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.

  1. I learned this from Peter Cochran’s edi­tion

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