Publication of Cantos I & II

The oak of Eng­land, weighed down by George IV and his mis­tress­es swing­ing on its branch­es, being under­mined by dev­ils (and by the Liv­er­pool Min­istry), watched by an appalled John Bull. Sep­tem­ber 1820 Hand-coloured etch­ing

The path to the first pub­li­ca­tion of Can­tos I & II of Don Juan was unlike that of any of Byron’s ear­li­er verse. It is worth our atten­tion because it reminds us — who now see only its nov­el tone, bril­liant verse, sar­casm and fun — that this new poem had explo­sive poten­tial dur­ing a year of rapid dete­ri­o­ra­tion in the foetid pol­i­tics of late Regency Eng­land. The tra­vails of pub­li­ca­tion recall the dif­fi­cult per­son­al­i­ties and mixed inter­ests of Byron, his pub­lish­er and his Lon­don friends. They also explain much about the expec­ta­tions and ambi­tions Byron had for his great­est poem as he con­tin­ued work­ing on it over the next four years.  

When they first saw the man­u­script of Can­to I, Byron’s friends — John Cam Hob­house, Scrope Davies and John Hookham Frere — had, accord­ing to Hob­house, been struck with admi­ra­tion for “the Car­rav­ag­gio tal­ent dis­played through­out…”. It’s a good metaphor for the pol­ished, high-con­trast, man­nered but ener­getic and earthy voice of the first Can­to. Nor did they think, at first, that Mur­ray, whose busi­ness had thrived on Byron’s poet­ry and dra­ma, would object to the robust tone:

 “– You shall hear all in a day or two. Mur­ray, I believe, would pub­lish a Fan­ny Hill or an Age of Rea­son of your’s – The Hitch will not come thence – so be tran­quil –”  (Hob­house to Byron on 29 Dec. 1818 on receipt of Don Juan Can­to I man­u­script.)

Dou­glas Kin­naird, a friend and lat­er busi­ness man­ag­er, was also com­pli­men­ta­ry and attuned to the poltics of pub­lish­ing, although ready to ‘clip’:

… I have read your Poems Don Juan is exquis­ite – It must be cut for the Syphilis – When we have pound­ed Mur­ray I will not fail to write by the same Post – Your def­i­n­i­tion of May is a great truth … I think your Poem is just­ly bit­ter & exquis­ite­ly humor­ous – You will have the world on your side – The rev­o­lu­tion is com­ing – Rely on it –” (Kin­naird to Byron, 29 Decem­ber, 1818)

But with­in a month Hob­house and crew — Kin­naird less so — had changed their tune: they now advised strong­ly against pub­li­ca­tion. Hob­house was apre­hen­sive about the orig­i­nal mot­to of Can­to I (“Domes­ti­ca Fac­ta”) that he took to be a dec­la­ra­tion that the poem was, as they con­vinced them­selves, an attack on Annabel­la and per­haps her moth­er and advi­sors. They were all appalled, said Hob­house, by

the licen­tious­ness and in some cas­es down­right inde­cen­cy of many stan­zas and of the whole turn of the poem – from the flings at reli­gion – and from the slash­ing right and left at oth­er wor­thy writ­ers of the day”.

They were mys­ti­fied by the swing­ing attacks on Southey, and Lak­er Poets in the Ded­i­ca­tion which, they said, attrib­uted these minor poets an crit­i­cal impor­tance they did not (then) enjoy. 

What had hap­pened in ear­ly 1819 to hard­en them against pub­lish­ing the poem that sev­er­al includ­ing Mur­ray thought was Byron’s great­est “in some parts?” It may have been fears about the wors­en­ing polit­i­cal cli­mate at the end of 1818 to which the Prince Regent’s speech (above) referred. Kinnaird’s remark that “the rev­o­lu­tion is com­ing…” would have been seen by Byron’s oth­er friends as a chill­ing, if dis­tant, prospect. Per­haps it was also some­thing clos­er to home, at least for Hob­house.

In his Jan­u­ary 1819 let­ter, Hob­house couched his strong rec­om­men­da­tion for “total sup­pres­sion” in terms that sug­gest his great­est con­cern was not Byron’s rep­u­ta­tion as a poet but his own polti­cial car­reer:

I have now gone through the objec­tions which appear <to so> so mixed up with the whole work espe­cial­ly to those who are in the secret of the domes­ti­ca fac­ta that I know not any any ampu­ta­tion will save it: more par­tic­u­lar­ly as the objec­tion­able parts are in point of wit humour & poet­ry the very best beyond all doubt of the whole poem – This con­sid­er­a­tion, there­fore, makes me sum up with stren­u­ous­ly advis­ing a total sup­pres­sion of Don Juan – I shall take advan­tage of the kind per­mis­sion you give me to keep back the pub­li­ca­tion until after the elec­tion in Feb­ru­ary: and this delay will allow time for your answer and deci­sion” (Hob­house to Byron, 5 Jan­u­ary, 1819).

Byron was in no posi­tion, from Venice, to deny Hobhouse’s pre­sump­tion of his “kind per­mis­sion”. In any case, the pro­posed delay gave him the oppor­tu­ni­ty to add some more vers­es to Can­to I and to com­plete Can­to II of Don Juan. By May of 1819, how­ev­er, he was becom­ing fed up with the wheedling on from his Lon­don friends on the texts. He agreed to mak­ing cuts in the Ded­i­ca­tion but… 

You sha’n’t make Can­ti­cles of my Can­tos. The poem will please if it is live­ly – if it is stu­pid it will fail but I will have none of your damned cut­ting & slash­ing. – If you please you may pub­lish anony­mous­ly it will per­haps be bet­ter; – but I will bat­tle my way against them all – like a Por­cu­pine.” (Byron to Mur­ray, 6 April 1819 from Venice)

He was rest­less; feel­ing uncom­fort­able about his dis­solute life in grub­by Venice. He was wor­ried that ser­ven­tism to a young, bare­ly-mar­ried woman — Tere­sa Guic­ci­oli — was hope­less and a bit déclassé. Nev­er keen on cor­rect­ing proofs or mak­ing fair-copies — which he found bor­ing work — he declined to receive any fur­ther proofs of Don Juan after June and pressed Mur­ray to pub­lish. 

After receiv­ing the manuscript(s) of Can­to II, Mur­ray was able to see the poem at some­thing clos­er to its prop­er scale — more than 400 stan­zas — and was a lit­tle mol­li­fied that the naughty and revolt­ing bits were much less promi­nent than the pas­sages he found “exceed­ing­ly good”: 

I think you may mod­i­fy or sub­sti­tute oth­ers for, the lines on Romil­ly whose death should save him – – the verse in the Ship­wreck – LXXXI the Mas­ters Mates dis­ease – I pray you oblit­ter­ate as well the sup­pres­sion of Urine – these Ladies may not read — the Ship­wreck is a lit­tle too par­tic­u­lar & out of pro­por­tion to the rest of the pic­ture – but if you do any thing it must be with extreme cau­tion – for it is exceed­ing­ly good – & the pow­er with which you alter­nate­ly make our blood thrill & our Sides Shake is very great – noth­ing in all poet­ry is fin­er than your descrip­tion of the two females in Can­to II – it is nature speak­ing in the most exquis­ite poet­ry – but think of the effects of such seduc­tive poet­ry? (Mur­ray to Byron, 28 May, 1819)

Byron, despite doubts about the wis­dom of the jour­ney, was on the road to Raven­na, where Tere­sa lay ill, in his high-wheeled Napoleon­ic coach. From Bologna he sent Mur­ray a rude reply:

It will there­fore be idle in him [Hob­house] or you to wait for any fur­ther answers – or returns of proofs from Venice – as I have direct­ed that no Eng­lish let­ters be sent after me. – The pub­li­ca­tion can be pro­ceed­ed in with­out, and I am already sick of your remarks – to which I think not the least atten­tion ought to be paid. – – – (Byron to Mur­ray, 7 June 1819).

Mur­ray gave up. In con­cert with Hob­house, he dropped the Ded­i­ca­tion alto­geth­er — Byron had final­ly agreed to that — and two stan­zas of Can­to I that Byron had not agreed to drop. The first was stan­za 15 on the sui­cide of Sir Samuel Romi­ly — whose West­min­ster seat in Par­lia­ment Hob­house was then about to con­test; the sec­ond — now stan­za 131 — on syphilis. He also cen­sored with aster­isks two good jokes about the his­to­ry of “the pox” in stan­zas 129 and 130.

The removal of the “Romil­ly” verse sketched the bat­tle-lines already being drawn between the poet, his friends and his pub­lish­er. For Byron, the five lines he insert­ed on Romilly’s sui­cide was a sav­age thrill: the lawmaker’s sui­cide by cut­throat razor had been an act of Neme­sis, he claimed. In con­text, they fit with the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Inez, but it was noneth­less bloody-mind­ed. Byron knew from reli­able sources that Romil­ly had act­ed in igno­rance, not dis­hon­or­ably, in agree­ing at first to advise his wife, Annabel­la, on their sep­a­ra­tion. Some­one who had more insight into him­self and his anger than Byron might have dropped it with­out, as Byron’s friends said, dam­ag­ing the poem. Still, if Don Juan was to be issued anony­mous­ly, why should his editors/advisors be so par­tic­u­lar about these lines? The plau­si­ble rea­son Hob­house offered to Byron — in a let­ter writ­ten on the day of pub­li­ca­tion — was that it might hurt Romilly’s fam­i­ly: 

The man has left chil­dren whom I know you did not mean to annoy; and though we must both of us think that he has been bepuffed at a ter­ri­ble rate yet the death of both father and moth­er has left six poor crea­tures and three or four of them grown up with lit­tle sup­port except their father’s rep­u­ta­tion; and whether that rep­u­ta­tion be over­rat­ed or not, I am con­vinced that at this moment you would not wish to impair the lega­cy as far as they are con­cerned” (Hob­house to Byron on 15 July, 1819.)

But Hob­house was not being can­did — as Byron must have known. Drop­ping the stan­za attack­ing Romil­ly served his inter­ests as an elec­toral can­di­date as much as any oth­er. He had failed in his first, Feb­ru­ary 1819, bid to win Romilly’s Par­lia­men­tary seat of West­min­ster on behalf of ‘rad­i­cal’ reform. But he had come a cred­itable sec­ond in the bal­lot and planned to try again. It would look bad for him to be asso­ci­at­ed — as he would be — with Byron’s attack on the once-dis­tin­guished for­mer Mem­ber for that con­stituen­cy. Hob­house was a rad­i­cal who — like Byron who decid­ed­ly was not  — want­ed no over­turn­ing of the social order that pro­tect­ed Romilly’s name and saved him from a suicide’s unhal­lowed grave. 

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.

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