The Venetian Cantos of Don Juan

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.

  1. 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”.
  2. 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
  3. It was hard­ly the only lit­er­ary risk he ven­tured around this time. Cain and even Sar­dana­paulus were as edgy, in their own way.

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