­er, loves’ demands, the mis­al­liance of men and women, the frailty of (non-lit­er­ary, espe­cial­ly mil­i­tary) fame, the pover­ty of great rich­es, the hypocrisy of office and posi­tion and, above all, the clar­i­on call of lib­er­ty. The satire is clever; the verse is often bril­liant, if a lit­tle uneven.

Still, Don Juan is com­pelling most­ly because Byron is too adven­tur­ous (or maybe ‘incau­tious’) a writer to be con­tent with the famil­iar tar­gets. He takes risks, and boasts about it.4 He sets out, in Can­to I, to tell a sto­ry in com­ic verse; a sort of bed­room-farce that mocks but also begs the impres­sion of him in Lon­don as a self-exiled rake and bound­er. The first Can­to even has a fic­tion­al ‘nar­ra­tor’ to set the stage for the action and com­ment on the char­ac­ters. But, by the time he comes to the end of Can­to II — after indulging, for fun, in repeat­ed “blas­phemies” (not real­ly), libels, attacks on nation­al heroes, scan­dalous sex and even can­ni­bal­ism — it has become clear to Byron that his ‘unplanned’ epic is also more than an enter­tain­ment. The epic; has devel­oped into a more per­son­al and more demand­ing poem.

Up to 1819 when the first two Can­tos of Don Juan appeared, Byron’s oeu­vre had been crowned by his long poem Childe Harold, a bil­dungsro­man that estab­lished the mod­el of the “Byron­ic” hero: world-weary (although a twen­ty-some­thing); dri­ven by a melan­cholic imag­i­na­tion; bear­ing a sense of deep, but obscure, guilt and; sur­round­ed by dra­mat­ic land­scapes. As he began to work on Don Juan, the ear­li­er poem was still extreme­ly pop­u­lar with read­ers and writ­ers all over Europe who iden­ti­fied The Childe with Byron him­self. But Byron had evi­dent­ly grown tired of the high-roman­tic pos­ture and the stilt­ed Spenser­ian verse. The otta­va rima style offered him a more ver­nac­u­lar, iron­ic form in which to punc­ture reac­tionary dull­ness and while engag­ing in a half-sar­cas­tic, half-seri­ous exam­i­na­tion of his own opin­ions, tastes, expec­ta­tions, dis­ap­point­ments and errors. Or, at least, those opin­ions etc. that Byron claimed were real­ly his. He would hold back noth­ing.5

Although Byron, disin­gen­u­ous, con­tin­ues to insist in lat­er Can­tos that his poem has the struc­ture of a con­ven­tion­al epic with wars, feasts, sea-bat­tles, god­dess­es, “loves” etc. his epic is, in real­i­ty, an inte­ri­or adven­ture: Byron exam­in­ing the tra­vails of being Byron. His many diver­sions from Juan’s tale to remark on an inter­est, skew­er a phoney, dis­cuss a curios­i­ty or muse over own his­to­ry turns his epic into a “stand-up”, first-per­son per­for­mance that delib­er­ate­ly employs his “celebri­ty” as a plat­form. It is a style that rather shocked John Mur­ray, his first pub­lish­er, but now seems famil­iar. Byron was the first to do it and few have ever done it so well. Even so, the degree to which the “Byron” who writes Don Juan is tru­ly Byron is occa­sion­al­ly open to doubt. The clev­er­ness of his verse, his allu­sions, his will­ing­ness to strike a rhetor­i­cal pose for effect and his iron­i­cal humour makes it appar­ent that, some­times, we are see­ing a mask adopt­ed for the per­for­mance. And, some­times, the mask seems to slip.

One of his keen­est con­tem­po­rary crit­ics — an acquain­tance made in Pisa short­ly before he sailed for the Greek rev­o­lu­tion and his death — was the ‘adorable’ Lady Con­stance Bless­ing­ton; a clever, beau­ti­ful, Irish social climber and jour­nal­ist who pub­lished, for prof­it, a seri­al­ized book of their con­ver­sa­tions short­ly after Byron’s death. She records that Byron asked her, at one point, for her assess­ment of his char­ac­ter:

I replied, ‘I look on you as a spoilt child of genius, an epicy­cle in your own cir­cle.’ At which he laughed, though half dis­posed to be angry.”

Bless­ing­ton also, rather sniffi­ly, accus­es Byron of “flip­pan­cy and a total want of self-pos­ses­sion.” Clear­ly, his will­ing­ness to shock did not quite meet her stan­dards of seri­ous­ness or deco­rum for an Eng­lish poet or Peer. But, how­ev­er ungen­er­ous — how­ev­er much she had her eye on her own rep­u­ta­tion and the mar­ket for her book — she’s not entire­ly wrong. Just as in life Byron some­times seemed to be not quite ‘in con­trol’ of him­self (or his rep­u­ta­tion), so in Don Juan Byron arguably fails to quite grasp his own mer­cu­r­ial char­ac­ter. Still, his attempt reach­es depths that, for exam­ple, Wordsworth’s end­less, wordy psy­chol­o­gis­ing in The Excur­sion nev­er reach­es.

The poem is, at heart, an enter­tain­ing sto­ry with a lot of well-deserved jabs at hypocrisy and abuse of pow­er, with gor­geous set-dress­ing, bright ideas and lots of clever verse that make it much bet­ter read­ing than almost any­thing from his con­tem­po­raries. And Byron is, in every way, a fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject for dis­sec­tion.

Peter Gal­lagher
Octo­ber, 2016

  1. His great uncle the “Wicked” 5<sup class="ordinal">th</sup> Lord Byron out­lived his off­spring .  
  2. Byron has only him­self to blame for this image spread by, for exam­ple, his deci­sion to have him­self por­trayed in Turk­ish cos­tume. In real­i­ty he was not seri­ous enough about cos­tume to be a dandy and worked too hard to be a rake. 
  3. It has often been not­ed that every word in Ital­ian rhymes with almost every oth­er word in Ital­ian. It takes uncom­mon genius to man­age the trick over such an extend­ed length in Eng­lish. 
  4. Each Can­to went to his pub­lish­er as he com­plet­ed it over the years 1819 to 1824. He resist­ed all pleas for an out­line or plan and dis­missed most pro­posed revi­sions. So the epic became a lengthy, extem­pore per­for­mance whose tar­gets and tone evolves as the poem con­tin­ues.  
  5. Accord­ing­ly, after fin­ish­ing the sec­ond Can­to he com­posed an aston­ish­ing “Ded­i­ca­tion” to Robert Southey designed to evis­cer­ate the ‘turn­coat’ Lau­re­ate and his com­pan­ion in dull­ness, William Wordsworth. Since the Ded­i­ca­tion also slan­dered Lord Castlereagh as an intel­lec­tu­al nul­li­ty and ene­my of lib­er­ty, Mur­ray refused to pub­lish it and it did not appear until after Byron’s death.