Byron’s Methods: The Manuscripts of Don Juan

Here undergraduate Emma Leadbetter sets out to understand Byron's poetry better by looking at surviving drafts of his work. His claims to spontaneity are partly affirmed; at other moments there appears to be a great deal of effort behind his informal tone.

For me one of the best things about coming back to Byron after nearly a year of studying Wordsworth and Southey is his freshness and his humour. Byron is really so unlike any of the other 'big names' in what we now class as Romantic poetry - so unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley, Keats. Byron is a one-off, an oddity, and a breath of fresh air. A poem like Don Juan never fails to catch me off guard. It is so huge and such a massive work in the canon of English literature that it makes you feels as if your only way into it is through the same approach as you might take with , or . There is no doubt that Byron has his serious moments, and that the concepts on which he writes can be moving and thought-provoking. But Byron is no 'philosophical poet' and the length of Don Juan, along with its formal complexity, are as much an aid to his comic and narrative purposes as they are to expounding upon some greater moral or belief.

Byron is conspiratorial, frank, and loves to address his reader as if he were right there in the room. So there is something even more intimate and direct about reading Byron's . Seeing the handwriting of the author, and trying to unpick the poem you know from the scrambled and faded ink on the page, has the weirdly paradoxical effect of forcing you to appreciate its age, whilst suddenly asserting its realness, its immediacy. The critic Alice Levine makes a clear case for the worth of manuscript study when it comes to understanding both the poem and the poet:

Even more than the important backdrop of literary influences and personal circumstances, the original drafts of the first five provide a record of Byron's mind at work on his most significant literary achievement.

'Byron's mind at work...' - such a statement only adds to the temporal confusion of manuscript study. Levine seems to suggest that the manuscript can record Byron's thinking as much as it records his speaking. Reading the manuscripts of Don Juan makes me feel closer to the poet, more connected to the poem, more involved. But Levine's concept of the manuscript as a 'record' of past thinking is an assertion that my own impression of closeness is just a façade. Really what I am seeing is the effort and planning which goes to make up Byron's deliberate stylistic effect of immediacy.

In his letters and conversations Byron frequently made two assertions about his poetry - that he wrote extremely quickly, and that he began his poems with 'no plan'. He projects an image of himself as lackadaisical, spontaneous and artless, and gives the impression that poetry is only one area of interest amongst many other important matters in his busy life. In August 1819 Byron wrote to his publisher John Murray in his usual infuriating style:

You ask me for the plan of : I have no plan - I had no plan; but I had or have materials [...] If it don't take, I will leave it off where it is, with all due respect to the Public; but if continued, it must be in my own way.

But despite what he says, when we look at a poem like Don Juan it is hard to imagine the poet dealing with such a huge narrative and such an intricate and unabashedly artful verse form without some level of planning and premeditation. If Levine is right, the evidence of this thinking is contained in the very first drafts of the poem, and may undermine Byron's attractive self-portrait. So how far can our inspection of the manuscripts confirm the romantic picture of Byron as a natural and impulsive poet? And what else about Byron's writing can give us clues as to his poetic methods and thinking?

Byron and Don Juan

Trying to get to grips with the 'real' Byron takes a combination of approaches. Biographical criticism of Byron abounds, not just because his was an extraordinary life, but because the poet seems to be asking for it. A poem like Don Juan contains frequent references to the events of Byron's life, and as such may seem to give us a clue as to his preoccupations and thoughts at the time of composition. Don Juan is a poem written on shaky foundations. The product of a period of restlessness and dissatisfaction, the poem grew out of Byron's obsessive self-reflection on what had gone so wrong with his back in England. The terrible bitterness he felt for the actions of his estranged wife, the hostility of the British public, his seeming abandonment by his sister and lover Augusta, the success of rival poets... all this bile spills over into the narration of Juan's story.

Yet despite its simmering hostility, the poem still maintains an irreverent playfulness and carries the reader through its fast-paced situation comedy with an air of and a devil-may-care attitude to the conventional morals of its readership. Don Juan's cheerfulness is no accident, but a deliberate attempt by Byron to counter critical accusations that his poems were only ever morbid or vitriolic. The tension between his resentment for the society from which he had been made an outcast, and his desire to win them back over through his poetry, is everywhere in the poem.

Byron thrives on this instability, playing off the two satirical impulses behind his work - to ridicule those who rejected his lifestyle and his poetry, and to create a comic understanding between himself and the readers who really do share the joke. As a child and young man, he had always run rings around the adults who were supposed to be responsible for him with his wicked and capricious sense of humour, and his love of practical jokes. On one occasion he terrified his mother and her dinner guests by throwing a pillow dressed in his coat out of his upstairs bedroom so that it dropped to the ground like a body outside the drawing room window below. His early work English Bards and Scotch Reviewers was a first attempt to translate this offbeat and often vicious humour into verse.

In some ways, Don Juan is Byron's joke at the expense of anyone too hypocritical to admit they too can find enjoyment in the absurdity, the black comedy and the bawdiness with which his poetry is filled:

I have finished the First Canto (a long one, of about 180 octaves) of a poem in the style and manner of , encouraged by the good success of the same. It is called 'Don Juan', and is meant to be a little quietly facetious upon everything...

Byron's hopes were high for this 'quietly facetious' poem, and he set about it with great energy in contrast to the languor which seemed to have pervaded his life since the death of Shelley. The physical reality of his settled, rural domestic life was in contrast to the feverish way in which he threw himself into this new project.

The Manuscripts

The huge energy with which Byron attacked the writing of the new poem could be a good position from which to approach a study of his methods. The state in which he left the manuscripts might be a real clue as to their personal importance for the poet.  The poem was written and published in instalments between 1818 and in 1824, and was left unfinished at his death. The manuscript of the first five cantos of Don Juan was given by Byron to Teresa Guiccioli, his mistress, before his fateful departure for Greece. His 'scribblings', as he called them, are in his untidy handwriting (he described it as 'difficult to decipher') and have corrections and changes marked in pen.

The manuscript starts off fairly neatly, but by the end of Canto One there are long sections of crossings-out, and the stanzas are written over and around each other, sometimes vertically, sometimes horizontally. They were written on loose sheets of large (almost A4-size) paper, and various pages had been lost or shuffled by the time they wound up at the library of John Pierpont Morgan in 1900.  We have a few fragments of Byron's very first rough copies, and it is likely that he was copying them out into their approximate order whilst making changes and corrections, and adding stanzas here and there. The surviving manuscripts of Cantos One to Five therefore represent an in-between stage in the early composition of the first few cantos.

On the left is Stanza 20 of Canto One, as it appears in the Penguin Classics version. The stanza is not one of the poem's best, but it is typical in its rhyme scheme, its tone, and its glancing relevance to Byron's own life. On the right is a transcript of the manuscript for what was originally marked Stanza 19 (where 'XXX' stands for an illegible crossed out word:

Now Donna Inez had, with all her merit,
A great opinion of her own good qualities
Neglect indeed requires a saint to bear it
And such indeed was she in her moralities
But then she had a devil of a spirit
And sometimes mixed up fancies with realities
And let few opportunities escape
Of getting her liege lord into a scrape.
Now Donna Inez doubtless had with all her merit
A great opinion of it her various qualities
And Neglect indeed requires a Saint to bear it
But that she was in her moralities
And so she seemed in all outside formalities
But then she XXX had a devil of a spirit


And never distinguished XXX from realities
But could not let
Nor let the opportunity escape
Of getting poor Don Jose in a scrape.

The manuscript draft is close to the final version. The noticeable changes are a tightening of the versification into perfectly regular , the removal of unnecessary words, the decision to rework a line using the word 'moralities' over 'formalities', and the minor alteration to the wording of the final two lines. What do these changes tell us about Byron's methods? We might well conjecture that this is one stanza which Byron is not just copying, but actually creating on the page. For example, the word 'doubtless' seems to have been immediately corrected to the preferable, metrical 'had with all her merit'. 'Doubtless' could never have fitted into the line as a whole, and was most likely a false start by the poet. The same can be said of 'it' and 'And' in the next two lines. 'But could not let' is also crossed through as soon as the poet conceives of a better way to phrase his idea. If this is the case, it appears that Byron's writing is essentially spontaneous - straight off the top of his head and onto the blank page.

What is really remarkable, then, is that so much of the rest of the verse is already intact and needs no corrections at all. Even when a syntactical unit runs over two lines, Byron seems to have a preconception of its shape and vocabulary, and it is only the small details which need to be put in place to finalise the lines. The intricate feminine rhymes of 'merit / bear it / spirit' and 'qualities / realities / moralities [or formalities]' are already in the poet's mind before the rest of the verse is filled in. In fact, when we look at the manuscripts as a whole we see that the changes Byron makes are almost invariably found within the lines, and do not involve the rhyming-words.

In her book Poets Thinking, the literary critic Helen Vendler discusses the ways in which the argument and plot of a piece of poetry can be driven and moulded by its rhyme. Like his poetic idol Alexander Pope, whom Vendler discusses at length, Byron deliberately chooses strong rhyme schemes - using the rhymes for comic or bathetic effect, to draw enlightening parallels between incongruous words, and to suggest a cheeky musicality in the voice of the narrator which is often at odds with the seriousness of what he is relating. Byron had a mischievous love of rhyme and particularly of the epigrammatic couplet which comes at the end of the ottava rima stanza. What other poet could, or would, find ? Rhyme is intrinsic to Byron's poetic method. So perhaps we should always have suspected that rhyming words form the basis around which the rest of his poetry is constructed.

Whether this evident talent for rhyming supports Byron's conception of himself as an inspired rather than premeditating poet is another matter. Nowadays we are used to hearing rhyme described as a hindrance to 'natural' or 'Romantic' poetry, and yet the idea that rhyme may actually facilitate poetic composition was widespread in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Byron's innate ability to find fitting and pleasing rhymes seems to be the trigger for his thought, and not vice versa. But when it comes to the metrical - or rhythmic - system of Don Juan the manuscript shows Byron's struggles to satisfy the constraints of the metre without sacrificing the brisk and fast-moving narrative style. Looking at the following two drafted lines gives an impression of how Byron worked his lines to ensure regularity:

But that she was in her moralities
(But THAT she WAS in HER moRAliTIES)

And so she seemed in all outside formalities
(And SO she SEEMED in ALL outSIDE forMAliTIES)

The final line reads:

And such indeed was she in her moralities.
(And SUCH inDEED was SHE in HER moRAliTIES)

Having already decided on the rhyme 'reálities / quálities', Byron needs to ensure that his other two potential rhyming words, 'moralities' and 'formalities', fit into the line to allow the same stressed/unstressed/unstressed end syllables. His first draft, with 'her moralities', forces a stress on the final syllable. His second attempt, using 'outside formalities', is much more successful and produces a metrically correct line, in keeping with the rest of the stanza. So why does he choose to revert yet again to the previous rhyme?

Perhaps because the line loses something by the replacement of the forceful concept of 'morality'. Nowhere in Don Juan is the satire on Byron's own life as near to the bone as in this first Canto, and these lines relate particularly to the character and actions of his estranged wife Annabella. Byron's condemnation of Annabella in this and the following stanzas pulls no punches. She is shown to be pretentious, proud, uncaring, unwomanly, jealous, hypocritical and irrational. Ultimately Byron must have decided that criticism of Annabella's 'morality' carried more satirical weight than her 'outside formalities', and better fitted a woman who could only defend her conduct by piously referring to . And so Byron again reworks his line to include 'morality' in a regular metrical framework - even at the cost of a somewhat unnatural syntax, and the inclusion of the redundant 'indeed' to fill up the required syllables:

And such indeed was she in her moralities...'

Byron does have a natural aptitude for finding the perfect rhyme, which stands him in good stead in this imitation of the Italian comic style. But his attempts at writing with 'no plan' are not always as smooth as they could be. As readers, our first encounter with Byron's poetry (and particularly the longer satirical works such as Don Juan) can be hampered by its irregularity and lack of finesse. But what we see - even in this very short snippet of manuscript - is that this unevenness is caused by the constant compromise which Byron had to find between perfectly clinching his meaning, and maintaining the structure of his verse. Just as the poem pitches itself between engaging with its readers and denying its need for a readership at all, just as the sourness of its satirical content is balanced by the jollity of its narrative tone, so the imperfections in the poem are themselves a result of his striving to maintain his Byronic spontaneity whilst producing a poem which is precise enough to fulfil his own high standards for formal poetry.

Further Thinking

Why do you think Byron's ottava rima works so well as the metre for Don Juan?

We do not always get to see manuscript drafts of poems. Might a case be made that it is potentially distracting and disadvantageous to have this sort of information? Perhaps it is too hopeful to think that we're seeing the whole, real process. Do you think it's always good to see the stages by which something came into being, rather than just the finished work itself?

Wordsworth's Prelude (1799-1850), 'the poem on the growth of my own mind' is a long fourteen-book poem written in blank verse, which combines autobiography with his opinions on the inspiration behind great poetry.
Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) is an epic poem on the subject of the biblical creation story written in ten books of between 600 and 1200 lines each.
A handwritten document, often used to refer to the handwritten version of a literary work which precedes the printed text.
A canto is a part of a long poem, equivalent to a chapter in a novel. It comes from the Italian word for a song, and the most famous poem divided in cantos is Dante's Divine Comedy. The alternative word from classical poetry is 'book' - Paradise Lost, for example, is divided into 12 books.
An informal nickname for Don Juan.
Often used in music, this means brilliant showing-off.
A poem Byron wrote in 1817, which is the precursor of Don Juan in its satirical approach and its interest in what many thought were lax morals. Set in Venice, it concerns a women who takes a lover when her husband, Beppo, is lost at sea. Eventually he returns, and they are re-united.
A verse form found in Italian and English heroic / epic (and mock-heroic) poetry. Its key characteristic is its eight-line stanza rhyming abababcc.
In canto 1, stanza 131, the closing couplet rhymes 'syphilis' with 'loathsome is' - admittedly only a partial success.
Canto 1, Stanza 27 refers to a letter from Lady Annabella Byron to Augusta Leigh, on 14th February 1816 (i.e. shortly after she announced her wish for a separation) which includes the phrase 'I deem it my duty to God to act as I am acting'.

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