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 V — Cross-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).
“…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
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.
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…
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.