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.

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