Lord Byron–aka, George Gordon (1788-1824)) was a man I probably wouldn’t have liked, but I always loved his poetry. I chanced upon an old copy of his masterpiece “Don Juan” (pronounced so as to rhyme with “true one”) at the Our Town Books in Jacksonville, Illinois and began re-reading it.
Byron lived at a time when men and women of intelligence communicated cleverly with rhyme, a method far superior to tweeting but no less self-serving. There was intense competition among poets for an audience, and a public eager to snap up the best of them. Byron was a favorite.
Byron’s epic poem is a satiric slant on the legend of Don Juan, the rake whose amorous adventures at once shocked and delighted the reading public. The trick to enjoying it is not to read it too seriously. When you do, you will find yourself at times laughing out loud.
Consider this tidbit from Canto II, ii: Don Juan, at the age of 16, has just been found in bed with a twenty-something woman who is married to a man of 50. After the scandal, his mother, Dona Inez, ships him out of town to continue his education. His tutors find themselves faced with a prodigy—in more ways than one:
A lad of sixteen causing a divorce
Puzzled his tutors very much, of course.
After the scandal passes, Dona Inez starts a school for young men to help them avoid the moral lapses of her son. Byron writes (Canto II, x):
The great success of Juan’s education
Spurred her to teach another generation.
Byron takes potshots at men he sees as having lesser intelligence, namely Wordsworth, Coleridge, and a lesser known poet named Robert Southey ( Canto I, ccv):
Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthy:
But Byron also has a lesson for those of us who like to think we can write. I have always said that if I couldn’t produce something that was worth people’s time and money, I shouldn’t presume to expect it. Byron apparently feels that more writers in his day—presumably some of his peers he held in low regard—should have a similar philosophy (Canto I, ccxxi):
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-bye!”
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 followed by example.
Verses taken from “Don Juan, by Lord Byron.” Edited by Leslie A. Marchand. Riverside Press, 1958
Copyright Isaac Morris 2012