Sunday, 12 May 2013

Don Juan by Lord George Gordon Noel Byron: Book review

Drink with this:


Has Spanish flair but somehow doesn’t really feel that European at all. Sherry has acquired a reputation as grannyish and stuffy but has an impressive pedigree. According to wikipedia it is now being heralded as ‘a neglected treasure’.

What's what

I want a hero: an uncommon want, When every year and month sends forth a new one, Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant, The age discovers he is not the true one; Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,pg 78

Don Juan is as much about Byron as it is about its eponymous hero. I couldn’t help picturing Russel Brand reciting verse to me as I was reading but I managed not to let that ruin the experience.

Perfect she was, but as perfection is Insipid in this naughty world of ours… pg 3

Can we finally claim Byron for Scotland by the way? I know he’s half English but he makes it pretty clear in his epic poem that he has a much stronger sense of Scottish identity: I 'scotch'd not kill'd' the Scotchman in my blood, And love the land of 'mountain and of flood.' Pg 237 Don Juan is witty and self-aware and pretty awesome; I’m happy for it to be considered part of the Scottish literary canon!

It’s not hard to see how Byron got his reputation as a libertine. For its day Don Juan was awfully bawdy! Byron says a lot through hints and partial omissions; nevertheless I think Victorian literature has left me ill-prepared for the works of the 18th century and their rampant sexuality. What’s interesting is how little Don Juan deserves his reputation as a womaniser; if anything he is portrayed as a blameless innocent seduced by a series of a conniving and sluttish women. (which, Byron would say, is ALL OF THEM.)
Wedded she was some years, and to a man Of fifty, and such husbands are in plenty; And yet, I think, instead of such a ONE 'T were better to have TWO of five-and-twenty, Especially in countries near the sun: And now I think on 't, 'mi vien in mente,' Ladies even of the most uneasy virtue Prefer a spouse whose age is short of thirty. 'T is a sad thing, I cannot choose but say, And all the fault of that indecent sun, Who cannot leave alone our helpless clay, But will keep baking, broiling, burning on, That howsoever people fast and pray, The flesh is frail, and so the soul undone: What men call gallantry, and gods adultery, Is much more common where the climate 's sultry. Happy the nations of the moral North! Where all is virtue, and the winter season Sends sin, without a rag on, shivering forth pg 11

The sexist humour is rife, but depressingly it’s no worse than what one hears now on a daily basis. The national stereotypes Byron employs are also all too familiar - I’m not sure if they were already examples of trite and lazy characterisation when he was writing but they certainly seem that way to a modern reader.

No sooner was it bolted, than—Oh shame! O sin! Oh sorrow! and oh womankind! How can you do such things and keep your fame, Unless this world, and t' other too, be blind? Pg 29

That said, Don Juan is incredibly quotable - when I came to write this blog post I had over ten thousand words of quotes. That’s a dissertation worth of Byron right there! The sentiments Byron expresses still ring true and feel insightful. I had previously read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and not rated it much, but Don Juan had humour and verve.

Few things surpass old wine; and they may preach Who please,—the more because they preach in vain,— Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, Sermons and soda-water the day after. Man, being reasonable, must get drunk; The best of life is but intoxication: Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk The hopes of all men, and of every nation; Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk Of life's strange tree, so fruitful on occasion: But to return,—Get very drunk; and when You wake with headache, you shall see what then. Pg 72

The first few books are exhilarating and almost heady. It is easy to get swept along in Byron’s obvious mirth and relish for his topic. Towards the end the poem does tail off a bit when Juan reaches the UK - Byron’s satirical descriptions of his hero’s travels here seem like failed social commentary.
'T is pity though, in this sublime world, that Pleasure 's a sin, and sometimes sin 's a pleasure; Few mortals know what end they would be at, But whether glory, power, or love, or treasure, The path is through perplexing ways, and when The goal is gain'd, we die, you know—and then— What then?—I do not know, no more do you— And so good night.—Return we to our story: pg 24

Byron has a healthy scepticism about God, religion and the point of it all. Amidst the epic verse this is a very cynical work, which Byron fully acknowledges. He has a hatred of critics and is very self-conscious about his project - this is meta-fiction before it existed.

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. Pg 39

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Don Juan is still under twenty when the poem ends. Byron exalts youth and beauty throughout, and there is a sense of panic at encroaching old age, and the urge for posterity, to live on in some way.

Too old for youth,—too young, at thirty-five, To herd with boys, or hoard with good threescore,— I wonder people should be left alive; But since they are, that epoch is a bore: Love lingers still, although 't were late to wive; And as for other love, the illusion 's o'er; And money, that most pure imagination, Gleams only through the dawn of its creation. Pg 267

The ending may be abrupt and come almost in the middle of a scene, in the middle of Juan’s English escapades; but it is also beautiful, with a melancholy and humorous last line:

Whether his virtue triumphed, or at length His vice—for he was of a kindling nation— Is more than I shall venture to describe, Unless some beauty with a kiss should bribe. I leave the thing a problem, like all things. The morning came, and breakfast, tea and toast, Of which most men partake, but no one sings. Pg 365


Hilarious, both intentionally and otherwise. Definitely still worth a read.

On the big screen

There is a 1926 film with no spoken dialogue, but the most kisses in film history apparently. (191 for your information.)How could anyone compete with that?


In its day it was considered racy but now we get to read about hand-kissing all we want and still call it classic literature!

1 comment:

  1. Great writing. Makes me want to read Byron, and I will!