There’s a recurring question that springs to mind whenever I sit in the Starbucks in the Barnes & Noble in my little East Texas town and stare up at the mural of authors who all seem to have transcended time and space to have coffee alongside the hipsters: who put Oscar Wilde next to George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, and Trollope? Seriously, is it any wonder that the man looks so bored? Wilde shouldn’t be surrounded by those Victorian fogies, he should be sipping gin with Truman Capote, Christopher Hitchens, Walt Whitman, and the one man who would almost certainly guarantee a good time, and who also happens to be the focus of this essay, George Gordon, Lord Byron. The reason for such inclusion is simple: Byron could be an absolutely trenchant satirist when he wanted to be. Byron, like Wilde, Capote or Hitchens, could bring out his own breed of sharp wit whenever someone at a dinner party decided to be cleverer than him, only to be left decimated in a single sentence by his superior rhetorical ability. I know this is a platitude, but sometimes I really wish I could have been a fly on the wall whenever Byron let loose one of those glorious aphorisms that sealed his entrance into the hall of “Truly Spectacular One Liners,” if only to see and understand how it was that Rodney Dangerfield sealed his membership before the poet. (Then again, when you’ve starred in Caddyshack, your “Immortality card” is pretty much secure, unless you’re that blond kid who was the protagonist, and does anybody have any clue what happened to that guy?)
The challenge with teaching and studying Byron is always that the poet’s extravagant personal life tends to eclipse his poetry in our popular imagination, and anyone who has ever taught underclassmen has experienced this. Before you can even begin to discuss She Walks in Beauty or Manfred, the question that invariably arises from the mouth of a student is “Wasn’t Byron gay?”
Now it’s important to recognize that taking students’ questions seriously is vital to keeping them engaged with a work, and dismissal is the weakest tool in a teacher’s chest. Simply saying, “The biography’s not important” or “What you should be focusing on instead is…” isn’t going to keep a student paying attention, because often the student who asks the question is already looking for an excuse not to care about the poem. The best teachers in my experience will take the student seriously and answer the question about Byron’s sexuality as best they can, replying that he was most likely bisexual (although modern perspectives on sexuality are far different than they were two or three centuries ago). This is a way of answering the student’s question honestly, while also generating interest for students who may be gay or bisexual who are interested in reading the work of someone who shares their sexuality.
But Byron’s bisexuality is just one element of his larger-than-life persona that instructors have to address before getting to the poetry. Lady Caroline Lamb created the stereotypical (yet reasonably accurate) descriptor for Byron when she called him “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to know,” and once again, before we can even move forward to the poetry in the classroom, we have to address why he acquired such a title. It wasn’t just that Byron slept with men and women; an instructor also has to address his relationships with boys, the pet bear he kept while attending Cambridge, the numerous liaisons he had with women of high society, and his self-expulsion from England after his marital separation and the accusations that he was having an affair with his half-sister… and if any of your students are still listening and not rocking and reeling from the shock of all this, then congrats, you’re going to have a fun semester.
I find it rather disappointing that Byron’s personal life is almost always the first topic of discussion whenever any conversations about his work come into play, especially in the classroom. A good friend of mine, who threw away an incredible career as a historian to become an accountant, would always dismiss Byron before I could tell him about the actual poetry. Despite his character flaws, Byron is one of the most important poets of the Romantic period because he could write verse so complex in its construction and meter that it is still being discovered today. Byron’s work is a marvel worth the time, patience, and merit of those that would attempt to study it.
With that in mind I’ve decided to discuss Byron’s use of humor in his Dedication in the epic Don Juan.
I’ve read excerpts from Childe Harold, the poem that launched Byron to stardom overnight, and my initial reading led me to the conclusion that, much like Paradise Lost and The Knight’s Tale, sometimes “Great Poetry” can be as painful as root canal surgery. I understand why we continue to study the poem, since it establishes the blueprint for the Byronic hero. But at the same time, a greater and far more readable poem is at teachers’ and scholars’ disposal — Don Juan.
I began reading Don Juan because I had watched the film Don Juan de Marco starring Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, and Marlon Brando. About two Cantos in (around the time of the Shipwreck), I began to realize this was the most approachable epic poem I had ever read. As I write this, I realize that somewhere out there Homer just read that line and shed a single man-tear, but that boat chapter in The Iliad was torture. By contrast, the ease of Don Juan was in no small part because of the fact that Byron, for once it seems, enjoys poking fun at everyone and everything that deserves it in his estimation. The Dedication is to Robert Southey, who my reader will hopefully remember was the Poet Laureate of England at the time. Byron’s words speak for themselves, though I hope these first two stanzas won’t require much explanation in terms of tone:
And representative of all the race;
Although ’tis true that you turn’d out a Tory at
Last—yours has lately been a common case;
And now, my Epic Renegade! what are ye at?
With all the Lakers, in and out of place?
A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye
Like “four and twenty Blackbirds in a pye;
“Which pye being open’d they began to sing”
(This old song and new simile holds good),
“A dainty dish to set before the King,”
Or Regent, who admires such kind of food;
And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,
But like a hawk encumber’d with his hood,
Explaining Metaphysics to the nation—
I wish he would explain his Explanation.
If the phrase “sick burn” had been around I’m sure it would have been whispered between the salons of Europe at this time. When I look back over this passage I can’t help but laugh, because while Byron is being obnoxious, the very fact that modern readers appreciate that enrichens the experience. His line concerning Coleridge’s “explanations” is a reference to Biographia Literaria, and there again there is a liberation in the fact that there existed someone who possessed the courage to poke fun at one of the most brilliant minds of the Romantic Movement. Speaking of which, if one looks to the next two stanzas:
You, Bob! are rather insolent, you know,
At being disappointed in your wish
To supersede all warblers here below,
And be the only Blackbird in the dish;
And then you overstrain yourself, or so,
And tumble downward like the flying fish
Gasping on deck, because you soar too high, Bob,
And fall, for lack of moisture quite a-dry, Bob!
And Wordsworth, in a rather long “Excursion”
(I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
Has given a sample from the vasty version
Of his new system to perplex the sages;
‘Tis poetry—at least by his assertion,
And may appear so when the dog-star rages—
And he who understands it would be able
To add a story to the Tower of Babel.
Before I get into this it should be worth noting that the edition of Don Juan that I own there is a note after the “a-dry, Bob!” line. The explanation is too perfect to be paraphrased:
This ribaldry caused consternation among Byron’s friends in England, to whom the double entendre was obvious. In Regency slang “a dry Bob” meant coition without emission.
Now it’s important to note, and I myself did not realize this until after I originally posted this article, that the Dedication was not included when Don Juan was first published because Byron’s friends were so scandalized and concerned for his already compromised reputation that they suppressed the Dedication from being published until after Byron had died — partly due to the scandal provoked by this particular line. (See *Author’s Note*)
Reading the Dedication is an unusual experience within Romantic studies, for more often than not, these poets are concerned with the sublime, with memory, with emotional and psychological experiences resulting in despair, dejection, and something else that denotes misery that begins with “d.” (Depression. Why couldn’t I remember that?) It’s not only rare, it’s almost impossible to find such a text so rich with unabashed ribaldry and snark. If I may cite the fourth stanza where he moves on to Wordsworth’s Excursion, or “the brick”: in researching this particular work, Byron’s colorful description does not seem that far off the mark. The poet’s observation that “I think the quarto holds five hundred pages,” may offend the seasoned Romanticist who has spent the last six years writing an even longer book about such an important work of poetry, but to the student who has to read those five hundred pages, your emotions have suddenly become validated by Wordsworth’s great rival. Reading this criticism, and observing that I’m not the only one who read through that long poem scratching my head in places, has opened up the possibility to discuss if Wordsworth’s attempt to write in the language of common men truly succeeded. (He did: it’s just that the language changed over time.)
The Dedication, in my experience, is more than just a chance for Byron to poke fun at Robert Southey and the Lake Poets, it’s an opportunity to discuss Byron outside of his personal life. He becomes a political figure and a satirist, for ultimately Don Juan is a spoof of the persona that morphed and fashioned the man who resisted the image he created through his poetry. Byron was often compelled to satisfy the perception that he was the “Byronic hero” in his various poems and works, and no matter how hard he attempted to divorce himself from the public image in his later years, the masses would have their way. In the face of authority, tradition, and what can only be described as “Intense Britishness,” Byron is playing, rather than attacking…actually no, scratch that, Byron is attacking, but, there’s still the softened feature of jest that is almost invisible in the remainder of his work. That in itself is significant.
His Dedication ends with a final address to Southey:
Where shall I turn me not to view its bonds,
For I will never feel them?—Italy!
Beneath the lie this State-thing breath’d o’er thee—
Thy clanking chain, and Erin’s yet green wounds,
Have voices—tongues to cry aloud for me.
Europe has slaves—allies—kings—armies still,
And Southey lives to sing them very ill.
Meantime—Sir Laureate—I proceed to dedicate,
In honest simple verse, this song to you,
And, if in flattering strains I do not predicate,
‘Tis that I still retain my “buff and blue”;
My politics as yet are all to educate:
Apostasy’s so fashionable, too,
To keep one creed’s a task grown quite Herculean;
Is it not so, my Tory, ultra-Julian?
Byron does not try to hide the contempt of English conservatism that is manifested, in his eyes, in the figure of Southey who has become, by his title, the face of institution. By accepting the “laurels” of such a position Southey has become Empire and tradition and politics and everything that should spell the end for artistic liberation for the self. One can almost hear Mark Twain’s Huck Finn in Byron’s final fleeing from England:
As the Dedication ends, Byron ain’t headed West to smoke pipes and not bathe like a “real man,” but he is escaping something (though he admits to still feeling English at heart). It may be that he sees in the Lake Poets a rejection of what he feels poetry should be. Rather than titles and prestige, poetry is the honest expression of feeling, it’s the translation of the chaos of raw emotion into a functional communication of passion.
I’ve selected passages of the Dedication from Poetry Foundation. Hope you enjoy!
*The version of the essay you are currently reading was not in fact the original. NASSR Grads informed me that this work would require revisions before it could be published. The irony isn’t lost on me, since Byron’s Dedication was suppressed too…
Editor’s Note: Please note that this essay was republished on October 17, 2015 with revisions.