A Satiric Epic of Modern Life
George Gordon, Lord Byron
Jonathan Keeble, Reader
This Lord Byron! A scandal to his class, the upper class of early nineteenth century England.
Born with a clubfoot, he grew up handsome, had money and wit and a way with the words, and the ladies (and the young men) - - - and then he ran off to help the Greeks in their fight for independence. He was a man who could write like a dream and tell a story so good you don't want it to end. Thus Don Juan.
Byron tells us he is going to use that reprobate as his model in this new version, which spins out here in seventeen cantos.
I want a hero, [he writes] an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as those I should not care to vaunt,
I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan*** - - -
And we get this terrific sad beautiful funny joshing waggish story of a young man from Seville who cannot turn around without ladies throwing themselves at him.
§ § §
Over this last week I listened to all seventeen cantos here in this version from Naxos, narrated by Jonathan Keeble. Believe me when I tell I couldn't get enough of it. I suspect that you might have the same reaction.
Not only did I hear it out, all twelve discs - - - I turned around and went back and started listening all over again. That's how it stole up me - - - at least the first four cantos.
(Canto I) Juan grows up in Seville; gets seduced at sixteen by his mother's compadre Doña Julia, wife to Don Alfonso. Alfonso finds them in bed together, so she goes to a nunnery, and Juan (Canto II) gets shipped off east from Cadiz. When his ship is wrecked on the high seas, he and thirty of his shipmates end up in a longboat. Over many sunny, windless days, the number is reduced by thirst, hunger and (yes!) cannibalism down to - - - in a final wreck - - - Juan who lands on the beach of an island, almost dead - - - where he is found by the young and lovely Haidée, who (Canto III) falls in love with him . . . and he with her. But then her father discovers them sicut bestia cum duo terga vertam and sells Juan into white slavery.
That's the story, but here the story is all in the telling, and the telling by Byron is a killer. It was what they assigned us to study in college, so I dutifully studied it, dutifully wrote a paper, dutifully graded by Dr. Pease - - - but what I learn now is what I missed.
What I missed is that this is a classic poem, and a poem should be read aloud. For I read it back then on the page, found it mildly interesting but not overwhelming, and now, sixty years later, for the first time I get to hear it whole, read aloud, elegantly, by a man who knows his English, one who reads it with verve and confidence, and rhythm: but not a sing-song rhythm, rather, a stately rhythm, for this is an epic, and there are rhymes, part of the rhythm, that take one over, so that after listening for an hour or so, all words are converted into a stately rhythm, when I speak, or others speak, all is heard as iambic pentameter, converted as it were into Boccaccio's noble ottava rime.
And we find that we can spend hours with it as this love romance tale spins out, spinning itself into our souls, so that we are convinced, after hearing it read so skillfully, what Byron expected of his audience. (A great writer must always know what to expect of his audience.)
For in his day, there were few books, they were a bound luxury, so stories like his were read aloud, in the pub, in the courts, to the family, or friends, before the fire, a fiesta of reading, people taking their turns, and suddenly a work of art is transformed into high vocal art, because Byron knew not only how to spin rhyme as a tale, a tale of love and tragedy and wit and humor and irony and inward jokes, with choice delights in the twists and turns of the lines.
This is a rhyming epic poem, each stanza with eight lines, the end words rhyming (lines 1 with lines 3 and 5, and line 2 rhyming with lines 4 and 6, and then the final couplet, 7 and 8) - - - so you get this, our young and beautiful Don Juan ship-wrecked, on the lonely island beach, one of the Cyclades, there found by his young sweet innocent Haidée, theirs to be an island love, he discovered on the beach near dead, and she rescues him, brings him into in the cave to sleep, to revive); and when he awakes, she gives him food, and suddenly
. . . he being naked, save a tatter'd
Pair of scarce decent trowsers - - - went to work
And in the fire his recent rags they scatter'd
And dres'd him, for the present, like a Turk,
Or Greek - - - that is, although it not much matter'd
Omitting turban, slippers, pistols, dirk - - -
They furnish'd him, entire, except some stitches,
With a clean shirt, and very spacious breeches.Juan and Haidée. Mostly alone in the warm cave, where she visits every day to bathe him, clothe him, feed him. Soon he revives enough to be able to wander around the island with her, in wonder with it and her,
And thus they wander'd forth, and hand in hand,
Over the shining pebbles and the shells,
Glided along the smooth and harden'd sand,
And the worn and wild receptacles
Work'd by the storms, yet work'd as it were plann'd,
In hollow halls, with sparry roofs and cells,
They turn'd to rest' and each clasp'd by an arm,
Yielded to the deep twilight's purple charm.
They look'd up to the sky, whose floating, glow
Spread like a rosy ocean, vast and bright;
They gazed upon the glittering sea below,
Whence the broad moon rose circling into sight;
They heard the wave's splash, and the wind so low,
And saw each other's dark eyes darting light
Into each other - - - and, beholding this,
Their lips drew near, and clung into a kiss;
A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love,
And beauty, all concentrated like rays
Into one focus, kindled from above;
Such kisses as belong to early days,
Where heart, and soul, and sense, in concert move,
And the blood's lava, and the pulse a blaze,
Each kiss a heart-quake, - - - for a kiss's strength,
I think, it must be reckon'd by its length.
By length I mean duration; theirs endured
Heaven knows how long - - - no doubt they never reckon'd;
And if they had, they could not have secured
The sum of their sensations to a second:
They had not spoken; but they felt allured,
As if their souls and lips each other beckon'd,
Which, being join'd, like swarming bees they clung - - -
Their hearts the flowers from whence the honey sprung.
I suggest that the story told here is one of the most redoubtable love stories in English literature. And soon the reader, like its author, is not only in love with lovely Haidée and gentle Juan, but even more so in love with their love. The perfect setting: an unspoiled Greek island, the two of them alone. He shipwrecked, she - - - " mother, brother, guardian, she had none," two innocents scarcely grown at the moment of their meeting, with their innocent falling, "Alas! For Juan and Haidée! they were / So loving and so lovely - - - till then never, / Excepting our first parents, such a pair . . . / Half naked, loving, natural, and Greek."
In this carefully conceived setting, our two innocents turn to a fire of original love, as perfect as it can be cast.
Of course the author is in love with them; and so of course he must end their love, which he does . . . and any of us with heart enough to love them together will be stricken with their love's sudden and furious ending - - - for Byron carefully built it to be too perfect; so, as with all perfection, it must be be cast violently apart.But Don Juan is not destined to be merely an epic love poem. No: this epic is the love-child of George Gordon, Lord Byron, when he was at the top of his form between 1818 and his death at age thirty-six in 1824. He constructed a poem that managed to incorporate a forest of ideas born of one of the stars of English Romanticism's literary resourcefulness. It is bursting at its seams with rapiers to be stuck in the fat bodies of politicians, the upper class, doctors, priests, colonialists, slavers, and most of all, so many of his contemporary poets, including,
- William Wordsworth, on his poem Excursion, "the vasty version / Of his new system to perplex the sages . . . " Byron also referred to him as "William Turdsworth;"
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Shall gentle COLERIDGE pass unnoticed here,
To turgid ode and tumid stanza dear?
Though themes of innocence amuse him best,
Yet still Obscurity's a welcome guest.
If Inspiration should her aid refuse
To him who takes a Pixy for a muse,
Yet none in lofty numbers can surpass
The bard who soars to elegize an ass:
So well the subject suits his noble mind,
He brays, the Laureate of the long-eared kind.
- Most of all, the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, always referred to (sotto-friendly) as "Bob," appearing in the very first lines of Don Juan,
Bob Southey! you're a poet - - - Poet-laureate,
And representative of all the race,
Although 's is true that you turn'd out a Tory at
Last, - - - Yours has lately been a common case;
And now my epic renegade! What are ye at? . . .
§ § §
Don Juan is packed with literary tricks. For instance, Byron can't avoid showing his daunting literary knowledge. When accused - - - "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 then offers: "I say no more than hath been said by
For my part, I pretend not to be Cato,
Nor even Diogenes, - - - We live and die,
But which is best, you know no more than I.
Then he goes on to include Socrates, Newton, Ecclesiastes and Souvaroff (or Anglicè Suwarrow), with later references to Milton, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Ovid, Livy, Homer and dozens of other ancients.
Byron has a fine time with the form that he has chosen here, the ottava rima. He often claims that he can't figure out why one of his characters is doing or has what he has. Of Juan "I don't know how it was, but he grew sick." When the desperate characters are adrift at sea, Byron, being the one who set up the whole scene, all the way down to the basic survival tools, says, "They only had one oar (I wish they had two)" . . . pretending, thus, that he is not the narrator-god of it all.
And in any scene, he is likely to break in, to introduce himself, or his loves, or his hates - - - smack-dab in the middle of the narrative. Thus, while setting Don Juan in Cadiz, he takes three stanzas aside to exclaim on the luscious, lusty beauty of the particular women of that particular city, all the while pretending to try to stop his own outburst, to control his passion gone overboard:
I said that Juan had been sent to Cadiz - - -
A pretty town, I recollect it well - - -
'T is there the mart of the colonial trade is
(Or was, before Peru learn'd to rebel),
And such sweet girls - - - I mean, such graceful ladies,
Their very walk would make your bosom swell;
I can't describe it, though so much it strike,
Nor liken it - - - I never saw the like:
An Arab horse, a stately stag, a barb
New broke, a camel, leopard, a gazelle,
No - - - none of these will do; - - - and then their garb!
Their veil and petticoat - - - Alas! to dwell
Upon such things would very near absorb
A canto - - - then their feet and ankles, - - - well,
Thank Heaven I 've got no metaphor quite ready
(And so, my sober Muse - - - come, let's be steady - - -
Chaste Muse! - - - well, if you must, you must) - - - the veil
Thrown back a moment with the glancing hand,
While the o'erpowering eye, that turns you pale,
Flashes into the heart: - - - All sunny land
Of love! when I forget you, may I fail
To - - - say my prayers - - - but never was there plann'd
A dress through which the eyes give such a volley,
Excepting the Venetian Fazzioli.At this point we embark on Juan's fateful journey. Juan, reading and rereading his mistress's parting letter to him, mourning, starting to weep, but - - - oh no - - - finding his tears being interrupted on this his first voyage with a severe problem in his bodega:
'And, oh! if e'er I should forget, I swear - - -
But that 's impossible, and cannot be - - -
Sooner shall this blue ocean melt to air,
Sooner shall earth resolve itself to sea,
Than I resign thine image, oh, my fair!
Or think of any thing excepting thee;
A mind diseased no remedy can physic
(Here the ship gave a lurch, and he grew sea-sick).
'Sooner shall heaven kiss earth (here he fell sicker),
O, Julia! what is every other wo?
(For God's sake let me have a glass of liquor;
Pedro, Battista, help me down below.)
Julia, my love! (you rascal, Pedro, quicker) - - -
O, Julia! (this curst vessel pitches so) - - -
Beloved Julia, hear me still beseeching!'
(Here he grew inarticulate with retching.)
He felt that chilling heaviness of heart,
Or rather stomach, which, alas! attends,
Beyond the best apothecary's art,
The loss of love, the treachery of friends,
Or death of those we dote on, when a part
Of us dies with them as each fond hope ends:
No doubt he would have been much more pathetic,
But the sea acted as a strong emetic.
But soon his journey will end in sturm und drang, told with graphic force, then, after the battering of the ship, the reality of survivors being adrift in the sun for days and weeks with neither food nor water, for
man is a carnivorous production,
And must have meals, at least one meal a day;
He cannot live, like woodcocks, upon suction,
But, like the shark and tiger, must have prey;
Although his anatomical construction
Bears vegetables, in a grumbling way,
Your labouring people think beyond all question,
Beef, veal, and mutton, better for digestion.
On this tender subject of hunger, and the temptation of cannibalism what are some of the most deliciously ironical verse in English. First with the very idea of chowing down on the haunches of their fellows,
you might see
The longings of the cannibal arise
(Although they spoke not) in their wolfish eyes.
Then there is the drawing of lots to see who is the to be lunch for all the others, and once chosen, the process of consumption. All, except Juan, for the first luckless victim was his beloved tutor, so
The sailors ate him, all save three or four,
Who were not quite so fond of animal food;
To these was added Juan, who, before
Refusing his own spaniel, hardly could
Feel now his appetite increased much more;
'T was not to be expected that he should,
Even in extremity of their disaster,
Dine with them on his pastor and his master.
After eating Pedrillo pot-pie, their eyes fell on
. . . the master's mate,
As fattest; but he saved himself, because,
Besides being much averse from such a fate,
There were some other reasons: the first was,
He had been rather indisposed of late;
And that which chiefly proved his saving clause
Was a small present made to him at Cadiz,
By general subscription of the ladies.
In other words, they had to leave the fat one be as he suffered what in those days was called "the tertiary fever." E., g. syphilis.
§ § §
I envy you, for those willing to take the ride (and the journey, I claim, is at its very best with these discs) have something I no longer have.
That is, the very pleasant surprise of finding yourself hooked - - - as I was hooked - - - with one of the true greats of English literature, now mostly forgotten.
In many of the classes I took in college, it was a nasty surprise to learn how very tedious so many of The English Masters: Milton (yawn), Pope (don't get it), Wordworth (wordswords), Kyd bloody Kyd, and most of all, that dreadful Shakespeare with his gallery of miserable, insufferable characters: Hamlet, Lear, or Iago (whose word-count is on a par with the ever-waffling Hamlet), all the Henrys, all the Richards, bloody Macbeth (and his bloody Lady), and Timon (who remembers him?), and Titus (ditto), and the Duke.
With some digging, over the years, I was able to come up with a few Classic English writers worth the candle: the rustic, ever-charming Chaucer, that sly comic Andrew Marvell, the ever-wry John Donne (who had the gall to call the sun a "Sawcy pedantique wretch") - - - and now, at last, this scurrilous, wicked, mesmerizing George Gordon, Lord Byron.--- L. W. Milam***It is this line that let's us know that
Lord Byron insists on telling his story
using the English vernacular - - - blind to
the romance inherent in other languages.
"Don Juan" in Spain is pronounced Dawn Wahn,
but here is to forced to be recast as (awk!) Don JU-won. Send us e-mail