Catching up… and an announcement

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.

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