Dan Sandman

29: Don Juan by Lord Byron

In Books, Literature, Poetry on 17/07/2015 at 12:00 pm

Don Juan by Lord ByronThe last thing that Lord Byron ever wrote was the number fifteen, signifying that he was about to begin the next stanza of Don Juan. Byron’s epic poem has sixteen cantos, and a total of 1,990 stanzas (yes, I have sat there and added up each canto). Throughout the entire poem, exactly the same poetic form is maintained for every single stanza. This strict consistency of rhyme scheme and metre holds the poem together, whereas the digressive manner in which the narrative shifts its voice and viewpoint pulls it apart. It is this exciting combination, of strong formal construction working in tandem with an unpredictable epic story line, that both illuminates and mocks the poetry and politics of the early nineteenth century.  The clever way in which an astonishing number of variations are formed with confidence, and in what appears to be an almost improvised manner, is still a remarkable achievement almost two hundred years since the poem was first published.

Don Juan was first read in series, with cantos being released from 1819 to 1824, and this might help to explain its enormous length. Byron was very much a precursor for our present day stars of the silver screen, whose private lives fill up row upon row of glossy magazines in today’s newsagents. These were the days when a poet could become a famous celebrity, and Byron had accumulated many fans, ever since he published a previous epic poem called Childe Harold’s Pilgramage between 1812 and 1818. These fans would have been waiting for each canto, anticipating what controversial and amusing things that Byron might come up with next. At the same, the contentious poet’s critics were sat ready to deride each new work, accusing him of heresy against the sacred art of poetry. Indeed, Byron is very aware of what his critics think, and part of the playful art of Don Juan is the way in which he criticizes the critics – as well as nearly every renowned person of the day – within the poem itself.

Don Juan feels like an arrogant, self-obsessed and incredibly clever anti-everything attack on the whole of civilization. It is funny, witty and entertaining, serving up great quantities of quotable lines about almost any subject one can imagine. However, and here’s my main criticism, it is not as beautiful as a sixteen line poem by John Keats. This is because when Byron is at his most Byronic, he begins to look ugly, creating word pools that distort our perception of what so-called Romantic poetry should be. Keats might have written less stanzas than Byron, but he will make you question what it is to be human or alive or something.

Read Keats first, then Byron if you have the time.

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