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