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” 5th 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.