Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Four Surprises in Byron’s Don Juan

Before this year, I hadn’t read any of Byron’s poetry other than the short poems that show up in anthologies for English classes: “She Walks in Beauty,” “When We Two Parted,” and such. But I had an idea what I would encounter, knowing that Byron had a reputation for being a libertine. Last year I read a scene in A Stillness at Appomattox in which Bruce Catton characterized some of Byron’s works as melancholy. So my barely founded idea was that I’d find in Byron a poet who glamorized no-strings relationships and could grow wistful about lost loves. Deciding to start my encounter with Don Juan, I assumed I would jump right in to a poetic tale of just such a characer.

But Don Juan surprised me in several ways. First, it’s much longer than I thought: as long as a novel. Not knowing its heft, I didn’t really plan enough time to read it, so I’m pulling double shifts to get through it. But fortunately,it surprised me in a second way by not often using unusual words or complex, inverted grammatical patterns. So it’s not very difficult to read. The third surprise is that the lead character’s name is not pronounced “Hwan” but in two syllables, “JOO-un,” as if rhyming with “new one,” a rhyme which in fact Byron uses.

And that remark leads to the fourth surprise: Don Juan is funny. The opening story, for instance, is a romp involving Juan, his inattentive father, his mother who is proud of her education and wants more physical comfort than her husband provides, the neighbor who grants her desires, and his young wife, who turns to the teen-aged Juan for what she fools herself into thinking will be a Platonic relationship. Such stories usually end up comical farces, but in other episodes Byron finds humor in travel, court life, and even war:
Our friends the Turks, who with loud 'Allahs' now
Began to signalise the Russ retreat,
Were damnably mistaken; few are slow
In thinking that their enemy is beat
(Or beaten, if you insist on grammar, though
I never think about it in a heat),
But here I say the Turks were much mistaken,
Who hating hogs, yet wish'd to save their bacon.
As you can see, Byron matches the humor in the story with humor in his poesy, such as making fun of his own bad grammar and using “bacon” both as a bad pun and as a surprising rhyme to “mistaken.”

Byron uses even sillier rhymes in this description of the Russian army:
Achilles' self was not more grim and gory
Than thousands of this new and polish'd nation,
Whose names want nothing but—pronunciation.

Still I 'll record a few, if but to increase
Our euphony: there was Strongenoff, and Strokonoff,
Meknop, Serge Lwow, Arsniew of modern Greece,
And Tschitsshakoff, and Roguenoff, and Chokenoff,
And others of twelve consonants apiece;
And more might be found out, if I could poke enough
Into gazettes; but Fame (capricious strumpet),
It seems, has got an ear as well as trumpet,

And cannot tune those discords of narration,
Which may be names at Moscow, into rhyme;
Yet there were several worth commemoration,
As e'er was virgin of a nuptial chime;
Soft words, too, fitted for the peroration
Of Londonderry drawling against time,
Ending in 'ischskin,' 'ousckin,' 'iffskchy,' 'ouski:
Of whom we can insert but Rousamouski,

Scherematoff and Chrematoff, Koklophti,
Koclobski, Kourakin, and Mouskin Pouskin,
All proper men of weapons, as e'er scoff'd high
Against a foe, or ran a sabre through skin.
On top of the strange names, Byron makes this passage humorous by such techniques as using two words to rhyme with one (“poke enough” with “Strokonoff” or “new one” with “Juan” ) and the frequent occurrence of two superfluous syllables at the end of a line of iambic pentameter (“And more might be found out, if I could poke enough”). I doubted myself for a long time, wondering if these features only sounded funny to me because they were unfamiliar. Maybe Byron just had a unique style that the experts consider lofty. No, my first impression proved true. The excessive syllables and the twisted rhymes involving multiple words all disappear in a passage about the death of a young girl:
Twelve days and nights she wither'd thus; at last,
Without a groan, or sigh, or glance, to show
A parting pang, the spirit from her past:
And they who watch'd her nearest could not know
The very instant, till the change that cast
Her sweet face into shadow, dull and slow,
Glazed o'er her eyes—the beautiful, the black—
O! to possess such lustre—and then lack!

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