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. 

England in 1819–20

A sec­tion of the pref­ace to my Anno­tat­ed Can­tos I & II (with audio nar­ra­tion) planned for the bi-cen­te­nary of Don Juan in 2019.

The first two can­tos of Don Juan were pub­lished in July, 1819, at the start of an 18-month peri­od of polit­i­cal upheaval that led, even­tu­al­ly, to con­sti­tu­tion­al reform in Britain.

In some ways, these two years marked the end of the Regency soci­ety that once lionised Byron, but that he had fled three years ear­li­er. Now, pop­u­lar out­rage erupt­ed at the repres­sive and cor­rupt Liv­er­pool gov­ern­ment and at the adul­ter­ous, undig­ni­fied Prince Regent (soon to be George IV) who sought a hyp­o­crit­i­cal bill of “Pains and Penal­ties” from Par­lia­ment to deny his estranged wife Car­o­line a crown.

A satyri­cal print pub­lished by the rad­i­cal print­er (pornog­ra­ph­er and pirate of Don Juan), William Ben­bow, in Decem­ber 1820. It shows a gouty George IV, horned and with wings which are spread to pro­tect his sup­port­ers hold­ing a bot­tle labeled Peo­ples Tears, squat­ting with his mis­tress Lady Conyn­g­ham (“Care-away Cun­ning­ham”). In the back­ground on the left the cav­al­ry who charged at Peter­loo, at cen­tre-top Bri­tan­nia hides her face in shame, and on the right, beneath gath­er­ing storm-clouds “The Peo­ple”.

Labor unrest in the indus­tri­al Mid­lands and north of Eng­land, unem­ploy­ment among for­mer sol­diers, and deep­en­ing rur­al pover­ty raised alarm­ing prospects of revolt and even rev­o­lu­tion in Eng­land. The old “jacobin” Jere­my Ben­tham waged a pop­u­lar cam­paign against waste and cor­rup­tion in gov­ern­ment and for uni­ver­sal (male) suf­frage. The rad­i­cal pub­lish­er William Cob­bett — whose twopen­ny Polit­i­cal Reg­is­ter had a cir­cu­la­tion of 40,000 when he fled to the Unit­ed States in 1817 — returned in 1819 to begin his rur­al rides cam­paign in which he con­doned machine break­ing and hay-rick burn­ing. The gen­er­al out­cry in the British press and at many pop­u­lar meet­ings against the “Peter­loo Mas­sacre” had fright­ened the Cab­i­net into over-reac­tion, sup­press­ing pub­lic meet­ings and civ­il rights.

So ner­vous were the author­i­ties — and so sen­si­tive to crit­i­cism —  that in mid-Decem­ber 1819, even the “reac­tionary chau­vin­ist” Cam Hob­house was arrest­ed on the order of Par­lia­ment for pub­lish­ing a brochure that the Com­mons declared a breech of par­lia­men­tary priv­i­lege and spent ten weeks in New­gate prison. Still, his release from jail was a “get into Par­lia­ment” card since the sen­tence all but guar­an­teed his suc­cess at the next bal­lot for the seat of West­min­ster.

A satire (George Cruikshank) on the defeat of Hobhouse by Lamb at the Westminster Election. The Rump, or remnant of Reformers, is represented by the hind-quarters of a cart-horse, with its hoofs in the air, carried on a knacker's cart, the front of which is formed by a guillotine. The procession is headed by Mister John Ketch, Esqr., the hangman.A satire (George Cruik­shank) on the defeat of Hob­house by Lamb at the West­min­ster Elec­tion. The Rump, or rem­nant of Reform­ers, is rep­re­sent­ed by the hind-quar­ters of a cart-horse, with its hoofs in the air, car­ried on a knacker’s cart, the front of which is formed by a guil­lo­tine. The pro­ces­sion is head­ed by Mis­ter John Ketch, Esqr., the hang­man. [Click for a larg­er ver­sion]

Fears — or, for some, hopes — that gov­ern­ment insti­tu­tions were under attack were appar­ent­ly con­firmed when, in Feb­ru­ary, 1820, the Bow Street Run­ners arrest­ed thir­teen so-called “Cato Street Con­spir­a­tors” at a small sta­bles in cen­tral Lon­don. They were plot­ting to blow up the Liv­er­pool Cab­i­net at a din­ner meet­ing in Grosvenor Square, take over the Roy­al Exchange and emp­ty the cof­fers of the Bank of Eng­land into the hands of the poor.

But the ser­vices of the Liv­er­pool gov­ern­ment had, in fact, known of the plot for months. A gov­ern­ment spy had joined, and even became deputy-leader of, the group. Although the Court dis­al­lowed the spy’s tes­ti­mo­ny in their tri­al, the tes­ti­mo­ny of two of the con­spir­a­tors against the oth­ers sent five of them to a grue­some and well-attend­ed pub­lic exe­cu­tion for trea­son. Their posthu­mous behead­ing was round­ly booed. The seri­al­ly-adul­ter­ous Duke of Welling­ton men­tioned to one of his girl­friends an unlike­ly report that Hob­house — in jail when the plot was dis­cov­ered — had been offered the lead­er­ship of the coun­try by the con­spir­a­tors, should their plot have suc­ceed­ed, and had accept­ed.1

Then the affair of Queen Car­o­line riv­et­ted pub­lic atten­tion for four months from her retun to Eng­land in July 1820 — seek­ing coro­na­tion as Queen when the Prince Regent assumed his father’s crown — through the fail­ure, in Par­lia­ment in Novem­ber, of King George IV’s attempt to divorce her on the grounds of adul­tery. Despite plau­si­ble evi­dence of Caroline’s affair with her Ital­ian ‘Sec­re­tary’, many in both the mid­dle and work­ing class­es were shocked by the King’s hypocrisy and ‘ungentle­man­ly’ behav­iour to his wife.2 Let­ters, pam­phlets, car­toons, pub­lic demon­stra­tions mock­ing the King and par­tic­i­pants in the Par­lia­men­tary dra­ma demon­strat­ed over­whelm­ing dis­ap­proval of, and embar­rass­ment at, the King’s extrav­a­gant, self­ish and dis­solute behav­iour. Mid­dle-class women, too, formed large pub­lic asso­ci­a­tions that issued “Loy­al Address­es” sup­port­ing the Queen and received replies from her con­firm­ing her sense of injury to her role as a moth­er and wife.3

The British mid­dle class did not sus­tain its sup­port for the Queen after the Gov­ern­ment allowed the pros­e­cu­tion to lapse: her affairs, too, were an embar­rass­ment. By good for­tune or ‘genius’ the British assim­i­lat­ed the tur­moil with­out any fun­da­men­tal rifts in soci­ety and went about the nec­es­sary polit­i­cal reforms.4 Still, the attach­ment to “fam­i­ly val­ues” of domes­tic­i­ty and pro­pri­ety that lay behind the out­cry over the Car­o­line affair was sus­tained into the Vic­to­ri­an age that fol­lowed.

In the 1820s the expand­ing mid­dle-class of a rel­a­tive­ly wealthy Britain sent their chil­dren to gram­mar schools that were now broad­en­ing their cur­ricu­lum away from clas­sic lit­er­a­ture toward more mun­dane and com­mer­cial­ly use­ful stud­ies with the sup­port and pro­mo­tion of reform-mind­ed lumi­nar­ies such as J.S.Mill, Fran­cis Place and Jere­my Ben­tham. Thomas Arnold (Matthew’s father) began a pro­gram to lift the moral tone and edu­ca­tion­al stan­dards of the pub­lic schools, too, with the aim of pro­duc­ing “Chris­t­ian Gen­tle­man” such as the squeaky, earnest “Tom Brown”.

The new “pro­pri­etors” dis­ap­proved of the rau­cous, lib­er­al, even lib­er­tine man­ners and tastes of the late 18th cen­tu­ry and the ear­ly Regency, exem­pli­fied by some of the authors whom Byron cit­ed in his defence of his alleged ‘excess­es’. The decade of the 1820s saw the emer­gence of what we now think of as Vic­to­ri­an taste: overt pro­pri­ety in lan­guage and behav­iour; respect for com­merce; sen­ti­men­tal taste for uplift­ing or at least moral­ly-didac­tic art and lit­er­a­ture, and; pious adher­ence to estab­lished insti­tu­tions such as the Monar­chy and (except for the trou­ble­some Irish and the “new” dis­senters, espe­cial­ly Methodists) the Church.

The Comet and the Bomb

[This is a draft of the first parts of an intro­duc­tion to the Anno­tat­ed Can­tos I & II that I will pub­lish in the next few months — before the 200th anniver­sary of their first pub­li­ca­tion — accom­pa­nied by a read­ing of both Can­tos. Your com­ments and sug­ges­tions are wel­come]

Noth­ing so dif­fi­cult as a begin­ning”    Don Juan, III, 1

The Comet

On 1 July, 1819 a comet brighter than all but a hand­ful of stars — more vis­i­ble in the ear­ly decades of the Nine­teeth Cen­tu­ry, before elec­tric, or even wide­spread gas street illu­mi­na­tion — appeared in the skies of Europe and North Amer­i­ca.  John Keats, among oth­ers, report­ed see­ing it. The Morn­ing Post gushed  (14 July, 1819)

All the stars emit­ted their bright­est lus­tre, the Comet moved with supe­ri­or glo­ry among them all, ‘appar­ent queen’ with its tiara of light.”.

There was no place for super­sti­tion in a cen­tu­ry when — or in a coun­try where — sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy and art took some of their great­est leaps. Still, any fears that the Comet’s appear­ance might her­ald trou­ble in the state or momen­tous events would have been entire­ly jus­ti­fied. In the years 1819 and 1820, the Unit­ed King­dom nar­row­ly skirt­ed social dis­as­ter and bare­ly avoid­ed avoid­ed a con­sti­tu­tion­al one — cer­tain­ly rebel­lion, per­haps rev­o­lu­tion.  Iron­i­cal­ly, too, an “appar­ent queen”, more earthy than celes­tial, held a star­ring role in the dra­ma.

On the same page as its report of the Comet, the Post car­ried news of the unpop­u­lar Prince Regent’s speech at the close of the Par­lia­men­tary ses­sion. It was filled with Crown and Gov­ern­ment men­ace aimed at pop­u­lar unrest and the — most­ly bour­geois — demand for enfran­chise­ment, legal reform and tax relief.

His Roy­al High­ness has nat­u­ral­ly observed with great con­cern the efforts which have been late­ly made in some of the man­u­fac­tur­ing dis­tricts to take advan­tage of local dis­tress to cre­ate a spir­it of dis­af­fec­tion to the insti­tu­tions and Gov­ern­ment of the coun­try. Anx­ious to pro­mote the wel­fare and pros­per­i­ty of all class­es of his Majesty’s sub­jects… his Roy­al High­ness assures us of his wise, judi­cious , and man­ly deter­mi­na­tion, to employ for that pur­pose the pow­er entrust­ed to him by law. He relies at the same time on the patri­o­tism of Mem­bers, and has no doubt that one their return to their respec­tive coun­ties they will zeal­ous­ly coöper­ate with the Mag­is­tra­cy in defeat­ing “the machi­na­tions of those whose projects, if suc­cess­ful, would only aggra­vate the evils they pro­fess to rem­e­dy, and who, under the pre­tence of Reform, have real­ly no oth­er object but the sub­ver­sion of our hap­py Con­sti­tu­tion.” (The Morn­ing Post, 12 July, 1819)

Unrest was broad and, in some places, ran deep. The King­dom had seen explo­sive pop­u­la­tion growth, faster than any­where in Europe: num­bers dou­bled to 17 mil­lion in the first fifty years of the cen­tu­ry with a peak growth rate in the decade to 1821 of 16 per­cent. It must have strained every pri­vate resource. Two fifths of the pop­u­la­tion was under fif­teen years of age: most­ly depen­dent and in need of edu­ca­tion, nutri­tion, cloth­ing, hous­ing and care.  Poor har­vests and dis­tri­b­u­tion dis­rupt­ed by the long war led to seri­ous food short­ages in some places; mad­we worse by pol­i­cy error and bad luck. There had been a fall in sea­son­al tem­per­a­tures made worse by vol­canic explo­sions on the oth­er side of the globe: 1816 was known as the “year with­out a sum­mer” across Europe. Cor­rupt poli­cies such as the Corn Laws that pro­hib­it­ed imports of price-com­pet­i­tive grain made the food sup­ply worse.

Twen­ty years of war had wreaked a drea­ful toll on UK fam­i­lies: the esti­mat­ed death toll of 210,000 sol­diers and sailors was com­pa­ra­ble to the loss­es of The Great War in 1914–18. Then, the rapid demo­bil­i­sa­tion of the armed-forces — the largest in the UK’s his­to­ry up to that point — con­tributed to wide­spread unem­ploy­ment, fam­i­ly dis­rup­tion and out­breaks of epi­dem­ic dis­ease. The wars also left Eng­land with unprece­dent­ed tax lev­els (23 per cent of GDP) and a huge nation­al debt.  The Tory gov­ern­ment was com­pelled by Par­lia­ment to abol­ish Pitt’s income tax that had sup­port­ed the fight­ing and Castlereagh’s gen­er­ous cash hand­outs to reac­tionary Euro­pean allies. But that only pushed direct tax­es high­er, hit­ting hard­est those on the low­est incomes.

Gillarays cartoon of an inebriated George, Prince Regent

The Prince Regent” (George Cruick­shank) — drunk­en and dis­solute

The “spir­it of dis­af­fec­tion” to which the Prince euphemisti­cal­ly referred had been evi­dent in the riots of the so-called “Lud­dites” — mill work­ers whose griev­ances relat­ed to poor wages and poor man­age­ment rather than to new tech­nol­o­gy — six of whom had been hanged in June 1816 (Byron’s only note­able speech in Par­lia­ment was a rather pur­ple defense of the ‘machine break­ers’). The repres­sion halt­ed the Lud­dites but foment­ed a wider move­ment that the rad­i­cal William Cob­bett would exploit in his ‘rur­al rides’.

Then in Novem­ber and Decem­ber of 1816 there were two pub­lic meet­ings at Spa Fields in Lon­don to work-up a peti­tion to the Prince Regent for uni­ver­sal male suf­frage and secret bal­lots. Some of the speak­ers at the sec­ond meet­ing led the crowd on a march to the Roy­al Exchange where lead­ers were arrest­ed and charged with Trea­son. They were acquit­ted when the gov­ern­ments’ informer among the lead­ers of the march turned out to be a gov­ern­ment agent. Still, Par­lia­ment react­ed by sus­pend­ing Habeas Cor­pus — a legal free­dom pro­tect­ing against arbi­trary arrest — and ban­ning meet­ings of more than 50 peo­ple for a year. 

Still the indus­tri­al poor would not shut-up. In 1817, a “March of the Blan­ke­teers” from Man­ches­ter to Lon­don saw scores of legal­ly-small groups set out bear­ing a blan­ket on their back to demand the Prince Regent grant them relief from pover­ty wages. In June that same year there was a ‘ris­ing’ of tex­tile work­ers in Pen­trich, near Not­ing­ham where. Once again, a gov­ern­ment agent was iden­ti­fied as a provo­ca­teur. The indus­tri­al and piece-work­ers of Ire­land, known by their mark as ‘Rib­boneers’ were also orga­niz­ing march­es and protests. In this com­bustible cli­mate, the Prince’s obtuse threats against con­sti­tu­tion­al reform were incen­di­ary.

Just weeks after his speech, the Prince’s threats were giv­en mur­der­ous effect at St Peter’s Fields, Man­ches­ter. On August 16, 1819, the Mag­is­trates whom the Regent had ordered to his front line, fool­ish­ly sent an ama­teur cav­al­ry of yeomen, used for home defense and pub­lic order, to arrest a pop­u­lar speak­er at a Reform meet­ing. In their charge, the yomen killed eleven and caused gen­er­al pan­ic. The “Peter­loo Mas­sacre” — a mock­ing ref­er­ence to the bloody defeat of Napoleon — turned protest into near revolt in the North and vig­or­ous protest in the South from the reform-mind­ed mid­dle class as well as the work­ing class. 

Lord Liverpool’s Tory gov­ern­ment, assailed by both the rad­i­cal and main-stream press for the bungling repres­sion of the Man­ches­ter mag­is­trates, react­ed with alarm to the alleged ‘riots’ of con­sti­tu­tion­al reform­ers and dis­af­fect­ed work­ers. Castlereagh, on behalf of the gov­ern­ment, secured the pas­sage of the qua­si-tyran­ni­cal “Six Acts” whose pre­am­ble declared that “every meet­ing for rad­i­cal reform is an overt act of trea­son­able con­spir­a­cy against the King and his gov­ern­ment”. Among oth­er out­rages to lib­er­ty, the laws banned “sedi­tious” pub­lic meet­ings, “blas­phe­mous and sedi­tious libels” and increased the tax­es on print­ed mate­ri­als, so that any print­ed pam­phet priced at less than 6 pence would be taxed an addi­tion­al 4 pence.

The Bomb

It might seem this was not the best time for the most pres­ti­gious of Tory pub­lish­ers, John Mur­ray, to release a poem with almost as much vis­i­bil­i­ty as the Comet that, in the view of con­tem­po­rary read­ers, mocked the moral pre­ten­sions of the Regency Estab­lish­ment — both Gov­ern­ment and Church. 

Yet that was what Mur­ray chose to do — tak­ing a bare­ly-cal­cu­la­ble risk — by pub­lish­ing Can­tos I & II of Byron’s Don Juan in mid-July, 1819. He por­trayed it, accu­rate­ly, as the pub­lish­ing equiv­a­lent of cross­ing the Rubi­con or, maybe, lob­bing an artillery shell into West­min­ster. On the day after it appeared on book­sellers’ shelves he wrote to his exiled author:

La Sort est jet­té – Don Juan was pub­lished yes­ter­day, and hav­ing fired the Bomb – here I am out of the way of its explo­sion – its pub­li­ca­tion has excit­ed a very great degree of inter­est – pub­lic <opin­ion ha> expec­ta­tion hav­ing risen up like the sur­round­ing boats on the Thames when a first rate is struck from its Stocks” (Mur­ray to Byron, July 16, 1819. ‘La Sort est jet­té’ [cor­rect­ly, ‘le sort en est jet­té’] means ‘the die is cast’, as in a gam­bling game. Accord­ing to one of Caesar’s com­pan­ions this is rough­ly what he said, quot­ing the Greek play­wright Menan­der, when he crossed the Rubi­con riv­er into Italy in 49 BCE. In both cas­es it refers to an action whose out­come is ‘up-in-the-air’. By a ‘first rate.. struck from its stocks’ Mur­ray mean the launch of a cap­i­tal ship).

Well of course pub­lic expec­ta­tion had risen up… Mur­ray had delib­er­ate­ly stirred it. His cau­tion relat­ed to the impact of some parts of the poem on his author’s rep­u­ta­tion (Murray’s cap­i­tal, too). But anony­mous pub­li­ca­tion was hid­ing Byron and his pub­lish­ing busi­ness “in the open”. Byron’s author­ship would be an open secret: he had told Byron in March that there were “the great­est expec­ta­tions” about Don Juan. Indeed, Mur­ray had been prompt­ing these expec­ta­tion for at least two weeks before the book’s appear­ance with a series of promi­ment and mys­te­ri­ous adver­tise­ments in news­pa­pers such as the Morn­ing Post and The Lon­don Times. Rather like the teas­ing press announce­ments we see today from tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies in advance of their “Keynote” pre­sen­ta­tions of new gad­gets, Murray’s pub­lic­i­ty said not much, but plen­ty. Byron’s friend from uni­ver­si­ty days, Cam Hob­house, described the cam­paign in a let­ter to Byron on the day Don Juan it appeared.

It was announced thus – Don Juan.. to mor­row. There’s a way for you!! To mor­row The Comet. to mor­row! Mr Mur­ray man­aged so well that Mazep­pa was tak­en for Don Juan and gread­i­ly bought up like “that abom­inable book the scan­dalous mag­a­zine”. But Don Juan tomor­row, unde­ceived those who thought they had got their pen­ny­worth to day –“ (Hob­house to Byron on the morn­ing of pub­li­ca­tion, 15 July, 1819)

Here, for exam­ple, is the top of the front page of The Morn­ing Post of Mon­day 12 July, 1819.

London Morning Post 12 July 1819

On Thurs­day, DON JUAN. — Sold by all Book­sellers”

Exploit­ing this clever cam­paign of 19th Cen­tu­ry viral adver­tis­ing, Mur­ray issued 1500 copies of Can­tos I and II “anony­mous­ly” on 15 July, 1819 in a large (Quar­to sized: about 12 inch­es by 10 inch­es), rel­a­tive­ly expen­sive vol­ume with­out the name of the pub­lish­er or the author. 

In the heat­ed polti­cial con­text of mid-1819, the anonymi­ty of the book was itself a draw:

This will make our wiseacres think that there is poi­son for King Queen & Dauphin in every page and will irri­tate pub­lic pruri­en­cy to a com­plete pri­apism” (Hob­house to Byron, 15 July, 1819)

Mur­ray was can­ny enough to see that the risk of scan­dal (or worse) could be turned to his own com­mer­cial advan­tage. The repres­sive Castlereagh laws on “blas­phe­mous and sedi­tious libel” were still months off. Before the Man­ches­ter ‘riots’, the legal frame­work was not yet pitched against pub­li­ca­tion. What­ev­er he felt about the impro­pri­ety of some stan­zas or lines — what­ev­er his ‘court’ of read­ers and Byron’s Lon­don friends said about the ‘unpub­lish­able’ and lam­en­ta­ble ‘infe­lic­i­ties’ — Mur­ray knew there was every chance Byron’s new work would sell.

Don Juan was, for the most part, just the sort of thing he had asked Byron to pro­duce a year ear­li­er:

May I hope that yr Lord­ship will favour me with some work to open my Cam­paign in Novem­ber with have you not anoth­er live­ly tale like Bep­po – or will you not give me some prose in three Vol­umes – all the adven­tures that you have under­gone, seen, heard of or imag­ined with your reflec­tions on life & Man­ners” (Mur­rray to Byron 7 July 1818) 

So Hob­house is prob­a­bly not wrong to sug­gest (above, let­ter of 15 July) — per­haps he knew — that Mur­ray engi­neered a com­mer­cial sleight of hand when he issued Byron’s Mazep­pa and an Ode on Venice two weeks ear­li­er on 1 July, tak­ing advan­tage of the antic­i­pa­tion for Don Juan.