The path to the first publication of Cantos I & II of Don Juan was unlike that of any of Byron’s earlier verse. It is worth our attention because it reminds us — who now see only its novel tone, brilliant verse, sarcasm and fun — that this new poem had explosive potential during a year of rapid deterioration in the foetid politics of late Regency England. The travails of publication recall the difficult personalities and mixed interests of Byron, his publisher and his London friends. They also explain much about the expectations and ambitions Byron had for his greatest poem as he continued working on it over the next four years.
When they first saw the manuscript of Canto I, Byron’s friends — John Cam Hobhouse, Scrope Davies and John Hookham Frere — had, according to Hobhouse, been struck with admiration for “the Carravaggio talent displayed throughout…”. It’s a good metaphor for the polished, high-contrast, mannered but energetic and earthy voice of the first Canto. Nor did they think, at first, that Murray, whose business had thrived on Byron’s poetry and drama, would object to the robust tone:
“– You shall hear all in a day or two. Murray, I believe, would publish a Fanny Hill or an Age of Reason of your’s – The Hitch will not come thence – so be tranquil –” (Hobhouse to Byron on 29 Dec. 1818 on receipt of Don Juan Canto I manuscript.)
Douglas Kinnaird, a friend and later business manager, was also complimentary and attuned to the poltics of publishing, although ready to ‘clip’:
“… I have read your Poems Don Juan is exquisite – It must be cut for the Syphilis – When we have pounded Murray I will not fail to write by the same Post – Your definition of May is a great truth … I think your Poem is justly bitter & exquisitely humorous – You will have the world on your side – The revolution is coming – Rely on it –” (Kinnaird to Byron, 29 December, 1818)
But within a month Hobhouse and crew — Kinnaird less so — had changed their tune: they now advised strongly against publication. Hobhouse was aprehensive about the original motto of Canto I (“Domestica Facta”) that he took to be a declaration that the poem was, as they convinced themselves, an attack on Annabella and perhaps her mother and advisors. They were all appalled, said Hobhouse, by
“the licentiousness and in some cases downright indecency of many stanzas and of the whole turn of the poem – from the flings at religion – and from the slashing right and left at other worthy writers of the day”.
They were mystified by the swinging attacks on Southey, and Laker Poets in the Dedication which, they said, attributed these minor poets an critical importance they did not (then) enjoy.
What had happened in early 1819 to harden them against publishing the poem that several including Murray thought was Byron’s greatest “in some parts?” It may have been fears about the worsening political climate at the end of 1818 to which the Prince Regent’s speech (above) referred. Kinnaird’s remark that “the revolution is coming…” would have been seen by Byron’s other friends as a chilling, if distant, prospect. Perhaps it was also something closer to home, at least for Hobhouse.
In his January 1819 letter, Hobhouse couched his strong recommendation for “total suppression” in terms that suggest his greatest concern was not Byron’s reputation as a poet but his own polticial carreer:
“I have now gone through the objections which appear <to so> so mixed up with the whole work especially to those who are in the secret of the domestica facta that I know not any any amputation will save it: more particularly as the objectionable parts are in point of wit humour & poetry the very best beyond all doubt of the whole poem – This consideration, therefore, makes me sum up with strenuously advising a total suppression of Don Juan – I shall take advantage of the kind permission you give me to keep back the publication until after the election in February: and this delay will allow time for your answer and decision” (Hobhouse to Byron, 5 January, 1819).
Byron was in no position, from Venice, to deny Hobhouse’s presumption of his “kind permission”. In any case, the proposed delay gave him the opportunity to add some more verses to Canto I and to complete Canto II of Don Juan. By May of 1819, however, he was becoming fed up with the wheedling on from his London friends on the texts. He agreed to making cuts in the Dedication but…
“You sha’n’t make Canticles of my Cantos. The poem will please if it is lively – if it is stupid it will fail but I will have none of your damned cutting & slashing. – If you please you may publish anonymously it will perhaps be better; – but I will battle my way against them all – like a Porcupine.” (Byron to Murray, 6 April 1819 from Venice)
He was restless; feeling uncomfortable about his dissolute life in grubby Venice. He was worried that serventism to a young, barely-married woman — Teresa Guiccioli — was hopeless and a bit déclassé. Never keen on correcting proofs or making fair-copies — which he found boring work — he declined to receive any further proofs of Don Juan after June and pressed Murray to publish.
After receiving the manuscript(s) of Canto II, Murray was able to see the poem at something closer to its proper scale — more than 400 stanzas — and was a little mollified that the naughty and revolting bits were much less prominent than the passages he found “exceedingly good”:
I think you may modify or substitute others for, the lines on Romilly whose death should save him – – the verse in the Shipwreck – LXXXI the Masters Mates disease – I pray you oblitterate as well the suppression of Urine – these Ladies may not read — the Shipwreck is a little too particular & out of proportion to the rest of the picture – but if you do any thing it must be with extreme caution – for it is exceedingly good – & the power with which you alternately make our blood thrill & our Sides Shake is very great – nothing in all poetry is finer than your description of the two females in Canto II – it is nature speaking in the most exquisite poetry – but think of the effects of such seductive poetry? (Murray to Byron, 28 May, 1819)
Byron, despite doubts about the wisdom of the journey, was on the road to Ravenna, where Teresa lay ill, in his high-wheeled Napoleonic coach. From Bologna he sent Murray a rude reply:
It will therefore be idle in him [Hobhouse] or you to wait for any further answers – or returns of proofs from Venice – as I have directed that no English letters be sent after me. – The publication can be proceeded in without, and I am already sick of your remarks – to which I think not the least attention ought to be paid. – – – (Byron to Murray, 7 June 1819).
Murray gave up. In concert with Hobhouse, he dropped the Dedication altogether — Byron had finally agreed to that — and two stanzas of Canto I that Byron had not agreed to drop. The first was stanza 15 on the suicide of Sir Samuel Romily — whose Westminster seat in Parliament Hobhouse was then about to contest; the second — now stanza 131 — on syphilis. He also censored with asterisks two good jokes about the history of “the pox” in stanzas 129 and 130.
The removal of the “Romilly” verse sketched the battle-lines already being drawn between the poet, his friends and his publisher. For Byron, the five lines he inserted on Romilly’s suicide was a savage thrill: the lawmaker’s suicide by cutthroat razor had been an act of Nemesis, he claimed. In context, they fit with the characterization of Inez, but it was nonethless bloody-minded. Byron knew from reliable sources that Romilly had acted in ignorance, not dishonorably, in agreeing at first to advise his wife, Annabella, on their separation. Someone who had more insight into himself and his anger than Byron might have dropped it without, as Byron’s friends said, damaging the poem. Still, if Don Juan was to be issued anonymously, why should his editors/advisors be so particular about these lines? The plausible reason Hobhouse offered to Byron — in a letter written on the day of publication — was that it might hurt Romilly’s family:
“The man has left children whom I know you did not mean to annoy; and though we must both of us think that he has been bepuffed at a terrible rate yet the death of both father and mother has left six poor creatures and three or four of them grown up with little support except their father’s reputation; and whether that reputation be overrated or not, I am convinced that at this moment you would not wish to impair the legacy as far as they are concerned” (Hobhouse to Byron on 15 July, 1819.)
But Hobhouse was not being candid — as Byron must have known. Dropping the stanza attacking Romilly served his interests as an electoral candidate as much as any other. He had failed in his first, February 1819, bid to win Romilly’s Parliamentary seat of Westminster on behalf of ‘radical’ reform. But he had come a creditable second in the ballot and planned to try again. It would look bad for him to be associated — as he would be — with Byron’s attack on the once-distinguished former Member for that constituency. Hobhouse was a radical who — like Byron who decidedly was not — wanted no overturning of the social order that protected Romilly’s name and saved him from a suicide’s unhallowed grave.