“My business,” writes Byron in Don Juan, “is to dress society, And stuff with sage that very verdant goose.” He called the poem “an epic satire.” It took him five years to write, and Shelley considered it the great poem of the age, greater than anything by Wordsworth or Goethe. Harold Bloom also thinks it Byron’s greatest poem but calls it “digressive, unfinished, and unfinishable.”
Byron has huge fun in the poem, poking fun at every topic from writing to women, death, love, marriage, truth, the sublime, and even climate change. I’ve been reading it in small does for months and have finally finished. Perhaps what I’ve enjoyed most is collecting together and even categorising quotes from the poem (see below).
I find it extraordinary that Byron could keep up the strict form, the metre, and the rhyming. It needed great ingenuity, and perhaps one source of the digressions was the need to find rhyming words. But the poem, which at times reads almost like doggerel with a joke in every last line, illustrates perhaps how the need to rhyme can lead you into some interesting places.
I won’t read the poem again, but I’m glad that I’ve read it.
Quotes from Don Juan by Byron
Knowledge, truth, and philosophy
I love wisdom more than she loves me.
What are we? and whence came we? what shall be
Our ultimate existence? what ‘s our present?
Are questions answerless, and yet incessant.
Of Thought’s foes by far most rude,
Tyrants and sycophants have been and are.
And, after all, what is a lie? ‘T is but
The truth in masquerade; and I defy
Historians, heroes, lawyers, priests, to put
A fact without some leaven of a lie.
The very shadow of true Truth would shut
Up annals, revelations, poesy,
And prophecy—except it should be dated
Some years before the incidents related.
Adversity is the first path to truth:
He who hath proved war, storm, or woman’s rage,
Whether his winters be eighteen or eighty,
Hath won the experience which is deem’d so weighty.
Between two worlds life hovers like a star,
‘Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge.
How little do we know that which we are!
How less what we may be! The eternal surge
Of time and tide rolls on, and bears afar
Our bubbles; as the old burst, new emerge,
Lash’d from the foam of ages; while the graves
Of empires heave but like some passing waves.
Love and marriage
O Love! how perfect is thy mystic art,
Strengthening the weak, and trampling on the strong,
Love is so very timid when ‘t is new.
‘T is melancholy, and a fearful sign
Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
That love and marriage rarely can combine,
Although they both are born in the same clime;
Marriage from love, like vinegar from wine—
A sad, sour, sober beverage—by time
Is sharpen’d from its high celestial flavour
Down to a very homely household savour.
All who have loved, or love, will still allow
Life has nought like it. God is love, they say,
And Love ‘s a god.
That false crime bigamy.
For Cupid’s cup
With the first draught intoxicates apace,
A quintessential laudanum or ‘black drop,’
Which makes one drunk at once, without the base
Expedient of full bumpers; for the eye
In love drinks all life’s fountains (save tears) dry.
Love, that great opener of the heart and all
The ways that lead there.
Now hatred is by far the longest pleasure;
Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.
There is a tide in the affairs of women
Which, taken at the flood, leads—God knows where:
Those navigators must be able seamen
Whose charts lay down its current to a hair;
Not all the reveries of Jacob Behmen
With its strange whirls and eddies can compare:
Men with their heads reflect on this and that—
But women with their hearts on heaven knows what!
I ‘ve seen your stormy seas and stormy women,
And pity lovers rather more than seamen.
What a strange thing is man? and what a stranger
Is woman! What a whirlwind is her head,
And what a whirlpool full of depth and danger
Is all the rest about her! Whether wed
Or widow, maid or mother, she can change her
Mind like the wind: whatever she has said
Or done, is light to what she ‘ll say or do;—
The oldest thing on record, and yet new!
Intoxication and the sublime
Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda-water the day after.
Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;
The best of life is but intoxication:
Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk
The hopes of all men, and of every nation;
Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk
Of life’s strange tree, so fruitful on occasion.
My altars are the mountains and the ocean,
Earth, air, stars,—all that springs from the great Whole,
Who hath produced, and will receive the soul.
There ‘s music in all things, if men had ears:
Their earth is but an echo of the spheres.
To the kind reader of our sober clime
This way of writing will appear exotic;
Pulci was sire of the half-serious rhyme,
Who sang when chivalry was more Quixotic,
And revell’d in the fancies of the time,
True knights, chaste dames, huge giants, kings despotic:
But all these, save the last, being obsolete,
I chose a modern subject as more meet.
I hope it is no crime
To laugh at all things—for I wish to know
What, after all, are all things—but a show?
Reader! I have kept my word,—at least so far
As the first Canto promised. You have now
Had sketches of love, tempest, travel, war—
All very accurate, you must allow,
And epic, if plain truth should prove no bar;
I can’t oblige you, reader, to read on;
That ‘s your affair, not mine: a real spirit
Should neither court neglect, nor dread to bear it.
It occupies me to turn back regards
On what I ‘ve seen or ponder’d, sad or cheery;
And what I write I cast upon the stream,
To swim or sink—I have had at least my dream.
Dissimulation always sets apart
A corner for herself; and therefore fiction
Is that which passes with least contradiction.
I don’t know that there may be much ability
Shown in this sort of desultory rhyme;
But there ‘s a conversational facility,
Which may round off an hour upon a time.
Of this I ‘m sure at least, there ‘s no servility
In mine irregularity of chime,
Which rings what ‘s uppermost of new or hoary,
Just as I feel the ‘Improvvisatore.’
I write the world, nor care if the world read,
My business is to dress society,
And stuff with sage that very verdant goose.
We live and die,
But which is best, you know no more than I.
And Death, the sovereign’s sovereign, though the great
Gracchus of all mortality, who levels
With his Agrarian laws the high estate
Of him who feasts, and fights, and roars, and revels,
To one small grass-grown patch (which must await
Corruption for its crop) with the poor devils
Who never had a foot of land till now,—
Death ‘s a reformer, all men must allow.
Having voted, dined, drunk, gamed, and whored,
The family vault receives another lord.
This world shall be former, underground,
Thrown topsy-turvy, twisted, crisp’d, and curl’d,
Baked, fried, or burnt, turn’d inside-out, or drown’d,
Like all the worlds before, which have been hurl’d
First out of, and then back again to chaos,
The superstratum which will overlay us.
Men are but maggots of some huge Earth’s burial.
Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded
That all the Apostles would have done as they did.
But vaccination certainly has been
A kind antithesis to Congreve’s rockets,
With which the Doctor paid off an old pox,
By borrowing a new one from an ox.
The king commands us, and the doctor quacks us,
The priest instructs, and so our life exhales,
A little breath, love, wine, ambition, fame,
Fighting, devotion, dust,—perhaps a name.
Most men are slaves, none more so than the great,
To their own whims and passions, and what not;
A neat, snug study on a winter’s night,
A book, friend, single lady, or a glass
Of claret, sandwich, and an appetite,
Are things which make an English evening pass;
The nightingale that sings with the deep thorn,
Which fable places in her breast of wail,
Is lighter far of heart and voice than those
Whose headlong passions form their proper woes.
And that ‘s the moral of this composition.
But always without malice: if he warr’d
Or loved, it was with what we call ‘the best
Intentions,’ which form all mankind’s trump card,
To be produced when brought up to the test.
The statesman, hero, harlot, lawyer—ward
Off each attack, when people are in quest
Of their designs, by saying they meant well;
‘T is pity ‘that such meaning should pave hell.’
Howe’er the mighty locust, Desolation,
Strip your green fields, and to your harvests cling,
Gaunt famine never shall approach the throne—
Though Ireland starve, great George weighs twenty stone.
The sole sign of man’s being in his senses
Is, learning to reduce his past expenses.
Of all the barbarous middle ages, that
Which is most barbarous is the middle age
Of man; it is—I really scarce know what;
But when we hover between fool and sage,
I will not dwell upon ragouts or roasts,
Albeit all human history attests
That happiness for man—the hungry sinner!-
Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.
In play, there are two pleasures for your choosing—
The one is winning, and the other losing.