Don Juan Cantos Annotated

TL;DR An up-dat­ed draft of my “Anno­tat­ed Don Juan” is avail­able. It now pro­vides notes and illus­tra­tions for Can­tos I, III and IX. Get it here and read along with the nar­ra­tion.

At the end of the pre­vi­ous arti­cle I said “My sec­ond rea­son for lik­ing Don Juan is the mis­di­rec­tion and sub-texts…”.

Byron wants us to be com­plic­it in the com­e­dy of Don Juan. The fun comes from under­stand­ing what is real­ly going on. The poem is only super­fi­cial­ly about Juan and his slight­ly ridicu­lous adven­tures around pre-Napoleon­ic Europe. From the out­set — from the selec­tion of Juan as the nom­i­nal hero in the first stan­zas of Can­to I — and espe­cial­ly from Can­to IV onward, the poem is about Byron’s view of the world and of him­self; in so far as he can see himself.

The dif­fer­ence between the sto­ry and the point is the first, and most obvi­ous, lev­el of mis­di­rec­tion in Don Juan. There are deep­er lev­els, too, that con­cern the things Byron might wish to hide, or should hide but won’t or can’t because they affect the way he sees the world and him­self. Here, the mis­di­rec­tion con­cerns his rela­tion­ship with his half-sis­ter; his mis­be­hav­ior toward his wife; his bisex­u­al­i­ty; his fear that he will die with­out being the hero he imag­ined; his belief that he “burned his can­dle” too ear­ly and, per­haps; his sus­pi­cion that the “full account” for his ear­ly promis­cu­ity is still to be paid. He alludes to each of these things in the poem — some, sev­er­al times — but not always direct­ly. He nev­er lingers on them. The dis­cur­sive verse that leads him to intro­spec­tion can just as eas­i­ly whisk him away from it. It seems he has only to look up from his pen for a moment to find a divert­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty for irony or to spot an ene­my of pub­lic virtues — lib­er­ty above all — that needs skewering.

I have no doubt there are also sub-texts in the poem than no read­er now appre­ci­ates. Hints and allu­sions that, on the sur­face seem unre­mark­able but, to a suf­fi­cient­ly informed read­er such as Cam Hob­house, the friend of his late teens and twen­ties, would recall much more res­o­nant ideas and events: in Spain, Greece and Turkey at the start of the 1810s, in Lon­don in the mid-decade and in Gene­va or Venice at the end of that decade. If we are search­ing for rea­sons that Hob­house tried, unsuc­cess­ful­ly, to tone-down the first four Can­tos (in Mur­ray’s hands), or suc­cess­ful­ly to destroy the ear­ly sketch of a nov­el and then to burn the mem­oir bequeathed to Moore after Byron’s death, they prob­a­bly lie there. Hob­house may have argued his van­dal­ism was to pro­tect his friend’s rep­u­ta­tion. But it was very like­ly intend­ed to pro­tect his own as he climbed the greasy pole of polit­i­cal promi­nence. His cen­sor­ship ensured that the sub-texts we can no longer read in Don Juan would have no key to unlock them.

Still, the plea­sure of the poem is not the less for these unguessed mys­ter­ies. Don Juan still con­tains a remark­able depth of allu­sion in almost every stan­za. They give the poem a sub­stance of ideas that few extend­ed come­dies can match — Shake­speare (per­haps), Ben John­son, Pope — and sinews that bind it to its lit­er­ary fore­bears, while keep­ing up an extra­or­di­nary pace.

Then, Byron did not set out to write a poem of rid­dles. On the con­trary, he meant the poem to have a polit­i­cal impact. For that, it had to be acces­si­ble and pop­u­lar, as it was. The most fre­quent form of allu­sion in Don Juan is to clas­si­cal authors and mythol­o­gy. These ref­er­ences would have been more or less famil­iar to his con­tem­po­rary read­ers of every class who had at least some for­mal edu­ca­tion. Direct quotes from Latin or Greek authors (Horace, Homer) might not have been so famil­iar but in most cas­es — with one notable excep­tion in Can­to IX — Byron gloss­es the quote in the verse, mak­ing it less a mystery.

His quotes from Eng­lish authors — Shake­speare espe­cial­ly, but also the Bible in the KJV, some 17th cen­tu­ry drama­tists, pop­u­lar authors such Alexan­der Pope and Wal­ter Scott (and even to Wordsworth and Southey) — are not usu­al­ly acknowl­edged but the ref­er­ences are often to well-known pas­sages. Can­to IX alone con­tains per­haps a dozen quotes from Ham­let and Oth­el­lo that might be at least half-remem­bered by those who have seen or read the plays.

Then there are many half-bor­row­ings, unac­knowl­edged and usu­al­ly para­phrased or trans­formed, from his more obscure sources. Byron read very wide­ly and was reg­u­lar­ly sup­plied — often by his first pub­lish­er, John Mur­ray — with pack­ages of books from Eng­land. He must also have had an ency­clo­pe­dic mem­o­ry. In every Can­to there are authors in Latin, Ital­ian, French or Eng­lish whose ideas and images he bor­rows. Occa­sion­al­ly he men­tions them or their works: Horace, Vir­gil, Pope, Lui­gi Pul­ci. But as Peter Cochran — who dug up most of them — notes at some point in his schol­ar­ly notes, those that were most influ­en­tial on Byron he men­tions least or not at all, such as Thomas Hope’s eccen­tric com­ic nov­el Anas­ta­sius that Byron read while com­pos­ing the ear­ly Can­tos and that had a great influ­ence on the nar­ra­tive and some of the com­e­dy of Don Juan.

Aside from lit­er­ary ref­er­ences, the nar­ra­tive and digres­sions in Don Juan are pep­pered, too, with ref­er­ences to pub­lic events, promi­nent peo­ple, polit­i­cal and reli­gious ideas, his­to­ries, tech­nolo­gies and (to use a mod­ern phrase) memes of the late 18th and ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry in Europe. That was the peri­od when what we would call the “mod­ern world” began. Echoes of the social, polit­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal upheaval of those decades are still found in the con­sti­tu­tions of mod­ern States, in the forms and con­ven­tions of con­tem­po­rary art and lit­er­a­ture and in the tech­nolo­gies that still sur­round us.

Still, a lot of the con­text for the verse in Don Juan that would have been read­i­ly avail­able to a 19th read­er, or lis­ten­er, is not so read­i­ly avail­able to read­ers and lis­ten­ers in the 21st cen­tu­ry. For the read­er, today, there are new ways to com­pen­sate for that. Dis­persed around the pub­lic Inter­net is all the infor­ma­tion a read­er would ever need to grasp the con­text of even the obscure ref­er­ences in the poem. If the read­er has the time and patience.

For the lis­ten­er, the pace of the verse makes it hard to fol­low-up any of the ref­er­ences with­out los­ing track of the lis­ten­ing experience.

Hence these anno­ta­tions. In com­pil­ing them, I’ve tak­en advan­tage of three valu­able anno­ta­tors before me. First, and fore­most, Peter Cochran whose exten­sive notes on all of Don Juan and whose edi­tions of ancil­lary mate­r­i­al such as the Hob­house diaries — still avail­able for down­load from his web­site — are invalu­able for any stu­dent of Byron. Sec­ond, the notes in the Ste­fan edi­tion of Don Juan (also used by Peter Cochran). Third, the notes by Isaac Asi­mov in his beau­ti­ful edi­tion of Don Juan from the mid-1970s that bet­ter indi­cate than either Ste­fan or Cochran where a con­tem­po­rary read­er might need some back­ground (although Asi­mov offers no com­ments on some of the naugh­ti­er bits of the poem).

Some­what fol­low­ing the Asi­mov edi­tion, I’ve includ­ed some illus­tra­tions that I hope will make the anno­ta­tions seem less of an exer­cise in dry schol­ar­ship and per­haps help to show what it is often hard to say in a short note.

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