Monday, November 12, 2012


reading the unreadable

At moments that's what poring over Lord Byron's poem Don Juan feels like.  But only for moments, never for long, it's altogether too fascinating.  Speaking of long, holy mackerel is this one long poem - sixteen cantos, with over two hundred stanzas in each of the first two cantos, then over a hundred stanzas in each of the remaining cantos, and a fragment of an unfinished seventeenth canto, found among Byron's papers after he died in Greece.  The Riverside edition of Don Juan is around 500 pages long.  On and on it meanders, this tale of a famous lover and observer of the world, and his adventures amatory and otherwise from Spain to Greece, then the near east and Russia, and finally to England.  Byron meant to continue the poem indefinitely.  He speaks in his letters of writing a hundred cantos or more.

What does make this poem so readable, far above and beyond the interesting and dramatic twists of fate our hero experiences, is firstly its form, and secondly its voice.  The poetic form Byron uses is the ottava rima (abababcc) stanza, and throughout, its rhymes lull and please and surprise and delight.  A sample:

Canto the Tenth, stanza XXVIII (p.302)

"I won't describe, - that is if I can help
     Description; and I won't reflect, - that is
If I can stave off thought, which - as a whelp
     Clings to its teat - sticks to me through the abyss
Of this odd labyrinth; or as the kelp
     Holds by the rock; or as a lover's kiss
Drains its first draught of lips: - but, as I said,
I won't philosophize, and will be read."

That stanza is the perfect introduction to my main point about the reading adventure that is this poem, vis–à–vis Byron's voice, the voice of his narrator. Regarding this extraordinary voice, editor Leslie A. Marchand says in his introduction that "In conception and execution, Don Juan was freer even than the novel had been up to that time - it was essay, lyric, narrative, and dramatic poetry, philosophical discourse, and light-tempered moral fable all packed as Byron pleased into an endless string of cantos."  (p.vii)  To Marchand's list I would add autobiography, memoir, religious screed, sociological commentary, and most of all, this unique style of narration, meaning the use of a shockingly contemporary and ironical first-person narrator who breaks in on the "story" of the poem so often that the reader sometimes forgets that there even is a story.  Byron did this in Childe Harold too, but that was much more formal and esoteric.  The narrator in Don Juan is irreverent, ironical, conversational, critical, questioning, wondering, often omniscient.  And the narrrator is not the hero Juan - Juan is just a character the narrator observes.  That first-person voice is ultimately what kept me reading, because it causes the poem to sound like a slightly more formal version of his letters (which I have continued to read - alongside Don Juan, going back and forth between the two, as Byron finishes various cantos - and which I cannot get enough of, they are fantastic).  So, to sum up, in Don Juan I found what I didn't expect to find.  More of the real Byron.  Not buckets of high-poetical language (O! Ah! Avaunt! etc.), instead, contemporary and intimate commentary on the state of himself, by himself, what he thought of everything under the sun, in the years just before his death, and in fact right up to his death.  Riveting!

After all that effusion, a brief apologia:  I read over what I've written and know I am not a literary critic, and as I remarked to a friend recently, every time I attempt to describe a book I'm in the middle of reading, I end in effusion.  Or rather I begin and end in effusion. But, as I like to say lately, life is too short not to wear your heart on your sleeve.  I think Byron would agree.  End of apologia.    

I've read many books of poems, but never a book-length poem (well, Leaves of Grass, but that's a story for another day), until now.  I think, now that this experiment has shown me that I can successfully turn my mind to such a project, that I will eventually tackle Dante, and Spenser.  I have on hand a first edition of Longfellow's translation of The Divine Comedy, and a lovely edition of The Faerie Queen, both asking politely to be read, as they have been for years now.  But, again, that's for a time other than this one.  Because I'm still at sea with Byron and hope to remain there a while yet.  He's such good company:

Canto the Tenth, stanza IV (p.297)

"In the wind's eye I have sailed, and sail; but for
     The stars, I own my telescope is dim;
But at the least I have shunned the common shore,
     And leaving land far out of sight, would skim
The Ocean of Eternity: the roar
     Of breakers has not daunted my slight, trim,
But still sea-worthy skiff; and she may float
Where ships have foundered, as doth many a boat."     

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