Byron’s Outrageous Dedication (video)

A week or so back I wrote a short post on the Dedication to Don Juan — one of his most acid satires.

But it seemed to me I should be able to do better than that; so I’ve made a short ‘video’ using Adobe Voice that introduces the Dedication. Click on the image to go to the presentation.


The first slide of my Adobe Voice presentation on the Dedication to Don Juan
The first slide of my Adobe Voice presentation on the Dedication to Don Juan

What would have become of Juan

Don Juan is unfinished. At the end of the last completed Canto (XVI), Juan is in the midst of an amorous midnight tangle with a “ghost” in the gallery of a restored English Abbey (Byron’s ancestral home at Newstead).

You can download recordings I made a few years ago of the last Cantos (for Librivox) from the Internet Archive.

Only a few preliminary verses of Canto XVII were found among Byron’s papers in Missalonghi, Greece, where he died. Although the unfinished Canto was intended to continue the romantic intrigue involving Juan’s hostess, Lady Amundeville, and the mysterious Aurora Raby — including, Byron suggests, a surprise on a billiard table (!) — we will never know the details of Juan’s escapes from (yet another) designing lover. Or, indeed, the ultimate fate of Byron’s handsome, brave, but passive hero.

Byron insisted to his publisher, John Murray, that he had only the loosest plans for Don Juan

I meant to take him [Juan] on the tour of Europe – with a proper mixture of siege – battle – and adventure – and to make him finish as Anacharsis Cloots – in the French Revolution. –
To how many Cantos this may extend – I know not – nor whether even if I live I shall complete it – but this was my notion. – I meant to have made him a Cavalier Servente in Italy, and a cause for a divorce in England – and a Sentimental ‘Werther-faced man’ in Germany – so as to show the different ridicules of the society in each of those countries – – and to have displayed him gradually gâté and blasé as he grew older – as is natural. But I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell – or in an unhappy marriage – not knowing which would be the severest – The Spanish tradition says Hell – but it is probably only an Allegory of the other state. You are now in possession of my notions on the subject

It’s easy to believe that this is true and not just Byron teasing the straight-laced Murray with a plan that the businessman could only have considered chaotic. Byron had the facility to make it up as he went along. It’s a mode of composition — if not a plan — apparently suited to Juan’s picaresque adventures.

The idea that hell is an allegory of marriage is a sign that Byron is not (entirely) serious about this outline. But there’s a pathetic irony in his throw-away suggestion that the poem might not be completed before his own death.

Of the fates outlined for Juan, perhaps the most dramatic is the first: to have Juan guillotined in the French Revolution. Anacharsis Cloots, whom Byron mentions — and whom he rejects, among others, as the subject for his Poem in Stanza 3 of the First Canto — was an eccentric Prussian nobleman who was convinced that the principles of the French Revolution should be enlarged to a World government and who styled himself as the “personal enemy” of Jesus Christ. Although he adopted French citizenship and played a part in the prosecution of Louis XVI, he was himself falsely accused and executed by bloody Robespierre in 1794.

My guess is that Byron would never have composed an end to “Don Juan” (or Don Juan) in the sense of a final disposition of the hero after some climactic event with all the threads tied off and the moral underlined (as Da Ponte does, rather heavy-handedly, in his libretto for Mozart’s opera).

The last Cantos of Don Juan (XIII-XVI) are among his best. But had he survived his Greek expedition, I think Byron would have given up on the epic — perhaps after completing Canto XVII — leaving Juan in “the midst of life” (this was the fate of Childe Harold… the character that brought him international fame in the 19th century).

By 1822 — five years after fleeing England — Byron seemed to be looking for a life other than the one he had made for himself with Theresa in Italy. Perhaps not a literary life at all. I don’t think he knew definitely what he wanted or expected from the adventure in Greece. I think he wanted some new direction. I suspect he would have abandoned Juan to an unfinished narrative, just as he wanted to abandon his own recent narrative.

Sadly, in April 1824, he abandoned both…

The Dedication to Don Juan

A dedication?! For an Epic??

Not the usual style. But how typical of Byron to dedicate his poem to someone he hates: the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey!

The illustrated audio-iBook of Don Juan — available free on the iBook store (see the link to the right of this story) — includes the Dedication. See a sample here!

In contrast to the usual syrupy style of poetic dedications, the Dedication to Don Juan is filled with spleen, calumny and bitter irony. It’s a rant, to be truthful. Byron attacks Southey for being a turncoat, selling-out his once-liberal views and embracing the reactionary politics of the Tory government in return for promotion and his Laureate fees. He accuses Coleridge of confusion and Wordsworth of being unintelligible and boring.

Lots of fun.

But then he turns to much bigger targets. In vitriolic verse, he labels the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, an “intellectual eunuch”, a blood-sucker, a jailer, a bungler and a botcher… Strong stuff reflecting Byron’s (mistaken) belief that Castlereagh — who had a bloody reputation as Secretary for Ireland — was in league with the Austrian Chancellor Metternich and the other repressive reactionary governments of Europe to crush popular demand for liberty after the collapse of the Napoleonic campaigns.

Byron was fearless; he was, after all, a Peer of the Realm and, self-exiled in Venice, somewhat out of the reach of the English government.

As a monument of invective, the Dedication to Don Juan has no equal in English verse (… it possibly owes a tip of the hat to Pope’s Dunciad and Dryden’s MacFlecknoe)

By the way, don’t you love this image: The Laughing Fool? How well does it convey the utter foolisness he witnesses? He removes his spectacles (well-to-do fool?) because… why? He laughs to tears? He has seen enough… ? What do you think?

The Hermitage Museum says it the painting is possibly by Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen, working in about the year 1500 in the then provincial town of Amsterdam.

The peculiar trajectory of Canto III (Don Juan)

This is an intriguing Canto. It contains one of Byrons greatest characters — the pirate Lambro, modelled (probably) on Ali Pasha — and some of his best-known verse. Yet, it has a weaker-than-usual narrative structure, no climactic events, some heavy-handed scenery, an odd diversion into Mariolatry, his most sarcastic attack on Wordsworth and, an abrupt end due to a decision to split the original draft into two Cantos.

But this Canto also contains the first hints of Byron’s fateful attachment to an ideal of Hellenic liberation that (with help from his own doctors) would send him to his grave just a decade later.

Download an annotated (& illustrated) PDF of Canto III.

Although 111 verses long, Canto III captures just one event in Don Juan’s story: the return home of the pirate Lambro to find Juan installed as the consort of his daughter Haidee, (presumptive) mistress of the Isle. Juan has no active role in the Canto, and no speaking part. The only action in the Canto is Lambro’s.

After a long absence plying his craft as a slave-dealer and ‘sea attorney’, the old pirate returns undetected to his island (Byron draws a parallel with the return of Odysseus to Ithaca). He beaches his ship and leaves his crew to ‘careen’ her while he mounts the hill above his house and descends the other side, toward it. From a distance he sees his household servants dancing and feasting on the lawn. His daughter Haidée, convinced by his long absence that he had died at sea, has assumed his place and has installed Juan — her lover in the famous sea-cave scene of Canto II — by her side. Lambro, whom the idlers in his garden do not even recognise, learns from them of the island’s new “Mistress and Master”. He is astonished, clearly displeased by the lavish expenditure and, surprised no doubt by the news of his own death. But he shows no outwards sign of his anger as he enters his house by a back way; finding, of course, no greeting.

At this point, after only some 6o verses, the main thread of the narrative falls away. What follows, first, is description of the rooms of the house, the feast, the carpet, the wall hangings, the plate and Juan and Haidée’s oufits. Next, during an interlude in the feasting an unnamed poet regales the host and hostess with the much-anthologised song “The Isles of Greece”, written in a lyric style unlike the ottava-rima verse of the rest of the Canto. It is a call to contemporary Greeks to abandon their supine acceptance of Turkish rule, acknowledge their heritage and to rise up in arms against their occupiers.

Musing briefly on the song, Byron follows yet another thread of diversions that leads him through the ironies of poetic truth and fame to sarcastic reflections on the marriages and intellectual pretensions of Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth. He explains what he claims is his own ‘religious feelings’ and recalls the numinous beauty of a twilight canter in the woods south of Ravenna where Bocaccio set a particularly gory tale later imitated by Dryden. Then, after a curiously mawkish hymn to the virgin Mary, prompted by the Angelus, heard at a distance in woods, Byron interrupts himself to say he’s decided to break the Canto he is drafting into two, ending the first half at this point. He’d promised in Canto I that each book of his epic would be two-hundred verses (as Cantos I and II are). He explains he can make more money by dividing the books into two (but this is a misdirection on his part).

An unsurpassable poem

Amit Majmudar in the Kenyon Review:

At this point I should insist that, if you haven’t read Don Juan, please put it on the top of your list. Just as it was a corrective for the Romantic Era in English verse, it is triply a corrective for 21st-century American verse, which has spliced Romantic self-absorption with Modernist obscurantism with a prosaic formal slackness all its own: We have sucked up and distilled the worst tendencies of the past two centuries. This is a tragic phenomenon but not without remedy: Byron’s Don Juan, specifically. The book ought to be required reading in poetry-writing programs nationwide…

Extract from The Two Unsurpassable Poems in the English Language « Kenyon Review Blog

Annotated Canto III of Don Juan

Here’s a download for Byron fans. An illustrated, annotated Canto III of Don Juan.

This project went into the freezer for a couple of years after the publication of the audio-book of Canto One. Alas, there were only a few sales. The iBook has been free for download from the iBook Store for the past couple of years and, still, there are only a very small number of downloads.

The Librivox recordings I made of several Cantos of Don Juan (here, here, and here) have been downloaded tens of thousands of times. But there seems to be almost zero demand for a read-aloud book of the same material, or I have failed to connect with the audience; or both.

I have, however, continued the project in other ways from time to time. I’ve recorded the audio for Cantos II and III that have not been posted to Librivox (I don’t like their insistence on ‘branding’ my work for themselves). Those recordings may appear here in due course: or I may wait until I have some more Cantos ready and release them as a group.

I have also continued to work on an approach to annotation whose motive is to help 21st century readers “get” some of the references — literary, autobiographical — that made the satire so amusing for sophisticated 19th century readers. Don Juan is not a literary puzzle like, for example, Joyce’s Ulysses. But it is a much denser composition than Byron’s apparently frivolous tone and loose structure make it appear, on the surface.

Here is the annotated version of Canto III. I hope you like it. Please contact me (there’s an email link in the PDF file) and let me know what you think.

Don-Juan Canto III Annotated

By the way: the image is a half-imaginary portrait of one of Byron’s would-be (de facto? We’ll never know!) lovers: the saturnine Ali Pasha of Tepelenë, a brigand, sadist, pederast and Ottoman tyrant of Albania and Western Greece. For more about his connection to Bryon, and role in Don Juan, please read the Annotated Canto III.

Byron and Shelley as Vampires?

Implausible? For Regency revolutionary heroes, who knows? The image of the Vampire looming over the inert body of his/her victim in an intimate exchange of body fluids is a classic kind of Romantic fantasy.

I’ve just finished reading, Tim Powers’ novel “The Stress of Her Regard,” (Amazon) first published in 1989, which cleverly weaves many incidents of the years Byron and Shelley — and their circle of girlfriends and hangers-on — spent together in Switzerland and Italy into a narrative that, if can’t convinces us of their Vampirism, at least convinces us to “suspend disbelief”. What more can we ask of fiction?

In brief, Byron is portrayed as the victim of an ancient vampirism; as is Italy under the Austrian yoke. The pre-Adamite race of the Nepehlim have been resurrected centuries earlier by a mystical surgery on an Austrian Duke who, preserved by his vamprisim, commands the invasion of Italy and the occupation of Venice. The ethereal Percy Bysse Shelley, too, by an accident of birth, is a half-breed of the Nephelim and, although he controls his nature, his mania — essential to his poetry — seeped into his realtionship with Mary (Godwin) Shelley and has inspired, too, her writing (Frankenstein).

Byron, it turns out, was infected (“polluted”) by Lord Grey (Henry Edward Yelverton); a vampire who leased Newstead Abbey from him and who, according to Byron’s biographers, “made advances” (Byron refused to discuss the incident) to his handsome teenaged landlord during a visit the latter made to his ancestral home in 1803.

Powers’ clever imagining and reworking of the outré mysteries and ceremonies of the Nephelim and their ‘neffer’ human lovers; the revolutionary history of Italy; the secret society of the Carbonari (in which Byron really did become involved, at least peripherally); the dramatis personae of Byron’s life, especially the ridiculous Dr Polidori but also his dramatic Venetian mistress Maria Cogni and his entourage of servants, is masterful. He borrows plausibly from Shelley’s poetry in the epigraphs to each chapter to substantiate the poet’s conflict with between his humanity and his ‘otherness’ (as a half-caste of the race of Nephelim) and even the documented deaths of Shelley’s and Byron’s children and the tragedy of Shelley’s drowning at the height of his poetic career become milestones in a smoothly perverted history. Somehow, François Villon, as the un-dead, estranged spouse of a Vampire “bride” — the Nephelim seem to be sexually ambidextrous when not flying reptiles — also makes it into the cast of Powers’ book.

The plot? It revolves around two purely imaginary characters; an english obstetrician named Crawford and Aikman (among other names) who has the bad-luck accidentally to ‘betroth’ a vampire, and; his autistic, self-harming sister-in-law who spends the first part of the novel, and most of the second half, trying to kill him but who, finally, becomes his champion and his wife. It’s complicated but Powers handles the implausible bits, mostly, with aplomb.

I loved it. Closely researched and delightfully faithful to Byron’s history and character. The only time I was jolted out of the illusion was by this passage:

“Crawfords eyes had adjusted to the dimness of the room enough for him to see that the sheets were scribbled with six-line stanzas. It was probably more of Don Juan, the apparently endless poem Byron had started writing in Venice in 1818”

Huh? Six lines! Don Juan is, of course, in ottava rima! Eight lines to every stanza! I was astonished that Powers — whose research seems otherwise impeccable — made this mistake and that his editors (if they still had such things in 1989) did not pick it up.

It’s time for an illustrated audio-e-book of Don Juan

Is it really time for an illustrated, audio e-book of Don Juan? You bet! Here are three good reasons.

1. Illustrated versions are out of print

Byron’s epic comedy has never been out of print, but illustrated versions are hard to come by. My favourites are a 1927 edition illustrated in fabulous Deco style by John Austen (alas, out of print, but available from rare-book dealers), and; The Annotated Don Juan by Isaac Asimov (yes that Asimov) illustrated by Milton Glaser, one of the iconic U.S. illustrators of the 20th century (he created the I-heartf-NY logo) and designed by Alex Gotfryd. This too is out of print, although I bought myself a copy in great condition (inscribed by Glaser to his boss) a year or two back.

Cover of Isaac Asimov'e Annotated Don Juan
The Cover of Isaac Asimov’e Annotated Don Juan with illustrations by Milton Glaser

2. E-books are the best medium for illustration

There is no illustrated e-pub of Byron: that is, a digital book meant for reading as a book. That’s a great pity for two reasons. First, because Don Juan is — here and there, between Byronic digressions and sometimes inside them — a very visual poem. Canto One, especially, as a classic bedroom-farce has lots of potential. Second, books these days are relatively expensive to produce and distribute, especially when they contain high-quality colour illustrations (which adds to the weight, if only because of the paper required). E-books offer a much lower-cost, easily accessible medium that’s almost costless to disseminate even more widely than books and weighs nothing.

Better still, with LCD screens headed for print-like-resolution — the iPad 3 screen is almost 300 ppi and the MacBook laptop also now sports a “retina” screen — high quality illustration will soon be widely available. The lowest-cost e-readers are not there yet: Barnes’ and Noble’s Nook and the Amazon Kindle Fire offer only 170 pip for the present; about twice the resolution of the typical desktop screen. But the new Google Nexus 7 tablet has a lovely low-cost LCD at 216 ppi. That’s approaching a density where screen resolution pixilates only when you “zoom” the digital image.

3. E-books can read to you

The combination of text and it’s performance in the same publication is an intriguing option available only with e-books.

Poetry, whose sound is possibly still more important than its printed representation, is a perfect target for audio+text publication. When reading poetry for ourselves, we want to hear a poem spoken — and often ‘sub-vocalize’ when we don’t read out loud . But when read-to, we sometimes want to see the text, too, to help us follow more complex passages.

Will readers embrace a mixed-medium that includes the performance? That’s hard to say for sure.

(Pure) audio books are losing market share, probably because they remained trapped by the physical (CD) medium for far too long (like music CDs). The more rapid growth in sales of downloaded audio-books has not been enough to restore their former prominence despite the potential demand among e.g. commuters.

FORMAT 2008 2009 2010 % Chge 2009–10
Audio (Physical)
Sales $305 $248.8 $217.9 12.4%
Market Share 2.3% 1.8% 1.6%
Audio downloads
Sales $80.8 $100.6 $124.3 23.6%
Market Share 0.6% 0.7% 0.9%

Also, the average quality of narration in audio-books is , apparently, a problem. When I look at what’s on offer in commercial audio-books of Don Juan, I’m inclined to agree.

But the audio-format for performance art, such as poetry, has strong appeal. What we hear pours into our imagination still more directly than what we read. I suspect that hearing the poem read will make it more fun for people who would not consider reading it for the first time but who might, on a second occasion, want to read it for themselves.

The audio e-book is a new concept in publishing. It became widely available only late last year when Apple’s iBooks first implement a version of “read-aloud” books, aimed at the children’s book market. The typical read-aloud book has an audio-track that reads the content of the book as the individual words are highlighted. Probably, the idea was to help new readers identify the words and to put words and sounds together.

Then, early in 2012, the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) published the third industry-standard specifications for e-publications that encourages all publishers and device manufacturers to implement audio-enabled e-books in the same way (E-Pub 3.0). Now a growing list of device and software allows simultaneous text and audio including iBooks (Apple), Kobo (owned by Rakuten), Azardi (Infogrid Pacific) and Readium (an e-pub reader created by the IDPF itself for Google’s Chrome web-browser).

In every one of these environments you can choose to hear the book read-aloud or choose to turn off the audio and read for yourself. I hope readers will try both.

Two (better) recordings of Don Juan

In the last post I briefly reviewed the only two commercial recordings of Byron’s Don Juan that I have been able to find. Neither was much to my taste, although I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has a kinder opinion.

There are a couple of non-commercial recordings that I’d like to recommend to you. I think each of them is better than Davidson or Bethune, although neither is complete.

The first is a recording made in (I’m guessing) the 1940’s by Tyrone Power. His voice has a lovely natural timbre; his projection is great (from low in the chest). He gets a lot of variation of intonation and pace and he speaks the poetry seriously, but with meaning, catching not only the rhythms but the rhyme that carries so much of the humour in Don Juan.

Of course, Power had the looks and the agility to be the Don Juan from Central Casting. His Mark of Zorro was the the second movie version of the Zorro tale — the first being the stylish Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 version. But Power and Basil Rathbone made the franchise indelibly theirs. He was a very good actor with a naturally credible leading-male style and a fine expressive touch who was trapped for many years by 20th Century Fox in ‘swashbuckling’ roles. If you’ve never seen him in the last movie he completed — Billy Wilder’s 1957 movie of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution with Marlene Deitrich and Charles Laughton — then you’ve missed one of the greatest movies of the 20th century. Alas, he died of a massive heart attack on the set of Solomon and Sheba (1958) in the midst of a duel with George Sanders.

I’m sorry that Power does not appear to have recorded all of even Canto One of Don Juan. But I offer below an excerpt from the recording available here (there seems to be a rip-off available on CD on Amazon, too). In the excerpt, Power is heard reading verses 138 to 142 of Canto One, at the point where Julia’s jealous husband, Alfonso, bursts into her bedroom in the middle of the night, looking for her lover (Juan, unknown to Alfonso).

The final recording I offer for your review is my own. I recorded this version in March, 2012, shortly before I first came across the Tyrone Power version. I’m delighted to find that my approach is not far from his. This is the recording that I’ll be issuing as part of the illustrated audio ebook to be real eased in the next few weeks. I’d love to know what you think.

Two recordings of Don Juan

I admit this is an eccentric project. Recording a very long poem from the early 19th century and presenting it in an illustrated e-book ‘wrapper’ may turn out to be a waste of effort. Who knows? Not me!

But I suspect there is a large number of people who have never been exposed to Byron’s clever, provocative romance and who are not likely to find out how much fun it is until they hear it. That’s what led me to record it in the first place and, so far there are going on 90,000 downloads of my recordings of Cantos One, Five and Thirteen-thru-Sixteen suggesting I was right.

I know of only two commercial “audio-book” recordings of Don Juan, both in the Audible library. In this post, I’ll review both of them. In my next post I’ll review a much better, but incomplete, (now) widely available recording from a great star of Hollywood’s Golden Era and submit my own recordings for your comparison.

The only two commercial recordings in the Audible library are:

Fred Davidson has great variation in pitch and manages female voices very well. He has good pacing and very clear diction. But I find his delivery mannered and “thespian.” To me, this makes Byron’s conversational tone of voice sound condescending and even ‘fey’ rather than confidential or sarcastic.

Davidson makes some strange choices in pronunciation, too, of which the worst is that he pronounces “Juan” as “huwan”… a compromise between the Spanish pronunciation and Byron’s jokey anglicising of the hero’s name. The result is a sound that isn’t right in Spanish (“h’wan”) or as an anglicised word (it must be pronounced “who won” for the rhyme to be accurate) and it ruins Byron’s joke.

But most irritating of all, in the Davison recording, he (or his producer) has decided that he should read everything on the page including the Stanza numbers! Good grief, we’re lucky he didn’t give us pages, too!

Of course, you should judge for yourself. Here’s a short sample of Davidson reading three verses, taken from the beginning of the Poem: the Dedication. You can find a longer sample at the links above.

Robert Bethune may be a Canadian. He has that attractive Canadian burr to his accent that I prefer to Frederick Davidson’s nasal English tone. But Bethune’s delivery is clipped; somehow slightly choked in his throat and he has a rhotacism (swallowing his ‘r’) that is sometimes noticeable. He sounds like he’s sitting at his desk leaning over the microphone.

Bethune’s pitch is not as varied, and his pacing not as sure as Davidson’s, with the result that he falls a bit too easily into a “poetic” intonation, singing the same pattern of tones throughout each verse. His pronunciation is not mannered like Davidson’s and he takes advantage of the conversational tone of the poem to allow each line and each stanza to “flow” into the next. But this also means he muffs some of the jokes that Byron often packs into the final rhyming-couplet punch line of his stanzas.

Again, you should listen for yourself. Here are three verses (28-30) from Canto IV: a longer excerpt can be found at the Audible link, above. I have not listened to much of Bethune’s recording but I’m a little surprised to find that this short selection contains an error: “dear” for “clear” in Stanza 30.

I would really like to hear your views of these recordings: especially if you disagree with me. What am I missing in the Davidson and Bethune recordings? If you love them (or even like them), why? Please let me know.