Studies in the Literary Imagination



Walker, David

There is no writer in nineteenth-century Europe who crossed geographical borders more than George Gordon Byron; nor is there any writer who did more to break down boundaries.1 This is particularly the case in relation to the manner in which Byron’s politics were appropriated and adapted to suit revolutionary ideas in Russia during the Romantic period. My aim in this article is to read the Russian cantos in Byron’s masterpiece, Don Juan, in the context of Bakhtinian ideas regarding the relationship between epic poetry and its novelisation during a particular moment in history.2 This paper is concerned, therefore, primarily with a dialogic reading of the Russian episodes in Don Juan and the manner in which Byron perceived Russian history in cantos 6-9. The principal theoretical source for such a reading is Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination, in particular his analysis of narrative. Recent work on Don Juan has drawn on a considerable range of theoretical approaches in order to explicate an inordinately complex text. The reception of Byron’s poetry for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been bound up with-indeed, choked by-“Byronism.” It is one of the ironies of literary history that the Romantic theory that was virtually created by S. T. Coleridge, the cultural guru of the early nineteenth century, came to dominate literary criticism of Byron’s work down to very recent times. Byron’s poetry was read from a critical and philosophical position that during his own time he treated with utter contempt (McGann, “Private Poetry” 135). Biography and formalism have dominated critical approaches to his work. In the search for the morality of English literature, Byron’s scandalous reputation left him out in the cold well into the twentieth century. For those following in the footsteps of T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis and who came to dominate the Anglo-American critical establishment, Byron had no lasting place (McGann 135). The preoccupation with formalism that was so much a part of New Critical practice was perhaps compounded by the dominance in Romantic studies of Yale School deconstruction through much of the 1970s and on into the mid-1980s. This form of reductive formalism has in turn been superseded by the rise of new historicism, with its emphasis on the socio-economic, political, and cultural contexts of literary works. In this area Byron has been well served.3 One of the richest by-products of post-structural and new historicist approaches to literature has been in the uses to which critics have put the works of Bakhtin.

Bakhtin’s blend of formalist and historicist methodologies in his literary and cultural criticism provides a platform on which to read Don Juan. The dialogic and novelistic nature of Byron’s epic is one that lends itself to a Bakhtinian analysis, particularly in relation to the Russian cantos where Byron offers an acute analysis of politics at Catherine’s court and, in the process, sheds considerable light on what came to be referred to as “enlightened despotism” in that country. Before I go on to consider the poem and the benefits brought to a reading of it through Bakhtinian theory, it would be helpful to look briefly at how Byron’s poetry was perceived by Russians both at the time of publication and thereafter.


Boris Gilenson informs us that Byron’s reception in Russia in the nineteenth century was adulatory. Like Shakespeare and Dickens, Byron became “part of Russian and Soviet culture” (155). Byron was greatly interested in Russia and, given the time and availability of sources, knew Russian history well. Byron’s influence upon Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet, is well known. Byron’s favourable reception in Russia on a wider scale, however, is indicated by the volume of his poetry that was translated in the nineteenth century.4 Vasily Zhukovsky’s translation of The Prisoner of Chilian in 1822 inaugurated this tradition. Other admirers and translators besides Pushkin and Zhukovsky include Vissarion Belinski, Mikhail Lermontov, Kondraty Ryleyev, Fyodor Tyuchev, Ivan Turgenev, Valeri Bryusov, Alexander Blok, Ivan Bunin, and Boris Pasternak. Gilenson goes on to inform us that: “In the period succeeding the age of romanticism Byron remained active in the movement leading to the democratisation of Russian culture and the liberation of the people from Tsarist rule” (157-8). Moreover, Byron’s inordinately favourable reputation amongst Russians survived the revolution of 1917. He remained widely read under Soviet rule. A four-volume edition of Byron’s work was produced in 1981 with a print-run of 600,000 copies; in 1986 a two-volume edition had a run of 500,000 copies (Gilenson 253). A case, therefore, need not be made regarding the later importance of Byron for Russian literary culture. One intention of this article is to analyse the Russian cantos in Don Juan and to test the validity of Gilenson’s claim about the extent to which Byron was aware of Russian history.

Even before Zhukovsky’s translation of The Prisoner of Chilian, Byron’s work was well known in English to the Russian intelligentsia. The first reference to Byron by a Russian is a positive one and appears in a letter written by S. S. Uvarov to Vasily Zhukovsky dated 20 December 1814. This was followed quickly in 1815 by Byron’s favourable treatment in the Russian literary press (Gilenson 157-58). Praise for Byron in Russia, however, was by no means unanimous. Reactionaries and political conservatives, such as Rodzianka in his poem Dva Veka (1822), complain that “the noble lord sings about the convulsive cries of victims, the wails of hellish hordes and the shouts of executioners” (qtd. in Diakovna and Vacuro 145), and relegate Byron to little more than a rabble-rousing class traitor (Diakovna and Vacuro 144).5 Similarly, articles written on Byron’s poems in the Moskovskiy Telegraf by Byron’s ardent admirer Petr Vyazemsky met with considerable disapproval from the conservative right. In a letter to Vyazemsky, D. N. Bludov toed the authorities’ line when he condemned Byron as one who “had long been an outspoken enemy of all established laws of society, of morality and religion.” It follows from this, says Bludov, that “apology of his work, accordingly, was a proof of the journal’s political unreliability” (qtd. in Diakovna and Vacuro 149).

Bludov’s complaint about Byron’s supposedly subversive politics and the manner in which he was perceived to flout conventional moral laws was, of course, what made him attractive to the Russian radical intelligentsia and aristocracy. This was particularly the case when one considers the tense political and social atmosphere that pervaded Russia during the 182Os. Byron tells us that the primary historical source for his Russian cantos in Don Juan is Histoire de la nouvelle russie (1820) by the Marquis Gabriel de Castlenau.6 Yet his knowledge of Russian history and affairs was more direct than a written work of history. Indeed, Don Juan contains a possible reference to knowledge of Russia that is more immediate than the Histoire:

As Nina Diakovna and Vadim Vacuro have observed, Byron was acquainted with some of his Russian readers. Among those he met were the “diplomat and man of letters Prince E B. Kozlovsky,” Vyazemsky, Admiral Cicagov, and Count A. G. Stroganov (143). Diakovna and Vacuro gloss this stanza by stating that Byron possibly knew of his reputation in Russia. It is more pertinent perhaps to tease out the intriguing and suggestive connections Byron makes between Russia in the age of Catherine the Great and Russia under Alexander II.

The stanza quoted above begins with an arch reference to Alexander’s dubious entitlement to the throne signified by the exclamation mark at the end of the first line. Alexander’s route to power, like his grandmother’s, was effected by political murder, with Alexander acquiescing in the deposition, if not the manner, of his father’s death: Paul I was assassinated by the Palace guards in 1801. The word legitimate is rendered in a highly ambiguous fashion and means at once both legitimacy by birth and the legal right to rule. Paul I was probably the son of one of Catherine the Great’s numerous lovers and therefore illegitimate: “Thus the claims of Paul and subsequent tsars to a divine right to rule were associated with a very dubious past” (Westwood 20). Byron’s irony-laden use of the term legitimate is made more pressing by a further layer of reference to the condition of European politics. As Byron’s recent editors have noted, both Talleyrand and Alexander used the term legitimacy to refer to the restoration in France of the Bourbon dynasty in 1814, a major consequence of the Congress of Vienna. The word grand invokes the Grand Alliance of European powers created in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat, a word that in its present context drips with the scorn that Byron reserves for the governing politicians of his day (Steffan, Steffan, and Pratt 655n).7

Alexander’s stock in the theatre of European politics rose dramatically after Napoleon’s failure to incorporate Russia into his empire in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Indeed, Russia under Alexander I achieved a position of power in the European political scene that would not be witnessed again in the world until 1945. Alexander’s popularity in Europe was such during these years that “he felt free to play the role of arbiter of Europe” (Westwood 24). The foundations for this new-found eminence were Alexander’s position in the Quadruple Alliance and the Holy Alliance, the members of the former being Russia, Great Britain, Prussia, and Austria. The Quadruple Alliance “contained an article foreshadowing the concept of the ‘summit conference,'” the means by which rulers and leading ministers could meet to discuss any threat that might appear to European stability. Insofar as the Holy Alliance was concerned, this was a product of Alexander’s newly discovered piety and has been blamed for ruthlessly suppressing legitimate rebellions by oppressive rulers in Spain, Portugal, Naples, Piedmont, and Greece. Through the offices of the Congress of Vienna and in conjunction with the Quadruple Alliance, the Holy Alliance “enabled Alexander and his fellow-rulers to coordinate their actions against what were genuine liberation movements” (Westwood 24). In such circumstances, the direction of Byron’s sympathies can hardly be doubted. Alexander suffers accordingly in Byron’s barbed comments regarding the legitimacy of his position and, therefore, his actions.

Byron’s recourse to sexual politics in the poem is indicative of the extent to which they were important in understanding Russian affairs in the later reign of Catherine II and onwards into the post-Napoleonic period under Alexander. Bastardy and illegitimacy are crucial aspects of dynastic despotism in the poem and in Byron’s reading of Russian politics, which justifies attacks upon the right to rule by those who claim their wills to be divine and above reproach. In several instances, Byron makes reference to Catherine’s promiscuity, and does so in a fashion that links political office to sexual transgression. Catherine is “greatest of all sovereigns and whores” (5.6.92) and also a “modern Amazon and Queen of queans” (5.6.96). As both Jerome McGann and Katherine Kernberger have noted, sex and oppression in the poem are virtually inseparable. McGann argues that “Catherine uses sex and therefore makes it an equivocal value” (Fiery Dust 297); whilst in Kernberger’s view, Juan’s “giving in to greed for roubles and influence” serves to corrupt him, turning the hero of the poem into an “imperial gigolo [who] betrays himself” (49). Kernberger is perhaps only partially correct, however, in her further assertion that “Catherine’s desire for sexual dominance derives from the same source as her despotic political practices” and that “sexual relations” in Don Juan “are exposed as merely political” (49). Such an assertion denies the knowledge of Russian history Byron demonstrates in the poem.

Russia exercised a profound and sometimes contrary influence on the Enlightenment and Romantic literary imaginations. In British literature this was marked by disparate views of Russia in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. From Defoe’s depiction of Russia as the savage other in The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) to Byron’s portrayal of the sexually rapacious imperial court of Catherine the Great, there is a continuity of negative depiction. This is indicative in extreme terms of how Russia was perceived by the English reading public in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Nor was the negative representation of Russia and the Russians confined to fiction. Prominent English diplomats looked upon the Russians as little more than barbaric. In An Account of Russia (1768), Lord Macartney, “our man in St Petersburg,” could write that “Russia is but little known” and that the Russians themselves were essentially an ignorant people with no literature of their own that was worth the name (iv, cited in Dukes 176). As modern historians of Russia in the eighteenth century have pointed out, such a view is in many ways surprising, as the British had first-hand knowledge of Russia and its politics through a significant trading presence in St. Petersburg and Moscow throughout the eighteenth century. Moreover, as such commentators have been at pains to document, many Russian aristocrats and intellectuals took all things English to heart, something that was looked on by one contemporary as at best a mixed blessing:

The English have replaced the French: nowadays women and men are falling over themselves to imitate anything English; everything English now seems to us good and admirable and fills us full of enthusiasm. But we, unfortunately, are so addicted to things foreign that we frequently consider even their vices virtues.9

Indeed, during the reign of Catherine, in particular, Russia witnessed a steady increase in the number of British residents in its cities, with a particular concentration in St. Petersburg, home of Catherine’s court. The British, it seems, enjoyed a very cordial relationship with their hosts. As well as Catherine herself, the upper ranks of the nobility had prominent among them a significant number of Anglophiles, including Count Chernyshev, Count Vorontsov, and Princess Dashkava. The English Club in St. Petersburg was the city’s most prestigious venue for the Anglo and Russian upper classes. Nor was British influence confined to the higher strata of Russian society: “grooms, valets, and governesses” found themselves employed in places of trust in Russian households; St. Petersburg was also the site of a number of working artists and sculptors. It was not always the case that the British were perceived uncritically in Russia. Cross, for instance, relates a wonderful and salacious anecdote of Major Semple, an excellent example of the unscrupulous British chancer abroad (Cross 262).

Court culture during Catherine’s reign was a vibrant affair, with Catherine herself acting positively as an impetus for artistic activity. The theatre-and intellectual activity, in general-was vigorously and generously patronised by the monarch. Literature, in particular, enjoyed the fruits of Catherine’s interest in promoting culture: “Catherine’s own marked interest in letters, and the vast programme of translations she sponsored, gave a tremendous impetus to the literary life of the capital and encouraged a whole crop of new writers of noble and non-noble origin to experiment with new forms of novels, poetry and journalism” (Madariaga 330). Translation is particularly important here as the Society for the Translation of Foreign Books made the introduction of what we now recognise as “classic” texts of Enlightenment Europe available in Russian during Catherine’s reign. Such works include Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and with the exception of The Social Contract, the complete works of Rousseau. Russian literary satire was based upon English Augustan models, a factor that no doubt accounted in part for Byron’s popularity.10 Catherine’s patronage of literature did Russian intellectual life an immense service in bringing it closer to the wider currents of western intellectual activity, putting Russia on the intellectual map in the eighteenth century as well as “initiating direct contact with some of the best minds of the European Enlightenment” (Madariaga 335).

The intellectual crosscurrents between Russia and Western Europe were strong in the period. Yet despite the admiration with which many things British were held in Catherine’s Russia, she herself drew the line emphatically when it came to emulating the allegedly democratic political institutions that were supposedly at the heart of British political life. As mentioned above, Rousseau’s writings on the social contract found no Russian translator during Catherine’s reign. Moreover, the radical republican politics with which Byron is associated-the ideals in particular of the American and French revolutions and his admiration for the works and beliefs of Milton and the English revolutionaries-colours dramatically his reading of Russia during the age of Catherine the Great, a reading that tends in the main to follow the notion that, at best, Russia is an enlightened despotism. Enlightenment ideas about progress, particularly those associated with the French Revolution, were carefully filtered in Russia. Catherine believed that equality before the law should not be extended to the monarchy. Despite her borrowing freely from the works of Montesquieu and Diderot (Catherine plagiarised from Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws with great selectivity), she did so in order to strengthen her own position as monarch. Thus her recourse to Montesquieu in her work of political theory, the Nakaz, or Instruction (1766), is an adaptation rather than an adoption. “Montesquieu’s celebrated admiration of the division of powers in England into the executive, the legislative, and the judicial became an administrative arrangement meant to improve the functioning of Russian autocracy” (Riasanovsky 285). And as Dukes has argued, “for the most part she stole for an explicit purpose, to construct a rationale for her own brand of government, which has since been identified as a variant of enlightened despotism” (183).

It is true, as others have argued, that Byron personifies the imperial and despotic nature of Russia in his portrait of the queen, but this is only a partial rendering of a significant section of the poem as a whole. The added factors that need to be considered are the development of the RussoTurkish war, in which Juan is a participant, and the imperial claims of the Russian state. Although Byron does place a great deal of emphasis on the relationship between sexual and political power, it is history and structure rather than agency that determine Juan’s adventures in Catherine’s Russia. As Byron succinctly puts it when discussing Alexander, “people’s ancestors are history’s game” (5.6.94). Personal histories are entwined in political events only insofar as the protagonists are monarchs. The implicit political ideology underpinning the politics of the text is republican, which Byron demonstrates in canto 6.95 when he posits a solution to the political differences between Catherine and the Turkish Sultan:

On the face of it this stanza seems to suggest that Catherine and the Sultan could solve all of their problems were they only to stop thinking with their genitalia. It seems that their insatiable sexual appetites drive their political wills. Yet, in an important context, this is to miss the point. Byron is arguing in this passage from the particular-Catherine and the Sultan-to the general-about “kings” who can rarely distinguish between their individual private wants and their public duties. Catherine and the Sultan both have imperial ambitions with which Byron will have no truck. The imperial dreams and pretensions that are the common lot of kings, the stanza suggests, can only be resolved by the oppression of one people by another in a war of conquest. The human and economic cost is borne by those people in the least advantageous position to pay (6.96).


In a four-stanza digression within canto 6, Byron manages to convey a considerable amount about Russian politics past and present. Moreover, he does so by shifting considerably the poem’s tone. In its movement from the relation of Juan’s comic adventures dressed as a woman in the harem of an autocratic Turkish despot, the disquisition on the bloody and arbitrary nature of Russian politics between 1762 and the time of writing injects a darker and more cynical tone. The sophisticated flippancy with which Byron treats Juan’s sexual escapades suddenly takes on the air of tragedy. It is as if Byron is suddenly addressing a different audience. The manner in which he engages the reader in an epic poem that overall resembles the structure of a novel in the style of Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones leaves open the door to Bakhtin’s theory of the relationship of epic to the novel-nor is this to stretch a point, as Bakhtin refers to Byron’s masterpiece in terms that are brief yet highly suggestive. In a discussion entitled “Epic and Novel: Towards a Methodology for the Study of the Novel,” Bakhtin states that, “in an era when the novel reigns supreme”-and here Bakhtin is referring to the second half of the eighteenth century onwards-“all of the remaining genres are to a greater or lesser extent ‘novelised'” (Bakhtin). He then goes on to cite Byron’s Childe Harold, “and especially … Don Juan” (5-6). Bakhtin presents in “Epic and Novel” a list of criteria determining the characteristics of the novel that can be applied to the “novelised” Don Juan: a novel should have a hero who is not “‘heroic’ in either the epic or the tragic sense of the word: he should combine in himself negative as well as positive features, low as well as lofty, ridiculous as well as serious.” And, most importantly: “the hero should not be portrayed as an already completed and unchanging person but as one who is evolving and developing, a person who learns from life” (10).

Juan’s picaresque adventures in a wide variety of European contexts see him constantly dealing with disappointment and disillusionment. From his first moment of exile with Donna Inez in canto 1 to his projected death at the hands of the French revolutionary terror and through his interim experiences in Turkey, Russia, and England, Juan becomes increasingly the pawn of forces over which he has no control. The panoramic European dimension of Juan’s travels in foreign lands and Byron’s shifting dialogic narrative voice, with its trenchant critique of his own times seen through the window of the recent past, make Don Juan a text that is deeply implicated in what Bakhtin refers to as “a very specific rupture in the history of European civilization: its emergence from a socially isolated and culturally deaf semipatriarchal society” (11). In this respect, Bakhtin appears to be developing a line of thought strongly associated with the Hungarian Marxist George Lukacs, who also saw the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as being crucial in the development of a particularly modern literary discourse-in his case, the historical novel.” The Napoleonic wars widened horizons and made possible what Bakhtin refers to as “international and interlingual contacts and relationships” (11), which for Lukacs is figured in the waging of war and the creation of politicised mass armies (20).

The literary figure most closely associated with Lukacs’s analysis of the historical novel is Walter Scott, a writer whom Byron greatly admired. As James Chandler recently has written, there are more than sufficient grounds for viewing Don Juan as Byron’s contribution to the newly created (in the Lukacsian sense) historical novel. And it is also apparent that Byron read obsessively Scott’s novels during the period that he was composing his epic masterpiece: “And pray send me W. Scott’s new novels-what are their names and characters? I read some of his former ones for at least an hour a day” (Byron’s Letters and Journals 7: 48-49).12 Arguing against Jerome Christenson’s assertion that Don Juan’s historical moment is the ascendancy of commercial society, and Jerome McGann’s modified view of the poem that it is confined historically to 1789-1824, Chandler posits instead that “Don Juan is haunted by a historicism with which it can neither dispense nor quite come to terms” (38O).13 Rather than see the poem in relation to Scott’s fiction, however, as productive as that may be, it is fruitful to read the episodic nature of Don Juan against historically specific events. This is particularly the case when one considers Byron’s treatment of warfare and modernity and the manner in which they are ruthlessly pursued to curtail political liberty.

Byron’s description of the siege of Ismail and Juan’s involvement in it in canto 7 of the poem demonstrates the extent to which warfare in the world of the poem is increasingly internationalised. In stanza 18, Byron informs us of the conflict’s polyglot nature:

Of those European nations that Byron mentions, the English and the French are most heavily represented. Between stanzas 18 and 22, the mercurial nature of French and English participants in the siege is highlighted. They are fighting for individual advancement and not the cause of liberty, that clarion call of Enlightenment political action that can do no more than murmur in canto 6, stanza 93, when Byron is referring to the dubious legitimacy of Catherine and her heirs. Moreover, it is the ordinariness of the English participants in the conflict-signified in these stanzas by their surnames, Thomson and Smith, and by their Christian names, Peters and “Jacks and Gills and Wills and Bills” (5.7.19-20)-that testifies to the war’s modernity. This is no romantic and idealistic battle for higher principles, fought by a moral and ethical aristocratic elite according to chivalric rules. Indeed, Smith is so common a name “that one would think the first who bore it Adam” (5.7.25). The French fare no better. Referring elliptically in stanza 22 to the history of antipathy between France and Great Britain both in the past and in the present, Byron takes ironic refuge behind his patriotism, saving himself the trouble of naming the French. Indeed, patriotism is seen to be an empty word signifying nothing, especially when the motive for action is no more than greed and self-aggrandisement:

The battle for Ismail was a bloody affair that in many ways was ill advised. The Russian forces numbered 31,000 and were attacking the fortress at the wrong time of the year; sickness and hunger decimated the Russian army led by Ivan Gudevich, Grigory Potemkin, and Nikolai Samoilov. Before them stood what seemed to be an impregnable fortress “built into a natural amphitheatre which was defended by 265 cannons and a garrison of 35,000 men” (Montefiore 448). In overall command of the war against the Turkish was Prince Potemkin, a man, Byron suggests, who derived his greatness from his love of “homicide and harlotry” (5.7.36-37) and gained his position from his relationship with Catherine the Great (Chandler 38O).14 Despite their initial failure to take Ismail, the Russians persisted. Potemkin appointed as general Count Suvarov, a man he was confident could get the job done. This proved to be the case, though the cost in human life was horrendous in what proved to be an extremely close-fought battle:

Byron looks upon the siege of Ismail with a cynical eye, one attuned to man’s glorification of war ratified by cant. Byron relates Potemkin’s appointment of Suvarov with reference to the letter exhorting the general to carry the siege to a successful conclusion. This letter, says Byron, would be “worthy of a Spartan, had the cause / Been one to which a good heart could be partial” (5.7.40). In Byron’s view, the cause for which the war was being fought was a bad one: neither Potemkin nor Suvarov is motivated by “Defence of freedom, country, or of laws; / But as it was mere lust of power to o’erarch all / With its proud brow.” The letter, therefore, “merits slight applause, / Save for its style, which said all in a trice, / ‘You will take Ismail at whatever price.'” (5.7.40). The use of the word price is an appropriate one both in terms of human cost and motivation. These are warriors, says Byron, who fight for “cash and conquest” (5.7.64); he pursues the fiscal metaphor further at the beginning of canto 8:

On the contrary, blood may be spilt only in the pursuit of liberty from one’s oppressors, in the vein of Leonidas and Washington, “Whose every battlefield is holy ground, / Which breathes of nations saved, not worlds undone” (5.8.3-5).

Byron appears to anticipate much of what both Bakhtin and Lukacs are saying about war and modernity. In canto 7, stanza 41, we read “war cuts up not only branch but root” and is not a short and glorious affair governed by archaic rules of conduct more suited to romance and story than to reality. The scale of the conflict and the manner in which it was fought are factors that separate the siege of Ismail from that quintessential literary siege that also took place on Turkish soil. In a nod to Homer towards the end of canto 7, Byron admits that, although modern epic cannot equal the relation of the siege of Troy, yet “still we moderns equal you in blood” (5.7.80). In canto 8, as the siege gathers pace, Byron refers to the pointlessness of the conflict in terms that would not look out of place in the verse of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon:

Modem historians support Byron’s rendering of the savagery of the conflict. Of an approximate total of 66,000 men combined, the casualties at Ismail numbered some 40,000. Barbarity was the order of the day. As one historian has noted, quoting the testimony of participants: “Ismail assumed the incarnadine horror of a Dantean hell … ‘the most horrible carnage followed [the fall of the city] … the most unequalled butchery. It is no exaggeration to say the gutters of the town were dyed with blood'” (Montefiore 450). This is echoed throughout canto 8 and also in canto 9, stanza 29, when Byron relates how “Don juan … shone in the late slaughter … / Where blood was talked of as we would of water; / And carcasses … lay as thick as thatch.” Given the descriptions rendered by those who were there, it is little wonder that the siege of Ismail been described as the most savage massacre of the eighteenth century (Montefiore 451). As the siege of Ismail reaches its conclusion, Byron makes it all too apparent where the fault for the slaughter lies. In canto 8, stanza 92, Byron has it that the Cossacks’ rapacious violence as they gradually take control of the city has been bred by monarchs towards specific ends: “And whom for this at last must we condemn? / Their natures? Or their sovereigns who employ / all arts to teach their subjects to destroy?” (5.8.135). When the fall of the fortress is confirmed, Suvarov

Said “despatch” is immediately given to juan so that he can render the news “For which all Petersburgh is on the watch” (5.8.139).


As Byron makes clear in the opening stanzas to canto 9-when he shifts the discussion onto an international platform through an analysis of Wellington’s impact on European politics in the wake of Waterloo-war in modern Europe is “Legitimacy’s crutch.” Wellington is “Europe’s liberator-still enslaved.” The word legitimacy therefore frames the Russian cantos and the discussion of how it was and is abused during the reigns of Catherine and Alexander. People’s ancestors truly are history’s (and Byron’s) game. The panoramic sweep of Don juan with its multiplicity of references to world literatures and languages is a child of its time, a period when, as Bakhtin has argued, “The world becomes polyglot, once and for all and irreversibly” (12). The epic, he continues, is “a genre that has come down to us already well defined and real” (14). In canto 1, stanza 200, Byron tells us that Don Juan is an epic poem, “and is meant to be.” He then informs us that he will follow epic convention in the style of Homer and Virgil by completing the poem in twelve books, “So that my name of epic is no misnomer.” Yet the poem itself undoes any claims to epic in the classical sense by not beginning in medias res and by following a strictly linear structure. In classical epic, “it is memory, and not knowledge, that serves as the source and power or its creative impulse” (Bakhtin 15). In Don juan it is recent and contemporary history that provide the basis upon which the poem is built. The tradition of the past is not sacred: like the novel in its Bakhtinian formulation, Don Juan is determined by “experience, knowledge and practice” (Bakhtin 15).

Northumbria University, Newcastle


1 Byron’s reception in many European countries in the nineteenth century is addressed in Paul Graham Trueblood’s Boron’s Political and Cultural Influence in Nineteenth-Century Europe.

2 On Byron and Bakhtin in relation to the theorisation of carnival and laughter, see Philip W. Martin, “Reading Don juan with Bakhtin,” in Nigel Wood, ed. Theory into Practice: Don Juan (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1993), pp. 90-121. see also Charles Donelan, Romanticism and Male Fantasy in Byron’s Don juan (London: Macmillan, 2000).

3 see T, S. Eliot’s essay on Byron in On Poetry and Poets’, see also E R. Leavis, Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry.

4 see Jane Stabler’s succinct overview of Byron’s reputation as a poet (1-26).

5 Much of what follows on Byron and early nineteenth-century Russia is indebted to Diakovna and Vacuro’s valuable essay.

6 see Byron’s preface to canto 6 in Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works (5: 295). All references to Don juan, unless otherwise specified, are to this edition, abbreviated to BCPW, and are numbered by volume, canto, and stanza.

7 see canto 7, stanzas 44-45, for Byron’s comments on the condition of England in the immediate wake of Napoleon’s defeat.

8 In canto 9.28, Byron makes reference to the legitimacy of rebellion in Spain and Greece. Caught in an imperialist and oppressive web, “None save the Spanish fly and Attic bee, / As yet are strongly stinging to be free.”

9 Nikolay Novikov, Satiricheskie zhurnaly, cited in Cross 233. see also Dukes, “The Russian Enlightenment.” see also E. J. Simmons, English Literature and Culture in Russia, 1553-1840, and M. S. Anderson, Britain’s Discovery of Russia, 1553-1815.

10 On Byron’s debt to the poetics of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, see Andrew Rutherford.

11 see George Lukacs, The Historical Novel, especially chapter one, “The Classical Form of the Historical Novel” (15-100).

12 Byron’s relation to Scott and the relation between Don juan and the historical novel is brilliantly discussed in James Chandler, England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the case of Romantic Historicism, 375.

13 see also Jerome Christenson, Lord Byron’s Strength: Romantic Writing and Commercial Society, and Jerome J. McGann, “The Book of Byron and the Book of the World.”

14 According to Montefiore, Potemkin’s debauchery was nothing more than a “facade” (449).


Anderson, M. S. Britain’s Discovery of Russia, 1553-1815. London: Macmillan, 1958.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Epic and NOvel.” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1990. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1981. 3-40.

Byron, George Gordon. The Complete Poetical Works of Lord Byron. 7 vols. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

_____. Byron’s Letters and Journals. Ed. Leslie Marchand. 13 Vols. London: John Murray, 1973.

Chandler, James. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the case of Romantic Historicism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.

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