POETRY IN LOCKDOWN: 21


Just to return to Byron for a moment: despite his louche style of life this was an enormously busy poet who wrote numerous long pieces now very rarely read (Beppo, Manfred, The Bride of Abydos, Lara, The Siege of Corinth etc.). But his greatest work is his very longest, Don Juan, left unfinished when he died aged 36 in 1824. It’s his greatest because it plays to his strengths: virtuoso line-by-line technique, acute social observation and a sense of humour. He is the only so-called Romantic poet who can reliably make you laugh.

Don Juan ostensibly tells the adventures of the eponymous Spanish seducer but frankly these may be the least interesting aspect of a wildly discursive poem. The form is the ottava rima, in which Byron was expert. It requires an 8-line stanza containing only three rhymes — not so difficult in Italian, but breathtakingly hard to pull off at any length in English. In Don Juan Byron does it across more than 2000 stanzas. Here is one, on the incompetence of the Russian army’s artillery (Canto VII/27):

Whether it was their engineer’s stupidity,
   Their haste or waste I neither know nor care,
Or some contractor’s personal cupidity,
   Saving his soul by cheating on his ware
Of homicide, but there was no solidity
   In the new batteries erected there.
They either missed or they were never missed
And added greatly to the missing list.

Although Don Juan is best enjoyed at length there are stanzas in it that strike you as being extra-special even out of context. I’ll leave you with just one, which I think is almost perfect. It tells of the end of a long evening’s entertainment at a country house (Canto XVI/8).

 The dinner and the soirée too were done,
   The supper too discussed, the dames admired,
The banqueteers had dropped off one by one,
   The song was silent and the dance expired.
The last thin petticoats were vanished, gone
   Like fleecy clouds into the sky retired,
And nothing brighter gleamed through the saloon
Than dying tapers and the peeping moon.

Posted on May 13th, 2020

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