Catching up… and an announcement

Vis­i­tors to this site who know some of Lord Byron’s ear­ly lyric and love poet­ry — per­haps encoun­tered at school — are some­times puz­zled by his longest work, Don Juan. Even repelled.

They’re struck by the rad­i­cal dif­fer­ence in the verse and the tone of the poem. It’s cer­tain­ly not lyric. It’s sort-of-philo­soph­i­cal, but more jokey than seri­ous, and sar­cas­tic and sala­cious and slan­der­ous. They won­der, per­haps, whether they should both­er to find out what this ram­bling, snarky nov­el-in-verse is all about.

If you’ve come to lis­ten to the record­ing of Can­to IX, you may be puz­zled, too, to find this young solid­er with a famous Span­ish name and a rep­u­ta­tion for being a rake trans­posed to Rus­sia. Did the Empress Cather­ine real­ly seduce him? Isn’t Don Juan sup­posed to be the pants-man in his own leg­end?

Good ques­tions! But hard to answer in brief. It’s a bit like some­one who watch­es an episode of Twin Peaks or Game of Thrones for the first time. If they ask you to explain what’s going on, your first thought might be: “this could take all night”! Let’s just say: if you like this episode of Don Juan it will real­ly repay you to start with ear­li­er stuff such as the free, illus­trat­ed, nar­rat­ed Apple IBook of the Ded­i­ca­tion and Can­to I  (from which the Map at the top of this post is tak­en).

If you don’t have an Apple device (Mac, iPhone or iPad) the iBook won’t play. But I’ll be releas­ing the com­bined audio of Can­tos I and Can­to II lat­er this year (Sept-Dec 2018) on the 200th Anniver­sary of their com­po­si­tion. Please stay tuned for details.

Mean­while, for new lis­ten­ers to Can­to IX, here is an “even-short­er-than-Cliff-Notes” sum­ma­ry of Don Juan and it’s con­text.

  • Lord Byron (lat­er Lord Noël-Byron, chris­tened George Gor­don) pub­lished this long poem (16 Can­tos or ‘books’; nev­er fin­ished) in episodes, as it was being writ­ten, in the ear­ly 1820s. He was in his ear­ly 30s and still — five or six years after flee­ing Eng­land for Italy — pos­si­bly the most pop­u­lar, scan­dalous, admired and reviled lit­er­ary fig­ure of Britain. He had hur­ried out of Lon­don just ahead of the debt-col­lec­tors and to avoid cen­sure for mul­ti­ple rumoured (but then obscure) offences includ­ing incest with his half-sis­ter, ‘sodomy’, a pub­lic scrap with the mad-infat­u­at­ed Car­o­line Lamb (she had a knife), his wife’s “escape” with his infant daugh­ter from his (ver­bal, men­tal) abuse etc etc.
  • The real sub­ject of Don Juan is Byron him­self whom both Goethe, for exam­ple, and Matthew Arnold agreed was one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing stud­ies of 19th cen­tu­ry Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture. The sto­ry is nom­i­nal­ly the adven­tures the Span­ish noble­man whose rep­u­ta­tion as a bound­er and a rake every­one knows “from the pan­tomime”. Byron’s ver­sion of the tale is, how­ev­er, entire­ly orig­i­nal, as is the telling: full of diver­sions, inter­rup­tions, jokes, philo­soph­i­cal rumi­na­tion, near­ly-frank con­fes­sions and, above all, clever and fre­quent­ly sav­age satires of con­tem­po­rary auto­crats in Europe, their repres­sive gov­ern­ments and the hypocrisy of their allies in the press, par­lia­ments and in the church. He is also a mer­ci­less, and very fun­ny, crit­ic of con­tem­po­rary poets such as Wordsworth and the Poet Lau­re­ate, Robert Southey.
  • Byron’s Juan — he rhymes the name with “ruin” on pur­pose — is not the evil seduc­er of Mozart’s opera. Instead, the first (and sus­tained) joke of the poem is that read­ers look­ing for a mod­el of Byron-as-rake find in Juan an upright, mod­est, dash­ing and earnest young hero who far from being a cyn­i­cal lothario is, rather, the pas­sive vic­tim of his own man­ly virtues.
  • The sto­ry starts as a bed­room-farce. Juan as a pret­ty, smooth, inex­pe­ri­enced, teenag­er, is dis­cov­ered hid­den in the boudoir — OK, in the bed — of the young wife of one of his prud­ish mother’s for­mer suit­ors. Sent abroad by his moth­er to a “moral” edu­ca­tion in Italy, he is the sole sur­vivor of a ter­ri­ble ship­wreck fol­lowed by can­ni­bal­ism among the crew. Cast on the beach of a remote Ion­ian island, he is res­cued and ‘bethrothed’, after some steamy but-off-stage sex-on-the-beach, by the nubile, inno­cent daugh­ter of a fero­cious pirate. Dad returns from sea in dis­guise and dis­cov­ers the young pair liv­ing it up at his expense. After a brief strug­gle he cap­tures Juan and sells him into slav­ery in the Turk­ish gal­leys. His daugh­ter dies of grief.
  • The pow­er­ful Sul­tana of Istan­bul spots the hand­some lad when he is put on dis­play in the slave mar­ket. She has her chief eunuch buy Juan and deliv­er him to her dis­guised as a female con­cu­bine, in the harem of the Ottoman Sul­tan. After some hair-rais­ing, cross-dress­ing hilar­i­ty, the sen­su­al, pow­er­ful Gul­bayez and Juan are about to hit it off when the Sul­tan unex­pect­ed­ly turns up. So Juan, still in dis­guise, has to spend the night hid­ing in the Sultan’s harem where the ladies fight over the oppor­tu­ni­ty to share a bed with this love­ly new con­cu­bine.
  • Juan escapes Istan­bul in the com­pa­ny of an Eng­lish mer­ce­nary and togeth­er they join the army of Rus­sia, under the leg­endary gen­er­al Alexan­der Suvorov, in the siege of Ismail, the euro­pean-fron­tier fortress of the Ottoman empire at the mouth of the Danube. Juan — some­what by lucky acci­dent — dis­tin­guish­es him­self in bat­tle. Suvorov pro­motes him Lieu­tenant and sends him back to the Empress of Rus­sia with a Dis­patch announc­ing the bloody vic­to­ry. As Can­to IX explains, the sat­is­fac­tion of slaugh­ter at Ismail was not the only joy Cather­ine had in this news.
  • In the fol­low­ing Can­tos, Juan is sent by Cather­ine on a secret diplo­mat­ic mis­sion to Lon­don where he nav­i­gates the “mar­riage mar­ket” of the Lon­don Sea­son under the close watch of a myr­i­ad match­mak­ers but with­out com­ing to harm. The Sea­son over, Juan joins the Coun­try house-par­ty of some noble friends for the hunt­ing (‘abom­inable’) and the social-sex­u­al intrigue. He wit­ness­es the ban­quet­ing-tents of a cor­rupt Eng­lish elec­toral cam­paign and — when we see him last — is solv­ing the mys­tery of a haunt­ed Abbey, where he encoun­ters the gen­er­ous bosom of a “ghost­ly” Duchess.

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