A friend told me recently that a young lecturer had agreed to teach the Romantics paper at her university on one condition. She asked to be excused from teaching Byron. It was chastening news for someone who had just written a book on Don Juan, Byron’s greatest poem.
My first response was outrage. If a poet as important as Byron can be cancelled, who is safe? And why pick on Byron? I don’t know the answer to that, but I can guess. The most likely objection would once have been to Byron’s attitudes to women, to letters like the one in which he reports that since he has been in Venice he has laid out a good deal of cash on ‘the sex’, but has had ‘plenty for the money’: ‘I think at least two hundred of one sort or another.’ Or the juvenile sexual boasting. He had made the acquaintance of a Venetian noblewoman, ‘fucked her every day for the last six,’ and had no plans to make the seventh a day of rest. After reporting his triumph in a swimming race from the Lido all the way up the Grand Canal he is careful to add that he had taken ‘a piece’ before and after. But then, in 1985, in Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England Louis Crompton became the first scholar to explore Byron’s fluid sexuality. Leslie Marchand, whose biography of Byron came out in 1957, had known about it, but had decided to draw a veil over that side of Byron’s life. Back in 1985 Crompton’s book revitalized Byron studies. A gay Byron seemed more interesting than the conventional, even hackneyed, masculine poet who had come down to us. But that was a third of a century ago. In 2023 the issue is the age not the gender of the people to whom Byron formed passionate attachments. John Edleston, the Cambridge chorister, was 15 when Byron met him. So was Robert Rushton, the boy who served as Byron’s page when he slept in a cubbyhole adjoining Byron’s bedroom. Nicolo Giraud who caught Byron’s attention in Athens in 1810 was the same age, and so was Lukas Chalandritsanos, the Greek boy who was the object of Byron’s devotion in the last months of his life. In each case the problem is not just the age of these boys, but the disparity in economic and social power between the poet and the objects of his affection. The issue scarcely arises in Don Juan, which is a resolutely heterosexual poem. Don Juan travels with a young companion, but the companion is little Leila, the ten-year-old Muslim girl Juan has saved from the Russian soldiery, and her presence in the poem prompts only one uncomfortable moment. She is so pretty that the English matrons wonder whether Juan will be able to ‘command / Himself for five, four, three, or two years’ space.’ But the question remains. Ought we to refuse to read poems written by people whose behaviour it seems impossible to condone? It is not an easy question, and it is a question that readers will have to answer for themselves.
And then I remembered how often, when I was reading Don Juan,the poem I had just written a book about, I had flinched. There was the reference to the two sisters that Coleridge and Robert Southey had married. Coleridge and Southey had ‘espoused two partners (milliners of Bath).’ The line had made me laugh when I first came across it, but even then it was a guilty laugh. It was not just the snobbery. Milliners had something of a reputation, something like grisettes. And it was so unfair. Sarah and Edith Fricker were educated at the school in Bristol set up by Hannah More. Their father had gone bankrupt, and after that they had supported themselves by working as seamstresses. There were the Russian troops who did not rape as much as might have expected when they stormed the city of Ismail. Buxom widows of 40 were left wondering, ‘Wherefore the ravishing did not begin!’ There was the casual antisemitism: ‘Jew Rothschild and his fellow-Christian Baring.’ There was the ‘wondrous hideousness’ of the dwarfs who guarded the gate in the Istanbul palace, ‘Whose colour was not black, nor white, nor grey, / But an extraneous mixture.’ And there was the line that I had always thought the most offensive in the whole poem, ‘And Mrs Rabbi, the rich banker’s squaw.’
Many of those who read the poem when it was first published found it offensive, and there is quite a lot in Don Juan that even those like me who admire the poem find offensive even today. It is a poem that claims the right to give and to take offence, but it is also a poem – and this is why I wanted to write about it – that extends that same right to its readers. It is a poem that allows its readers, even invites them, to take issue with it. And that is why it is a poem that I hope people will continue to read and continue to teach. My hope is that my book will encourage them to do so.