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).

An appreciation of Peter Cochran (1944-2105)

“…And Glory long has made the Sages smile;
‘Tis something, nothing, words, illusion, wind,
Depending more upon the Historian’s Style
Than on the name a person leaves behind,
Troy owes to Homer what Whist owes to Hoyle;”

Don Juan, Canto III, verse 90
(Cochran edition)

Peter Cochran is awarded his PhD from Glasgow

I never met or corresponded with Peter Cochran, who died last week. But his writing was witty, well-informed and opinionated so that it was impossible after reading quite a lot of it not to imagine a personality and voice.

Dr Cochran’s scholarly work on the text of every Canto of Don Juan, his 20-year labor on the Hobhouse diaries from the Byron years and his precise editions of Byron’s correspondence with Hobhouse, Lady Melbourne, Douglas Kinnaird and John Murray and several of his critical essays have been enormously helpful to me in preparing to read and to annotate/illustrate Don Juan.

Peter Cochran produced an erudite, annotated text of the poem based directly on the manuscripts and the fair copy (supervised by Byron) rather than on the emendations or approximations of Byron’s early editors as so many later editors have done. The result, as he argues, is more fluid (much less orthodox in punctuation) and sometimes more ambiguous in meaning. But the Cochran text gives the impression of being all the more faithful to Byron’s own voice than the ‘corrected’ versions produced by John Murray or even later scholars such as E.G. Stefan and Jerome McGann. (I also consult the Steffan text).

Better, for all its scholarly value, Cochran’s edition of Don Juan is a lot of fun. PC’s annotations — like his essays — often extract or fill-out relevant details of Byron’s life, or reading (or pets) not found, or passed over, even in Leslie Marchand’s monumental 3-Volume biography or (selected) Journals and Letters. Best of all, PC appreciates Byron’s humour, temper and (many) foibles to an extent that many of his – chiefly American – editors apparently do not.** It would not be too much to say that Byron’s modern glory may owe something to Peter Cochran’s ‘Historian’s Style‘.

He generously made all this work — and much more – available on his website in PDF format. His daughters, who seem to be his literary executors (and Twitters) say they will maintain his site; for which I am grateful. I expect to rely on it for some time to come as I work through this project to narrate and illustrate Don Juan.

Hail and farewell.

** I make one exception to this observation: the spectacular Isaac Asimov Annotated Don Juan, illustrated by Milton Glaser. IA is an annotator rather than an editor whose commentary on the poem sometimes seems to skirt the sensibilities of his 1970’s American audience. But Asimov, like Peter Cochran, got the comic genius and the singular scope of Byron’s great work.

What would have become of Juan

Don Juan is unfinished. At the end of the last completed Canto (XVI), Juan is in the midst of an amorous midnight tangle with a “ghost” in the gallery of a restored English Abbey (Byron’s ancestral home at Newstead).

You can download recordings I made a few years ago of the last Cantos (for Librivox) from the Internet Archive.

Only a few preliminary verses of Canto XVII were found among Byron’s papers in Missalonghi, Greece, where he died. Although the unfinished Canto was intended to continue the romantic intrigue involving Juan’s hostess, Lady Amundeville, and the mysterious Aurora Raby — including, Byron suggests, a surprise on a billiard table (!) — we will never know the details of Juan’s escapes from (yet another) designing lover. Or, indeed, the ultimate fate of Byron’s handsome, brave, but passive hero.

Byron insisted to his publisher, John Murray, that he had only the loosest plans for Don Juan

I meant to take him [Juan] on the tour of Europe – with a proper mixture of siege – battle – and adventure – and to make him finish as Anacharsis Cloots – in the French Revolution. –
To how many Cantos this may extend – I know not – nor whether even if I live I shall complete it – but this was my notion. – I meant to have made him a Cavalier Servente in Italy, and a cause for a divorce in England – and a Sentimental ‘Werther-faced man’ in Germany – so as to show the different ridicules of the society in each of those countries – – and to have displayed him gradually gâté and blasé as he grew older – as is natural. But I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell – or in an unhappy marriage – not knowing which would be the severest – The Spanish tradition says Hell – but it is probably only an Allegory of the other state. You are now in possession of my notions on the subject

It’s easy to believe that this is true and not just Byron teasing the straight-laced Murray with a plan that the businessman could only have considered chaotic. Byron had the facility to make it up as he went along. It’s a mode of composition — if not a plan — apparently suited to Juan’s picaresque adventures.

The idea that hell is an allegory of marriage is a sign that Byron is not (entirely) serious about this outline. But there’s a pathetic irony in his throw-away suggestion that the poem might not be completed before his own death.

Of the fates outlined for Juan, perhaps the most dramatic is the first: to have Juan guillotined in the French Revolution. Anacharsis Cloots, whom Byron mentions — and whom he rejects, among others, as the subject for his Poem in Stanza 3 of the First Canto — was an eccentric Prussian nobleman who was convinced that the principles of the French Revolution should be enlarged to a World government and who styled himself as the “personal enemy” of Jesus Christ. Although he adopted French citizenship and played a part in the prosecution of Louis XVI, he was himself falsely accused and executed by bloody Robespierre in 1794.

My guess is that Byron would never have composed an end to “Don Juan” (or Don Juan) in the sense of a final disposition of the hero after some climactic event with all the threads tied off and the moral underlined (as Da Ponte does, rather heavy-handedly, in his libretto for Mozart’s opera).

The last Cantos of Don Juan (XIII-XVI) are among his best. But had he survived his Greek expedition, I think Byron would have given up on the epic — perhaps after completing Canto XVII — leaving Juan in “the midst of life” (this was the fate of Childe Harold… the character that brought him international fame in the 19th century).

By 1822 — five years after fleeing England — Byron seemed to be looking for a life other than the one he had made for himself with Theresa in Italy. Perhaps not a literary life at all. I don’t think he knew definitely what he wanted or expected from the adventure in Greece. I think he wanted some new direction. I suspect he would have abandoned Juan to an unfinished narrative, just as he wanted to abandon his own recent narrative.

Sadly, in April 1824, he abandoned both…

The Dedication to Don Juan

A dedication?! For an Epic??

Not the usual style. But how typical of Byron to dedicate his poem to someone he hates: the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey!

The illustrated audio-iBook of Don Juan — available free on the iBook store (see the link to the right of this story) — includes the Dedication. See a sample here!

In contrast to the usual syrupy style of poetic dedications, the Dedication to Don Juan is filled with spleen, calumny and bitter irony. It’s a rant, to be truthful. Byron attacks Southey for being a turncoat, selling-out his once-liberal views and embracing the reactionary politics of the Tory government in return for promotion and his Laureate fees. He accuses Coleridge of confusion and Wordsworth of being unintelligible and boring.

Lots of fun.

But then he turns to much bigger targets. In vitriolic verse, he labels the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, an “intellectual eunuch”, a blood-sucker, a jailer, a bungler and a botcher… Strong stuff reflecting Byron’s (mistaken) belief that Castlereagh — who had a bloody reputation as Secretary for Ireland — was in league with the Austrian Chancellor Metternich and the other repressive reactionary governments of Europe to crush popular demand for liberty after the collapse of the Napoleonic campaigns.

Byron was fearless; he was, after all, a Peer of the Realm and, self-exiled in Venice, somewhat out of the reach of the English government.

As a monument of invective, the Dedication to Don Juan has no equal in English verse (… it possibly owes a tip of the hat to Pope’s Dunciad and Dryden’s MacFlecknoe)

By the way, don’t you love this image: The Laughing Fool? How well does it convey the utter foolisness he witnesses? He removes his spectacles (well-to-do fool?) because… why? He laughs to tears? He has seen enough… ? What do you think?

The Hermitage Museum says it the painting is possibly by Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen, working in about the year 1500 in the then provincial town of Amsterdam.