It may be profligate, but is it not life? Byron, Don Juan

Byron, Don Juan (1819-24): Annotated online text Here

Byron claims from the outset he’s writing an epic, but knows he’s generically more in line with burlesque, low Italian ottava rima dramas, juxtaposing cod-serious, highbrow and lofty thoughts with very low and colloquial idioms in scenes that are usually bawdy, violent or both. Despite his disingenuous claims at times, most of the poem is definitively not the ‘high art’ of countless European renditions of the famous story of the libertine’s rakish life and terrible hellish fate. Although Mozart is named (Canto IX.47) in passing, he shows little detailed knowledge of his opera – or of Gluck’s ballet or Molière’s play. Such popular fare suited B’s own tastes and temperament better.

He wrote: ‘…it may be bawdy – but is it not good English? it may be profligate – but is it not life, and is it not the thing? Could any man have written it – who has not lived in the world?’ (letter to his friend, Douglas Kinnaird, 1819).

Cantos 1 and 2 were the first to be published in 1819 (author and publisher’s identity were prudently omitted). He begins by describing Juan’s apparently virtuous, studious mother, Donna Inez, but artfully prepares us for the bathetic revelation that she’s adulterous and scheming – typical of the English ‘cant’ and hypocrisy the satire of the poem is targeting. So here he is, ironically feigning to consider marriages such as hers in which (as he knew from bitter experience) the partners are not entirely well suited:

Canto 1, Stanza 22

‘T is pity learnéd 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?

One of the most famously ingenious sequences of rhyme in the poem. Throughout the poem Byron slips away from ‘poetic’ style (though he’s capable of poeticising with the best of them) into this highly colloquial, often racy and outrageous voice and persona, with cynical, satirical views on almost every conventional attitude and belief of the time, usually, as here, affecting a tone of false modesty and ignorance, while exposing the underlying hypocrisy of his countrymen. Though it was technically true, as he claims here, that he was ‘single’ – he and his wife had separated when this was written, and he’d found it necessary to leave England – he creates an image of a narrator who’s similar to himself, but who has several traits he knew to be fictitious but plausible – he loved to play on his rakish, ‘mad, bad, dangerous’ reputation:

23

Don Jóse and his lady quarrell’d —  why,
Not any of the many could divine,
Though several thousand people chose to try,
‘T was surely no concern of theirs nor mine;
I loathe that low vice — curiosity;
But if there’s anything in which I shine,
‘T is in arranging all my friends’ affairs,
Not having of my own domestic cares…

38 [He’s speaking of Donna Inez, DJ’s mother]

Sagest of women, even of widows, she
Resolved that Juan should be quite a paragon,
And worthy of the noblest pedigree
(His sire was of Castile, his dam from Aragon):
Then for accomplishments of chivalry,
In case our lord the king should go to war again,
He learn’d the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery,
And how to scale a fortress — or a nunnery.

Lord Byron in Albanian dress

Byron in Albanian dress, painted by Thomas Phillips in 1813 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Bathos again in that contrasting final couplet with its bawdy conclusion. He almost invites the reader to anticipate where he’s going with the progress of each stanza, and loves dropping in little twists and surprises at the very end, usually, as here, to puncture the pomposity or phony loftiness that’s gone before]

Byron loves inserting playful, inventive commentary on the difficulties the poet-speaker claims to wrestle with in meeting the exigencies of the poetic form, which is much better suited to Italian, where it’s far easier to find true rhymes; also with the metre – all part of that pose of an enthusiastic gentleman amateur, trying but failing to produce fine style, but clearly relishing his prowess in getting himself into tricky poetic spots then extricating himself with a flash of genius, or wit, and usually both.

84

And if in the mean time her husband died,
But Heaven forbid that such a thought should cross
Her brain, though in a dream! (and then she sigh’d)
Never could she survive that common loss;
But just suppose that moment should betide,
I only say suppose it —  inter nos.
(This should be entre nous, for Julia thought
In French, but then the rhyme would go for naught.)

Juan and his mother’s friend Donna Julia have fallen passionately in love, but he’s only 16 and she’s older – and married. So he does the honourable thing and tries to forget her and think lofty, abstract thoughts of a Wordsworthian nature [he hated the ‘Lakers’ for their introspective etherealness], to dispel the carnal ones that beset him, and resist Julia’s thinly disguised coy seductiveness, and the stirrings in his own blood. These stanzas end with yet more wonderful examples of that end-couplet bathos and ingenious rhyme, as he palpably fails to banish lustful-romantic thoughts and promptings:

92

He thought about himself, and the whole earth
Of man the wonderful, and of the stars,
And how the deuce they ever could have birth;
And then he thought of earthquakes, and of wars,
How many miles the moon might have in girth,
Of air-balloons, and of the many bars
To perfect knowledge of the boundless skies; —
And then he thought of Donna Julia’s eyes.

93
In thoughts like these true wisdom may discern
Longings sublime, and aspirations high,
Which some are born with, but the most part learn
To plague themselves withal, they know not why:
‘T was strange that one so young should thus concern
His brain about the action of the sky;
If you think ‘t was philosophy that this did,
I can’t help thinking puberty assisted.

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