Stand-up poetry

The more time I spend with “Don Juan” the more I am con­vinced that it is cru­cial, for an under­stand­ing of the poem, to remem­ber that it is a per­for­mance, not a con­ven­tion­al text.

I’ve been look­ing close­ly at Can­to III again in the past cou­ple of weeks, because — alas! — I have to re-record it. The read­ing I made near­ly a year ago has some tiny, impos­si­ble-to-remove ‘clicks’ intro­duced some­how in the sig­nal chain from micro­phone to audio file (damn!).

What stands out as I revise, is the evi­dence that Can­tos III and IV mark a change in Byron’s ambi­tions for his poem. As if the con­trast­ing recep­tion of Can­tos I and II — from his pub­lish­ers and crit­ics, on one hand, and his read­ers on the oth­er — decid­ed him to fol­low his incli­na­tion, and be damned.

Byron poured into Don Juan, more than in any oth­er of his works, his extra­or­di­nary tal­ent for verse, his reflex­ive obses­sions and ticks, his doubts and guilt (pub­lic and pri­vate), a dis­tin­guished clas­si­cal edu­ca­tion, his spite for reac­tion and repres­sion, his jokey-blokey-post-Enlight­en­ment polit­i­cal incor­rect­ness, his gen­eros­i­ty to friends, and his rest­less con­vic­tion he had ‘lived’ too much (by his ear­ly 30s).

Still, it was a sort of extem­pore per­for­mance for the Eng­lish pub­lic that had loved him before his exile and that remained fas­ci­nat­ed by him — or by his leg­end — as he was by him­self. He revised each Can­to in mak­ing the fair copy before it went to the pub­lish­er and saw and cor­rect­ed proofs of Can­tos I and II. But he had no overview of the whole poem. It was nev­er ‘whole’ in the sense of ‘com­plete’, since he left it unfin­ished at his death. Once the fair copy left Italy for Lon­don, it was more or less out of his hands.

Oth­er great works of lit­er­a­ture have appeared ‘seri­al­ly’; Dick­ens’ nov­els for exam­ple. But they were planned in great detail; the plot ram­i­fied, the char­ac­ters sketched before the first parts appeared. Byron boast­ed that he had no plan in writ­ing “Don Juan”; he had only ‘mate­ri­als’. He had no oppor­tu­ni­ty to rebal­ance the whole, to revise what he had writ­ten (once print­ed) or to adjust the pace or focus of any­thing he had writ­ten. He nev­er saw the six­teen Can­tos that he com­plet­ed, in one pub­lished edi­tion.

The extem­pore com­po­si­tion of a long work would have been risky even for a form heav­i­ly bound by con­ven­tion, such as the epic poems of Clas­si­cal Greece. But Don Juan was (is) far from con­ven­tion­al. On the con­trary, today as two-hun­dred years ago it is remark­able for its inno­va­tion. Byron mocks poet­ic con­ven­tions claim­ing to respect epic prece­dent and ‘Aristotle’s rules’ of dra­mat­ic uni­ty while pay­ing them lit­tle heed.

Then the con­tent is a riotous “mash-up”. It is part farce — light­weight, risky and fun — and part a bit­ter satire with sharp barbs for the pre­ten­sions of his own class, the insti­tu­tions of Regency Eng­land and the triv­i­al­i­ty of the then-grow­ing fash­ion for “polite” taste (in lit­er­a­ture espe­cial­ly). Inter­spersed with these are med­i­ta­tions, jokes, teas­ing and mis­re­port­ing of his own expe­ri­ence, beliefs, and tastes in tones that are some­times iron­ic, some­times pathet­ic and even maudlin (‘pathet­ic’ in anoth­er sense)..

Still, the great­est inno­va­tion of Don Juan is Byron’s will­ing­ness to lever­age his own celebri­ty and the clever way in which he does so. No author had attempt­ed this before him; few pub­lic fig­ures have done it so well since. His noto­ri­ous (although exag­ger­at­ed) pub­lic image gave him a high­ly vis­i­ble per­for­mance plat­form that he was more than will­ing to exploit from exile.

It is stand-up poet­ry. Byron is as provoca­tive as Juan is mild; always wit­ty, some­times brit­tle, occa­sion­al­ly sen­ti­men­tal and even self-indul­gent. He is the sub­ject of his own per­for­mance. Or rather, “Byron” is the sub­ject: for where the per­former and the per­for­mance tru­ly coin­cide is some­time anyone’s guess.

Every­thing about this com­plex lay­er­ing of pub­lic satire and qua­si-con­fes­sion feels mod­ern and with­out prece­dent. The great­est Eng­lish satyrists (Dry­den, Pope) were con­ven­tion­al in their use of the poet’s voice. Although both were famous in their own times they do not overt­ly draw atten­tion to them­selves as char­ac­ters in their poet­ry except in the same mild, med­i­ta­tive way as e.g. Horace does in his epis­tles which, how­ev­er, are cast as pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Lawrence Sterne mixed fic­tion­al forms and nar­ra­tive voic­es in a tumult of styles in “Tris­tram Shandy” but nev­er inhab­it­ed Tris­tram in the way that Byron inhab­its “Don Juan”. Pul­ci and John Hookham Frere, two of Byron’s mod­els for the otta­va rima style, used an off-hand, con­ver­sa­tion­al tone to deflate their grand sub­jects (the epics of Roland and of King Arthur: the Mat­ter of France and the Mat­ter of Britain) but nei­ther steps out of the nar­ra­tive frame to offer reflec­tions on them­selves.

His risky method of com­pos­tion meant Byron had to dis­cov­er what he want­ed the poem to be and how to do it while pub­lish­ing the poem. He had a sort of “tri­al run” in Bep­po, his imi­ta­tion of Pul­ci that he offered to Mur­ray in late 1817 along with the Fourth (and last) Can­to of Childe Harold. But it is evi­dent that he is exper­i­ment­ing with the tone and the fram­ing of Don­Juan as he worked on it.

Can­to I begins as a nar­ra­tive with an overt ‘fram­ing’ device: a nar­ra­tor. In the un-fin­ished (draft, nev­er pub­lished) prose pref­ace to Can­to I, Byron even invites the read­er to imag­ine a scene out­side a Can­ti­na in Spain where the nar­ra­tor is telling the tale. But the old­er, stuffy, friend-of-the-fam­i­ly who begins the tale dis­ap­pears after few dozen vers­es, to be replaced by Byron him­self. Or, at least, by the avatar of “Byron” that Byron pro­pos­es for the pur­pose of his per­for­mance.

Can­to II is less far­ci­cal than Can­to I and has a broad­er nar­ra­tive can­vas with a ship­wreck, a sur­vival tale and the romance with Haidée. Still, its episodes of can­ni­bal­ism and ‘illic­it’ love on the beach were just as provoca­tive to Byron’s read­ers as the adul­tery and ‘blas­phe­my’ of the first part. Also, Byron’s diver­sions from the nar­ra­tive are, like those in Can­to I, some­what relat­ed to the action and events, like a loose com­men­tary.

But Can­to III, begun nine month after he had fin­ished Can­to II breaks the nar­ra­tive momen­tum. I have post­ed here before on the “Pecu­liar tra­jec­to­ry of Can­to III” ( It is remark­able for hav­ing almost no action and for wan­der­ing off, first, into descrip­tions of Turk­ish lux­u­ry, then into a lyric intru­sion con­demn­ing Greek com­pla­cen­cy. A med­i­ta­tion on lit­er­ary fame leads to a blis­ter­ing attack on Wordsworth and the “Lak­ers” and, imme­di­ate­ly after, a curi­ous med­i­ta­tion on the evening sky that devel­ops into Mar­i­o­la­try, mem­o­ries of evening litur­gy and for­est scenes and final­ly into a claimed pan­the­ist devo­tion.

Still, the ever-watch­ful per­former in Byron catch­es the poet before he becomes maudlin, threat­ens to award him the ‘wood­en spoon’ of poet­ry for lack­ing imag­i­na­tion and calls an end to the Can­to in order to get the nar­ra­tive back on the rails. This ‘lapse’ has been, per­haps, a dra­mat­ic ruse to lull the read­er before the “coiled up” Lam­bro, lurk­ing off-stage, bursts in upon the lovers doz­ing on their divan. But it is also, no doubt, an exper­i­ment in tone that Byron refines in sub­se­quent Can­tos.