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.

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.