Here’s a recording — about 2-years old — of Canto IX of Don Juan.
The recording (MP3) is in three parts. It’s best to read along with the text of the poem if you can because the verse is quite complex. Also please use headphones. You’ll find the quality much better.
[There is 5–10 seconds of silence at the head of each recording]
An attack on the Duke of Wellington for being a Tory and a leech; too vain to know the true impact his victories had on European freedom
An apostrophe (“Death laughs..”) to death —- the subject is never far from the surface of Don Juan
A meandering philosophical rumination on “being” that is short and witty enough to hold its place in the poem
An abrupt transition to…
2. Verses 21–42
A brief glimpse of Juan en-route to St Petersburg whose distant prospect leads to…
An aside on autocracy, demagoguery and the abuse of power that ends when Byron seems to remember himself and returns briefly to…
Juan on the snowy road with Leila. Shortly afterwards, in the midst of a rhetorical figure about Fame, Byron pretends to have lost the thread of his argument and bequeathes it to posterity… which results in…
A speculation about the future and how the Georgian era (and George IV) will appear when reduced to being the subject of a future archeology.
Then, once more, Byron pulls himself up and determines to restart the narrative. He cuts straightway to the court of the Empress Catherine where Juan is to present general Suvorov’s dispatches from the successful siege of Ismail.
3. Verses 43–85
Juan’s appearance at Court
Catherine’s court, courtiers, her appearance, bloodiness and promiscuity
Juan’s presentation to the Queen and her infatuation with him
A series of asides on lust and power and an apostrophe, to the vagina
Juan’s flattered but ‘gentlemanly’ acquiescence in an ‘assignment’ — in Catherine’s boudoir — likely to make him wealthy and powerful at Court
A closing scene in which Juan is taken in hand by a woman who “checks-out” the Queen’s prospective lovers.
I hope you enjoy the reading. Comments are welcome.
For some time I have been working, in desultory fashion, on an annotated version of Don Juan. You can download the current version from that link. Would you kindly take a look and tell me whether I’m on the right track?
I am hardly the first person to have attempted this. Perhaps the most famous — and most accomplished — is the eminent science-journalist and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov. He published a wonderful volume of an annotated Don Juan, illustrated by the fashionable NY illustrator Milton Glaser in 1972. I’m the delighted owner of a copy dedicated by Glaser to his own publisher.
Still, the greatest of the annotated texts of Don Juan, from a Byronist’s viewpoint, is that by the late, great Dr Peter Cochran. These are magnificent (not illustrated) texts of each Canto that Cochran carefully compiled from a variety of manuscript and published sources to re-create Byron’s own version of the poem — rather than the version “amended” by his contemporary and later editors at John Murray’s and elsewhere. Cochran’s text doesn’t shy away from Bryon’s eccentric punctuation or crudities (“mild-ities” today). It includes missing verses, and marginal annotations on the drafts and “fair copies” where relevant. Best of all, Cochran has added footnotes that draw on his own unparalleled Byron scholarship, his deep knowledge of Shakespeare and his broad research in the literature familiar to someone such as Byron who had absorbed an 18th century classical education.
I owe a great deal to Peter Cochran’s version of Don Juan. But this draft text is my own attempt to make something a little lighter than the Cochran version, a little less careful than Asimov (who tends to slide over the difficult or naughty) and still look good on the page.
The PDF document attached here contains only Cantos I — IV (without the Dedication — I half-excuse myself on the basis that I have already produced a free, illustrated, audio-book of the Dedication and Canto I). Cantos I &III are fully annotated. Canto IV has only a few notes at the start and Canto II… well, nothing really except the verse.
I’d be very grateful if you’d look this over and let me know your opinion of it — so far.
“…And Glory long has made the Sages smile;
‘Tis something, nothing, words, illusion, wind,
Depending more upon the Historian’s Style
Than on the name a person leaves behind,
Troy owes to Homer what Whist owes to Hoyle;”
Don Juan, Canto III, verse 90
I never met or corresponded with Peter Cochran, who died last week. But his writing was witty, well-informed and opinionated so that it was impossible after reading quite a lot of it not to imagine a personality and voice.
Dr Cochran’s scholarly work on the text of every Canto of Don Juan, his 20-year labor on the Hobhouse diaries from the Byron years and his precise editions of Byron’s correspondence with Hobhouse, Lady Melbourne, Douglas Kinnaird and John Murray and several of his critical essays have been enormously helpful to me in preparing to read and to annotate/illustrate Don Juan.
Peter Cochran produced an erudite, annotated text of the poem based directly on the manuscripts and the fair copy (supervised by Byron) rather than on the emendations or approximations of Byron’s early editors as so many later editors have done. The result, as he argues, is more fluid (much less orthodox in punctuation) and sometimes more ambiguous in meaning. But the Cochran text gives the impression of being all the more faithful to Byron’s own voice than the ‘corrected’ versions produced by John Murray or even later scholars such as E.G. Stefan and Jerome McGann. (I also consult the Steffan text).
Better, for all its scholarly value, Cochran’s edition of Don Juan is a lot of fun. PC’s annotations — like his essays — often extract or fill-out relevant details of Byron’s life, or reading (or pets) not found, or passed over, even in Leslie Marchand’s monumental 3-Volume biography or (selected) Journals and Letters. Best of all, PC appreciates Byron’s humour, temper and (many) foibles to an extent that many of his — chiefly American — editors apparently do not.** It would not be too much to say that Byron’s modern glory may owe something to Peter Cochran’s ‘Historian’s Style’.
He generously made all this work — and much more — available on his website in PDF format. His daughters, who seem to be his literary executors (and Twitters) say they will maintain his site; for which I am grateful. I expect to rely on it for some time to come as I work through this project to narrate and illustrate Don Juan.
Hail and farewell.
** I make one exception to this observation: the spectacular Isaac Asimov Annotated Don Juan, illustrated by Milton Glaser. IA is an annotator rather than an editor whose commentary on the poem sometimes seems to skirt the sensibilities of his 1970’s American audience. But Asimov, like Peter Cochran, got the comic genius and the singular scope of Byron’s great work.
Sam. Johnson famously observed that only a blockhead would write for no money. He might also have said that only a fool tries to self-publish; a sad fool if it’s poetry. So, foolishly, I’ve been looking for a better way to distribute my newer recordings of Don Juan so that they’ll be accessible for more people and, I hope, more visible.
I used to make my recordings available to Librivox.org. But I don’t like their insistence on branding the recordings to themselves and their indifference to marketing. I have no present intention of charging for these recordings but I no longer have any intention, either, of placing them in the public domain. The effect of doing so is to loose all control of the distribution and quality. Fortunately, so far, the re-publishers of whom I’m aware — YouTube and other streaming sites — have not bothered to change anything; only putting a ‘cover’ on the recording.
The sound and the sense
Besides, I am equally interested in both the sound and the text of the poem. The narration is only a performance of the poem; fleeting, a figment. Of course it’s supposed to sound as Byron may have wished it to sound. He must have had some sound in mind, or why bother with the demanding constraints of ottawa rima? He certainly chose words in part for their metre and sound and the narration must convey this music. But Byron chose among themes and expressions for reasons the narration can barely hint at, and never fully capture.
You need the text for that; and even commentary on the text. Does that ruin it for my listeners?
I hope the opposite might be true. Don Juan is great entertainment, but it is still more fun when you understand the jests, satirical barbs, personal confessions and evasions and that, today, are no longer evident on the surface that narration skims. For his contemporaries, the poem contained so many provocations that John Murray could bring himself to publish only the first five Cantos of the greatest comic epic in English and then anonymously. It is a great pity to miss out on them.
Byron brings to his greatest work a classical education and a sense of his social environment that is now antique, although combined with elements that were radical for his time. Too, he has a fascinating personal history — somewhat obscured by a rakish, romanticised reputation — and a fascination with his own psychology as an author that is entirely modern. Alas, only notes on the text can give every punch-line the weight it deserves or reveal where Byron pulls a punch to save himself some pain.
Publishing and distributing my own narrations and texts, however, needs an economic and easily accessible channel to readers and listeners. One upon a time I might have considered, for example, including a sound recording on CD with a printed book. (If you purchased any of those huge computer-related tomes popular in the 1990s you will remember the format; the plastic CD sleeve pasted in the back cover.) But the Internet has made that formula expensive and nearly obsolete. The assault of music-streaming means fewer people bother to own a CD player. Besides, only big publishers and big stores can now provide a book+CD distribution network. It would still be possible to combine print and audio with an on-line ‘companion site’ for the printed book. I may go in that direction one day. But, as of now, the market for my narration is too small to warrant it and my annotated texts are only an experiment. So digital distribution is likely to remain my choice if only for economic reasons.
Which digital format, then? I’ve tried only one, so far: ePub. Specifically, a form of ePub defined by the International Digital Publishing Forum as ePub 3.1 that provides for a standard ‘audio overlay’ format for the ePub text. When I published Canto I of Don Juan in September 2012 only Apple iBooks fully implemented this format but — as is inevitable with Apple — using some proprietary extensions. Unless you have a Mac or iPhone, iPad (or a later iPod) you will have trouble playing it.
Slowly, other companies are producing software capable of playing the ‘page-by-page’ overlay; more or less accurately.
On a Mac or PC the Adobe Digital Editions software (version 4.0) or, on the iPad, IPhone and Android platforms the Menestrello app will play the iBook ePub while doing different kinds of damage to the presentation.
Still better than both of these, at present, is the Readium plugin for the Google Chrome browser. If you download the free ePub of Canto 1 from the Apple iBook Store (use this iTunes link) and save it to your local disk, you should be able to import it into Readium with acceptable results.
PDF with embedded audio
What about other formats for text + audio?
Adobe has released a sort of ‘slide presentation’ format based on their Adobe Air (ShockWave-replacement) platform. I’ve made a short Adobe Voice presentation on the Dedication to Don Juan with some verse extracts. But Voice files are huge; Adobe evidently intends that they be brief (~1 min.) presentations streamed from Adobe’s own cloud. Not really an option for Don Juan.
There is, too, a (chiefly) Adobe means of embedding audio in a PDF file. Now it happens that PDF is probably my favoured format for distribution of an annotated text. As a page description language, PDF provides strong control over layout, ensuring that what I devise appears in just that form on every platform that displays PDF (there are dozens of these). Furthermore, PDF is a ‘first class citizen’ in the Apple OSX equipment that I use. There are many editing platforms that natively output PDF using the facilities provided by the Apple operating system.
I do not however prefer Apple software to produce PDF. Instead, I use LaTeX (actually the LuaLaTeX engine) to produce PDF. This gives me a more consistent output, typographically superior to any of the WYSIWYG editors on OS X that produce Apple-flavoured PDF. It also allows me to use a low-level library (LaTeX macro) for embedding audio files in the PDF in such a way that they will play automatically, requiring no user configuration or intervention.
As an experiment I have embedded an extract from my earliest recording of Canto I of Don Juan (the first 36 verses) into an annotated text that I created sometime in 2010-11. Here is a link to the audio-PDF file. I have not optimised the images or the audio in this file so it’s 19 MB in size (a 2–3 minute download if you’re on a consumer-level DSL link to the Internet).
Please let me know whether this is a successful experiment in your opinion. I’d be grateful if you’d give me some feedback — even if only thumbs-up or down — on this format.
Still, I know that some of my listeners are not at all interested in reading the poem, much less notes on the poem. For them, the audio relieves them of the need to read it to themselves. They might like simply to listen, possibly to enjoy their imagined scenes. Or perhaps they like to have the distraction of listening while they do other, less imaginative, things like washing the dishes or commuting to work.
I am still thinking about how best to serve them.