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.

 

 

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.