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.

Byron and Shelley as Vampires?

Implau­si­ble? For Regency rev­o­lu­tion­ary heroes, who knows? The image of the Vam­pire loom­ing over the inert body of his/her vic­tim in an inti­mate exchange of body flu­ids is a clas­sic kind of Roman­tic fan­ta­sy.

I’ve just fin­ished read­ing, Tim Pow­ers’ nov­el “The Stress of Her Regard,” (Ama­zon) first pub­lished in 1989, which clev­er­ly weaves many inci­dents of the years Byron and Shel­ley — and their cir­cle of girl­friends and hang­ers-on — spent togeth­er in Switzer­land and Italy into a nar­ra­tive that, if can’t con­vinces us of their Vam­pirism, at least con­vinces us to “sus­pend dis­be­lief”. What more can we ask of fic­tion?

In brief, Byron is por­trayed as the vic­tim of an ancient vam­pirism; as is Italy under the Aus­tri­an yoke. The pre-Adamite race of the Nepehlim have been res­ur­rect­ed cen­turies ear­li­er by a mys­ti­cal surgery on an Aus­tri­an Duke who, pre­served by his vam­prisim, com­mands the inva­sion of Italy and the occu­pa­tion of Venice. The ethe­re­al Per­cy Bysse Shel­ley, too, by an acci­dent of birth, is a half-breed of the Nephe­lim and, although he con­trols his nature, his mania — essen­tial to his poet­ry — seeped into his real­tion­ship with Mary (God­win) Shel­ley and has inspired, too, her writ­ing (Franken­stein).

Byron, it turns out, was infect­ed (“pol­lut­ed”) by Lord Grey (Hen­ry Edward Yelver­ton); a vam­pire who leased New­stead Abbey from him and who, accord­ing to Byron’s biog­ra­phers, “made advances” (Byron refused to dis­cuss the inci­dent) to his hand­some teenaged land­lord dur­ing a vis­it the lat­ter made to his ances­tral home in 1803.

Pow­ers’ clever imag­in­ing and rework­ing of the out­ré mys­ter­ies and cer­e­monies of the Nephe­lim and their ‘nef­fer’ human lovers; the rev­o­lu­tion­ary his­to­ry of Italy; the secret soci­ety of the Car­bonari (in which Byron real­ly did become involved, at least periph­er­al­ly); the drama­tis per­son­ae of Byron’s life, espe­cial­ly the ridicu­lous Dr Poli­dori but also his dra­mat­ic Venet­ian mis­tress Maria Cog­ni and his entourage of ser­vants, is mas­ter­ful. He bor­rows plau­si­bly from Shelley’s poet­ry in the epigraphs to each chap­ter to sub­stan­ti­ate the poet’s con­flict with between his human­i­ty and his ‘oth­er­ness’ (as a half-caste of the race of Nephe­lim) and even the doc­u­ment­ed deaths of Shelley’s and Byron’s chil­dren and the tragedy of Shelley’s drown­ing at the height of his poet­ic career become mile­stones in a smooth­ly per­vert­ed his­to­ry. Some­how, François Vil­lon, as the un-dead, estranged spouse of a Vam­pire “bride” — the Nephe­lim seem to be sex­u­al­ly ambidex­trous when not fly­ing rep­tiles — also makes it into the cast of Pow­ers’ book.

The plot? It revolves around two pure­ly imag­i­nary char­ac­ters; an eng­lish obste­tri­cian named Craw­ford and Aik­man (among oth­er names) who has the bad-luck acci­den­tal­ly to ‘betroth’ a vam­pire, and; his autis­tic, self-harm­ing sis­ter-in-law who spends the first part of the nov­el, and most of the sec­ond half, try­ing to kill him but who, final­ly, becomes his cham­pi­on and his wife. It’s com­pli­cat­ed but Pow­ers han­dles the implau­si­ble bits, most­ly, with aplomb.

I loved it. Close­ly researched and delight­ful­ly faith­ful to Byron’s his­to­ry and char­ac­ter. The only time I was jolt­ed out of the illu­sion was by this pas­sage:

Craw­fords eyes had adjust­ed to the dim­ness of the room enough for him to see that the sheets were scrib­bled with six-line stan­zas. It was prob­a­bly more of Don Juan, the appar­ent­ly end­less poem Byron had start­ed writ­ing in Venice in 1818”

Huh? Six lines! Don Juan is, of course, in otta­va rima! Eight lines to every stan­za! I was aston­ished that Pow­ers — whose research seems oth­er­wise impec­ca­ble — made this mis­take and that his edi­tors (if they still had such things in 1989) did not pick it up.