Visitors to this site who know some of Lord Byron’s early lyric and love poetry — perhaps encountered at school — are sometimes puzzled by his longest work, Don Juan. Even repelled.
They’re struck by the radical difference in the verse and the tone of the poem. It’s certainly not lyric. It’s sort-of-philosophical, but more jokey than serious, and sarcastic and salacious and slanderous. They wonder, perhaps, whether they should bother to find out what this rambling, snarky novel-in-verse is all about.
If you’ve come to listen to the recording of Canto IX, you may be puzzled, too, to find this young solider with a famous Spanish name and a reputation for being a rake transposed to Russia. Did the Empress Catherine really seduce him? Isn’t Don Juan supposed to be the pants-man in his own legend?
Good questions! But hard to answer in brief. It’s a bit like someone who watches an episode of Twin Peaks or Game of Thrones for the first time. If they ask you to explain what’s going on, your first thought might be: “this could take all night”! Let’s just say: if you like this episode of Don Juan it will really repay you to start with earlier stuff such as the free, illustrated, narrated Apple IBook of the Dedication and Canto I (from which the Map at the top of this post is taken).
If you don’t have an Apple device (Mac, iPhone or iPad) the iBook won’t play. But I’ll be releasing the combined audio of Cantos I and Canto II later this year (Sept-Dec 2018) on the 200th Anniversary of their composition. Please stay tuned for details.
Meanwhile, for new listeners to Canto IX, here is an “even-shorter-than-Cliff-Notes” summary of Don Juan and it’s context.
Lord Byron (later Lord Noël-Byron, christened George Gordon) published this long poem (16 Cantos or ‘books’; never finished) in episodes, as it was being written, in the early 1820s. He was in his early 30s and still — five or six years after fleeing England for Italy — possibly the most popular, scandalous, admired and reviled literary figure of Britain. He had hurried out of London just ahead of the debt-collectors and to avoid censure for multiple rumoured (but then obscure) offences including incest with his half-sister, ‘sodomy’, a public scrap with the mad-infatuated Caroline Lamb (she had a knife), his wife’s “escape” with his infant daughter from his (verbal, mental) abuse etc etc.
The real subject of Don Juan is Byron himself whom both Goethe, for example, and Matthew Arnold agreed was one of the most fascinating studies of 19th century European literature. The story is nominally the adventures the Spanish nobleman whose reputation as a bounder and a rake everyone knows “from the pantomime”. Byron’s version of the tale is, however, entirely original, as is the telling: full of diversions, interruptions, jokes, philosophical rumination, nearly-frank confessions and, above all, clever and frequently savage satires of contemporary autocrats in Europe, their repressive governments and the hypocrisy of their allies in the press, parliaments and in the church. He is also a merciless, and very funny, critic of contemporary poets such as Wordsworth and the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey.
Byron’s Juan — he rhymes the name with “ruin” on purpose — is not the evil seducer of Mozart’s opera. Instead, the first (and sustained) joke of the poem is that readers looking for a model of Byron-as-rake find in Juan an upright, modest, dashing and earnest young hero who far from being a cynical lothario is, rather, the passive victim of his own manly virtues.
The story starts as a bedroom-farce. Juan as a pretty, smooth, inexperienced, teenager, is discovered hidden in the boudoir — OK, in the bed — of the young wife of one of his prudish mother’s former suitors. Sent abroad by his mother to a “moral” education in Italy, he is the sole survivor of a terrible shipwreck followed by cannibalism among the crew. Cast on the beach of a remote Ionian island, he is rescued and ‘bethrothed’, after some steamy but-off-stage sex-on-the-beach, by the nubile, innocent daughter of a ferocious pirate. Dad returns from sea in disguise and discovers the young pair living it up at his expense. After a brief struggle he captures Juan and sells him into slavery in the Turkish galleys. His daughter dies of grief.
The powerful Sultana of Istanbul spots the handsome lad when he is put on display in the slave market. She has her chief eunuch buy Juan and deliver him to her disguised as a female concubine, in the harem of the Ottoman Sultan. After some hair-raising, cross-dressing hilarity, the sensual, powerful Gulbayez and Juan are about to hit it off when the Sultan unexpectedly turns up. So Juan, still in disguise, has to spend the night hiding in the Sultan’s harem where the ladies fight over the opportunity to share a bed with this lovely new concubine.
Juan escapes Istanbul in the company of an English mercenary and together they join the army of Russia, under the legendary general Alexander Suvorov, in the siege of Ismail, the european-frontier fortress of the Ottoman empire at the mouth of the Danube. Juan — somewhat by lucky accident — distinguishes himself in battle. Suvorov promotes him Lieutenant and sends him back to the Empress of Russia with a Dispatch announcing the bloody victory. As Canto IX explains, the satisfaction of slaughter at Ismail was not the only joy Catherine had in this news.
In the following Cantos, Juan is sent by Catherine on a secret diplomatic mission to London where he navigates the “marriage market” of the London Season under the close watch of a myriad matchmakers but without coming to harm. The Season over, Juan joins the Country house-party of some noble friends for the hunting (‘abominable’) and the social-sexual intrigue. He witnesses the banqueting-tents of a corrupt English electoral campaign and — when we see him last — is solving the mystery of a haunted Abbey, where he encounters the generous bosom of a “ghostly” Duchess.
For some time I have been working, in desultory fashion, on an annotated version of Don Juan. You can download the current version from that link. Would you kindly take a look and tell me whether I’m on the right track?
I am hardly the first person to have attempted this. Perhaps the most famous — and most accomplished — is the eminent science-journalist and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov. He published a wonderful volume of an annotated Don Juan, illustrated by the fashionable NY illustrator Milton Glaser in 1972. I’m the delighted owner of a copy dedicated by Glaser to his own publisher.
Still, the greatest of the annotated texts of Don Juan, from a Byronist’s viewpoint, is that by the late, great Dr Peter Cochran. These are magnificent (not illustrated) texts of each Canto that Cochran carefully compiled from a variety of manuscript and published sources to re-create Byron’s own version of the poem — rather than the version “amended” by his contemporary and later editors at John Murray’s and elsewhere. Cochran’s text doesn’t shy away from Bryon’s eccentric punctuation or crudities (“mild-ities” today). It includes missing verses, and marginal annotations on the drafts and “fair copies” where relevant. Best of all, Cochran has added footnotes that draw on his own unparalleled Byron scholarship, his deep knowledge of Shakespeare and his broad research in the literature familiar to someone such as Byron who had absorbed an 18th century classical education.
I owe a great deal to Peter Cochran’s version of Don Juan. But this draft text is my own attempt to make something a little lighter than the Cochran version, a little less careful than Asimov (who tends to slide over the difficult or naughty) and still look good on the page.
The PDF document attached here contains only Cantos I — IV (without the Dedication — I half-excuse myself on the basis that I have already produced a free, illustrated, audio-book of the Dedication and Canto I). Cantos I &III are fully annotated. Canto IV has only a few notes at the start and Canto II… well, nothing really except the verse.
I’d be very grateful if you’d look this over and let me know your opinion of it — so far.
Selections from the the illustrations,verse and audio of a new e-book version of Byrons’ comic masterpiece, Don Juan”: available in the Apple iBooks store from September 2012, for the iPad and iPhone.
You can download a sample of the book right now using the button on the right of the page.
The e-book contains the full text of Canto One of Don Juan, more than 20 high-resolution, full-page illustrations and almost two hours of professional audio narration. It uses “read along” technology to synchronise the text and the audio of the poem (unlike this web-extract).
Don Juan is an hilarious, risky, modern poem that uses the Don Juan myth to explore the tangled, intense life and forthright opinions of one of literature’s greatest but also most flawed characters: the author, Gordon, Lord Byron.
Bob Southey! You’re a poet, poet laureate, And representative of all the race. Although ’tis true that you turned out a Tory at Last, yours has lately been a common case. And now my epic renegade, what are ye at With all the lakers, in and out of place? A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye Like ‘four and twenty blackbirds in a pye,
‘Which pye being opened they began to sing’ (This old song and new simile holds good), ‘A dainty dish to set before the King’ Or Regent, who admires such kind of food. And Coleridge too has lately taken wing, But like a hawk encumbered with his hood, Explaining metaphysics to the nation. I wish he would explain his explanation.
Don Jóse and the Donna Inez led For some time an unhappy sort of life, Wishing each other, not divorced, but dead. They lived respectably as man and wife, Their conduct was exceedingly well-bred And gave no outward signs of inward strife, Until at length the smothered fire broke out And put the business past all kind of doubt.
Young Juan wandered by the glassy brooks Thinking unutterable things. He threw Himself at length within the leafy nooks Where the wild branch of the cork forest grew. There poets find materials for their books, And every now and then we read them through, So that their plan and prosody are eligible, Unless like Wordsworth they prove unintelligible.
A real husband always is suspicious, But still no less suspects in the wrong place, Jealous of someone who had no such wishes, Or pandering blindly to his own disgrace By harbouring some dear friend extremely vicious. The last indeed’s infallibly the case, And when the spouse and friend are gone off wholly, He wonders at their vice, and not his folly.
And Julia sate with Juan, half embraced And half retiring from the glowing arm, Which trembled like the bosom where’twas placed. Yet still she must have thought there was no harm, Or else’twere easy to withdraw her waist. But then the situation had its charm, And then – God knows what next – I can’t go on; I’m almost sorry that I e’er begun.
‘And now, Hidalgo, now that you have thrown Doubt upon me, confusion over all, Pray have the courtesy to make it known Who is the man you search for? How d’ye call Him? What’s his lineage? Let him but be shown. I hope he’s young and handsome. Is he tall? Tell me, and be assured that since you stain My honour thus, it shall not be in vain.