An appreciation of Peter Cochran (1944-2105)

“…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
(Cochran edition)

Peter Cochran is awarded his PhD from Glasgow

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.

The sound and the sense of Don Juan

Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier painted 1802 by François (Baron) Gérard
Jeanne-Françoise Julie Adélaïde Récamier painted 1802 by François (Baron) Gérard

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.

Audio-enabled ePub

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 note that you must view this file in the free Adobe Acrobat reader (or in Acrobat Pro) for the audio to play. (It relies, internally, on Adobe javascript extensions to the PDF file format.). Also, you may have to download a free Adobe Flash Player plug-in if you do not already have such a thing on your computer. This file will display on some iOS devices (iPad etc) but only one or two iOS apps that display PDF will allow access to the audio (PDF Expert from Readdle, for example) ; and then, only as an attachment, not embedded.

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.

Audio options

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.

Canto IV in the can

Leon Gerome's painting of the Capture of Blackbeard (not much like Juan's voyage with  the pirates)
Leon Gerome’s painting of the Capture of Blackbeard (not much like Juan’s voyage with the pirates)

Who knew? I had the time suddenly, and the opportunity. So into my ‘studio’, a few practice runs — helped by the recent (laborious) work on Canto III — and the violent, sad, quirky conclusion of the Juan-Haidée episode is done!

Canto IV was written at the same time as Canto III: they’re one story. It was split into two. Byron says (in Canto III) ‘for money’. But that’s a fib. He offered John Murray, his publisher, both Cantos for the price of one. Murray was, as ever, squeamish about both.

Number Four is the terrible tale of the inevitable end of the Juan-Haidee romance; his injury, capture and transport into Slavery at the hand of her father, the Pirate Lambro. Her desolation at the loss of Juan and her hopes; her death (and the death of another); the decline and disappearance, with Haidée, of all her father had built.

Juan, wounded and (alas!) incapacitated by his grief over the loss of Haidée, is chained to a beautiful female slave on board the slavers’ ship. His companions in the hold are a traveling Italian opera company whose impresario has sold them into slavery. He gets all the goss on the sexual jealousies, character faults and stage weaknesses of the troupe from the ‘buffo’ of the party. But they arrive, pretty quickly at the warves below the Seraglio of Constantinople and disembark for the slave mart, to learn their fates.

Now… on to Canto V (that link to Peter Gallaghers recording of Don Juan Canto V, once — a few years ago — for Librivox).

Heaven, Hell and Marriage

Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law Paulo Malatesta, with husband Giovanni, spying on them (Ingres).
Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law Paulo Malatesta, with husband Giovanni, spying on them (Ingres).

Over the past few days I’ve finished editing my recording of Canto III of Don Juan. That makes 8 of the sixteen complete Canto’s that I’ve recorded (Canto I, twice).

Cantos I and IV and XIII-XVI are available from Librivox.org. Canto I (a second recording) is also available on the iBook store (button to the left) as a free, illustrated, read-along audio book.

My recordings of Cantos II and III have not been released. I’m not sure yet how, or when, I’ll release them. Canto II is nothing if not a ‘rip-roaring tale’ of storms at sea, shipwreck, cannibalism and sex on the beach. It was published, anonymously, with Canto I and in spirit, at least, the two form a sort of unit. They both focus on Juan’s narrative — with Byronic excursions, of course.

Cantos III and IV, drafted first as one long book and then split and slightly reworked, are quite different from the first two. Canto III has almost no narrative action. It’s one long build-up to the fate of the lovers Juan and Haidée at the hands of her father, the pirate and slaver Lambro — with even longer Byronic excursions.

The ‘excursions’ include essays on fame and literature, satires on love and marriage, skewering attacks on the flaccid verse and fame of the “Laker” poets (Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge), reflections on religion, families and a sharply-worded call to Greeks to rise up against their Turkish overlords. This last — Byron’s first foray into the rebellion that would take his life just a few years later — is in the form of a ‘song’ composed for a feast offered by Juan and Haidée.

“The Isles of Greece” is half-familiar to many people who know nothing else of Byron’s epic (because it has been included in many anthologies). But I wonder how many who recognize the title recall its revolutionary content and its exasperation with Greek complacency.

A couple of weeks ago, I published here an annotated text of Canto III. For now, I’m releasing just a sample of the recording that goes with it. Here are verses 5-11 of the Canto: Byron on heaven, hell and marriage.

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.