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.