Catching up… and an announcement

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.

Don Juan annotated — a work in progress

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 18<sup class="ordinal">th</sup> 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.

Live on the iBooks store

The illus­trat­ed audio e-book of Can­to One of Don Juan is now avail­able on 32 nation­al iBooks stores.

Two hours of audio, more than twen­ty full-page illus­tra­tions and the text of both the Ded­i­ca­tion and Can­to One of Byron’s hilar­i­ous bed­room farce.

Get your copy now (or down­load a free sam­ple) here

Don Juan, Canto One

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.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gal­lagher, 2012


1 & 2

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.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gal­lagher, 2012

They lived respectably as man and wife


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.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gal­lagher, 2012

…thinking unutterable things


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.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gal­lagher, 2012

A real husband always is suspicious


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.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gal­lagher, 2012

And Julia sate with Juan


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.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gal­lagher, 2012

…Who is the man you search for?


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.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gal­lagher, 2012