Sunday, March 8, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 60.1 (Lord Byron)

Don Juan
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Byron, George Gordon
Don Juan

Well, this is it for the B's. This book was purchased at the Fordham University Bookstore for the aforementioned class on British Romantic Poetry. It's not in great shape, though it could probably withstand another reading or two in the next few years. Many of the pages are water-damaged, which I think occurred relatively recently.

One of my clearest memories of studying Byron in college is of the professor telling us to pronounce "Juan" as "JEW-in," and not as "Hwan," otherwise the rhyme scheme wouldn't make sense. Apparently, the British don't (or didn't then) fancy being forced to pronounce foreign words correctly, and so anglicized the pronunciation of everything. Imperialist's prerogative, I guess.

I hope I didn't suggest in the last post a dislike for Byron. I only meant to say that I prefer the witty, sardonic, mean-spirited bad boy Byron of Don Juan to the weepy, wispy Byron of Childe Harold. As far as Don Juan goes, I love it. It's one of my favorite books of poetry. I would want it with me on the proverbial desert island. As Stan Apps pointed out in the comment section "It's one of the rare [books in which] poetry is as good as a Bugs Bunny cartoon." I can't argue with that.

I reread it a couple of years ago with great pleasure. It's one of the few great long poems that can be read like a novel. It doesn't require a lot of stopping to track down allusions -- though it does help to have notes, as this one does -- and it's pretty much a laugh-a-minute. Whether he is mocking the church or his contemporaries, his wit is always searing, his rhymes always devilishly clever.

Here's a taste from Canto the First. The rhyming of "Southey" with "mouthy" and "drouthy" kills me every time:


If ever I should condescend to prose,
I'll write poetical commandments, which
Shall supersede beyond all doubt all those
That went before; in these I shall enrich
My text with many things that no one knows,
And carry precept to the highest pitch:
I'll call the work "Longinus o'er a Bottle,
Or, Every Poet his own Aristotle."


Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthy:
With Crabbe it may be difficult to cope,
And Campbell's Hippocrene is somewhat drouthy:
Thou shalt not steal from Samuel Rogers, nor
Commit -- flirtation with the muse of Moore.


Thou shalt not covet Mr. Sotheby's Muse,
His Pegasus, nor anything that's his;
Thou shalt not bear false witness like "the Blues"
(There's one, at least, is very fond of this);
Thou shalt not write, in short, but what I choose:
This is true criticism, and you may kiss --
Exactly as you please, or not, -- the rod;
But if you don't, I'll lay it on, by G-d!

1 comment:

baj salchert said...

Snappy fellow.

And I have the Auden-edited selection. Thanks for the goad.