Byron’s Don Juan

Byron’s Don Juan

As often happens when we come across someone after the interval of many years, the old friend is just the same, with the same endearing or irritating mannerisms. Or almost the same. For sometimes we see matters a shade differently, through older eyes, as it were. So with Byron’s Don Juan, (1) which I picked up again in my old 1986 Penguin Classics paperback edition. (2) Some stanzas in Canto One copy had been ticked, I noticed, probably for some public reading or other, which I can’t now remember. These were the better stanzas, flowing together to make a continuously pleasing whole. Of the others I wasn’t now quite so sure, particularly later in the work, where Don Juan is introduced into English aristocratic society. Nothing much happens here, and though the passages were not tedious -it’s still wonderfully quotable (4) – the pace certainly slows and the level of verse craft falls off – becoming that ‘slovenly, slipshod and infelicitous’ style as Arnold called it. (5) Perhaps Byron grew bored with the poem, or had more pressing matters to concern him: continuing squabbles with literary friends in Italy, and a growing involvement with the Greek War of Independence, which was not progressing well.

I don’t propose to say much about Don Juan itself. The poem is easily found, online (1, 3, 6 ,7) and in many printed editions.  The Internet also has much literary criticism. (7) Your local second-hand bookseller can likely find you a battered copy to dip into, which is probably the best way of approaching its daunting length. The Penguin Classics edition, it’s worth noting, has the carefully assembled text(s), extensive notes, a short introduction, table of dates and further reading: all excellent. My concern here is the long narrative poem, which has almost disappeared from contemporary genres, and what we could perhaps learn from Byron’s example.

Firstly, of course, there has to be an audience for such work, one with the time and acquired taste for such things. Don Juan’s two thousand odd stanzas are all written in the abababcc octava rima form. If today’s audience cannot cope with verse at length, it’s probably not going to enjoy the work, where half the fun is seeing what Byron does with this spirited but exacting form. Equally obviously, there have to be writers who can turn out compelling things to say at high speed, so that the originating impulse is maintained, or, in Byron’s case, continually regenerated as new ideas and mischievous digressions spring to mind. Serious contemporary poetry is wary of rhyme’s artifice, and though the device is still widely employed in amateur work, it is not always used well: contrived and commonplace effects are a common result.

But it was the rhyme needs that spurred Byron into composition, the midwife of many effects.

Satire, here (all this section is from Canto One) on his ex-wife – though Byron disagreed:

Some women use their tongues-she look’d a lecture,
Each eye a sermon, and her brow a homily,
An all-in-all sufficient self-director,
Like the lamented late Sir Samuel Romilly,
The Law’s expounder, and the State’s corrector,
Whose suicide was almost an anomaly-
One sad example more, that ‘All is vanity’
(The jury brought their verdict in ‘Insanity’).

Those comic bad rhymes readers must learn to love:

‘T is pity learned virgins ever wed
With persons of no sort of education,
Or gentlemen, who, though well born and bred,
Grow tired of scientific conversation:
I don’t choose to say much upon this head,
I ‘m a plain man, and in a single station,
But-Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck’d you all?

Setting the scene, here emotionally as much as physically:

We ‘ll talk of that anon.-‘T is sweet to hear
At midnight on the blue and moonlit deep
The song and oar of Adria’s gondolier,
By distance mellow’d, o’er the waters sweep;
‘T is sweet to see the evening star appear;
‘T is sweet to listen as the night-winds creep
From leaf to leaf; ‘t is sweet to view on high
The rainbow, based on ocean, span the sky.

Which is then rounded off by another extended piece of sentiment: Dona Julia’s letter:

‘They tell me ‘t is decided; you depart:
‘T is wise-‘t is well, but not the less a pain;
I have no further claim on your young heart,
Mine is the victim, and would be again;
To love too much has been the only art
I used;-I write in haste, and if a stain
Be on this sheet, ‘t is not what it appears;
My eyeballs burn and throb, but have no tears.

‘I loved, I love you, for this love have lost
 State, station, heaven, mankind’s, my own esteem,
 And yet can not regret what it hath cost,
 So dear is still the memory of that dream;
 Yet, if I name my guilt, ‘t is not to boast,
 None can deem harshlier of me than I deem:
 I trace this scrawl because I cannot rest-
 I ‘ve nothing to reproach, or to request.

 ‘Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,
 ‘T is woman’s whole existence; man may range
 The court, camp, church, the vessel, and the mart;
 Sword, gown, gain, glory, offer in exchange
 Pride, fame, ambition, to fill up his heart,
 And few there are whom these cannot estrange;
 Men have all these resources, we but one,
 To love again, and be again undone.

‘You will proceed in pleasure, and in pride,
Beloved and loving many; all is o’er
For me on earth, except some years to hide
My shame and sorrow deep in my heart’s core;
These I could bear, but cannot cast aside
The passion which still rages as before-
And so farewell – forgive me, love me – No,
That word is idle now – but let it go.

‘My breast has been all weakness, is so yet;
 But still I think I can collect my mind;
 My blood still rushes where my spirit ‘s set,
 As roll the waves before the settled wind;
 My heart is feminine, nor can forget-
 To all, except one image, madly blind;
 So shakes the needle, and so stands the pole,
 As vibrates my fond heart to my fix’d soul.

‘I have no more to say, but linger still,
And dare not set my seal upon this sheet,
And yet I may as well the task fulfil,
My misery can scarce be more complete:
I had not lived till now, could sorrow kill;
Death shuns the wretch who fain the blow would meet,
And I must even survive this last adieu,
And bear with life, to love and pray for you!’

This note was written upon gilt-edged paper
With a neat little crow-quill, slight and new:
Her small white hand could hardly reach the taper,
It trembled as magnetic needles do,
And yet she did not let one tear escape her;
The seal a sun-flower; ‘Elle vous suit partout,’
The motto cut upon a white cornelian;
The wax was superfine, its hue vermilion.

Individually, the lines are undistinguished – conventional sentiments, trite rhymes – but each builds on the preceeding to become wholly convincing: sad, rueful and beautiful. This is the playright or scriptwriter’s art, the ability to evoke a sympathy in a character, and here Byron’s divided gender has given him access to a women’s heart.

But also note two things: the complex tone: Byron is still smiling at human folly, at Dona Julia’s self-deception, but is also feeling with and for her. The woman knew perfectly well what she was doing, and is most unlikely to spend the rest of her days in a convent, but has convinced herself that ‘all is over’, and Byron joins her in these lamentations.

And what verse achieves over prose. No one in real life is this eloquent, nor makes observations that have become famous: ‘Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart’

Verismiltude is not the aim in these early cantos, but a halfway house, something between the emotional lift of poetry and the telling observations of the novel. Later the poem becomes much more prosaic (Canto 13):

Lord Henry and the Lady Adeline
Departed like the rest of their compeers,
The peerage, to a mansion very fine;
The Gothic Babel of a thousand years.
None than themselves could boast a longer line,
Where time through heroes and through beauties steers;
And oaks as olden as their pedigree
Told of their sires, a tomb in every tree.

A paragraph in every paper told
Of their departure: such is modern fame:
‘T is pity that it takes no farther hold
Than an advertisement, or much the same;
Were the ink be dry, the sound grows cold.
The Morning Post was foremost to proclaim-
‘Departure, for his country seat, to-day,
Lord H. Amundeville and Lady A.

‘We understand the splendid host intends
To entertain, this autumn, a select
And numerous party of his noble friends;
‘Midst whom we have heard, from sources quite correct,
With many more by rank and fashion deck’d;
Also a foreigner of high condition,
The envoy of the secret Russian mission.’

There are still digressions, but they’re flatter and less successful:

The evaporation of a joyous day
Is like the last glass of champagne, without
The foam which made its virgin bumper gay;
Or like a system coupled with a doubt;
Or like a soda bottle when its spray
Has sparkled and let half its spirit out;
Or like a billow left by storms behind,
Without the animation of the wind;

Or like an opiate, which brings troubled rest,
Or none; or like-like nothing that I know
Except itself;-such is the human breast;
A thing, of which similitudes can show
No real likeness,-like the old Tyrian vest
Dyed purple, none at present can tell how,
If from a shell-fish or from cochineal.
So perish every tyrant’s robe piece-meal!

Here we stand on the threshold of a new age, the novelist’s, into which poetry will only occasionally venture. But, to return to my opening remark, the need for revision and concision: how much better it seems to me would have been the opening Canto if the Dedication were removed, and less successful stanzas – if, for example, Byron has omitted  One 106-108, 111-112, 118-121, etc. But such is Byron. As I mentioned with Eliot’s Wasteland, we have to take the poetry as it’s given us, and learn how best to enjoy it. Don Juan was written for a more leisured age than ours, and we have to ape its manners for a while.
End Notes

1. Don Juan by Lord Byron. Gutenberg.
2. Lord Byron: Don Juan. Edited by T.G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W.W. Pratt. Penguin Books, 1986.
3. Don Juan. Bob Blair.
4. Wikiquote.
5. Renunciations of Rhyme in Byron’s Don Juan by Jim Cocola. SEL 49, 2009.
6. Don Juan by Lord Byron: Canto One. Audio(YouTube).
7. Lord Byron (George Gordon) 1788-1824.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *