Articles for ‘Byron’

Rhythm and Rhyme in Don Juan

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

This introduction to the Don Juan stanza by graduate student Tom Durno emphasises its distinctive qualities. The regular, repeating units of rhythm and rhyme give the poem continuity but they also break it up. There is some unique interplay between the predictable qualities offered by this formal structure, and the unpredictable aspects of the story - but there are also subtleties in the stanza itself. After Tom's introduction you'll find a sample passage from the poem and some questions.

1. Introduction

(Tom Durno)

The rhythm and rhyme of Don Juan are characterised by extremes. On the one hand, the poem is so vast that the intricacies of its patterns of sound are often lost amidst its energetic movement from one situation to the next. On the other hand, the sounds of each line of the poem are very carefully and consistently shaped in spite of the narrator's digressions. In Don Juan, rhythm and rhyme provide a pulse to which the poem's offbeat narrative can return, safe in the knowledge that however sharply its scenes and stories contrast with one another, common sounds run through them all.

This contrast between the huge length of the poem and the precise shaping of its individual lines can be described in more formal terms: the poem is narrative, and made up of stanzas. In English literature before Byron, narrative poetry tended to be written in either heroic couplets (rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter lines, as found in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Pope's Rape of the Lock) or blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter, as found in Milton's Paradise Lost and Wordsworth's Prelude) - although there are exceptions, such as Spenser's Faerie Queene. In these poems, the number of lines in each section of the poem is not fixed, so the narrative tends to settle into paragraphs of different lengths, like those found in prose writing. These paragraphs feel natural, as their beginnings and endings mostly fall at the beginnings and endings of scenes within their poems. In Don Juan, groups of lines are organised into stanzas: sections with a particular and repeated number and length of lines, and pattern of rhyme sounds. In Byron's poem, the rough shape and length of each section is fixed, and its beginnings and endings don't always coincide with the beginnings and endings of episodes within the poem: often, Byron's descriptions of events spill over multiple stanzas. In some ways, this can seem unnatural, because the stanzas into which the poem is organised don't always match up with natural pauses in its narrative, as they might do if it was written in paragraphs. But because the rough shape of each stanza is the same throughout the poem, the sound patterns of these stanzas gradually become familiar, and begin to feel comfortable and natural in comparison with the poem's wild and meandering narrative: they provide the poem's consistent pulse.

As with many aspects of Don Juan, however, the poem's rhythm and rhyme are not completely straightforward. Ottava rima, the Italian pattern of line lengths and rhymes that Byron chose for Don Juan, was relatively unfamiliar to English ears in the early nineteenth century. Although Don Juan's rhythm and rhyme do produce a common pulse running through the poem, that pulse was itself uncommon in English poetry at the time. The ottava rima pattern Byron adopts requires that each stanza rhymes with the pattern AB AB AB CC. In Italian, producing three rhyming sounds for each of the 'A' and 'B' words in this pattern is not difficult, as the language has many more words with similar endings than English. In English it is much more difficult, as the language does not rhyme as easily as Italian, and so the rhymes are much more noticeable: English ears are not used to so many repeated sounds in such a long poem. Whilst Don Juan often employs rhythm and rhyme to knit together its unpredictable tales, the poem's rhythms and rhymes are in themselves unfamiliar, and even uncomfortably repetitious.

2. 'For God's sake, reader!'

Read through this passage from the end of Book I of Don Juan. In what ways do you find Byron's use of his stanza interesting? You might like to focus on some of the following (and if you come up with an answer that you'd like to share, add a comment):

1. Rhyme words - as Tom Durno noted, English might not rhyme as easily as Italian. Does Byron seem to smooth this over, or to draw attention to the difficulty? How? With what effect?

2. Stanzas, sentences, paragraphs - these are all units of plot and sense, as Tom says. Do they coincide in this part of the poem? Do rhythm, rhyme, and subject matter seem to be in harmony?

3. Rhythm and voices - in these stanzas Byron quotes other speakers. How do they contribute to the verse form? Are they easily woven into it? How else does Byron draw attention to the burden of filling lines and rhymes?

4. 'Uncomfortably repetitious' - when Tom Durno makes this suggestion, it allows for the possibility that a poem turning 'uncomfortable' might have positive qualities as well as negative ones. This is the end of the book; can you find any ways in which this fields like a long sequence of stanzas coming to a halt?

What is the end of Fame? 't is 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.

What are the hopes of man? Old Egypt's King
Cheops erected the first pyramid
And largest, thinking it was just the thing
To keep his memory whole, and mummy hid;
But somebody or other rummaging,
Burglariously broke his coffin's lid:
Let not a monument give you or me hopes,
Since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops.

But I being fond of true philosophy,
Say very often to myself, 'Alas!
All things that have been born were born to die,
And flesh (which Death mows down to hay) is grass;
You 've pass'd your youth not so unpleasantly,
And if you had it o'er again-'t would pass-
So thank your stars that matters are no worse,
And read your Bible, sir, and mind your purse.'

But for the present, gentle reader! and
Still gentler purchaser! the bard-that 's I-
Must, with permission, shake you by the hand,
And so 'Your humble servant, and good-b'ye!'
We meet again, if we should understand
Each other; and if not, I shall not try
Your patience further than by this short sample-
'T were well if others follow'd my example.

'Go, little book, from this my solitude!
I cast thee on the waters-go thy ways!
And if, as I believe, thy vein be good,
The world will find thee after many days.'
When Southey's read, and Wordsworth understood,
I can't help putting in my claim to praise-
The four first rhymes are Southey's every line:
For God's sake, reader! take them not for mine.

Byron: Life and Work (1)

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

Rocco Falconer, an undergraduate student, makes a case that to understand Byron's poems you need to understand Byron - and that to understand Byron, you need to recognise how his poems register the consequences of his exile. His two major works - Don Juan and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage – are both seen to yearn for home, even amid the pleasures of travel.

The way to get the most out of reading Byron is to understand a little of what he was like as a man, and what he thought of himself as a man. His personality and attitude were so singular that reading his poetry without understanding him at all misses so much that is superb. Almost all of it is full of his unique blend of comedy and tragedy, sentimentality and farce, scorn and delight, longing and shunning, that the real meaning, or part of the meaning, is easily lost without his incomparable personality guiding you just a little.

One of the significant things about Byron was that he was a great traveller. He certainly saw himself as one, perhaps because the notion of the restless traveller fitted so well with his notion of himself as a Romantic hero and great man (he famously declared 'there are three great men of our age: myself, and ). In 1816, Byron was dishonourably exiled from England after his affair with his half-sister, Augusta, was discovered. He never returned to England again, and the poetry that he wrote in response to this, privately and publicly, can really give us a sense of what he really felt, and what he was really like. It also, crucially, gives us a phenomenal insight into his relationship with poetry: what he tried to do, and what he thought he could do with it, both privately and publicly.

Amongst the first things that Byron did when he was exiled from England was compose the third Canto of the poem that had made him famous, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. The poem is about travelling, and mixes a response to what he sees in the external world with his responses to his internal world. Byron refers to himself as a 'wanderer' or 'roamer' and 'restless', and compares himself to a bird that was always kept in a cage by society. Now he has a chance to be 'free', because as an individual he was 'unfit... to herd with man'. Many people think that it is the best example of Byron as a quintessentially Romantic poet, melancholy, brooding and alone.

After two years, Byron began to work on Don Juan, his great poem that contains all the complexities - as sentimental, as absurd - that he contained as a man. In both the characters of Harold and Juan, and in the journeys that they go on, there is so much of Byron that often we can look closely at his responses and state of mind through the actions and thoughts of the two characters. Whether or not this injection of his personality was intended or not, he wrote so much poetry after his exile, some private, some public, that by looking at some of the recurrent preoccupations we can get a sense of sincerity, however insincere some stanzas may be.

But the picture that we start to gather is far from the Romantic 'Byronic hero' that Childe Harold's Pilgrimage may seek to present. Instead, Byron can seem a man made melancholy by exile. Although he undoubtedly has moments of humour, comedy, and reconciliation to the lot he has been forced to accept, he cannot quite rid himself of feelings of loss, bitterness, and yearning. The narrative of Don Juan reflects a bit on how Byron saw his life. The pattern of mad love, followed by discovery and exile, was one in which Byron was experienced, and the subsequent unsuccessful search for a contented, settled life - a quest for a home - is one that mirrored Byron's frequent changes. In all the detail of Juan's thoughts, the narrative's progress, and in the continuous asides, we start to get a picture of how Byron is making sense of his exile, and how he is really responding to it.

Like Byron, Juan is reluctantly forced from his loved ones into a raging storm that he cannot control. In the Haidee episode, he discovers peace, innocence, love and happiness, and most importantly, a place where he is settled. Anne Barton describes this episode as almost pre-lapsarian, that is, it has a perfect quality to it that is like the life of Adam and Eve before the Fall and the expulsion from paradise. But soon the perfection is destroyed when Lambro, Haidee's pirate father, returns to disrupt their marital harmony and bliss. Juan is set upon the waters: like in Canto III of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, he is once more 'as a weed / flung... on the ocean's foam to sail / where'er the surge may sweep'.

Before he subjects Juan to this fate, Byron seems to put Lambro's return off for as long as he can, with long, rambling asides. This serves to create suspense, but it also could demonstrate Byron's reluctance to separate the lovers and force Juan from the place where he is settled. He uses the momentum of his verse to go anywhere but the scene of destruction, and in doing so demonstrates that his apparent delight in adventure, travel, movement and solitude is a cover for a much more profound desire to find a home, to find love, and remain.

In Epistle to Augusta, a letter sent to his lover, Byron classes his two desires as 'a world to roam through, and a home with thee'. I think this is crucial to understanding what Byron's real attitude to his exile was. This sentence gives his 'roaming' an objective: a 'home'. The next line: 'The first were nothing - had I still the last / It were the haven of my happiness' confirms the order of his priorities. This poignant recognition of the home he had, and loved, and lost, is amongst the most sentimental things in Byron's poetry. It gives the early cantos of Don Juan an added poignancy to think of Byron's melancholy: he describes Juan as 'forlorn... sobbing often' when he is forced to leave his love. But to say of Don Juan that Juan, or Byron, was either depressed about his lot, or exalted by his freedom, would be to oversimplify an immensely complex range of different meanings. I don't think even Byron knew what he was thinking: much more important is to realise that he was thinking something, and that that thought is his poetry.

It is not coincidence that both in Don Juan and Canto III of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, when Byron thinks about his exile, he thinks about the nature of his poetry, why he is doing it, and what it can achieve. In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage he justifies poetry as the way he 'live[s] / A being more intense...gaining as we give / The life we imagine'. At the end of Canto IV, as Juan sets forth once more, Byron stops to consider poetry's birth: 'the unquiet feelings, which first woke / song in the world, will seek what then they sought... poetry, which is but passion'. Both of these quotations portray poetry as some sort of quest, and as a result of 'intense' emotion or 'passion'. They suggest it is some sort of balm to the excesses of 'unquiet feelings', and make poetry seem like a journey through imagination and experience to allay the 'storm' of intense sadness. And it is only this poetic journey that Byron really travels without any doubt. Unable to reconcile himself fully to the journeys he was forced to make in exile with equal moments of relief and despair, it seems that Byron explored and travelled unquestioningly only in the realms of verse. He sought to soothe his mind, and also to find some life which he could make sense of, and, as much as he could, control.

Further Reading

If you enjoyed thinking about these issues, try going on to Josh Farrington's companion article on Byron's Life and Work. At the end of that article we offer some suggestions for further reading that are equally relevant to this one.

Further Thinking

Rocco Falconer read the poems in order to get at Byron's innermost thoughts. Some critics might worry about this - can we really be sure what is 'sincere' and what is not? Is it safe to infer such things from literature? What do you think? What do you think are the key reasons why Byron's poems in particular (despite all their wit) might seem to offer us hints of his sincere thoughts?

Rocco identifies the Haidee episode as a place where Byron does not want the poem to continue - he digresses in order to hold on to a special moment. What do you think the reader makes of this? Do we want the poem to end happily, or to continue excitingly?

Napoleon Bonaparte (born 1867, died 1821, was a great military leader and Emperor of France.
George 'Beau' Brummell (born 1778, died 1840) was the style guru of Regency England. A well-known high-society 'Dandy', he had a great influence on what fashionable people wore.

Byron and History: Two Points of View

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

In this debate two writers make cases for and against the idea that Byron should be read in relation to his own historical environment. Do we necessarily understand poems better, the more we know about the issues of their day? This is a key debate in literary scholarship.

1. Byron through the Lens of History

Writing in favour of a historical approach, research fellow Emily A. Bernhard Jackson argues that key features of Byron's poetry - including the 'Byronic hero' himself - are so entwined with the events and concerns of the early 19th century that we are liable to misunderstand them if we ignore that context.

Lord Byron is a poet for whom Historicist Criticism is not so much a choice as a necessity.  A highly political writer whose beliefs, and thus works, were ineradicably influenced by the society he lived and by his place in it, he is impossible to understand unless he is re-placed in that society.

Of course, we might say of any poet that he or she cannot be fully understood unless placed in his or her historical milieu, but this is especially true of Byron.  To take but one example, we can consider his greatest poem, Don Juan.  Its first cantos attack the morals and of his day with gusto, certainly, but only after he changed publishers in the middle of the poem - so that the rest of the work was published by the radical publisher John Hunt - did Byron's attacks on English morals and ideals become nakedly savagely satirical.  We cannot understand the poem's change to a darker and more savage poem unless we consider this historical fact.  Or we might consider the poem that made him famous, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.  Certainly Harold appealed to readers because of its brooding, glamorous anti-hero, but it also appealed to them because it was one of the few poems published between 1793 and 1815 (when the Napoleonic Wars made travel to Europe next to impossible for most Britons) that presented its audience with glimpses of the landscape and peoples of a continent from which they were barred: without the Napoleonic Wars, Harold would never have been so popular, and Byron's career might have been very different.  Similarly, recent critics have argued that poems such as The Giaour, The Corsair, and Lara, which seem at the first few glances to be nothing more than Oriental melodrama, are in fact linked to Byron's ongoing commitment to politics and its liberal ideals.

Finally, viewing Byron through a historical lens allows us to understand both the poet himself and the phenomenon for which he is now best known:  the Byronic Hero.  A member of the early 19th-century Whig gentry, Byron used his poetry to adhere to certain that mark him out as a member of that gentry; the cosmopolitanism, urbanity, liberalism, and even sexual and class attitudes that are hallmarks of his works are intimately linked to his place in time.  In the same way, the Byronic Hero is utterly a product of Byron's age:  a wanderer at a time when few were free to wander, a secret sinner in a period in which privacy was coming under ever-heavier political threat, the most individual of individuals in a period when political and moral non-conformity were increasingly frowned upon, the Byronic Hero came out of and spoke to Byron's society.  That this Hero remains a popular figure in our culture today is in part because he took such strong root in his own historical milieu.  In a very real way, then, history made Byron the central cultural figure he remains today.

2. Byron as Ahistorical Poet

Undergraduate Alistair Billingsley responds on behalf of a Byron who transcends history.

To view Lord Byron through the lens of history is to diminish and delimit his literary power.  While historical criticism certainly allows readers to see the background against which Byron was writing, and thus to understand influences upon his poetry, it risks reducing Byron to little more than a poet trapped in a particular time, writing particularized works for a particular audience.  And he is much more than such a poet.

Byron's work invites its readers to ponder questions that transcend historical periods and political stances.  Consider Don Juan.  Byron alleged both inside the text and out that it was a moral work:  in Canto I, for example, he writes, 'If any person should presume to assert / This story is not moral... I pray, / ... they'll read it o'er again.' Yet Juan is by no means a poem that upholds what we might call traditional moral values - or 19th-century ones.  In what way, then, is it a moral poem? Rather than asking us to consider 'morals' as a historically limited concept, Juan asks us to consider the larger definition of the word 'moral' - might Don Juan be a moral poem precisely because it sets canonical notions of morality on their heads and invites us to question them?  If we simply read the poem as a a product of a particular time and place, we risk missing the larger issues at stake in it.

Similarly, one might argue that Byron repays attention in the area of form - another area of study.  His skill with metaphor - 'She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies' - and the nimble way in which he manipulates rhythm and structure to produce effect - 'But - Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual, / Inform us truly, have they now hen-peck'd you all?' - need no historical contextualization to render them worthy of study.  They offer enough food for thought on their own.

Finally, let us consider the Byronic Hero.  While one could argue that he sprang from specific historical circumstances, it is impossible to argue that he remains dependent on them.  The Byronic Hero has re-appeared countless times over the past 200 years: as Heathcliff, as James Dean, as Roy Batty in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.  That he continues to be reiterated long after the death of the author and the society that spawned him suggests that he stands outside history, and that his value is greater than simple historical value.  That Byron also continues to be read and studied suggests the same about him.


Which side are you on? You can add your views below if you like.

The essay for history might make us wonder how much historical knowledge is enough. Do you think there is a point after which one knows enough to read properly? If that seems like a difficult thing to place, what does this mean for the practice of historicist interpretation?

The essay against history says that literary form is 'ahistorical' - it does not relate to historical circumstances or historical change. Do you agree?

Customs and/or habits; pronounced 'moor-rays', it is originally a Latin word.
Although political groupings in Byron's time were far looser than they are today, the Whigs were one of the two main political parties of the time. The other was the Tories. Whig politics had various aspects: one key interest was promoting parliament at the expense of the monarchy.
A useful word that denotes a belief held by an individual or group.
Not concerned with history.

Byron’s Methods: The Manuscripts of Don Juan

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

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'.

Byron: Life and Work (2)

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

Here Josh Farrington, who wrote this essay soon after finishing his English degree, thinks about Byron and the world of celebrity. He comes across as a poet who 'shares himself with his readers' - who opens up more to them than we might expect, and who seems always to be linked to glamour.

Strangely, I first became aware of Lord Byron through his relatively unknown daughter, Ada Lovelace. She was a maths prodigy, and a close friend of Charles Babbage, inventor of the Analytical Engine, the forerunner to our modern computers (indeed, Ada is sometimes called the world's first computer programmer, and has a computer programming language named in her honour). Reading a short, of her, I gradually became aware of the invisible but powerful presence of her father in her life. Raised by her mother, Annabella Milbanke (dubbed the Princess of Parallelograms by Lord Byron), Ada never really knew her father, who had left England for good following his unseemly divorce. The closest that she really got to him, was that in the house where Ada grew up, a portrait of him in exotic Oriental dress was kept above the mantelpiece. Except the portrait was kept covered behind a thick velvet curtain, in order that any passing maids wouldn't see it and faint, immediately captivated by his irresistible beauty. And if that isn't a good enough reason to start investigating someone, I don't know what is...

'Mad, bad, and dangerous to know' is a phrase that has become fairly commonplace, but it's worth remembering that once upon a time, it famously applied to one particular man, and one man alone - Lord Byron. It was Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his many scorned lovers, who came up with it. (In 1824, she accidentally crossed paths with Byron's funeral cortege as it made its way to his burial place, an incident that provoked a nervous breakdown, and rumoured insanity.) Byron may well not have minded the insult at all - the idea that all publicity is good publicity may have applied as well then as now. Byron might be thought of as the first modern celebrity, the original overnight success who awoke one morning to find himself suddenly and irreversibly famous.

In many ways, Byron is still a celebrity today, having TV shows and books written about him. Author Tom Holland even re-imagined Byron as a vampire in his 1995 novel The Vampyre. He is still inspiring trends and fashions: for example, Gregory House MD, played by Hugh Laurie, is as Byronic as they come with his cutting wit and the steady limp that Byron himself is said to have had. And he is still being namedropped by all the right people. In the NME's annual 'Cool List' of 2006 (issue of 25th November), the singer Tahita Bulmer (of New Young Pony Club) declared Byron to be 'the coolest person ever... he was the first superstar'. There aren't many people who get their names turned into words either - and it's worth remembering that when people describe someone as Byronic, they're not just comparing (as they would when saying 'Dickensian' or 'Shakespearean') someone to one of Byron's characters, but to Byron himself.

Byron is one of the few poets who has managed to escape from the library and establish himself in the public consciousness, and it's true, this is just as much for his fascinating life as for his poetry. But in reality, these two things are intrinsically linked, because Byron lived his life through poetry, and his poetry contained so much of his life. It often seems that Byron saw the world in quatrains and rhymes. For him, writing poetry was as natural as breathing, as shown in this extract from one of his journals: 'To-day I have boxed one hour - written an ode to Napoleon Buonaparte - copied it - eaten six biscuits - drunk four bottles of soda water.' Poetry, to Byron, was as natural as exercise or eating (not that he was a fan of eating - by modern standards he would almost certainly be diagnosed with having an eating disorder, often fasting himself, then binging on supposedly healthy things like boiled vegetables mashed in vinegar). Many poets at the time, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge used to write about how important it was to write poems whilst still feeling the full immediacy of an event, but only Byron was ever radical enough to take this to the extreme:

I would to heaven that I were so much clay,
As I am blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling -
Because at least the past were passed away -
And for the future - (but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly today,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say - the future is a serious matter -
And so - for God's sake - and soda water!

This little poem, scribbled in the margins of his masterpiece Don Juan (it has the same abababcc 'ottava rima' rhyme scheme) shows off Byron's playfulness, and sense of mischief, but also gives a sense of his innate talent for creating poetry. It sometimes seems that it took Byron no effort at all to render his life in verse.

Byron had this talent from a young age. He published his first book of poetry, Fugitive Pieces, when he was just 18, and it contained poems written when he was just 15. He soon recalled all the copies though, and tried to have them all burnt after a friend suggested that some of the poems were indecent. Byron never did take criticism well - his first major long poem, English Bards and Scots Reviewers was a furious riposte to negative comments made about his book Hours of Idleness (a book that collected some of the surviving Fugitive Pieces poems). However, looking back at Fugitive Pieces (some copies thankfully did survive) we can see some of the features forming that would go on to shape his later works.

The poem 'To Mary', for example, the key poem seen as being 'too warm', shows off his poetic verve, and his unashamed tackling of full-on subject matters. It addresses the problem of a failed relationship, and young love lost, but doesn't do so in any mawkish or romanticised way. Instead, it goes for the jugular, reminding Mary exactly what she's lost:

RACK'D by the flames of jealous rage
By all her torments deeply curst,
Of hell-born passions far the worst,
What hope my pangs can now assuage?

I tore me from thy circling arms,
To madness fir'd by doubts and fears,
Heedless of thy suspicious tears,
Nor feeling for thy feign'd alarms.

Resigning everythought of bliss,
Forever, from your love I go,
Reckless of all the tears that flow,
Disdaining thy polluted kiss.

No more that bosom heaves for me,
On it another seeks repose,
Another riot's on its snows,
Our bonds are broken, both are free.

No more with mutual love we burn,
No more the genial couch we bless,
Dissolving in the fond caress;
Our love o'erthrown will ne'er return.

Though love than ours could ne'er be truer,
Yet flames too fierce themselves destroy,
Embraces oft repeated cloy,
Ours came too frequent, to endure.

You quickly sought a second lover,
And I too proud to share a heart,
Where once I held the whole, not part,
Another mistress must discover.


Though not the first one, who hast blest me,
Yet I will own, you was the dearest,
The one, unto my bosom nearest;
So I conceiv'd, when I possest thee.

Even now I cannot well forget thee,
And though no more in folds of pleasure,
Kiss follows kiss in countless measure,
I hope you sometimes will regret me.

And smile to think how oft were done,
What prudes declare a sin to act is,
And never but in darkness practice,
Fearing to trust the tell-tale sun.

And wisely therefore night prefer,
Whose dusky mantle veils their fears,
Of this, and that, of eyes and ears,
Affording shades to those that err.

Now, by my foul, 'til most delight
To view each other panting, dying,
In love's extatic posture lying,
Grateful to feeling, as to sight.

And had the glaring God of Day,
As formerly of Mars and Venus)
Divulg'd the joys which pass'd between us.
Regardless of his peeping ray.

Of love admiring such a sample,
The Gods and Goddesses descending,
Had never fancied us offending,
But wisely followed our example.

There's something irresistibly devil-may-care in his attitude here, as he reminds Mary of the physical pleasures they once shared, now sadly gone forever. The distinctive rhyme scheme (abba) is recognisable from Tennyson's later poem In Memoriam, another poem about loss and regret. Here though, Byron is discussing loss in an entirely different, and far more provocative way.

Byron continued sharing himself with his readers like this throughout his career. In his early years, he most commonly represented himself through his poems about Newstead Abbey, the ancestral Byron home. Later on, his poems filled more and more with the people he knew, and the places he visited. His early epic, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage basically recounts his Grand Tour through Europe. Eventually, his masterwork Don Juan became a type of alternative biography, injected full of Byron's own personality. Whether discussing his politics (like in The Vision of Judgement) or his private life, his poetry always spoke for him. Confession and self-revelation were the key driving forces for Byron's work, and that is why his poetry is still as vital and as vibrant today as it was when it was first published to both scandal and acclaim.

After Byron's death fighting with the Greeks against the Turks at Messolonghi, his friends gathered in a London drawing room, and burnt his memoirs in the hearth, just as they had burnt the body of his great friend Shelley two years before. To many, it remains one of the most painful moments in literary history, as one of the most potentially revealing and entertaining manuscripts ever went up in flames. However, in a sense, we already had what we needed of Byron's life - because it has been there in his poetry all along.

Further Reading

  • The best concise introduction to the connection between Byron's life and works is Paul Douglass's chapter 'Byron's life and his biographers' in Drummond Bone (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Byron (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 7-26.
Other more in-depth approaches to Byronic self-making and literature might include:
  • Frederick Garber, Self, Text and Romantic Irony: The Example of Byron (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).
  • Frederick Shilstone, Byron and the Myth of Tradition (Lincoln, Nebraska and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).
A serious interest in his life would require looking at a range of representative biographies of Byron. For example, three influential but very different biographies are:
  • Thomas Moore's Letters and Journals of Lord Byron: With Notices of his Life, 2 vols. (London: J. Murray, 1830). This was one of the first published biography after Byron's death and captures much of contemporary opinion.
  • Leslie A. Marchand, Byron: A Biography, 3 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1957) Very long but the standard scholarly biography of Byron. Available in a shortened one volume version, Byron: A Portrait (London: Futura, 1976).
  • Fiona MacCarthy, Byron: Life and Legend (London: John Murray, 1992). A modern biography written for a slightly more popular audience.
Another terrific resource to dip into for all work on Byron, but particularly this topic, are the texts collected in Andrew Rutherford (ed.), Byron: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970).

Further Thinking

As in Rocco Falconer's essay on Byron's Life and Poems, Josh Farrington emphasizes that Byron seems to tell the truth about his innermost thoughts in his poetry. In a poem like 'To Mary', quoted here in full, we might expect to see some powerful sincerity. On the other hand, there have been countless poems about lost love, and many things about such poems can seem conventional even though they are passionate. What is it about 'To Mary' that gets across the exciting possibility that this is the naked truth?

The quotation in which Byron sets up the trio of great men (himself, Napoleon, Beau Brummell) is very suggestive. It seems to suggest that poetry, fashionable glamour, and political / military power are equally important. Do you think his poetry shares this sense of priorities, where (to the serious-minded observer) things of greater and lesser value to society are being equated?

The book in question is Lucy Lethbridge, Ada Lovelace: The Computer Wizard of Victorian England (London, 2001).
A kind of German white wine.

Lord Byron

Monday, December 1st, 2008

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, was born in 1788 to an impoverished and somewhat chaotic noble family. Harrow was the last of several schools he attended, before he attended Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1805-1807. During his student years he overspent enormously, wrote his first poems, and developed his skills in scandalous behaviour. These three things were key facets of the rest of his life. Notoriously, according to one contemporary, he may have kept a tame bear in the College, because he was not allowed to keep a dog. (The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the source for the facts in this short biography, seems tellingly non-committal on whether this actually happened.) Dogged by debt and scandal, but remarkably prolific in his writings, Byron became a celebrity in Britain and further afield. In 1816, when his marriage broke down, rumours and disapproval caused him to leave the country, and he spent his remaining years in Italy and Greece. He joined the fight for Greek independence from the Ottoman empire, and it was during these escapades that he fell ill and died in 1824. Again and again he demonstrated remarkable magnetism, whether physical, emotional, literary, or military. As a personality, as the inventor of a literary type overlapping with that personality (the brooding Byronic Hero), and as the writer of dazzling works, he exerted and still exerts remarkable influence.

He is most famous as a poet, and among his many works two stand out: Don Juan is his masterpiece, a story of love and travel on an epic scale, both magnificent and witty; Childe Harolds Pilgrimage also centres on quest-like journey. He also wrote plays, where his ideas of heroism found dramatic expression, and was a great writer of letters, brilliantly catching the passion and drama of his life. As with the other earlier writers on this site, you can find Byron's work in many different books and on various websites. He is always worth reading! If you want to pursue a good edition, however, Jerome McGann's Oxford Authors selected edition Byron (Oxford, 1986), which is a shorter version of McGann's Complete Poetical Works, 7 vols (Oxford, 1980-1993), is a good place to start.

Most of the resources on Cambridge Authors focus on the links between Byron's life and work. Here you'll get an idea of how he worked, how he presents himself, and most of all how we should think about the poems in relation to the man who wrote them. Using the menu on the left, you will also find some materials relating to Don Juan and its special stanza form.