Byron found his most innovative and brilliant form in the discursive, comic, first-person “performance” of Don Juan. Here and there it roamed the outer limits of satire and of taste, as he knew; his verse turned the knife as it ripped into “cant”. He thought he could rely on his readers’ acceptance of his energetic vulgarities and skeptical jokes because they were true-to-life. When Murray, in March 1819, said that his ‘court’ of advisors “ [deplored] that a Man of your genius will not occupy some Six or Eight years in the composition of a Work & Subject worthy of you – “ Byron shot back:
– is Childe Harold nothing? you have so many “divine” poems, is it nothing to have written a Human one? without any of your worn out machinery.
If readers did not accept his poetry, he haughtily insisted he did not care:
– – As to the Estimation of the English which you talk of, <have> let them calculate what it is worth before they insult me with their insolent condescension. – – I have not written for their pleasure; – if they are pleased – it is that they chose to be so, – I have never flattered their opinions – nor their pride – nor will I. – Neither will I make “Ladies books” “al dilettar le femine e la plebe” – I have written from the fullness of my mind, from passion – from impulse – from many motives – but not for their “sweet voices.” – I know the precise worth of popular applause – for few Scribblers have had more of it – and if I chose to swerve into their paths – I could retain it or resume it – or increase it – but I neither love ye – nor fear ye – and though I buy with ye – and sell with ye – and talk with ye – I will neither eat with ye – drink with ye – nor pray with ye. – – – [Byron to Murray, 6 April 1819; the last sentence echoing Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice]
He did care, of course, deeply; Don Juan is filled with ruminations on fame, literary and otherwise. Exile was escape from the mark of sin: Fame would be his justification. Still, unluckily for Byron, his poem reached the public just at the moment when popular taste was about to become much less tolerant of precisely the sort of Regency “looseness” that Don Juan and Byron’s own reputation represented.
Murray’s pleas to Byron to drop the most “offensive” passages in Cantos I & II are often attributed to his squeamishness and to the parson-powered 1 ‘synod’ (Byron’s term) who advised him, particularly the Editor of the Quarterly Review and other Murray publications, William Gifford.
But Murray’s recommendations deserve more respect as evidence of the publishing environment and not just of his own disposition. After all, he had “skin in the game”. Byron was his most prominent “property”: his own reptuation and profit had been directly linked to Byron’s literary popularity and poetic renown for a decade. Whatever we think — looking back from two centuries later — of the timerousness of his suggested changes to Don Juan, we still should take seriously his claims about Byron’s likely reception in 1819.
A publisher’s relations with a brillant but brittle-tempered celebrity author (one of the first and greatest of this genre), self-exiled to the other end of a two-or-three-week correspondence delay were never likely to be easy. Byron’s correspondence is rapid, un-restrained — often thoughtless or, at best, careless about others’ interests — and impatient. Murry’s replies are late, incomplete and patient to the point of grovelling to His Lordship’s peculiarities. But he had his limits. Publishers must be ready, sometimes, to lead public taste; but not by too far if they want to stay in business. John Murray had the added challenge of launching this new, confronting work from Byron into a uniquely difficult environment.
Although Byron’s attacks on the policies and the personalities of the Liverpool government might have consorted with some radical, Whig and even popular opinion, the “morality” of the poem was more difficult to sell. Literary readers such as Croker and Crabbe were not much disturbed by the events such as the bedroom farce or cannibalism or sex-on-the-sand in the narrative of the first two Cantos of Don Juan. But Murray reasonably feared that his wider market would be less forgiving of Byron’s disdain for Church (if not for religion) and his jokes about sexual misbehavior and references to his own reputation, after 1815, for marital infidelity (and worse).
The upheaval in British politics and society over the years of 1819–1820 saw middle-class values and expectations confronted by the repressive behavior of a Government losing legitimacy and a lazy, profligate, adulterous King. Reaction to the first helped build a platform for reform of the parliamentary ‘constitution’ in the following decade. The second tended to consolidate support for, at first, “feminst” values of respect for marriage and the still subordinate rights of women. A new middle class ‘respectibilty’ installed itself sometime around the 1820s and settled, eventually, into the conservative, prudish, stuffy domesticity that we call ‘Victorian’ taste and that Matthew Arnold would describe, forty years later, as “philistinism”.
The discomfort Murray and his circle expressed with Don Juan from the outset — and his refusal to publish any more after 1822 — reveal more than just “prissy” individual values. Events in England had made it difficult to separate Byron’s satire, “blasphemies” and attacks on the government and the (former) King from a political platform neither he nor Murray endorsed. Moreover, the bourgeois literary market that Murray increasinly served had little tolerance for the kinds of personal license in maters of religion, family or (sexual) behavior that Byron, and members of his class, had indulged a decade earlier.