Byron, Don Juan, Romantic poetry - essay

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Bryon and the Romantic Canons

This academic essay was written by Hugh Cook in 1995 for a university course. The task was as follows:-

Byron's work refuses to proceed upon "system"; the horizon of Don Juan's expectations is close and short, and the poem cultivates a series of immediacies. "Note or text,/ I never know the word which will come next." (Don Juan, IX, 41). With this deliberate cultivation of inconsequence (the word should be taken in several senses) Byron defies the highest poetical canons of the Romantic age. (Jerome McGann)

Use this comment as a starting point for a discussion of Byron's "defiance" of the "highest poetical canons of the Romantic Age" in Don Juan. If you wish you may confine your discussion to a single Canto.

Writing in May of 2002, Hugh notes the following:-

In discussions about literature, a "canon" often refers to a group of indispensable works. So, for example, if we were trying to make a "canon" of Twentieth Century literature in English, we would probably include the works of major novelists such as Hemingway but would (in all probability) exclude most (if not all) science fiction.

However, in this case, having carefully considered the options, I took the word "canon" to mean "law" or "rule". The essay which follows, then, is about whether Byron (in writing "Don Juan") does or does not obey the accepted rules of Romantic poetry.

Essay from 1995 follows:-

Byron and the Romantic Canons

A discussion of Byron's Don Juan
in relation to the poetical canons
of the Romantic Age.

Any discussion of the poetical canons of the Romantic age is inconvenienced from the outset by the fact that these, having no legislative genesis, are not to be found conveniently or definitively tabulated in any set of statutes. Indeed, the very notion of a "Romantic age" is itself to some extent an artificial concept, equivalent to calling our own age the "information age". Such concepts may be highly misleading, particularly if they suggest that one identifiable era - be it the "information age" or the "Romantic age" - can be taken as representing a complete disjunction with the past.

The conceptual slipperiness of notions of the Romantic has long been recognised, to the point where Paul Val‚ry has been quoted as having said that "when a man undertook to define Romanticism he must have completely lost his mind". (Fischer, 1990: 221). However, Romanticism can be seen as a movement in which the artist "cultivated the imagination as the half-passive, half-creative medium through which ultimate truth revealed itself." (Bostetter, 1963: 4).

Note dated May 2003: there is obviously a misprint in the paragraph above, as "Paul Val‚ry" is not possible. Right now I don't have the time to hunt down the correct spelling of this name.

From such a formulation, it is possible to extract, at least for the provisional purposes of argument, a working definition of the highest poetical canons of the Romantic age. These are that poetry should proceed from the imagination, that it should constitute an act of revelation, that what it reveals should be true, and that this truth should be ultimate. The Romantic poet, then, is bard, seer, prophet and truth-teller, working in what is, implicitly, a mode of high seriousness.

As a sceptical satirist, as a strenuously humourous realist who prefers fact to metaphysical speculation, and as one who takes the poet's role lightly, Byron can be seen as adopting a poetic stance which is in some ways diametrically opposed to that of the other major Romantic poets. To illustrate Byron's "defiance" of the "highest poetical canons of the Romantic age", Jerome McGann cites a fragment of a stanza which is worth quoting in full:-

But I am apt to grow too metaphysical.
"The time is out of joint", and so am I.
I quite forget this poem's merely quizzical
And deviate into matters rather dry.
I ne'er decide what I shall say, and this I call
Much too poetical. Men should know why
They write and for what end; but note or text,
I never know the word which will come next.
(IX, 41)

If viewed in isolation, this might be taken as a confession of incapacity - of a Byron who may at times "forget" and "deviate", who does not know why he writes or for what purpose, and who does not even know "the word which will come next." However, this is but one of the many comments on his poetic praxis which Byron has embedded in Don Juan, and a careful consideration of these comments leads to the conclusion that the quirks of Byron's text result not from incapacity but from deliberate method. Here another stanza is worth quoting in full:-

But let me change this theme, which grows too sad,
And lay this sheet of sorrows on the shelf.
I don't much like describing people mad,
For fear of seeming rather touched myself.
Besides I've no more on this head to add;
And as my Muse is a capricious elf,
We'll put about and try another tack
With Juan, left half-killed some stanzas back.
(IV, 74)
This stanza is drawn from Canto IV, which tells how Don Juan and his Grecian lover Haid‚e dwell together in ecstasy on an island in the Cyclades; how Haid‚e's father, the pirate Lambro, discovers and separates them; how Haid‚e then dies, tragically; and how Don Juan is taken as a slave to Constantinople.

In the course of this canto, Byron discusses his own writing (stanzas 1-7), meditates on loss and death (stanzas 11-12), remarks on his own drinking habits (stanzas 52-53), recalls the Trojan war and his own visit to the area in which that war took place (stanzas 76-78), interpolates a story about a troop of Italian singers (stanzas 80-89), and discusses his own relationship with his publisher, his relationship with his readers and the transience of fame (stanzas 97-112).

This might seem a chaotic way to proceed, firm evidence of incapacity, except that Byron repeatedly signals that he is making deliberate and conscious choices. The transition from Byron's discussion of his own writing to the narrative proper is marked by the lines "Meantime Apollo plucks me by the ear / And tells me to resume my story here." (IV, 7, 7-8). Byron's own meditation on death in stanzas 11-12 is deliberately contrasted with the attitude of the two young lovers: "Haid‚e and Juan thought not of the dead." (IV, 13, 1).

When the poem deserts the narrative of Don Juan's fate, this desertion is marked not once but twice: "Here I must leave him, for I grow pathetic" (IV, 52, 1) and "I leave Don Juan, for the present, safe, / Not sound, poor fellow, but severely wounded." (IV, 54, 1-2). This twice-repeated acknowledgement of deviation is evidence of a controlling intelligence fully aware of its sundry departures from the main narrative line. If this seems "capricious", it is nevertheless the freely- chosen caprice of the poet's "Muse", that is to say, the outcome of his personal conception of poetry, rather than evidence of poetic insufficiency.

In stanzas 54-73 we are given an elaborate treatment of the illness and death of Haid‚e. Here, the phraseology is deliberately poetic, as if Byron were tending toward the sublime, toward the high and serious poetry of bard, seer and truth-teller. Qualities invoked include "the heart of man" (IV, 55, 8), "Beauty and love" (IV, 56, 6), "passion's force" (IV, 56, 7), a face which "seemed full of soul" (IV, 60, 7), "energy like life" (IV, 61, 7), tears "Like mountain mists at length dissolved in rain" (IV, 66, 8), "the dews of heaven" (IV, 70, 7) and the "dirge" of the "hollow sea" which "Mourns o'er the beauty of the Cyclades." (IV, 72, 8).

Note date May 2003: there is another misprint in the above, since "Haid‚e" is not possible.
If considered in isolation, this sequence would suggest a poet working in that mode of high seriousness which characterises the other major Romantic poets. But Byron promptly undercuts this mood with stanza 74 (quoted in full above).

Intruding on the narrative to speak in propria persona, Byron makes patent the existence of the controlling artist by declaring that he will "change this theme", making clear that the form of the work does not proceed from any intrinsic inevitability but is, rather, a matter of conscious choice. He then further insists on the artificiality of his poem by labelling it a "sheet", drawing attention to the fact that the poem consists of words on paper, a literal "sheet" which could, in fact, be laid on a literal shelf. Characterising his "Muse" as "a capricious elf", Byron then signals the return to the main narrative line: "We'll put about and try another tack / With Juan, left half-killed some stanzas back." (IV, 74, 7-8).

Having already undercut the tragedy of Haid‚e's death by his declaration of the artificiality and wilfulness of his text, Byron then introduces a further distancing effect in the form of the Homeric recollections of stanzas 76-78. By invoking the dead Greek heroes Patroclus, Ajax and Protesilaus - in Homer's Iliad, the first of the Greeks to touch Trojan soil, and the first to die - Byron invokes a bloody epic of battle replete with sufferings which must necessarily make Juan's seem minor by comparison.

Note date May 2003: there is another misprint in the above, since "Haid‚e's" is not possible.

As a readership familiar with Greek literature would have been aware, Patroclus was the beloved comrade of Achilles who died at the hands of Hector, and Ajax was a Greek hero who went shamefully mad then committed suicide. In Canto IV, Byron evokes Homer's Iliad not to emulate it but, rather, to diminish the seriousness of Juan's plight by comparison.

The interpolated story of the Italian singers in stanzas 80-89 reinforces this process, since the singer who does the telling seems confident that all will probably work out well, at least for the singers. Finally, Juan is squeezed out of his own story once again as Byron treats with his own writerly concerns in stanzas 97-112.

That Byron is aware of his own tendency to undercut the occasionally tragic, serious and sublime tendency of his own work is made clear when he says that "oftentimes when Pegasus seems winning / The race, he sprains a wing and down we tend" (IV, 1, 3-4). Here, Pegasus is emblematic of the sublime in poetry. To Byron's mind, what necessarily undoes any tendency toward the sublime is a consciousness of the nature of reality: "And the sad truth which hovers o'er my desk / Turns what was once romantic to burlesque." (IV, 3, 7-8).

The truth which Byron sees, however, is too much for some of his readers to stand, as he makes clear in stanza 97 of Canto IV:-

Here might I enter on a chaste description,
Having withstood temptation in my youth,
But hear that several people take exception
At the first two books having too much truth.
Therefore I'll make Don Juan leave the ship soon,
Because the publisher declares in sooth,
Through needles' eyes it easier for the camel is
To pass than those two cantos into families.
(IV, 97)

In this stanza, Don Juan is conceived of as a work which the writer has deliberately and consciously modified as a cosequence of the pressures placed upon him by publisher and readership. Byron, then, acknowledges that his poetry is formed, at least in part, by his response to pressures exerted upon him by publisher and readership. This is further evidence for his awareness of the artificial nature of his poetry, which has no natural and inevitable form, but which achieves its form, rather, as a consequence of a series of arbitrary decisions.

No systematic principle of organic growth underwrites Byron's Don Juan, and this puts Byron at odds with the other Romantics. A writer like Byron who acknowledges the artificial, wilful and arbitrary nature of his own compositions necessarily differs from the bard who sees his work as a truth-telling act of revelation.

In particular, Byron's conception of art is the polar opposite of Coleridge's theory of organic law which "holds that literary invention involves the natural, unplanned and unconscious process by which things grow." (Abrams, 1960: 222). More generally, Byron can be seen as a poet characterised by a direct and commonsensical address to the world of observable fact, which is antagonistic to the idealizing Platonic and neoplatonic traditions out of which the other major Romantic poets evolved. To make plain these differences it is necessary first to outline the nature of this idealizing tradition.

The neoplatonic conception of the poet, which often surfaces in discussions of Renaissance poetry, is that the poet is a maker, a creator who partakes of the nature of the Creator, and who can through poetry access an unflawed reality more true than the imperfect reality (in theological terms, the Fallen reality) which we perceive. Logically, this construction of the poet implies that the poet has powers of perception not granted to the common run of humanity, although the implied belief in the special force of the poet's individual insight may be masked for the modern reader by the easy Renaissance acceptance of conventions of imitation (1).

The neoplatonic Renaissance idea of the poet as someone with a privileged access to a vision of an unFallen reality is obviously similar to the Romantic notion of the poet as the privileged possessor of a visionary imaginative capacity. While there is not a one-to-one correspondence between Romantic ideology and Renaissance theories, it is nevertheless the case that neoplatonism was especially influential "during the Elizabethan period and among the Romantics". (Wallis, 1972:174).

While Romanticism is perhaps more commonly thought of as a fresh development rather than as an evolution outgrowth of preexisting ideas (that is to say, in considering Romanticism we tend to focus on its novel aspects rather than its debt to tradition) the notion of Romanticism as a development of idealizing Platonic and neoplatonic traditions seems irresistible.

To look to the specifics of influence, Blake in particular read both Plato and the neoplatonists and actually used a "Neoplatonic vocabulary", facts which lead some scholars "to see Blake as capable of being described, with only a degree of qualification, as a Neoplatonist." (Larrissy, 1994: 186).

Coleridge owes a substantial intellectual debt to Plato (Cuncliffe, 1994) and Plato's influence can be traced in some of Wordsworth's poetry (Price, 1994). Unsurprisingly, the artistic ideology of both Coleridge and Wordsworth can be described in quasi-neoplatonic terms. Writing of Wordsworth's conception of the imagination, for example, one same critic says that a group of poems labelled "Poems of the Imagination" contains "poems in which he united creative power and a special, visionary insight. He agreed with Coleridge that this activity resembles that of God." (Bowra, 1950: 18).

Writing on Coleridge and Wordsworth and their "early poetic expositions of the mind fashioning its own experience", Abrams acknowledges that they "revert to metaphors of mind" earlier current current in the writings of certain seventeenth century philosophers behind whom stands the neoplatonist writer "Plotinus' basic figure of creation as emanation, in which the One and the Good are habitually analogized to such objects as an overflowing fountain, or a radiating sun, or (in a combination of the two images) to an overflowing fountain of light." (Abrams, 1960: 58).

Plato has it that the mind is a mirror reflecting reality (Abrams, 1960: 30, 34), but Plotinus sees the mind not as a passive mirror but as an active projector. Says Abrams, "Plotinus was the chief begetter of the archetype of the projector; and both the romantic theory of knowledge and the romantic theory of poetry can be accounted the remote descendents of this root-image of Plotinian philosophy." (Abrams, 1960: 59).

Bypassing neoplatonic modifications of the original, Shelley went directly to Plato, whom he both read and translated (Wallace, 1994: 229). "For Shelley the poet is also a seer, gifted with a peculiar insight into the nature of reality. And this reality is a timeless, unchanging, complete order, of which the familiar world is but a broken reflection. Shelley took Plato's theory of knowledge and applied it to beauty. For him the Ideal Forms are a basis not so much of knowing as of that exalted insight which is ours in the presence of beautiful things. The poet's task is to uncover this absolute real in its visible examples and to interpret them through it." (Bowra, 1950: 21).

Even Keats, less of a theorist, can be described in similar terms. It has been said, for example, that "he is close to Blake in the claims which he makes for the imagination as something absorbing and exalting which opens the way to an unseen spiritual order." (Bowra, 1950: 16).

Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Blake, then, were all influenced by the idealizing tendencies of which were equivalent to or similar to those of Platonic and neoplatonic thought. All worked in a mode of high seriousness, and all, to varying degrees, conceived of poetry not as an artificial construct but of a revelation of a deeper imaginative truth more valid than the mere surface of observable reality.

Byron, by contrast, has no patience whatsoever with poetical theorizing, and is early found denouncing Wordsworth's "new system", of which he says that "he who understands it would be able / To add a story to the tower of Babel." (Dedication, 4, 7-8). Later, he is found denouncing philosophy and system in general, noting how "One system eats another up". (XIV, 1, 5). Dealing specifically with notions of a truth beyond the bare facts observable to the senses, he says "Nothing more true than not to trust your senses, / And yet what are your other evidences?" (XIV, 2, 7-8).

It can thus be seen that Byron is rigorously unimpressed by systematic philosophical claims of the kind made by Wordsworth and Coleridge. His artistic credo demands that his poetry be founded on the world of fact, for "fact is truth, the grand desideratum, / Of which, howe'er the Muse describes each act, / There should be ne'ertheless a slight substratum." (VII, 81, 2-4).

The truth which Byron sees tends to be, as has been noted, the "sad truth" which "Turns what was once romantic to burlesque." (IV, 3, 7-8). Byron similarly notes the "sad reality" which underlies the world of military glory in which "some sucking hero" in due course "Turns out to be a butcher" who is guilty of "Afflicting young folk with a sort of dizziness." (VII, 83).

Since Byron is not straining after transcendental realities and is constrained by no theorizing systems, he is consequently possessed of the artistic freedom to write as and how he wishes. From this perspective, his statement that "note or text, / I never know the word which will come next" (IX, 41, 7-8) can be seen not as a confession of incapacity but as a declaration of total artistic freedom. Since he is not tied to the pursuit of philosophic consequence, he is free to pursue the inconsequences of the ever-shifting world of events.

Perhaps the main artistic consequence of this freedom to pursue inconsequence is that Byron, unburdened by from the implicit high seriousness which constrains the writing of the other major Romantics, is at liberty to be screamingly funny. The other major Romantics have less opportunity to be funny, for, after all, "it is usually conceded that an effort at transcedence and all-engrossing subjectivity cannot keep company with satiric dissonance." (Wood, 1993: 155).

It is interesting to see how Byron's humour works in Cantos VII and VIII, which may reasonably be interpreted as anti-war propaganda. The humour is sometimes jejune, as for example in the following pun: "But here I say the Turks were much mistaken, / Who hating hogs, yet wished to save their bacon." (VII, 42, 7-8). Here, the sophomoric nature of the humour undercuts the strength of the anti-war rhetoric, and one is inclined to suspect that this particular undercutting is not so much a deliberate artistic effect as, rather, evidence of Byron's adolescent incapacity to resist a very bad joke.

Similarly dubious is the joke about rape, in which Byron says "Some odd mistakes too happened in the dark, / Which showed a want of lanterns or of taste." (VIII, 130, 1-2), observing that "six old damsels, each of seventy years, / Were all deflowered by different grenadiers." (VIII, 130, 7- 8). The effect of this urbane humour is to undercut the seriousness of the rapes, which surely works against Bryon's stated purpose, which in this Canto is to criticise the Russian warlord Suwarrow and the martial service he performs for the Empress. It is Byron's intention to

teach, if possible, the stones
To rise against earth's tyrants. Never let it
Be said that we still truckle unto thrones.
But ye, our children's children, think how we
Showed what things were before the world was free.
(VIII, 135, 4-8)

This impassioned seriousness sits very uneasily with the preceeding humour, but Byron betrays no consciousness of the disparity. In the face of such disparities, it is hard to know how to provide an overall assessment of the poem. As Martin notes, "The poem's mobility - its shifting through disparate discourses and idioms, its crazily mischievous disturbances of decorum and propriety - has been a problem to readers since Hazlitt." (Martin, 1993: 96).

In seeking to explain the nature of Don Juan, Martin draws on Bakhtin's concept of the carnivalesque, declaring that "Don Juan's signal characteristic might be its carnivalesque irreducibility: the strongly pronounced sense that the poem has no consistent set of attitudes, no regular philosophic or moral underpinning, no means by which its poet can be conveniently transfixed." (Martin, 1993: 104).

This is another way of categorising Byron's Don Juan as the poetry of inconsequence, liberated from the constraints of the rigorous systematic thinking which tended to underly the poetry of the other major Romantics.


(1) My discussion of neoplatonism is grounded in the presentation of the subject given by Dr K.J. Larsen in 1994 lectures for 18.210 The Age of Shakespeare: Poetry.


Abrams, M.H. The Mirror and the Lamp. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Bostetter, Edward E. The Romantic Ventriloquists. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963.

Bowra, C.M. The Romantic Imagination. London: Oxford University Press, 1950.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Don Juan. Ed. T.G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W.W. Pratt. London: Penguin Books, 1986.

Cunliffe, Keith. "Recollection and Recovery: Coleridge's Platonism." Platonism and the English Imagination. Ed. Anna Baldwin and Sarah Hutton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 207-216.

Fischer, Hermann. "Byron's "Wrong Revolutionary Poetical System" and Romanticism. Byron: Augustan and Romantic. Ed. Andrew Rutherford. Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press, 1990. 221-239.

Larrissy, Edward. "Blake and Platonism." Platonism and the English Imagination. Ed. Anna Baldwin and Sarah Hutton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 186-198.

Martin, Philip W. "Reading Don Juan with Bakhtin." Don Juan. Ed. Nigel Wood. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1993. 90-121.

Price, A.W. "Wordsworth's Ode on the Intimations of Immortality." Platonism and the English Imagination. Ed. Anna Baldwin and Sarah Hutton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 217-228.

Tripp, Edward. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. London: Collins Publishers, 1988.

Wallace, Jennifer. "Shelley, Plato and the political imagination." Platonism and the English Imagination. Ed. Anna Baldwin and Sarah Hutton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 229-241.

Wallis, R.T. Neoplatonism. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972.

Wood, Nigel. "Endpiece." Don Juan. Ed. Nigel Wood. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1993. 154-159.

This essay copyright © 1995, 2003
Hugh Cook


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