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