“I do not in any way affect to be squeamish – but the character of the Middling Class in the country – is certainly highly moral – and we should not offend them – as you curtail the number of your readers – and for the rest of the subject of Don Juan is an excellent one – and nothing can surpass the exquisite beauties scattered so lavishly through the first two Cantos.“
The estimable, but exquisitely squeamish, John Murray (his publisher) warning Byron of a likely harsh reaction from conservative taste, before he published the first two Cantos, anonymously, in 1819.
Newcomers to Byron’s poem are more likely to find it on the web than on a bookshelf. So their first surprise, often, is its length. Sixteen books (“Cantos”), 20,000 lines, 130 ‚000 words. It’s as long as a modern fantasy novel.
It can seem even longer because…well, a practiced reader finds it easy to scan whole pages of prose, paying as little or as much attention as needed. But it’s almost impossible to do that with poetry. The rhymes, the inversions, the shape of the verse slow us down and frequently demand at least an interior reader who speaks the words to us.
That’s as it should be, and the main reason why my forthcoming edition of Canto 1 of Don Juan will speak the words to the reader. The performance takes about an hour and forty-two minutes with another eight minutes (or so) for the Dedication that precedes the poem.
It’s great fun
But with Byron there’s a great reward in reading for sense rather than reading to finish. For one thing, he’s such fun. That’s usually the second surprise for newcomers. Byron’s attention wanders a good deal in Don Juan — that’s the spirit of the thing — but his writing is tight and his comic timing, like his metre, is impeccable. He’s serious, sometimes, but never solemn and has a punch-line in the final couplet of nearly every stanza.
It’s for grown-ups
This is not your old Aunt’s “poesie”. Byron has few qualms — pretended, maybe — about dissecting lust, infidelity, fantasy, blasphemy, the disappointments of faith and the betrayals of ‘tyranny’. There’s even some “dwarf tossing” in Canto Five! His themes are closer to those of his hero Horace, the free-wheeling, humane essayist of the early Roman empire, than the cerebral refinements of his contemporaries, the English Romantic poets. This may be the third surprise: Don Juan has the space, and Byron the inclination to discuss liberty, self-knowledge, the passions– sex, of course, but also power and wealth — happiness, the dialog of the sexes, growing old (or growing up, Byron scarcely did either) and the illusion of fame.
… And he does it in a conversational, half confessional, half ironic tone that is essentially modern.
A fourth surprise for many newcomers is that although the poem is nearly two centuries old, it is filled with modern ideas and attitudes. The tone is conversational and personal. Byron looks his readers in the eye, rather than address them from a pedestal. The language, here and there, carries an eighteenth century ring and his etiquette is not necessarily ours: “gay” means happy, even frothy; more gratingly, moneylenders are “jews”. He is skeptical of the claims of the Church (not religion), the servility of politics and overblown science. Although an aristocrat, and a bit of a snob, there’s nothing feudal or condescending about Byron. Personal liberty is probably his highest value and, like his near contemporary, Jane Austen, Byron makes women the strongest characters in his poem. His heroines have ideas, passions, ambition and a freedom of action that Austen’s women only dreamed of.
It’s highly quotable
What use is poetry, unless it’s memorable? Great poetry, like great painting or sculpture, changes our way of seeing things. Don Juan has done that — more than you realise until you read it. Here are a few snippets that you might recognize even if you have not read the Poem
Infidelity What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
Is much more common where the climate’s sultry.
Fiction ’Tis strange, but true, for truth is always strange,
Stranger than fiction. (Yes… Don Juan is the origin of that, now trite, idea)
Hate Now Hatred is by far the longest pleasure;
Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.
Life A little breath, love, wine, ambition, fame,
Fighting, devotion, dust – perhaps a name.
Men and women ‘Man’s love is of his life a thing apart,
’Tis woman’s whole existence.
It is astonishing to us, now, that the amusing, clever, mostly-light-hearted tales in Cantos I and II of Don Juan were condemned by the English establishment for blasphemy, depravity and inciting misbehaviour (among the lower classes). Byron protested, accurately, that his poem was innocent when measured by the standards of Classical Roman verse, or or Dante or even Milton.
But Byron knew well what he was up to — whom his satire would sting and whom it would please — and clearly delighted in it.
To appreciate the daring, as well as the fun, of Don Juan we must bear in mind the bitterly charged politics and near class-warfare that gripped England in the the year (1819) that the poem first appeared. The propertied classes — nobility, gentry, the army, church and parvenu industrialists — feared riot, revolt or even bloody revolution by workers and their radical allies of the constitutional Reform movement.
I could not tell the story of that year better than this excerpt from David Erdman’s 1944 talk “Byron and Revolt in England”
“In January the laborers of Manchester paraded with red flags surmounted by red caps of liberty. In February and March there were strikes (the word was new) of weavers and colliers, and a month-long hubbub in Westminster where a stormy bye- election was won by the pooling of Tory and Whig votes against a field of Radicals led by Byron’s associate Hobhouse; crowds in Covent Garden attacked the successful candidate shouting “Hobhouse for ever.”
In April the Quarterly [Review] came out with a tardy but copious denunciation of Shelley’s Revolt of Islam as a production of “that industrious knot of authors” whose work “loosened the hold of our protecting laws … and blasphemed our holy religion.”
In June the weavers were making wage demands again, and a wave of Reform meetings swept the counties, continuing in July to fill news- papers with accounts of banners, placards, and (at Rochdale, one of Lord Byron’s fiefs) female Reformers marching 5,000 strong. Reform was in their mouths, said Sidmouth, “but rebellion and revolution in their hearts.” That month the government arrested several “malicious, seditious, evil-minded persons,” including the editors of the [radical weekly newspaper] Black Dwarf and the Manchester Observer, as well as Major Cartwright, whose Radical Hampden Club Byron had joined in 1813.
[In July] John Murray, in spite of politics, published what another Tory called a diabolic burlesque poem “loosely written in every sense of the word called the Two First Cantos of Don Juan.” It appeared, because of politics, without the names of author or pub- lisher, but [radical publisher William] Hone soon “unmasked” “Don John (Murray),” and everybody knew it was Byron’s.
Bankruptcies and the distress of the laborers increased. In Keswick [Poet Laureate, Tory mouthpiece and Byron’s antagonist Robert] Southey heard the poor talk of “parceling out” estates. And then on the 16th of August 60,000 men and women “marched” to St. Peter’s Fields, near Manchester, where, said the government papers, they would have been incited to treason by the “democratical” Orator [Williamn] Hunt, but for the timely, if bloody, action of the magistrates, mostly clergymen, on whose orders Constables and Yeomanry dispersed the crowd with sabre and pistol, killing 11 and wounding 600.
Following [the] Peterloo [“Massacre”] the more extreme Radicals, [radical London publisher Richard] Cariile for instance in his new Republican, openly defied the government, urging huge protest meetings and calling upon the people to “arm against the coming evil,” boasting “we can beat off the combined Yeoman Cavalry of the whole country.”
In September the government was still finding signs of the coming “simultaneous insurrection,” especially in an ominous silence on the part of the Radicals. [Arthur Wellesley, Lord] Wellington sent “troops with cannon … into Cheshire, Lancashire, and Yorkshire.” The Duke of Hamilton reported that he had seen Radicals surveying his park. Lord Dudley, in a more inclusive view, saw “the whirlpool of democracy” swirling nearer. Alarm swept the Emergency session of Parliament that opened November 23rd, shortly following a panic among the moneyed men. The question was not whether Reformers were marching “in military array” but how many thousands? Bootle Wilbraham claimed to have seen pistols and pikes and the plans of the poor to divide the land “by force.”
In October hundreds of pulpits rejoiced over the defeat of “Satan and Carlile” when the latter was convicted of selling the “Theological Works” of [the author of the “Rights of Man”] Tom Paine.
[In November, William] Cobbett’s recent return from America -“to die for Reform,” wrote one Radical- had been followed by an ominous reconciliation of the Radical factions. Alarming enough to Tories and Conservative Whigs was the appearance, within Parliament itself, of two new Radical members: Douglas Kinnaird and John Cam Hobhouse, bosom friends of Byron [since their days as students in Cambridge], who was known to have joined their “Radical Rota Club” in absentia.™ … [In the debate on the trial of the Peterloo demonstrators] Hobhouse spoke so very much like an inciter to rebellion that the House, in mounting hysteria, voted him to a cell in Newgate jail.”
Byron includes once piece of “product placement” in Canto 1 of Don Juan; a mocking encomium to Rowland’s “Incomparable” Macassar oil whose superior qualities alone could match those of Donna Inez.
“In virtues nothing earthly could surpass her,
Save thine ‘incomparable oil’, Macassar.”
The joke worked so well because the Alexander Rowlands, father and son, were incessant puff-merchants for their own products — which included Essence of Tyre (for dyeing grey or red hair a dark auburn color) and Alsana Extract (for “eradicating disorders of the teeth”) — frequently the form of verse advertisements in the Gazettes. The following indicative extract is taken from Rowlands Jnr.‘s A Practical and Philosophical Treatise on the Human Hair, published in 1814
In antient times a flow of Hair,
Reclining on the shoulders bare,
Was view’d a mark of beauty’s pride,
A fact which n’er can be deny’d
Proof that “advertising works” may, in fact, be the lasting legacy of The Incomparable Macassar Oil, for it became a wildly fasionable treatment for baldness — or maybe wig-hair — among the trivial, newly-wealthy, fasionable (middle) classes of Regency England, as John Rowlindson’s cartoon suggests.
Curiously, Byron’s backhanded “compliment” to the product was not the end of the joke. The Rowlands returned the “compliment” in an advertisement among the back-papers of the Tenth (monthly) installment of Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers published on a freezing, snowbound last-day of December of 1836 (London roads were impassable, snow lay at a depth of 5–15 feet in places with drifts up to 20ft).
The full-page advertisement, reproduced below, purported to be “missing verses” from Don Juan, further detailing Inez’ use of Rowlands’ products for the hair and teeth in a hacker’s version of ottava rima but, naturally, without the satire that enlivened Byron’s reference to the products.
You can find a full account of the influence the advertisement may have had on an episode in the twelfth instalment of The Pickwick Papers here
Although a prodigy, sexually promiscuous, and pugnacious, Byron was a poetic genius who worked his gifts and himself hard. Before his early death, at age 36, he had conquered peaks of literature and renown that contemporaries who lived to twice his years viewed only on the horizon.
Byron’s character was formed by strong, conflicting currents; his turbulent childhood, his precocious wit, his sudden accession to wealth (or at least, its expectation), his startling good looks and his always-present-never-mentioned lameness.
After his drunken, gold-bricking, father had deserted them, George Gordon’s mother sometimes smothered her son with affection and generosity but, at other times, with rage and abuse. His scottish nurse, May Grey, terrorised her young charge with superstitious Calvanist tales of damnation and (according to Byron) beat him savagely before climbing into the bed to interfere with him sexually. The boy suffered physical assault too, for his lameness — not a “club foot” but a congenital dysplasia (withering) of the right calf and a foot that twisted inward — that a series of medical quacks tortured with useless “correcting” devices.
When eventually he was sent to a formal school (Harrow), he was treated kindly and even deferentially by the Masters. But Byron was a lazy student, reckless and disruptive. Although fiercely intelligent, and sporting — he was a great swimmer and despite his lameness played cricket for the school in the 1805 match against Eton — the school had to be dissuaded from sending him away in his final year for, among other misdeeds, composing a poem slandering the new headmaster.
It was only later, during his Cambridge years, that he showed he could settle into periods of steady, hard work, especially on poetry and drama that distracted him from feelings of guit and insecurity brought on by debt and sometimes mad indulgence.
Byron was sexually ‘ambidextrous’, taking both male and female lovers at university and later in a “gap year” spent in Greece (he was probably the victim, too, of a sexual assault by his noble tenant at Newstead Abbey, Lord Grey). Thanks, probably, to his Nurse’s abuse of the pre-teen Byron, was — as he acknowledged — sexually precocious. He was promiscuous, not predatory, but his attempts to manage his (unconscious?) need for both comfortable, unchallenging sexual intimacy and the thrill of illicit relations led to his social disgrace. Early in 1815 he married a woman he respected little and loved less chiefly to distract himself from a strong, mutual, intimate liaison with his pretty, adoring, older half-sister, Augusta Leigh. The marriage was a disaster, over shortly after the birth of his daughter, Ada, at the end of that same year.
For most of his life, Byron alternately over-indulged food and drink until he became fat and pudgy, then starved himself with bizarre diets or (after his first year at Cambridge) took up violent exercise with a pair of fashionable pugilists as personal trainers.
He hobbled when he walked or tried to run but he attempted to compensate his shame with feats of athletic bravado such as swimming the Hellespont, or along the Grand Canal at Venice. Or with feats of military adventure such as his final expedition to Greece where he funded a nationalist militia and died of disease (probably typhus) and barbarous medical treatment.
At Cambridge he became a religious sceptic. He was never openly agnostic but he valued science above religion where there was any conflict.
Troubled? Possibly. Neurotic? Of course; who would not be, saddled with his reputation, his belief in himself, his debts, his upbringing?
Dangerous? Chiefly to himself.
Was Gordon, Lord Byron, mad?
At one point, as their brief marriage came to an end, Byron’s wife Annabelle Millbanke (or her mother) sought the opinion of his doctor whether the tempestuous poet was insane.
In a tepid endorsement of his patient’s mental state, the doctor replied that he had not observed any “settled lunacy.”
Still… his dissolute father, who deserted him, “Mad Jack” Byron was allegedly unstable (he may have slit his won throat after a bout of heavy drinking in France). Then, there was his Grand-father, Admiral “Foul Weather, Jack” Byron, who had a reputation for stormy tempers as well as bad luck with storms at sea…
Annabelle was deeply unhappy in the marriage; as was Byron. She hated London and disliked Byron’s acquaintance with theatre people, pugilists, godless intellectual liberals and political skeptics. She was in love with her husband, however, and foolishly attempted to attach herself to him through a close friendship with his half-sister Augusta whose incestuous relations with Byron she refused to acknowledge, even when presented with the child of that liaison, Medora Leigh.
He was drinking too much and taking laudanum (an opiate syrup). He was loud, irresponsible and angrily unhappy — with himself as much as with Annabelle —. especially when his wife insisted on having his sister Augusta stay with them. He drunkenly teased and insulted Annabelle in front of his sister and forced her to take refuge, for a while, in Augusta’s simple-minded friendship and her own half-mystical religious determination somehow to ‘save’ them both. Finally as the birth of their first child approached and Byron became still more erratic, with fits of temper in which he smashed decanters or clocks or furniture. Annabelle came to depend on Augusta, despite Byron’s evident preference for his sister’s company over hers.
Still, his doctor was very likely right; there was an element of hysteria and play-acting in Byron’s behaviour around this time. Perhaps a juvenile piqué at his hopeless financial situation and his foolish marriage. He was beset by debts whose interest he was unable to pay (a bailiff moved into the elaborate Piccadilly townhouse — rented with Annabelle’s money — sleeping on the stair and selling up whatever he could move). Byron was unable to realize any value from his main asset, Newstead Abbey, and now surrounded in London society by rumours of immorality and cruelty, probably spread by his neurotic former lover — and now notorious “stalker” — Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of his friend William (later Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne).
He could have offered — his friends did offer — plausible explanations, if not excuses for his actions. He, too, was unhappy with marriage to a woman whom he did not respect; who probably loved some ideal image of him and disapproved of the rest. He had lost the freedom of his glittering London literary life, and gained in place of the parents who had been absent all through his youth, boring, censorious parents-in-law.
He and Annabelle could settle briefly into quiet habits while he was distracted by work. During these times she, at first, did everything to please him and was rewarded briefly by Byron’s sentimental affection. But it would never last.
Byron ironically chooses a hero for his epic poem whose reputation matched his own scandalous celebrity: Don Juan, the jaunty, titled, sexual predator of pantomime who, after a thousand amours and intrigues, was dragged down to hell by the Devil.
A fitting subject, it seemed, for England’s most wicked, popular, romantic exile.
The English establishment — Byron’s own class — guarded its contempt for him. As late as 1924, the Dean of Westminster, refusing a memorial in the Abbey to one of England’s greatest romantic poets claimed that
“Byron, partly by his own openly dissolute life and partly by the influence of licentious verse, earned a worldwide reputation for immorality among English-speaking people. A man who outraged the laws of our Divine Lord, and whose treatment of women violated the Christian principles of purity and honor, should not be commemorated in Westminster Abbey.” (Quoted in: Anthony Lewis, London Correspondent, New York Times, May 7, 1969 p. 19)
(It was not until 1969, one hundred and forty-five years after his death, that Byron was finally commemorated by a plaque in the Poets Corner of Westminster Abbey.)
When the twenty-something Gorge Gordon, Lord Byron, fled to Italy in 1816 to escape the sensational rumours (true!) of an incestuous liaison with his beautiful half-sister and of cruel treatment of his bright, priggish young wife, he was London’s — even Europe’s — most admired poet of the Napoleonic years.
He established himself in Venice where he soon became known for torrid affairs with married women, heroic swimming in the canals and galloping his horses along the sand flats of the Lido. Here, shortly after completing the romantic fantasy that made his early literary reputation (Childe Harold), Byron set out on a much longer, wittier, more personal poetic adventure, Don Juan, in which he ironically examined the politics, religion, sex, food, sport, education, hopes and horrors of the brilliant Regency age.
Still raging from the disappointment of Napoleon — who crowned himself Emperor — and the repression of reactionary European regimes that defeated him, Byron, Shelley and their circle of radical poets, authors and pamphleteers tossed literary bombs from abroad at the self-satisfied but fearful ( of popular revolt) English Regency establishment and their “mouthy” supporters; especially the tame, conservative poets Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge.
Byron’s distinguished London publisher, John Murray — cautious of his reputation and of the powerful censorship laws — was horrified by the first Cantos of Don Juan. The poem was (mildly) blasphemous, riddled with sexual allusions, made libellous attacks on the conservative British Prime Minister, Lord Castlereagh, and showed little reverence for the standards of polite society. He refused to publish the first two parts — they appeared anonymously — and broke with his most profitable author after the fifth instalment (only to buy all the rights to the poem at auction after Byron’s death).
But how quickly public opinion swung to Byron’s side! Refused the protection of copyright (because suspected of seditious libel) Don Juan was instantly pirated in cheap versions that were widely distributed. It quickly became another hit for the Wicked Lord.
Far from being a “wicked” poem Byron’s Don Juan is no more than suggestive. But it’s still astonishingly sexy, sarcastic and uproariously rude. The hero, Juan, is modest, charming, brave and rather earnest. Even a bit dull. Fortunately, however, his heroines are anything but…