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

What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
Is much more common where the climate’s sultry.
’Tis strange, but true, for truth is always strange, 
Stranger than fiction.
(Yes… Don Juan is the origin of that, now trite, idea)
Now Hatred is by far the longest pleasure; 
Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.
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.

Don Juan and the year of revolt

The Peterloo Massacre

It is aston­ish­ing to us, now, that the amus­ing, clever, most­ly-light-heart­ed tales in Can­tos I and II of Don Juan were con­demned by the Eng­lish estab­lish­ment for blas­phe­my, deprav­i­ty and incit­ing mis­be­hav­iour (among the low­er class­es). Byron protest­ed, accu­rate­ly, that his poem was inno­cent when mea­sured by the stan­dards of Clas­si­cal Roman verse, or or Dante or even Mil­ton.

But Byron knew well what he was up to — whom his satire would sting and whom it would please — and clear­ly delight­ed in it.

To appre­ci­ate the dar­ing, as well as the fun, of Don Juan we must bear in mind the bit­ter­ly charged pol­i­tics and near class-war­fare that gripped Eng­land in the the year (1819) that the poem first appeared. The prop­er­tied class­es — nobil­i­ty, gen­try, the army, church and par­venu indus­tri­al­ists — feared riot, revolt or even bloody rev­o­lu­tion by work­ers and their rad­i­cal allies of the con­sti­tu­tion­al Reform move­ment.

I could not tell the sto­ry of that year bet­ter than this excerpt from David Erdman’s 1944 talk “Byron and Revolt in Eng­land”

“In Jan­u­ary the labor­ers of Man­ches­ter parad­ed with red flags sur­mount­ed by red caps of lib­er­ty. In Feb­ru­ary and March there were strikes (the word was new) of weavers and col­liers, and a month-long hub­bub in West­min­ster where a stormy bye- elec­tion was won by the pool­ing of Tory and Whig votes against a field of Rad­i­cals led by Byron’s asso­ciate Hob­house; crowds in Covent Gar­den attacked the suc­cess­ful can­di­date shout­ing “Hob­house for ever.”

In April the Quar­ter­ly [Review] came out with a tardy but copi­ous denun­ci­a­tion of Shelley’s Revolt of Islam as a pro­duc­tion of “that indus­tri­ous knot of authors” whose work “loos­ened the hold of our pro­tect­ing laws … and blas­phemed our holy reli­gion.”

The Peterloo Massacre
The Peter­loo Mas­sacre from a pam­phlet pub­lished by Richard Carlile

In June the weavers were mak­ing wage demands again, and a wave of Reform meet­ings swept the coun­ties, con­tin­u­ing in July to fill news- papers with accounts of ban­ners, plac­ards, and (at Rochdale, one of Lord Byron’s fiefs) female Reform­ers march­ing 5,000 strong. Reform was in their mouths, said Sid­mouth, “but rebel­lion and rev­o­lu­tion in their hearts.” That month the gov­ern­ment arrest­ed sev­er­al “mali­cious, sedi­tious, evil-mind­ed per­sons,” includ­ing the edi­tors of the [rad­i­cal week­ly news­pa­per] Black Dwarf and the Man­ches­ter Observ­er, as well as Major Cartwright, whose Rad­i­cal Ham­p­den Club Byron had joined in 1813.

[In July] John Mur­ray, in spite of pol­i­tics, pub­lished what anoth­er Tory called a dia­bol­ic bur­lesque poem “loose­ly writ­ten in every sense of the word called the Two First Can­tos of Don Juan.” It appeared, because of pol­i­tics, with­out the names of author or pub- lish­er, but [rad­i­cal pub­lish­er William] Hone soon “unmasked” “Don John (Mur­ray),” and every­body knew it was Byron’s.

Bank­rupt­cies and the dis­tress of the labor­ers increased. In Keswick [Poet Lau­re­ate, Tory mouth­piece and Byron’s antag­o­nist Robert] Southey heard the poor talk of “parcel­ing out” estates. And then on the 16th of August 60,000 men and women “marched” to St. Peter’s Fields, near Man­ches­ter, where, said the gov­ern­ment papers, they would have been incit­ed to trea­son by the “demo­c­ra­t­i­cal” Ora­tor [Williamn] Hunt, but for the time­ly, if bloody, action of the mag­is­trates, most­ly cler­gy­men, on whose orders Con­sta­bles and Yeo­man­ry dis­persed the crowd with sabre and pis­tol, killing 11 and wound­ing 600.

Fol­low­ing [the] Peter­loo [“Mas­sacre”] the more extreme Rad­i­cals, [rad­i­cal Lon­don pub­lish­er Richard] Cari­ile for instance in his new Repub­li­can, open­ly defied the gov­ern­ment, urg­ing huge protest meet­ings and call­ing upon the peo­ple to “arm against the com­ing evil,” boast­ing “we can beat off the com­bined Yeo­man Cav­al­ry of the whole coun­try.”

In Sep­tem­ber the gov­ern­ment was still find­ing signs of the com­ing “simul­ta­ne­ous insur­rec­tion,” espe­cial­ly in an omi­nous silence on the part of the Rad­i­cals. [Arthur Welles­ley, Lord] Welling­ton sent “troops with can­non … into Cheshire, Lan­cashire, and York­shire.” The Duke of Hamil­ton report­ed that he had seen Rad­i­cals sur­vey­ing his park. Lord Dud­ley, in a more inclu­sive view, saw “the whirlpool of democ­ra­cy” swirling near­er. Alarm swept the Emer­gency ses­sion of Par­lia­ment that opened Novem­ber 23rd, short­ly fol­low­ing a pan­ic among the mon­eyed men. The ques­tion was not whether Reform­ers were march­ing “in mil­i­tary array” but how many thou­sands? Boo­tle Wilbra­ham claimed to have seen pis­tols and pikes and the plans of the poor to divide the land “by force.”

In Octo­ber hun­dreds of pul­pits rejoiced over the defeat of “Satan and Carlile” when the lat­ter was con­vict­ed of sell­ing the “The­o­log­i­cal Works” of [the author of the “Rights of Man”] Tom Paine.

[In Novem­ber, William] Cobbett’s recent return from Amer­i­ca -“to die for Reform,” wrote one Rad­i­cal- had been fol­lowed by an omi­nous rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of the Rad­i­cal fac­tions. Alarm­ing enough to Tories and Con­ser­v­a­tive Whigs was the appear­ance, with­in Par­lia­ment itself, of two new Rad­i­cal mem­bers: Dou­glas Kin­naird and John Cam Hob­house, bosom friends of Byron [since their days as stu­dents in Cam­bridge], who was known to have joined their “Rad­i­cal Rota Club” in absen­tia.™ … [In the debate on the tri­al of the Peter­loo demon­stra­tors] Hob­house spoke so very much like an inciter to rebel­lion that the House, in mount­ing hys­te­ria, vot­ed him to a cell in New­gate jail.”

Rhyming Rowland’s Macassar

Byron includes once piece of “prod­uct place­ment” in Can­to 1 of Don Juan; a mock­ing encomi­um to Rowland’s “Incom­pa­ra­ble” Macas­sar oil whose supe­ri­or qual­i­ties alone could match those of Don­na Inez.

In virtues noth­ing earth­ly could sur­pass her,
Save thine ‘incom­pa­ra­ble oil’, Macas­sar.”

Thomas Rowlindson's 1814 cartoon satrising the fashionable use of Rowlands' Macassar oil a a treatment for baldness
Row­lands Macas­sar Oil- An Oily Puff For Soft Heads

The joke worked so well because the Alexan­der Row­lands, father and son, were inces­sant puff-mer­chants for their own prod­ucts — which includ­ed Essence of Tyre (for dye­ing grey or red hair a dark auburn col­or) and Alsana Extract (for “erad­i­cat­ing dis­or­ders of the teeth”) — fre­quent­ly the form of verse adver­tise­ments in the Gazettes. The fol­low­ing indica­tive extract is tak­en from Row­lands Jnr.‘s A Prac­ti­cal and Philo­soph­i­cal Trea­tise on the Human Hair, pub­lished in 1814

In antient times a flow of Hair,
Reclin­ing on the shoul­ders bare,
Was view’d a mark of beauty’s pride,
A fact which n’er can be deny’d

Proof that “adver­tis­ing works” may, in fact, be the last­ing lega­cy of The Incom­pa­ra­ble Macas­sar Oil, for it became a wild­ly fasion­able treat­ment for bald­ness — or maybe wig-hair — among the triv­ial, new­ly-wealthy, fasion­able (mid­dle) class­es of Regency Eng­land, as John Rowlindson’s car­toon sug­gests.

Title page of Alex. Rowlands Jnr's 1814 "Practical and Philosophical Treatise on Human Hair"
Alex. Row­lands Jnr., “A Prac­ti­cal and Philo­soph­i­cal Trea­tise on Human Hair”, 1814

Curi­ous­ly, Byron’s back­hand­ed “com­pli­ment” to the prod­uct was not the end of the joke. The Row­lands returned the “com­pli­ment” in an adver­tise­ment among the back-papers of the Tenth (month­ly) install­ment of Charles Dick­ens’ The Pick­wick Papers pub­lished on a freez­ing, snow­bound last-day of Decem­ber of 1836 (Lon­don roads were impass­able, snow lay at a depth of 5–15 feet in places with drifts up to 20ft).

The full-page adver­tise­ment, repro­duced below, pur­port­ed to be “miss­ing vers­es” from Don Juan, fur­ther detail­ing Inez’ use of Row­lands’ prod­ucts for the hair and teeth in a hacker’s ver­sion of otta­va rima but, nat­u­ral­ly, with­out the satire that enlivened Byron’s ref­er­ence to the prod­ucts.

An image of an advertisement in the tenth instalment of the Pickwick Papers (Dec 31, 1836) purporting to show "missing verses" from Byron's Don Juan
“Miss­ing vers­es” from Don Juan

You can find a full account of the influ­ence the adver­tise­ment may have had on an episode in the twelfth instal­ment of The Pick­wick Papers here


Although a prodi­gy, sex­u­al­ly promis­cu­ous, and pugna­cious, Byron was a poet­ic genius who worked his gifts and him­self hard. Before his ear­ly death, at age 36, he had con­quered peaks of lit­er­a­ture and renown that con­tem­po­raries who lived to twice his years viewed only on the hori­zon.

Byron’s char­ac­ter was formed by strong, con­flict­ing cur­rents; his tur­bu­lent child­hood, his pre­co­cious wit, his sud­den acces­sion to wealth (or at least, its expec­ta­tion), his star­tling good looks and his always-present-nev­er-men­tioned lame­ness.

After his drunk­en, gold-brick­ing, father had desert­ed them, George Gordon’s moth­er some­times smoth­ered her son with affec­tion and gen­eros­i­ty but, at oth­er times, with rage and abuse. His scot­tish nurse, May Grey, ter­rorised her young charge with super­sti­tious Cal­vanist tales of damna­tion and (accord­ing to Byron) beat him sav­age­ly before climb­ing into the  bed to inter­fere with him sex­u­al­ly. The boy suf­fered phys­i­cal assault too, for his lame­ness — not a “club foot” but a con­gen­i­tal dys­pla­sia (with­er­ing) of the right calf and a foot that twist­ed inward — that a series of med­ical quacks tor­tured with use­less “cor­rect­ing” devices.

When even­tu­al­ly he was sent to a for­mal school (Har­row), he was treat­ed kind­ly and even def­er­en­tial­ly by the Mas­ters. But Byron was a lazy stu­dent, reck­less and dis­rup­tive. Although fierce­ly intel­li­gent, and sport­ing — he was a great swim­mer and despite his lame­ness played crick­et for the school in the 1805 match against Eton — the school had to be dis­suad­ed from send­ing him away in his final year for, among oth­er mis­deeds, com­pos­ing a poem slan­der­ing the new head­mas­ter.

It was only lat­er, dur­ing his Cam­bridge years, that he showed he could set­tle into peri­ods of steady, hard work, espe­cial­ly on poet­ry and dra­ma that dis­tract­ed him from feel­ings of guit and inse­cu­ri­ty brought on by debt and some­times mad indul­gence.

Byron was sex­u­al­ly ‘ambidex­trous’, tak­ing both male and female lovers at uni­ver­si­ty and lat­er in a “gap year” spent in Greece (he was prob­a­bly the vic­tim, too, of a sex­u­al assault by his noble ten­ant at New­stead Abbey, Lord Grey). Thanks, prob­a­bly, to his Nurse’s abuse of the pre-teen Byron, was — as he acknowl­edged — sex­u­al­ly pre­co­cious. He was promis­cu­ous, not preda­to­ry, but his attempts to man­age his (uncon­scious?) need for both com­fort­able, unchal­leng­ing sex­u­al inti­ma­cy and the thrill of illic­it rela­tions led to his social dis­grace. Ear­ly in 1815 he mar­ried a woman he respect­ed lit­tle and loved less chiefly to dis­tract him­self from a strong, mutu­al, inti­mate liai­son with his pret­ty, ador­ing, old­er half-sis­ter, Augus­ta Leigh. The mar­riage was a dis­as­ter, over short­ly after the birth of his daugh­ter, Ada, at the end of that same year.

For most of his life, Byron alter­nate­ly over-indulged food and drink until he became fat and pudgy, then starved him­self with bizarre diets or (after his first year at Cam­bridge) took up vio­lent exer­cise with a pair of fash­ion­able pugilists as per­son­al train­ers.

He hob­bled when he walked or tried to run but he attempt­ed to com­pen­sate his shame with feats of ath­let­ic brava­do such as swim­ming the Helle­spont, or along the Grand Canal at Venice. Or with feats of mil­i­tary adven­ture such as his final expe­di­tion to Greece where he fund­ed a nation­al­ist mili­tia and died of dis­ease (prob­a­bly typhus) and bar­barous med­ical treat­ment.

At Cam­bridge he became a reli­gious scep­tic. He was nev­er open­ly agnos­tic but he val­ued sci­ence above reli­gion where there was any con­flict.

Trou­bled? Pos­si­bly. Neu­rot­ic? Of course; who would not be, sad­dled with his rep­u­ta­tion, his belief in him­self, his debts, his upbring­ing?

Dan­ger­ous? Chiefly to him­self.



Was Gor­don, Lord Byron, mad?

At one point, as their brief mar­riage came to an end, Byron’s wife Annabelle Mill­banke (or her moth­er) sought the opin­ion of his doc­tor whether the tem­pes­tu­ous poet was insane.

In a tepid endorse­ment of his patient’s men­tal state, the doc­tor replied that he had not observed any “set­tled luna­cy.”

Still… his dis­solute father, who desert­ed him, “Mad Jack” Byron was alleged­ly unsta­ble (he may have slit his won throat after a bout of heavy drink­ing in France). Then, there was his Grand-father, Admi­ral “Foul Weath­er, Jack” Byron, who had a rep­u­ta­tion for stormy tem­pers as well as bad luck with storms at sea…

Annabelle was deeply unhap­py in the mar­riage; as was Byron. She hat­ed Lon­don and dis­liked Byron’s acquain­tance with the­atre peo­ple, pugilists, god­less intel­lec­tu­al lib­er­als and polit­i­cal skep­tics. She was in love with her hus­band, how­ev­er, and fool­ish­ly attempt­ed to attach her­self to him through a close friend­ship with his half-sis­ter Augus­ta whose inces­tu­ous rela­tions with Byron she refused to acknowl­edge, even when pre­sent­ed with the child of that liai­son, Medo­ra Leigh.

He was drink­ing too much and tak­ing lau­danum (an opi­ate syrup). He was loud, irre­spon­si­ble and angri­ly unhap­py — with him­self as much as with Annabelle —. espe­cial­ly when his wife insist­ed on hav­ing his sis­ter Augus­ta stay with them. He drunk­en­ly teased and insult­ed Annabelle in front of his sis­ter and forced her to take refuge, for a while, in Augusta’s sim­ple-mind­ed friend­ship and her own half-mys­ti­cal reli­gious deter­mi­na­tion some­how to ‘save’ them both. Final­ly as the birth of their first child approached and Byron became still more errat­ic, with fits of tem­per in which he smashed decanters or clocks or fur­ni­ture. Annabelle came to depend on Augus­ta, despite Byron’s evi­dent pref­er­ence for his sister’s com­pa­ny over hers.

Still, his doc­tor was very like­ly right; there was an ele­ment of hys­te­ria and play-act­ing in Byron’s behav­iour around this time. Per­haps a juve­nile piqué at his hope­less finan­cial sit­u­a­tion and his fool­ish mar­riage. He was beset by debts whose inter­est he was unable to pay (a bailiff moved into the elab­o­rate Pic­cadil­ly town­house — rent­ed with Annabelle’s mon­ey — sleep­ing on the stair and sell­ing up what­ev­er he could move). Byron was unable to real­ize any val­ue from his main asset, New­stead Abbey, and now sur­round­ed in Lon­don soci­ety by rumours of immoral­i­ty and cru­el­ty, prob­a­bly spread by his neu­rot­ic for­mer lover — and now noto­ri­ous “stalk­er” — Lady Car­o­line Lamb, wife of his friend William (lat­er Prime Min­is­ter, Lord Mel­bourne).

He could have offered — his friends did offer — plau­si­ble expla­na­tions, if not excus­es for his actions. He, too, was unhap­py with mar­riage to a woman whom he did not respect; who prob­a­bly loved some ide­al image of him and dis­ap­proved of the rest. He had lost the free­dom of his glit­ter­ing Lon­don lit­er­ary life, and gained in place of the par­ents who had been absent all through his youth, bor­ing, cen­so­ri­ous par­ents-in-law.

He and Annabelle could set­tle briefly into qui­et habits while he was dis­tract­ed by work. Dur­ing these times she, at first, did every­thing to please him and was reward­ed briefly by Byron’s sen­ti­men­tal affec­tion. But it would nev­er last.


Byron iron­i­cal­ly choos­es a hero for his epic poem whose rep­u­ta­tion matched his own scan­dalous celebri­ty: Don Juan, the jaun­ty, titled, sex­u­al preda­tor of pan­tomime who, after a thou­sand amours and intrigues, was dragged down to hell by the Dev­il.

A fit­ting sub­ject, it seemed, for England’s most wicked, pop­u­lar, roman­tic exile.

The Eng­lish estab­lish­ment — Byron’s own class — guard­ed its con­tempt for him. As late as 1924, the Dean of West­min­ster, refus­ing a memo­r­i­al in the Abbey to one of England’s great­est roman­tic poets claimed that

Byron, part­ly by his own open­ly dis­solute life and part­ly by the influ­ence of licen­tious verse, earned a world­wide rep­u­ta­tion for immoral­i­ty among Eng­lish-speak­ing peo­ple. A man who out­raged the laws of our Divine Lord, and whose treat­ment of women vio­lat­ed the Chris­t­ian prin­ci­ples of puri­ty and hon­or, should not be com­mem­o­rat­ed in West­min­ster Abbey.” (Quot­ed in: Antho­ny Lewis, Lon­don Cor­re­spon­dent, New York Times, May 7, 1969 p. 19)

(It was not until 1969, one hun­dred and forty-five years after his death, that Byron was final­ly com­mem­o­rat­ed by a plaque in the Poets Cor­ner of West­min­ster Abbey.)


When the twen­ty-some­thing Gorge Gor­don, Lord Byron, fled to Italy in 1816 to escape the sen­sa­tion­al rumours (true!) of an inces­tu­ous liai­son with his beau­ti­ful half-sis­ter and of cru­el treat­ment of his bright, prig­gish young wife, he was London’s — even Europe’s — most admired poet of the Napoleon­ic years.

He estab­lished him­self in Venice where he soon became known for tor­rid affairs with mar­ried women, hero­ic swim­ming in the canals and gal­lop­ing his hors­es along the sand flats of the Lido. Here, short­ly after com­plet­ing the roman­tic fan­ta­sy that made his ear­ly lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion (Childe Harold), Byron set out on a much longer, wit­ti­er, more per­son­al poet­ic adven­ture, Don Juan, in which he iron­i­cal­ly exam­ined the pol­i­tics, reli­gion, sex, food, sport, edu­ca­tion, hopes and hor­rors of the bril­liant Regency age.

Still rag­ing from the dis­ap­point­ment of Napoleon — who crowned him­self Emper­or — and the repres­sion of reac­tionary Euro­pean regimes that defeat­ed him, Byron, Shel­ley and their cir­cle of rad­i­cal poets, authors and pam­phle­teers tossed lit­er­ary bombs from abroad at the self-sat­is­fied but fear­ful ( of pop­u­lar revolt) Eng­lish Regency estab­lish­ment and their “mouthy” sup­port­ers; espe­cial­ly the tame, con­ser­v­a­tive poets Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge.

Byron’s dis­tin­guished Lon­don pub­lish­er, John Mur­ray — cau­tious of his rep­u­ta­tion and of the pow­er­ful cen­sor­ship laws — was hor­ri­fied by the first Can­tos of Don Juan. The poem was (mild­ly) blas­phe­mous, rid­dled with sex­u­al allu­sions, made libel­lous attacks on the con­ser­v­a­tive British Prime Min­is­ter, Lord Castlereagh, and showed lit­tle rev­er­ence for the stan­dards of polite soci­ety. He refused to pub­lish the first two parts — they appeared anony­mous­ly — and broke with his most prof­itable author after the fifth instal­ment (only to buy all the rights to the poem at auc­tion after Byron’s death).

But how quick­ly pub­lic opin­ion swung to Byron’s side! Refused the pro­tec­tion of copy­right (because sus­pect­ed of sedi­tious libel) Don Juan was instant­ly pirat­ed in cheap ver­sions that were wide­ly dis­trib­uted. It quick­ly became anoth­er hit for the Wicked Lord.

Far from being a “wicked” poem Byron’s Don Juan is no more than sug­ges­tive. But it’s still aston­ish­ing­ly sexy, sar­cas­tic and uproar­i­ous­ly rude. The hero, Juan, is mod­est, charm­ing, brave and rather earnest. Even a bit dull. For­tu­nate­ly, how­ev­er, his hero­ines are any­thing but…