Don Juan: who needs it, who reads it?

In a pre­vi­ous arti­cle I lament­ed that Byron’s great com­ic poem Don Juan is not read as wide­ly as it deserves. As the great­est com­ic poem in the lan­guage, Don Juan should have a much wider audi­ence among Eng­lish-speak­ers every­where.

That’s more than a bil­lion peo­ple who could be hap­pi­er, wis­er and… yes, wealth­i­er (if you believe Byron):

Love, war, a tem­pest — sure­ly there’s vari­ety;
Also a sea­son­ing slight of lucubra­tion;
A bird’s-eye view, too, of that wild, Soci­ety;
A slight glance thrown on men of every sta­tion.
If you have nought else, here’s at least sati­ety
Both in per­for­mance and in prepa­ra­tion;
And though these lines should only line port­man­teaus,
Trade will be all the bet­ter for these Can­tos.
[14, XIV]

Still its fans want to know why the poem is ‘lin­ing port­man­teaus’ rather than lying dog-eared on the top of ten mil­lion bed­side tables.

One rea­son is, prob­a­bly, “Byron”. He is still a celebri­ty: the “Byron meme” remains strong almost two hun­dred years after his death. But his great­est poem, *Don Juan* is just not need­ed to make it work.

The short­er poems are much bet­ter known because of a sort of hap­py pub­lish­ing “acci­dent” that recon­struct­ed Byron’s lega­cy in the late 19th cen­tu­ry that lift­ed his short­er poet­ry to the top of the Roman­tic lit­er­ary canon, at the expense of his great­est poem.

Then the way we con­sume lit­er­a­ture today makes *Don Juan* hard­er to con­sume than it used to be. It is already a long poem. But for most mod­ern read­ers it will seem even longer.

Byron’s un-literary celebrity

Byron’s celebri­ty is much more mod­est than it was in his life­time: for exam­ple in his 20s when fasion­able Lon­don ‘lionised’ him and (final­ly) tore him to bits. But it is still sol­id and, these days, it over-shad­ows his great­est work.

Byron built for him­self a strik­ing image with por­traits that he com­mis­sioned. For exam­ple: the George Saun­ders 1807-09 full-length por­trait stand­ing beside a beached-dinghey in a navy-blue suit and loose cra­vat; some minia­tures also by Saun­ders; the ide­alised West­all pro­file that many sub­se­quent por­traits imi­tat­ed (not shown), and; two care­ful­ly posed por­traits by Thomas Phillips. Although sec­ond-rate as por­traits — com­pared, for exam­ple, to the busts Thor­wald­sen or Bar­toli­ni made of him — these roman­tic-clas­si­cal images were pop­u­lar for good rea­son. They per­fect­ly fit his high-flown pre-1816 verse, his slight­ly aris­to­crat­ic dis­dain (dis­tant gazes off) and his evi­dent beau­ty.

From Left to Right Sanders(1808), Phillip (1813), Phillips (1813–1835), Thor­vald­sen (1817)

Then, there’s the great trag­ic jew­el of Byron’s post-mortem celebri­ty: the youth he feared he’d lost when he turned thir­ty made eter­nal by his ear­ly death in a pop­u­lar lib­er­al cause.

These assets have helped sus­tain the Byron of pop­u­lar cul­ture but… It’s a rep­u­ta­tion now more louche than lit­er­ary. Byron as a dan­ger­ous, unsta­ble lover; Byron as a rake; Byron as vam­pire; Byron as the ser­vant-vic­tim of vam­pires; of Byron as a ted­dy-bear; Byron as a vam­pire ted­dy-bear (just kid­ding). The promi­nence of this Byron­ic “meme” makes it pos­si­ble, even like­ly, that mod­ern read­ers will know him by rep­u­ta­tion with­out know­ing any­thing of his poet­ic achieve­ment or his great­est poem.

Users of the Byron meme don’t need to know *any­thing* of his poet­ry to extract all the mean­ing they need from “Lord Byron”. Alas…

Thomas Arnold’s adverse selection

The “acci­dent” that pro­mot­ed the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Byron’s short­er poet­ry above that of his longer poems was an influ­en­tial 1881 edi­tion of Byron’s “*select­ed*” poet­ry edit­ed by Matthew Arnold, poet, crit­ic and Pro­fes­sor of Poet­ry at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty.

Arnold’s earnest praise — plac­ing Byron and Wordsworth at the fore­front of Eng­lish Roman­tic poet­ry — was a bless­ing that restored Byron’s rep­u­ta­tion; until then under-cut by Vic­to­ri­an prissi­ness. (I have giv­en a more detailed account of Arnold’s crit­i­cism else­where

Arnold decid­ed that it would aid Byron’s fame — and, inci­den­tal­ly suit Arnold’s pub­lish­ing project — to make only selec­tions from “the mass of poet­ry [Byron] poured forth”. Along with scores of Byron’s short­er verse, most from before 1816, he includ­ed just 15 brief pas­sages from Don Juan to which he gave sug­ges­tive abstract titles. He explained that this edi­to­r­i­al approach reflect­ed his sim­i­lar treat­ment of Wordsworth in an ear­li­er.

But Arnold’s selec­tive approach was lit­er­ary butch­ery; deeply unfair to Byron whose greast works, unlike Wordsworth, are long poems. Then, no one would sug­gest that because Dicken’s nov­els are uneven they could be bet­ter appre­ci­at­ed in selec­tion. If lit­er­a­ture were reduced to the “Cliff Notes” ver­sions there would be lit­tle point in hav­ing the “Notes” at all. Alfred Austin — a jour­nal­ist, crit­ic and unhap­py “Poet Lau­re­ate” who was a con­tem­po­rary of Arnold — mocked the idea:

Mr. Arnold has done Byron injus­tice by mak­ing selec­tions from his works, and assert­ing that selec­tions are bet­ter than the whole of the works from which they are select­ed. You might as well select from a moun­tain.

From “Wordsworth and Byron” in the Quar­ter­ly Review, Vol 154, 1882

Still, Arnold’s choice pre­vailed. His approach, backed by his new “con­ve­nient” edi­tion arbi­trat­ed the future for Byron’s fame. Today, Byron’s poet­ic impact is reduced to eight or ten part­ly-under­stood rhymes (“So we’ll go no more a-rov­ing…”, “Remem­ber thee…”, “She walks in beau­ty…”, “The Assyr­i­an came down like the wolf on the fold…”)

Byron’s long poems are growing longer

Yet things are get­ting worse, damnit. As we approach the third cen­tu­ry of the poem, *Don Juan* is effec­tive­ly grow­ing even *longer* and, for most peo­ple, less acces­si­ble.

The strug­gle for pop­u­lar atten­tion takes many forms but the most suc­cess­ful pro­duc­tions, now, are visu­al and aur­al: short videos and “pod­casts”. If this is a sign of a post-lit­er­ate cul­ture, then it’s a bad omen for the ency­clopaedic genius of Byron.

To be fair, the pop­u­lar­i­ty of stream­ing media also reflects the time and loca­tion most peo­ple have avail­able for con­sump­tion. We choose to read or lis­ten to music (or play games) in the hours we spend on train, or bus, in their car, at the gym etc. for good rea­son. This “inter­sti­tal” time has a low­er oppor­tu­ni­ty-cost; if you’re stuck with the com­mute any­way, it’s a good time for recre­ation. Video and audio do not demand the degree of focus that text demands, so they are much bet­ter suit­ed to these occa­sions.

Then, long texts — specif­i­cal­ly a 20,000-line poem — won’t fit com­fort­ably on the screens of smart-phones that are by far the most com­mon device for dig­i­tal con­sump­tion at those times.

Prose text can ‘reflow’ on screen to fit the avail­able width. But verse must retain its for­mat to keep the length, rythm and rhyme of each line. If the line is too long for the width of the screen, ebook read­ers won’t help by “wrap­ping” it.

The lines of Don Juan are for­mat­ted by syl­la­bles, not by char­ac­ters. Many lines that are only a stan­dard ten or eleven syl­la­bles are incon­ve­nient­ly long for a small screen (the longest is 193 char­ac­ters). Unless a tiny font is used, the line must be bro­ken to pre­vent hor­i­zon­tal scrolling, mak­ing it hard­er to read.

Also, a read­er can­not ‘scan’ the text of a verse in the way expe­ri­enced read­ers scan prose. You can’t skim across the lines pick­ing up key words and phras­es. Verse is inher­ent­ly hard­er. It takes more effort to nav­i­gate the lines and, usu­al­ly, sub-vocal­i­sa­tion to hear the scan­sion and rhyme.

Byron’s longer poems are fight­ing an up-hill bat­tle for the pop­u­lar acclaim they once had and — more than ever — deserve. In the next post, I’ll sug­gest some ways to redress the bal­ance and to ele­vate Don Juan to the sum­mit it deserves.

Don Juan: The Greatest Comic Poem in English

Ger­maine Greer once observed1 that Don Juan is the great­est com­ic poem in Eng­lish. It should be as pop­u­lar she thought as Ariosto’s Orlan­do Furioso in Italy or, for that mat­ter, Pushkin’s Eugene One­gin in Rus­sia.

True, in my view! Still, if Don Juan enjoyed the pop­u­lar renown of those “nation­al” poems then every high-school kid would learn to quote it and to read in at least longish excerpts and per­haps return to it as an adult to find things they’d missed the first time around.

Why is Don Juan not like this?

Pos­si­bly, the poem is too adult for schools. In a let­ter to his friend and agent Dou­glas Kin­naird three months after the pub­li­ca­tion of Can­tos I & II, Byron iden­ti­fied in a boast­ful­ly-blokey kind of way what may be the poem’s chief strength:

As to “Don Juan” – con­fess – con­fess – you dog – and be can­did – that it is the sub­lime of that there sort of writ­ing – it may be bawdy – but is it not good Eng­lish? – It may be prof­li­gate but is it not life, is it not the thing? – Could any man have writ­ten it – who has not lived in the world? – and tooled in a post-chaise? – in – a hack­ney coach? – in a Gon­do­la? against a wall? in a court car­riage? – in a vis a vis? – on a table? – and under it? (Byron to Kin­naird, 26 Octo­ber 1819)

In fact Can­tos I & II have no racy con­tent, but Don Juan is a poem of the world.

For exam­ple, the bed­room farce of Can­to I is rather mod­est — at most sug­ges­tive — in its detail. But to appre­ci­ate the jokes about Inez’s machi­na­tions, the hint about Juan’s parent­age, the real­i­ty of Julia’s fool­ish self-decep­tion and Juan’s semi-con­scious inno­cence, or; to under­stand the com­ic ten­sions between Julia and Alfon­so in the bed­room scenes, or; even to grasp the tone of Byron’s asides about sci­ence, mar­riage, fam­i­lies and infi­deli­ty in the poem, read­ers need some actu­al world­ly expe­ri­ence. Access to Google won’t cut it.

Byron’s intel­li­gence and wit aris­es from his peer­less man­age­ment of sub­jects and mate­ri­als that “every­body knows” because they are mun­dane and even vul­gar.

His revised epi­gram2 for the first two Can­tos — “dif­fi­cile est pro­prie com­mu­nia dicere” — is entire­ly accu­rate. The expec­ta­tions that Don Juan has of its read­ers — that they will recog­nise and appre­ci­ate Byron’s satyri­cal will­ing­ness to joke about what every­one knows but does not dis­cuss — are a world away from Byron’s own ear­li­er roman­tic fan­tasies and from the ‘tran­scen­dent’ poet­ry of Wordsworth, Keats or Coleridge (Shel­ley is a dif­fer­ent case). To be fair, the “Lak­ers” project, too, was to focus on things that “every­body knows”. But their tame vers­es express­ing “emo­tion rec­ol­lect­ed in tran­quil­i­ty” are com­pre­hen­si­ble, at some lev­el, to any teenag­er. Byron’s poet­ry is for grown-ups.

Still, it’s the antithe­sis of solemn. The verse has great ener­gy, end­less­ly clever rhyme, “real” char­ac­ters and scenes, jokes and ironies that are — except, pos­si­bly, for those that don’t meet con­tem­po­rary stan­dards of ‘cor­rect­ness’ — as amus­ing today as they were two cen­turies ago.

The vul­gar­i­ties are apt; the sex­u­al innu­en­do hilar­i­ous. Byron’s lan­guage is still either cur­rent or antique-but-acces­si­ble. The satire still shines and most of its tar­gets are still ‘fair game’: the war between men and women; the hypocrisy of church and state; the decep­tions of love; the brevi­ty of youth; the bloody waste of war; the van­i­ty of celebri­ty; the sex­u­al ener­gy of pow­er; the empti­ness of polit­i­cal ban­ners; the vul­gar­i­ty of the mid­dle-class, etc. etc. There is touch­ing romance, inspi­ra­tional reflec­tion, super­cil­ious cat­ti­ness, hard-won wis­dom, can­ni­bal­ism in a small boat, dwarf-toss­ing, a ghost sto­ry and even cross-dress­ing.

So what’s not to like!?

Even if we admit that Don Juan is not very suit­able for the school-room, it is still curi­ous that it is not more read by adults. I’d like to sug­gest three plau­si­ble expla­na­tions, each of which con­tributes some­thing to the poem’s con­tem­po­rary sta­tus:

  • That Don Juan is unnec­es­sary to the mod­ern image of Byron;
  • That Byron’s lit­er­ary fame suf­fered a sort of acci­dent in the late 19th cen­tu­ry that lift­ed his short­er poet­ry to the top of the Roman­tic lit­er­ary canon, at the expense of his great­est poem;
  • That the way we con­sume lit­er­a­ture today makes Don Juan hard­er to con­sume than it used to be.

I will explore each of these in a lit­tle more detail in a fol­low­ing post. In brief, I doubt that there is much rem­e­dy for the first of these. I believe the sec­ond rea­son and the third are linked, how­ev­er, and that there’s a way to ame­lio­rate the prob­lem.

I sug­gest that bet­ter media can res­cue the glo­ries of Don Juan (I’ll explain how lat­er). Inter­est in Byron’s longer verse could be restored – as inter­est in Jane Austen’s nov­els was restored – by bet­ter pre­sen­ta­tion of his works in more acces­si­ble media.

More 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.

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

England in 1819–20

A sec­tion of the pref­ace to my Anno­tat­ed Can­tos I & II (with audio nar­ra­tion) planned for the bi-cen­te­nary of Don Juan in 2019.

The first two can­tos of Don Juan were pub­lished in July, 1819, at the start of an 18-month peri­od of polit­i­cal upheaval that led, even­tu­al­ly, to con­sti­tu­tion­al reform in Britain.

In some ways, these two years marked the end of the Regency soci­ety that once lionised Byron, but that he had fled three years ear­li­er. Now, pop­u­lar out­rage erupt­ed at the repres­sive and cor­rupt Liv­er­pool gov­ern­ment and at the adul­ter­ous, undig­ni­fied Prince Regent (soon to be George IV) who sought a hyp­o­crit­i­cal bill of “Pains and Penal­ties” from Par­lia­ment to deny his estranged wife Car­o­line a crown.

A satyri­cal print pub­lished by the rad­i­cal print­er (pornog­ra­ph­er and pirate of Don Juan), William Ben­bow, in Decem­ber 1820. It shows a gouty George IV, horned and with wings which are spread to pro­tect his sup­port­ers hold­ing a bot­tle labeled Peo­ples Tears, squat­ting with his mis­tress Lady Conyn­g­ham (“Care-away Cun­ning­ham”). In the back­ground on the left the cav­al­ry who charged at Peter­loo, at cen­tre-top Bri­tan­nia hides her face in shame, and on the right, beneath gath­er­ing storm-clouds “The Peo­ple”.

Labor unrest in the indus­tri­al Mid­lands and north of Eng­land, unem­ploy­ment among for­mer sol­diers, and deep­en­ing rur­al pover­ty raised alarm­ing prospects of revolt and even rev­o­lu­tion in Eng­land. The old “jacobin” Jere­my Ben­tham waged a pop­u­lar cam­paign against waste and cor­rup­tion in gov­ern­ment and for uni­ver­sal (male) suf­frage. The rad­i­cal pub­lish­er William Cob­bett — whose twopen­ny Polit­i­cal Reg­is­ter had a cir­cu­la­tion of 40,000 when he fled to the Unit­ed States in 1817 — returned in 1819 to begin his rur­al rides cam­paign in which he con­doned machine break­ing and hay-rick burn­ing. The gen­er­al out­cry in the British press and at many pop­u­lar meet­ings against the “Peter­loo Mas­sacre” had fright­ened the Cab­i­net into over-reac­tion, sup­press­ing pub­lic meet­ings and civ­il rights.

So ner­vous were the author­i­ties — and so sen­si­tive to crit­i­cism —  that in mid-Decem­ber 1819, even the “reac­tionary chau­vin­ist” Cam Hob­house was arrest­ed on the order of Par­lia­ment for pub­lish­ing a brochure that the Com­mons declared a breech of par­lia­men­tary priv­i­lege and spent ten weeks in New­gate prison. Still, his release from jail was a “get into Par­lia­ment” card since the sen­tence all but guar­an­teed his suc­cess at the next bal­lot for the seat of West­min­ster.

A satire (George Cruikshank) on the defeat of Hobhouse by Lamb at the Westminster Election. The Rump, or remnant of Reformers, is represented by the hind-quarters of a cart-horse, with its hoofs in the air, carried on a knacker's cart, the front of which is formed by a guillotine. The procession is headed by Mister John Ketch, Esqr., the hangman.A satire (George Cruik­shank) on the defeat of Hob­house by Lamb at the West­min­ster Elec­tion. The Rump, or rem­nant of Reform­ers, is rep­re­sent­ed by the hind-quar­ters of a cart-horse, with its hoofs in the air, car­ried on a knacker’s cart, the front of which is formed by a guil­lo­tine. The pro­ces­sion is head­ed by Mis­ter John Ketch, Esqr., the hang­man. [Click for a larg­er ver­sion]

Fears — or, for some, hopes — that gov­ern­ment insti­tu­tions were under attack were appar­ent­ly con­firmed when, in Feb­ru­ary, 1820, the Bow Street Run­ners arrest­ed thir­teen so-called “Cato Street Con­spir­a­tors” at a small sta­bles in cen­tral Lon­don. They were plot­ting to blow up the Liv­er­pool Cab­i­net at a din­ner meet­ing in Grosvenor Square, take over the Roy­al Exchange and emp­ty the cof­fers of the Bank of Eng­land into the hands of the poor.

But the ser­vices of the Liv­er­pool gov­ern­ment had, in fact, known of the plot for months. A gov­ern­ment spy had joined, and even became deputy-leader of, the group. Although the Court dis­al­lowed the spy’s tes­ti­mo­ny in their tri­al, the tes­ti­mo­ny of two of the con­spir­a­tors against the oth­ers sent five of them to a grue­some and well-attend­ed pub­lic exe­cu­tion for trea­son. Their posthu­mous behead­ing was round­ly booed. The seri­al­ly-adul­ter­ous Duke of Welling­ton men­tioned to one of his girl­friends an unlike­ly report that Hob­house — in jail when the plot was dis­cov­ered — had been offered the lead­er­ship of the coun­try by the con­spir­a­tors, should their plot have suc­ceed­ed, and had accept­ed.1

Then the affair of Queen Car­o­line riv­et­ted pub­lic atten­tion for four months from her retun to Eng­land in July 1820 — seek­ing coro­na­tion as Queen when the Prince Regent assumed his father’s crown — through the fail­ure, in Par­lia­ment in Novem­ber, of King George IV’s attempt to divorce her on the grounds of adul­tery. Despite plau­si­ble evi­dence of Caroline’s affair with her Ital­ian ‘Sec­re­tary’, many in both the mid­dle and work­ing class­es were shocked by the King’s hypocrisy and ‘ungentle­man­ly’ behav­iour to his wife.2 Let­ters, pam­phlets, car­toons, pub­lic demon­stra­tions mock­ing the King and par­tic­i­pants in the Par­lia­men­tary dra­ma demon­strat­ed over­whelm­ing dis­ap­proval of, and embar­rass­ment at, the King’s extrav­a­gant, self­ish and dis­solute behav­iour. Mid­dle-class women, too, formed large pub­lic asso­ci­a­tions that issued “Loy­al Address­es” sup­port­ing the Queen and received replies from her con­firm­ing her sense of injury to her role as a moth­er and wife.3

The British mid­dle class did not sus­tain its sup­port for the Queen after the Gov­ern­ment allowed the pros­e­cu­tion to lapse: her affairs, too, were an embar­rass­ment. By good for­tune or ‘genius’ the British assim­i­lat­ed the tur­moil with­out any fun­da­men­tal rifts in soci­ety and went about the nec­es­sary polit­i­cal reforms.4 Still, the attach­ment to “fam­i­ly val­ues” of domes­tic­i­ty and pro­pri­ety that lay behind the out­cry over the Car­o­line affair was sus­tained into the Vic­to­ri­an age that fol­lowed.

In the 1820s the expand­ing mid­dle-class of a rel­a­tive­ly wealthy Britain sent their chil­dren to gram­mar schools that were now broad­en­ing their cur­ricu­lum away from clas­sic lit­er­a­ture toward more mun­dane and com­mer­cial­ly use­ful stud­ies with the sup­port and pro­mo­tion of reform-mind­ed lumi­nar­ies such as J.S.Mill, Fran­cis Place and Jere­my Ben­tham. Thomas Arnold (Matthew’s father) began a pro­gram to lift the moral tone and edu­ca­tion­al stan­dards of the pub­lic schools, too, with the aim of pro­duc­ing “Chris­t­ian Gen­tle­man” such as the squeaky, earnest “Tom Brown”.

The new “pro­pri­etors” dis­ap­proved of the rau­cous, lib­er­al, even lib­er­tine man­ners and tastes of the late 18th cen­tu­ry and the ear­ly Regency, exem­pli­fied by some of the authors whom Byron cit­ed in his defence of his alleged ‘excess­es’. The decade of the 1820s saw the emer­gence of what we now think of as Vic­to­ri­an taste: overt pro­pri­ety in lan­guage and behav­iour; respect for com­merce; sen­ti­men­tal taste for uplift­ing or at least moral­ly-didac­tic art and lit­er­a­ture, and; pious adher­ence to estab­lished insti­tu­tions such as the Monar­chy and (except for the trou­ble­some Irish and the “new” dis­senters, espe­cial­ly Methodists) the Church.

Matthew Arnold on Byron

The young Matthew Arnold. A touch ‘byron­ian’?
Another section of the preface to my Annotated Cantos I & II (with audio narration) planned for the bi-centenary of Don Juan in 2019

The pop­u­lar­i­ty of Byron’s poet­ry even today owes much to an influ­en­tial 1881 edi­tion of select­ed poems edit­ed by Matthew Arnold, poet and Pro­fes­sor of Poet­ry at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty. 

Almost six decades after Byron’s death, Arnold res­cued his rep­u­ta­tion from the stuffy dis­ap­proval of mid-Vic­to­ri­an taste, prais­ing the pow­er­ful, sin­cere per­son­al­i­ty that his works reveal and plac­ing him at the fore­front of the roman­tic poets of the late 18th and ear­ly 19th cen­turies. Still, Arnold’s pref­ace to his edi­tion — which nev­er once men­tions Don  Juan — faults Byron for a lack of emo­tion­al insight and “seri­ous­ness”.

Arnold declared that Byron had not been prop­er­ly appre­ci­at­ed by the Vic­to­ri­an pub­lic: his “puis­sant per­son­al­i­ty… inevitably shat­tered [itself] to pieces against the huge, black, cloud-topped, inter­minable precipice of British Philis­tin­ism”.

Still, he thought Byron “was emi­nent only by his genius, only by his inborn force and fire; he had not the intel­lec­tu­al equip­ment of a supreme mod­ern poet”. His main fault, Arnold argued (quot­ing Goethe) is that Byron “is quite too much in the dark” about him­self, and “the moment he begins to reflect, he is a child”. He does not, Arnold says, have the moral intel­li­gence to “lead us from the past to the future”. In this, Byron is infe­ri­or to Wordsworth who 

… has an insight into per­ma­nent sources of joy and con­so­la­tion for mankind which Byron has not ; his poet­ry gives us more which we may rest upon than Byron’s, more — which we can rest upon now, and which men may rest upon always.

Arnold decid­ed that he would be improv­ing Byron’s fame to make only selec­tions from “the mass of poet­ry he poured forth”. He includ­ed 15 brief pas­sages from Don Juan to which he gave sug­ges­tive abstract titles.

He explained that this edi­to­r­i­al approach reflect­ed his treat­ment of Wordsworth in an ear­li­er vol­ume and because “he too gains, I think, by being so pre­sent­ed”. He dis­missed the con­trary argu­ment put by Swin­burne that Byron “can only be judged or appre­ci­at­ed in the mass the great­est of his works was his whole work tak­en togeth­er”. 

I ques­tion whether by read­ing every­thing which he gives us we are so like­ly to acquire an admir­ing sense even of his vari­ety and abun­dance, as by read­ing what he gives us at his hap­pi­er moments. 

But it does not fol­low — as Arnold implies —  that Byron should be read only in selec­tion. After all, if lit­er­a­ture were reduced to the “Cliff Notes” ver­sions there would be lit­tle point in hav­ing the “Notes” at all. Alfred Austin — a jour­nal­ist, crit­ic and unhap­py “Poet Lau­re­ate” who was a con­tem­po­rary of Arnold — mocked the idea:

Mr. Arnold has done Byron injus­tice by mak­ing selec­tions from his works, and assert­ing that selec­tions are bet­ter than the whole of the works from which they are select­ed. You might as well select from a moun­tain. (From “Wordsworth and Byron” in the Quar­ter­ly Review, Vol 154, 1882)

Still, Arnold’s choice pre­vailed: his approach, backed by a new “con­ve­nient” edi­tion arbi­trat­ed the future for Byron’s fame. Although the vol­ume of aca­d­e­m­ic Byro­ni­ana has swelled jour­nals and library stacks around the world, his great­est work has nev­er real­ly recov­ered the pop­u­lar­i­ty it had when it first appeared or the read­er­ship it deserves. Don Juan became ina­ces­si­bly long and most­ly unread.

The Comet and the Bomb

[This is a draft of the first parts of an intro­duc­tion to the Anno­tat­ed Can­tos I & II that I will pub­lish in the next few months — before the 200th anniver­sary of their first pub­li­ca­tion — accom­pa­nied by a read­ing of both Can­tos. Your com­ments and sug­ges­tions are wel­come]

Noth­ing so dif­fi­cult as a begin­ning”    Don Juan, III, 1

The Comet

On 1 July, 1819 a comet brighter than all but a hand­ful of stars — more vis­i­ble in the ear­ly decades of the Nine­teeth Cen­tu­ry, before elec­tric, or even wide­spread gas street illu­mi­na­tion — appeared in the skies of Europe and North Amer­i­ca.  John Keats, among oth­ers, report­ed see­ing it. The Morn­ing Post gushed  (14 July, 1819)

All the stars emit­ted their bright­est lus­tre, the Comet moved with supe­ri­or glo­ry among them all, ‘appar­ent queen’ with its tiara of light.”.

There was no place for super­sti­tion in a cen­tu­ry when — or in a coun­try where — sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy and art took some of their great­est leaps. Still, any fears that the Comet’s appear­ance might her­ald trou­ble in the state or momen­tous events would have been entire­ly jus­ti­fied. In the years 1819 and 1820, the Unit­ed King­dom nar­row­ly skirt­ed social dis­as­ter and bare­ly avoid­ed avoid­ed a con­sti­tu­tion­al one — cer­tain­ly rebel­lion, per­haps rev­o­lu­tion.  Iron­i­cal­ly, too, an “appar­ent queen”, more earthy than celes­tial, held a star­ring role in the dra­ma.

On the same page as its report of the Comet, the Post car­ried news of the unpop­u­lar Prince Regent’s speech at the close of the Par­lia­men­tary ses­sion. It was filled with Crown and Gov­ern­ment men­ace aimed at pop­u­lar unrest and the — most­ly bour­geois — demand for enfran­chise­ment, legal reform and tax relief.

His Roy­al High­ness has nat­u­ral­ly observed with great con­cern the efforts which have been late­ly made in some of the man­u­fac­tur­ing dis­tricts to take advan­tage of local dis­tress to cre­ate a spir­it of dis­af­fec­tion to the insti­tu­tions and Gov­ern­ment of the coun­try. Anx­ious to pro­mote the wel­fare and pros­per­i­ty of all class­es of his Majesty’s sub­jects… his Roy­al High­ness assures us of his wise, judi­cious , and man­ly deter­mi­na­tion, to employ for that pur­pose the pow­er entrust­ed to him by law. He relies at the same time on the patri­o­tism of Mem­bers, and has no doubt that one their return to their respec­tive coun­ties they will zeal­ous­ly coöper­ate with the Mag­is­tra­cy in defeat­ing “the machi­na­tions of those whose projects, if suc­cess­ful, would only aggra­vate the evils they pro­fess to rem­e­dy, and who, under the pre­tence of Reform, have real­ly no oth­er object but the sub­ver­sion of our hap­py Con­sti­tu­tion.” (The Morn­ing Post, 12 July, 1819)

Unrest was broad and, in some places, ran deep. The King­dom had seen explo­sive pop­u­la­tion growth, faster than any­where in Europe: num­bers dou­bled to 17 mil­lion in the first fifty years of the cen­tu­ry with a peak growth rate in the decade to 1821 of 16 per­cent. It must have strained every pri­vate resource. Two fifths of the pop­u­la­tion was under fif­teen years of age: most­ly depen­dent and in need of edu­ca­tion, nutri­tion, cloth­ing, hous­ing and care.  Poor har­vests and dis­tri­b­u­tion dis­rupt­ed by the long war led to seri­ous food short­ages in some places; mad­we worse by pol­i­cy error and bad luck. There had been a fall in sea­son­al tem­per­a­tures made worse by vol­canic explo­sions on the oth­er side of the globe: 1816 was known as the “year with­out a sum­mer” across Europe. Cor­rupt poli­cies such as the Corn Laws that pro­hib­it­ed imports of price-com­pet­i­tive grain made the food sup­ply worse.

Twen­ty years of war had wreaked a drea­ful toll on UK fam­i­lies: the esti­mat­ed death toll of 210,000 sol­diers and sailors was com­pa­ra­ble to the loss­es of The Great War in 1914–18. Then, the rapid demo­bil­i­sa­tion of the armed-forces — the largest in the UK’s his­to­ry up to that point — con­tributed to wide­spread unem­ploy­ment, fam­i­ly dis­rup­tion and out­breaks of epi­dem­ic dis­ease. The wars also left Eng­land with unprece­dent­ed tax lev­els (23 per cent of GDP) and a huge nation­al debt.  The Tory gov­ern­ment was com­pelled by Par­lia­ment to abol­ish Pitt’s income tax that had sup­port­ed the fight­ing and Castlereagh’s gen­er­ous cash hand­outs to reac­tionary Euro­pean allies. But that only pushed direct tax­es high­er, hit­ting hard­est those on the low­est incomes.

Gillarays cartoon of an inebriated George, Prince Regent

The Prince Regent” (George Cruick­shank) — drunk­en and dis­solute

The “spir­it of dis­af­fec­tion” to which the Prince euphemisti­cal­ly referred had been evi­dent in the riots of the so-called “Lud­dites” — mill work­ers whose griev­ances relat­ed to poor wages and poor man­age­ment rather than to new tech­nol­o­gy — six of whom had been hanged in June 1816 (Byron’s only note­able speech in Par­lia­ment was a rather pur­ple defense of the ‘machine break­ers’). The repres­sion halt­ed the Lud­dites but foment­ed a wider move­ment that the rad­i­cal William Cob­bett would exploit in his ‘rur­al rides’.

Then in Novem­ber and Decem­ber of 1816 there were two pub­lic meet­ings at Spa Fields in Lon­don to work-up a peti­tion to the Prince Regent for uni­ver­sal male suf­frage and secret bal­lots. Some of the speak­ers at the sec­ond meet­ing led the crowd on a march to the Roy­al Exchange where lead­ers were arrest­ed and charged with Trea­son. They were acquit­ted when the gov­ern­ments’ informer among the lead­ers of the march turned out to be a gov­ern­ment agent. Still, Par­lia­ment react­ed by sus­pend­ing Habeas Cor­pus — a legal free­dom pro­tect­ing against arbi­trary arrest — and ban­ning meet­ings of more than 50 peo­ple for a year. 

Still the indus­tri­al poor would not shut-up. In 1817, a “March of the Blan­ke­teers” from Man­ches­ter to Lon­don saw scores of legal­ly-small groups set out bear­ing a blan­ket on their back to demand the Prince Regent grant them relief from pover­ty wages. In June that same year there was a ‘ris­ing’ of tex­tile work­ers in Pen­trich, near Not­ing­ham where. Once again, a gov­ern­ment agent was iden­ti­fied as a provo­ca­teur. The indus­tri­al and piece-work­ers of Ire­land, known by their mark as ‘Rib­boneers’ were also orga­niz­ing march­es and protests. In this com­bustible cli­mate, the Prince’s obtuse threats against con­sti­tu­tion­al reform were incen­di­ary.

Just weeks after his speech, the Prince’s threats were giv­en mur­der­ous effect at St Peter’s Fields, Man­ches­ter. On August 16, 1819, the Mag­is­trates whom the Regent had ordered to his front line, fool­ish­ly sent an ama­teur cav­al­ry of yeomen, used for home defense and pub­lic order, to arrest a pop­u­lar speak­er at a Reform meet­ing. In their charge, the yomen killed eleven and caused gen­er­al pan­ic. The “Peter­loo Mas­sacre” — a mock­ing ref­er­ence to the bloody defeat of Napoleon — turned protest into near revolt in the North and vig­or­ous protest in the South from the reform-mind­ed mid­dle class as well as the work­ing class. 

Lord Liverpool’s Tory gov­ern­ment, assailed by both the rad­i­cal and main-stream press for the bungling repres­sion of the Man­ches­ter mag­is­trates, react­ed with alarm to the alleged ‘riots’ of con­sti­tu­tion­al reform­ers and dis­af­fect­ed work­ers. Castlereagh, on behalf of the gov­ern­ment, secured the pas­sage of the qua­si-tyran­ni­cal “Six Acts” whose pre­am­ble declared that “every meet­ing for rad­i­cal reform is an overt act of trea­son­able con­spir­a­cy against the King and his gov­ern­ment”. Among oth­er out­rages to lib­er­ty, the laws banned “sedi­tious” pub­lic meet­ings, “blas­phe­mous and sedi­tious libels” and increased the tax­es on print­ed mate­ri­als, so that any print­ed pam­phet priced at less than 6 pence would be taxed an addi­tion­al 4 pence.

The Bomb

It might seem this was not the best time for the most pres­ti­gious of Tory pub­lish­ers, John Mur­ray, to release a poem with almost as much vis­i­bil­i­ty as the Comet that, in the view of con­tem­po­rary read­ers, mocked the moral pre­ten­sions of the Regency Estab­lish­ment — both Gov­ern­ment and Church. 

Yet that was what Mur­ray chose to do — tak­ing a bare­ly-cal­cu­la­ble risk — by pub­lish­ing Can­tos I & II of Byron’s Don Juan in mid-July, 1819. He por­trayed it, accu­rate­ly, as the pub­lish­ing equiv­a­lent of cross­ing the Rubi­con or, maybe, lob­bing an artillery shell into West­min­ster. On the day after it appeared on book­sellers’ shelves he wrote to his exiled author:

La Sort est jet­té – Don Juan was pub­lished yes­ter­day, and hav­ing fired the Bomb – here I am out of the way of its explo­sion – its pub­li­ca­tion has excit­ed a very great degree of inter­est – pub­lic <opin­ion ha> expec­ta­tion hav­ing risen up like the sur­round­ing boats on the Thames when a first rate is struck from its Stocks” (Mur­ray to Byron, July 16, 1819. ‘La Sort est jet­té’ [cor­rect­ly, ‘le sort en est jet­té’] means ‘the die is cast’, as in a gam­bling game. Accord­ing to one of Caesar’s com­pan­ions this is rough­ly what he said, quot­ing the Greek play­wright Menan­der, when he crossed the Rubi­con riv­er into Italy in 49 BCE. In both cas­es it refers to an action whose out­come is ‘up-in-the-air’. By a ‘first rate.. struck from its stocks’ Mur­ray mean the launch of a cap­i­tal ship).

Well of course pub­lic expec­ta­tion had risen up… Mur­ray had delib­er­ate­ly stirred it. His cau­tion relat­ed to the impact of some parts of the poem on his author’s rep­u­ta­tion (Murray’s cap­i­tal, too). But anony­mous pub­li­ca­tion was hid­ing Byron and his pub­lish­ing busi­ness “in the open”. Byron’s author­ship would be an open secret: he had told Byron in March that there were “the great­est expec­ta­tions” about Don Juan. Indeed, Mur­ray had been prompt­ing these expec­ta­tion for at least two weeks before the book’s appear­ance with a series of promi­ment and mys­te­ri­ous adver­tise­ments in news­pa­pers such as the Morn­ing Post and The Lon­don Times. Rather like the teas­ing press announce­ments we see today from tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies in advance of their “Keynote” pre­sen­ta­tions of new gad­gets, Murray’s pub­lic­i­ty said not much, but plen­ty. Byron’s friend from uni­ver­si­ty days, Cam Hob­house, described the cam­paign in a let­ter to Byron on the day Don Juan it appeared.

It was announced thus – Don Juan.. to mor­row. There’s a way for you!! To mor­row The Comet. to mor­row! Mr Mur­ray man­aged so well that Mazep­pa was tak­en for Don Juan and gread­i­ly bought up like “that abom­inable book the scan­dalous mag­a­zine”. But Don Juan tomor­row, unde­ceived those who thought they had got their pen­ny­worth to day –“ (Hob­house to Byron on the morn­ing of pub­li­ca­tion, 15 July, 1819)

Here, for exam­ple, is the top of the front page of The Morn­ing Post of Mon­day 12 July, 1819.

London Morning Post 12 July 1819

On Thurs­day, DON JUAN. — Sold by all Book­sellers”

Exploit­ing this clever cam­paign of 19th Cen­tu­ry viral adver­tis­ing, Mur­ray issued 1500 copies of Can­tos I and II “anony­mous­ly” on 15 July, 1819 in a large (Quar­to sized: about 12 inch­es by 10 inch­es), rel­a­tive­ly expen­sive vol­ume with­out the name of the pub­lish­er or the author. 

In the heat­ed polti­cial con­text of mid-1819, the anonymi­ty of the book was itself a draw:

This will make our wiseacres think that there is poi­son for King Queen & Dauphin in every page and will irri­tate pub­lic pruri­en­cy to a com­plete pri­apism” (Hob­house to Byron, 15 July, 1819)

Mur­ray was can­ny enough to see that the risk of scan­dal (or worse) could be turned to his own com­mer­cial advan­tage. The repres­sive Castlereagh laws on “blas­phe­mous and sedi­tious libel” were still months off. Before the Man­ches­ter ‘riots’, the legal frame­work was not yet pitched against pub­li­ca­tion. What­ev­er he felt about the impro­pri­ety of some stan­zas or lines — what­ev­er his ‘court’ of read­ers and Byron’s Lon­don friends said about the ‘unpub­lish­able’ and lam­en­ta­ble ‘infe­lic­i­ties’ — Mur­ray knew there was every chance Byron’s new work would sell.

Don Juan was, for the most part, just the sort of thing he had asked Byron to pro­duce a year ear­li­er:

May I hope that yr Lord­ship will favour me with some work to open my Cam­paign in Novem­ber with have you not anoth­er live­ly tale like Bep­po – or will you not give me some prose in three Vol­umes – all the adven­tures that you have under­gone, seen, heard of or imag­ined with your reflec­tions on life & Man­ners” (Mur­rray to Byron 7 July 1818) 

So Hob­house is prob­a­bly not wrong to sug­gest (above, let­ter of 15 July) — per­haps he knew — that Mur­ray engi­neered a com­mer­cial sleight of hand when he issued Byron’s Mazep­pa and an Ode on Venice two weeks ear­li­er on 1 July, tak­ing advan­tage of the antic­i­pa­tion for Don Juan.