Canto VI and the tumult of 1822

Can­to VI begins, in full naughty-Don Juan-style, with a polit­i­cal­ly incor­rect (then as now, for diff­fer­ent rea­sons) defence of pas­sion. Byron sidles into the sto­ry-line briefly to recall the last scenes of Can­to V, then wan­ders away into a dis­cus­sion of “bor­ing” polygamy — as if it were a seri­ous option for his Regency read­ers — lead­ing thence to a debate on the rel­a­tive mer­its of warmth and cool­ness in love.

But he fails to trace the threads of his argu­ment when he decides to quote Horace’s rec­om­men­da­tion of mod­er­a­tion in love as in all things. Prob­lem is, he mix­es up the quote, selects a line from Ovid instead1, and then in mid-flight, paus­es to remark he’s not quite hap­py with the way the Latin scans in the Eng­lish verse. It’s Byron show­ing-off and toy­ing with the read­ers’ curios­i­ty (and his own) about his thought process­es.

Can­tos VI, VII and VIII of Don Juan, all com­posed in the first half of 1822, mark a new turn in the six-year jour­ney of com­po­si­tion for Byron. It was a stress­ful year: he aban­doned his first and great­est pub­lish­er; his com­pan­ion in exile, Shel­ley, drowns; rela­tions with Tere­sa Guic­ci­oli are cool­ing into a kind of domes­tic­i­ty, and; Byron’s entourage drew him into a seri­ous con­flict with local author­i­ties. Still, what stands out from all of this is his devo­tion to Juan; he works at it steadi­ly, con­vinced it is his best work.

The first drafts of Can­to VI date to Feb­ru­ary 1822. Byron’s plans for the poem – that is, his nar­ra­tive notions that he declined to fill-in – remained the same. But after years of cross-pur­pos­es and cross let­ters he decid­ed to aban­don John Murray’s con­ser­v­a­tive pub­lish­ing house for the “rad­i­cal” (i.e. pop­u­lar) jour­nal pro­posed by John Hunt. He was also, appar­ent­ly, work­ing under a ban at home. He had promised his mis­tress, the Count­ess Guici­ol­li, who con­sid­ered the poem unsuit­able to his genius and rep­u­ta­tion to write no more of Don Juan. But he resumed in secret. No mat­ter what oth­ers thought or how many oth­er projects he began, Juan was essen­tial to him.

The nar­ra­tive of Can­to VI picks up imme­di­ate­ly after the tor­rid-com­ic cross-dress­ing scene with Gul­bayez, the Sultan’s most beau­ti­ful bride, in Can­to V. It is an anti-cli­max (what else could it be?). Juan spends a night-in-dis­guise  in the harem as “Juan­na”. There are not enough beds to go around (darn!) so he has to share. His bed-part­ner, Dudú, wakes in alarm dur­ing the night to recount a sex­u­al­ly-charged dream, then returns to bed with her new friend. Gul­bayez her­self spend a sleep­less night of long­ing and fear in the Sul­tans’ cham­ber and next morn­ing sends to know what hap­pened in the harem overnight. She guess­es the worst — right­ly or wrong­ly we don’t know — from the eva­sive replies she receives and orders Juan and his “para­mour” be secret­ly expelled from the Palace by boat along the Tigris.

The next we see of Juan at the start of Can­to VII he, and his com­pan­ions (includ­ing Dudú?), are in what is now Ukraine, head­ed along the Danube for the city of Ismail, then an out­post of the Ottoman Turk­ish empire under seige by the Russ­ian army.

1822 was a tumul­tous year for Byron. In late Jan­u­ary, Lady Noël, his moth­er-in-law — Byron and Anabel­la are sep­a­rat­ed, not divorced – died. As part of the mar­riage set­tle­ment and sep­a­ra­tion arrange­ments, Byron will inher­it both the Noël name and some of the Noël mon­ey, enabling him to live more com­fort­ably in Italy. He imme­di­ate­ly takes the name of “George Gor­don, Baron Noël Byron” and begins to sign his drafts and cor­re­spon­dence “NB”: the same ini­tials as Napoleon Bona­parte.

He is liv­ing in Pisa, hav­ing moved there at the urg­ing of the Shel­leys, who also live there, after the Guic­ci­ol­lis were exiled from Raven­na because of the family’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary sym­pa­thies. Then, in March, as Byron and a par­ty of friends returned from a ride out­side the city, there is a scuf­fle at a city gate in which an obstre­porous police Sergeant-Major is pitch­forked, but not seri­ous­ly wound­ed, by one of Byron’s ser­vants. The affray and the sub­se­quent court action caus­es fric­tion with the city and state offi­cials who strong­ly sus­pect Byron, too, of being a repub­li­can sym­pa­this­er (he is at least that). On April 20th, he is deeply affect­ed by the death of his daugh­ter Alle­gra (by Claire Clair­mont). She died of a child­hood ill­ness in the con­vent at Bagnacav­al­lo where Byron had placed her to start her edu­ca­tion. On July 1st, Leigh Hunt — poet and broth­er of John Hunt, Byron’s new pub­lish­er — and his numer­ous fam­i­ly arrive in Pisa; they become some­what ungrate­ful depen­dents of Byron. Then, on July 8th, Per­cy Shel­ley, Edward Williams and Charles Vivian drown in a boat­ing acci­dent. Shelley’s decom­pos­ing corpse is found days lat­er in the sea; Byron has a a pyre built on the beach to burn the body because the author­i­ties will not per­mit its bur­ial.

None of this slows, how­ev­er, the extra­or­di­nary pace of Byron’s lit­er­ary pro­duc­tion. He fin­ish­es Can­tos VI-VII by August of 1822. Mary Shel­ley, now wid­owed and also, in effect, a depen­dent makes the fair copies. In Octo­ber, his out­stand­ing satire, The Vision of Judge­ment is pub­lished, in the first num­ber of John Hunt’s jour­nal, The Lib­er­al. Then Wern­er, the last of Byron’s works to be pub­lished by Mur­ray, appears on Novem­ber 23rd. Still at Pisa, Byron begins The Age of Bronze and The Island, two for­get­table polit­i­cal satires that will be pub­lished by Hunt who also pub­lish­es. Can­tos VI-XVI of Don Juan in July of the fol­low­ing year.

In Sep­tem­ber 1822, Byron puts the tur­moil of Pisa behind him, mov­ing to the sun-filled bay­side of Genoa, his last home in Italy.

A sample recording Canto VI

This project is gath­er­ing steam… or, some­thing pos­si­bly more ener­getic than steam.

Here is a sam­ple from my nev­er pre­vi­ous­ly released record­ing of Can­to VI of Byron’s Don Juan. It’s the first 61 vers­es that may give you some idea of what the whole record­ing will be like when, real soon nowTM, I release it.

Lis­ten to a sam­ple of Can­to VI

This .mp3 file is about 40Mb. If you pre­fer to DOWNLOAD the file (e.g. for your phone) just click on the down­load (down-arrow) but­ton or here if on a mobile device.

PLEASE USE YOUR HEAPHONES TO LISTEN (or high qual­i­ty exter­nal speak­ers). The excerpt is about 25 min­utes long… good for the com­mute, or doing the iron­ing. I’d real­ly appre­ci­ate your feed­back in the Com­ments!

Here’s a bit of con­text

The Story So Far

Juan’s moth­er — the prud­ish, con­trol­ling, Don­na Inez — dis­patch­es her 16-year-old son by ship to Italy at the end of Can­to I (in which the vir­ginal Juan has an affair with the gor­geous young wife of one of her for­mer lovers). The ship is blown off-course and destroyed in a ter­ri­ble storm. The sur­vivors, includ­ing Juan, take to a whale-boat only to drift for many days. Their sup­plies are exhaust­ed and, in des­per­a­tion, they turn to can­ni­bal­ism. All per­ish, in the end, save Juan who swims ashore on an iso­lat­ed Ion­ian island where, exhaust­ed and uncon­scious on the beach, he is found and revived by Haidée, the love­ly daugh­ter of the fero­cious pirate who owns the island.

Haidée and Juan become lovers. She “betrothes” Juan, falls preg­nant, and pro­pos­es to mar­ry him, believ­ing her father dead. But Lam­bro, the pirate, returns unex­pect­ed­ly in the midst of the mar­riage-feast. After a scuf­fle, his crew cap­ture Juan and sell him into slav­ery in the slave-mar­ket at Con­stan­tino­ple. Juan is, with­out ques­tion, a hunk. He is hard­ly put on the auc­tion-block before he is snapped-up by — it turns out — an agent for the fourth and most beau­ti­ful wife of the Sul­tan. Forced to wear women’s gar­ments, dressed as a con­cu­bine, Juan is brought secret­ly in the night to the fab­u­lous Gul­bayez who wants him for her toy-boy. Her mur­mured invi­ta­tion, “Chris­t­ian, do you love?”.

The upright, sen­ti­men­tal Juan answers with tears! No, he can­not betray the vows he made to Haidée (who, he does not know, has died of love and loss). Then, just as this steamy, cross, poten­tial­ly cli­mac­tic scene is reach­ing a cri­sis, the Sul­tan fol­lowed by a pro­ces­sion of some of his 1500 oth­er con­cu­bines arrives. What a pret­ty new slave, he remarks before dis­miss­ing Juan and the rest of the female cho­rus to their Harem for the night.

  • Now, read on…