The Cure for Romanticism?
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, September 27th 2012. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, The Cure for Romanticism. In the 19th century, Lord Byron was extraordinarily famous in a way that’s unimaginable for a poet to be famous today. He’s even got his own adjective, Byronesque or Byronic for his erratic, brooding and adventurous ways. But when it comes to contemporary tastes, Byron is way down on the list of 19th century poets to read, after Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelly, not to mention Whitman, Baudelaire and others. Joining me to make the case of why we should put Byron at the top of the list, in particular his great satire “Don Juan”, is Amit Majmudar. Amit is a novelist and poet who’s work has appeared in Poetry Magazine, and he recently wrote about “Don Juan” for the Kenyon Review. He joins me from WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. Amit, you say that “Don Juan” is categorically unsurpassed in the language. What’s the category, and what makes it unsurpassed?
Amit Majmudar: If you divide poems in general into serious ones and unserious ones, as far as unserious poems go I would rank “Don Juan” at the top of my personal list, and all these lists are personal.
Curtis Fox: When you say unserious you mean it’s funny stuff, this is a comic poem.
Amit Majmudar: Yes, absolutely.
Curtis Fox: And you also say that while the poem was a great corrective to Romanticism, it’s also a great corrective to the 20th century verse. Explain that if you would.
Amit Majmudar: One of the major tendencies of our time is a tendency towards the portentous, elegiac, the hushed deep image and voice of a lot of contemporary poetry. What we have in “Don Juan” is a profoundly worldly poetry, a poetry that focuses on the pageantry of life, that is free to talk about contemporary politicians and the different ways that people live in different societies. Don Juan goes to Russia, he goes to Greece, he goes to Turkey, he goes to England, he goes to Spain. It’s a poem that’s very close to what novelists do and comic novelists do. This is something that contemporary poetry, while it doesn’t entirely lack it, it could certainly use more of it in my opinion.
Curtis Fox: Tell us what “Don Juan” is about, and why is it called “Don Juan” instead of “Don ‘Won’” as I’ve been pronouncing it my entire life.
Amit Majmudar: Well when you’re reading “Don Juan”, the plot is secondary to the voice of the narrator. It’s Byron’s alter ego, I think he’s one of the most fully realized comic characters in English poetry. He’s unabashedly British, and he’s so John Bull about it. He mispronounces the Spanish names with this over the top British accent. “Don ‘Won’” becomes “Don Juan”. “Donna Iniz” becomes “Donna Iniz”. We know this because Byron as early as Canto 1 makes sure to use their names as rhyme words, so we know exactly how the narrator is pronouncing it. The story itself is the well known Don Juan story, where a young Spanish aristocrat has 1001 amours, according to Mozart’s Giovanni, and he ends up getting dragged down to hell by an irate statue. What’s interesting is that Byron mentions in Canto 1 how he intends to describe Don Juan’s trip down to hell. You can imagine Byron putting all his contemporaries there, just like Donte. Only Byron would have done it with a grin. The fact that he never lived to write it strikes me as one of the hugest losses in English poetry, it’s on par with the death of Keats for me.
Curtis Fox: So I asked you to pick out a few passages to give us a better sense of the poem. This will just be a little taster. What have you got for us to begin with?
Amit Majmudar: I figure I’d skip around from Canto 1 to give people a taste for Byron’s various modes and moods in the poem. What sustains a poem this long is it’s heterogeneity. It keeps it from being boring. One minute he’s one way, another minute he’s another way. Here’s an example where he sags from a high romantic description of a woman’s beauty, which was exactly the kind of thing at the time that Byron’s audience expected from him, and then he just sort of sags into satirical verses on marriage and adultery that his audience would have considered scandalous at the time.
Curtis Fox: Let me just warn you and I’ll warn listeners as well that I’m going to interrupt as we go along for clarifications.
Amit Majmudar: Sure, no problem.
Curtis Fox: Go ahead.
Her eye (I'm very fond of handsome eyes)
Was large and dark, suppressing half its fire
Until she spoke, then through its soft disguise
Flash'd an expression more of pride than ire,
And love than either; and there would arise
A something in them which was not desire,
But would have been, perhaps, but for the soul
Which struggled through and chasten'd down the whole.
Curtis Fox: Let me stop you there. Talking about the soul struggling through and “Chasten’d down the whole”. It’s a very clever use of the word “chastened”, as the word “chaste” and “chastened”. It’s like a school where I’m suddenly rising up and repressing all sorts of amorous desires at this moment. Carry on.
Her glossy hair was cluster'd o'er a brow
Bright with intelligence, and fair, and smooth;
Her eyebrow's shape was like the aerial bow,
Her cheek all purple with the beam of youth,
Mounting at times to a transparent glow,
As if her veins ran lightning; she, in sooth,
Possess'd an air and grace by no means common:
Her stature tall—I hate a dumpy woman.
Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING) Let me stop you again there. I never thought that “dumpy” was a word from the 19th century.
Amit Majmudar: I didn’t know that either. That’s one of the wonderful things you find out reading Byron, because he’s so much more colloquial, and so much more into language as people really speak it than Wordsworth or Keats or anybody. You find all sorts of words like this, and you realize that they spoke probably a lot more like we do.
Curtis Fox: Yeah. So he veers into a satire.
Amit Majmudar: Right, and his voice and his tone completely change. He’s really switching it up on his readers.
Curtis Fox: Go ahead.
Wedded she was some years, and to a man
Of fifty, and such husbands are in plenty;
And yet, I think, instead of such a ONE
'Twere better to have TWO of five-and-twenty,
Especially in countries near the sun:
And now I think on't, 'mi vien in mente,'
Ladies even of the most uneasy virtue
Prefer a spouse whose age is short of thirty.
'Tis a sad thing, I cannot choose but say,
And all the fault of that indecent sun,
Who cannot leave alone our helpless clay,
But will keep baking, broiling, burning on,
That howsoever people fast and pray,
The flesh is frail, and so the soul undone:
What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
Is much more common where the climate 's sultry.
Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING) That’s the old stereotype.
Amit Majmudar: Right, he’s playing into the elite London audience’s notion of the hot blooded Spaniard, the hot blooded Italian. When yo come from a colder climate, you’re somehow more moral and you’re more likely to behave properly because you’re wearing more clothes, presumably. So that stereotype goes back to Shakespeare and before. It actually goes back to Chaucer.
Curtis Fox: He’s just playing with it, he’s not promoting it.
Amit Majmudar: Absolutely. When he satirizes things in “Don Juan”, he’s glancing over a British society the whole time. When he says “it’s all the fault of that indecent sun”, it’s almost as though he’s saying, “yeah, you guys do it too”.
Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING) Okay, let’s hear another passage that you chose. This one’s also from Canto 1. Can you set it up for us?
Amit Majmudar: Sure, it’s about dull classical book learning and Christian sermonizing, the kind that was forced on poor young Juan by his strict mother. He’s kind of describing Don Juan’s moral education, so everything he says here is the sort of stuff that British school boys were learning, but here it’s Don Juan learning it. So no matter what they teach him, he ends up become “Don Juan”. This passage goes like this:
His classic studies made a little puzzle,
Because of filthy loves of gods and goddesses,
Who in the earlier ages raised a bustle,
But never put on pantaloons or bodices;
Curtis Fox: I have to stop you there, because that’s a really deliciously dirty thing he did there. A “bustle” is a bustle when you’re in a hurry. But it’s also the thing at the back of a skirt to raise the bustle. So to raise the bustle suggests some sort of sexual act about to take place.
Amit Majmudar: Absolutely. He’s also talking about how classical literature was sanitized for the consumption of the young, because there is a lot of really over the top unChristian stuff in classical literature, which he gets to a little bit later, which isn’t something that proper school morms what their students listening to.
Curtis Fox: Okay, let’s go on.
His reverend tutors had at times a tussle,
And for their Aeneids, Iliads, and Odysseys,
Were forced to make an odd sort of apology,
For Donna Inez dreaded the mythology.
Ovid's a rake, as half his verses show him,
Anacreon's morals are a still worse sample,
Catullus scarcely has a decent poem,
I don't think Sappho's Ode a good example,
Although Longinus tells us there is no hymn
Where the sublime soars forth on wings more ample:
But Virgil's songs are pure, except that horrid one
Beginning with 'Formosum Pastor Corydon.’
Curtis Fox: you have to explain that.
Amit Majmudar: That’s a reference to Virgil’s “Second Eclogue”, and it’s about the farmhand Corridon’s homosexual passion for the boy Alexus. So Cory and Alex in love is not exactly a classroom text in 19th century Britain.
Curtis Fox: I would say not. So now we get into the Christian saints. Go ahead.
Sermons he read, and lectures he endured,
And homilies, and lives of all the saints;
To Jerome and to Chrysostom inured,
He did not take such studies for restraints;
But how faith is acquired, and then insured,
So well not one of the aforesaid paints
As Saint Augustine in his fine Confessions,
Which make the reader envy his transgressions.
Curtis Fox: Now that’s funny, because confessions talk about all the bad things he did. Go ahead.
This, too, was a seal'd book to little Juan—
I can't but say that his mamma was right,
If such an education was the true one.
She scarcely trusted him from out her sight;
Her maids were old, and if she took a new one
You might be sure she was a perfect fright,
She did this during even her husband's life—
I recommend as much to every wife.
Curtis Fox: Now let me ask you, will contemporary readers of a feminist bench find a lot of misogyny in “Don Juan”?
Amit Majmudar: This is a loaded question, because I don’t want to unduly discourage readers who have an ideological beef with the patriarchy. But Byron was nothing if not a lover of women, and he was actually a lover of strong women, of very forceful women. Many of his lovers were actually aristocratic women of means, independent women, educated women, smart women, so yes probably in the course of this long poem about essentially a rake about a guy who has 1001 women, you’re bound to find something, but it’s probably no worse than anything you’d find in Shakespeare or Milton.
Curtis Fox: That’s fair enough. Let’s hear one last passage from the poem. This one’s from close to the end of Canto 1, and the tone is quite different, right?
Amit Majmudar: Right. He’s kind of waxing personal and serious about his disillusionment with his own very early, very extravagant literary fame.
Ambition was my idol, which was broken
Before the shrines of Sorrow and of Pleasure;
And the two last have left me many a token
O'er which reflection may be made at leisure:
Now, like Friar Bacon's brazen head, I've spoken,
'Time is, Time was, Time's past', a chymic treasure
Is glittering youth, which I have spent betimes—
My heart in passion, and my head on rhymes.
Curtis Fox: Okay, help us with that a little bit. Friar Bacon —
Amit Majmudar: Friar Bacon is a reference to a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Robert Green. It’s called Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. And Friar Bacon creates this head; this head essentially says three things. “Time is, time was, time has passed”, and then it falls to the ground and shatters.
Curtis Fox: Basically he’s saying he spent his youth in amorous adventures in passion and writing poetry.
Amit Majmudar: Exactly.
Curtis Fox: Okay, go ahead.
What is the end of Fame? 'tis but to fill
A certain portion of uncertain paper:
Some liken it to climbing up a hill,
Whose summit, like all hills', is lost in vapour;
For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill,
And bards burn what they call their 'midnight taper,'
To have, when the original is dust,
A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust.
What are the hopes of man? old Egypt's King
Cheops erected the first pyramid
And largest, thinking it was just the thing
To keep his memory whole, and mummy hid;
But somebody or other rummaging,
Burglariously broke his coffin's lid:
Let not a monument give you or me hopes,
Since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops.
Curtis Fox: That’s a brilliant rhyme.
Amit Majmudar: Yeah, I think it’s pronounced “Cheops” but in Byron’s sort of, I’m English and this is how I pronounce it, I think this is how he wants us to pronounce it based on the rhyme with “hopes”.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, go ahead.
But I being fond of true philosophy,
Say very often to myself, 'Alas!
All things that have been born were born to die,
And flesh (which Death mows down to hay) is grass;
You've pass'd your youth not so unpleasantly,
And if you had it o'er again—'twould pass—
So thank your stars that matters are no worse,
And read your Bible, sir, and mind your purse.'
But for the present, gentle reader! and
Still gentler purchaser! the bard—that's I—
Must, with permission, shake you by the hand,
And so your humble servant, and good bye!
We meet again, if we should understand
Each other; and if not, I shall not try
Your patience further than by this short sample—
'Twere well if others follow'd my example.
Curtis Fox: That’s a great way to end a sampler of Byron’s “Don Juan”. “Still gentler purchaser”; the person who’s buying his poem, is that who he’s talking to?
Amit Majmudar: That’s who he’s talking to. Byron was a best selling poet, he was one of the best selling writers of his time. His books used to fly off the shelves. He used to give offense and cause a scandal, and they ate it up. They couldn’t get enough of him.
Curtis Fox: So he’s saying, “Goodbye if you don’t like me, but otherwise, stick around!”.
Amit Majmudar: Yeah. These Cantos came out sequentially, so it wasn’t like all the sudden on the shelves all 16 of the Cantos of “Don Juan” were just sitting in a stack, each one would come out sequentially. In order to dishearten some of us further, I think Byron knocked this out in a couple months actually. The whole Canto 1. He just did it, he had skills, no one can deny that.
Curtis Fox: But he famously never finished it. Why not?
Amit Majmudar: He was a man of immense contradiction. As a man, he was the debauched Scottish lord with money, women and fame from the start. But he was also a fierce and genuine defender of revolutionary ideals. Unlike the other Romantic poets, he put his money where his mouth was. Granted, he actually had the money to put there. He ended up dying in his attempt to start a revolt among the Greeks against Turkish rule. He almost ended up being a kind of Lawrence of Ionia.
Curtis Fox: So he’s sort of an early prototype for Lawrence of Arabia, and you mentioned in an email that he's sort of the James Bond of the 19th century, right?
Amit Majmudar: I think that there are a lot of really really uncanny similarities between Byron and Bond. This may be because I’m a Bond fanatic and a Byron fanatic, but really it’s as though Byron sank into the collective subconscious and then reemerged over a century later through the pen of Ian Fleming. This is for real. Byron was a Scottish lord, we know this. Bond was not only played, or the role in the movies was originated by a Scottish actor Sean Connery, but actually in Her Majesties Secret Service, the novel, Byron, or Bond — look at that Freudian slip! — Bond goes into his ancestry with one of the characters, and he talks to this character and says “My dad was Scottish”. So Bond actually has Scottish blood himself. It's not just that, it's also his suave exterior with danger below. And there's phenomenal success with women, there's the wine, the taste for the finer things in life, and there's also this notion of this kind of aristocratic suave man being a man of action at the same time. Byron proved himself at the end to be a man of action.
Curtis Fox: But could James Bond write Anna Verima?
Amit Majmudar: Probably not, but Byron never took on Blowfeld.
Curtis Fox: Right, he wouldn’t have fared so well with him. Amit, thank you so much.
Amit Majmudar: Thank you for having me.
Curtis Fox: Amit Majmudar’s recent book of poems is Heaven and Earth. His first novel, Partitions came out in 2011, and his second, The Abundance, is coming out next year. You can find copies of “Don Juan” in just about any second hand bookstore in the country and you can find samples of the poem on our website, poetryfoundation.org. Let us know what you think of this program. Email us at email@example.com. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I'm Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.