Byron, Don Juan and Spenser

Lord Byron, Don Juan: CANTO THE SEVENTH

[Juan has been enslaved by the Turks, who are about to be attacked at Ismail (now Izmail, Ukraine; it’s changed hands many times since then) by their enemies, the Russians under Tsarina Catherine the Great – who will shortly become the latest in Juan’s long sequence of erotic conquests, to match those of the armies depicted in Cantos VII and VIII.]

 Stanza 2
And such as they are, such my present tale is,
A non-descript and ever-varying rhyme,
A versified Aurora Borealis,
Which flashes o’er a waste and icy clime.
When we know what all are, we must bewail us,
But ne’ertheless I hope it is no crime
To laugh at all things — for I wish to know
What, after all, are all things — but a show?

[The narrator continues with his default tone of detached and ironic despair at human folly and hypocrisy, assuming an air of something between ennui and resignation. He goes on to reserve the right to carry on attacking such hypocrites in life’s ‘show’, citing a list of previous critics of such vices in high places]

3
They accuse me — Me — the present writer of
The present poem — of — I know not what —
A tendency to under-rate and scoff
At human power and virtue, and all that;
And this they say in language rather rough.
Good God! I wonder what they would be at!
I say no more than hath been said in Danté’s
Verse, and by Solomon and by Cervantes;

6

Ecclesiastes said, “that all is vanity” —
Most modern preachers say the same, or show it
By their examples of true Christianity:
In short, all know, or very soon may know it;
And in this scene of all-confess’d inanity,
By saint, by sage, by preacher, and by poet,
Must I restrain me, through the fear of strife,
From holding up the nothingness of life?

8
“Fierce loves and faithless wars” — I am not sure
If this be the right reading — ‘t is no matter;
The fact’s about the same, I am secure;
I sing them both, and am about to batter
A town which did a famous siege endure,
And was beleaguer’d both by land and water
By Souvaroff, or Anglicè Suwarrow,
Who loved blood as an alderman loves marrow.

The quotation so disingenuously travestied is one of the best jokes in the poem. It’s a deliberate reversal (with an ingenious substitution of ‘faithless’ for ‘faithful’ in the original) of a famous line in the Introductory stanzas of Spenser’s epic romance, The Faerie Queene, published 1590, to which Byron is heavily indebted in DJ, and which he admired immensely:

Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser (text at Luminarium)

LO I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far vnfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long,
Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.

Byron memorial

Memorial to Byron in Messolonghi, where he died campaigning against the Turks for Greek independence. Image via Wikimedia Commons: By Fingalo – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de,

Byron’s willed misquotation forces readers to reconsider Spenser’s traditional representation of wars as ‘fierce’ and love as ‘faithful’; it is, he implies, politically motivated wars (like the Russo-Turkish one here) that are ‘faithless’ – by which he suggests they are contrived for motives less than noble or intended for the defence or otherwise of the people on whose behalf it is waged. On the contrary, it’s the ordinary people who suffer or die as a consequence of wars (Turkish civilian losses were huge in this siege; Russian tactics fell little short of slaughter of the civilian population). The politicians and monarchs who started the wars benefit and remain amorally, contemptuously aloof. To challenge this traditional view (and Spenser’s) they would argue is treacherous and unpatriotic – even blasphemous. It also serves to heighten Byron’s conviction that DJ was a highly moral poem, and that the objections to its eroticism and outspokenness were misguided, and evidence of the very hypocrisy and lack of vision that his poem satirises. By subverting Spenser’s conventional stanza, Byron ‘moralises’ his epic with acerbic, daring panache.

By the way, note the way Spenser adopts the traditional-classic pose of apologising for the weakness of his ‘wit’, his lack of skill as a poet, and general unworthiness to write – hence the conventional opening appeal to the Muses for inspiration. Byron does no such thing — on the contrary. He usually shows little interest in belittling his own capacity as a poet; where he does, as in the opening stanzas above, it’s to make light of it as being preferable to write colloquially, pointedly and racily than to ‘poeticise’ like the vapid, pompous ‘Lakers’ and their like.

The litany of writers’ names he invokes establishes his purpose as a wit (in the Augustan sense of his heroes, Pope and Johnson), moralist and satirist (like Swift, not averse to coarseness or crudity in exposing and ridiculing the faults of hypocrites and fools), not an aesthete or introspective, philosophising recluse like Wordsworth, Coleridge or the detested Southey.

 

 

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