Don Juan Cantos Annotated

TL;DR An up-dat­ed draft of my “Anno­tat­ed Don Juan” is avail­able. It now pro­vides notes and illus­tra­tions for Can­tos I, III and IX. Get it here and read along with the nar­ra­tion.

At the end of the pre­vi­ous arti­cle I said “My sec­ond rea­son for lik­ing Don Juan is the mis­di­rec­tion and sub-texts…”.

Byron wants us to be com­plic­it in the com­e­dy of Don Juan. The fun comes from under­stand­ing what is real­ly going on. The poem is only super­fi­cial­ly about Juan and his slight­ly ridicu­lous adven­tures around pre-Napoleon­ic Europe. From the out­set — from the selec­tion of Juan as the nom­i­nal hero in the first stan­zas of Can­to I — and espe­cial­ly from Can­to IV onward, the poem is about Byron’s view of the world and of him­self; in so far as he can see him­self.

The dif­fer­ence between the sto­ry and the point is the first, and most obvi­ous, lev­el of mis­di­rec­tion in Don Juan. There are deep­er lev­els, too, that con­cern the things Byron might wish to hide, or should hide but won’t or can’t because they affect the way he sees the world and him­self. Here, the mis­di­rec­tion con­cerns his rela­tion­ship with his half-sis­ter; his mis­be­hav­ior toward his wife; his bisex­u­al­i­ty; his fear that he will die with­out being the hero he imag­ined; his belief that he “burned his can­dle” too ear­ly and, per­haps; his sus­pi­cion that the “full account” for his ear­ly promis­cu­ity is still to be paid. He alludes to each of these things in the poem — some, sev­er­al times — but not always direct­ly. He nev­er lingers on them. The dis­cur­sive verse that leads him to intro­spec­tion can just as eas­i­ly whisk him away from it. It seems he has only to look up from his pen for a moment to find a divert­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty for irony or to spot an ene­my of pub­lic virtues — lib­er­ty above all — that needs skew­er­ing.

I have no doubt there are also sub-texts in the poem than no read­er now appre­ci­ates. Hints and allu­sions that, on the sur­face seem unre­mark­able but, to a suf­fi­cient­ly informed read­er such as Cam Hob­house, the friend of his late teens and twen­ties, would recall much more res­o­nant ideas and events: in Spain, Greece and Turkey at the start of the 1810s, in Lon­don in the mid-decade and in Gene­va or Venice at the end of that decade. If we are search­ing for rea­sons that Hob­house tried, unsuc­cess­ful­ly, to tone-down the first four Can­tos (in Murray’s hands), or suc­cess­ful­ly to destroy the ear­ly sketch of a nov­el and then to burn the mem­oir bequeathed to Moore after Byron’s death, they prob­a­bly lie there. Hob­house may have argued his van­dal­ism was to pro­tect his friend’s rep­u­ta­tion. But it was very like­ly intend­ed to pro­tect his own as he climbed the greasy pole of polit­i­cal promi­nence. His cen­sor­ship ensured that the sub-texts we can no longer read in Don Juan would have no key to unlock them.

Still, the plea­sure of the poem is not the less for these unguessed mys­ter­ies. Don Juan still con­tains a remark­able depth of allu­sion in almost every stan­za. They give the poem a sub­stance of ideas that few extend­ed come­dies can match — Shake­speare (per­haps), Ben John­son, Pope — and sinews that bind it to its lit­er­ary fore­bears, while keep­ing up an extra­or­di­nary pace.

Then, Byron did not set out to write a poem of rid­dles. On the con­trary, he meant the poem to have a polit­i­cal impact. For that, it had to be acces­si­ble and pop­u­lar, as it was. The most fre­quent form of allu­sion in Don Juan is to clas­si­cal authors and mythol­o­gy. These ref­er­ences would have been more or less famil­iar to his con­tem­po­rary read­ers of every class who had at least some for­mal edu­ca­tion. Direct quotes from Latin or Greek authors (Horace, Homer) might not have been so famil­iar but in most cas­es — with one notable excep­tion in Can­to IX — Byron gloss­es the quote in the verse, mak­ing it less a mys­tery.

His quotes from Eng­lish authors — Shake­speare espe­cial­ly, but also the Bible in the KJV, some 17th cen­tu­ry drama­tists, pop­u­lar authors such Alexan­der Pope and Wal­ter Scott (and even to Wordsworth and Southey) — are not usu­al­ly acknowl­edged but the ref­er­ences are often to well-known pas­sages. Can­to IX alone con­tains per­haps a dozen quotes from Ham­let and Oth­el­lo that might be at least half-remem­bered by those who have seen or read the plays.

Then there are many half-bor­row­ings, unac­knowl­edged and usu­al­ly para­phrased or trans­formed, from his more obscure sources. Byron read very wide­ly and was reg­u­lar­ly sup­plied — often by his first pub­lish­er, John Mur­ray — with pack­ages of books from Eng­land. He must also have had an ency­clo­pe­dic mem­o­ry. In every Can­to there are authors in Latin, Ital­ian, French or Eng­lish whose ideas and images he bor­rows. Occa­sion­al­ly he men­tions them or their works: Horace, Vir­gil, Pope, Lui­gi Pul­ci. But as Peter Cochran — who dug up most of them — notes at some point in his schol­ar­ly notes, those that were most influ­en­tial on Byron he men­tions least or not at all, such as Thomas Hope’s eccen­tric com­ic nov­el Anas­ta­sius that Byron read while com­pos­ing the ear­ly Can­tos and that had a great influ­ence on the nar­ra­tive and some of the com­e­dy of Don Juan.

Aside from lit­er­ary ref­er­ences, the nar­ra­tive and digres­sions in Don Juan are pep­pered, too, with ref­er­ences to pub­lic events, promi­nent peo­ple, polit­i­cal and reli­gious ideas, his­to­ries, tech­nolo­gies and (to use a mod­ern phrase) memes of the late 18th and ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry in Europe. That was the peri­od when what we would call the “mod­ern world” began. Echoes of the social, polit­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal upheaval of those decades are still found in the con­sti­tu­tions of mod­ern States, in the forms and con­ven­tions of con­tem­po­rary art and lit­er­a­ture and in the tech­nolo­gies that still sur­round us.

Still, a lot of the con­text for the verse in Don Juan that would have been read­i­ly avail­able to a 19th read­er, or lis­ten­er, is not so read­i­ly avail­able to read­ers and lis­ten­ers in the 21st cen­tu­ry. For the read­er, today, there are new ways to com­pen­sate for that. Dis­persed around the pub­lic Inter­net is all the infor­ma­tion a read­er would ever need to grasp the con­text of even the obscure ref­er­ences in the poem. If the read­er has the time and patience.

For the lis­ten­er, the pace of the verse makes it hard to fol­low-up any of the ref­er­ences with­out los­ing track of the lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence.

Hence these anno­ta­tions. In com­pil­ing them, I’ve tak­en advan­tage of three valu­able anno­ta­tors before me. First, and fore­most, Peter Cochran whose exten­sive notes on all of Don Juan and whose edi­tions of ancil­lary mate­r­i­al such as the Hob­house diaries — still avail­able for down­load from his web­site — are invalu­able for any stu­dent of Byron. Sec­ond, the notes in the Ste­fan edi­tion of Don Juan (also used by Peter Cochran). Third, the notes by Isaac Asi­mov in his beau­ti­ful edi­tion of Don Juan from the mid-1970s that bet­ter indi­cate than either Ste­fan or Cochran where a con­tem­po­rary read­er might need some back­ground (although Asi­mov offers no com­ments on some of the naugh­ti­er bits of the poem).

Some­what fol­low­ing the Asi­mov edi­tion, I’ve includ­ed some illus­tra­tions that I hope will make the anno­ta­tions seem less of an exer­cise in dry schol­ar­ship and per­haps help to show what it is often hard to say in a short note.

Why I like Don Juan

Just now there’s a lot of inter­est in the­o­ries of behav­iour as ‘sig­nalling’. For exam­ple, edu­ca­tion choic­es and cur­ric­u­la are said to be “about” sig­nalling wealth or con­for­mi­ty with cor­po­rate ethics rather than about get­ting knowl­edge. Con­ver­sa­tion is said to be a about show­ing-off, dis­play­ing intel­lec­tu­al assets, groom­ing allies etc.

OK. It seems just yes­ter­day (in fact decades ago) it was “all about” nudges and hid­den moti­va­tors and… well. The­o­ries of incen­tives, val­ues and behav­iour are prob­a­bly use­ful giv­en the “hall-of-mir­rors” that is intro­spec­tion. But they are not a sub­sti­tute, espe­cial­ly on mat­ters of taste or pref­er­ence.

I like to per­form Don Juan (my record­ings). Does that mean that I like Byron’s poem because it’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to “show off”? The idea can’t be dis­count­ed. It must be part of the (unac­knowl­edged) cal­cu­lus. After all, it would just be too damned hard to make the effort and to put up with the frus­tra­tions of record­ing were it not for some self­ish return. The sat­is­fac­tion of cap­tur­ing or invent­ing a ‘voice’ for Byron’s poem in a way that oth­er record­ings do not is an impor­tant reward for me that I need not share with any one else.

But I can give oth­er, less embar­rass­ing rea­sons, too, for lik­ing this poem more than many oth­er lit­er­ary works and more than most of Byron’s oth­er poet­ry.

First; I like its clever dis­cur­sive verse. Byron’s man­age­ment of rhyme and argu­ment — sound and sense  — is remark­able. The con­ver­sa­tion­al tone and the struc­tured  sen­tences that weave through the rhythm and rhyme of his stan­zas —- often to a clever joke in the final cou­plet — makes it great fun to recite Don Juan. 

Despite its bound­less vari­ety, meter and rhyme are hard-won in the eng­lish lan­guage; more than in a romance lan­guage like ital­ian, for exam­ple where, noto­ri­ous­ly, “every word rhymes with every oth­er”. This dif­fi­cul­ty makes met­ri­cal verse in eng­lish espe­cial­ly prone to “acci­dents” or par­tic­u­lar qual­i­ties. These are quirks and inflec­tions: like the ways a pig­ment flows from the brush in dif­fer­ent paint media or the ways in which the soft­ness of a pencil’s lead and the angle of the point shapes a pen­cil line. Mas­tery of plas­tic arts means, at the low­est lev­el, mas­tery of — and con­ces­sion to — the acci­dents of the medi­um. This is true, too, of verse, I think. The ineluctible char­ac­ter of the lan­guage as a medi­um con­strains the poet both in the shape of the sound and also the shape of the argu­ment: what you can say is, in the micro-envi­ron­ment of a phrase, deter­mined, in part, by how you must say it.

So when Byron boasts that he has no plan for Don Juan but fol­lows where his ‘nose’ takes him, he is doubt­less telling (part of) the truth about the grand scheme. But he seems also to be telling us about the craft of verse (anyone’s verse) at the ‘micro’ lev­el. That craft is to find — or be found by — the inevitable word whose sound and sense lead from the first hint of an idea to its devel­op­ment and final form.

Of course, Byron tells us as much in Don Juan: in Can­to IX, for exam­ple, when he laments in an aside that he “needs must” (and does) rhyme “love” with “dove” even if it means allow­ing sound to over­rule sense.

Besides Pla­ton­ic love, besides the love
Of God, the love of sen­ti­ment, the lov­ing
Of faith­ful pairs (I needs must rhyme with dove,
That good old steam-boat which keeps vers­es mov­ing
‘Gainst rea­son — Rea­son né’er was hand-and-glove
With rhyme, but always leant less to improv­ing
The sound than sense)
Can­to IX, 403–7

Still, Byron’s ‘lament’ is disin­gen­u­ous (sur­prise!): his ‘for­mu­la­ic’ rhyme serves the pur­pose of his jokey admis­sion per­fect­ly well.

Now, even his ear­ly lyrics showed Bry­on was a supe­ri­or crafts­man of verse. Sus­tain­ing the ener­gy of the verse in long poems, like Childe Harold, con­firmed it. But I think what we see on the sur­face of the verse in Don Juan is still more remark­able. Childe Harold (like most of his oth­er verse before 1818) for all its orig­i­nal shock-val­ue has a for­mal, rhetor­i­cal qual­i­ty: poet­ic dic­tion and Spenser­ian stan­zas that, in eng­lish, sound mon­u­men­tal or maybe mar­mo­re­al. Like ranks of flut­ed columns.

But Don Juan is con­ver­sa­tion­al in tone. Although some­what strict­ly rhymed (Byron stretch­es a point, wit­ti­ly, here and there) in otta­va rima, the rhyme some­times deliv­ers the punch (espe­cial­ly in the last cou­plet) but often acts mere­ly to pro­pel the sense across a series of par­en­thet­i­cal or oth­er­wise sub­or­di­nate claus­es; to knit togeth­er the jostling notions and iron­ic (or pathet­ic) con­trasts that com­prise the appar­ent­ly inti­mate, fre­quent­ly manip­u­la­tive con­ver­sa­tion of a very clever com­pan­ion.

Even when embarked on pure nar­ra­tive in Don Juan, Byron’s genius for tun­ing his verse to a nec­es­sary effect is impres­sive. Con­sid­er this extract from Can­to VIII, where Juan, who has lost con­tact with his own troop in the assault on the fortress of Ismail, is about, acci­den­tal­ly, to lead an hero­ic infantry-charge.

Con­struct­ed from a mas­ter­ly con­cate­na­tion of enjambed lines (aster­isks) and con­cur­rent claus­es, the verse mim­ics Juan’s stum­bling advance across the bat­tle-field while the poet piles-on the images of death and con­fu­sion. With­out afford­ing end-of-line paus­es, the verse pro­pels us for­ward with­out us know­ing, at first, where we are head­ed. Notice that the sec­ond and third of these vers­es is one long, 16-line, sen­tence with the sub­ject (“Juan”) and the prin­ci­pal verb (‘Rush’d) found only in the last two lines. By the time the read­er reach­es the first line of the fourth verse — “He knew not where he was, nor great­ly cared” — he/she, too, feels a bit lost. Then Juan dash­es ahead into the fray, just as Byron lobs his own satir­ic bomb into the last cou­plet.

Then, like an ass, he went upon his way,
And, what was stranger, nev­er look’d behind;
But see­ing, flash­ing for­ward, like the day *
Over the hills, a fire enough to blind *
Those who dis­like to look upon a fray,
He stum­bled on, to try if he could find *
A path, to add his own slight arm and forces *
To corps, the greater part of which were cors­es.

Per­ceiv­ing then no more the com­man­dant *
Of his own corps, nor even the corps, which had *
Quite disappear’d — the gods know how! (I can’t *
Account for every thing which may look bad *
In his­to­ry; but we at least may grant *
It was not mar­vel­lous that a mere lad,
In search of glo­ry, should look on before,
Nor care a pinch of snuff about his corps): —

Per­ceiv­ing nor com­man­der nor com­mand­ed,
And left at large, like a young heir, to make *
His way to — where he knew not — sin­gle hand­ed;
As trav­ellers fol­low over bog and brake *
An “ignis fatu­us;” or as sailors strand­ed *
Unto the near­est hut them­selves betake;
So Juan, fol­low­ing hon­our and his nose,
Rush’d where the thick­est fire announced most foes.

He knew not where he was, nor great­ly cared,
For he was dizzy, busy, and his veins *
Fill’d as with light­ning — for his spir­it shared *
The hour, as is the case with live­ly brains;
And where the hottest fire was seen and heard,
And the loud can­non peal’d his hoars­est strains,
He rush’d, while earth and air were sad­ly shak­en
By thy humane dis­cov­ery, Fri­ar Bacon!
Can­to VIII, 233–264

If that analy­sis sounds too com­pli­cat­ed, it’s my fault. Byron’s verse is great fun when he’s being clever or naughty, and affect­ing when he’s being seri­ous. The ironies are a delight; the con­trasts wit­ty and often unex­pect­ed. His ideas cas­cade, some­times, in tor­rents.

Fol­low­ing the twists and turns of Byron’s sen­tences in Don juan is like watch­ing an expert surfer flick across the waves or some grace­ful kid on a roller-board do stuff that almost ter­ri­fies you to watch. When, at last, he lands the plea­sure is part won­der and part relief. The plea­sure of his satire is ten­sion released.

Brave! It’s the only word for what Byron essays, against the oppo­si­tion of his pub­lish­er (Mur­ray), the lit­er­ary mag­a­zines (the Review) the “seri­ous” Press, and even his erst­while friends (Hob­house). At every point in the extem­pore per­for­mance of Don Juanstand up poet­ry — Byron insists on tak­ing a risk. Say­ing what he can or must and trust­ing to the judge­ment of his “com­mon” read­ers or of his­to­ry to com­pre­hend what his crit­ics and cen­sors could not.

How ful­ly his deter­mi­na­tion has been jus­ti­fied!

My sec­ond rea­son for lik­ing Don Juan is the mis­di­rec­tion and sub-texts… No. This post is long enough already. I may come back to that idea in a future post.

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.

An audio recording of Canto IX of Byron’s Don Juan

Here’s a record­ing — about 2-years old — of Can­to IX of Don Juan.

The record­ing (MP3) is in three parts. It’s best to read along with the text of the poem if you can because the verse is quite com­plex. Also please use head­phones. You’ll find the qual­i­ty much bet­ter.

[There is 5–10 sec­onds of silence at the head of each record­ing]

  1. Vers­es 1–21
  • An attack on the Duke of Welling­ton for being a Tory and a leech; too vain to know the true impact his vic­to­ries had on Euro­pean free­dom
  • An apos­tro­phe (“Death laughs..”) to death —- the sub­ject is nev­er far from the sur­face of Don Juan
  • A mean­der­ing philo­soph­i­cal rumi­na­tion on “being” that is short and wit­ty enough to hold its place in the poem
  • An abrupt tran­si­tion to…

2. Vers­es 21–42 

  • A brief glimpse of Juan en-route to St Peters­burg whose dis­tant prospect leads to…
  • An aside on autoc­ra­cy, dem­a­goguery and the abuse of pow­er that ends when Byron seems to remem­ber him­self and returns briefly to…
  • Juan on the snowy road with Leila. Short­ly after­wards, in the midst of a rhetor­i­cal fig­ure about Fame, Byron pre­tends to have lost the thread of his argu­ment and bequeathes it to pos­ter­i­ty… which results in…
  • A spec­u­la­tion about the future and how the Geor­gian era (and George IV) will appear when reduced to being the sub­ject of a future arche­ol­o­gy.
  • Then, once more, Byron pulls him­self up and deter­mines to restart the nar­ra­tive. He cuts straight­way to the court of the Empress Cather­ine where Juan is to present gen­er­al Suvorov’s dis­patch­es from the suc­cess­ful siege of Ismail.

3. Vers­es 43–85 

  • Juan’s appear­ance at Court
  • Catherine’s court, courtiers, her appear­ance, blood­i­ness and promis­cu­ity
  • Juan’s pre­sen­ta­tion to the Queen and her infat­u­a­tion with him
  • A series of asides on lust and pow­er and an apos­tro­phe, to the vagi­na
  • Juan’s flat­tered but ‘gen­tle­man­ly’ acqui­es­cence in an ‘assign­ment’ — in Catherine’s boudoir — like­ly to make him wealthy and pow­er­ful at Court
  • A clos­ing scene in which Juan is tak­en in hand by a woman who “checks-out” the Queen’s prospec­tive lovers.

I hope you enjoy the read­ing. Com­ments are wel­come.

Stand-up poetry

The more time I spend with “Don Juan” the more I am con­vinced that it is cru­cial, for an under­stand­ing of the poem, to remem­ber that it is a per­for­mance, not a con­ven­tion­al text.

I’ve been look­ing close­ly at Can­to III again in the past cou­ple of weeks, because — alas! — I have to re-record it. The read­ing I made near­ly a year ago has some tiny, impos­si­ble-to-remove ‘clicks’ intro­duced some­how in the sig­nal chain from micro­phone to audio file (damn!).

What stands out as I revise, is the evi­dence that Can­tos III and IV mark a change in Byron’s ambi­tions for his poem. As if the con­trast­ing recep­tion of Can­tos I and II — from his pub­lish­ers and crit­ics, on one hand, and his read­ers on the oth­er — decid­ed him to fol­low his incli­na­tion, and be damned.

Byron poured into Don Juan, more than in any oth­er of his works, his extra­or­di­nary tal­ent for verse, his reflex­ive obses­sions and ticks, his doubts and guilt (pub­lic and pri­vate), a dis­tin­guished clas­si­cal edu­ca­tion, his spite for reac­tion and repres­sion, his jokey-blokey-post-Enlight­en­ment polit­i­cal incor­rect­ness, his gen­eros­i­ty to friends, and his rest­less con­vic­tion he had ‘lived’ too much (by his ear­ly 30s).

Still, it was a sort of extem­pore per­for­mance for the Eng­lish pub­lic that had loved him before his exile and that remained fas­ci­nat­ed by him — or by his leg­end — as he was by him­self. He revised each Can­to in mak­ing the fair copy before it went to the pub­lish­er and saw and cor­rect­ed proofs of Can­tos I and II. But he had no overview of the whole poem. It was nev­er ‘whole’ in the sense of ‘com­plete’, since he left it unfin­ished at his death. Once the fair copy left Italy for Lon­don, it was more or less out of his hands.

Oth­er great works of lit­er­a­ture have appeared ‘seri­al­ly’; Dick­ens’ nov­els for exam­ple. But they were planned in great detail; the plot ram­i­fied, the char­ac­ters sketched before the first parts appeared. Byron boast­ed that he had no plan in writ­ing “Don Juan”; he had only ‘mate­ri­als’. He had no oppor­tu­ni­ty to rebal­ance the whole, to revise what he had writ­ten (once print­ed) or to adjust the pace or focus of any­thing he had writ­ten. He nev­er saw the six­teen Can­tos that he com­plet­ed, in one pub­lished edi­tion.

The extem­pore com­po­si­tion of a long work would have been risky even for a form heav­i­ly bound by con­ven­tion, such as the epic poems of Clas­si­cal Greece. But Don Juan was (is) far from con­ven­tion­al. On the con­trary, today as two-hun­dred years ago it is remark­able for its inno­va­tion. Byron mocks poet­ic con­ven­tions claim­ing to respect epic prece­dent and ‘Aristotle’s rules’ of dra­mat­ic uni­ty while pay­ing them lit­tle heed.

Then the con­tent is a riotous “mash-up”. It is part farce — light­weight, risky and fun — and part a bit­ter satire with sharp barbs for the pre­ten­sions of his own class, the insti­tu­tions of Regency Eng­land and the triv­i­al­i­ty of the then-grow­ing fash­ion for “polite” taste (in lit­er­a­ture espe­cial­ly). Inter­spersed with these are med­i­ta­tions, jokes, teas­ing and mis­re­port­ing of his own expe­ri­ence, beliefs, and tastes in tones that are some­times iron­ic, some­times pathet­ic and even maudlin (‘pathet­ic’ in anoth­er sense)..

Still, the great­est inno­va­tion of Don Juan is Byron’s will­ing­ness to lever­age his own celebri­ty and the clever way in which he does so. No author had attempt­ed this before him; few pub­lic fig­ures have done it so well since. His noto­ri­ous (although exag­ger­at­ed) pub­lic image gave him a high­ly vis­i­ble per­for­mance plat­form that he was more than will­ing to exploit from exile.

It is stand-up poet­ry. Byron is as provoca­tive as Juan is mild; always wit­ty, some­times brit­tle, occa­sion­al­ly sen­ti­men­tal and even self-indul­gent. He is the sub­ject of his own per­for­mance. Or rather, “Byron” is the sub­ject: for where the per­former and the per­for­mance tru­ly coin­cide is some­time anyone’s guess.

Every­thing about this com­plex lay­er­ing of pub­lic satire and qua­si-con­fes­sion feels mod­ern and with­out prece­dent. The great­est Eng­lish satyrists (Dry­den, Pope) were con­ven­tion­al in their use of the poet’s voice. Although both were famous in their own times they do not overt­ly draw atten­tion to them­selves as char­ac­ters in their poet­ry except in the same mild, med­i­ta­tive way as e.g. Horace does in his epis­tles which, how­ev­er, are cast as pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Lawrence Sterne mixed fic­tion­al forms and nar­ra­tive voic­es in a tumult of styles in “Tris­tram Shandy” but nev­er inhab­it­ed Tris­tram in the way that Byron inhab­its “Don Juan”. Pul­ci and John Hookham Frere, two of Byron’s mod­els for the otta­va rima style, used an off-hand, con­ver­sa­tion­al tone to deflate their grand sub­jects (the epics of Roland and of King Arthur: the Mat­ter of France and the Mat­ter of Britain) but nei­ther steps out of the nar­ra­tive frame to offer reflec­tions on them­selves.

His risky method of com­pos­tion meant Byron had to dis­cov­er what he want­ed the poem to be and how to do it while pub­lish­ing the poem. He had a sort of “tri­al run” in Bep­po, his imi­ta­tion of Pul­ci that he offered to Mur­ray in late 1817 along with the Fourth (and last) Can­to of Childe Harold. But it is evi­dent that he is exper­i­ment­ing with the tone and the fram­ing of Don­Juan as he worked on it.

Can­to I begins as a nar­ra­tive with an overt ‘fram­ing’ device: a nar­ra­tor. In the un-fin­ished (draft, nev­er pub­lished) prose pref­ace to Can­to I, Byron even invites the read­er to imag­ine a scene out­side a Can­ti­na in Spain where the nar­ra­tor is telling the tale. But the old­er, stuffy, friend-of-the-fam­i­ly who begins the tale dis­ap­pears after few dozen vers­es, to be replaced by Byron him­self. Or, at least, by the avatar of “Byron” that Byron pro­pos­es for the pur­pose of his per­for­mance.

Can­to II is less far­ci­cal than Can­to I and has a broad­er nar­ra­tive can­vas with a ship­wreck, a sur­vival tale and the romance with Haidée. Still, its episodes of can­ni­bal­ism and ‘illic­it’ love on the beach were just as provoca­tive to Byron’s read­ers as the adul­tery and ‘blas­phe­my’ of the first part. Also, Byron’s diver­sions from the nar­ra­tive are, like those in Can­to I, some­what relat­ed to the action and events, like a loose com­men­tary.

But Can­to III, begun nine month after he had fin­ished Can­to II breaks the nar­ra­tive momen­tum. I have post­ed here before on the “Pecu­liar tra­jec­to­ry of Can­to III” ( It is remark­able for hav­ing almost no action and for wan­der­ing off, first, into descrip­tions of Turk­ish lux­u­ry, then into a lyric intru­sion con­demn­ing Greek com­pla­cen­cy. A med­i­ta­tion on lit­er­ary fame leads to a blis­ter­ing attack on Wordsworth and the “Lak­ers” and, imme­di­ate­ly after, a curi­ous med­i­ta­tion on the evening sky that devel­ops into Mar­i­o­la­try, mem­o­ries of evening litur­gy and for­est scenes and final­ly into a claimed pan­the­ist devo­tion.

Still, the ever-watch­ful per­former in Byron catch­es the poet before he becomes maudlin, threat­ens to award him the ‘wood­en spoon’ of poet­ry for lack­ing imag­i­na­tion and calls an end to the Can­to in order to get the nar­ra­tive back on the rails. This ‘lapse’ has been, per­haps, a dra­mat­ic ruse to lull the read­er before the “coiled up” Lam­bro, lurk­ing off-stage, bursts in upon the lovers doz­ing on their divan. But it is also, no doubt, an exper­i­ment in tone that Byron refines in sub­se­quent Can­tos.

A talk on Byron & Don Juan

A few weeks ago, the chair of a poet­ry group in one of the city Clubs in Mel­bourne (where such things still exist) invit­ed me to give a talk on Don Juan. 

What I did, instead, was to pro­vide a short paper in advance and to devote my 20 min­utes to a read­ing (from Can­to I, lead­ing up to the ‘seduc­tion scene’).

Here is the text of the paper:

Byron & Don Juan

About Lord Byron?

A par­venu; a Baron at 5 by a resid­ual her­itage 1. Very bright; a tal­ent­ed lin­guist; well-edu­cat­ed (Har­row, Cam­bridge) although indo­lent at school and the Uni­ver­si­ty. He had a rak­ish father who aban­doned him as an infant; an hys­ter­i­cal, sil­ly moth­er; an abu­sive nan­ny. He was slight­ly dis­abled from birth: when he walked, he half-dragged his right foot because the low­er leg was dys­pla­sic. He was not tall but neat­ly pro­por­tioned; obses­sive, in bursts, about his weight and about sports such as swim­ming and box­ing. He had an almost girl­ish­ly hand­some face, evi­dent ‘charis­ma’ and much per­son­al charm. Bisex­u­al, his deep­est loves were his half-sis­ter — whom he first met in his late teens — and one or two boyfriends ear­ly and late in life. Still, he was promis­cu­ous even by the loose stan­dards of the cot-hop­ping Regency upper-class.

Byron enjoyed spec­tac­u­lar ear­ly fame — due both to tal­ent and to hard work — as an author of edgy but sen­ti­men­tal verse fol­lowed by a swing­ing satyri­cal reply to his crit­ics. Polit­i­cal­ly a Whig; too scep­ti­cal of the Church to take for­mal reli­gion seri­ous­ly. An upper-class anti-reac­tionary rather than a lib­er­al, although he lat­er sup­port­ed rev­o­lu­tion­ary caus­es in both Italy and Greece. He was scorn­ful of the ‘cant’ of Tory gov­ern­ments and the odi­ous Hanove­ri­ans whom they served. Not inter­est­ed in Eng­lish pol­i­tics, except to satirise it. A ‘good hater’ of those whom he believed had tra­duced him or who prof­it­ed from pow­er; he was gen­er­ous and kind to the unfor­tu­nate and to those of low­er sta­tus. Jeal­ous of his claim to nobil­i­ty; he was no demo­c­rat but he was unpre­ten­tious. With­out a patron or a steady guide when young but sup­port­ed — and kind­ly, if inef­fec­tu­al­ly, advised —- by a lead­ing Tory pub­lish­er (John Mur­ray).

Against advice he mar­ried unsuit­ably, affec­tion­ate­ly – at first – but love­less­ly. It seems he did so to divert him­self from an inces­tu­ous affair with his half-sis­ter, who bore a child that may have been his, and pos­si­bly to avoid more seri­ous rumors of ‘unnat­ur­al’ rela­tions. He was irre­spon­si­ble with mon­ey when young, beset by debt, unable to sell his con­sid­er­able estate (New­stead Abbey) and fool­ish­ly cru­el to his wife in the year or so they spent togeth­er. When she left him, tak­ing their infant child, rumours of Byron’s sup­posed infi­deli­ties, and worse, were spread in Lon­don soci­ety by his half-crazed for­mer lover, Lady Car­o­line Lamb, the wife of Lord Mel­bourne. He fled — as many oth­ers, includ­ing his father, had done — to the Con­ti­nent to avoid the bailiffs, social cen­sure and, per­haps, denun­ci­a­tion. He nev­er returned to Eng­land. After sev­en years of aston­ish­ing poet­ic out­put in Italy, he died of ill­ness at the age of 36 (1824) while lead­ing an expe­di­tion to sup­port the Greek revolt against the Turks.

About Don Juan?

One hun­dred eighty years after his death, Byron’s fame has dwin­dled. His poet­ry remained huge­ly pop­u­lar until the 1830s when the Vic­to­ri­ans’ pris­sy lit­er­ary taste dep­re­cat­ed his “scan­dalous” verse. His rep­u­ta­tion was restored but re-shaped by Matthew Arnold — the scourge of Vic­to­ri­an bour­geois dull­ness — who pub­lished (1865) his own selec­tion from Byron that, how­ev­er, paid lit­tle atten­tion to Byron’s great­est poem. For the next hun­dred years, under Arnold’s influ­ence, earnest Byron­ian ‘soci­eties’ imbibed the wild decla­ma­tions of Childe Harold and com­mit­ted Byron’s lyri­cal poems to mem­o­ry. But not Don Juan. It was too free­wheel­ing, even bru­tal, for Arnoldian High-Church tastes. And too dif­fi­cult to excerpt in antholo­gies.

These days, the ghost of Lord Byron — even less sub­stan­tial (but, hey, who ever invokes the shades of Wordsworth or Southey?) — lurks on Twit­ter and Face­book and in the occa­sion­al TV or film cameo. There, it feeds on the celebri­ty of an imag­ined dandi­ness and rak­ish­ness2 and on snip­pets of some mis­read roman­tic verse.

Although his many lyrics are fine and high­ly quotable, Byron’s more secure claim on pos­ter­i­ty is that he may be the great­est satirist in Eng­lish poet­ry — he and his mod­el, Alexan­der Pope, vie for that crown — espe­cial­ly for “The Vision of Judge­ment”. But that tremen­dous fake apoth­e­o­sis of George III and his poet Lau­re­ate, Robert Southey, now is scarce­ly read out­side aca­d­e­m­ic cir­cles. Also, he com­posed, in Don Juan, the fun­ni­est, bold­est and most read­able verse ‘nov­el’ in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture. It is a satir­i­cal epic in otta­va rima vers­es, com­pa­ra­ble in scale to Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote but very mod­ern in scope.

The poem com­pris­es Six­teen (fin­ished) Can­tos, each of 100-or-so tight­ly-rhymed eight-line stan­zas in an ‘Ital­ian’ form: otta­va rima 3 whose osten­si­ble nar­ra­tive con­cerns the adven­tures of its hero, Don Juan. Byron’s Juan – he rhymes the name with “ruin” on pur­pose – is not da Ponte’s “Don Gio­van­ni”, the evil seduc­er of Mozart’s opera and pan­tomime. 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 is, rather, the pas­sive vic­tim of his own man­ly virtues. A gal­lant young lover secret­ed in the boudoir of anoth­er man’s wife; the sole sur­vivor of a ter­ri­ble ship­wreck; cast on the beach of a remote Ion­ian island; res­cued (and ‘bethrothed’) by the daugh­ter of a fero­cious pirate; enslaved in the gal­leys and dis­guised in the harems of an Ottoman Sul­tan; thrown by the for­tunes of war into the arms of the Russ­ian Empress; sent on a secret mis­sion to the ban­quet­ing-tents of an Eng­lish elec­toral cam­paign and to the bosom of a “ghost­ly” Duchess haunt­ing a state­ly Eng­lish manor home.

But Juan’s odyssey is only the can­vas for Byron’s satire. Byron’s tar­gets are famous and infa­mous per­son­al­i­ties; mon­ey, reli­gion, news­pa­pers, war­fare and fash­ion­able sci­ence, and; the tem­pus & mores of Eng­land in the late Regency and Europe after Water­loo, sim­mer­ing with polit­i­cal reac­tion and revolt. The nar­ra­tive deploys famil­iar tropes: the decep­tions of youth­ful hope, the cyn­i­cism of pow­er, loves’ demands, the mis­al­liance of men and women, the frailty of (non-lit­er­ary, espe­cial­ly mil­i­tary) fame, the pover­ty of great rich­es, the hypocrisy of office and posi­tion and, above all, the clar­i­on call of lib­er­ty. The satire is clever; the verse is often bril­liant, if a lit­tle uneven.

Still, Don Juan is com­pelling most­ly because Byron is too adven­tur­ous (or maybe ‘incau­tious’) a writer to be con­tent with the famil­iar tar­gets. He takes risks, and boasts about it.4 He sets out, in Can­to I, to tell a sto­ry in com­ic verse; a sort of bed­room-farce that mocks but also begs the impres­sion of him in Lon­don as a self-exiled rake and bound­er. The first Can­to even has a fic­tion­al ‘nar­ra­tor’ to set the stage for the action and com­ment on the char­ac­ters. But, by the time he comes to the end of Can­to II — after indulging, for fun, in repeat­ed “blas­phemies” (not real­ly), libels, attacks on nation­al heroes, scan­dalous sex and even can­ni­bal­ism — it has become clear to Byron that his ‘unplanned’ epic is also more than an enter­tain­ment. The epic; has devel­oped into a more per­son­al and more demand­ing poem.

Up to 1819 when the first two Can­tos of Don Juan appeared, Byron’s oeu­vre had been crowned by his long poem Childe Harold, a bil­dungsro­man that estab­lished the mod­el of the “Byron­ic” hero: world-weary (although a twen­ty-some­thing); dri­ven by a melan­cholic imag­i­na­tion; bear­ing a sense of deep, but obscure, guilt and; sur­round­ed by dra­mat­ic land­scapes. As he began to work on Don Juan, the ear­li­er poem was still extreme­ly pop­u­lar with read­ers and writ­ers all over Europe who iden­ti­fied The Childe with Byron him­self. But Byron had evi­dent­ly grown tired of the high-roman­tic pos­ture and the stilt­ed Spenser­ian verse. The otta­va rima style offered him a more ver­nac­u­lar, iron­ic form in which to punc­ture reac­tionary dull­ness and while engag­ing in a half-sar­cas­tic, half-seri­ous exam­i­na­tion of his own opin­ions, tastes, expec­ta­tions, dis­ap­point­ments and errors. Or, at least, those opin­ions etc. that Byron claimed were real­ly his. He would hold back noth­ing.5

Although Byron, disin­gen­u­ous, con­tin­ues to insist in lat­er Can­tos that his poem has the struc­ture of a con­ven­tion­al epic with wars, feasts, sea-bat­tles, god­dess­es, “loves” etc. his epic is, in real­i­ty, an inte­ri­or adven­ture: Byron exam­in­ing the tra­vails of being Byron. His many diver­sions from Juan’s tale to remark on an inter­est, skew­er a phoney, dis­cuss a curios­i­ty or muse over own his­to­ry turns his epic into a “stand-up”, first-per­son per­for­mance that delib­er­ate­ly employs his “celebri­ty” as a plat­form. It is a style that rather shocked John Mur­ray, his first pub­lish­er, but now seems famil­iar. Byron was the first to do it and few have ever done it so well. Even so, the degree to which the “Byron” who writes Don Juan is tru­ly Byron is occa­sion­al­ly open to doubt. The clev­er­ness of his verse, his allu­sions, his will­ing­ness to strike a rhetor­i­cal pose for effect and his iron­i­cal humour makes it appar­ent that, some­times, we are see­ing a mask adopt­ed for the per­for­mance. And, some­times, the mask seems to slip.

One of his keen­est con­tem­po­rary crit­ics — an acquain­tance made in Pisa short­ly before he sailed for the Greek rev­o­lu­tion and his death — was the ‘adorable’ Lady Con­stance Bless­ing­ton; a clever, beau­ti­ful, Irish social climber and jour­nal­ist who pub­lished, for prof­it, a seri­al­ized book of their con­ver­sa­tions short­ly after Byron’s death. She records that Byron asked her, at one point, for her assess­ment of his char­ac­ter:

I replied, ‘I look on you as a spoilt child of genius, an epicy­cle in your own cir­cle.’ At which he laughed, though half dis­posed to be angry.”

Bless­ing­ton also, rather sniffi­ly, accus­es Byron of “flip­pan­cy and a total want of self-pos­ses­sion.” Clear­ly, his will­ing­ness to shock did not quite meet her stan­dards of seri­ous­ness or deco­rum for an Eng­lish poet or Peer. But, how­ev­er ungen­er­ous — how­ev­er much she had her eye on her own rep­u­ta­tion and the mar­ket for her book — she’s not entire­ly wrong. Just as in life Byron some­times seemed to be not quite ‘in con­trol’ of him­self (or his rep­u­ta­tion), so in Don Juan Byron arguably fails to quite grasp his own mer­cu­r­ial char­ac­ter. Still, his attempt reach­es depths that, for exam­ple, Wordsworth’s end­less, wordy psy­chol­o­gis­ing in The Excur­sion nev­er reach­es.

The poem is, at heart, an enter­tain­ing sto­ry with a lot of well-deserved jabs at hypocrisy and abuse of pow­er, with gor­geous set-dress­ing, bright ideas and lots of clever verse that make it much bet­ter read­ing than almost any­thing from his con­tem­po­raries. And Byron is, in every way, a fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject for dis­sec­tion.

Peter Gal­lagher
Octo­ber, 2016

  1. His great uncle the “Wicked” 5th Lord Byron out­lived his off­spring .  
  2. Byron has only him­self to blame for this image spread by, for exam­ple, his deci­sion to have him­self por­trayed in Turk­ish cos­tume. In real­i­ty he was not seri­ous enough about cos­tume to be a dandy and worked too hard to be a rake. 
  3. It has often been not­ed that every word in Ital­ian rhymes with almost every oth­er word in Ital­ian. It takes uncom­mon genius to man­age the trick over such an extend­ed length in Eng­lish. 
  4. Each Can­to went to his pub­lish­er as he com­plet­ed it over the years 1819 to 1824. He resist­ed all pleas for an out­line or plan and dis­missed most pro­posed revi­sions. So the epic became a lengthy, extem­pore per­for­mance whose tar­gets and tone evolves as the poem con­tin­ues.  
  5. Accord­ing­ly, after fin­ish­ing the sec­ond Can­to he com­posed an aston­ish­ing “Ded­i­ca­tion” to Robert Southey designed to evis­cer­ate the ‘turn­coat’ Lau­re­ate and his com­pan­ion in dull­ness, William Wordsworth. Since the Ded­i­ca­tion also slan­dered Lord Castlereagh as an intel­lec­tu­al nul­li­ty and ene­my of lib­er­ty, Mur­ray refused to pub­lish it and it did not appear until after Byron’s death. 

Progress in the recording of Don Juan

The image shows Cather­ine the Great in a walk­ing cloak; paint­ed by V.Borovikovskiy about 1794

It’s nine months at least since I last post­ed here: not what read­ers expect, of course, so I assume I have no read­ers any more. Alas! My own fault.

But I have not been quite so idle on the record­ing front. One way or anoth­er, in fits and starts (most­ly ‘fits’), I’m get­ting through the Can­tos. The last I report­ed on here was Can­to III. But I’ve also record­ed Can­to IV and Can­tos VI through IX. I record­ed Can­to I, Can­to V and Can­tos XIII-XVI for Lib­rivox sev­er­al years ago. I’ve left until last a sec­ond vis­it to those can­tos. I also have (re-)recordings of I and II that I made a cou­ple of years back in my planned series of iBooks (a project dropped after the illus­trat­ed, read-aloud Can­to I failed to sell: it is now avail­able for free down­load).

Can­to IX, set around 1790, sees Juan, the ‘hero’ of the bat­tle of Ismail (Rus­sia vs Ottoman Turks), as the toy-boy of an age­ing — but amorous — Empress Cather­ine the Great of Rus­sia. The Can­to is an hilar­i­ous, clever, scan­dalous satire on sex and impe­r­i­al pow­er with a few Byron­ic rock­ets for the reac­tionary gov­ern­ment of 1820’s Eng­land. Juan is flat­tered by the Empress’ atten­tion and, nat­u­ral­ly, ful­ly capa­ble of ful­fill­ing the duties of his ‘post’ (… yes, there are plen­ty of dou­ble enten­dres and para­phras­es of bawdy Roman verse that edu­cat­ed Eng­lish men and women of the Regency no doubt rec­og­nized). But he falls ill in the Russ­ian snows and is giv­en an embassy to Eng­land as a reward for his ‘ser­vices’ to Cather­ine.

I am now record­ing Can­to X, com­posed in 1822. It brings Juan, as a Russ­ian speak­ing Spaniard, to Lon­don; the city Byron had fled sev­en years before. Some of his finest satire is just ahead.

Byron’s big fat Greek frustration

Ok! That title is a cheap attempt at click-bait. Implau­si­ble, too. Byron hat­ed “big fat” any­thing. He was obses­sive about his weight… cer­tain­ly neu­rot­ic, pos­si­bly anorex­ic from time to time.

But he was deeply frus­trat­ed by the Greeks, whom he loved from the time of his first youth­ful vis­it to the region in 1810-11. In Don Juan he rages at their unwill­ing­ness, or inabil­i­ty, to assert their nation­al spir­it in the face of a tired, half-atten­tive, but rapa­cious Turk­ish occu­pa­tion.

Did the Greek’s even have a “nation­al spir­it”? Was there a Hel­lenic home­land? Or just a bunch of Ion­ian, Doric and Pelo­pon­nesian regions of “cis-Eura­sia” that West­ern Europe roman­ti­cized as the ter­ri­to­r­i­al her­itage of ‘clas­si­cal Greece’? Was Byron’s assump­tion that any red-blood­ed Greek should be a pan-Hel­lenist just anoth­er exam­ple of his own hot-head­ed, lord­ly, lib­er­al­ism get­ting ahead of the facts?

Hon­est­ly, I’m not sure. But that does not detract from my enjoy­ment of Byron’s elo­quent rad­i­cal­ism in the Greek cause nor my sym­pa­thy with his frus­tra­tion. He deserves sym­pa­thy on this account almost more than on any oth­er. Not only (in the mid-1820s) did he put his “mon­ey where his mouth was” but he laid down his life — if not will­ing­ly, with deter­mined res­ig­na­tion — in its cause.

In Can­to III of Don Juan, Byron cel­e­brates the fate­ful nup­tial feast of Juan and his lover-sav­ior Haidée the Pirate’s Daugh­ter. The cen­ter­piece of the feast is a lyric that has become one of the best-known and most anthol­o­gised of Byron’s vers­es; “The Isles of Greece…”. The song is not part of the otta­va rima ‘root­stock’ of Don Juan, but a ‘sport’ of lyric verse that is both a poet­ic and nar­ra­tive diver­sion. An unnamed Poet, a pro­fes­sion­al enter­tain­er who is also the butt of sev­er­al of Byron’s jokey allu­sions to his self-serv­ing con­tem­po­raries, the ‘Lak­er’ poets, sings “The Isles of Greece” appar­ent­ly because he believes his hosts will approve it. This ‘stag­ing’ cre­ates some dis­tance between the sen­ti­ments in the verse and Byron; but, in truth, very lit­tle. The satire is too point­ed, the verse too refined, to be any but Byron’s.

The verse is easy and the open­ing lines have the wist­ful char­ac­ter of “poesy”… Poet­ry edi­tors for a hun­dred fifty hun­dred hun­dred years,* seek­ing some short, self-con­tained seg­ment of Don Juan for their antholo­gies ignored the untyp­i­cal char­ac­ter of the song and excerpt­ed it for their col­lec­tions.

But how many who know it’s open­ing lines would recall the sharp­ness of its lat­er satire on the Greeks under Ottoman rule? Or it’s anger?

If, about now, you too are feel­ing some frus­tra­tion at the char­ac­ter of Greece or even, per­haps, the rapa­cious­ness of their neigh­bors… you might enjoy review­ing this sur­pris­ing wed­ding address. Here is an extract from my record­ing of Can­to III con­tain­ing the “Isles of Greece”. If you like it, please let me know and I’ll push the whole Can­to ‘out the door’.

Oh… and one last thing. The image at the head of this post is of the eccen­tric, bril­liant aes­thete Thomas Beechey Hope, the — ini­tial­ly anony­mous — author of a much-praised com­ic satire on the “Greek” iden­ti­ty, Anas­ta­sius (avail­able from the Inter­net Archive) pub­lished by John Mur­ray pub­lished in 1819. Anas­ta­sius clear­ly inspired parts of Don Juan.

* Hmmm… the ear­li­est evi­dence I can find is Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1900 Anthol­o­gy “The Oxford Book Of Eng­lish Verse 1250–1900”.

Shelley and Byron (1822)

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (1840)
Por­trait of Mary Shel­ley by Richard Roth­well (1840)

For the first few years of his self-imposed exile in Italy, Byron’s strongest lit­er­ary friend­ship was with the sim­i­lar­ly self-exiled Per­cy Bysshe Shel­ley. PBS was a wild, tru­ly rad­i­cal genius mar­ried, but fre­quent­ly unfaith­ful, to the wit­ty, loy­al, lib­er­al Mary (Wool­stonecraft God­win) Shel­ley; the author of Franken­stein (and sev­er­al oth­er nov­els) and lat­er copy­ist of sev­er­al of Byron’s Canto’s of Don Juan.

Shel­ley was an impetu­ous, often bril­liant char­ac­ter whose poet­ry leaped a gen­er­a­tion, at least, to influ­ence major British poets writ­ing at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry. But he hon­oured — adored, in truth — his friend Byron.

I am think­ing again of their rela­tion­ship because I am start­ing to pre­pare to record Can­to VI of Don Juan, which Byron com­posed in the first few months of 1822 in Pisa. He had moved there from Raven­na, pos­si­bly at Shelley’s urg­ing, accom­pa­nied by Tere­sa (now sep­a­rat­ed by Papal decree from the mer­cu­r­ial, age­ing Count Guic­ci­oli) and her father (Count Gam­ba), who had been exiled from Raven­na for sup­port­ing polit­i­cal intrigues against the Aus­tri­an occu­pa­tion.

Shel­ley and Mary were now res­i­dent in Pisa; the impor­tu­nate Claire Clare­mont — Mary’s half-sis­ter-by-mar­riage and moth­er of Byron’s daugh­ter Alle­gra — hav­ing been ban­ished to Rome (Byron had placed their daugh­ter at a con­vent near Raven­na). Yes, it’s com­pli­cat­ed.

Byron was on top of his game. Hap­py to move to the sun­ny city of Pisa from the harsh­er cli­mate of Raven­na. Mur­ray had, final­ly, agreed to pay 2500 guineas for Can­tos 3, 4 & 5 of Don Juan plus three dra­mas: Sar­dana­palus, The Two Fos­cari and Cain. But Bry­on was plan­ning to take his prof­itable poems else­where. Canto’s 1 and 2 of Don Juan were already a roar­ing suc­cess (even in Murray’s expen­sive Quar­to edi­tion). His cut­tingest satire of Eng­lish poe­sie and poets The Vision of Judg­ment was ready for pub­li­ca­tion and would mark the tran­si­tion from John Mur­ray to the rad­i­cal Leigh Hunt as his pub­lish­er. He had com­plet­ed the sil­ly, steamy romp of Can­to VCross-Dress­ing in the Seraglio — in Decem­ber of 1821 and now he took a break, in part because Tere­sa dis­ap­proved of the poem, urg­ing him to aban­don it, and in part because of Murray’s reluc­tance to pub­lish it.

Byron gave him­self over, for a while, to rid­ing and shoot­ing and long drunk­en din­ners with the small eng­lish lit­er­ary com­mu­ni­ty he drew around him. He also came into a wel­come inher­i­tance fol­low­ing the death of his moth­er-in-law (part of the sep­a­ra­tion set­tle­ment) that boost­ed his annu­al income from his Eng­lish estates. He resumed work on Don Juan, how­ev­er, in Feb­ru­ary of 1822.

Shel­ley was both in awe of Byron’s intel­lect and unable to fath­om his friend’s refusal to be ‘seri­ous’ about the things that Shel­ley him­self took ter­ri­bly seri­ous­ly. Here is Leslie Marchand’s report (refer­ring to the late din­ners where Shel­ley would not stay):

Despite the fact that Shel­ley was some­times annoyed by Byron’s flit­ting from sub­ject to sub­ject with­out argu­ing any point through, he too was drawn by the per­son­al­i­ty and bril­liance of the man whose genius so over­awed his own that for the first months of Byron’s res­i­dence in Pisa the younger poet wrote but lit­tle. He had writ­ten from Raven­na in August: “I despair of rivalling Lord Byron, as well I may, and there is no oth­er with whom it is worth con­tend­ing.”” And he lat­er told Horace Smith: “I do not write I have lived too long near Lord Byron and the sun has extin­guished the glow-worm .… ” He wrote to John Gis­borne apro­pos of Cain: ”What think you of Lord Byron now? Space won­dered less at the swift and fair cre­ations of God, when he grew weary of vacan­cy, than I at the late works of this spir­it of an angel in the mor­tal par­adise of a decay­ing body. So I think — let the world envy while it admires, as it may.” Even after he had begun to feel the strain of Byron’s par­ties and wished he might grace­ful­ly with­draw from them, he con­tin­ued to hold exag­ger­at­ed views of the mer­its of Cain.” (from Vol. 3 of Marchand’s Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Byron, p. 951)

There’s more here at the British Library (includ­ing the man­u­scripts of Can­tos VI & VII).

The British Library’s “Don Juan” collection

The BL has a num­ber of Byron’s man­u­scripts and some ear­ly edi­tions of the pub­lished Don Juan from the 1820s. Pages from some of them are on-line as image files: well worth explor­ing.

I have tak­en the illus­tra­tion at the head of this post from an 1826 pirat­ed edi­tion (Smee­ton) of Can­to I that fea­tured plates by Isaac Cruick­shank (broth­er of the bet­ter-known George). The image depicts Juan and Julia her maid — the ‘adept’ Anto­nia — shoo­ing Juan from Julia’s bed­room (he had been hid­den in the clos­et) while her hus­band, Don Alfon­so, search­es the rest of the house for her lover.

The verse (No. 182) is Byron at his most sug­ges­tive… Julia pleads with Juan who, still love struck, tar­ries:

Fly, Juan, fly! for heaven’s sake — not a word —

The door is open — you may yet slip through

The pas­sage you so often have explored —

For com­par­i­son, Lynette Yencho’s illus­tra­tion of the same verse for my audio-iBook of Can­to I of Don Juan:


It’s amus­ing that the British Library notes that the Cruick­shank images are “Free from any copy­right ret­ric­tions”. It was the refusal of the Crown to grant copy­right to Can­tos 1 & 2 that lead to their wide­spread pira­cy by the pub­lish­er of this edi­tion (among oth­ers).