Displacement and Don Juan
Unlike the fitfully epic Don Juan , I’d like to begin in medias res , with the anger of Lord Byron. We join him thick in the struggle with a central concern of DJ’s composition: the perils of transmission:
Pray when I send you a parcel or packet—do acknowledge it—I care nothing about my letters or your answers—I only want to know, when I have taken trouble about a thing that it has arrived.
By the time he fired off those impatient words to his publisher John Murray in 1821, Byron had been living abroad and publishing overseas for five years. They were years marked by drastic shifts of tone in his writing – from earnestness to playfulness in his poetry, and quite the reverse trajectory in correspondence with Murray. The relationship between best-selling poet and savvy publisher, certainly the most lucrative of its day, degenerated into recrimination and finally broke down altogether, thanks in large part to the “friction of distance.” The distance that Don Juan’s publication had to negotiate between author and press – all the land and water as well as political borders between Italy and London – cultivated the ingredients of miscommunication. It invited excruciating delay, crossed signals, censorship, confusion, if not outright misplacement. Frustrating to be sure, and yet, as I hope to suggest, such travails had their unexpected payoff: they goaded DJ into an innovative grappling with displacement—an inexorable force that both overrides a poet’s authority and revives it, as a revenant, a potently disrupted address.
The kick-start to Byron’s poetic career was Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Cantos I and II, inspired by an extensive continental tour in 1809-11. Even that early work was written overseas - yet, in those early days, Byron chose to carry his poetry back to London himself: the Napoleonic Wars were disrupting international mail, and anyway, before his famously overnight success, he had no established publisher to receive his work. When Byron left England for good in 1816, and took up Childe Harold once again, he still didn’t trust the post; instead, he found close friends who were headed from Italy to London—friends who had inspired or supplemented Byron’s work, such as Percy Shelley and John Cam Hobhouse—to carry Childe Harold back to Murray. The transmission of DJ’s first two cantos went along similarly improvised, inside lines - with the distinction that the bearer of this new “cargo of poesy” was a only a minor acquaintance of Byron’s, the roving Lord Lauderdale, who had no personal link to the lines he carried. The reader of Byron’s letters of November 1818 finds many references to Lauderdale wending his way slowly towards London with verse Byron knew would make a big impact. Yet when he delivered DJ, Lauderdale also carried along with it unflattering gossip about Byron’s Venetian dissipation. It was a marred delivery, with Lauderdale proving to be, Byron later wrote, a “damned old ‘Ladro—& porco...