[This is a draft of the first parts of an introduction to the Annotated Cantos I & II that I will publish in the next few months — before the 200th anniversary of their first publication — accompanied by a reading of both Cantos. Your comments and suggestions are welcome]
“Nothing so difficult as a beginning” Don Juan, III, 1
On 1 July, 1819 a comet brighter than all but a handful of stars — more visible in the early decades of the Nineteeth Century, before electric, or even widespread gas street illumination — appeared in the skies of Europe and North America. John Keats, among others, reported seeing it. The Morning Post gushed (14 July, 1819)
“… All the stars emitted their brightest lustre, the Comet moved with superior glory among them all, ‘apparent queen’ with its tiara of light.”.
There was no place for superstition in a century when — or in a country where — science, technology and art took some of their greatest leaps. Still, any fears that the Comet’s appearance might herald trouble in the state or momentous events would have been entirely justified. In the years 1819 and 1820, the United Kingdom narrowly skirted social disaster and barely avoided avoided a constitutional one — certainly rebellion, perhaps revolution. Ironically, too, an “apparent queen”, more earthy than celestial, held a starring role in the drama.
On the same page as its report of the Comet, the Post carried news of the unpopular Prince Regent’s speech at the close of the Parliamentary session. It was filled with Crown and Government menace aimed at popular unrest and the — mostly bourgeois — demand for enfranchisement, legal reform and tax relief.
His Royal Highness has naturally observed with great concern the efforts which have been lately made in some of the manufacturing districts to take advantage of local distress to create a spirit of disaffection to the institutions and Government of the country. Anxious to promote the welfare and prosperity of all classes of his Majesty’s subjects… his Royal Highness assures us of his wise, judicious , and manly determination, to employ for that purpose the power entrusted to him by law. He relies at the same time on the patriotism of Members, and has no doubt that one their return to their respective counties they will zealously coöperate with the Magistracy in defeating “the machinations of those whose projects, if successful, would only aggravate the evils they profess to remedy, and who, under the pretence of Reform, have really no other object but the subversion of our happy Constitution.” (The Morning Post, 12 July, 1819)
Unrest was broad and, in some places, ran deep. The Kingdom had seen explosive population growth, faster than anywhere in Europe: numbers doubled to 17 million in the first fifty years of the century with a peak growth rate in the decade to 1821 of 16 percent. It must have strained every private resource. Two fifths of the population was under fifteen years of age: mostly dependent and in need of education, nutrition, clothing, housing and care. Poor harvests and distribution disrupted by the long war led to serious food shortages in some places; madwe worse by policy error and bad luck. There had been a fall in seasonal temperatures made worse by volcanic explosions on the other side of the globe: 1816 was known as the “year without a summer” across Europe. Corrupt policies such as the Corn Laws that prohibited imports of price-competitive grain made the food supply worse.
Twenty years of war had wreaked a dreaful toll on UK families: the estimated death toll of 210,000 soldiers and sailors was comparable to the losses of The Great War in 1914–18. Then, the rapid demobilisation of the armed-forces — the largest in the UK’s history up to that point — contributed to widespread unemployment, family disruption and outbreaks of epidemic disease. The wars also left England with unprecedented tax levels (23 per cent of GDP) and a huge national debt. The Tory government was compelled by Parliament to abolish Pitt’s income tax that had supported the fighting and Castlereagh’s generous cash handouts to reactionary European allies. But that only pushed direct taxes higher, hitting hardest those on the lowest incomes.
“The Prince Regent” (George Cruickshank) — drunken and dissolute
The “spirit of disaffection” to which the Prince euphemistically referred had been evident in the riots of the so-called “Luddites” — mill workers whose grievances related to poor wages and poor management rather than to new technology — six of whom had been hanged in June 1816 (Byron’s only noteable speech in Parliament was a rather purple defense of the ‘machine breakers’). The repression halted the Luddites but fomented a wider movement that the radical William Cobbett would exploit in his ‘rural rides’.
Then in November and December of 1816 there were two public meetings at Spa Fields in London to work-up a petition to the Prince Regent for universal male suffrage and secret ballots. Some of the speakers at the second meeting led the crowd on a march to the Royal Exchange where leaders were arrested and charged with Treason. They were acquitted when the governments’ informer among the leaders of the march turned out to be a government agent. Still, Parliament reacted by suspending Habeas Corpus — a legal freedom protecting against arbitrary arrest — and banning meetings of more than 50 people for a year.
Still the industrial poor would not shut-up. In 1817, a “March of the Blanketeers” from Manchester to London saw scores of legally-small groups set out bearing a blanket on their back to demand the Prince Regent grant them relief from poverty wages. In June that same year there was a ‘rising’ of textile workers in Pentrich, near Notingham where. Once again, a government agent was identified as a provocateur. The industrial and piece-workers of Ireland, known by their mark as ‘Ribboneers’ were also organizing marches and protests. In this combustible climate, the Prince’s obtuse threats against constitutional reform were incendiary.
Just weeks after his speech, the Prince’s threats were given murderous effect at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester. On August 16, 1819, the Magistrates whom the Regent had ordered to his front line, foolishly sent an amateur cavalry of yeomen, used for home defense and public order, to arrest a popular speaker at a Reform meeting. In their charge, the yomen killed eleven and caused general panic. The “Peterloo Massacre” — a mocking reference to the bloody defeat of Napoleon — turned protest into near revolt in the North and vigorous protest in the South from the reform-minded middle class as well as the working class.
Lord Liverpool’s Tory government, assailed by both the radical and main-stream press for the bungling repression of the Manchester magistrates, reacted with alarm to the alleged ‘riots’ of constitutional reformers and disaffected workers. Castlereagh, on behalf of the government, secured the passage of the quasi-tyrannical “Six Acts” whose preamble declared that “every meeting for radical reform is an overt act of treasonable conspiracy against the King and his government”. Among other outrages to liberty, the laws banned “seditious” public meetings, “blasphemous and seditious libels” and increased the taxes on printed materials, so that any printed pamphet priced at less than 6 pence would be taxed an additional 4 pence.
It might seem this was not the best time for the most prestigious of Tory publishers, John Murray, to release a poem with almost as much visibility as the Comet that, in the view of contemporary readers, mocked the moral pretensions of the Regency Establishment — both Government and Church.
Yet that was what Murray chose to do — taking a barely-calculable risk — by publishing Cantos I & II of Byron’s Don Juan in mid-July, 1819. He portrayed it, accurately, as the publishing equivalent of crossing the Rubicon or, maybe, lobbing an artillery shell into Westminster. On the day after it appeared on booksellers’ shelves he wrote to his exiled author:
“La Sort est jetté – Don Juan was published yesterday, and having fired the Bomb – here I am out of the way of its explosion – its publication has excited a very great degree of interest – public <opinion ha> expectation having risen up like the surrounding boats on the Thames when a first rate is struck from its Stocks” (Murray to Byron, July 16, 1819. ‘La Sort est jetté’ [correctly, ‘le sort en est jetté’] means ‘the die is cast’, as in a gambling game. According to one of Caesar’s companions this is roughly what he said, quoting the Greek playwright Menander, when he crossed the Rubicon river into Italy in 49 BCE. In both cases it refers to an action whose outcome is ‘up-in-the-air’. By a ‘first rate.. struck from its stocks’ Murray mean the launch of a capital ship).
Well of course public expectation had risen up… Murray had deliberately stirred it. His caution related to the impact of some parts of the poem on his author’s reputation (Murray’s capital, too). But anonymous publication was hiding Byron and his publishing business “in the open”. Byron’s authorship would be an open secret: he had told Byron in March that there were “the greatest expectations” about Don Juan. Indeed, Murray had been prompting these expectation for at least two weeks before the book’s appearance with a series of promiment and mysterious advertisements in newspapers such as the Morning Post and The London Times. Rather like the teasing press announcements we see today from technology companies in advance of their “Keynote” presentations of new gadgets, Murray’s publicity said not much, but plenty. Byron’s friend from university days, Cam Hobhouse, described the campaign in a letter to Byron on the day Don Juan it appeared.
“It was announced thus – Don Juan.. to morrow. There’s a way for you!! To morrow The Comet. to morrow! Mr Murray managed so well that Mazeppa was taken for Don Juan and greadily bought up like “that abominable book the scandalous magazine”. But Don Juan tomorrow, undeceived those who thought they had got their pennyworth to day –“ (Hobhouse to Byron on the morning of publication, 15 July, 1819)
Here, for example, is the top of the front page of The Morning Post of Monday 12 July, 1819.
“On Thursday, DON JUAN. — Sold by all Booksellers”
Exploiting this clever campaign of 19th Century viral advertising, Murray issued 1500 copies of Cantos I and II “anonymously” on 15 July, 1819 in a large (Quarto sized: about 12 inches by 10 inches), relatively expensive volume without the name of the publisher or the author.
In the heated polticial context of mid-1819, the anonymity of the book was itself a draw:
“This will make our wiseacres think that there is poison for King Queen & Dauphin in every page and will irritate public pruriency to a complete priapism” (Hobhouse to Byron, 15 July, 1819)
Murray was canny enough to see that the risk of scandal (or worse) could be turned to his own commercial advantage. The repressive Castlereagh laws on “blasphemous and seditious libel” were still months off. Before the Manchester ‘riots’, the legal framework was not yet pitched against publication. Whatever he felt about the impropriety of some stanzas or lines — whatever his ‘court’ of readers and Byron’s London friends said about the ‘unpublishable’ and lamentable ‘infelicities’ — Murray knew there was every chance Byron’s new work would sell.
Don Juan was, for the most part, just the sort of thing he had asked Byron to produce a year earlier:
“May I hope that yr Lordship will favour me with some work to open my Campaign in November with have you not another lively tale like Beppo – or will you not give me some prose in three Volumes – all the adventures that you have undergone, seen, heard of or imagined with your reflections on life & Manners” (Murrray to Byron 7 July 1818)
So Hobhouse is probably not wrong to suggest (above, letter of 15 July) — perhaps he knew — that Murray engineered a commercial sleight of hand when he issued Byron’s Mazeppa and an Ode on Venice two weeks earlier on 1 July, taking advantage of the anticipation for Don Juan.