Rhythm and Rhyme in Don Juan

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.

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