The Comet and the Bomb

This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed as a draft of an intro­duc­tion to the “Bicen­ten­ni­al” edi­tion of Can­tos I & II that I have now post­ed. I decid­ed not to use it there but I want to “re-up” it as an intro­duc­tion to the extra­or­di­nary social and polit­i­cal cli­mate in which Don Juan launched. 

Noth­ing so dif­fi­cult as a begin­ning”    Don Juan, III, 1

The Comet

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 lit­tle room for astro­nom­i­cal 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; made worse by pol­i­cy error and bad luck. There had been a fall in sea­son­al tem­per­a­tures due in part to unsus­pect­ed 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.

Gillarays cartoon of an inebriated George, Prince Regent

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.

The Bomb

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.

London Morning Post 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. 


  1. post hoc, ergo propter hoc? The crux is the unpub­lished Ded­i­ca­tion — but what is the rela­tion­ship, if any„ between the Blan­ke­teers ‑or Ora­tor Hunt — and Byron’s per­son­al­ized attack on Castlereagh?

    1. Not sure what you mean about the Dec­la­ra­tion. The only point I want­ed to make in this post is that the polit­i­cal and social sit­u­a­tion in Eng­land in mid-1819 was flam­ma­ble own­ing most­ly to gov­ern­ment fail­ures. Mur­ray was right about Don Juan (even with­out the Dec­la­ra­tion) being explo­sive in this envi­ron­ment. But if the poem was pop­u­lar then Mur­ray stood to make a nice prof­it from the sales (as he did, appar­ent­ly, despite the lack of copy­right protection).

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