Don Juan sells despite Murray’s fears

A cartoon from 1823 of Byron in Venice, inspired by a small devil sitting on his shoulder, "scratching up ideas" for his poems.
“A noble poet, scratch­ing up his ideas” (1823): Byron sits at a table writ­ing on a sheet head­ed Il Lib­erale; he looks up for inspi­ra­tion, scratch­ing his head; this is also scratched by a web-winged, goat-legged Dev­il (‘Old Scratch’) who perch­es on the back of his chair, his left talons on the poet’s shoul­der. Byron, not car­i­ca­tured, is direct­ed to the left and wears a flow­ered dress­ing-gown with ungartered stock­ings. One of his many dogs (of spaniel type), its col­lar inscribed [By]ron., lies look­ing up at him, also scratch­ing its head, one paw on a vol­ume of Don Juan. The table is in a wide-open win­dow, through which is seen a com­pos­ite view of Venice

When Can­tos I and II of Don Juan were being pre­pared for the press, it was chiefly Murray’s advis­ers — espe­cial­ly Gif­ford — who kept up the lament about “so much beau­ty, so wan­ton­ly & per­verse­ly dis­fig­ured” by vers­es such as 129 and 130 of Can­to I that make jokes about cow-pox and syphilis and the par­o­dy of the Ten Com­mand­ments in Stan­zas 205–206 of Can­to I.

Every one laments there­fore in a ten­fold degree the few pas­sages which mere­ly in kind­ness to your friends it was hoped you would have suf­fered to be replaced by oth­ers in which you would have excit­ed delight only… Do me the favour to make every improve­ment that you can upon the two first Can­tos of Don Juan & let me bring out the new Edi­tion in great force in the win­ter – In the opin­ion of the best Crit­ics the larg­er por­tion of them sur­pass all that you have writ­ten & the rest is deserv­ing there­fore of re-cast­ing or at least of re-con­sid­er­a­tion” (Mur­ray to Byron, 23 July 1819)

Mur­ray plead­ed with Byron to autho­rise cuts that could be incor­po­rat­ed in the re-issued edi­tions, which he pre­sum­ably had intend­ed to pub­lish under Byron’s name in his own imprint. But Byron would have none of it:

You are right – Gif­ford is right – Crabbe is right – Hob­house is right – you are all right – and I am all wrong – but do pray let me have that plea­sure. – Cut me up root and branch; quar­ter me in the Quar­ter­ly – send round my “dis­jec­ti mem­bra poet­ae” like those of the Levite’s Con­cu­bine – make me – if you will – a spec­ta­cle to men and angels – but don’t ask me to alter for I can’t – I am obsti­nate and lazy – and there’s the truth. – – – (Byron to Mur­ray, 12 August, 1819)

By late 1819 the fears in Murray’s office about the crit­i­cal response were begin­ing to sound more plau­si­ble. In August, Black­woods Mag­a­zine (known in the indus­try as “Black­guards..” accord­ing to Mur­ray) pub­lished an hys­ter­i­cal hatch­et-job on the Can­tos:

…in the com­po­si­tion of which there unques­tion­ably a more thor­ough intense infu­sion of genius and vice, pow­er and profli­ga­cy, than in any which had ever before been writ­ten the Eng­lish or indeed in any mod­ern lan­guage… Love, hon­our, patri­o­tism, reli­gion are men­tioned only to be scoffed at and derid­ed as if their sole rest­ing place were or ought to be in the bosoms of fools. It appears in short as if this mis­er­able man hav­ing exhaust­ed every species of sen­su­al grat­i­fi­ca­tion hav­ing drained the cup of sin even to its bit­ter­est dregs, were resolved to shew us that he is no longer a human being even in his frail­ties but a cool uncon­cerned fiend, laugh­ing with a detestable glee over the whole of the bet­ter and worse ele­ments of which human life is com­posed…” (Black­woods Mag­a­zine, August 1819)

Tak­ing the actu­al verse only as a point of depar­ture, the review dreged-up a ver­sion of the rumors that had sur­round­ed the Byron sep­a­ra­tion three years ear­li­er, exag­ger­at­ed into melo­dra­ma:

…It would not be an easy mat­ter to per­suade any Man who has any knowl­edge of the nature of Woman, that a female such as Lord Byron has him­self described his wife to be, would rash­ly or hasti­ly or light­ly sep­a­rate her­self from the love which she had once been inspired for such a man as he is, or was. Had he not heaped insult upon insult and scorn upon scorn — had he not forced the iron of his con­tempt into her very soul — there is no woman of del­i­ca­cy and virtue as he admit­ted Lady Byron to be who would not have hoped all things and suf­fered all things from one, her love of whom must been inwo­ven with so many exalt­ing ele­ments of deli­cious pride and deli­cious humil­i­ty. To offend the love of such a woman was wrong but might be for­giv­en; to desert her unman­ly — but he might have and wiped for ever from her eyes the tears of her deser­tion; but to injure and to desert and then to turn back and wound her wid­owed pri­va­cy with unhal­lowed strains of cold-blood­ed mock­ery — was bru­tal­ly fiendish­ly mean.” (Ibid.)

It was only the ear­li­est and most intem­per­ate of many sim­i­lar crit­i­cisms of the close asso­ci­a­tion of poet­ic beau­ty (”genius”) and vice in the verse that fol­lowed over the next few years in the lit­er­ary press. From Raven­na, Byron dashed off sev­er­al pages of injured and some­what spe­cious rebut­tal, assort­ed with renewed attack on Southey the Lak­ers, but even­tu­al­ly decid­ed not to respond.

It really is a mistaken notion…”

Mur­ray tried to jol­ly Bry­on along, not­ing that the poem sold well own­ing to its “genius”, despite the crti­cism

It real­ly is a mis­tak­en notion that Don Juan has not been well received – the Sale has been less­ened by an out­ra­geous out­cry against some parts of it but its esti­ma­tion in point of Genius car­ries your Lord­ship high­er than ever & its cir­cu­la­tion will be every day increas­ing.” (Mur­ray to Byron on 16 Novem­ber, 1819)

Although Mur­ray — no doubt to his sur­prise — even­tu­al­ly won an injunc­tion against the pirates, he did not press it to enforce his copy­right over Don Juan. The rea­son he gave is that he would have to reaveal the name of the author: which hard­ly seems a dra­mat­ic rev­e­la­tion giv­en that Byron’s author­ship was an open secret.

The stronger rea­sons were, no doubt, com­mer­cial. Mur­ray admit­ted that he could still make a tidy prof­it by bring­ing out a more afford­able qua­si-autho­rized edi­tion, even if he had to throw in a “Glass of Gin” with every pur­chase. Still, it’s clear he was not keen to release them under his own imprint because he remained uncom­for­t­at­ble with their con­tent. He refused Byron’s offer to return the mon­ey he had paid for the copy­right and asked for more Can­tos, too (Byron had com­plet­ed Can­tos III and IV in Novem­ber 1819).

I admire the poem beyond all mea­sure & am sup­port­ed in this esti­ma­tion by every man of judg­ment in the king­dom – who wish for a few alter­ations mere­ly to give wings to the rest & so far am I indis­posed to receive back the Copy Mon­ey – that I would not take dou­ble the sum if it were offered to me – the pirate edi­tion is not coun­te­nanced by the book­sellers & if it were or had any impor­tant sale I would sell mine for noth­ing & give every pur­chas­er a Glass of Gin into the bar­gain… my process [enforc­ing the injunc­tion against the rad­i­cal pub­lish­ers] was aban­doned the moment I found that the authors name must be giv­en up – wch is rather absurd for this puts an end to all anony­mous writ­ing – if a ras­cal choos­es to print Waver­ley for instance – the book­seller <ca> or pro­pri­etor can have no redress unless he dis­close the name of the Author [ie. Sir Wal­ter Scott]. I have print­ed Don in 8 vo to match the oth­er Poems & again in a Small­er form – the lat­ter not yet pub­lished – of the Octa­vo I have sold 3000 Copies so you see we have cir­cu­la­tion in us – I want noth­ing so much as a third & fourth Can­to which I entreat you to com­pleat for me as pro­gres­sive to the remain­ing Twelve… there­fore Moore – I pray you Moore – “it is the uni­ver­sal deci­sion that in beau­ties Don Juan sur­pass­es all that has pre­ced­ed it” – Can you keep up to this?” (Mur­ray to Byron 24 Jan 1820)

Two years lat­er, how­ev­er, Murray’s enthu­si­asm for Don Juan had evap­o­rat­ed. When in 1821 he final­ly, reluc­tant­ly released Can­tos III-V — with many errors in the text — he again includ­ed only the printer’s name, refus­ing the “coun­te­nance” of his own name.

Byron was angry about the delay, the errors and the “dis­par­age­ment”.

Mur­ray – you are an excel­lent fel­low –a lit­tle vari­able – & some­what of the opin­ion of every body you talk with – (par­tic­u­lar­ly the last per­son you see) but a good fel­low for all that – yet nev­er­the­less – I can’t tell you that I think you have act­ed very gal­lant­ly by that per­se­cut­ed book – which has made it’s way entire­ly by itself – with­out the light of your coun­te­nance – or any kind of encour­age­ment – crit­i­cal – or bib­liopo­lar. – You dis­par­aged the last three can­tos to me – & kept them back {above} a year – but I have heard from Eng­land – that (notwith­stand­ing the errors of the press) they are well thought of -“ (Byron to Mur­ray, 3 Novem­ber 1821)

With­in a year Byron had moved to anoth­er pub­lish­er.

Early reception of Don Juan

My Wife!” George IV, in the title role of Mozart’s opera sur­prised by the sud­den arrival of his wife, Car­o­line, as Don­na Anna, late­ly returned from Italy, dur­ing the wed­ding feast scene, at which a num­ber of bare breast­ed women are present; on the left, Lord Castlereagh, play­ing the role of Lep­orel­lo, holds a long list of the King’s female con­quests. Click for a larg­er size.

When the first two Can­tos of Don Juan appeared on 15 July, 1819, read­ers imme­di­ate­ly guessed — many had antic­i­pat­ed — the the author­ship. The next day, the Morn­ing Post car­ried a brief arti­cle sub-titled “Lord Byron’s New Poem of ‘Don Juan’”.

Still, the anonymi­ty of Murray’s pub­li­ca­tion and the increas­ing sever­i­ty of gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship implied the pub­lish­er knew the poem, if not sup­pressed, might be found blas­phe­mous or pos­si­bly sedi­tious and denied copy­right. A recent bizarre Court deci­sion on Southey’s pirat­ed “Wat Tyler” (a rev­o­lu­tion­ary dra­ma from Southey’s rad­i­cal youth) con­firmed that such mate­r­i­al would not be pro­tect­ed by the Courts or dig­ni­fied by copy­right. Such offend­ing works were, con­se­quent­ly, liable to wide­spread dis­tri­b­u­tion in cheap “pirat­ed” edi­tions; pre­cise­ly the oppo­site of the Crown’s inten­tion. 

With­in a week the Rad­i­cal press had tak­en notice. William Hone, a well known pam­phle­teer, rushed out a tract high­light­ing the blas­phe­my and immor­tal­i­ty of the verse — with exam­ples — while enlist­ing Byron’s its pub­li­ca­tion in his own, thus far suc­cess­ful, attacks on censorship.The first com­plete rip-offs of Don Juan prob­a­bly appeared (they are undat­ed) with­in a month or so: the first an edi­tion by Onwhyn, a rad­i­cal pub­lish­er that, at four shillings in Octa­vo for­mat, was one-eighth the price of Murray’s Quar­to edi­tion.1 By Octo­ber 1819, Mur­ray was oblig­ed to fol­low suit with an Octa­vo ver­sion at nine shillings and six­pence in order to hold onto the con­tin­u­ing strong mar­ket for Byron. 

The ear­ly crit­i­cal reac­tion to the poems — like the fist reac­tions of Byron’s friends — was marked by enthu­si­asm and admi­ra­tion, only mod­er­ate­ly qual­i­fied by admis­sions of moral ‘license’. The Morn­ing Post arti­cle men­tioned above offered a pre-emp­tive defence of the poem that antic­i­pat­ed with remark­able accu­ra­cy the attacks that would fol­low; set­ting its read­ers’ minds at ease while coy­ly, how­ev­er, not rec­om­mend­ing the pur­chase of the book:

The great­est anx­i­ety hav­ing been excit­ed with respect to the appear­ance of this Poem, we shall lay a few stan­zas before our read­ers, mere­ly observ­ing that, what­ev­er its char­ac­ter, report has been com­plete­ly erro­neous respect­ing it. If it is not (and truth com­pels us to admit it is not) the most moral pro­duc­tion in the world, but more in the “Bep­po” style, yet is there noth­ing of the sort which Scan­dal with her hun­dred toungues whis­pered abroad, and malig­ni­ty joy­ful­ly believed and repeat­ed, con­tained in it. ’Tis sim­ply a tale and right mer­rie con­ceit, flighty, wild, extrav­a­gant — immoral too, it must be con­fessed; but no arrows are lev­elled at inno­cent bosoms, no sacred fam­i­ly peace invad­ed; and they must have a strange self-con­scious­ness who can dis­cov­er their own por­tait in any part of it. Thus much, though we can­not advo­cate the book, truth and jus­tice ordain us to declare…” (The Morn­ing Post, Fri­day 16 July, 1819)

The con­ser­v­a­tive cir­itc, par­lia­men­tar­i­an and Admi­ral­ty Sec­re­tary, John Wil­son Cro­ker — whose mean review in the Quar­ter­ly Review of Keats’ Endymion was held by Shel­ley, at least, to have has­tened the poet’s death — wrote to Mur­ray, three days after the first pub­li­ca­tion

I am agree­ably dis­ap­point­ed at find­ing ‘Don Juan’ very lit­tle offen­sive. It is by no means worse than ‘Childe Harold,’ which it resem­bles as com­e­dy does tragedy. There is a prodi­gious pow­er of ver­si­fi­ca­tion in it, and a great deal of very good pleas­antry. There is also some mag­nif­i­cent poet­ry, and the ship­wreck, though too long, and in parts very dis­gust­ing, is on the whole fine­ly described. In short, I think it will not lose him any char­ac­ter as a poet, and, on the score of moral­i­ty, I con­fess it seems a more inno­cent pro­duc­tion than ‘Childe Harold’”

Two days after pub­li­ca­tion, in the con­ser­v­a­tive Lit­er­ary Gazette, William Jer­dan declared Don Juan to be “an exceed­ing­ly clever and enter­tain­ing poem,” that was “wit­ty if a lit­tle licen­tious, and delight­ful if not very moral,”. He con­clud­ed that Byron’s “defence of the moral­i­ty of his work is so good-humoured that we must wish it more sound, and after all for­give him.”

The Exam­in­er, a reform news­pa­per start­ed by the the broth­ers John and Leigh Hunt (lat­er pub­lish­ers of Can­tos V-XVI) print­ed a lengthy review three months after the pub­li­ca­tion — when the work was already being pirat­ed. Poss­bi­ly writ­ten by Leigh Hunt, it offered high praise and a psy­cho­log­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion of the nov­el style of the poem.

Some per­sons con­sid­er this the finest work of Lord Byron, or at least that in which he dis­plays most pow­er. It is at all events the most extra­or­di­nary that he has yet pub­lished. …The ground-work (if we may so speak of a stile) is the satir­i­cal and humor­ous; but you are some­times sur­prised and moved by a touch­ing piece of human nature, and again star­tled and pained by the sud­den tran­si­tion from love­li­ness or grandeur to ridicule or the mock-hero­ic…. 

It is not dif­fi­cult to account for this het­ero­ge­neous mix­ture, for the bard has fur­nished us with the key to his own mind. His ear­ly hopes were blight­ed; and his dis­ap­point­ment vents itself in sat­i­riz­ing absur­di­ties which rouse his indig­na­tion… But his genius is not nat­u­ral­ly satyri­cal; he breaks out there­fore into those fre­quent veins of pas­sion and true feel­ing of which we have just giv­en spec­i­mens… and it is to get rid of such painful and “thick com­ing” rec­ol­lec­tions that he dash­es away and relieves him­self by get­ting into anoth­er train of ideas, how­ev­er incon­gru­ous or vio­lent­ly con­trast­ed with the for­mer…

The Exam­in­er defend­ed what had been called “immoral­i­ty” as an accu­rate depic­tion of life rather than mod­els of behv­ior:

Don Juan is accused of being en a “immoral work” which we can­not at all dis­cov­er… If stu­pid and self­ish par­ents will make up match­es between per­sons whom dif­fer­ence of age or dis­po­si­tion dis­qual­i­fies for mutu­al affec­tion, they must take the con­se­quences:- but we do not think it fair that a poet should be exclaimed against as a pro­mot­er of nup­tial infi­deli­ty because he tells them what those con­se­quences are….  Which then, we would ask, are the immoral writ­ings — those which, by mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the laws of nature, lead to false views of moral­i­ty and con­se­quent licen­tious­ness, or those, which ridicule and point out the effects of absurd con­tra­dic­tion of human feel­ings and pas­sions, and help to bring about a ref­or­ma­tion of such prac­tis­es? 

The Quar­ter­ly Review, pub­lished by Mur­ray and edit­ed by the cen­so­ri­ous William Gif­ford remained mute, as did the Whig­gish (lib­er­al) Edin­burgh Review.

Next: Sales of the Can­tos I & II