In defence of annotation

There is some­thing rather odd about anno­tat­ing poet­ry.

After all, poet­ry is as close as words come to music. The verse should work upon us not as  ratio­nal argu­ment — or not just as ratio­nal argu­ment — but as melody and rhythm work.

The attrac­tion and inter­est should be emo­tion­al and… well, vis­cer­al. The expe­ri­ence should be sort of inex­plic­a­ble. If you have to explain it then it prob­a­bly doesn’t work.

Yet here I am prepar­ing an anno­tat­ed ver­sion of Can­tos I and II of Byron’s Don Juan to cel­e­brate the 200th anniver­sary, this July, of their pub­li­ca­tion.

Why, for good­ness’ sake, clut­ter up the pages of what is already a long poem? If Don Juan is so hard to read that it needs notes then no amount of notes is ever going to help its appeal or restore the fun two cen­turies lat­er.

And, besides, I’m no lit­er­ary schol­ar or Byron expert. There are scores (hun­dreds?) of learned crit­ics who have resist­ed any temp­ta­tion to attach their mar­gin­a­lia to the great­est work of one of the great­est poets and per­son­al­i­ties of his­to­ry. What gives me a license they have not sought for them­selves?

These are “good ques­tions”. I mean, they’re annoy­ing ques­tions. I have them myself but I don’t have answers that I find quite sat­is­fy­ing. Still, I go on with the project that has now reached a stage where I can soon release drafts of my notes and the accom­pa­ny­ing record­ings of my read­ing of the Can­tos.

Here’s what I’ve got as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for anno­ta­tion.

Byron did it

Byron anno­tat­ed his own poet­ry begin­ning with “Hours of Idle­ness” first pub­lished in 1807 when he was bare­ly 20. There are long “essays” attached to some of the Can­tos in  Childe Harold and he allowed his friend, Cam Hob­house, to anno­tate the last, fourth, Can­to of the Childe. All of his longer tragedies have notes, espe­cial­ly “Mari­no Faliero.”

But Byron added very few notes to the first two can­tos of Don Juan. He has eleven notes to Can­to I of Don Juan that most­ly give the source of some clas­si­cal ref­er­ence in the poem. Only two notes of the eleven step back from the text to offer some addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion. One is an admis­sion that he has quot­ed Campbell’s “Gertrude of Wyoming” from mem­o­ry; the sec­ond notes that “Julia” makes a mis­take in say­ing Count O’Reilly took Algiers. Byron offers just four notes on Can­to II; most­ly cita­tions, none of them more than a dozen words.

There are fur­ther scrib­blings and era­sures and signs of debate in the mar­gins of the print­ers’ proofs of the two can­tos where he and Cam Hob­house (most­ly) dis­put­ed sug­gest­ed edits. Byron reject­ed almost all of them.

Everyone” does it

ShakesperarAnnotationThere are guides for school and col­lege stu­dents explain­ing how to anno­tate a poem as if it were a puz­zle to which there are solu­tions. They encour­age stu­dents to stake down and truss the verse, like Gul­liv­er in Lil­liput, by lines and note-bub­bles. When they’re not just clamps on an autop­sy table, these notes are usu­al­ly a crib for exams. They iden­ti­fy the “best bits” with copy-and-paste expla­na­tions of a sup­posed-more-than-expe­ri­enced emo­tion­al impact.

Then there are expert guides from schol­ars like the late Peter Cochran. If you haven’t dis­cov­ered Cochran’s edi­tion of Don Juan re-tran­scribed from the Byron man­u­scripts, you’re miss­ing a wealth of infor­ma­tion from Byron’s own sources and from PC’s keen insight into Byrons’ per­son­al­i­ty, his­to­ry and foibles. Stef­fan, Stef­fan and Pratt’s ear­ly-1970s Pen­guin edi­tion also pro­vides lengthy notes on both text and con­tent. Final­ly, Isaac Asi­mov, best known for his sci­ence fic­tion and pop­u­lar books on sci­ence but some­thing of a poly­math, also pro­duced an anno­tat­ed ver­sion of the poem in the ear­ly 1970s with his own foot­notes.

Necessary evils?

Dr John­son who, as a lex­i­cog­ra­ph­er, had a great deal of prac­tice in the art of pro­vid­ing con­cise, author­i­ta­tive infor­ma­tion, warned in his Pref­ace to Shake­speare that notes are nec­es­sary evils, at best.

Par­tic­u­lar pas­sages are cleared by notes,” John­son con­ced­ed, “but the gen­er­al effect of the work is weak­ened.”

The mind is refrig­er­at­ed by inter­rup­tion; the thoughts are divert­ed from the prin­ci­pal sub­ject; the read­er is weary, he sus­pects not why; and at last throws away the book, which he has too dili­gent­ly stud­ied.

John­son thought that the read­er should allow the dra­ma of Shake­speare, in this instance, to move them and while it did so, to plough-on with­out notes.

Let him read on through bright­ness and obscu­ri­ty, through integri­ty and cor­rup­tion; let him pre­serve his com­pre­hen­sion of the dia­logue and his inter­est in the fable, and when the plea­sures of nov­el­ty have ceased, let him attempt exact­ness, and read the com­men­ta­tors.

Of course, this assumes that the read­er is able to com­pre­hend the dia­log with­out notes. For­tu­nate­ly, Byron is much less dif­fi­cult than Shake­speare. His gram­mar can be dif­fi­cult and his free-form punc­tu­a­tion con­fus­ing. But the lan­guage he uses is still with­in the range of con­tem­po­rary eng­lish. Most 21st cen­tu­ry adults who are native eng­lish speak­ers should be able to com­pre­hend Don Juan with ease, even if they missed some of Byron’s ref­er­ences.

Might they give pleasure?

To the obses­sive, cer­tain­ly. There is a mar­ket for the anno­ta­tion of poet­ry that owes lit­tle, if any­thing, to the puz­zle­ment of the read­er or the desire for schol­ar­ship but a great deal to casu­al curios­i­ty and delight.

For a fan, anno­tat­ed lit­er­a­ture should be a means to recap­ture and deep­en the plea­sure of first read­ing a poem (or prose). It should be like read­ing a trav­el book on places you’ve been or pour­ing through a com­men­ta­tors’ analy­sis of a football/cricket/baseball/basketball game you saw live. It should be like read­ing a walk-through for com­put­er-game lev­els you’ve already con­quered, or one of those after-the-event plot updates of, say, Game of Thrones.

You might learn things you didn’t know, sure. But it should also help you to re-live your expe­ri­ence of the poem (place, dra­ma) from the first-time-around.

This is what I would like to do with my anno­ta­tions of Can­tos I and II of Don Juan.

Are there exam­ples I could learn from? Apart from Cochran’s and Asimov’s anno­ta­tions of Don Juan, I have to admit there are few exam­ples I can point to. The one that springs to mind is — or seems to be — not seri­ous enough to sup­port my case. I mean Mar­tin Gardner’s “Anno­tat­ed Snark” (now long out of print).

This was prob­a­bly the first anno­tat­ed verse I ever read and, as most things by Gard­ner, bril­liant. Lewis Carrol’s poem is deeply un-seri­ous for rea­sons I sus­pect Byron would have endorsed: he appar­ent­ly had no truck with the “deeply seri­ous”, Arnoldian, High-Church of Vic­to­ri­an right-think­ing. But as a Don in Dean Hen­ry Liddell’s High Church Uni­ver­si­ty he kept that view hid­den behind a Lear-like inno­cent idio­cy. I loved Gardner’s anno­ta­tions that make sense of jokes that Carrol/Dodson pre­ferred to elide.

Avoiding Dr Johnson’s “refrigeration”

There are two means, I think.

First: offer some options. For exam­ple, anoth­er way to access the poet­ry while plac­ing the anno­tat­ed text before the read­er.

Sec­ond: make sure the anno­ta­tions don’t obtrude or demand the read­er jump to dif­fer­ent parts of the page (foot­notes) or, worse, to a dif­fer­ent part of the doc­u­ment (end-notes).

This post is already too long, so I’ll dis­cuss these options next time.

Skin in the Game

Lob­by Loungers (Drury Lane The­atre — Cruik­shank): Byron and oth­er men of fash­ion ogle pret­ty actress­es or cour­te­sans, who stand in a group, as if on show. Byron (left), head in pro­file to the right, wears a dou­ble-breast­ed blue coat (with a star) but­toned to the waist and with tails, a high col­lar and stock, and loose trousers. His loose­ly curl­ing hair part­ed at the side is in con­trast with the ugly shock-head­ed appear­ance of the oth­er men. In his pock­et is a paper: ‘Cor­sair [1814] Farewell &c by Lord Byron’. He gazes fixed­ly at Mrs. Mar­dyn, a hand­some woman, hold­ing a large muff.

Byron found his most inno­v­a­tive and bril­liant form in the dis­cur­sive, com­ic, first-per­son “per­for­mance” of Don Juan. Here and there it roamed the out­er lim­its of satire and of taste, as he knew; his verse turned the knife as it ripped into “cant”. He thought he could rely on his read­ers’ accep­tance of his ener­getic vul­gar­i­ties and skep­ti­cal jokes because they were true-to-life. When Mur­ray, in March 1819, said that his ‘court’ of advi­sors “ [deplored] that a Man of your genius will not occu­py some Six or Eight years in the com­po­si­tion of a Work & Sub­ject wor­thy of you – “ Byron shot back:

– is Childe Harold noth­ing? you have so many “divine” poems, is it noth­ing to have writ­ten a Human one? with­out any of your worn out machin­ery.

If read­ers did not accept his poet­ry, he haugh­ti­ly insist­ed he did not care:

– – As to the Esti­ma­tion of the Eng­lish which you talk of, <have> let them cal­cu­late what it is worth before they insult me with their inso­lent con­de­scen­sion. – – I have not writ­ten for their plea­sure; – if they are pleased – it is that they chose to be so, – I have nev­er flat­tered their opin­ions – nor their pride – nor will I. – Nei­ther will I make “Ladies books” “al dilet­tar le fem­ine e la plebe” – I have writ­ten from the full­ness of my mind, from pas­sion – from impulse – from many motives – but not for their “sweet voic­es.” – I know the pre­cise worth of pop­u­lar applause – for few Scrib­blers have had more of it – and if I chose to swerve into their paths – I could retain it or resume it – or increase it – but I nei­ther love ye – nor fear ye – and though I buy with ye – and sell with ye – and talk with ye – I will nei­ther eat with ye – drink with ye – nor pray with ye.  – – – [Byron to Mur­ray, 6 April 1819; the last sen­tence echo­ing Shy­lock in Shakespeare’s Mer­chant of Venice]

He did care, of course, deeply; Don Juan is filled with rumi­na­tions on fame, lit­er­ary and oth­er­wise. Exile was escape from the mark of sin: Fame would be his jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. Still, unluck­i­ly for Byron, his poem reached the pub­lic just at the moment when pop­u­lar taste was about to become much less tol­er­ant of pre­cise­ly the sort of Regency “loose­ness” that Don Juan and Byron’s own rep­u­ta­tion rep­re­sent­ed.

Murray’s pleas to Byron to drop the most “offen­sive” pas­sages in Can­tos I & II are often attrib­uted to his squea­mish­ness and to the par­son-pow­ered⁠ 1 ‘syn­od’ (Byron’s term) who advised him, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Edi­tor of the Quar­ter­ly Review and oth­er Mur­ray pub­li­ca­tions, William Gif­ford.

But Murray’s rec­om­men­da­tions deserve more respect as evi­dence of the pub­lish­ing envi­ron­ment and not just of his own dis­po­si­tion. After all, he had “skin in the game”. Byron was his most promi­nent “prop­er­ty”: his own rep­tu­a­tion and prof­it had been direct­ly linked to Byron’s lit­er­ary pop­u­lar­i­ty and poet­ic renown for a decade. What­ev­er we think — look­ing back from two cen­turies lat­er — of the timer­ous­ness of his sug­gest­ed changes to Don Juan, we still should take seri­ous­ly his claims about Byron’s like­ly recep­tion in 1819.

A publisher’s rela­tions with a bril­lant but brit­tle-tem­pered celebri­ty author (one of the first and great­est of this genre), self-exiled to the oth­er end of a two-or-three-week cor­re­spon­dence delay were nev­er like­ly to be easy. Byron’s cor­re­spon­dence is rapid, un-restrained — often thought­less or, at best, care­less about oth­ers’ inter­ests — and impa­tient. Murry’s replies are late, incom­plete and patient to the point of grov­el­ling to His Lordship’s pecu­liar­i­ties. But he had his lim­its. Pub­lish­ers must be ready, some­times, to lead pub­lic taste; but not by too far if they want to stay in busi­ness. John Mur­ray had the added chal­lenge of launch­ing this new, con­fronting work from Byron into a unique­ly dif­fi­cult envi­ron­ment.

Although Byron’s attacks on the poli­cies and the per­son­al­i­ties of the Liv­er­pool gov­ern­ment might have con­sort­ed with some rad­i­cal, Whig and even pop­u­lar opin­ion, the “moral­i­ty” of the poem was more dif­fi­cult to sell. Lit­er­ary read­ers such as Cro­ker and Crabbe were not much dis­turbed by the events such as the bed­room farce or can­ni­bal­ism or sex-on-the-sand in the nar­ra­tive of the first two Can­tos of Don Juan. But Mur­ray rea­son­ably feared that his wider mar­ket would be less for­giv­ing of Byron’s dis­dain for Church (if not for reli­gion) and his jokes about sex­u­al mis­be­hav­ior and ref­er­ences to his own rep­u­ta­tion, after 1815, for mar­i­tal infi­deli­ty (and worse).

The upheaval in British pol­i­tics and soci­ety over the years of 1819–1820 saw mid­dle-class val­ues and expec­ta­tions con­front­ed by the repres­sive behav­ior of a Gov­ern­ment los­ing legit­i­ma­cy and a lazy, prof­li­gate, adul­ter­ous King. Reac­tion to the first helped build a plat­form for reform of the par­lia­men­tary ‘con­sti­tu­tion’ in the fol­low­ing decade. The sec­ond tend­ed to con­sol­i­date sup­port for, at first, “feminst” val­ues of respect for mar­riage and the still sub­or­di­nate rights of women. A new mid­dle class ‘respectibilty’ installed itself some­time around the 1820s and set­tled, even­tu­al­ly, into the con­ser­v­a­tive, prud­ish, stuffy domes­tic­i­ty that we call ‘Vic­to­ri­an’ taste and that Matthew Arnold would describe, forty years lat­er, as “philis­tin­ism”.

The dis­com­fort Mur­ray and his cir­cle expressed with Don Juan from the out­set — and his refusal to pub­lish any more after 1822 — reveal more than just “pris­sy” indi­vid­ual val­ues. Events in Eng­land had made it dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate Byron’s satire, “blas­phemies” and attacks on the gov­ern­ment and the (for­mer) King from a polit­i­cal plat­form nei­ther he nor Mur­ray endorsed. More­over, the bour­geois lit­er­ary mar­ket that Mur­ray increasin­ly served had lit­tle tol­er­ance for the kinds of per­son­al license in maters of reli­gion, fam­i­ly or (sex­u­al) behav­ior that Byron, and mem­bers of his class, had indulged a decade ear­li­er.

Don Juan sells despite Murray’s fears

A cartoon from 1823 of Byron in Venice, inspired by a small devil sitting on his shoulder, "scratching up ideas" for his poems.
“A noble poet, scratch­ing up his ideas” (1823): Byron sits at a table writ­ing on a sheet head­ed Il Lib­erale; he looks up for inspi­ra­tion, scratch­ing his head; this is also scratched by a web-winged, goat-legged Dev­il (‘Old Scratch’) who perch­es on the back of his chair, his left talons on the poet’s shoul­der. Byron, not car­i­ca­tured, is direct­ed to the left and wears a flow­ered dress­ing-gown with ungartered stock­ings. One of his many dogs (of spaniel type), its col­lar inscribed [By]ron., lies look­ing up at him, also scratch­ing its head, one paw on a vol­ume of Don Juan. The table is in a wide-open win­dow, through which is seen a com­pos­ite view of Venice

When Can­tos I and II of Don Juan were being pre­pared for the press, it was chiefly Murray’s advis­ers — espe­cial­ly Gif­ford — who kept up the lament about “so much beau­ty, so wan­ton­ly & per­verse­ly dis­fig­ured” by vers­es such as 129 and 130 of Can­to I that make jokes about cow-pox and syphilis and the par­o­dy of the Ten Com­mand­ments in Stan­zas 205–206 of Can­to I.

Every one laments there­fore in a ten­fold degree the few pas­sages which mere­ly in kind­ness to your friends it was hoped you would have suf­fered to be replaced by oth­ers in which you would have excit­ed delight only… Do me the favour to make every improve­ment that you can upon the two first Can­tos of Don Juan & let me bring out the new Edi­tion in great force in the win­ter – In the opin­ion of the best Crit­ics the larg­er por­tion of them sur­pass all that you have writ­ten & the rest is deserv­ing there­fore of re-cast­ing or at least of re-con­sid­er­a­tion” (Mur­ray to Byron, 23 July 1819)

Mur­ray plead­ed with Byron to autho­rise cuts that could be incor­po­rat­ed in the re-issued edi­tions, which he pre­sum­ably had intend­ed to pub­lish under Byron’s name in his own imprint. But Byron would have none of it:

You are right – Gif­ford is right – Crabbe is right – Hob­house is right – you are all right – and I am all wrong – but do pray let me have that plea­sure. – Cut me up root and branch; quar­ter me in the Quar­ter­ly – send round my “dis­jec­ti mem­bra poet­ae” like those of the Levite’s Con­cu­bine – make me – if you will – a spec­ta­cle to men and angels – but don’t ask me to alter for I can’t – I am obsti­nate and lazy – and there’s the truth. – – – (Byron to Mur­ray, 12 August, 1819)

By late 1819 the fears in Murray’s office about the crit­i­cal response were begin­ing to sound more plau­si­ble. In August, Black­woods Mag­a­zine (known in the indus­try as “Black­guards..” accord­ing to Mur­ray) pub­lished an hys­ter­i­cal hatch­et-job on the Can­tos:

…in the com­po­si­tion of which there unques­tion­ably a more thor­ough intense infu­sion of genius and vice, pow­er and profli­ga­cy, than in any which had ever before been writ­ten the Eng­lish or indeed in any mod­ern lan­guage… Love, hon­our, patri­o­tism, reli­gion are men­tioned only to be scoffed at and derid­ed as if their sole rest­ing place were or ought to be in the bosoms of fools. It appears in short as if this mis­er­able man hav­ing exhaust­ed every species of sen­su­al grat­i­fi­ca­tion hav­ing drained the cup of sin even to its bit­ter­est dregs, were resolved to shew us that he is no longer a human being even in his frail­ties but a cool uncon­cerned fiend, laugh­ing with a detestable glee over the whole of the bet­ter and worse ele­ments of which human life is com­posed…” (Black­woods Mag­a­zine, August 1819)

Tak­ing the actu­al verse only as a point of depar­ture, the review dreged-up a ver­sion of the rumors that had sur­round­ed the Byron sep­a­ra­tion three years ear­li­er, exag­ger­at­ed into melo­dra­ma:

…It would not be an easy mat­ter to per­suade any Man who has any knowl­edge of the nature of Woman, that a female such as Lord Byron has him­self described his wife to be, would rash­ly or hasti­ly or light­ly sep­a­rate her­self from the love which she had once been inspired for such a man as he is, or was. Had he not heaped insult upon insult and scorn upon scorn — had he not forced the iron of his con­tempt into her very soul — there is no woman of del­i­ca­cy and virtue as he admit­ted Lady Byron to be who would not have hoped all things and suf­fered all things from one, her love of whom must been inwo­ven with so many exalt­ing ele­ments of deli­cious pride and deli­cious humil­i­ty. To offend the love of such a woman was wrong but might be for­giv­en; to desert her unman­ly — but he might have and wiped for ever from her eyes the tears of her deser­tion; but to injure and to desert and then to turn back and wound her wid­owed pri­va­cy with unhal­lowed strains of cold-blood­ed mock­ery — was bru­tal­ly fiendish­ly mean.” (Ibid.)

It was only the ear­li­est and most intem­per­ate of many sim­i­lar crit­i­cisms of the close asso­ci­a­tion of poet­ic beau­ty (”genius”) and vice in the verse that fol­lowed over the next few years in the lit­er­ary press. From Raven­na, Byron dashed off sev­er­al pages of injured and some­what spe­cious rebut­tal, assort­ed with renewed attack on Southey the Lak­ers, but even­tu­al­ly decid­ed not to respond.

It really is a mistaken notion…”

Mur­ray tried to jol­ly Bry­on along, not­ing that the poem sold well own­ing to its “genius”, despite the crti­cism

It real­ly is a mis­tak­en notion that Don Juan has not been well received – the Sale has been less­ened by an out­ra­geous out­cry against some parts of it but its esti­ma­tion in point of Genius car­ries your Lord­ship high­er than ever & its cir­cu­la­tion will be every day increas­ing.” (Mur­ray to Byron on 16 Novem­ber, 1819)

Although Mur­ray — no doubt to his sur­prise — even­tu­al­ly won an injunc­tion against the pirates, he did not press it to enforce his copy­right over Don Juan. The rea­son he gave is that he would have to reaveal the name of the author: which hard­ly seems a dra­mat­ic rev­e­la­tion giv­en that Byron’s author­ship was an open secret.

The stronger rea­sons were, no doubt, com­mer­cial. Mur­ray admit­ted that he could still make a tidy prof­it by bring­ing out a more afford­able qua­si-autho­rized edi­tion, even if he had to throw in a “Glass of Gin” with every pur­chase. Still, it’s clear he was not keen to release them under his own imprint because he remained uncom­for­t­at­ble with their con­tent. He refused Byron’s offer to return the mon­ey he had paid for the copy­right and asked for more Can­tos, too (Byron had com­plet­ed Can­tos III and IV in Novem­ber 1819).

I admire the poem beyond all mea­sure & am sup­port­ed in this esti­ma­tion by every man of judg­ment in the king­dom – who wish for a few alter­ations mere­ly to give wings to the rest & so far am I indis­posed to receive back the Copy Mon­ey – that I would not take dou­ble the sum if it were offered to me – the pirate edi­tion is not coun­te­nanced by the book­sellers & if it were or had any impor­tant sale I would sell mine for noth­ing & give every pur­chas­er a Glass of Gin into the bar­gain… my process [enforc­ing the injunc­tion against the rad­i­cal pub­lish­ers] was aban­doned the moment I found that the authors name must be giv­en up – wch is rather absurd for this puts an end to all anony­mous writ­ing – if a ras­cal choos­es to print Waver­ley for instance – the book­seller <ca> or pro­pri­etor can have no redress unless he dis­close the name of the Author [ie. Sir Wal­ter Scott]. I have print­ed Don in 8 vo to match the oth­er Poems & again in a Small­er form – the lat­ter not yet pub­lished – of the Octa­vo I have sold 3000 Copies so you see we have cir­cu­la­tion in us – I want noth­ing so much as a third & fourth Can­to which I entreat you to com­pleat for me as pro­gres­sive to the remain­ing Twelve… there­fore Moore – I pray you Moore – “it is the uni­ver­sal deci­sion that in beau­ties Don Juan sur­pass­es all that has pre­ced­ed it” – Can you keep up to this?” (Mur­ray to Byron 24 Jan 1820)

Two years lat­er, how­ev­er, Murray’s enthu­si­asm for Don Juan had evap­o­rat­ed. When in 1821 he final­ly, reluc­tant­ly released Can­tos III-V — with many errors in the text — he again includ­ed only the printer’s name, refus­ing the “coun­te­nance” of his own name.

Byron was angry about the delay, the errors and the “dis­par­age­ment”.

Mur­ray – you are an excel­lent fel­low –a lit­tle vari­able – & some­what of the opin­ion of every body you talk with – (par­tic­u­lar­ly the last per­son you see) but a good fel­low for all that – yet nev­er­the­less – I can’t tell you that I think you have act­ed very gal­lant­ly by that per­se­cut­ed book – which has made it’s way entire­ly by itself – with­out the light of your coun­te­nance – or any kind of encour­age­ment – crit­i­cal – or bib­liopo­lar. – You dis­par­aged the last three can­tos to me – & kept them back {above} a year – but I have heard from Eng­land – that (notwith­stand­ing the errors of the press) they are well thought of -“ (Byron to Mur­ray, 3 Novem­ber 1821)

With­in a year Byron had moved to anoth­er pub­lish­er.

Early reception of Don Juan

My Wife!” George IV, in the title role of Mozart’s opera sur­prised by the sud­den arrival of his wife, Car­o­line, as Don­na Anna, late­ly returned from Italy, dur­ing the wed­ding feast scene, at which a num­ber of bare breast­ed women are present; on the left, Lord Castlereagh, play­ing the role of Lep­orel­lo, holds a long list of the King’s female con­quests. Click for a larg­er size.

When the first two Can­tos of Don Juan appeared on 15 July, 1819, read­ers imme­di­ate­ly guessed — many had antic­i­pat­ed — the the author­ship. The next day, the Morn­ing Post car­ried a brief arti­cle sub-titled “Lord Byron’s New Poem of ‘Don Juan’”.

Still, the anonymi­ty of Murray’s pub­li­ca­tion and the increas­ing sever­i­ty of gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship implied the pub­lish­er knew the poem, if not sup­pressed, might be found blas­phe­mous or pos­si­bly sedi­tious and denied copy­right. A recent bizarre Court deci­sion on Southey’s pirat­ed “Wat Tyler” (a rev­o­lu­tion­ary dra­ma from Southey’s rad­i­cal youth) con­firmed that such mate­r­i­al would not be pro­tect­ed by the Courts or dig­ni­fied by copy­right. Such offend­ing works were, con­se­quent­ly, liable to wide­spread dis­tri­b­u­tion in cheap “pirat­ed” edi­tions; pre­cise­ly the oppo­site of the Crown’s inten­tion. 

With­in a week the Rad­i­cal press had tak­en notice. William Hone, a well known pam­phle­teer, rushed out a tract high­light­ing the blas­phe­my and immor­tal­i­ty of the verse — with exam­ples — while enlist­ing Byron’s its pub­li­ca­tion in his own, thus far suc­cess­ful, attacks on censorship.The first com­plete rip-offs of Don Juan prob­a­bly appeared (they are undat­ed) with­in a month or so: the first an edi­tion by Onwhyn, a rad­i­cal pub­lish­er that, at four shillings in Octa­vo for­mat, was one-eighth the price of Murray’s Quar­to edi­tion.1 By Octo­ber 1819, Mur­ray was oblig­ed to fol­low suit with an Octa­vo ver­sion at nine shillings and six­pence in order to hold onto the con­tin­u­ing strong mar­ket for Byron. 

The ear­ly crit­i­cal reac­tion to the poems — like the fist reac­tions of Byron’s friends — was marked by enthu­si­asm and admi­ra­tion, only mod­er­ate­ly qual­i­fied by admis­sions of moral ‘license’. The Morn­ing Post arti­cle men­tioned above offered a pre-emp­tive defence of the poem that antic­i­pat­ed with remark­able accu­ra­cy the attacks that would fol­low; set­ting its read­ers’ minds at ease while coy­ly, how­ev­er, not rec­om­mend­ing the pur­chase of the book:

The great­est anx­i­ety hav­ing been excit­ed with respect to the appear­ance of this Poem, we shall lay a few stan­zas before our read­ers, mere­ly observ­ing that, what­ev­er its char­ac­ter, report has been com­plete­ly erro­neous respect­ing it. If it is not (and truth com­pels us to admit it is not) the most moral pro­duc­tion in the world, but more in the “Bep­po” style, yet is there noth­ing of the sort which Scan­dal with her hun­dred toungues whis­pered abroad, and malig­ni­ty joy­ful­ly believed and repeat­ed, con­tained in it. ’Tis sim­ply a tale and right mer­rie con­ceit, flighty, wild, extrav­a­gant — immoral too, it must be con­fessed; but no arrows are lev­elled at inno­cent bosoms, no sacred fam­i­ly peace invad­ed; and they must have a strange self-con­scious­ness who can dis­cov­er their own por­tait in any part of it. Thus much, though we can­not advo­cate the book, truth and jus­tice ordain us to declare…” (The Morn­ing Post, Fri­day 16 July, 1819)

The con­ser­v­a­tive cir­itc, par­lia­men­tar­i­an and Admi­ral­ty Sec­re­tary, John Wil­son Cro­ker — whose mean review in the Quar­ter­ly Review of Keats’ Endymion was held by Shel­ley, at least, to have has­tened the poet’s death — wrote to Mur­ray, three days after the first pub­li­ca­tion

I am agree­ably dis­ap­point­ed at find­ing ‘Don Juan’ very lit­tle offen­sive. It is by no means worse than ‘Childe Harold,’ which it resem­bles as com­e­dy does tragedy. There is a prodi­gious pow­er of ver­si­fi­ca­tion in it, and a great deal of very good pleas­antry. There is also some mag­nif­i­cent poet­ry, and the ship­wreck, though too long, and in parts very dis­gust­ing, is on the whole fine­ly described. In short, I think it will not lose him any char­ac­ter as a poet, and, on the score of moral­i­ty, I con­fess it seems a more inno­cent pro­duc­tion than ‘Childe Harold’”

Two days after pub­li­ca­tion, in the con­ser­v­a­tive Lit­er­ary Gazette, William Jer­dan declared Don Juan to be “an exceed­ing­ly clever and enter­tain­ing poem,” that was “wit­ty if a lit­tle licen­tious, and delight­ful if not very moral,”. He con­clud­ed that Byron’s “defence of the moral­i­ty of his work is so good-humoured that we must wish it more sound, and after all for­give him.”

The Exam­in­er, a reform news­pa­per start­ed by the the broth­ers John and Leigh Hunt (lat­er pub­lish­ers of Can­tos V-XVI) print­ed a lengthy review three months after the pub­li­ca­tion — when the work was already being pirat­ed. Poss­bi­ly writ­ten by Leigh Hunt, it offered high praise and a psy­cho­log­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion of the nov­el style of the poem.

Some per­sons con­sid­er this the finest work of Lord Byron, or at least that in which he dis­plays most pow­er. It is at all events the most extra­or­di­nary that he has yet pub­lished. …The ground-work (if we may so speak of a stile) is the satir­i­cal and humor­ous; but you are some­times sur­prised and moved by a touch­ing piece of human nature, and again star­tled and pained by the sud­den tran­si­tion from love­li­ness or grandeur to ridicule or the mock-hero­ic…. 

It is not dif­fi­cult to account for this het­ero­ge­neous mix­ture, for the bard has fur­nished us with the key to his own mind. His ear­ly hopes were blight­ed; and his dis­ap­point­ment vents itself in sat­i­riz­ing absur­di­ties which rouse his indig­na­tion… But his genius is not nat­u­ral­ly satyri­cal; he breaks out there­fore into those fre­quent veins of pas­sion and true feel­ing of which we have just giv­en spec­i­mens… and it is to get rid of such painful and “thick com­ing” rec­ol­lec­tions that he dash­es away and relieves him­self by get­ting into anoth­er train of ideas, how­ev­er incon­gru­ous or vio­lent­ly con­trast­ed with the for­mer…

The Exam­in­er defend­ed what had been called “immoral­i­ty” as an accu­rate depic­tion of life rather than mod­els of behv­ior:

Don Juan is accused of being en a “immoral work” which we can­not at all dis­cov­er… If stu­pid and self­ish par­ents will make up match­es between per­sons whom dif­fer­ence of age or dis­po­si­tion dis­qual­i­fies for mutu­al affec­tion, they must take the con­se­quences:- but we do not think it fair that a poet should be exclaimed against as a pro­mot­er of nup­tial infi­deli­ty because he tells them what those con­se­quences are….  Which then, we would ask, are the immoral writ­ings — those which, by mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the laws of nature, lead to false views of moral­i­ty and con­se­quent licen­tious­ness, or those, which ridicule and point out the effects of absurd con­tra­dic­tion of human feel­ings and pas­sions, and help to bring about a ref­or­ma­tion of such prac­tis­es? 

The Quar­ter­ly Review, pub­lished by Mur­ray and edit­ed by the cen­so­ri­ous William Gif­ford remained mute, as did the Whig­gish (lib­er­al) Edin­burgh Review.

Next: Sales of the Can­tos I & II

Publication of Cantos I & II

The oak of Eng­land, weighed down by George IV and his mis­tress­es swing­ing on its branch­es, being under­mined by dev­ils (and by the Liv­er­pool Min­istry), watched by an appalled John Bull. Sep­tem­ber 1820 Hand-coloured etch­ing

The path to the first pub­li­ca­tion of Can­tos I & II of Don Juan was unlike that of any of Byron’s ear­li­er verse. It is worth our atten­tion because it reminds us — who now see only its nov­el tone, bril­liant verse, sar­casm and fun — that this new poem had explo­sive poten­tial dur­ing a year of rapid dete­ri­o­ra­tion in the foetid pol­i­tics of late Regency Eng­land. The tra­vails of pub­li­ca­tion recall the dif­fi­cult per­son­al­i­ties and mixed inter­ests of Byron, his pub­lish­er and his Lon­don friends. They also explain much about the expec­ta­tions and ambi­tions Byron had for his great­est poem as he con­tin­ued work­ing on it over the next four years.  

When they first saw the man­u­script of Can­to I, Byron’s friends — John Cam Hob­house, Scrope Davies and John Hookham Frere — had, accord­ing to Hob­house, been struck with admi­ra­tion for “the Car­rav­ag­gio tal­ent dis­played through­out…”. It’s a good metaphor for the pol­ished, high-con­trast, man­nered but ener­getic and earthy voice of the first Can­to. Nor did they think, at first, that Mur­ray, whose busi­ness had thrived on Byron’s poet­ry and dra­ma, would object to the robust tone:

 “– You shall hear all in a day or two. Mur­ray, I believe, would pub­lish a Fan­ny Hill or an Age of Rea­son of your’s – The Hitch will not come thence – so be tran­quil –”  (Hob­house to Byron on 29 Dec. 1818 on receipt of Don Juan Can­to I man­u­script.)

Dou­glas Kin­naird, a friend and lat­er busi­ness man­ag­er, was also com­pli­men­ta­ry and attuned to the poltics of pub­lish­ing, although ready to ‘clip’:

… I have read your Poems Don Juan is exquis­ite – It must be cut for the Syphilis – When we have pound­ed Mur­ray I will not fail to write by the same Post – Your def­i­n­i­tion of May is a great truth … I think your Poem is just­ly bit­ter & exquis­ite­ly humor­ous – You will have the world on your side – The rev­o­lu­tion is com­ing – Rely on it –” (Kin­naird to Byron, 29 Decem­ber, 1818)

But with­in a month Hob­house and crew — Kin­naird less so — had changed their tune: they now advised strong­ly against pub­li­ca­tion. Hob­house was apre­hen­sive about the orig­i­nal mot­to of Can­to I (“Domes­ti­ca Fac­ta”) that he took to be a dec­la­ra­tion that the poem was, as they con­vinced them­selves, an attack on Annabel­la and per­haps her moth­er and advi­sors. They were all appalled, said Hob­house, by

the licen­tious­ness and in some cas­es down­right inde­cen­cy of many stan­zas and of the whole turn of the poem – from the flings at reli­gion – and from the slash­ing right and left at oth­er wor­thy writ­ers of the day”.

They were mys­ti­fied by the swing­ing attacks on Southey, and Lak­er Poets in the Ded­i­ca­tion which, they said, attrib­uted these minor poets an crit­i­cal impor­tance they did not (then) enjoy. 

What had hap­pened in ear­ly 1819 to hard­en them against pub­lish­ing the poem that sev­er­al includ­ing Mur­ray thought was Byron’s great­est “in some parts?” It may have been fears about the wors­en­ing polit­i­cal cli­mate at the end of 1818 to which the Prince Regent’s speech (above) referred. Kinnaird’s remark that “the rev­o­lu­tion is com­ing…” would have been seen by Byron’s oth­er friends as a chill­ing, if dis­tant, prospect. Per­haps it was also some­thing clos­er to home, at least for Hob­house.

In his Jan­u­ary 1819 let­ter, Hob­house couched his strong rec­om­men­da­tion for “total sup­pres­sion” in terms that sug­gest his great­est con­cern was not Byron’s rep­u­ta­tion as a poet but his own polti­cial car­reer:

I have now gone through the objec­tions which appear <to so> so mixed up with the whole work espe­cial­ly to those who are in the secret of the domes­ti­ca fac­ta that I know not any any ampu­ta­tion will save it: more par­tic­u­lar­ly as the objec­tion­able parts are in point of wit humour & poet­ry the very best beyond all doubt of the whole poem – This con­sid­er­a­tion, there­fore, makes me sum up with stren­u­ous­ly advis­ing a total sup­pres­sion of Don Juan – I shall take advan­tage of the kind per­mis­sion you give me to keep back the pub­li­ca­tion until after the elec­tion in Feb­ru­ary: and this delay will allow time for your answer and deci­sion” (Hob­house to Byron, 5 Jan­u­ary, 1819).

Byron was in no posi­tion, from Venice, to deny Hobhouse’s pre­sump­tion of his “kind per­mis­sion”. In any case, the pro­posed delay gave him the oppor­tu­ni­ty to add some more vers­es to Can­to I and to com­plete Can­to II of Don Juan. By May of 1819, how­ev­er, he was becom­ing fed up with the wheedling on from his Lon­don friends on the texts. He agreed to mak­ing cuts in the Ded­i­ca­tion but… 

You sha’n’t make Can­ti­cles of my Can­tos. The poem will please if it is live­ly – if it is stu­pid it will fail but I will have none of your damned cut­ting & slash­ing. – If you please you may pub­lish anony­mous­ly it will per­haps be bet­ter; – but I will bat­tle my way against them all – like a Por­cu­pine.” (Byron to Mur­ray, 6 April 1819 from Venice)

He was rest­less; feel­ing uncom­fort­able about his dis­solute life in grub­by Venice. He was wor­ried that ser­ven­tism to a young, bare­ly-mar­ried woman — Tere­sa Guic­ci­oli — was hope­less and a bit déclassé. Nev­er keen on cor­rect­ing proofs or mak­ing fair-copies — which he found bor­ing work — he declined to receive any fur­ther proofs of Don Juan after June and pressed Mur­ray to pub­lish. 

After receiv­ing the manuscript(s) of Can­to II, Mur­ray was able to see the poem at some­thing clos­er to its prop­er scale — more than 400 stan­zas — and was a lit­tle mol­li­fied that the naughty and revolt­ing bits were much less promi­nent than the pas­sages he found “exceed­ing­ly good”: 

I think you may mod­i­fy or sub­sti­tute oth­ers for, the lines on Romil­ly whose death should save him – – the verse in the Ship­wreck – LXXXI the Mas­ters Mates dis­ease – I pray you oblit­ter­ate as well the sup­pres­sion of Urine – these Ladies may not read — the Ship­wreck is a lit­tle too par­tic­u­lar & out of pro­por­tion to the rest of the pic­ture – but if you do any thing it must be with extreme cau­tion – for it is exceed­ing­ly good – & the pow­er with which you alter­nate­ly make our blood thrill & our Sides Shake is very great – noth­ing in all poet­ry is fin­er than your descrip­tion of the two females in Can­to II – it is nature speak­ing in the most exquis­ite poet­ry – but think of the effects of such seduc­tive poet­ry? (Mur­ray to Byron, 28 May, 1819)

Byron, despite doubts about the wis­dom of the jour­ney, was on the road to Raven­na, where Tere­sa lay ill, in his high-wheeled Napoleon­ic coach. From Bologna he sent Mur­ray a rude reply:

It will there­fore be idle in him [Hob­house] or you to wait for any fur­ther answers – or returns of proofs from Venice – as I have direct­ed that no Eng­lish let­ters be sent after me. – The pub­li­ca­tion can be pro­ceed­ed in with­out, and I am already sick of your remarks – to which I think not the least atten­tion ought to be paid. – – – (Byron to Mur­ray, 7 June 1819).

Mur­ray gave up. In con­cert with Hob­house, he dropped the Ded­i­ca­tion alto­geth­er — Byron had final­ly agreed to that — and two stan­zas of Can­to I that Byron had not agreed to drop. The first was stan­za 15 on the sui­cide of Sir Samuel Romi­ly — whose West­min­ster seat in Par­lia­ment Hob­house was then about to con­test; the sec­ond — now stan­za 131 — on syphilis. He also cen­sored with aster­isks two good jokes about the his­to­ry of “the pox” in stan­zas 129 and 130.

The removal of the “Romil­ly” verse sketched the bat­tle-lines already being drawn between the poet, his friends and his pub­lish­er. For Byron, the five lines he insert­ed on Romilly’s sui­cide was a sav­age thrill: the lawmaker’s sui­cide by cut­throat razor had been an act of Neme­sis, he claimed. In con­text, they fit with the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Inez, but it was noneth­less bloody-mind­ed. Byron knew from reli­able sources that Romil­ly had act­ed in igno­rance, not dis­hon­or­ably, in agree­ing at first to advise his wife, Annabel­la, on their sep­a­ra­tion. Some­one who had more insight into him­self and his anger than Byron might have dropped it with­out, as Byron’s friends said, dam­ag­ing the poem. Still, if Don Juan was to be issued anony­mous­ly, why should his editors/advisors be so par­tic­u­lar about these lines? The plau­si­ble rea­son Hob­house offered to Byron — in a let­ter writ­ten on the day of pub­li­ca­tion — was that it might hurt Romilly’s fam­i­ly: 

The man has left chil­dren whom I know you did not mean to annoy; and though we must both of us think that he has been bepuffed at a ter­ri­ble rate yet the death of both father and moth­er has left six poor crea­tures and three or four of them grown up with lit­tle sup­port except their father’s rep­u­ta­tion; and whether that rep­u­ta­tion be over­rat­ed or not, I am con­vinced that at this moment you would not wish to impair the lega­cy as far as they are con­cerned” (Hob­house to Byron on 15 July, 1819.)

But Hob­house was not being can­did — as Byron must have known. Drop­ping the stan­za attack­ing Romil­ly served his inter­ests as an elec­toral can­di­date as much as any oth­er. He had failed in his first, Feb­ru­ary 1819, bid to win Romilly’s Par­lia­men­tary seat of West­min­ster on behalf of ‘rad­i­cal’ reform. But he had come a cred­itable sec­ond in the bal­lot and planned to try again. It would look bad for him to be asso­ci­at­ed — as he would be — with Byron’s attack on the once-dis­tin­guished for­mer Mem­ber for that con­stituen­cy. Hob­house was a rad­i­cal who — like Byron who decid­ed­ly was not  — want­ed no over­turn­ing of the social order that pro­tect­ed Romilly’s name and saved him from a suicide’s unhal­lowed grave.