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The reader of the “ Notices of the Life of Lord Byron ” is already in possession of abundant details, concerning the circumstances under which the successive cantos of Don Juan were produced. We think it right, however, to repeat, in this place, some of the most striking passages of the Poet's own letters, with reference to this performance :
September 19. 1818. -" I have finished the First Canto (a long one, of about 180 octaves) of a poem in the style and manner of Beppo, en. couraged by the good success of the same. It is called Don Juan, and is meant to be a little quietly facetious upon every thing. But I doubt whether it is not - at least, as far as it has yet gone - too free for these very
However, I shall try the experiment anonymously; and if it don't take, it will be discontinued. It is dedicated to Southey, in good, simple, savage verse, upon the Laureate's politics, and the way he got them."
January 25. 1819. –“ Print it entire, omitting, of course, the lines on Castlereagh, as I am not on the spot to meet him. I have acquiesced in the request and representation; and having done so, it is idle to detail my arguments in favour of my own self-love and ' poeshie ;' but I protest. If the
poem has poetry, it would stand ; if not, fall; the rest is leather and prunello,' and has never yet affected any human production pro or con.' Dulness is the only annihilator in such cases. As to the cant of the day, I despise it, as I have ever done all its other finical fashions, which become you as paint became the ancient Britons. If you admit this prudery, you must omit half Ariosto, La Fontaine, Shakspeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, Massinger, Ford, all the Charles Second writers; in short, something of most who have written before Pope and are worth reading, and much of Pope himself. Read him - most of you don't - but do- and I will forgive you ; though the inevitable consequence would be, that you would burn all I have ever written, and all your other wretched Claudians of the day (except Scott and Crabbe) into the bargain.”
February 1. 1819. “ I have not yet begun to copy out the Second Canto, which is finished, from natural laziness, and the discouragement of the milk and water they have thrown upon the First. I say all this to them as to you, that is, for you to say to them, for I will have nothing underhand. If they had told me the poetry was bad, I would have acquiesced; but they say the contrary, and then talk to me about morality - the first time I ever heard the word from any body who was not a rascal that used it for a pur. pose. I maintain that it is the most moral of poems; but if people won't discover the moral, that is their fault, not mine."
April 6. 1819. — “You sha'n't make canticles of my cantos. The poem will please, if it is lively; if it is stupid, it will fail: but I will have none of your damned cutting and slashing. If you please, you may publish anonymously; it will perhaps be better; but I will battle my way against them all, like a porcupine."
August 12. 1819. — “You are right, Gifford is right, Crabbe is right, Hobhouse is right - you are all right, and I am all wrong; but do, pray, let me have that pleasure. Cut me up root and branch ; quarter me in the Quarterly; send round my 'disjecti membra poetæ,' like those of the Levite's concubine; make me, if you will, a spectacle to men and angels; but don't ask me to alter, for I won't:-I am obstinate and lazy - and there's the truth. —You ask me for the plan of Donny Johnny : I have no plan; I had no plan; but I had or have materials ; though if, like Tony Lumpkin, 'I am to be snubbed so when I am in spirits,' the poem will be naught, and the poet turn serious again. If it don't take, I will leave it off where it is, with all due respect to the public; but if continued, it must be in my own way. You might as well make Hamlet (or Diggory)' act mad' in a strait waistcoat, as trammel my buffoonery, if I am to be a buf. foon; their gestures and my thoughts would only be pitiably absurd and ludicrously constrained. Why, man, the soul of such writing is its licence; at least the liberty of that licence, if one likes - not that one should abuse it. It is like Trial by Jury and Peerage, and the Habeas Corpus. - a very fine thing, but chiefly in the reversion; because no one wishes to be tried for the mere pleasure of proving his possession of the privilege. (1)
“ But a truce with these reflections. You are too earnest and eager about a work never intended to be serious. Do you suppose that I could have any intention but to giggle and make giggle?- a playful satire, with as little poetry as could be helped, was what I meant. And as to the inde. cency, do, pray, read in Boswell what Johnson, the sullen moralist, says of Prior and Paulo Purgante.” (1)
August 24. 1819.-"Keep the anonymous: it helps what fun there may be. But if the matter grow serious about ' Don Juan,' and you feel yourself in a scrape, or me either, own that I am the author. I will never shrink; and if you do, I can always answer you in the question of Guatimozin to his minister each being on his own coals. (2) I wish that I had been in better spirits; but I am out of sorts, out of nerves, and, now and then, (I begin to fear) out of my senses.”
(1) [See Croker's Boswell, vol. iv. p. 45.]
Such additional particulars, respecting the production of the later Cantos, as may seem to deserve preservation, shall be given as the poem proceeds. In the mean time, we have been much puzzled how to put the reader, who does not recollect the incidents of 1819, in possession of any thing like an adequate view of the nature and extent of the animadversion called forth by the first publication of Don Juan.
Cantos I. and II. appeared in London, in July, 1819, without the name either of author or bookseller, in a thin quarto ; and the periodical press immediately teemed with the “ judicia doctorum necnon aliorum.” It has occurred to us, that on this occasion we might do worse than adopt the example set us in the Preface to the first complete edition of the DUNCIAD. We there read as follows: “ Before we present thee with our exercitations on this most delectable Poem (drawn from the many volumes of our Adversaria on modern Authors), we shall here, according to the laudable usage of editors, collect the various judgments of the learned concerning our Poet: various, indeed — not only of different authors, but of the same author at different seasons. Nor shall we gather only the Testimonies of such eminent Wits as would of course descend to posterity, and consequently be read without our collection; but we shall likewise, with incredible labour, seek out for divers others, which, but for this our diligence, could never, at the distance of a few months, appear to the eye of the most curious.” In like manner, therefore, let us now gratify our readers, by selecting, in reference to Don Juan, a few of the chief
Testimonies of authors,
beginning with the most courtly, and decorous, and high-spirited of newspapers,
I. THE MORNING POST.
“ The greatest anxiety having been excited with respect to the appear. ance of this Poem, we shall lay a few stanzas before our readers, merely observing, that, whatever its character, report has been completely erroneous respecting it. If it is not (and truth compels us to admit it is not) the most moral production in the world, but more in the Beppo'style, yet is there nothing of the sort which Scandal with her hundred tongues whispered abroad, and Malignity joyfully believed and repeated, contained in it. 'Tis simply a tale and righte merrie conceit, flighty, wild, extrava. gant- immoral too, it must be confessed; but no arrows are levelled at innocent bosoms, no sacred family peace invaded ; and they must have, indeed, a strange self-consciousness, who can discover their own portrait in any part of it. Thus much, though we cannot advocate the book, truth and justice ordain us to declare." [July, 1819.]
Even more complimentary, on this occasion, was the sober, matter-of-fact Thwaitsism of the
II. MORNING HERALD. “ It is hardly safe or discreet to speak of Don Juan, that truant offspring of Lord Byron's muse. It may be said, however, that, with all its sins, the copiousness and flexibility of the English language were never before so triumphantly approved that the same compass of talent the grave, the gay, the great, the small,' comic force, humour, metaphysics, and observation - boundless fancy and ethereal beauty, and curious knowledge, curiously applied, have never been blended with the same felicity in any other poem."
Next comes a harsher voice, from — probably Lees Giffard, Esq., LL.D. – - at all events, from that staunch and undeviating organ of high Toryism, the “ St. James's Chronicle,” still flourishing, but now better known to London readers by its daily title of “ The Standard."
III. ST. JAMES'S CHRONICLE.
“ Of indirect testimony, that the poem comes from the pen of Lord Byron, there is enough to enforce conviction. The same full command of our language, the same thorough knowledge of all that is evil in our nature, the condensed energy of sentiment, and the striking bold. ness of imagery all the characteristics by which Childe Harold, the Giaour, and the Corsair, are distinguished shine with kindred splendour in Don Juan. Would we had not to add another point of resemblance, in the utter absence of moral feeling, and the hostility to religion, which betray themselves in almost every passage of the new poem ! But Don Juan is, alas! the most licentious poem which has for many years issued from the English press. There is, it is true, nothing so revolting in its plat as the stories of Manfred and Parisina; neither