Don Juan: who needs it, who reads it?

In a pre­vi­ous arti­cle I lament­ed that Byron’s great com­ic poem Don Juan is not read as wide­ly as it deserves. As the great­est com­ic poem in the lan­guage, Don Juan should have a much wider audi­ence among Eng­lish-speak­ers every­where.

That’s more than a bil­lion peo­ple who could be hap­pi­er, wis­er and… yes, wealth­i­er (if you believe Byron):

Love, war, a tem­pest — sure­ly there’s vari­ety;
Also a sea­son­ing slight of lucubra­tion;
A bird’s-eye view, too, of that wild, Soci­ety;
A slight glance thrown on men of every sta­tion.
If you have nought else, here’s at least sati­ety
Both in per­for­mance and in prepa­ra­tion;
And though these lines should only line port­man­teaus,
Trade will be all the bet­ter for these Can­tos.
[14, XIV]

Still its fans want to know why the poem is ‘lin­ing port­man­teaus’ rather than lying dog-eared on the top of ten mil­lion bed­side tables.

One rea­son is, prob­a­bly, “Byron”. He is still a celebri­ty: the “Byron meme” remains strong almost two hun­dred years after his death. But his great­est poem, *Don Juan* is just not need­ed to make it work.

The short­er poems are much bet­ter known because of a sort of hap­py pub­lish­ing “acci­dent” that recon­struct­ed Byron’s lega­cy in the late 19th cen­tu­ry that lift­ed his short­er poet­ry to the top of the Roman­tic lit­er­ary canon, at the expense of his great­est poem.

Then the way we con­sume lit­er­a­ture today makes *Don Juan* hard­er to con­sume than it used to be. It is already a long poem. But for most mod­ern read­ers it will seem even longer.

Byron’s un-literary celebrity

Byron’s celebri­ty is much more mod­est than it was in his life­time: for exam­ple in his 20s when fasion­able Lon­don ‘lionised’ him and (final­ly) tore him to bits. But it is still sol­id and, these days, it over-shad­ows his great­est work.

Byron built for him­self a strik­ing image with por­traits that he com­mis­sioned. For exam­ple: the George Saun­ders 1807-09 full-length por­trait stand­ing beside a beached-dinghey in a navy-blue suit and loose cra­vat; some minia­tures also by Saun­ders; the ide­alised West­all pro­file that many sub­se­quent por­traits imi­tat­ed (not shown), and; two care­ful­ly posed por­traits by Thomas Phillips. Although sec­ond-rate as por­traits — com­pared, for exam­ple, to the busts Thor­wald­sen or Bar­toli­ni made of him — these roman­tic-clas­si­cal images were pop­u­lar for good rea­son. They per­fect­ly fit his high-flown pre-1816 verse, his slight­ly aris­to­crat­ic dis­dain (dis­tant gazes off) and his evi­dent beau­ty.

From Left to Right Sanders(1808), Phillip (1813), Phillips (1813–1835), Thor­vald­sen (1817)

Then, there’s the great trag­ic jew­el of Byron’s post-mortem celebri­ty: the youth he feared he’d lost when he turned thir­ty made eter­nal by his ear­ly death in a pop­u­lar lib­er­al cause.

These assets have helped sus­tain the Byron of pop­u­lar cul­ture but… It’s a rep­u­ta­tion now more louche than lit­er­ary. Byron as a dan­ger­ous, unsta­ble lover; Byron as a rake; Byron as vam­pire; Byron as the ser­vant-vic­tim of vam­pires; of Byron as a ted­dy-bear; Byron as a vam­pire ted­dy-bear (just kid­ding). The promi­nence of this Byron­ic “meme” makes it pos­si­ble, even like­ly, that mod­ern read­ers will know him by rep­u­ta­tion with­out know­ing any­thing of his poet­ic achieve­ment or his great­est poem.

Users of the Byron meme don’t need to know *any­thing* of his poet­ry to extract all the mean­ing they need from “Lord Byron”. Alas…

Thomas Arnold’s adverse selection

The “acci­dent” that pro­mot­ed the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Byron’s short­er poet­ry above that of his longer poems was an influ­en­tial 1881 edi­tion of Byron’s “*select­ed*” poet­ry edit­ed by Matthew Arnold, poet, crit­ic and Pro­fes­sor of Poet­ry at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty.

Arnold’s earnest praise — plac­ing Byron and Wordsworth at the fore­front of Eng­lish Roman­tic poet­ry — was a bless­ing that restored Byron’s rep­u­ta­tion; until then under-cut by Vic­to­ri­an prissi­ness. (I have giv­en a more detailed account of Arnold’s crit­i­cism else­where

Arnold decid­ed that it would aid Byron’s fame — and, inci­den­tal­ly suit Arnold’s pub­lish­ing project — to make only selec­tions from “the mass of poet­ry [Byron] poured forth”. Along with scores of Byron’s short­er verse, most from before 1816, he includ­ed just 15 brief pas­sages from Don Juan to which he gave sug­ges­tive abstract titles. He explained that this edi­to­r­i­al approach reflect­ed his sim­i­lar treat­ment of Wordsworth in an ear­li­er.

But Arnold’s selec­tive approach was lit­er­ary butch­ery; deeply unfair to Byron whose greast works, unlike Wordsworth, are long poems. Then, no one would sug­gest that because Dicken’s nov­els are uneven they could be bet­ter appre­ci­at­ed in selec­tion. If lit­er­a­ture were reduced to the “Cliff Notes” ver­sions there would be lit­tle point in hav­ing the “Notes” at all. Alfred Austin — a jour­nal­ist, crit­ic and unhap­py “Poet Lau­re­ate” who was a con­tem­po­rary of Arnold — mocked the idea:

Mr. Arnold has done Byron injus­tice by mak­ing selec­tions from his works, and assert­ing that selec­tions are bet­ter than the whole of the works from which they are select­ed. You might as well select from a moun­tain.

From “Wordsworth and Byron” in the Quar­ter­ly Review, Vol 154, 1882

Still, Arnold’s choice pre­vailed. His approach, backed by his new “con­ve­nient” edi­tion arbi­trat­ed the future for Byron’s fame. Today, Byron’s poet­ic impact is reduced to eight or ten part­ly-under­stood rhymes (“So we’ll go no more a-rov­ing…”, “Remem­ber thee…”, “She walks in beau­ty…”, “The Assyr­i­an came down like the wolf on the fold…”)

Byron’s long poems are growing longer

Yet things are get­ting worse, damnit. As we approach the third cen­tu­ry of the poem, *Don Juan* is effec­tive­ly grow­ing even *longer* and, for most peo­ple, less acces­si­ble.

The strug­gle for pop­u­lar atten­tion takes many forms but the most suc­cess­ful pro­duc­tions, now, are visu­al and aur­al: short videos and “pod­casts”. If this is a sign of a post-lit­er­ate cul­ture, then it’s a bad omen for the ency­clopaedic genius of Byron.

To be fair, the pop­u­lar­i­ty of stream­ing media also reflects the time and loca­tion most peo­ple have avail­able for con­sump­tion. We choose to read or lis­ten to music (or play games) in the hours we spend on train, or bus, in their car, at the gym etc. for good rea­son. This “inter­sti­tal” time has a low­er oppor­tu­ni­ty-cost; if you’re stuck with the com­mute any­way, it’s a good time for recre­ation. Video and audio do not demand the degree of focus that text demands, so they are much bet­ter suit­ed to these occa­sions.

Then, long texts — specif­i­cal­ly a 20,000-line poem — won’t fit com­fort­ably on the screens of smart-phones that are by far the most com­mon device for dig­i­tal con­sump­tion at those times.

Prose text can ‘reflow’ on screen to fit the avail­able width. But verse must retain its for­mat to keep the length, rythm and rhyme of each line. If the line is too long for the width of the screen, ebook read­ers won’t help by “wrap­ping” it.

The lines of Don Juan are for­mat­ted by syl­la­bles, not by char­ac­ters. Many lines that are only a stan­dard ten or eleven syl­la­bles are incon­ve­nient­ly long for a small screen (the longest is 193 char­ac­ters). Unless a tiny font is used, the line must be bro­ken to pre­vent hor­i­zon­tal scrolling, mak­ing it hard­er to read.

Also, a read­er can­not ‘scan’ the text of a verse in the way expe­ri­enced read­ers scan prose. You can’t skim across the lines pick­ing up key words and phras­es. Verse is inher­ent­ly hard­er. It takes more effort to nav­i­gate the lines and, usu­al­ly, sub-vocal­i­sa­tion to hear the scan­sion and rhyme.

Byron’s longer poems are fight­ing an up-hill bat­tle for the pop­u­lar acclaim they once had and — more than ever — deserve. In the next post, I’ll sug­gest some ways to redress the bal­ance and to ele­vate Don Juan to the sum­mit it deserves.

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