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

  1. There would be sev­er­al more pri­at­ed edtions — some con­tain­ing the lat­er Can­tos, too, in the next five years.

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