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 Noel, 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 Noel name and some of the Noel money, enabling him to live more comfortably in Italy. He immediately takes the name of “George Gordon, Baron Noel 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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Byron fan (not fanatic); poetry lover (not tragic); doctor of melancholia (not gloom).

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