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.