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 over...
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...livering itself over to the future. It deliberately subjects its address to unconceived purpose. It is an open-endedness that preserves a sense of validity only within the process of being - inevitably, inexorably - displaced. Frustrated by the process of long distance publication, obsessed with the perversion of address, Byron finally gestures to the materiality that has sidelined him, rendered him a ghost presenting ghosts to an unknown futurity. “’Why then publish?’ Byron asks himself in late passages of a poem that would never be fully published - and his answer seems one of the most straightforward in DJ: “what I write I cast upon the stream, / To swim or sink—I have at least my dream” (XIV.11). Studied carelessness, surely; petulance, perhaps – but there is more, the legacy of writing over distance: a sense of authority that most comes to life by being undone.
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