Byron’s big fat Greek frustration

Ok! That title is a cheap attempt at click-bait. Implausible, too. Byron hated “big fat” anything. He was obsessive about his weight… certainly neurotic, possibly anorexic from time to time.

But he was deeply frustrated by the Greeks, whom he loved from the time of his first youthful visit to the region in 1810-11. In Don Juan he rages at their unwillingness, or inability, to assert their national spirit in the face of a tired, half-attentive, but rapacious Turkish occupation.

Did the Greek’s even have a “national spirit”? Was there a Hellenic homeland? Or just a bunch of Ionian, Doric and Peloponnesian regions of “cis-Eurasia” that Western Europe romanticized as the territorial heritage of ‘classical Greece’? Was Byron’s assumption that any red-blooded Greek should be a pan-Hellenist just another example of his own hot-headed, lordly, liberalism getting ahead of the facts?

Honestly, I’m not sure. But that does not detract from my enjoyment of Byron’s eloquent radicalism in the Greek cause nor my sympathy with his frustration. He deserves sympathy on this account almost more than on any other. Not only (in the mid-1820s) did he put his “money where his mouth was” but he laid down his life — if not willingly, with determined resignation — in its cause.

In Canto III of Don Juan, Byron celebrates the fateful nuptial feast of Juan and his lover-savior Haidée the Pirate’s Daughter. The centerpiece of the feast is a lyric that has become one of the best-known and most anthologised of Byron’s verses; “The Isles of Greece…“. The song is not part of the ottava rima ‘rootstock’ of Don Juan, but a ‘sport’ of lyric verse that is both a poetic and narrative diversion. An unnamed Poet, a professional entertainer who is also the butt of several of Byron’s jokey allusions to his self-serving contemporaries, the ‘Laker’ poets, sings “The Isles of Greece” apparently because he believes his hosts will approve it. This ‘staging’ creates some distance between the sentiments in the verse and Byron; but, in truth, very little. The satire is too pointed, the verse too refined, to be any but Byron’s.

The verse is easy and the opening lines have the wistful character of “poesy”… Poetry editors for a hundred fifty hundred hundred years,* seeking some short, self-contained segment of Don Juan for their anthologies ignored the untypical character of the song and excerpted it for their collections.

But how many who know it’s opening lines would recall the sharpness of its later satire on the Greeks under Ottoman rule? Or it’s anger?

If, about now, you too are feeling some frustration at the character of Greece or even, perhaps, the rapaciousness of their neighbors… you might enjoy reviewing this surprising wedding address. Here is an extract from my recording of Canto III containing the “Isles of Greece”. If you like it, please let me know and I’ll push the whole Canto ‘out the door’.

Oh… and one last thing. The image at the head of this post is of the eccentric, brilliant aesthete Thomas Beechey Hope, the — initially anonymous — author of a much-praised comic satire on the “Greek” identity, Anastasius (available from the Internet Archive) published by John Murray published in 1819. Anastasius clearly inspired parts of Don Juan.

* Hmmm… the earliest evidence I can find is Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1900 Anthology “The Oxford Book Of English Verse 1250–1900”.

Don Juan, Canto One

Selections from the the illustrations,verse and audio of a new e-book version of Byrons’ comic masterpiece, Don Juan”: available in the Apple iBooks store from September 2012, for the iPad and iPhone.

You can download a sample of the book right now using the button on the right of the page.

The e-book contains the full text of Canto One of Don Juan, more than 20 high-resolution, full-page illustrations and almost two hours of professional audio narration. It uses “read along” technology to synchronise the text and the audio of the poem (unlike this web-extract).

Don Juan is an hilarious, risky, modern poem that uses the Don Juan myth to explore the tangled, intense life and forthright opinions of one of literature’s greatest but also most flawed characters: the author, Gordon, Lord Byron.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gallagher, 2012


1 & 2

Bob Southey! You’re a poet, poet laureate,
And representative of all the race.
Although ’tis true that you turned out a Tory at
Last, yours has lately been a common case.
And now my epic renegade, what are ye at
With all the lakers, in and out of place?
A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye
Like ‘four and twenty blackbirds in a pye,

‘Which pye being opened they began to sing’
(This old song and new simile holds good),
‘A dainty dish to set before the King’
Or Regent, who admires such kind of food.
And Coleridge too has lately taken wing,
But like a hawk encumbered with his hood,
Explaining metaphysics to the nation.
I wish he would explain his explanation.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gallagher, 2012

They lived respectably as man and wife


Don Jóse and the Donna Inez led
For some time an unhappy sort of life,
Wishing each other, not divorced, but dead.
They lived respectably as man and wife,
Their conduct was exceedingly well-bred
And gave no outward signs of inward strife,
Until at length the smothered fire broke out
And put the business past all kind of doubt.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gallagher, 2012

…thinking unutterable things


Young Juan wandered by the glassy brooks
Thinking unutterable things. He threw
Himself at length within the leafy nooks
Where the wild branch of the cork forest grew.
There poets find materials for their books,
And every now and then we read them through,
So that their plan and prosody are eligible,
Unless like Wordsworth they prove unintelligible.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gallagher, 2012

A real husband always is suspicious


A real husband always is suspicious,
But still no less suspects in the wrong place,
Jealous of someone who had no such wishes,
Or pandering blindly to his own disgrace
By harbouring some dear friend extremely vicious.
The last indeed’s infallibly the case,
And when the spouse and friend are gone off wholly,
He wonders at their vice, and not his folly.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gallagher, 2012

And Julia sate with Juan


And Julia sate with Juan, half embraced
And half retiring from the glowing arm,
Which trembled like the bosom where’twas placed.
Yet still she must have thought there was no harm,
Or else’twere easy to withdraw her waist.
But then the situation had its charm,
And then – God knows what next – I can’t go on;
I’m almost sorry that I e’er begun.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gallagher, 2012

…Who is the man you search for?


‘And now, Hidalgo, now that you have thrown
Doubt upon me, confusion over all,
Pray have the courtesy to make it known
Who is the man you search for? How d’ye call
Him? What’s his lineage? Let him but be shown.
I hope he’s young and handsome. Is he tall?
Tell me, and be assured that since you stain
My honour thus, it shall not be in vain.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gallagher, 2012

…so Juan knocked him down


None can say that this was not good advice;
The only mischief was it came too late.
Of all experience ‘tis the usual price,
A sort of income tax laid on by fate.
Juan had reached the room door in a trice
And might have done so by the garden gate,
But met Alfonso in his dressing gown,
Who threatened death – so Juan knocked him down.

Image and audio extract © Peter Gallagher, 2012