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.
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…
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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
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.
“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.
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.
“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.