Matthew Arnold on Byron

The young Matthew Arnold. A touch ‘byron­ian’?
Another section of the preface to my Annotated Cantos I & II (with audio narration) planned for the bi-centenary of Don Juan in 2019

The pop­u­lar­i­ty of Byron’s poet­ry even today owes much to an influ­en­tial 1881 edi­tion of select­ed poems edit­ed by Matthew Arnold, poet and Pro­fes­sor of Poet­ry at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty. 

Almost six decades after Byron’s death, Arnold res­cued his rep­u­ta­tion from the stuffy dis­ap­proval of mid-Vic­to­ri­an taste, prais­ing the pow­er­ful, sin­cere per­son­al­i­ty that his works reveal and plac­ing him at the fore­front of the roman­tic poets of the late 18th and ear­ly 19th cen­turies. Still, Arnold’s pref­ace to his edi­tion — which nev­er once men­tions Don  Juan — faults Byron for a lack of emo­tion­al insight and “seri­ous­ness”.

Arnold declared that Byron had not been prop­er­ly appre­ci­at­ed by the Vic­to­ri­an pub­lic: his “puis­sant per­son­al­i­ty… inevitably shat­tered [itself] to pieces against the huge, black, cloud-topped, inter­minable precipice of British Philis­tin­ism”.

Still, he thought Byron “was emi­nent only by his genius, only by his inborn force and fire; he had not the intel­lec­tu­al equip­ment of a supreme mod­ern poet”. His main fault, Arnold argued (quot­ing Goethe) is that Byron “is quite too much in the dark” about him­self, and “the moment he begins to reflect, he is a child”. He does not, Arnold says, have the moral intel­li­gence to “lead us from the past to the future”. In this, Byron is infe­ri­or to Wordsworth who 

… has an insight into per­ma­nent sources of joy and con­so­la­tion for mankind which Byron has not ; his poet­ry gives us more which we may rest upon than Byron’s, more — which we can rest upon now, and which men may rest upon always.

Arnold decid­ed that he would be improv­ing Byron’s fame to make only selec­tions from “the mass of poet­ry he poured forth”. He includ­ed 15 brief pas­sages from Don Juan to which he gave sug­ges­tive abstract titles.

He explained that this edi­to­r­i­al approach reflect­ed his treat­ment of Wordsworth in an ear­li­er vol­ume and because “he too gains, I think, by being so pre­sent­ed”. He dis­missed the con­trary argu­ment put by Swin­burne that Byron “can only be judged or appre­ci­at­ed in the mass the great­est of his works was his whole work tak­en togeth­er”. 

I ques­tion whether by read­ing every­thing which he gives us we are so like­ly to acquire an admir­ing sense even of his vari­ety and abun­dance, as by read­ing what he gives us at his hap­pi­er moments. 

But it does not fol­low — as Arnold implies —  that Byron should be read only in selec­tion. After all, if lit­er­a­ture were reduced to the “Cliff Notes” ver­sions there would be lit­tle point in hav­ing the “Notes” at all. Alfred Austin — a jour­nal­ist, crit­ic and unhap­py “Poet Lau­re­ate” who was a con­tem­po­rary of Arnold — mocked the idea:

Mr. Arnold has done Byron injus­tice by mak­ing selec­tions from his works, and assert­ing that selec­tions are bet­ter than the whole of the works from which they are select­ed. You might as well select from a moun­tain. (From “Wordsworth and Byron” in the Quar­ter­ly Review, Vol 154, 1882)

Still, Arnold’s choice pre­vailed: his approach, backed by a new “con­ve­nient” edi­tion arbi­trat­ed the future for Byron’s fame. Although the vol­ume of aca­d­e­m­ic Byro­ni­ana has swelled jour­nals and library stacks around the world, his great­est work has nev­er real­ly recov­ered the pop­u­lar­i­ty it had when it first appeared or the read­er­ship it deserves. Don Juan became ina­ces­si­bly long and most­ly unread.

The Comet and the Bomb

[This is a draft of the first parts of an intro­duc­tion to the Anno­tat­ed Can­tos I & II that I will pub­lish in the next few months — before the 200th anniver­sary of their first pub­li­ca­tion — accom­pa­nied by a read­ing of both Can­tos. Your com­ments and sug­ges­tions are wel­come]

Noth­ing so dif­fi­cult as a begin­ning”    Don Juan, III, 1

The Comet

On 1 July, 1819 a comet brighter than all but a hand­ful of stars — more vis­i­ble in the ear­ly decades of the Nine­teeth Cen­tu­ry, before elec­tric, or even wide­spread gas street illu­mi­na­tion — appeared in the skies of Europe and North Amer­i­ca.  John Keats, among oth­ers, report­ed see­ing it. The Morn­ing Post gushed  (14 July, 1819)

All the stars emit­ted their bright­est lus­tre, the Comet moved with supe­ri­or glo­ry among them all, ‘appar­ent queen’ with its tiara of light.”.

There was no place for super­sti­tion in a cen­tu­ry when — or in a coun­try where — sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy and art took some of their great­est leaps. Still, any fears that the Comet’s appear­ance might her­ald trou­ble in the state or momen­tous events would have been entire­ly jus­ti­fied. In the years 1819 and 1820, the Unit­ed King­dom nar­row­ly skirt­ed social dis­as­ter and bare­ly avoid­ed avoid­ed a con­sti­tu­tion­al one — cer­tain­ly rebel­lion, per­haps rev­o­lu­tion.  Iron­i­cal­ly, too, an “appar­ent queen”, more earthy than celes­tial, held a star­ring role in the dra­ma.

On the same page as its report of the Comet, the Post car­ried news of the unpop­u­lar Prince Regent’s speech at the close of the Par­lia­men­tary ses­sion. It was filled with Crown and Gov­ern­ment men­ace aimed at pop­u­lar unrest and the — most­ly bour­geois — demand for enfran­chise­ment, legal reform and tax relief.

His Roy­al High­ness has nat­u­ral­ly observed with great con­cern the efforts which have been late­ly made in some of the man­u­fac­tur­ing dis­tricts to take advan­tage of local dis­tress to cre­ate a spir­it of dis­af­fec­tion to the insti­tu­tions and Gov­ern­ment of the coun­try. Anx­ious to pro­mote the wel­fare and pros­per­i­ty of all class­es of his Majesty’s sub­jects… his Roy­al High­ness assures us of his wise, judi­cious , and man­ly deter­mi­na­tion, to employ for that pur­pose the pow­er entrust­ed to him by law. He relies at the same time on the patri­o­tism of Mem­bers, and has no doubt that one their return to their respec­tive coun­ties they will zeal­ous­ly coöper­ate with the Mag­is­tra­cy in defeat­ing “the machi­na­tions of those whose projects, if suc­cess­ful, would only aggra­vate the evils they pro­fess to rem­e­dy, and who, under the pre­tence of Reform, have real­ly no oth­er object but the sub­ver­sion of our hap­py Con­sti­tu­tion.” (The Morn­ing Post, 12 July, 1819)

Unrest was broad and, in some places, ran deep. The King­dom had seen explo­sive pop­u­la­tion growth, faster than any­where in Europe: num­bers dou­bled to 17 mil­lion in the first fifty years of the cen­tu­ry with a peak growth rate in the decade to 1821 of 16 per­cent. It must have strained every pri­vate resource. Two fifths of the pop­u­la­tion was under fif­teen years of age: most­ly depen­dent and in need of edu­ca­tion, nutri­tion, cloth­ing, hous­ing and care.  Poor har­vests and dis­tri­b­u­tion dis­rupt­ed by the long war led to seri­ous food short­ages in some places; mad­we worse by pol­i­cy error and bad luck. There had been a fall in sea­son­al tem­per­a­tures made worse by vol­canic explo­sions on the oth­er side of the globe: 1816 was known as the “year with­out a sum­mer” across Europe. Cor­rupt poli­cies such as the Corn Laws that pro­hib­it­ed imports of price-com­pet­i­tive grain made the food sup­ply worse.

Twen­ty years of war had wreaked a drea­ful toll on UK fam­i­lies: the esti­mat­ed death toll of 210,000 sol­diers and sailors was com­pa­ra­ble to the loss­es of The Great War in 1914–18. Then, the rapid demo­bil­i­sa­tion of the armed-forces — the largest in the UK’s his­to­ry up to that point — con­tributed to wide­spread unem­ploy­ment, fam­i­ly dis­rup­tion and out­breaks of epi­dem­ic dis­ease. The wars also left Eng­land with unprece­dent­ed tax lev­els (23 per cent of GDP) and a huge nation­al debt.  The Tory gov­ern­ment was com­pelled by Par­lia­ment to abol­ish Pitt’s income tax that had sup­port­ed the fight­ing and Castlereagh’s gen­er­ous cash hand­outs to reac­tionary Euro­pean allies. But that only pushed direct tax­es high­er, hit­ting hard­est those on the low­est incomes.

Gillarays cartoon of an inebriated George, Prince Regent

The Prince Regent” (George Cruick­shank) — drunk­en and dis­solute

The “spir­it of dis­af­fec­tion” to which the Prince euphemisti­cal­ly referred had been evi­dent in the riots of the so-called “Lud­dites” — mill work­ers whose griev­ances relat­ed to poor wages and poor man­age­ment rather than to new tech­nol­o­gy — six of whom had been hanged in June 1816 (Byron’s only note­able speech in Par­lia­ment was a rather pur­ple defense of the ‘machine break­ers’). The repres­sion halt­ed the Lud­dites but foment­ed a wider move­ment that the rad­i­cal William Cob­bett would exploit in his ‘rur­al rides’.

Then in Novem­ber and Decem­ber of 1816 there were two pub­lic meet­ings at Spa Fields in Lon­don to work-up a peti­tion to the Prince Regent for uni­ver­sal male suf­frage and secret bal­lots. Some of the speak­ers at the sec­ond meet­ing led the crowd on a march to the Roy­al Exchange where lead­ers were arrest­ed and charged with Trea­son. They were acquit­ted when the gov­ern­ments’ informer among the lead­ers of the march turned out to be a gov­ern­ment agent. Still, Par­lia­ment react­ed by sus­pend­ing Habeas Cor­pus — a legal free­dom pro­tect­ing against arbi­trary arrest — and ban­ning meet­ings of more than 50 peo­ple for a year. 

Still the indus­tri­al poor would not shut-up. In 1817, a “March of the Blan­ke­teers” from Man­ches­ter to Lon­don saw scores of legal­ly-small groups set out bear­ing a blan­ket on their back to demand the Prince Regent grant them relief from pover­ty wages. In June that same year there was a ‘ris­ing’ of tex­tile work­ers in Pen­trich, near Not­ing­ham where. Once again, a gov­ern­ment agent was iden­ti­fied as a provo­ca­teur. The indus­tri­al and piece-work­ers of Ire­land, known by their mark as ‘Rib­boneers’ were also orga­niz­ing march­es and protests. In this com­bustible cli­mate, the Prince’s obtuse threats against con­sti­tu­tion­al reform were incen­di­ary.

Just weeks after his speech, the Prince’s threats were giv­en mur­der­ous effect at St Peter’s Fields, Man­ches­ter. On August 16, 1819, the Mag­is­trates whom the Regent had ordered to his front line, fool­ish­ly sent an ama­teur cav­al­ry of yeomen, used for home defense and pub­lic order, to arrest a pop­u­lar speak­er at a Reform meet­ing. In their charge, the yomen killed eleven and caused gen­er­al pan­ic. The “Peter­loo Mas­sacre” — a mock­ing ref­er­ence to the bloody defeat of Napoleon — turned protest into near revolt in the North and vig­or­ous protest in the South from the reform-mind­ed mid­dle class as well as the work­ing class. 

Lord Liverpool’s Tory gov­ern­ment, assailed by both the rad­i­cal and main-stream press for the bungling repres­sion of the Man­ches­ter mag­is­trates, react­ed with alarm to the alleged ‘riots’ of con­sti­tu­tion­al reform­ers and dis­af­fect­ed work­ers. Castlereagh, on behalf of the gov­ern­ment, secured the pas­sage of the qua­si-tyran­ni­cal “Six Acts” whose pre­am­ble declared that “every meet­ing for rad­i­cal reform is an overt act of trea­son­able con­spir­a­cy against the King and his gov­ern­ment”. Among oth­er out­rages to lib­er­ty, the laws banned “sedi­tious” pub­lic meet­ings, “blas­phe­mous and sedi­tious libels” and increased the tax­es on print­ed mate­ri­als, so that any print­ed pam­phet priced at less than 6 pence would be taxed an addi­tion­al 4 pence.

The Bomb

It might seem this was not the best time for the most pres­ti­gious of Tory pub­lish­ers, John Mur­ray, to release a poem with almost as much vis­i­bil­i­ty as the Comet that, in the view of con­tem­po­rary read­ers, mocked the moral pre­ten­sions of the Regency Estab­lish­ment — both Gov­ern­ment and Church. 

Yet that was what Mur­ray chose to do — tak­ing a bare­ly-cal­cu­la­ble risk — by pub­lish­ing Can­tos I & II of Byron’s Don Juan in mid-July, 1819. He por­trayed it, accu­rate­ly, as the pub­lish­ing equiv­a­lent of cross­ing the Rubi­con or, maybe, lob­bing an artillery shell into West­min­ster. On the day after it appeared on book­sellers’ shelves he wrote to his exiled author:

La Sort est jet­té – Don Juan was pub­lished yes­ter­day, and hav­ing fired the Bomb – here I am out of the way of its explo­sion – its pub­li­ca­tion has excit­ed a very great degree of inter­est – pub­lic <opin­ion ha> expec­ta­tion hav­ing risen up like the sur­round­ing boats on the Thames when a first rate is struck from its Stocks” (Mur­ray to Byron, July 16, 1819. ‘La Sort est jet­té’ [cor­rect­ly, ‘le sort en est jet­té’] means ‘the die is cast’, as in a gam­bling game. Accord­ing to one of Caesar’s com­pan­ions this is rough­ly what he said, quot­ing the Greek play­wright Menan­der, when he crossed the Rubi­con riv­er into Italy in 49 BCE. In both cas­es it refers to an action whose out­come is ‘up-in-the-air’. By a ‘first rate.. struck from its stocks’ Mur­ray mean the launch of a cap­i­tal ship).

Well of course pub­lic expec­ta­tion had risen up… Mur­ray had delib­er­ate­ly stirred it. His cau­tion relat­ed to the impact of some parts of the poem on his author’s rep­u­ta­tion (Murray’s cap­i­tal, too). But anony­mous pub­li­ca­tion was hid­ing Byron and his pub­lish­ing busi­ness “in the open”. Byron’s author­ship would be an open secret: he had told Byron in March that there were “the great­est expec­ta­tions” about Don Juan. Indeed, Mur­ray had been prompt­ing these expec­ta­tion for at least two weeks before the book’s appear­ance with a series of promi­ment and mys­te­ri­ous adver­tise­ments in news­pa­pers such as the Morn­ing Post and The Lon­don Times. Rather like the teas­ing press announce­ments we see today from tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies in advance of their “Keynote” pre­sen­ta­tions of new gad­gets, Murray’s pub­lic­i­ty said not much, but plen­ty. Byron’s friend from uni­ver­si­ty days, Cam Hob­house, described the cam­paign in a let­ter to Byron on the day Don Juan it appeared.

It was announced thus – Don Juan.. to mor­row. There’s a way for you!! To mor­row The Comet. to mor­row! Mr Mur­ray man­aged so well that Mazep­pa was tak­en for Don Juan and gread­i­ly bought up like “that abom­inable book the scan­dalous mag­a­zine”. But Don Juan tomor­row, unde­ceived those who thought they had got their pen­ny­worth to day –“ (Hob­house to Byron on the morn­ing of pub­li­ca­tion, 15 July, 1819)

Here, for exam­ple, is the top of the front page of The Morn­ing Post of Mon­day 12 July, 1819.

London Morning Post 12 July 1819

On Thurs­day, DON JUAN. — Sold by all Book­sellers”

Exploit­ing this clever cam­paign of 19th Cen­tu­ry viral adver­tis­ing, Mur­ray issued 1500 copies of Can­tos I and II “anony­mous­ly” on 15 July, 1819 in a large (Quar­to sized: about 12 inch­es by 10 inch­es), rel­a­tive­ly expen­sive vol­ume with­out the name of the pub­lish­er or the author. 

In the heat­ed polti­cial con­text of mid-1819, the anonymi­ty of the book was itself a draw:

This will make our wiseacres think that there is poi­son for King Queen & Dauphin in every page and will irri­tate pub­lic pruri­en­cy to a com­plete pri­apism” (Hob­house to Byron, 15 July, 1819)

Mur­ray was can­ny enough to see that the risk of scan­dal (or worse) could be turned to his own com­mer­cial advan­tage. The repres­sive Castlereagh laws on “blas­phe­mous and sedi­tious libel” were still months off. Before the Man­ches­ter ‘riots’, the legal frame­work was not yet pitched against pub­li­ca­tion. What­ev­er he felt about the impro­pri­ety of some stan­zas or lines — what­ev­er his ‘court’ of read­ers and Byron’s Lon­don friends said about the ‘unpub­lish­able’ and lam­en­ta­ble ‘infe­lic­i­ties’ — Mur­ray knew there was every chance Byron’s new work would sell.

Don Juan was, for the most part, just the sort of thing he had asked Byron to pro­duce a year ear­li­er:

May I hope that yr Lord­ship will favour me with some work to open my Cam­paign in Novem­ber with have you not anoth­er live­ly tale like Bep­po – or will you not give me some prose in three Vol­umes – all the adven­tures that you have under­gone, seen, heard of or imag­ined with your reflec­tions on life & Man­ners” (Mur­rray to Byron 7 July 1818) 

So Hob­house is prob­a­bly not wrong to sug­gest (above, let­ter of 15 July) — per­haps he knew — that Mur­ray engi­neered a com­mer­cial sleight of hand when he issued Byron’s Mazep­pa and an Ode on Venice two weeks ear­li­er on 1 July, tak­ing advan­tage of the antic­i­pa­tion for Don Juan. 

An audio recording of Canto IX of Byron’s Don Juan


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]

  1. Vers­es 1–21

  • 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.

Don Juan annotated — a work in progress

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.