The Most Audacious Parts Are Its Digressions

by John Hertz: (luckily reprinted from Vanamonde 1313)

When Newton saw an apple fall, he found
In that slight startle from his contemplation –
’Tis said (for I’ll not answer above ground
For any sage’s creed or calculation) –
A mode of proving that the Earth turned round
In a most natural whirl, called gravitation;
And this is the sole mortal who could grapple,
Since Adam, with a fall or with an apple.

Man fell with apples, and with apples rose,
If this be true; for we must deem the mode
In which Sir Isaac Newton could disclose
Through the then unpaved stars the turnpike road,
A thing to counterbalance human woes.
For ever since immortal man hath glowed
With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon
Steam engines will conduct him to the Moon.

Byron, Don Juan Canto X, stanzas 1-2 (1823)
Steffan & Pratt eds. 1982, Wolfson & Manning rev. 2004, p. 375

I’m a philosopher; confound them all!
Bills, beasts, and men, and – no! not womankind!
With one good hearty curse I vent my gall,
And then my stoicism leaves nought behind
Which it can either pain or evil call,
And I can give my whole soul up to mind;
Though what is soul or mind, their birth or growth,
Is more than I know – the deuce take them both.

Canto VI, st. 22; p. 269

Byron (1788-1824) died with Canto XVII incomplete; he had said he meant to write fifty, or a hundred; the 14-stanza fragment of Canto XVII, all we have, was found and published in 1903 (W&M p. viii).

Shelley (1792-1822) praising what he’d seen said “Nothing like it has been written in English” (W&M p. ix); Keats (1795-1821) hated the swing between satire and sentiment (p. xx); Scott (1771-1832) said DJ “sounded every string of the divine harp, from its slightest to its most powerful and heart-astounding tones” (Edinburgh Weekly Journal 19 May 1824, quot. E. Coleridge [grandson of S. Coleridge 1772-1834] ed., Wks. of Byron v. 6 p. xix, 1903).

Swinburne (1837-1909), “neither a disciple nor encomiast of Byron [said] ‘Life undulates and Death palpitates in the splendid verse….  This gift of life and variety is the supreme quality of Byron’s chief poem’” (E. Coleridge id.).

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) applauded “the springy random haphazard galloping nature of its method….  like all free and easy things, only the skilled and mature really bring them off successfully,” (A Writer’s Diary pp. 3-4 (L. Woolf ed. 1954, quot. W&M p. xxiv).

“Like most major satire, Don Juan had its origin in indignation….   danger of the modern reader’s … failing to notice the passages which struck most contemporary readers as politically shocking….

“The most audacious parts of the poem are its digressions….  a poem unfinished and unfinishable….

“The skill of the rhyming contributes…. to jerk together the most incongruous concepts … cosmogony and mahogany…. oddest he / modesty….  violent enjambments….  No word … is too familiar or commonplace to be used….

“Several of his friends assure us that the style of Don Juan is an echo of Byron’s conversation….  Don Juan is almost as full of human beings as the Canterbury Tales [Chaucer, 1387],” I. Jack, English Literature 1815-1832 pp. 67-69 (1963).

Juan is Anglicized: J like jewel, two syllables rhyming with “new one”, “true one” (Canto I, st. 1; p. 46).  This is (natch) an independent version of the man in legend; here, though some adventures are affaires de coeur, he unlike e.g. Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) does not go “conquering” women, angels and ministers of grace defend us.

2 thoughts on “The Most Audacious Parts Are Its Digressions

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  2. John, I’m glad you mentioned the point about pronunciation — having repeatedly had the experience of trying to discuss Byron’s Don Juan with fellow Californians and see them give me a pitying look implying ‘Lad needs to learn some basic Spanish.’ And then they never believe me, that that’s really what Byron intended.

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