Byron’s Don Juan: Origin of the Rap Battle?

Haidee finding Don Juan

Don Juan, Lord Byron, 1820

In his long poem “Don Juan” Byron reimagines the legendary Latin Lover as a luckless young man, tossed about by circumstance in 1820s Europe. Highly susceptible to feminine charms, he falls in love over and over again. We tend to think of Don Juan as a scheming seducer. Byron turns him into a well-intentioned, affectionate chap who inspires consuming passions in the opposite sex. Those passionate females create a lot of trouble for Juan.

As you might imagine, Don Juan has a number of lovers. Byron describes intimate scenes with more detail than previous poets dared to use. The poem was declared immoral by many critics. Byron’s publisher often hesitated to publish new installments and some of Byron’s friends begged him to stop writing it. However, many of his fellow poets declared it a work of genius and it was popular with the public.

I agree that it has elements of genius. When Byron manages to stay focused on his plot, the poem is amazing. His passages about falling in love are breathtaking. I read from one of them during my brother’s wedding ceremony:

     They look'd up to the sky, whose floating glow
       Spread like a rosy ocean, vast and bright;
     They gazed upon the glittering sea below,
       Whence the broad moon rose circling into sight;
     They heard the wave's splash, and the wind so low,
       And saw each other's dark eyes darting light
     Into each other—and, beholding this,
     Their lips drew near, and clung into a kiss;

     A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love,
       And beauty, all concentrating like rays
     Into one focus, kindled from above;
       Such kisses as belong to early days,
     Where heart, and soul, and sense, in concert move,
       And the blood 's lava, and the pulse a blaze,
     Each kiss a heart-quake,—for a kiss's strength,
     I think, it must be reckon'd by its length.

He really captures the gigantic, encompassing feelings born of little, intimate moments between two people. No?

Byron very successfully describes these things too:

  • The bittersweet feeling of leaving your home behind to go on an adventure.
  • The charms of Middle Eastern women.
  • Don Juan’s courage in battle or when sparring with a lover’s huband/father.
  • Petty jealousies.
  • Scenery.
  • Unhappy marriages.

Haidee finding Don Juan

 

Unfortunately, he grants an enormous number of lines to insulting other poets, insulting social institutions and rambling on about his personal philosophy. I think satire is most effective, not to mention entertaining, when contained within the plot. When Byron directly attacks society, the quality of his poetry diminishes. Fact: philosophy is boring. Don Juan is over 16,000 lines long, but to me it only drags when Byron goes off on philosophical tangents.

Bryon dedicated Don Juan to Robert Southey. Sounds nice, right? I like Southey. Byron didn’t. The caustic, ironic dedication sets the tone for Byron’s other acerbic digressions. Byron’s good friend Shelley escapes his harsh pen, but the Lake Poets take a beating, in verse of course. He tears into Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats. As far as I’m concerned, he can have at Wordsworth, but Coleridge? Keats? Back off Byron; those guys are paragons. At first, the idea of viciously attacking other artists in your genre seemed really odd to me. Also, it’s a precarious perch for Byron, who was far from perfect. Then I thought of rap battles. We certainly have a contemporary equivalent of abusing your artistic competition in rhyme. Let’s pretend that Byron originated the rap battle, shall we?

You might like Don Juan if:

  • you want to read beautiful verse about the misadventures of a dashing young man as he’s tossed across Europe by Lady Fortune.

You might not like Don Juan if:

  • you don’t want to dig through Byron’s philosophy, social commentary and bile to get to the adventure story.

Final thoughts: I loved/hated Don Juan, but mostly I loved it. When it is good, it is very, very good. When it is bad, it is boring. The story is gripping and told so incredibly well, that I got really annoyed with Byron for all his digressions. I am very glad I read it. To me it was worth the long slog. However, I hesitate to recommend it. Realistically, most readers will not have the requisite patience

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The Corsair

The Corsair, Lord Byron, 1814

For a swashbuckling good time try Lord Byron’s The Corsair, a truly epic epic poem about everybody’s favorite type of outlaw: pirates!  If you like your pirates tall, dark and angsty you will love Conrad, the leading man.  Lord Byron kind of invented tall, dark and angsty.  No, really, he developed a new literary prototype inspired by himself.  Gone is the valiant, morally righteous young whippersnapper/knight errant.  Enter the Byronic hero!  He’s a smart, moody outcast.  He’s mysterious, cynical and sexy.  He’s an introverted rebel who scorns social norms and society generally.  Most importantly, he has a dark, guilty past that torments his conscience.  Yum.

Byron introduced this self-modeled hero in the epic poem Childe Harolde, a semi-autobiographical travelogue that I started reading and then was all “naw.”  I found it boring and obscure.  If you’ve been following this blog for a while you know that boring and obscure is right up my alley, but I am definitely not the perfect reader of Childe Harolde.  I am not familiar with the ins and outs of world events circa 1814 or with the landmarks of continental Europe.  When Byron refers to Colonel Thus-and-Such by some nickname, the allusion goes right over my head, because I’ve never heard of said Colonel or his diminutives.  So, I skipped Childe Harolde and moved straight on to The Corsair.  Whooeee, so much more fun.

Our anti-hero, Conrad, inspires extreme loyalty in his band of followers despite his dour demeanor.  One day he’s sitting in his pirate hideout feeling a little glum about the troubled past that got him rejected from society.  He decides to distract himself with his favorite occupation: piracy!  It’s going to take a big victory to get him out of this funk, so he sets his sight on the home city of his arch nemesis.  Enemy #1 is Seyd, a higher up in the Ottoman Empire.  Conrad says goodbye to his beloved, sneaks into his rival’s palace and sets that place on fire!  He’s feeling pretty good about himself when he sees that Seyd’s harem is burning.  Oh no!  Conrad will kill men left, right and center in the name of. . .robbing them, but no women.  Ok?  No women!   He orders his men to run into the flaming harem and carry out a flaming lady.  They prove their loyalty by following him into that burning building.  Amid the smoke Conrad blindly clutches for a lady and runs out with her.  Turns out she’s Seyd’s lead sex slave and she has such lovely charms.  Her name is Gulnare, which is unfortunate, but I guess it rhymes with stuff.

Gulnare

Turning back to rescue the women costs Conrad the battle.  He gets captured.  Fortunately (?), Gulnare has fallen in love with Conrad, duh.  Inspired by her love, she sneaks into Seyd’s chambers at night and assassinates the bejesus out of him, thus enabling Conrad’s escape.  Conrad had been feeling some uncomfortable sensations of attraction toward the lovely Gulnare, but now that she’s a murderer he is completely repulsed by her.   This guy kills people professionally and steals their lucre.  But girls are supposed to be sweet and innocent, ya know.  I can’t get over what a stinking hypocrite Conrad is.   If murder is ever justifiable, and I’m not exactly saying that it is, killing the man who has made you his sex slave has got to be near the top of justifiable slayings.  Way more morally correct than killing someone because they have money and you want it.  Uhhhhhhhhhhgh.

Gulnare

Warning: feminist rant commencing now.  If you are a patriarch it makes sense to perpetuate the idea that women should never dirty their hands.  I know that I am probably about to make the error of conflating Byron with his character.  In my defense, Byron typically tells the reader when he thinks his characters are making an error of judgment.  I really thought he was going to point out how ridiculous Conrad is being when he scorns Gulnare’s crime.  But he doesn’t.  So, he perpetuates the patriarchal precept that if a woman is in a terrible situation she should just stay in it rather than lift her hand to free herself.  Rage.  Remember ladies, if you are feeling oppressed, don’t ever fight back.  It’s unfeminine.

Anyway, aside from this giant glaring flaw, I really loved this poem.  Byron is a fantastic poet.  He really made me feel zeal for the open ocean and other piratey emotions.  Let me supply you with a quote:

Oh, who can tell, save he whose heart hath tried,

And danced in triumph o’er the waters wide,

The exulting sense—the pulse’s maddening play,

That thrills the wanderer of that trackless way?

 

You might like The Corsair if:

  • you love swashbuckling.
  • you like The Three Musketeers.
  • you are looking for “Pirates of the Caribbean” in epic poem form.

 

You might not like The Corsair if:

  • you have no interest in the Romantic Era or epic poetry.

 

Final thoughts: I really enjoyed this poem.  If you are curious about epic poetry and want to see if you have the appetite for it, The Corsair is a good starting point.  It’s not too long and it has a lot of spirit.  As far as long poems go, this one is easy to love.