The Narration of Don Juan

In brief: I’m prepar­ing to pub­lish (“free”) an anno­tat­ed and nar­rat­ed edi­tion of Can­tos I & II of Byrons’ Don Juan on the bicen­te­nary of their first Lon­don pub­li­ca­tion this July. But “why nar­ra­tion”? Aren’t there already sev­er­al read­ings? Do we need another?

In the ear­li­er posts in this short series, I asked why Byron’s satir­i­cal epic Don Juan is not more pop­u­lar and bet­ter known. The ques­tion, how­ev­er, as Lenin might have asked, is: what can be done about it? I have sug­gest­ed two approaches.

The first is an attempt to de-mys­ti­fy the com­e­dy where the lan­guage or ideas or per­son­al­i­ties that are the tar­gets of Byron’s satire are no longer com­mon knowledge.

A great virtue of Don Juan is that the poem does just what Byron adver­tis­es: it talks about things that every­one knows (but doesn’t dis­cuss, or not as clev­er­ly). But not every­thing Byron talks about in Don Juan is still known by every­one (if you see what I mean). So some sort of anno­ta­tion of the text might help to over­come puz­zle­ment. Notes might even pro­vide some amuse­ment for Byron “geeks”: explain­ing the back-sto­ry of the jokes and not­ing some of the things Byron left unsaid.


A sec­ond way to make Don Juan more acces­si­ble is to pro­vide a nar­ra­tion. There’s an argu­ment (no space for it here, how­ev­er) that poet­ry exists only “out loud”. This is the view that what’s on the page is a sort of invi­ta­tion or instruc­tion for poet­ry, like the score of a piece of music.

In this view, the nar­ra­tion of Don Juan is not just a prop for busy peo­ple who can’t read otta­va rima verse on their phone’s screen. On the con­trary; it’s the essence of the expe­ri­ence Byron intend­ed. His poem, more than the poet­ry of his great con­tem­po­raries, is a rather-one-sided con­ver­sa­tion with his peers or (as I sug­gest­ed in an ear­li­er post) a sort of “stand-up com­e­dy” per­for­mance. It demands to be read out loud because the tone of Byron’s voice — or, rather, the wide range of tones in Byron’s voice — is where much of the satire and wis­dom and human­i­ty in Don Juan is to be found.

For­tu­nate­ly, there are sev­er­al nar­ra­tions of Don Juan avail­able from com­mer­cial and pub­lic-domain sources. First the com­mer­cial (some sam­ples at the end of this post): 

1. From 2006, Fred­er­ick Davidson’s read­ing of the whole poem for “Audi­ble” (owned by Ama­zon). This is a stilt­ed, awk­ward read­ing that I can­not imag­ine lis­ten­ing to for more than five min­utes. David­son, who reads the stan­za num­bers (huh?!), seems real­ly not to like the poem. He can’t bring him­self to enjoy the first and most obvi­ous joke: the angli­cised pro­nun­ci­a­tion of Juan’s name which Byron emphat­i­cal­ly rhymes with “new one”. David­son com­pro­mis­es with the Span­ish pro­nun­ci­a­tion (“Who-wan”). Then he flubs all the oth­er jokes, too.

2. Robert Bethune’s read­ing seems to have been dropped from the Audi­ble cat­a­log. If so, it’s a pity. He had a strong Cana­di­an (?) burr to his voice that I found attrac­tive. It is a more ani­mat­ed read­ing than Davidson’s and much eas­i­er lis­ten­ing, but still slight­ly flat and colour­less. I noticed some mis­takes in the pas­sages I have lis­tened to.

3. Jonathan Keeble’s 2016 record­ing on the Nax­os label seems to be the most recent com­mer­cial ver­sion. I like it more than either of the first two. He has a very pleas­ant voice: it seems to be a pro­fes­sion­al, well-made record­ing. I have lis­tened only to sam­ples so I can’t make any firm rec­om­men­da­tion. But the reviews on the Audi­ble site are mixed: many lis­ten­ers seem to agree that Kee­ble miss­es the exu­ber­ance of the humour and reads the poem as if it were the “Childe”.

4. Final­ly, among the “com­mer­cial” offer­ings there’s my read­ing of the Ded­i­ca­tion and Can­to I of Don Juan as part of an illus­trat­ed “read-along” ver­sion of Can­tos I and II for Apple iBooks (2012). This ver­sion is not in the pub­lic domain but is now free of charge on the iBook store (the read-along for­mat requires an ePub3 play­er with audio exten­sions such as Apple iBooks). As far as I know, this is the only pub­licly avail­able record­ing of the (scan­dalous-fun­ny) Ded­i­ca­tion that even Byron agreed to sup­press and that was first pub­lished in a posthu­mous edi­tion of the poem. I have also made a brief, exper­i­men­tal pro­mo­tion­al ‘slide-show’ about the Ded­i­ca­tion that you can view here.

As for the pub­lic domain: I’m not aware of any full-length nar­ra­tions. Most of the ‘free’ record­ings of com­plete Can­tos you’ll find lit­tered around the Inter­net are a re-pack­ag­ing — often unac­knowl­edged — of my pre-2011 record­ings for LibriVox:

 Can­to I

Can­to V,

Can­tos XIII-XVI

Last, there is, also, a rather sur­pris­ing read­ing of a selec­tion of stan­zas from Can­to I by Actor and Hol­ly­wood-heart-throb Tyrone Pow­er that is avail­able from YouTube. It’s nice­ly done and well-worth a look/listen: I only wish that Pow­er had record­ed the whole thing. He cer­tain­ly had the stage-pres­ence — on record as well as on film — to car­ry-off a “Byron”.


The record­ings I will release in July 2019 date to 2012 and 2013. Unlike my Lib­riVox record­ings, each was made in a pro­fes­sion­al stu­dio in Melbourne.

The record­ing of Can­to I is the one I used in the iBook (above) but with­out the musi­cal inter­ludes I insert­ed in the read-along iBook. It also omits the Ded­i­ca­tion that I am not re-releas­ing in July because Mur­ray did not include the Ded­i­ca­tion in the first edi­tion of Don Juan in July 1819.

My record­ing of Can­to II that will also be released in July has nev­er been released before. 

Here are some some audio sam­ples that will give you an impres­sion of the dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tors men­tioned above.  Please let me know (in the com­ments) which you pre­fer and why. Or let me know of oth­er nar­ra­tors that you think I should mention. 

Fred­er­ick David­son: (start of Can­to I):

Jonathan Kee­ble: (“The Kiss” from Can­to I):

Tyrone Pow­er: (dit­to): 

Peter Gal­lagher: (dit­to):

Byron fan (not fanatic); poetry lover (not tragic); doctor of melancholia (not gloom).

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