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).

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.