Wednesday, 18 August 2010


On my daily journey to work, I am currently reading Byron's Don Juan for the first time, and am meeting surprise, delight and amazement at every stanza. Not to mention exuding an aura of insufferable smugness about reading such proper, grown-up literature. I have to work very hard at exuding this, because I'm reading it on my Sony e-reader, so am not visually projecting the identity of my reading to fellow commuters.

The technical virtuosity of Byron's verse is extraordinary, as he conjures a variety of landscapes, situations, moods and characters in chronicling the odyssey of travel, romance and sexual encounters that make up Juan's story, all within a rigid stanza pattern of rhymed pentameter, mostly iambic, and embracing reflections on politics, history and the arts.

The humorously contrived rhymes Byron employs have passed into literary legend, perhaps the best-known being:

But O ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not henpecked you all?

But there are hundreds of exquisite examples, leading me to believe the author was deliberately setting up rhyming challenges for himself in his vocabulary selection. Byron also uses rhyme to more conventional comic effect, as when, in this passage, he undermines his own mock-seriousness:
And she bent o'er him, and he lay beneath,
Hush'd as the babe upon its mother's breast,

Droop'd as the willow when no winds can breathe,
Lull'd like the depth of ocean when at rest,

Fair as the crowning rose of the whole wreath,
Soft as the callow cygnet in its nest;

In short, he was a very pretty fellow,
Although his woes had turn'd him rather yellow.
There are also beautifully expressed passages of meditation:
O Love! O Glory! what are ye who fly

Around us ever, rarely to alight?

There's not a meteor in the polar sky

Of such transcendent and more fleeting flight.

Chill, and chain'd to cold earth, we lift on high

Our eyes in search of either lovely light;

A thousand and a thousand colours they

Assume, then leave us on our freezing way.
Yet again, I find myself marvelling at the brilliance and energy of a 'classic' writer, and struggling to find parallels in the modern world, aside from Vikram Seth's verse novel, The Golden Gate.


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