Saturday, 23 October 2010

Don Juan

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.

Her glossy hair was cluster'd o'er a brow
Bright with intelligence, and fair, and smooth;
Her eyebrow's shape was like th' 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.

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
'T were 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.

'T is 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.

Happy the nations of the moral North!
Where all is virtue, and the winter season
Sends sin, without a rag on, shivering forth
('T was snow that brought St. Anthony to reason);
Where juries cast up what a wife is worth,
By laying whate'er sum in mulct they please on
The lover, who must pay a handsome price,
Because it is a marketable vice.

I love the way Byron can drift from subtle, veiled dissection of an effect in the first verse above, to a brief insulting aside ("I hate a dumpy woman"), before rounding on elderly husbands and philosophising on the difference in sensuality between hot and cold climates.

It is the airy discourse of a man confident in society, working his way through several glasses of fine liquor as he goes raising an eyebrow here, tipping a wink there, sighing, wrinkling his brow, laughing, digressing then moving on with the story. He is fully in control of tone and register. The swagger is becomingly tired but light. It is the end of the day not the beginning.

All this is a few verses from Chapter One. Of course it is light verse, but light verse with a muscular heroic sweep. The story blows past us like a gale, but never so much like a gale that we cannot turn from it to let fall some remark about something quite different.

That is what is so marvellous about Don Juan. Byron loafs, he clowns, he sings, then gets on with the tale. Auden did it without the heroics or the glamour, Tony Harrison could have done it technically, with a frown but without the aristocratic lightness (what use would he have for aristocratic lightness? a cavalier laddishness he could manage in his earlier poems). Most of us would look a little stiff in the costume, but there's no harm donning costume now and then. Perhaps we can wear it in.

One project brewing is a collaborative updating of the tale of Don Juan. Long deadline calling from afar.

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