Just now there’s a lot of interest in theories of behaviour as ‘signalling’. For example, education choices and curricula are said to be “about” signalling wealth or conformity with corporate ethics rather than about getting knowledge. Conversation is said to be a about showing-off, displaying intellectual assets, grooming allies etc.
OK. It seems just yesterday (in fact decades ago) it was “all about” nudges and hidden motivators and… well. Theories of incentives, values and behaviour are probably useful given the “hall-of-mirrors” that is introspection. But they are not a substitute, especially on matters of taste or preference.
I like to perform Don Juan (my recordings). Does that mean that I like Byron’s poem because it’s an opportunity to “show off”? The idea can’t be discounted. It must be part of the (unacknowledged) calculus. After all, it would just be too damned hard to make the effort and to put up with the frustrations of recording were it not for some selfish return. The satisfaction of capturing or inventing a ‘voice’ for Byron’s poem in a way that other recordings do not is an important reward for me that I need not share with any one else.
But I can give other, less embarrassing reasons, too, for liking this poem more than many other literary works and more than most of Byron’s other poetry.
First; I like its clever discursive verse. Byron’s management of rhyme and argument — sound and sense — is remarkable. The conversational tone and the structured sentences that weave through the rhythm and rhyme of his stanzas —- often to a clever joke in the final couplet — makes it great fun to recite Don Juan.
Despite its boundless variety, meter and rhyme are hard-won in the english language; more than in a romance language like italian, for example where, notoriously, “every word rhymes with every other”. This difficulty makes metrical verse in english especially prone “accidents” or particular qualities. These are quirks and inflections: like the ways a pigment flows from the brush in different paint media or the ways in which the softness of a pencil’s lead and the angle of the point shapes a pencil line. Mastery of plastic arts means, at the lowest level, mastery of — and concession to — the accidents of the medium. This is true, too, of verse, I think. The ineluctible character of the language as a medium constrains the poet both in the shape of the sound and also the shape of the argument: what you can say is, in the micro-environment of a phrase, determined, in part, by how you must say it.
So when Byron boasts that he has no plan for Don Juan but follows where his ‘nose’ takes him, he is doubtless telling (part of) the truth about the grand scheme. But he seems also to be telling us about the craft of verse (anyone’s verse) at the ‘micro’ level. That craft is to find — or be found by — the inevitable word whose sound and sense lead from the first hint of an idea to its development and final form.
Of course, Byron tells us as much in Don Juan: in Canto IX, for example, when he laments in an aside that he “needs must” (and does) rhyme “love” with “dove” even if it means allowing sound to overrule sense.
Besides Platonic love, besides the love
Of God, the love of sentiment, the loving
Of faithful pairs (I needs must rhyme with dove,
That good old steam-boat which keeps verses moving
‘Gainst reason — Reason né’er was hand-and-glove
With rhyme, but always leant less to improving
The sound than sense)
Canto IX, 403–7
Still, Byron’s ‘lament’ is disingenuous (surprise!): his ‘formulaic’ rhyme serves the purpose of his jokey admission perfectly well.
Now, even his early lyrics showed Bryon was a superior craftsman of verse. Sustaining the energy of the verse in long poems, like Childe Harold, confirmed it. But I think what we see on the surface of the verse in Don Juan is still more remarkable. Childe Harold (like most of his other verse before 1818) for all its original shock-value has a formal, rhetorical quality: poetic diction and Spenserian stanzas that, in english, sound monumental or maybe marmoreal. Like ranks of fluted columns.
But Don Juan is conversational in tone. Although somewhat strictly rhymed (Byron stretches a point, wittily, here and there) in ottava rima, the rhyme sometimes delivers the punch (especially in the last couplet) but often acts merely to propel the sense across a series of parenthetical or otherwise subordinate clauses; to knit together the jostling notions and ironic (or pathetic) contrasts that comprise the apparently intimate, frequently manipulative conversation of a very clever companion.
Even when embarked on pure narrative in Don Juan, Byron’s genius for tuning his verse to a necessary effect is impressive. Consider this extract from Canto VIII, where Juan, who has lost contact with his own troop in the assault on the fortress of Ismail, is about, accidentally, to lead an heroic infantry-charge.
Constructed from a masterly concatenation of enjambed lines (asterisks) and concurrent clauses, the verse mimics Juan’s stumbling advance across the battle-field while the poet piles-on the images of death and confusion. Without affording end-of-line pauses, the verse propels us forward without us knowing, at first, where we are headed. Notice that the second and third of these verses is one long, 16-line, sentence with the subject (“Juan”) and the principal verb (‘Rush’d) found only in the last two lines. By the time the reader reaches the first line of the fourth verse — “He knew not where he was, nor greatly cared” — he/she, too, feels a bit lost. Then Juan dashes ahead into the fray, just as Byron lobs his own satiric bomb into the last couplet.
Then, like an ass, he went upon his way,
And, what was stranger, never look’d behind;
But seeing, flashing forward, like the day *
Over the hills, a fire enough to blind *
Those who dislike to look upon a fray,
He stumbled on, to try if he could find *
A path, to add his own slight arm and forces *
To corps, the greater part of which were corses.
Perceiving then no more the commandant *
Of his own corps, nor even the corps, which had *
Quite disappear’d — the gods know how! (I can’t *
Account for every thing which may look bad *
In history; but we at least may grant *
It was not marvellous that a mere lad,
In search of glory, should look on before,
Nor care a pinch of snuff about his corps): —
Perceiving nor commander nor commanded,
And left at large, like a young heir, to make *
His way to — where he knew not — single handed;
As travellers follow over bog and brake *
An “ignis fatuus;” or as sailors stranded *
Unto the nearest hut themselves betake;
So Juan, following honour and his nose,
Rush’d where the thickest fire announced most foes.
He knew not where he was, nor greatly cared,
For he was dizzy, busy, and his veins *
Fill’d as with lightning — for his spirit shared *
The hour, as is the case with lively brains;
And where the hottest fire was seen and heard,
And the loud cannon peal’d his hoarsest strains,
He rush’d, while earth and air were sadly shaken
By thy humane discovery, Friar Bacon!
Canto VIII, 233–264
If that analysis sounds too complicated, it’s my fault. Byron’s verse is great fun when he’s being clever or naughty, and affecting when he’s being serious. The ironies are a delight; the contrasts witty and often unexpected. His ideas cascade, sometimes, in torrents.
Following the twists and turns of Byron’s sentences in Don juan is like watching an expert surfer flick across the waves or some graceful kid on a roller-board do stuff that almost terrifies you to watch. When, at last, he lands the pleasure is part wonder and part relief. The pleasure of his satire is tension released.
Brave! It’s the only word for what Byron essays, against the opposition of his publisher (Murray), the literary magazines (the Review) the “serious” Press, and even his erstwhile friends (Hobhouse). At every point in the extempore performance of Don Juan — stand up poetry — Byron insists on taking a risk. Saying what he can or must and trusting to the judgement of his “common” readers or of history to comprehend what his critics and censors could not.
How fully his determination has been justified!
My second reason for liking Don Juan is the misdirection and sub-texts… No. This post is long enough already. I may come back to that idea in a future post.