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