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.

The Middling Class may kiss my a…

I do not in any way affect to be squea­mish – but the char­ac­ter of the Mid­dling Class in the coun­try – is cer­tain­ly high­ly moral – and we should not offend them – as you cur­tail the num­ber of your read­ers – and for the rest of the sub­ject of Don Juan is an excel­lent one – and noth­ing can sur­pass the exquis­ite beau­ties scat­tered so lav­ish­ly through the first two Can­tos.“
The estimable, but exquis­ite­ly squea­mish, John Mur­ray (his pub­lish­er) warn­ing Byron of a like­ly harsh reac­tion from con­ser­v­a­tive taste, before he pub­lished the first two Can­tos, anony­mous­ly, in 1819.

Surprises for newcomers to Don Juan

It’s long

New­com­ers to Byron’s poem are more like­ly to find it on the web than on a book­shelf. So their first sur­prise, often, is its length. Six­teen books (“Can­tos”), 20,000 lines, 130 ‚000 words. It’s as long as a mod­ern fan­ta­sy nov­el.

It can seem even longer because…well, a prac­ticed read­er finds it easy to scan whole pages of prose, pay­ing as lit­tle or as much atten­tion as need­ed. But it’s almost impos­si­ble to do that with poet­ry. The rhymes, the inver­sions, the shape of the verse slow us down and fre­quent­ly demand at least an inte­ri­or read­er who speaks the words to us.

That’s as it should be, and the main rea­son why my forth­com­ing edi­tion of Can­to 1 of Don Juan will speak the words to the read­er. The per­for­mance takes about an hour and forty-two min­utes with anoth­er eight min­utes (or so) for the Ded­i­ca­tion that pre­cedes the poem.

It’s great fun

But with Byron there’s a great reward in read­ing for sense rather than read­ing to fin­ish. For one thing, he’s such fun. That’s usu­al­ly the sec­ond sur­prise for new­com­ers. Byron’s atten­tion wan­ders a good deal in Don Juan — that’s the spir­it of the thing — but his writ­ing is tight and his com­ic tim­ing, like his metre, is impec­ca­ble. He’s seri­ous, some­times, but nev­er solemn and has a punch-line in the final cou­plet of near­ly every stan­za.

It’s for grown-ups

This is not your old Aunt’s “poe­sie”. Byron has few qualms — pre­tend­ed, maybe — about dis­sect­ing lust, infi­deli­ty, fan­ta­sy, blas­phe­my, the dis­ap­point­ments of faith and the betray­als of ‘tyran­ny’. There’s even some “dwarf toss­ing” in Can­to Five! His themes are clos­er to those of his hero Horace, the free-wheel­ing, humane essay­ist of the ear­ly Roman empire, than the cere­bral refine­ments of his con­tem­po­raries, the Eng­lish Roman­tic poets. This may be the third sur­prise: Don Juan has the space, and Byron the incli­na­tion to dis­cuss lib­er­ty, self-knowl­edge, the pas­sions– sex, of course, but also pow­er and wealth — hap­pi­ness, the dia­log of the sex­es, grow­ing old (or grow­ing up, Byron scarce­ly did either) and the illu­sion of fame.

… And he does it in a con­ver­sa­tion­al, half con­fes­sion­al, half iron­ic tone that is essen­tial­ly mod­ern.

It’s modern

A fourth sur­prise for many new­com­ers is that although the poem is near­ly two cen­turies old, it is filled with mod­ern ideas and atti­tudes. The tone is con­ver­sa­tion­al and per­son­al. Byron looks his read­ers in the eye, rather than address them from a pedestal. The lan­guage, here and there, car­ries an eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry ring and his eti­quette is not nec­es­sar­i­ly ours: “gay” means hap­py, even frothy; more grat­ing­ly, money­len­ders are “jews”. He is skep­ti­cal of the claims of the Church (not reli­gion), the ser­vil­i­ty of pol­i­tics and overblown sci­ence. Although an aris­to­crat, and a bit of a snob, there’s noth­ing feu­dal or con­de­scend­ing about Byron. Per­son­al lib­er­ty is prob­a­bly his high­est val­ue and, like his near con­tem­po­rary, Jane Austen, Byron makes women the strongest char­ac­ters in his poem. His hero­ines have ideas, pas­sions, ambi­tion and a free­dom of action that Austen’s women only dreamed of.

It’s highly quotable

What use is poet­ry, unless it’s mem­o­rable? Great poet­ry, like great paint­ing or sculp­ture, changes our way of see­ing things. Don Juan has done that — more than you realise until you read it. Here are a few snip­pets that you might rec­og­nize even if you have not read the Poem

Infidelity
What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
Is much more common where the climate’s sultry.
Fiction
’Tis strange, but true, for truth is always strange, 
Stranger than fiction.
(Yes… Don Juan is the origin of that, now trite, idea)
Hate
Now Hatred is by far the longest pleasure; 
Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.
Life
A little breath, love, wine, ambition, fame, 
Fighting, devotion, dust – perhaps a name.
Men and women
‘Man’s love is of his life a thing apart, 
’Tis woman’s whole existence.