Lord Byron's satirical take on the legend of Don Juan is a moving and witty poem that sees the young hero in a reversal of roles. Juan sheds his image as a womanizer and instead becomes the victim of circumstance as he is relentlessly pursued by every woman he meets. Comprising 17 cantos of rhyming iambic pentameter, the poem is a crisp and accessible meditation on the madness of the world.
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In some ways, Jonathan Keeble's new recording of Byron's "Don Juan" is far and away the best on Audible, being quite free from such impediments of timbre, mannerism, and affectation as detract from the earlier versions by Robert Bethune, Frederick Davidson, and Charlton Griffin. Keeble is a superbly accomplished narrator, in complete command of his vocal instrument and of the tonal effects he wants to achieve with it in every passage, line, pause, and syllable. He knows (or thinks he knows) what complex of effects Byron aims at in every moment of the text, calculates every nuance of his performance accordingly, and realizes those effects with pinpoint accuracy.
Just one problem: his notion of the effects Byron is trying to achieve is spectacularly wrong-headed.
It's true, of course, that Byron employs a rich palette of tones over the more-than-sixteen-canto span of his masterpiece. But the keynote tone of the whole is this: the poem is funny. Setting aside the humorous parts of "The Canterbury Tales," it is unquestionably the outstanding comic poem in English. Its satire may sometimes drip with sneering disdain or thunder with prophetic wrath (Keeble does these very well), but mostly it is undisguised, exuberant, sophisticated wit that finds the poet insouciantly skewering innumerable puffed-up solemnities we can hardly believe anyone has ever taken seriously.
Yet Keeble seems unaware of this. One might think he supposed himself to be narrating, not the ribald misadventures of Don Juan, but the solemn mopings and meanderings of Childe Harold. The keynote tone of this audiobook is stern, solemn, grim, with only faint shadows of lightness of touch. Sometimes, as in the shipwreck episode, this approach is perfectly correct. But most often, Keeble's earnest tone is simply not pertinent to the jaunty self-projection of Byron's stinging barbs, and it is impertinent, too, therefore, in that it disrespects the sustained and scintillating levity that Byron so deliciously achieved.
Given all this, a rating for this book is hard to settle on. On its own terms, I must admit, it is magnificently done, and I did enjoy listening to it, but in a quite different way than I enjoyed Bethune despite his pinched nasality, Davidson despite his cloying preciousness, and Griffin despite his elaborately assumed pseudo-cultured-Britisher persona. If those other versions manage to capture the poet's comic achievement only imperfectly, Keeble's stands in one way as definitive--but definitive for a Bizarro world in which Byron's work is predominantly a triumph of straightfaced gravity rather than vivacity of wit. Should you spend a credit on it? After listening to the samples, I guess you pays your money and you takes your choice. But for a notion of how "Don Juan" ought to be done, listen to the free online recordings of selected cantos by Peter Gallagher.
George, you were a poet, though no laureate; Yet we remember you instead of half The names that graced the place where Southey sat. Is it because you trashed ‘em with a laugh And sided with the proletariat? Titled yourself, you’re like some rogue giraffe Entered in a steeplechase: Unique Long before the radical was chic.
You’re funny in both senses of the term; On goings-on in boudoirs you’re incisive. Meditating on the busy worm You’re no less pithy. Yet you are derisive Of all religion, and thus refuse the firm Perspective that a little faith might give. Had you believed in Father, Son and Spirit You might’ve been more happy. Or more near it.
The times were stacked against that; you’re Romantic. Fleeing from the measured marble halls Enlightenment had built, you all went frantic For shady glens, ruins, waterfalls, And inmost feelings, even if somewhat antic. Seeing your headlong rush is what appalls: Not satisfied as sybarite, you mix In moral sermons on war and politics.
Did I say appall? I’m also thankful, Delighting in the way you turn a phrase, Describing seashore, moon, or well-turned ankle. Your wanton wit illuminates my ways, Though your pontifications sometimes rankle. Odd. I started out in hopes to praise Your poem. I will. It’s just the way you preen; At thirty you sound like me at seventeen.
I’m not saying the Regent wasn’t fat, Or Ireland was happy. When you insist That war and glory require a caveat Emptor for the ones who would enlist, I concur. Most poetry falls flat, Most men are knaves, all governments resist Pure reason. But your charge sheet of contempt’s So generous there’s nothing it exempts.
With Wellington I think you were unfair, Painting him a monster steeped in blood. I recognize the literate ruse de guerre, And yet no other British general could Be stingier with the blood under his care (Though of his enemy’s he made a flood). But did you know he said, when all was done, Sadder than battles lost are battles won?
You hated him for re-establishing Crowns the levee en masse had put to route. You saw the dawn of every man a king, Or thought you did. A pretty thought, no doubt, And one that does you credit, remembering That that’s a plan that’s never yet worked out. Alas, when you fulminate I fear I see That, like Voltaire, you’d force us to be free.
I must be fair. Some later cantos shun The aristocracy we make with votes, (Our last administration brought a gun To knife fights and kept boots on certain throats.) You vary in your sympathies. Not one Is there for long enough to set in quotes. Still, it’s sweet to hear a Liberal waxing Wroth against all government and taxing.
Enough of that. Everyone has seen Your Juan is a masterpiece, although Like Canterbury Tales or Faerie Queene Unfinished, to which fact I think you owe Some of its charms. We say, “What could have been?” We speculate, “How old would young Don grow? On this side of the cold, deep, grey Atlantic Even Yankees wax somewhat Romantic.
Wallace Stevens said a poem must give Pleasure, and your epic surely does In heaping measure. Juan seems to live As do his loves and enemies because Of your adroit (and barbed) recitative That scorns all social (and poetic) laws, All hypocrites (and saints). Your keenest skewers Are saved up for reviews. And for reviewers.
True, you admit you’re not always compelling; No grand design is driving each new stanza; And yet we follow, where’er your sail is swelling Like Ruth’s Naomi, or Don Quixote’s Panza. Opining, indicting, and sometimes even telling The story, you scud onward, granted sans a Compass, sextant, anchor or even crew. For sure our captain’s crazy. But what a view.
A “versified aroura borealis” Was your description of this wandering tale. As usual, the image is not amiss: Brilliant sheets of color that flood, then fail And failing make us crave more, like a kiss Just ended. Or an empty glass of ale. (Forgive me this poetic ‘sault and battery; Imitation’s still the highest flattery.)
And what of our dear reader, Mr. Keeble? Given his last name it would be easy To rhyme him with pejoratives like “feeble” But telling untruths always makes me queasy. He’s perfect, like your poem. Unlike a Weeble He never wobbles, falls down, or is cheesy Or fluffs a line, though reading it out loud. I’m certain George, Lord Byron, you’d be proud.