Visitors to this site who know some of Lord Byron’s early lyric and love poetry — perhaps encountered at school — are sometimes puzzled by his longest work, Don Juan. Even repelled.
They’re struck by the radical difference in the verse and the tone of the poem. It’s certainly not lyric. It’s sort-of-philosophical, but more jokey than serious, and sarcastic and salacious and slanderous. They wonder, perhaps, whether they should bother to find out what this rambling, snarky novel-in-verse is all about.
If you’ve come to listen to the recording of Canto IX, you may be puzzled, too, to find this young solider with a famous Spanish name and a reputation for being a rake transposed to Russia. Did the Empress Catherine really seduce him? Isn’t Don Juan supposed to be the pants-man in his own legend?
Good questions! But hard to answer in brief. It’s a bit like someone who watches an episode of Twin Peaks or Game of Thrones for the first time. If they ask you to explain what’s going on, your first thought might be: “this could take all night”! Let’s just say: if you like this episode of Don Juan it will really repay you to start with earlier stuff such as the free, illustrated, narrated Apple IBook of the Dedication and Canto I (from which the Map at the top of this post is taken).
If you don’t have an Apple device (Mac, iPhone or iPad) the iBook won’t play. But I’ll be releasing the combined audio of Cantos I and Canto II later this year (Sept-Dec 2018) on the 200th Anniversary of their composition. Please stay tuned for details.
Meanwhile, for new listeners to Canto IX, here is an “even-shorter-than-Cliff-Notes” summary of Don Juan and it’s context.
- Lord Byron (later Lord Noël-Byron, christened George Gordon) published this long poem (16 Cantos or ‘books’; never finished) in episodes, as it was being written, in the early 1820s. He was in his early 30s and still — five or six years after fleeing England for Italy — possibly the most popular, scandalous, admired and reviled literary figure of Britain. He had hurried out of London just ahead of the debt-collectors and to avoid censure for multiple rumoured (but then obscure) offences including incest with his half-sister, ‘sodomy’, a public scrap with the mad-infatuated Caroline Lamb (she had a knife), his wife’s “escape” with his infant daughter from his (verbal, mental) abuse etc etc.
- The real subject of Don Juan is Byron himself whom both Goethe, for example, and Matthew Arnold agreed was one of the most fascinating studies of 19th century European literature. The story is nominally the adventures the Spanish nobleman whose reputation as a bounder and a rake everyone knows “from the pantomime”. Byron’s version of the tale is, however, entirely original, as is the telling: full of diversions, interruptions, jokes, philosophical rumination, nearly-frank confessions and, above all, clever and frequently savage satires of contemporary autocrats in Europe, their repressive governments and the hypocrisy of their allies in the press, parliaments and in the church. He is also a merciless, and very funny, critic of contemporary poets such as Wordsworth and the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey.
- Byron’s Juan — he rhymes the name with “ruin” on purpose — is not the evil seducer of Mozart’s opera. Instead, the first (and sustained) joke of the poem is that readers looking for a model of Byron-as-rake find in Juan an upright, modest, dashing and earnest young hero who far from being a cynical lothario is, rather, the passive victim of his own manly virtues.
- The story starts as a bedroom-farce. Juan as a pretty, smooth, inexperienced, teenager, is discovered hidden in the boudoir — OK, in the bed — of the young wife of one of his prudish mother’s former suitors. Sent abroad by his mother to a “moral” education in Italy, he is the sole survivor of a terrible shipwreck followed by cannibalism among the crew. Cast on the beach of a remote Ionian island, he is rescued and ‘bethrothed’, after some steamy but-off-stage sex-on-the-beach, by the nubile, innocent daughter of a ferocious pirate. Dad returns from sea in disguise and discovers the young pair living it up at his expense. After a brief struggle he captures Juan and sells him into slavery in the Turkish galleys. His daughter dies of grief.
- The powerful Sultana of Istanbul spots the handsome lad when he is put on display in the slave market. She has her chief eunuch buy Juan and deliver him to her disguised as a female concubine, in the harem of the Ottoman Sultan. After some hair-raising, cross-dressing hilarity, the sensual, powerful Gulbayez and Juan are about to hit it off when the Sultan unexpectedly turns up. So Juan, still in disguise, has to spend the night hiding in the Sultan’s harem where the ladies fight over the opportunity to share a bed with this lovely new concubine.
- Juan escapes Istanbul in the company of an English mercenary and together they join the army of Russia, under the legendary general Alexander Suvorov, in the siege of Ismail, the european-frontier fortress of the Ottoman empire at the mouth of the Danube. Juan — somewhat by lucky accident — distinguishes himself in battle. Suvorov promotes him Lieutenant and sends him back to the Empress of Russia with a Dispatch announcing the bloody victory. As Canto IX explains, the satisfaction of slaughter at Ismail was not the only joy Catherine had in this news.
- In the following Cantos, Juan is sent by Catherine on a secret diplomatic mission to London where he navigates the “marriage market” of the London Season under the close watch of a myriad matchmakers but without coming to harm. The Season over, Juan joins the Country house-party of some noble friends for the hunting (‘abominable’) and the social-sexual intrigue. He witnesses the banqueting-tents of a corrupt English electoral campaign and — when we see him last — is solving the mystery of a haunted Abbey, where he encounters the generous bosom of a “ghostly” Duchess.