The Major Works
12mo. xxviii+1080 pp. Introduction [xi-xxiii] and Notes [1021-76] by Jerome J. McGann, 1986.
This edition first published, 1986.
First published, with revisions, as an Oxford World's Classics paperback, 2000.
Note on the Text
A Fragment (‘When, to their airy hall, my fathers’ voice’)
The Farewell to a Lady
From English Bards and Scotch Reviewers
[Lines to Mr Hodgson]
Song (‘Maid of Athens, ere we part’)
Written Beneath a Picture
To Thyrza (‘One struggle more, and I am free’)
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
From The Corsair
Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte
Stanzas for Music (‘I speak not – I trace not – I breathe not thy name’)
She Walks in Beauty
Stanzas for Music (‘There’s not a joy the world can give’)
When We Two Parted
Fare Thee Well!
[A Fragment] (‘Could I remount the river of my years’)
Stanzas to [
[‘So, We’ll Go No More A Roving’]
[Epistle to Mr Murray]
[Stanzas] (‘Could Love for ever’)
[Stanzas] (‘When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home’)
The Vision of Judgment
[Thoughts on Freedom]
On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year
LETTERS AND OTHER PROSE
To Mrs Catherine Gordon Byron, 12 Nov. 1809
To Lady Melbourne, 15 Sept. 1812
To Lady Melbourne, 25 Sept. 1812
To Lady Melbourne, 8 Oct. 1813
Alpine Journal (1816)
To Augusta Leigh, 15 Oct. 1816
To Augusta Leigh, 19 Dec. 1816
To Thomas Moore, 24 Dec. 1816
To Lady Byron, 18 Nov. 1818
To John Murray, 6 April 1819
To John Cam Hobhouse, 17 May 1819
To John Murray, 1 Aug. 1819
From a letter to John Murray, 12 Aug 1819
To Lady Byron, 10 Dec. 1820
To Thomas Moore, 19 Sept. 1821
From Thomas Medwin’s Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron (1821)
From Detached Thoughts (1821-2)
From Journal (1824)
To Augusta Leigh, 23 Feb. 1824
Index of Titles and First Lines
Index of Recipients of the Letters
The main virtues of this edition are the scope and the handsome printing. Childe Harold and Don Juan are complete, and so are six other of Byron’s long poems (highlighted in bold above). There are enough short verse and prose excerpts to appreciate Byron’s variety and versatility. The font is neither miniscule nor squeezed in the page; so you don’t have to ruin your eyes while reading and there is enough space to indulge in the barbarous practice of taking notes in the margins. The paper is thick and of remarkably high quality. In short, the edition is not complete, but it is comprehensive, very well produced for its size, and easier to read than such mammoth volumes usually are.
On the downside, though it may be easy to read, the book is not easy to handle. No 1000-page paperback is. Some of Byron’s long poems (The Corsair, Lara) are so ruthlessly cut, that the brief glimpses from them might just as well have not been included at all. Some Byron aficionados may also complain, perhaps not without justification, that his genius for short lyrical verse is insufficiently represented. All these vices, however, can be easily turned into virtues. The book may be heavy and cumbersome, but the binding is sturdy and durable (don’t believe the evil tongues who say the opposite). The brief excerpts from The Corsair (canto I, stanzas 9-12) and Lara (canto I, stanzas 17-19) are included, Mr McGann tells us, specifically to illustrate the characteristics of the Byronic hero, and they serve this purpose pretty well. Finally, the short poems may be few, but they are crème de la crème.
There doesn’t seem to be much competition on the market. In a single volume, the Oxford World’s Classics edition is hard to beat. This certainly includes
Complete Poetical Works, which is quite exhaustive in terms of contents, but so
closely printed as to be nearly unreadable; and there are no extras like
introduction and notes. The Wordsworth
attempt (2006, ed. Paul Wright) is quite a nice introduction considering it’s more
than twice cheaper. It does contain the complete Don Juan and separate introductions to each section, but Childe Harold is incomplete, you get
only four of the long poems (The Giaour,
The Corsair, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers and The Vision of Judgment), and the Notes are rather perfunctory. Penguin
is a fine alternative in two volumes for twice the price. One is occupied by Don Juan alone (ed. T. G. Steffan, 1973, 1977, 1982; reprinted in Penguin
Classics, 1986; Introduction and revised further reading by Susan J. Wolfson
and Peter J. Manning, 2004), the other is Selected Poems (2005, eds. Susan J. Wolfson and Peter J. Manning), a very
thorough selection of short and long works, including the complete Childe Harold and even Sardanapalus, one of Byron’s plays in
blank verse. Oxford
Mr McGann’s Byronic credentials are staggering. He edited Byron’s Complete Poetical Works (7 vols., 1980-93) and wrote at least four books (all diligently listed in the Further Reading) on Byron and his times. The Introduction and the Notes in this edition are concise, authoritative and helpful, but not terribly extensive, original or stimulating. They don’t quite live up to the expectations one is bound to have, or at least they didn’t live up to mine. Nevertheless, they still deserve a few words.
The Introduction is a succinct exposition of the political and social background against which Byron defiantly lived and wrote. It is marvellously devoid of gossip as far as his personal life is concerned. Mr McGann notes, with a fine sense of humour, that Byron was “(if the pun be permitted) man of affairs”, describes his wife as “brilliant and priggish” and his first book, the privately printed Fugitive Pieces (1806), as “a loose collection of largely wretched verse”, mentions his various liaisons in passing, and concentrates on much more important matters like his travels, works and personality. On the other hand, though only twelve pages long, the Introduction is not without its fair share of pretentious academic obscurity (I could do without phrases like “vulgaris eloquentia” or “vers de société”), and occasionally it takes for granted your PhD in English political history. Nice essay on the whole, but not an essential read.
The Notes are notable because they include Byron’s own (very extensive in some cases, notably The Giaour and Childe Harold, where the poet fancied himself scholar and historian) and because for each of the long poems Mr McGann has supplied a fascinating summary of its place in, and significance for, the Byronic canon. As far as Byron’s numerous allusions to people, places, contemporary events, Roman history, Greek mythology and anything else are concerned, I wish the notes were more extensive and more incisive.
Note that all notes are endnotes, not footnotes. So a good deal of flipping back and forth can’t be helped, but the poems are not fragmented by copious explanations on each page. Byron’s own notes to Childe Harold and The Giaour (but not those to Don Juan) are printed after their respective works, not in the end of the whole book. This is considerably more convenient and I wonder why the same method wasn’t used more thoroughly. All notes are discreetly marked in the text (circles for the editor’s, asterisks for Byron’s), although pages and line numbers are also provided.
Last but by no means least, Mr McGann has included all of Byron’s prefaces, advertisements, dedications, epigraphs and the like. These often contain information of considerable interest. For example, in an “Addition to the Preface” to the first two cantos of Childe Harold (4th edn.), Byron hilariously addresses the criticism that his protagonist is “very unknightly” and in the end, as if by the way, offers this striking insight into one of his most famous characters:
I now leave ‘Childe Harold’ to live his day such as he is; it had been more agreeable, and certainly more easy, to have drawn an amiable character. It had been easy to varnish over his faults, to make him do more and express less, but he never was intended as an example, further than to show, that early perversion of mind and morals leads to satiety of past pleasures and disappointment in new ones, and that even the beauties of nature and the stimulus of travel (except ambition, the most powerful of all excitements) are lost on a soul so constituted, or rather misdirected.
So much for the edition. Further comments on the contents are supplied below.
I have recently amused myself by trying to calculate how many lines of poetry Byron wrote. Roughly, about 64 500 (this includes some 1500 lines of translations, mostly from Virgil and Pulci). Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan, taken together, occupy more than 21 000 lines. This should be a sufficient proof of their importance in Byron’s oeuvre. As for this particular book, they occupy some 700 of its 1100 pages. So it is only fair to review them first. But since I read them last, it will be unfair to the other works not to review them first.
Beppo, Byron’s immensely rambling and wickedly funny “Venetian story”, I have discussed elsewhere. Here I want to address only two stanzas of it (48-49) which seem autobiographical. I say “seem” because inferring the character of the author from his works of fiction is an extremely dangerous business. It is customary to take the Byronic hero in Byron’s works as a truthful projection of the poet. I don’t see why this should be. It is often forgotten that Byron had a brilliant sense of humour. I don’t think he ever took himself very seriously. I certainly wouldn’t put it past him to deliberately make his heroes outrageous and then laugh his head off when the public, not to say the critics from future generations, take them as truthful portraits of the author. The case of Beppo is different, however. No Byronic heroes here. In these two stanzas, it is perhaps permissible to say that Byron spoke his own mind. Judge for yourselves:
! with all thy faults I love
thee still,’ England
I said at
, and have not
forgot it; Calais
I like to speak and lucubrate my fill;
I like the government (but that is not it);
I like the freedom of the press and quill;
I like the Habeas Corpus (when we've got it);
I like a parliamentary debate,
Particularly when 'tis not too late;
I like the taxes, when they're not too many;
I like a seacoal fire, when not too dear;
I like a beef-steak, too, as well as any;
Have no objection to a pot of beer;
I like the weather, when it is not rainy,
That is, I like two months of every year,
And so God save the Regent, Church, and King!
Which means that I like all and everything.
Manfred and Cain are connected in a number of ways. Taken together, they present Byron’s own interpretation of the Faust legend. Manfred, a disillusioned scientist and philosopher who seeks oblivion, is closely related to the creations of Marlowe and Goethe. He makes no deals with the Devil, but the title character in Cain does. Mr McGann praises Lucifer as “more nobly conceived [than
Satan] – a tragic figure of imposing proportions” and even goes as far as
suggesting that his two final speeches (in the end of Act II) “declare a
commitment to intellectual freedom that has never been surpassed in English
verse.” E. H. Coleridge finds another
stimulating parallel between the plays: Milton
The tragedy of Manfred lies in remorse for the inevitable past; the tragedy of Cain, in revolt against the limitations of the inexorable present.
Written between the summer of 1816 and April 1817, Manfred was, I believe, Byron’s first extended experiment with blank verse. It is astonishing how much he progressed in the three years until Cain. Whatever its philosophical depth may be, Manfred is plotless and dramatically weak. It amounts to three acts, eight scenes and 1338 lines, but they are mostly concerned with Manfred’s wanderings through the mountains and arguing with supernatural entities (Spirits, Destinies, the Witch of Alps), human beings (the hunter, the abbot) or himself. I doubt it would work well on the stage. But some of Manfred’s misanthropic soliloquies make for a thrilling read:
How beautiful is all this visible world!
How glorious in its action and itself!
But we, who name ourselves its sovereigns, we,
Half dust, half deity, alike unfit
To sink or soar, with our mix'd essence make
A conflict of its elements, and breathe
The breath of degradation and of pride,
Contending with low wants and lofty will,
Till our mortality predominates,
And men are what they name not to themselves,
And trust not to each other.
We are the fools of time and terror: Days
Steal on us and steal from us; yet we live,
Loathing our life, and dreading still to die.
In all the days of this detested yoke –
This vital weight upon the struggling heart,
Which sinks with sorrow, or beats quick with pain,
Or joy that ends in agony or faintness –
In all the days of past and future, for
In life there is no present, we can number
How few, how less than few, wherein the soul
Forbears to pant for death, and yet draws back
As from a stream in winter, though the chill
Be but a moment's.
Cain is a different affair altogether. Though it doesn’t lack fantastical elements (the two scenes of Act II took place traveling in open space and through the realms of Hades), the play is fiercely dramatic from the first to the last line. The dialogue is audacious, pointed, meaningful and, I suspect, electrifyingly actable. “Most impressive in the play”, raves Mr McGann, “is its bold revisionist inquiry into one of the fundamental myths of western culture.” This is a huge understatement. No wonder the author was accused of blasphemy. Byron’s answer cannot be bettered: if Cain is blasphemous, so is Paradise Lost.
The subjects of Manfred and Cain are not that different. Sometimes they overlap rather strikingly. Surely, it is no coincidence that both Manfred and Cain should refer to the Tree of Knowledge, and connect it with death.
Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most
Must mourn the deepest o'er the fatal truth,
The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.
Philosophy and science, and the springs
Of wonder, and the wisdom of the world,
I have essay'd, and in my mind there is
A power to make these subject to itself –
But they avail not:
What immortal part?
This has not been revealed: the Tree of Life
Was withheld from us by my father's folly,
While that of Knowledge, by my mother's haste,
Was plucked too soon; and all the fruit is Death!
The theme of death is hardly irrelevant to Manfred – “Old man! ’tis not so difficult to die” are the (anti-)hero’s remarkable last words – but it is of paramount importance to Cain. Byron’s ruthless logic (he uses almost no rhetoric!) tears apart so much of the Christian theology, that it’s hard to believe how anybody can seriously take the Bible as divinely inspired, and worship the Author. If He forbade Adam and Eve to touch the Tree of Knowledge, this can mean only one thing: He considers ignorance a virtue. Cain, much like the young Manfred, wants knowledge. Unlike Manfred, however, he doesn’t have to acquire it himself but leaves Lucifer to give it to him ready-made. If you’re a believer, you can easily escape this trap by falling back on the old explanation that the Devil tempted Cain as he had Adam and Eve. If you are a sceptic, you will go with Byron who predicted this and took the trouble to make Cain dissatisfied with God before he ever met Lucifer. Besides, Cain is no passive marionette, and neither were Adam and Eve. The serpent merely told the truth about the Tree of Knowledge. They made the choice. Likewise, Cain vigorously argues with Lucifer, refuses to worship him just as Manfred defies the Spirits, and finally makes his own, conscious and thoughtful, choice.
Knowledge is death. The more you learn, the more you become aware of your ignorance, the more it kills you. Ignorance is bliss. This is the conclusion of both Manfred and Cain. The latter’s case is harder, though. He is confronted with the imbecile piety of his parents, sisters and brother. They cannot answer his questions. Why should he, not to mention the myriads to come, suffer for a sin he didn’t commit? Why omnipotence should coexist with goodness? Why must he die? In spite of the fratricide, which happens by accident, Cain is an extremely sympathetic and inspiring character. Byron has surpassed himself in the characterisation department.
The same goes for Lucifer. What a remarkable creature! He does demand Cain’s worship, but when this is curtly refused he is not angry, and he shows Cain the Universe all the same. I am impressed with his calm and rational conversation. Just about the only place he allows himself a rhetorical flourish is when he refers to the “Omnipotent tyrant” (I.1.138). Even then, the closest to anger he ever comes, Lucifer can predict the New Testament with terrifying accuracy:
But He! so wretched in his height,
So restless in his wretchedness, must still
Create, and re-create – perhaps he'll make
One day a Son unto himself – as he
Gave you a father – and if he so doth,
Mark me! that Son will be a sacrifice!
That aside, Lucifer speaks the language of reason. He is dedicated to rational argument about truth – “I tempt none, / Save with the truth” (I.1.196-7) – and his intellectual honesty is indeed astonishing. Lucifer’s two final speeches that end Act II (and it’s not the least of Byron’s accomplishments that he makes the Lucifer-less Act III quite compelling) are rightly praised by Jerome McGann. The first is about Lucifer’s endless fight with his “Victor – true; but no superior”, and the second involves Man’s relation with both. Here they are:
I have a Victor – true; but no superior.
Homage he has from all – but none from me:
I battle it against him, as I battled
In highest Heaven – through all Eternity,
And the unfathomable gulfs of Hades,
And the interminable realms of space,
And the infinity of endless ages,
All, all, will I dispute! And world by world,
And star by star, and universe by universe,
Shall tremble in the balance, till the great
Conflict shall cease, if ever it shall cease,
Which it ne'er shall, till he or I be quenched!
And what can quench our immortality,
Or mutual and irrevocable hate?
He as a conqueror will call the conquered
Evil; but what will be the Good he gives?
Were I the victor, his works would be deemed
The only evil ones. And you, ye new
And scarce-born mortals, what have been his gifts
To you already, in your little world?
Evil and Good are things in their own essence,
And not made good or evil by the Giver;
But if he gives you good – so call him; if
Evil springs from him, do not name it mine,
Till ye know better its true fount; and judge
Not by words, though of Spirits, but the fruits
Of your existence, such as it must be.
One good gift has the fatal apple given, –
Your reason: – let it not be overswayed
By tyrannous threats to force you into faith
'Gainst all external sense and inward feeling:
Think and endure, – and form an inner world
In your own bosom – where the outward fails;
So shall you nearer be the spiritual
Nature, and war triumphant with your own.
But Byron doesn’t stop there. He builds up a complex and coherent character, not just a metaphysical chatterbox. Just like he gives Cain humane and sensitive nature, he invests Lucifer with tragic nobility and pathos. Both are profoundly unhappy. Neither his family, to which he is deeply attached, nor God’s bloodthirsty demand for worship can make Cain happy. The reasons for Lucifer’s wretchedness are more elusive, but I think loneliness and frustration at his lost battle with God are the chief reasons. Indeed, unhappiness is almost as prominent in the conversations of Cain and Lucifer as death and knowledge. It adds a friendly intimacy that is rather touching:
Cain. And ye?
Lucifer. Are everlasting.
Cain. Are ye happy?
Lucifer. We are mighty.
Cain. Are ye happy?
Lucifer. No: art thou?
Cain. How should I be so? Look on me!
Lucifer. Poor clay!
And thou pretendest to be wretched! Thou!
Cain. I am: – and thou, with all thy might, what art thou?
Lucifer. One who aspired to be what made thee, and
Would not have made thee what thou art.
Cain is a tremendous piece of philosophical drama. Vast in scope, stirring on multiple levels, and fantastically readable (the fastest 1794 lines in my reading career), it is a work to regularly re-visit and re-discover. It should be an absolutely required reading for everybody seriously interested in Byron and it should be included in every collection of his writings. Sadly, it is seldom noticed and often neglected.
It is seldom remembered today that Byron also produced four five-act tragedies in blank verse (Sardanapalus, Marino Faliero, The Two Foscari and Werner), all written in 1821-22. I have read none of them, but if they are half as good as Manfred and Cain, especially Cain, they sure don’t deserve their complete oblivion. Byron’s version of the Faust legend is not entirely successful, but the visceral intensity of the main character saves it. Byron’s treatment of the First Fratricide is far less optimistic than Steinbeck’s in East of Eden (1952), but not a bit less convincing or powerful.
Hazlitt famously said that Byron “makes man after his own image, woman after his own heart; the one is a capricious tyrant, the other a yielding slave”. The more I read Byron, the less I agree with Hazlitt. May the feminists forgive me, but let’s leave the woman out. Let’s concentrate on the Byronic hero proper. If he is always just a projection of the poet himself, Byron must have been an incredibly complex individual. Even Manfred and Conrad, who can easily pass for typical Byronic heroes, are not the same character at all. They do share an all-consuming love for an idealised female, an aristocratic background, and a palpable sense of impending doom, but that’s all. Unlike Manfred, there is nothing scholarly about Conrad and the reasons for his depression are left tantalisingly obscure. As for Cain and Lucifer, it should be obvious by now that neither has many Byronic ingredients in his make-up.
The semi-fabled and slightly sinister figure of Ivan Mazeppa (1639-1709) had a powerful influence over nineteenth-century art. Byron started the fashion in 1819 and his work provoked a stark painting by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824). Some ten years later Hugo and Pushkin produced their own narrative poems which later inspired musical responses from Liszt (a symphonic poem) and Tchaikovsky (an opera), respectively.
Mazeppa comprises 869 lines of energetic, bold and racy narrative verse. The first few stanzas require some background knowledge of Mazeppa’s biography. Byron realised this and supplied as an “Advertisement” three excerpts from Voltaire’s Histoire de Charles XII (1772) – in the original French. Mr McGann translates them and fills the gaps.
The poem opens immediately after the Battle of Pultowa (
that is), with the King of Sweden in frantic retreat, and is told in retrospect
as a lullaby when the party stops to rest and Mazeppa is asked to lull the king to
sleep with his CV. It does cover Mazeppa’s years as a page in the court of
Casimir, including his ill-fated affair with a count’s wife, but much the
greater part of it is concerned with the wild steed on whose back Mazeppa was
bound naked and whom he finally outlived. The chase with death is told with dramatic
intensity that will leave you breathless. Mazeppa’s exploits with the Cossacks,
his becoming hetman of Poltava Ukraine
in service of Peter the Great, and, most controversially, his defection to are
never mentioned, nor do I miss them. Mr McGann shrewdly observes: Sweden
In Byron’s earlier tales, the conclusion is typically catastrophic at all levels, social, political, and personal. Mazeppa is notably different, as if Byron imagined the possibility of an individual escaping from the large destructive fatalities of history.
I suppose this is true. But it’s hardly the best thing this poem has to offer. Except for the stupendous description of the ride, which neither summary nor quotes could convey in all of its splendour, Mazeppa’s reflections on various issues are what elevate the poem above the ordinary adventure tale. Some personal favourites include his meditation on death after the horse dies (718-62). This is very much the same subject as in Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be”, and the passage is hardly inferior to Shakespeare’s.
"And there from morn to twilight bound,
I felt the heavy hours toll round,
With just enough of life to see
My last of suns go down on me,
In hopeless certainty of mind,
That makes us feel at length resign'd
To that which our foreboding years
Present the worst and last of fears:
Inevitable – even a boon,
Nor more unkind for coming soon,
Yet shunn'd and dreaded with such care,
As if it only were a snare
That prudence might escape:
At times both wish'd for and implored,
At times sought with self-pointed sword,
Yet still a dark and hideous close
To even intolerable woes,
And welcome in no shape.
And, strange to say, the sons of pleasure,
They who have revell'd beyond measure
In beauty, wassail, wine, and treasure,
Die calm, or calmer, oft than he
Whose heritage was misery:
For he who hath in turn run through
All that was beautiful and new,
Hath nought to hope, and nought to leave;
And, save the future, (which is view'd
Not quite as men are base or good.
But as their nerves may be endued,)
With nought perhaps to grieve:
The wretch still hopes his woes must end,
And Death, whom he should deem his friend,
Appears, to his distemper'd eyes,
Arrived to rob him of his prize,
The tree of his new
To-morrow would have given him all,
Repaid his pangs, repair'd his fall;
To-morrow would have been the first
Of days no more deplored or curst,
But bright, and long, and beckoning years,
Seen dazzling through the mist of tears,
Guerdon of many a painful hour;
To-morrow would have given him power
To rule, to shine, to smite, to save –
And must it dawn upon his grave?
I cannot leave this poem without remarking on Mazeppa’s singular love for horses. When the party stops for the night, the first thing he does is to take care of his horse. He does so with more tenderness and consideration than most people lavish on their own children. If you happen to like horses, these lines (57-77) will probably be among the highlights of the whole poem for you.
But first, outspent with this long course,
The Cossack prince rubb'd down his horse,
And made for him a leafy bed,
And smooth'd his fetlocks and his mane,
And slack'd his girth, and stripp'd his rein,
And joy'd to see how well he fed;
For until now he had the dread
His wearied courser might refuse
To browse beneath the midnight dews:
But he was hardy as his lord,
And little cared for bed and board;
But spirited and docile too,
Whate'er was to be done, would do.
Shaggy and swift, and strong of limb,
All Tartar-like he carried him;
Obey'd his voice, and came to call,
And knew him in the midst of all:
Though thousands were around, – and Night,
Without a star, pursued her flight, –
That steed from sunset until dawn
His chief would follow like a fawn.
If The Giaour is anything to go by, one must be sorry that Mr McGann didn’t include more of Byron’s “exotic tales” (The Bride of Abydos, Lara, The Corsair). It was first published on 5 June 1813, it became almost as smashing a success as Childe Harold had been on the previous year, it went through fourteen editions in two years, and it developed from 685 lines in the first edition to its final form of 1334 lines in the seventh (27 November 1813).
Byron, whose self-criticism is unusually acute, calls this poem “disjointed fragments”. This is hardly something unusual for him (see Beppo above and Childe Harold below). The reader who demands formal perfection must get used to formless improvisation – or quit reading Byron altogether. Indeed, when you see a subtitle like “A Fragment of a Turkish Tale”, you should be prepared for something like a bunch of “disjointed fragments”. That said, it must be stressed that The Giaour is more disjointed and more fragmentary than usual. The stanzas are of various lengths and separated by mere rows of dots. The beginning is a long, and typically Byronic, rave about
but then the fragments freely digress into all sorts of far-fetched fantasies
(including even vampire myths). The story itself is very simple, but told in a
curiously reversed way. In a nutshell, a beautiful woman (Leila) from a harem
is killed by her master (Hassan) because she has been unfaithful with a giaour
(that is, an infidel). She is avenged by her lover who then enters a monastery and
makes a confession to a shocked friar. Oddly enough, the strange manner of
telling, slowly revealing the story and the tribulations of the title character,
achieves a remarkable dramatic tension and works up to a fine climax. The
nameless giaour is a fine specimen of the Byronic hero: Greece
Dark and unearthly is the scowl
That glares beneath his dusty cowl –
The flash of that dilating eye
Reveals too much of times gone by –
Will others quail beneath his look,
Nor ‘scape the glance they scarce can brook.
From him the half-affrighted Friar
When met alone would fain retire –
As if that eye and bitter smile
Transferrеd to others fear and guile –
Not oft to smile descendeth he,
And when he doth ‘tis sad to see
That he but mocks at Misery.
But sadder still it were to trace
What once were feelings in that face –
Time hath not yet the features fixеd,
But brighter trains with evil mixеd –
And there are hues not always faded,
Which speak a mind not all degraded,
Even by the crimes through which it waded –
The common crowd but see the gloom
Of wayward deeds – and fitting doom –
The close observer can espy
A noble soul, and lineage high. –
Alas! though both bestowеd in vain,
Which Grief could change – and Guilt could stain –
The giaour’s confession forms the long coda of the poem. It is a magnificent piece of sustained passion in verse that could not have been written by any other poet. It is quintessentially Byronic. Its vast scope extends from autobiographical reminiscences to philosophical speculations and from brisk narrative of events to subtle dissection of the human animal. It is impossible to give even the faintest idea of all this by quotations, still less am I able to do so in my own words. Therefore, I will give here only the last stanza:
He pass’d – nor of his name and race
Hath left a token or a trace,
Save what the father must not say
Who shrived him on his dying day;
This broken tale was all we knew
Of her he lov’d, or him he slew.
“Particular notice should be taken of Byron’s inimitable notes,” Mr McGann reminds us, “which supply a peculiar ironic vantage on the heroic tragedy narrated in the verse.” This is true, but it is not the whole truth. The notes also supply a good deal of relevant commentary which is quite serious indeed. Much of it is occupied with the historical background, from exotic Turkish weapons and the amusements of Greek sailors to local customs and folklore, but some of it is rather harrowing. The note to line 89, for example, describes something which Byron rightly assumes “few of my readers have ever had the opportunity of witnessing”, namely “the singular beauty which pervades, with few exceptions, the features of the dead, a few hours, and but for a few hours” after their death. Byron’s morbidity reaches its peak when he describes the difference in the countenance of the dead who were shot from those who were stabbed, the former expression being “always that of languor, whatever the natural energy of the sufferer’s character” while the latter preserving “its traits of feeling or ferocity, and the mind its bias, to the last.” My favourite notes, however, are some of the witty gems noted by Mr McGann. When a character is supposed to have “curl’d his very beard with ire” (line 593), Byron explains:
A phenomenon not uncommon with an angry Mussulman. In 1809, the Capitan Pacha’s whiskers at a diplomatic audience were no less lively with indignation than a tiger cat’s, to the horror of all the dragomans; the portentous mustachios twisted, they stood erect of their own accord, and were expected every moment to change their colour, but at last condescended to subside, which, probably, saved more heads than they contained hairs.
Last and least, the last note contains a plausible explanation about the fragmentary character of the work:
The story in the text is one told of a young Venetian many years ago, and now nearly forgotten. I heard it by accident recited by one of the coffee-house story-tellers who abound in the
Levant, and sing or recite their narratives. The
additions and interpolations by the translator will be easily distinguished
from the rest, by the want of Eastern imagery; and I regret that my memory has
retained so little of the original.
Childe Harold is a monumental and multifarious work. Its four cantos run to 4538 lines. Its composition stretched across nearly ten years and half of
It was begun in 1808-09, during Byron’s Grand Tour (Portugal, Spain, Greece,
Albania), continued in Switzerland in 1816, in post-Napoleonic Europe and after
Byron’s absurd marriage had practically ended, and finished in 1817 in Italy
(Venice), where the author was living in his typically scandalous way.
Therefore, the last two cantos are darker, more introverted and more
pessimistic; lines like “Perchance my heart and harp have lost a string” (III.4)
or “My springs of life were poisoned. 'Tis too late!” (III.7) are quite common
and often elaborated at some length. On the whole, in Mr McGann’s apt words, “Byron
interiorizes the form [of the travelogue] so drastically that it mutates into a
drama of personal history.” Byron’s own agenda behind the work, as quoted
above, can be found in “Addendum to the Preface”.
Ironically, the character of Childe Harold fails to do exactly what Byron said was his purpose: to give “some connection to the piece”. It is simply a collection of highly personal impressions, opinions, reflections and musings of an inquisitive and restless traveller. It is rambling in the extreme. This is an essential part of its charm. The title character is seldom mentioned indeed, and even when he is we don’t always learn something about him. Hence the autobiographical significance is undeniable yet tenuous. The following stanza, for example, is a clear reference to Newstead Abbey, as well as to Byron’s youthful escapades, but it is the exception rather than the rule (I.7):
The Childe departed from his father's hall:
It was a vast and venerable pile;
So old, it seemed only not to fall,
Yet strength was pillar’d in each massy aisle.
Monastic dome! condemn’d to uses vile!
Where Superstition once had made her den
Now Paphian girls were known to sing and smile;
And monks might deem their time was come agen,
If ancient tales say true, nor wrong these holy men.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that many of these stanzas are thoroughly autobiographical. If they give out little of Byron’s actual experiences (like his affair with
in II.30-35), they certainly paint a
rich picture of Byron’s personality. The first question that readers must
answer for themselves is how much the character of Harold, sketchy as it is, corresponds
to Byron’s. This is not an easy question. It is made more difficult by Byron’s
ambivalent claim in the dedication to the fourth canto: Florence
With regard to the conduct of the last canto, there will be found less of the pilgrim than in any of the preceding, and that little slightly, if at all, separated from the author speaking in his own person. The fact is, that I had become weary of drawing a line which every one seemed determined not to perceive: like the Chinese in Goldsmith's ‘Citizen of the World’, whom nobody would believe to be a Chinese, it was in vain that I asserted, and imagined that I had drawn, a distinction between the author and the pilgrim; and the very anxiety to preserve this difference, and disappointment at finding it unavailing, so far crushed my efforts in the composition, that I determined to abandon it altogether – and have done so.
This is true, but it should be mentioned that in the first three cantos the difference between the pilgrim and the author is rather tenuous, too. For my part, I am inclined to believe that Harold’s “Byronic” qualities, most notably his detachment from the herd and disillusionment with revelry (I.8-11), are accurate depictions of Byron’s own personality. It is essential to understand, however, they are not the whole of that personality, no matter how vividly conveyed here and there:
Yet oft-times in his maddest mirthful mood
Strange pangs would flash along Childe Harold's brow,
As if the memory of some deadly feud
Or disappointed passion lurk’d below:
But this none knew, nor haply car’d to know;
For his was not that open, artless soul
That feels relief by bidding sorrow flow,
Nor sought he friend to counsel or condole,
Whate’er this grief mote be, which he could not control.
And none did love him! – though to hall and bower
He gather’d revellers from far and near,
He knew them flatt’rers of the festal hour,
The heartless parasites of present cheer.
Yea! none did love him – not his lemans dear –
But pomp and power alone are woman’s care,
And where these are light Eros finds a feere [consort or mate];
Maidens, like moths, are ever caught by glare.
And Mammon wins his way where Seraphs might despair.
But soon he knew himself the most unfit
Of men to herd with Man; with whom he held
Little in common; untaught to submit
His thoughts to others, though his soul was quell’d
In youth by his own thoughts; still uncompell’d,
He would not yield dominion of his mind
To spirits against whom his own rebell’d,
Proud though in desolation; which could find
A life within itself, to breathe without mankind.
But in Man’s dwellings he became a thing
Restless and worn, and stern and wearisome,
Droop’d as a wild-born falcon with clipt wing,
To whom the boundless air alone were home:
Then came his fit again, which to o’ercome,
As eagerly the barr’d-up bird will beat
His breast and beak against his wiry dome
Till the blood tinge his plumage, so the heat
Of his impeded soul would through his bosom eat.
Byron’s personality, as expressed in Childe Harold and his writings in general, is vast and complex, much vaster and more complex than is generally supposed by superficial folk who chant that Byron, the arch-Romantic, preached nothing but “follow your passions and damn the expense”. Nor was he ardently pro-British when his compatriots proved to be plunderers. Some of the most brutal lines in the whole poem are those dedicated to the deeds of Lord Elgin (II.11-15). Byron well knew that the “dull spoiler” was Scottish, but he pulled no punches over
complicity in the matter: England
But who, of all the plunderers of yon fane
On high, where Pallas linger’d, loth to flee
The latest relic of her ancient reign;
The last, the worst, dull spoiler, who was he?
such thy son could be!
Thy free-born men should spare what once was free;
Yet they could violate each saddening shrine,
And bear these altars o’er the long-reluctant brine.
Cold is the heart, fair
looks on thee, Greece
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they lov’d;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defac’d, thy mouldering shrines remov’d
By British hands, which it had best behov’d
To guard those relics ne’er to be restor’d: –
Curst be the hour when from their isle they rov’d,
And once again thy hapless bosom gor’d,
And snatch’d thy shrinking Gods to Northern climes abhorr’d!
Byron loved the ancient Greeks and their mighty legacy as much as anybody, but he spared not the modern Greeks for their meek submission under the Turkish yoke. In a powerful stanza (II.76), he urges them to fight for their freedom:
Hereditary Bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
By their right arms the conquest must be wrought?
or Muscovite redress ye? no!
True, they may lay your proud despoilers low,
But not for you will Freedom’s altars flame.
Shades of the Helots! triumph o’er your foe!
Thy glorious day is o’er, but not thine years of shame.
Politics, not surprisingly, play a prominent role in this poem, quite often linked (even less surprisingly) with war. Byron criss-crossed
Europe in momentous historical
times, and he well knew it. He describes with great vividness the ravages of the
Peninsular War in the battles of Talavera and Albuera (I.38-44). He visits , that “king-making
victory”, and pays a fine homage to his cousin who was killed there (III.29). As
usual, his attitude is anything but simple. Napoleon is a case in point. Byron is
no fan of the legendary Corsican, as you can tell from the
ironically titled “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte”, but neither is he fond of denying his
greatness; “the greatest, nor the worst of men” (III.36) is his succinct
summary. More importantly, he feels acutely the depression of post-Napoleonic Waterloo Europe and asks, boldly, what happens now that Napoleon
is no longer an emperor (III.18-19):
And Harold stands upon this place of skulls,
The grave of
the deadly ! Waterloo
How in an hour the power which gave annuls
Its gifts, transferring fame as fleeting too!
In ‘pride of place’ here last the Eagle flew,
Then tore with bloody talon the rent plain,
Pierced by the shaft of banded nations through;
Ambition’s life and labours all were vain;
He wears the shattered links of the world’s broken chain.
may champ the bit
And foam in fetters; – but is Earth more free?
Did nations combat to make One submit;
Or league to teach all kings true sovereignty?
What! shall reviving Thraldom again be
The patched-up idol of enlightened days?
Shall we, who struck the Lion down, shall we
Pay the Wolf homage? proffering lowly gaze
And servile knees to thrones? No; prove before ye praise!
To cut the long story short, Byron comments extensively on (human) nature, religion, war, politics, history, society, art and everything else – including pantheism, mysticism and metaphysics. Some of his most passionate and most beautiful verse is reserved for the joys of sea voyage (II.20-21) and the beauty of nature (II.87, III.13), including the unconquerable Ocean (IV.179-85) and even a mighty storm (III.92-96). Unlike some whiny modern travellers, he is appreciative, though by no means uncritical, of the countries he passes through and the people he meets. He raves about “Lisboa” (I.16), Spain (I.35-37), Albania (II.88), the Rhine (III.59-60), the Alps (III.62), Venice (VI.1-17), Rome (IV.78-81) and Italy (IV.26, 47, 55), about the picturesque dress of the Albanians (II.58, see also the cover of this book) and the Greek struggle for independence (II.73, 76, 83), about the lives and works of, among others, Rousseau (III.77-81), Voltaire (III.106), Gibbon (III.107), Petrarch (IV.30-32) and Tasso (IV.36-39). Amidst all this and a great deal of unabashedly descriptive verse whose purpose is simply to convey the feelings aroused by certain places, Byron can always surprise you with a revealing personal touch that tells as much about him as can be said in so short a space. No one who reads these lines (II.3), for example, can doubt that Byron was a staunch free-thinker:
Even Gods must yield – religions take their turn:
‘Twas Jove’s – ‘tis Mahomet’s – and other creeds
Will rise with other years, till man shall learn
Vainly his incense soars, his victim bleeds;
Poor child of Doubt and Death, whose hope is built on reeds.
Byron cannot be called an optimistic writer by any stretch of the imagination. Quite a few of these 4538 lines give the impression that he has fathomed the secrets of human existence but not seen much there. If you doubt that, take a look at, to take but two examples, stanzas IV.108 and IV.121, most powerful depictions of, respectively, the utter futility of our lives and the illusory nature of love in nine lines. But not the least of Byron’s considerable achievements is that he could draw some inspiration from his bleak and godless outlook. In yet another description of Harold which almost certainly refers to the author (III.16), this is beautifully described:
Self-exiled Harold wanders forth again,
With nought of hope left, but with less of gloom;
The very knowledge that he lived in vain,
That all was over on this side the tomb,
Had made Despair a smilingness assume,
Which, though ‘twere wild, – as on the plundered wreck
When mariners would madly meet their doom
With draughts intemperate on the sinking deck, –
Did yet inspire a cheer, which he forbore to check.
The extensive notes are one of the great delights of Childe Harold. They give a lot of additional information on sundry subjects, from an extensive analysis of the conditions in modern Greece (II.73) and the character of the Albanians (II.38) to a lovely eulogy of Julia Alpinula (III.66) and an amused criticism of the injustice of military history which remembers the vanquished better than the victors (IV.151). Very little is without interest. Perhaps what impresses me most is Byron’s scrupulous attention to detail. I should think poets, of all people, would be tempted to use poetic licence. Well, not this poet. At one place (I.20), he mentions a Spanish monastery called “Our Lady’s house of Woe”, but in the note he explains how he was informed “since the publication of this poem” that he had missed the tilde in the title (Nossa Señora de Pena) and so wrote Pena (woe) instead of Peña (rock). He charmingly explains that he didn’t think it necessary to alter the passage because, though “Our Lady of the Rock” is the real name, “I may assume the other sense from the severities practiced there.” An even more striking example is to be found when he describes the fortifications of Sierra Morena (I.51). He concludes the stanza with “The ball-piled pyramid, the ever-blazing match” and explains in the note:
All who have seen a battery will recollect the pyramidal form in which shot and shells are piled. The Sierra Morena was fortified in every defile through which I passed in my way to
Other highlights in the notes include a perceptive observation on Napoleon (III.41, his great error was “obtrusion on mankind of his want of all community of feeling for or with them; perhaps more offensive to human vanity than the active cruelty of more trembling and suspicious tyranny.”), disturbing reflections on the transient nature of civilisation (II.1) including a great quote from Servius Sulpicius (IV.44, in a letter to Cicero), yet another magnificent tirade against Lord Elgin and his gang (II.12), and a heightened discourse on nature worship as expressed in Rousseau’s Héloïse (III.21). The famous, or notorious if you like, Swiss philosopher is memorably described in the verse as “self-torturing sophist” and “the apostle of affliction, he who threw / Enchantment over Passion”. Byron shows a lot of compassion for his mind “phrensied by disease or woe” and his life as “one long war with self-sought foes, / or friends by him self-banished”.
I find the stanza on Gibbon (III.107) wonderfully moving, rather relevant to Byron himself, and a fitting conclusion of my first – but certainly not last – journey through Childe Harold:
The other, deep and slow, exhausting thought,
And hiving wisdom with each studious year,
In meditation dwelt, with learning wrought,
And shaped his weapon with an edge severe,
Sapping a solemn creed with solemn sneer;
The lord of irony, – that master-spell,
Which stung his foes to wrath, which grew from fear,
And doom’d him to the zealot’s ready Hell,
Which answers to all doubts so eloquently well.
To take an issue with Byron himself (I.200), I don’t think Don Juan is an epic. It certainly is of epic proportions, running to 16 complete cantos and nearly 16 000 lines, but I don’t think it is an epic. The Iliad is. Don Juan is not. The fact that Byron died before he could finish it has nothing to do with this. It is the profoundly comic nature of the work that undermines its epic character. No writer who doesn’t take himself very seriously can spin an epic around himself.
For this is the point. Byron is the real hero of this poem. I don’t mean that Don Juan is a self-portrait, even an idealised one. I mean that quite often Byron himself talks to the reader in the first person singular. These confessions must be taken with a fair dose of suspicion. But on the whole they seem to be very accurate indeed. When Byron mentions his uncle’s Narrative (II.137) or his own swimming the Hellespont (II.105), he mentions well-documented historical facts. The harrowing story about the Italian officer shot dead with five bullets on the street (V.33-35) is all true, too. We know this from Byron’s letter to Moore from December 9, 1820, in which the assassination is described in detail. It happened just a hundred paces from the poet’s residence in Ravenna. “This is a fact, and no poetic fable”. Indeed!
The most frequent, and most charming, intrusions of the first person biographical are the poet’s reflections on his own poem. In the first canto (I.199-200), Byron frankly tells us this work is meant to be of epic dimensions but whether it will be depends on the public. That the first twelve cantos are “merely flourishes” (XII.54) we may accept as a deliberate hyperbole, but Byron was probably in the earnest that “the plan [for the poem] at present’s simply in concoction” (XII.87). Most tantalisingly, and only half-jokingly, I think, Byron professes to be a staunch moralist – “’Tis always with a moral end / That I dissert” (XII.39), “my object is morality / (Whatever people say)” (XII.86) – though this does not mean his morality is necessarily one that prudes and prigs would approve.
Byron is perfectly aware of his countless digressions and freely admits them to his readers (XIV.7). While discussing the Norman Abbey in Canto XIII, clearly based on Newstead Abbey, he is right to be proud of his conciseness compared to Homer (XIII.74): “But a mere modern must be moderate – / I spare you then the furniture and plate.” Whatever flaws Don Juan may have, there is nothing among these nearly 16 000 lines even remotely as tedious as the Catalogue of Ships from The Iliad. Indeed, a good case can be made that much of the best material lies in the digressions.
Above all, as already hinted above, Byron insists on factual accuracy (VIII.86, 89). He is emphatic that everything described has happened, to him or somebody else, at one time or another in history (I.202; XIV.13):
There’s only one slight difference between
Me and my epic brethren gone before,
And here the advantage is my own, I ween;
(Not that I have not several merits more,
But this will more peculiarly be seen)
They so embellish, that ‘tis quite a bore
Their labyrinth of fables to thread through,
Whereas this story’s actually true.
Besides, my Muse by no means deals in fiction:
She gathers a repertory of facts,
Of course with some reserve and slight restriction,
But mostly sings of human things and acts –
And that’s one cause she meets with contradiction;
For too much truth, at first sight, ne’er attracts;
And were her object only what’s call’d glory,
With more ease too she’d tell a different story.
More speculatively, a number of reflections are relevant to Byron himself. There are startling confessions of anti-British sentiments (X.66-8), failing creative faculties (IV.3), craving for success and contempt for posterity (XII.17-8). He is unapologetic about his literary productivity and social notoriety (XIV.9-12). In one particularly affecting passage, he reflects (at 30!) on the encroaching middle age and his wasted youth spent in chasing worthless fame. These are sobering stanzas (I.213-18):
But now at thirty years my hair is gray –
(I wonder what it will be like at forty?
I thought of a peruke the other day – )
My heart is not much greener; and, in short, I
Have squander’d my whole summer while ‘twas May,
And feel no more the spirit to retort; I
Have spent my life, both interest and principal,
And deem not, what I deeme’d, my soul invincible.
No more – no more – Oh! never more on me
The freshness of the heart can fall like dew,
Which out of all the lovely things we see
Extracts emotions beautiful and new,
Hived in our bosoms like the bag o’ the bee:
Think’st thou the honey with those objects grew?
Alas! ‘twas not in them, but in thy power
To double even the sweetness of a flower.
No more – no more – Oh! never more, my heart,
Canst thou be my sole world, my universe!
Once all in all, but now a thing apart,
Thou canst not be my blessing or my curse:
The illusion’s gone for ever, and thou art
Insensible, I trust, but none the worse,
And in thy stead I’ve got a deal of judgment,
Though heaven knows how it ever found a lodgement.
My days of love are over; me no more
The charms of maid, wife, and still less of widow,
Can make the fool of which they made before,
In short, I must not lead the life I did do;
The credulous hope of mutual minds is o’er,
The copious use of claret is forbid too,
So for a good old-gentlemanly vice,
I think I must take up with avarice.
Ambition was my idol, which was broken
Before the shrines of Sorrow, and of Pleasure;
And the two last have left me many a token
O’er which reflection may be made at leisure:
Now, like Friar Bacon’s Brazen Head, I’ve spoken,
“Time is, Time was, Time’s past” – a chymic treasure
Is glittering Youth, which I have spent betimes –
My heart in passion, and my head on rhymes.
What is the end of fame? ‘tis but to fill
A certain portion of uncertain paper:
Some liken it to climbing up a hill,
Whose summit, like all hills’, is lost in vapour;
For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill,
And bards burn what they call their ‘midnight taper’,
To have, when the original is dust,
A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust.
But Byron is not one to wallow in self-pity. The above stanzas are the closest he ever gets to it. And that’s far enough for me. He reflects on being called a misanthrope “Because / They hate me, not I them: – And here we’ll pause.” (IX.21), on the educational value of bitter experience that “’Twill teach discernment to the sensitive / And not to pour their ocean in a sieve.” (XIV.49), and on his refusal to sink into weeping forgetfulness (IV.4) with admirable fortitude.
How seriously should we take these confessions? I am inclined to believe Byron meant every word of them. It is hard to say when he is more serious, at his most or least flippant, but this may be a foolish question. It’s like choosing between night and day. Both are equally true, whichever you may prefer.
Leaving aside the author, there is little characterisation and no plot whatsoever. If that’s what you’re reading Don Juan for, you’ll be disappointed. The whole story, such as it is, can be told in a single sentence. Don Juan is born and raised in Seville, has to leave it as a young man for naughty reasons (Canto I), and then embarks on a series wild adventures all around Europe, notably in Greece (II–IV), Constantinople (V, VI), Ismail (VII, VIII), St Petersburg (IX, X) and England (XI–XVI). Except for the first two and by far the longest cantos (438 stanzas altogether), which are relatively packed with incident, the rest is mostly packed with description and digression. Sometimes Byron almost perversely leads you to a climax that never comes. Lambro’s return to his island only to find a party celebrating the (obviously false) news of his own death (III.26-57) is a striking example of this. The passage is tense, dramatic, promising and – left hanging in the air.
But if you know something about Byron’s longer works, notably Childe Harold and the Turkish Tales, you know this digressive diffusiveness is typical of him – and it doesn’t matter. He remains fantastically readable, engrossing and thought-provoking, never mind his awkward (sometimes non-existent) ideas of rhyming. As for the characters, what they lack in coherence and complexity, they more than make up for in penetrating vividness.
Don Juan’s character is not as shadowy as generally supposed. He is an admirable creature, “a boy of saintly breeding” (IV.19.) “as warm in heart as feminine in feature” (VIII.52). Sometimes he is pardonably self-absorbed (IX.68), “a little superficial” (XI.51) and “a little dissipated” (X.23), quite a socialite in courts and country houses all around Europe. But he is remarkably little spoiled by the circumstances of his life (XII.49). He is not very thoughtful or troubled by moral dilemmas (XII.81), yet he is brave, noble and humane. The confrontation with Lambro (IV.46-51) shows him at his courageous best. When the sailors want to get drunk during the storm, he bars their way to the liquor and says: “But let us die like men, not sink below / Like brutes” (II.36). He storms Ismail and kills willingly for the Russians, yet he is moved to save a ten-year-old girl when two Cossacks are about to kill her (VIII.91-102), and he further takes care of her welfare.
Most important of all, and quite unlike Don Giovanni from Mozart’s eponymous masterpiece, Don Juan neither looks for trouble nor breaks female hearts unless compelled by circumstances (VIII.53-4, XII.85). He does not seek seduction but inadvertently invites it (XV.12):
His manner was perhaps the more seductive,
Because he ne’er seem’d anxious to seduce;
Nothing affected, studied, or constructive
Of coxcombry or conquest: no abuse
Of his attractions marr’d the fair perspective,
To indicate a Cupidon broke loose,
And seem to say, “resist us if you can” –
Which makes a dandy while it spoils a man.
Some of the other characters, though simplified, are not forgettable. One of the most memorable is Catherine the Great herself, no less, who is rather prominent in Canto IX, including a very favourable comparison to Elizabeth I (IX.81). Gulbeyaz, the star of Cantos V and VI, is a fine study of that godlike aristocratic haughtiness that never meets “with aught save prayers and praise” (V.122). This species, fortunately extinct today, tells you as much as anything about the different social context then and now. There is something to be said about the mathematical and puritanical Donna Inez, Don Juan’s mother and a subtle way for Byron to have fun at the expense of his wife (I.10-18); the noble Donna Julia (I.55-61), who seduces Don Juan at the tender age of 16 (she being quite mature at 23) (I.68-85), the lovely Haidee, a pirate’s daughter (II.125-7) and a child of nature (II.202) who saves Don Juan only to fall tragically in love with him (II.182-98); the meddling Lady Adeline, unfortunately prominent in the last four cantos, and her husband Lord Henry who – let Byron explain (XIV.70-72):
He was a cold, good, honourable man,
Proud of his birth, and proud of every thing;
A goodly spirit for a state divan,
A figure fit to walk before a king;
Tall, stately, form’d to lead the courtly van
On birth-days, glorious with a star and string;
The very model of a Chamberlain –
And such I mean to make him when I reign.
But there was something wanting on the whole –
I don’t know what, and therefore cannot tell –
Which pretty women – the sweet souls! – call Soul.
Certes it was not body; he was well
Proportion’d, as a poplar or a pole,
A handsome man, that human miracle;
And in each circumstance of love or war
Had still preserved his perpendicular.
Still there was something wanting, as I’ve said –
That undefinable ‘Je ne sais quoi,’
Which, for what I know, may of yore have led
To Homer’s Iliad, since it drew to Troy
The Greek Eve, Helen, from the Spartan’s bed;
Though on the whole, no doubt, the Dardan boy
Was much inferior to King Menelaus: –
But thus it is some women will betray us.
There is something to be said about all these and many other characters, but I do not propose to say it just now. But I must say I am sorry Byron didn’t make more of these marvellous creatures. He drops them too soon.
One thing about Don Juan that impresses me on the whole is the scope. Byron does call it “Epic Satire” (XIV.99), but though it contains both epic and satirical elements, surely it contains a lot more than that. Auden was more right than wrong that Don Juan “is not a satire but a comedy”, but this, too, is a gross oversimplification. When Byron describes the English aristocracy (XIII.79ff.) and their country life (XIII.101ff.), he is satirical. When he describes Juan’s ghostly adventures (XVI.111-23), he is comic. But now and then, rather often actually, he is neither comic nor satirical. He is never sentimental or lachrymose: “mine is not a weeping Muse” (II.16). The shipwreck and its aftermath in the second canto (II.26-107) are as terrifying as anything ever penned by anybody. Julia’s letter to Juan after their affair ends ignominiously (I.192-7) is genuinely passionate, even tragic. So is Haidee’s death (IV.69-71) and plenty of other episodes (some to be mentioned below, some first-person asides already mentioned above).
Byron’s frequent digressions, for one, two or a dozen stanzas, are one of the great glories of Don Juan. He takes a shot at everything. Occasionally, it’s a potshot. Usually, it’s a sniper short. The witty and funny, even flippant, surface should not obscure the deadly accuracy of the Byronic gun.
Bernard Shaw was right, in his Epistle Dedicatory (1903) of Man and Superman, to dismiss the title character as “not a true Don Juan at all”. But if he merely missed the point here, Shaw was as wrong as he could be when he claimed that “Byron’s fragment does not count for much philosophically.” Byron was no fan of muddled metaphysics – he famously “shot” Coleridge in this respect (Dedication, II) – but that is a poor reason to neglect his musings on life, death and everything else. He was not an intellectual or a philosopher, but neither was he just a dumb producer of pretty stanzas. Goethe, under the false impression of being damning, was more right than he knew when he said that “The moment [Byron] reflects, he is a child”. Indeed! Byron had the childish, and marvellous, ability to see things with complete simplicity. He also had experience and erudition that no child can possess.
Many people wrongly associate simplicity with superficiality. They differ in degree rather than kind, it is true, but it’s a significant difference. Superficiality is merely skating on the surface without probing the essence. Simplicity is skipping the surface and going straight for the essence. The difference is of course subjective and depends on a writer’s ability to convince.
Simplicity and superficiality needn’t have anything to do with each other, and in Byron they don’t. Examples of his unique insight into the human condition are countless in these sixteen cantos. Even the prosaic ones are often profound. Byron knows, for example, that eating is one of the most important things (V.49; XIII.99), that hoarding money is a great pleasure and therefore misers are far from being unhappy (XII.4-12), and that seasickness can make you forget whatever suffering afflicts you at the moment, including lost country, family and beloved (II.19-21). He has the intellectual honesty to admit the finality of death (V.36-9) and the nothingness of life (VII.4-6), and in both cases he makes pretty good cases. He is certainly aware of the dark depths of the human soul (XIV.101-2):
‘Tis strange, – but true; for Truth is always strange,
Stranger than Fiction: if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!
How differently the world would men behold!
How oft would vice and virtue places change!
The new world would be nothing to the old,
If some Columbus of the moral seas
Would show mankind their souls’ Antipodes.
What ‘Antres vast and deserts idle’ then
Would be discover’d in the human soul!
What Icebergs in the hearts of mighty men,
With Self-love in the centre as their Pole!
What Anthropophagi are nine of ten
Of those who hold the kingdoms in controul!
Were things but only call’d by their right name,
Caesar himself would be ashamed of Fame.
Two of the most disgusting inventions of humanity, war and slavery, are prominently demolished in Don Juan. The latter is mentioned only once for five stanzas (V.26-30), when Don Juan is sold at the slave market in Constantinople, but there is no ambiguity about Byron’s position. “’Tis pleasant purchasing our fellow creatures”, he remarks with undisguised sarcasm. He describes how the bidders shamelessly ogle the merchandise, “this superior yoke of human cattle”, and haggle among each other as if they were “in a mere Christian fair”. In a masterstroke of Byronic mockery, our poet wonders whether the conscience of the buyer didn’t oppress him during the “gloomiest hour” after dinner. Pretty good achievement for exactly 40 lines of verse!
The siege (VII) and conquest (VIII) of Ismail, in which Russians and Cossacks killed some 40 000 Turks (VIII.127) in December 1790, are one of the greatest indictments on war known to me in print. Many stanzas describe the carnage in graphic detail (VIII.20, 43, 69, 82, 122), including the heart-wrenching story of a father and his five sons (VIII.105-18), but one of them is especially disturbing because it goes deeper. Byron knew very well and said with brutal directness – what most people know but few dare to admit even to themselves, let alone publicly – that wars in history have been fuelled as much by the greed for gold and glory of rulers and generals as by the innate and ineradicable (?) savagery of the common man (VIII.82, my emphasis):
The city’s taken – only part by part –
And Death is drunk with gore: there’s not a street
Where fights not to the last some desperate heart
For those for whom it soon shall cease to beat.
Here War forgot his own destructive Art
In more destroying Nature; and the heat
Of Carnage, like the Nile’s sun-sodden Slime,
Engendered monstrous shapes of every Crime.
Here is a fine example of simplicity that goes to the heart of the matter and explains a lot, in this case about the prominence of wars in human history. Except for a few special cases of fighting for liberty against invaders, like Leonidas and Washington for example, Byron condemns this lunacy completely (VIII.3-5). At one place (VII.80), he casually mentions how we have equalled Homer in blood. Think about that in the light of both our last century and the Greek bard’s addiction to gory spectacles. Other cantos are peppered with anti-war sentiments as well. One of the naughtiest is echoing Horace’s “worst cause of all war”, yet not mentioning the exact word (“cunnus”, a woman, i.e. Helen of Troy) and actually reversing the argument as “that great cause of war”, namely Catherine the Great whose joy at the news of the massacre at Ismail is almost orgasmic (IX.55-9). Semi-legendary figures like Wellington (IX.1-10), Suvorov (VII.8, 55, 69, 87) and Potemkin (VII.36-7, “a great thing in days / When homicide and harlotry made great”) do not escape the onslaught, either.
No name or vocation is sacred enough to be spared Byron’s arrows or bullets. On monks, for instance: “Those vegetables of the Catholic creed / Are apt exceedingly to run to seed.” (XIV.81). Possibly my greatest favourites are those about Petrarch, “the Platonic pimp of all posterity” (V.1): “Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch’s wife, / He would have written sonnets all his life?” (III.8). The most vicious attacks are reserved for the Lakers (the poets, not the LA basketball team). This should come as no surprise to anybody who cares to read the dedication to “Bob Southey”. Still, sometimes Byron’s virulence is surprising even by his own standards, yet relentlessly amusing (III.93-4):
All are not moralists, like Southey, when
He prated to the world of ‘Pantisocracy’;
Or Wordsworth unexcised, unhired, who then
Season’d his pedlar poems with democracy;
Or Coleridge, long before his flighty pen
Let to the Morning Post its aristocracy;
When he and Southey, following the same path,
Espoused two partners (milliners of Bath).
Such names at present cut a convict figure,
The very Botany Bay in moral geography;
Their loyal treason, renegado rigour,
Are good manure for their more bare biography.
Wordsworth’s last quarto, by the way, is bigger
Than any since the birthday of typography;
A drowsy frowzy poem, call’d the ‘Excursion’,
Writ in a manner which is my aversion.
That the wives of Coleridge and Southey, who were sisters, “were not milliners, however”, as Mr McGann tells us, hardly matters.
Mr McGann considers Don Juan Byron’s “masterwork”, “the most comprehensive epic of his age, and arguably the greatest English poem since Paradise Lost.” I don’t know about Byron’s age or Milton’s masterwork, I am not familiar with either, but I’m not sure Don Juan is Byron’s greatest work. It is a great summing-up of his work. But it is longer rather than greater compared to Childe Harold. It has elements of the Turkish Tales, but it doesn’t supersede them. Certainly, it doesn’t make superfluous his tragedies in blank verse, various other narrative poems (e.g. Beppo, Parisina, Mazeppa, The Prisoner of Chillon) and a good deal of short and not so short poems of many moods written on many occasions. Byron’s greatest masterpiece is his complete oeuvre. This is far greater than any of its parts.
A Byron without Don Juan would have been a lesser Byron, no question about that. But a Byron with only Don Juan would have been a lesser Byron still. Far lesser! There is more variety and more versatility in Byron than you have dreamed in your Juanesque philosophy.
Nevertheless, the poem remains a towering achievement and an indispensable read for Byronic enthusiasts. Don Juan is a flawed masterpiece, but what matters are the many masterstrokes, not the few flaws. I am looking forward to a future re-reading. The thing is truly inexhaustible.
Mr McGann did come tantalisingly close, closer than most, in achieving the impossible: demonstrating Byron’s versatility in a single volume. The inclusion of shorter poems and prose is essential in this respect.
The hyper-famous “She Walks in Beauty” is not among my favourites from Byron’s shorter poems. It’s beautiful, of course, but it doesn’t have Byron’s usual passion, the dark intensity that makes him special. Simply compare “She Walks in Beauty” to the two “Stanzas for Music” that surround it or to any of the poems addressed to Augusta that follow a little later, and you will know what I mean.
The hyper-famous “She Walks in Beauty” is not among my favourites from Byron’s shorter poems. It’s beautiful, of course, but it doesn’t have Byron’s usual passion, the dark intensity that makes him special. Simply compare “She Walks in Beauty” to the two “Stanzas for Music” that surround it or to any of the poems addressed to Augusta that follow a little later, and you will know what I mean.
“Darkness” is unique not only in this book but possibly in Byron’s complete works. It consists of 82 lines in blank verse without any interruption whatsoever and it describes nothing short of the end of the world. It opens with the psychedelic line “I had a dream, which was not all a dream” and is spellbindingly bleak until the end. The whole thing feels like some sort of apocalyptic science fiction, as if the Earth were torn away from the Solar System and frozen in the interstellar night, but conveyed with extraordinary power. The first and the last lines should be enough to illustrate this:
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy Earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went – and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chilled into a selfish prayer for light:
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The Moon, their mistress, had expired before;
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perished; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them – She was the Universe.
My fascination with “Prometheus” has purely musical roots. There is no evidence to suggest that Franz Liszt knew about, much less was inspired by, Byron’s work to compose his symphonic poem of the same name, but I can’t help feeling that he did and was. Broadly speaking, both masterpieces follow overall struggle-to-victory progression, but both have rather ambiguous conclusions. Unlike “Darkness”, “Prometheus” is organised in three longish and elaborately rhymed stanzas. The last one contains a particularly beautiful passage about
Thou art a symbol and a sign
To Mortals of their fate and force;
Like thee, Man is in part divine,
A troubled stream from a pure source;
And Man in portions can foresee
His own funereal destiny;
His wretchedness, and his resistance,
And his sad unallied existence:
The prose extracts amount only to some fifty pages or so, but they cover the last fifteen years of Byron’s life and provide a fascinating counterpoint to his poetry. The range is characteristically vast, from letters and journals, themselves diverse, to conversations and philosophical speculations about mind and matter (“Detached Thoughts”).
Byron’s letters are rich. There is just about everything in them from his daily activities and criticism of his own works to bawdy gossip and lurid anecdotes. The epistolary voice varies from intimate and confessional (with his sister and close friends) to cool and almost formal (with his wife and, to some extent, his publisher). Witty, charming, passionate, sensible and touching, these letters make for a lively reading. You cannot afford to miss them if you are seriously in Byron.
The only letter to his mother shows the 19-years-old Byron as a shrewd observer of people and manners in the exotic, then as now, South-eastern
Europe. He admires the physique of the
Albanians and simply adores their garish dress (as you can infer from the cover
of this book). The letters to Lady
Melbourne are carelessly written and full of somewhat tedious accounts of his
flirtations, but they are frequently enlivened by delicious sense of humour.
“This business is growing serious”, he gravely writes at one place, “I think Platonism in some peril”. It never
becomes clear whether those flirts with Caroline or ever turned into affairs, but the
more important point to note is Byron’s light-hearted attitude. Florence
The letters written in and after 1816, the watershed year in Byron’s life when he left
to return, become franker and more explicit. With his closest people, Augusta,
Hobhouse, Thomas Moore and even John Murray (his publisher), he freely shares
details of his “liaisons” in England ,
quite numerous and tempestuous if his accounts are to be believed. In one of the
letters to John Murray (1 August 1819), Byron narrates in glorious detail the
story of his romance with a mentally unstable mistress, but “since you desire
the story of Margarita Cogni – you shall be told it – though it may be
lengthy.” (You can see some of it in the 2003 movie Byron.)
The other letter to Italy
contains a fascinating bit of trivia and a merciless, Shylock-like attack on
the English reading public: Murray
Besides, I mean to write my best work in Italian – & it will take me nine years more thoroughly to master the language – & and then if my fancy exists & I exist too – I will try what I can do really. – As to the Estimation of the English which you talk of, let them calculate what it is worth – before they insult me with their insolent condescension. – I have not written for their pleasure; – if they are pleased – it is that they chose to be so, – I have never flattered their opinions – nor their pride –nor will
I. – Neither will I make
‘Ladies’ books’ ‘al dilettar le femine e la plebe’ – I have written from the fulness
of my mind, from passion – from impulse – from many motives – but not for their
‘sweet voices’. – I know the precise worth of popular applause – for few Scribblers
have had more of it – and if I chose to swerve into their paths – I could
retain it or resume it – or increase it – but I neither love ye – nor fear ye –
and though I buy with ye – and sell with ye – and talk with ye – I will neither
eat with ye – drink with ye – nor pray with ye. – They made me without my
search a species of popular Idol – they – without reason or judgment beyond the
caprice of their Good pleasure – threw down the Image from its pedestal – it
was not broken with the fall – and they would it seems again replace it – but
they shall not.
Alpine Journal is a most curious work. Inspired by a journey through the Swiss Alps in September 1816 and written in some sort of shorthand that suffers from wanton excess of dashes (quite typical for his letters also!), this journal was destined for the eyes of “my Sister Augusta” alone. It is a series of notes, quite rambling and often dry, but not without trenchant observations and flashes of brilliance. Byron seldom misses an opportunity to make fun of his compatriots. I am especially fond of one episode. This is a gem:
– went to Chillon through scenery worthy of I know not whom – went over the
again – on our return met an
English party in a carriage – a lady in it fast asleep! – fast asleep in the
most anti-narcotic spot in the world – excellent – I remember at Chamouni – in
the very eyes of Mont Blanc – hearing another woman – English also – exclaim to
her party – ‘did you ever see any thing more rural’ –as if it was Highgate or Hampstead – or Brompton – or
Hayes. – ‘Rural!’ – quotha! – Rocks –
pines – torrents – Glaciers – Clouds – and Summits of eternal snow far above
them – and ‘Rural’! Castle of Chillon
It should be noted that this visit, indeed several visits, to the
was not the one that inspired the wonderfully
evocative but almost unbearably tragic poem The
Prisoner of Chillon. Byron had already visited the same place together
with Shelley in June of the same year. Though the poem was published in the
beginning of December, it appears to have been finished by the middle July. It
is certainly strange that in Alpine
Journal Byron mentions the castle, and even its dungeon, without any
emotion whatsoever. This would make so much more sense if by this time he had already
finished his poem. On the other hand, the journal was probably instrumental in
the writing of Manfred; as the editor
remarks, it “provides a useful parallel text” to Byron’s finest homage to
The last two pieces of prose form a poignant coda of the whole book. The journal entry is dated “February 15th, 1824” and describes in graphic detail “a strong shock of a Convulsive description but whether Epileptic – Paralytic – or Apoplectic is not decided by the two medical men who attend me”. References to poor health are frequent in Byron’s letters too, but they are easy to miss because he never dwells on the subject. The last letter is from 23 February 1824 and was sent from “Messolonghi” (aka “Missolonghi”), the little village in
that has become world famous
as Byron’s place of death (19 April 1824). Among other things, Byron casually
mentions how he had obtained the freedom of some 29 Turkish prisoners (men,
women and children) and sent them home at his own expense. The exception was
one nine-year-old girl, Hatageé, who “has expressed a strong wish to remain
with me – or under my care – and I have nearly determined to adopt her”. The
girl was not an orphan: she had lost
her brothers in the war, but her mother, who was very much alive, “wishes to
return to her husband who is at Prevesa – but says that she would rather
entrust the Child to me”. Byron wistfully reflects that he would love to send
Hatageé in Greece England as a companion
to , his
daughter, but he well knows that Lady Byron would never allow this. He finally
resolves to send her to Ada
for education. I wonder what happened with this little girl, and how many
people are at all aware that Byron, the notorious Lord Byron whose outrageous
behaviour was the scandal of Italy Europe, did such
 The Works of Lord Byron: Poetry, ed. E. H. Coleridge (7 vols., 1898-1904), vol. 5, p. 200.
 I hope Peter Shaffer will forgive my borrowing this lovely phrase – “electrifyingly actable” – without quotation marks. He originally used it about Tennessee Williams.
 William Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age,
Printed for Henry Colburn, 1825, p. 164. London
 In one of his notes (IV.181), Byron goes even further: “Buonaparte – a man who, with all his vices and his faults, never yet found an adversary with a tithe of his talents (as far as the expression can apply to a conqueror) or his good intentions, his clemency or his fortitude.”
 W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand, Random House, 1962, p. 388. The difference between satire nad comedy is beautifully explained by Mr Auden: “both make use of the comic contradiction, but their aims are different. Satire would arouse in readers the desire to act so that the contradictions disappear; comedy would persuade them to accept the contradictions with good humor as facts of life against which it is useless to rebel.”
 See Mathew Arnold’s preface to his selection from the Poetry of Byron (1881).
 But there is some evidence that Liszt did know Byron’s Mazeppa. It is, of course, Hugo’s poem that is quoted in the score by way of preface and was probably the major source of inspiration (as you would expect from somebody who was quite at home with French but knew little English), yet note the epigraph from Byron’s work (“Away! – Away! –”). The poems make for an interesting comparison. Both concentrate on the wild ride, but Hugo’s is considerably grander on rhetoric and shorter on narrative.