Don Juan Cantos Annotated

TL;DR An up-dat­ed draft of my “Anno­tat­ed Don Juan” is avail­able. It now pro­vides notes and illus­tra­tions for Can­tos I, III and IX. Get it here and read along with the nar­ra­tion.

At the end of the pre­vi­ous arti­cle I said “My sec­ond rea­son for lik­ing Don Juan is the mis­di­rec­tion and sub-texts…”.

Byron wants us to be com­plic­it in the com­e­dy of Don Juan. The fun comes from under­stand­ing what is real­ly going on. The poem is only super­fi­cial­ly about Juan and his slight­ly ridicu­lous adven­tures around pre-Napoleon­ic Europe. From the out­set — from the selec­tion of Juan as the nom­i­nal hero in the first stan­zas of Can­to I — and espe­cial­ly from Can­to IV onward, the poem is about Byron’s view of the world and of him­self; in so far as he can see him­self.

The dif­fer­ence between the sto­ry and the point is the first, and most obvi­ous, lev­el of mis­di­rec­tion in Don Juan. There are deep­er lev­els, too, that con­cern the things Byron might wish to hide, or should hide but won’t or can’t because they affect the way he sees the world and him­self. Here, the mis­di­rec­tion con­cerns his rela­tion­ship with his half-sis­ter; his mis­be­hav­ior toward his wife; his bisex­u­al­i­ty; his fear that he will die with­out being the hero he imag­ined; his belief that he “burned his can­dle” too ear­ly and, per­haps; his sus­pi­cion that the “full account” for his ear­ly promis­cu­ity is still to be paid. He alludes to each of these things in the poem — some, sev­er­al times — but not always direct­ly. He nev­er lingers on them. The dis­cur­sive verse that leads him to intro­spec­tion can just as eas­i­ly whisk him away from it. It seems he has only to look up from his pen for a moment to find a divert­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty for irony or to spot an ene­my of pub­lic virtues — lib­er­ty above all — that needs skew­er­ing.

I have no doubt there are also sub-texts in the poem than no read­er now appre­ci­ates. Hints and allu­sions that, on the sur­face seem unre­mark­able but, to a suf­fi­cient­ly informed read­er such as Cam Hob­house, the friend of his late teens and twen­ties, would recall much more res­o­nant ideas and events: in Spain, Greece and Turkey at the start of the 1810s, in Lon­don in the mid-decade and in Gene­va or Venice at the end of that decade. If we are search­ing for rea­sons that Hob­house tried, unsuc­cess­ful­ly, to tone-down the first four Can­tos (in Murray’s hands), or suc­cess­ful­ly to destroy the ear­ly sketch of a nov­el and then to burn the mem­oir bequeathed to Moore after Byron’s death, they prob­a­bly lie there. Hob­house may have argued his van­dal­ism was to pro­tect his friend’s rep­u­ta­tion. But it was very like­ly intend­ed to pro­tect his own as he climbed the greasy pole of polit­i­cal promi­nence. His cen­sor­ship ensured that the sub-texts we can no longer read in Don Juan would have no key to unlock them.

Still, the plea­sure of the poem is not the less for these unguessed mys­ter­ies. Don Juan still con­tains a remark­able depth of allu­sion in almost every stan­za. They give the poem a sub­stance of ideas that few extend­ed come­dies can match — Shake­speare (per­haps), Ben John­son, Pope — and sinews that bind it to its lit­er­ary fore­bears, while keep­ing up an extra­or­di­nary pace.

Then, Byron did not set out to write a poem of rid­dles. On the con­trary, he meant the poem to have a polit­i­cal impact. For that, it had to be acces­si­ble and pop­u­lar, as it was. The most fre­quent form of allu­sion in Don Juan is to clas­si­cal authors and mythol­o­gy. These ref­er­ences would have been more or less famil­iar to his con­tem­po­rary read­ers of every class who had at least some for­mal edu­ca­tion. Direct quotes from Latin or Greek authors (Horace, Homer) might not have been so famil­iar but in most cas­es — with one notable excep­tion in Can­to IX — Byron gloss­es the quote in the verse, mak­ing it less a mys­tery.

His quotes from Eng­lish authors — Shake­speare espe­cial­ly, but also the Bible in the KJV, some 17th cen­tu­ry drama­tists, pop­u­lar authors such Alexan­der Pope and Wal­ter Scott (and even to Wordsworth and Southey) — are not usu­al­ly acknowl­edged but the ref­er­ences are often to well-known pas­sages. Can­to IX alone con­tains per­haps a dozen quotes from Ham­let and Oth­el­lo that might be at least half-remem­bered by those who have seen or read the plays.

Then there are many half-bor­row­ings, unac­knowl­edged and usu­al­ly para­phrased or trans­formed, from his more obscure sources. Byron read very wide­ly and was reg­u­lar­ly sup­plied — often by his first pub­lish­er, John Mur­ray — with pack­ages of books from Eng­land. He must also have had an ency­clo­pe­dic mem­o­ry. In every Can­to there are authors in Latin, Ital­ian, French or Eng­lish whose ideas and images he bor­rows. Occa­sion­al­ly he men­tions them or their works: Horace, Vir­gil, Pope, Lui­gi Pul­ci. But as Peter Cochran — who dug up most of them — notes at some point in his schol­ar­ly notes, those that were most influ­en­tial on Byron he men­tions least or not at all, such as Thomas Hope’s eccen­tric com­ic nov­el Anas­ta­sius that Byron read while com­pos­ing the ear­ly Can­tos and that had a great influ­ence on the nar­ra­tive and some of the com­e­dy of Don Juan.

Aside from lit­er­ary ref­er­ences, the nar­ra­tive and digres­sions in Don Juan are pep­pered, too, with ref­er­ences to pub­lic events, promi­nent peo­ple, polit­i­cal and reli­gious ideas, his­to­ries, tech­nolo­gies and (to use a mod­ern phrase) memes of the late 18th and ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry in Europe. That was the peri­od when what we would call the “mod­ern world” began. Echoes of the social, polit­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal upheaval of those decades are still found in the con­sti­tu­tions of mod­ern States, in the forms and con­ven­tions of con­tem­po­rary art and lit­er­a­ture and in the tech­nolo­gies that still sur­round us.

Still, a lot of the con­text for the verse in Don Juan that would have been read­i­ly avail­able to a 19th read­er, or lis­ten­er, is not so read­i­ly avail­able to read­ers and lis­ten­ers in the 21st cen­tu­ry. For the read­er, today, there are new ways to com­pen­sate for that. Dis­persed around the pub­lic Inter­net is all the infor­ma­tion a read­er would ever need to grasp the con­text of even the obscure ref­er­ences in the poem. If the read­er has the time and patience.

For the lis­ten­er, the pace of the verse makes it hard to fol­low-up any of the ref­er­ences with­out los­ing track of the lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence.

Hence these anno­ta­tions. In com­pil­ing them, I’ve tak­en advan­tage of three valu­able anno­ta­tors before me. First, and fore­most, Peter Cochran whose exten­sive notes on all of Don Juan and whose edi­tions of ancil­lary mate­r­i­al such as the Hob­house diaries — still avail­able for down­load from his web­site — are invalu­able for any stu­dent of Byron. Sec­ond, the notes in the Ste­fan edi­tion of Don Juan (also used by Peter Cochran). Third, the notes by Isaac Asi­mov in his beau­ti­ful edi­tion of Don Juan from the mid-1970s that bet­ter indi­cate than either Ste­fan or Cochran where a con­tem­po­rary read­er might need some back­ground (although Asi­mov offers no com­ments on some of the naugh­ti­er bits of the poem).

Some­what fol­low­ing the Asi­mov edi­tion, I’ve includ­ed some illus­tra­tions that I hope will make the anno­ta­tions seem less of an exer­cise in dry schol­ar­ship and per­haps help to show what it is often hard to say in a short note.

Why I like Don Juan

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 to “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 Juanstand 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.