<<

. 25
( 41 .)



>>

Had she but been a Christian, I™ve a notion
We should have found out the ˜perpetual motion.™
(. ±±)°

In the variants for the next stanza, we can see Byron experimenting with
more Miltonic allusion:
±µ
˜Don Juan™, moral England and feminine caprice
<Besides forbidden fruits, for She neer paused / nor would have paused> . . .
<Her thirst / Had Paradise itself to her been shown> / <She would have cut
the tree of knowledge down> (CPW, , p. ··)

These images of Eden did not appear in the published version of canto ,
but they show us the way in which Byron associates Eve™s and subsequent
female digressiveness with an impulse towards liberation. As well as being
˜the latest of her whims™ (. ±±), Juan is a way for Gulbeyaz to ˜[err]
from inanition™ (©. ).
This association between erring women, whim, and inconstancy ¬ts
into a familiar pattern of misogynistic humour “ ˜constant you are, / But
yet a woman™ (© Henry IV, ©©. . ll. ±°“±°). When Byron resumed work
on Don Juan in ±, he began with the ˜affairs of woman™:
Not all the reveries of Jacob Behman
With its strange whirls and eddies can compare: “
Men with their heads re¬‚ect on this and that “
But women with their hearts or heaven knows what!
(©. )

In the manuscript, the concluding couplet was followed by ˜or™ and then
two other possible couplet endings. Mary Shelley, who was working as
the fair copyist, was left to choose which ever couplet she wanted.±
It is, therefore, dif¬cult to discriminate between feminine ˜whirls and
eddies™ and the ˜non-descript and ever varying rhyme™ (©©. ) that carries
Don Juan forward. We might suppose that whereas Byron presents his
˜ever varying™ procedure as a mode of detachment, ˜feminine Caprice™
is depicted as physical or emotional instability. This, however, does not
explain the moments when Byron the narrator also portrays himself as
emotionally volatile:
all my fancies whirling like a mill;
Which is a signal to my nerves and brain,
To take a quiet ride in some green lane.
(©. µ)

Jerome McGann observes that ˜when Byron “contradicts” himself, he
is not changing his mind but revealing its ability to see an idea or event in
several different ways at nearly the same time™. McGann compares this
process with the way that ˜nearly all [Byron™s] characters exhibit a simi-
lar complexity of thought or response at some time™ (Don Juan in Context,
pp. ±°“µ), speci¬cally aligning Julia with Byron: ˜Like Byron, she is a
mass of contradictions and of course a very epitome of “inconstancy” ™
±µ Byron, Poetics and History
(p. ±°µ). Initially, Byron may have envisaged a difference between
˜feminine Caprice™ (©. ±±) and his ˜old Lunes™, but as the poem pro-
gresses, it is tempting to see Byron and the poem embracing a feminine
prerogative of change. This does not alter the fact that Don Juan is a poem
packed with misogynistic jokes but it does complicate our response to
them. The digressive texture of the poem should lead us to question the
conclusions of Moyra Haslett and others who succumb to the lure of the
general and describe the poem as part of ˜masculinist ideology™.
One of the most familiar anti-feminist tropes of the poem is the
way that, as Caroline Franklin has expressed, ˜heroines are encountered
as types, representative of their countries “ foreign exotic lands which
must be explored, and which constitute a testing-ground for the male
protagonist™. In canto ©, however, the exploitable landscape of the
female body is also a threatening marker of age and time for the male
narrator:
Oh, thou ˜teterrima Causa™ of all ˜belli™ “
Thou gate of Life and Death “ thou nondescript!
Whence is our exit and our entrance, “ well I
May pause in pondering how all Souls are dipt
In thy perennial fountain: “ how man fell, I
Know not, since Knowledge saw her branches stript
Of her ¬rst fruit, but how he falls and rises
Since, thou hast settled beyond all surmises.
(©. µµ)

The crucial word omitted from the allusion which several editors have
needed to supply is ˜cunnus™, but Byron™s reference to it as ˜nondescript™
is of key importance. According to the OED, ˜nondescript™ was employed
in the early nineteenth century mainly in writing on natural history, for
example, Memoirs of Mammoth Bones, of Incognita or Nondescript Animals (±°).
The word was therefore used in accounts of travels and voyages which
presented newly discovered species as ˜nondescript™, or not hitherto des-
cribed. As well as playing on his own omission, Byron™s joke is that
his missing word is a ˜perennial™ cause rather than a new discovery.
Fascinatingly, however, ˜nondescript™ is also the word he had chosen
earlier in the poem to characterise his own narration: ˜A non-descript
and ever varying rhyme™ (©©. ). The word is not used anywhere else
in Byron™s poetry and the echo here suggests that there is indeed a link
between female sexuality and the process of the poem.
The idea of sexual experience as a journey, ˜From thee we come, to thee
we go™ (. µ), is not new, but by echoing the prayer-book service of the
±µµ
˜Don Juan™, moral England and feminine caprice
burial of the dead, Byron materialises sexual destination as a plot of earth.
This place can be an Eden in prospect or the grave in retrospect. Unlike
Shelley™s poetry, Don Juan does not present human sexual encounter as a
way of approaching the transcendent, but inscribes its connection with
˜clay™ and ˜human dust™ (©. ·µ; ··). The process of coming and going
is rendered in physical terms, and aligned with the quotidian nouns of
travel:
Love, that great opener of the heart and all
The ways that lead there, be they near or far,
Above, below, by turnpikes great or small.
(©. °)

Byron™s memory of tolls is not far from this metaphor and, as well as hint-
ing at the divers routes of sexual grati¬cation, the exhaustive mapping
of experience suggests a tediously well-trodden path. And yet the turn-
pike itself, when Juan travels across England, is more than a mundane
experience of passage:
Now there is nothing gives a man such spirits,
Leavening his blood as Cayenne doth a curry,
As going at full speed “ no matter where its
Direction be, so ™tis but in a hurry,
And merely for the sake of its own merits:
For the less cause there is for all this ¬‚urry,
The greater is the pleasure in arriving
At the great end of travel “ which is driving.
(. ·)

The sensation of movement is exalted six stanzas further on as Byron in-
vokes (and outdoes) nature, classical mythology and Horace to celebrate
the technology of road-construction:
What a delightful thing™s a turnpike road!
So smooth, so level, such a mode of shaving
The earth, as scarce the eagle in the broad
Air can accomplish, with his wide wings waving.
Had such been cut in Phaeton™s time, the God
Had told his son to satisfy his craving
With the York mail; “ but onward as we roll,
˜Surgit amari aliquid™ “ the toll!
(. ·)

The speed and lightness of these two stanzas reveal the difference be-
tween travelling ˜for the sake of its own merits™, and travel which has
±µ Byron, Poetics and History
as its ˜great end™ the ˜languid rout™ of sensation. Although both can be
construed as digressive activity, they involve crucially different attitudes
to time. Women in Don Juan mark time as they offer physical space to be
traversed and temporal space to be passed. In prospect, the landscape is
worth a detour, and in retrospect, the time is wasted. This anti-feminine
perspective, however, may be counterbalanced by the ways in which
women ¬gure in the poem as travellers as well as fertile soil or dangerous
oceans. If Byron re¬‚ects his society™s anti-feminine prejudices, he is also
able to identify with the victims of its social codes.
The potential shared by all the women of Don Juan (except Catherine
and possibly Fitz-Fulke) is an ability to intuit that the ˜end™ of their
digression will be death, incarceration, or humiliated exposure in a red
cloak. Byron defends the pregnant country girl in canto © by digressing
to turn her male accuser (˜Scout, the parish guardian of the frail™(©. ·))
into Dryden™s monster of dullness. As Scout dishes out ˜A mighty mug
of moral double ale™, the italics remind the reader of the coronation in
Mac Flecknoe: ˜In his sinister hand, instead of Ball, / He plac™d a mighty
Mug of potent Ale™ (ll. ±°“±). The texture of the verse encourages us
to identify and renounce the dark forces of moral litigation and pulls
the reader into complicity with a feminine capacity to risk everything by
committing itself to err:
˜Ye Gods, I grow a talker!™ Let us prate.
The next of perils, though I place it sternest,
Is when, without regard to ˜Church or State,™
A wife makes or takes love in upright earnest.
Abroad, such things decide few women™s fate “
(Such, early traveller! is the truth thou learnest) “
But in Old England when a young bride errs,
Poor thing! Eve™s was a tri¬‚ing case to hers.
(©©. )

˜Poor™ is the compassionate adjective offered to keep the country girl
company in the great hall (©. ·). The stanza is interrupted by two
signalled allusions, a parenthetical aside, and the innuendo of ˜upright
earnest™. McGann traces the ¬rst allusion to The Merchant of Venice “ where
Antonio bids farewell to the loquacious Gratiano and Lorenzo, ˜Fare you
well, I™ll grow a talker for this gear™ (I. ±. l. ±±°) but it seems much more
likely that the poem is compounding memories of different plays, and
in this case that the disruptive effect of the allusion is to invite sympathy
with ˜their she condition™ (©. ). Coriolanus greets his mother with
the words, ˜You gods! I prate, / And the most noble mother of the
±µ·
˜Don Juan™, moral England and feminine caprice
world / Leave unsaluted™ (. . ll. “µ°). The context of this quotation
makes Byron™s use of it provocative as he turns to pay homage to women
who defy ˜ “Church or State” ™, whereas Volumina is an embodiment
of both those values. The women in Don Juan who ˜[make] or [take]
love™ show the same commitment to digressive action (dismaying public
countenance) as the narrator to verbal digression.
Don Juan™s contemplation of the ¬gure of the erring bride revisits late
eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century conduct literature, jux-
taposing traditional words of warning with imaginative sympathy for the
subject. In Maria Edgeworth™s Letters for Literary Ladies, for example, the
dutiful Caroline writes to advise Julia ˜upon her intended separation from
her husband™:
You say that it is easier to break a chain than to stretch it; but remember that
when broken, your part of the chain, Julia, will remain with you, and fetter
and disgrace you through life. Why should a woman be so circumspect in her
choice? Is it not because when once made she must abide by it? “She sets her
life upon the cast, and she must stand the hazard of the die.” From domestic
uneasiness a man has a thousand resources: in middling life, the tavern, in high
life, the gaming table, suspends the anxiety of thought . . . But what resource
has a woman? . . . In higher life . . . the wife who has hazarded least, suffers the
most by the dissolution of the partnership . . . She loses her home, her rank in
society. She loses both the repellant and the attractive power of a mistress of a
family. “Her occupation is gone.” She becomes a wanderer.µ
Edgeworth™s allusions to Richard III and Othello open the possibility that
the erring bride might be a ¬gure of tragic stature. Byron, I believe, invites
his readers to realise this possibility by tracing the different strands of
Miltonic, Shakespearean and earlier Byronic texts in the poem.
Building on eighteenth-century associations of the tour with sexual
experience, Byron™s responses to feminine sexual digression are inextri-
cably linked with the poem™s discussion of travel. The parenthesis ˜(Such,
early traveller! is the truth thou learnest)™ creates an island in the stanza
for the reader to discover that truth is different ˜Abroad™; the parenthesis
affords both temporal and geographical space from which the reader,
too, emerges into ˜Old England™. The return to England in Byron™s pro-
cess of digression is complicated by the suggestion that sexual mores are
stranger at home than they are abroad. This reverses the usual ten-
dency of travel literature to highlight social oddity abroad in order to
endorse English codes of behaviour. England™s moral climate is made
to antedate Eden in terms of its punitive treatment of erring women:
˜Eve™s was a tri¬‚ing case to hers.™ By referring to Eve™s ˜case™, Byron
±µ Byron, Poetics and History
inserts Biblical and Miltonic history into the context of a contemporary
˜law-suit™ (©©. µ). The effect of this is to suggest that contemporary
English social codes are hopelessly out of date and out of proportion “
modern women, the poem suggests, are still being held responsible for
original sin. The detached register of travelogue is, however, interrupted
by the interjection, ˜Poor thing!™ with its sudden openness to tender com-
passion and disturbance of legal and clerical authority.
As the narrator of Childe Harold™s Pilgrimage (CHP), Byron celebrated
masculine ˜strength to bear what time cannot abate™ (CHP, ©©©. ·), but
in the English cantos of Don Juan, we are presented with a feminine
perspective on ˜what crimes it costs to be a moment free™ (CHP, ©. µ).
The ˜lands and scenes romantic™ of Juan™s travels are associated with
affairs ˜Where lives not law-suits must be risked for Passion™ (©©. ),
but Juan™s intimation of greater physical risk for love abroad is gradually
questioned by the narrator™s transference of earlier images of travel to
the limited social circle of the English cantos.
At the simplest level, extensive geographical space is suggested by the
use of different languages: Byron manages to convey the distances that
can be travelled in a social sphere by importing French terminology and
the codes of other societies:
The reason™s obvious: if there™s an eclât,
They lose their caste at once, as do the Parias;
And when the delicacies of the law
Have ¬lled their papers with their comments various,
Society, that china without ¬‚aw,
(The hypocrite!) will banish them like Marius,
To sit amidst the ruins of their guilt:
For Fame™s a Carthage not so soon rebuilt.
(©©. ·)

In this stanza Byron unpicks Pope™s mockery of a feminine world view
which equates the breaking of ˜frail China™ and ˜Diana™s Law™.· By juxta-
posing the demand for ¬‚awlessness and the parenthetical indictment of
hypocrisy, Byron complicates the superior overview which enables Pope™s
satire. The feminine experience of social transgression is enlarged spa-
tially by the use of foreign words and references, and temporally by
inviting the reader to remember Marius and Dido. Caroline Franklin™s
research, in particular, has shown the extent to which Byron™s texts are
embedded in a philosophical context of patriarchalism. His sympathetic
image of female isolation in this case, however, was probably inspired
by Madame de Sta¨ l™s re¬‚ections on women of superior abilities in
e
±µ
˜Don Juan™, moral England and feminine caprice
De La Litt©rature. The intelligent woman, De Sta¨ l argues,
e
is left to the strength of her own mind, to struggle as she can with her af¬‚ictions.
The interest usually inspired by females, the power of which is the safeguard of
men, all fail her at once: she drags on her isolated existence like the Parias of
India, amongst all those distinct classes into none of which she can ever be ad-

<<

. 25
( 41 .)



>>