Byron wrote Cantos I and II in Venice, amid the excesses of Carnivale in 1818 and 1819 — his excesses, at least — and just before he fell in love with the pretty, precocious, unhappily-married, 19-year-old, Teresa Guiccioli. They are unlike almost everything he had written before and, to the extent that they give more attention to narrative than any of the later Cantos, unlike the rest of Don Juan, too. 1
Our enjoyment of the first two Cantos, two centuries later, owes much to the fun, the cheek, the wonder and even a little to the titillation we find in them. This energy is due, I think, to Byron’s own evident pleasure in his writing: to his discovery of what I’m inclined to call an escape. He had adopted a style of expression in Don Juan that we can guess from the unique style of his letters must have felt natural to him. I have little evidence except for this other than hints in his letters and the exuberance of the verse. But I think he felt liberated by Don Juan.
The discovery of this style was thanks, in part, to reading John Frere’s “Whistlecraft”: an extended burlesque, published by Murray in 1818, whose use of ottava rima he easily surpassed in his experiment with Beppo. Byron already knew from his reading of Pulci and Tasso what could be done with this 8‑line verse in Italian. Now he found that the shifts and dodges and round-about language needed to write ottava rima in rhyme-poor English made it a perfect platform for comedy.2
This was what he needed: a new format that would allow him to break away from the Childe. The fourth Canto of his erstwhile triumph, published in 1818, had turned into the sort of travelogue that Hobhouse felt he could footnote. No doubt, Byron wanted something closer to his own voice. Not too serious, but not lightweight, either.
Perhaps he had known all along he could be a great comedic writer. We might say, with hindsight, it was his destiny. He had the necessary brilliance in verse; his letters to Murray from Venice in early 1818 contain hilarious snippets of song attacking the publisher’s stable of (other) authors, dashed-off on the spot. Then, Byron had an enthusiastic, sometimes savage, sometimes generous temperament; a well of awkward, even notorious, experience to draw from (or suppress), and; above all, the daring to be realistic — confronting — in his treatment of fame, war, priviledge, government, sex, marriage and religion.
His letters give the impression of an emotional pugilist: just the right character for a ‘stand-up’ comic, ready to crack jokes while dancing around, near the edge of his own stage. He was adept at pulling himself out of glum reflection or bad temper and recovering his balance. But he could be — often if only briefly — quite touchy, too. He was good at carrying a grudge and at hurling sharp, often insensitive, barbs that must have stuck.
The new poetic “escape” that Don Juan represented would be much more liberating for him than his flight from England. It was less exhausting and dangerous than his escapist sex-and-seawater plunge into the demi-monde of Venice. It was an escape from the icon of his London fame: the “Byronic Hero” on the model of Childe Harold (Manfred is a more refined example).
It was not, however, escapism. Byron dedicated himself to creative work that he not only enjoyed but could not put down. His huge productivity over the next five years saw him produce several other major works beside Don Juan. But, except The Vision of Judgement, none has attracted the same readership or critical acclaim. It was Don Juan that kept him before his public in Britain, Europe and North America; and still does.
We know from his letters urging his London friends to publish Don Juan uncensored that Byron had a fairly good idea of what he was now able to do and a firm conviction that it mattered. He understood what was new, energetic and risky in his poetic volte-face.
Was he too blasé about the risk? His letters show that he understood the risk to copyright and even the risk of a charge of seditious libel. But what about risk to his poetic reputation: his standing with his readers? In a famous passage in one of his letters, adopting the language of Shakespeare’s Shylock, Byron scorns the “Estimation of the English”.
I know the precise worth of popular applause—for few Scribblers have had more of it—and if I chose to swerve into their paths—I could retain it or resume it—or increase it—but I neither love ye—nor fear ye and though I buy with ye—and sell with ye—and talk with ye—I will neither eat with ye—drink with ye—nor pray with ye.Byron’s Letters and Journals (1819)
Witty, but — he must have known — a lie. He wanted to be loved and believed he would be.
Byron’s brand had likely been a tarnished by his last, scandalous, year in London. But he was still a huge commercial property for Murray. Even the last, Fourth, Canto of the Childe sold like the proverbial. As he joked, only cooking books sold better.
Swtiching tone so dramatically from the Childe to Don Juan was like, um… J.K. Rowling dropping the final Harry Potter books in favor of a bodice-ripper. (No… Worse!)
His publisher and his friends kept telling him as much. John Murray wanted nothing so much as another few thousand lines of Childe Harold. Then, perhaps, another fabulously popular (of course) extended work in a serious vein. Pictures of Italy, perhaps? Cam Hobhouse wanted Byron safely to consolidate his fame in a way that would reflect well on Hobouse’s rising star among Parliamentary Radicals (whatever that meant).
Byron was too canny not to realize the scale of his leap into Don Juan.3 If the risk seems justified to us, it’s because we look back, two centuries later from the perspective of a world that Byron enriched by his daring to talk about “what everybody knows” and to laugh (lest we cry, as he said). We know, now, that Byron’s comic and satyrical poetry is his best and some of the best in language. Still, we should appreciate his courage or his determination.
In the year or so he pressed and then demanded to have his new poem published without the swinging cuts that his publisher and his friends urged, Byron must have felt isolated. Even as a highly-visible foreign noteable in the spinning, glittering, trashy-aristo world of Venice he still looked to the British public for the admiration he wanted. He evidently felt a little betrayed by his former associates; held at-arms-length lest he start to be (any more) toxic in the public eye. His new girlfriend Teresa, too, was uncomfortable with the verses she saw in draft.
Only Byron himself — and, it turned out later, hundreds of thousands and then millions of his fans — really wanted him to take the risk and write hilarious, merciless, “galloping”, and humane verse that spit in the eye of the self-serving Liverpool government’s high-handed, panicky authoritarianism and their betrayal of the spirit of liberation in Europe.
- The Third and Fourth Cantos were, written almost a year later just before Byron quit Venice for good, also have a particular character (he wrote them as one Canto). They have wonderful passages but have less action and a different tone. That is why I don’t count them as Venetian Cantos. Murray’s readers, perversely, said they were “dull”.
- W. H. Auden makes this point at greater length in his Introduction to his Selected Poetry of Byron. See http://www.thebyronsociety.com/comic-method-in-byrons-epic
- It was hardly the only literary risk he ventured around this time. Cain and even Sardanapaulus were as edgy, in their own way.