“If there is a critique of the Enlightenment to be made, it is not that the philosophes believed in human nature, or the universality of reason: it is rather that they were so dismally unimaginative about the range of what we have in common.”
The Byron of Don Juan, I suspect, would not have been averse to Kwame Appiah’s words, from his spirited defense of “Rooted Cosmopolitanism” in The Ethics of Identity. The epic poem is classically read as the supreme instance of Romantic Irony from British Romanticism: in it, Lillian Furst writes, “Doubt undermines whatever is written, but even in the process of destruction it leaves space for further buoyant reconstruction.” And D.J. Enright concurs: “This scenario explains why Don Juan can resemble a perpetual motion machine, promotion followed by demotion, sweetness by sourness, romance by reduction, until the succession of can’t-subverting stanzas and cantos grows as wearisome as a sojourn on a see-saw.”
But reading Don Juan now, I find it difficult to find Byron doubting many things, aside from permanence and identity. It is natural and right to read the poem as ironic in its refusal to stand on absolutely firm ground when it consistently denies that there is such a thing; but that is only one form of natural and rightness, and it might make sense to read the poem also in a spirit of pathos and wonder that it inherits from the great European epic tradition found in Virgil and Dante.
Dante’s presence in the poem, especially in the shipwreck stanzas of the second stanza, is well-known; Virgil’s presence is perhaps only flagged early, when Byron teases about starting in media res, like Aeneas reclining before Dido. Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Commedia are poems of Imperial destiny; in the former, the founding and future of Rome, and for Dante the future and strength of the Holy Roman Empire, with a happy union of Pope and Emperor. One of the large jokes of Byron’s poem, in its rambling course, is that Britain, and its burgeoning empire, deserved no such epic. Hence Juan, arriving in Britain in Canto X:
But Juan felt, though not approaching home,
As one who, though he were not of the race,
Revered the soil, of those true sons the mother,
Who bothered half the earth and bullied t’other.
Byron’s debt to Virgil and Dante lies elsewhere: in a sense of the passing of things, that untranslatable “rerum lacrimae”–or, to look to a tradition entirely alien to Byron’s knowledge if not to his spirit, that “mono no aware” that is central to Japanese aesthetics, the ephemerality and fragility of things. That spirit infuses Virgil, Dante, and Byron alike; in the latter two, it is joined, however, to a faith in what will not pass: a sanctified course of history driven by a single nation.
Byron cannot subscribe to that vision; his hopes for a course of history did not rest, at any rate, on Britain, but on something represented by Napoleon–and though he understood the excesses of ego and violence in Napoleon’s conquests, his sense for what that course of history might be were solidly European.
Though set before Napoleon’s rise to power, Don Juan is an epic about a Europe without a course in history; it looks with scorn on the interplay of European powers, including in its vision the Russians and the Ottomans; Byron did not think it needed to be this way. (His support for Greek independence was a restoration of Europe’s history, rather than a rejection of Europe as a meaningful entity.)
But, in a rewriting of Lillian Furst’s account of irony in the poem, even in the destruction waged by Europe on Europe (and by Europe beyond Europe), there are occasions for reconstruction, or reconstitution, and these lie in the unexpected particulars of shared experiences and common interests that bring the poem’s characters together, and that propel its hero forwards. For Byron is deeply imaginative about the range of what people have in common: it is why Juan can make his way, an unwitting cosmopolitan, as easily as he does.
The perpetual flux of the world, its coincidences and crossings, which sustain the poem itself in its overlapping and interlocking rhymes that feel always to be caught, in passing, by good fortune, sustain also the world’s unity, even as they dissolve the unities that are established; the poem’s sadness at the transience of things is buoyed by its faith that with transience comes regeneration and recuperation. The tone ranges from comic pathos to pathetic comedy, sometimes angered and at other times resigned.
It is a poem that is content to continue, to wait and watch, in the absence of a story that must come in the shape of history, and a historical project that, for Byron, must be committed to both freedom, an embrace of national heritage, and also a desire for what Appiah calls “the task of cosmopolitanism,” “debate and conversation across nations.”
Without that project, the poem cannot commit to the form of the epic, or even of the Canto; the stanza is its fundamental unit. But even here, in its debt to Italian literature, Byron furthers the conversation as best he can.
The fact of reading literature across nations, and of being read across nations, may do some of the work that a shared historical project cannot, in bringing people together; and Byron drawls in the parodied tones of Britain through his poem all while affirming his place as a poet indebted to and contributing to a European literature, as if to show that the limitations of language (comic as they are) cannot prevent those conversations and contributions from taking place. They are founded on Byron’s capacity to be deeply imaginative about what European literatures have in common, what particulars might draw them together.
Appiah again: We in our settings are able to find many moments when we share with people from different settings a sense that something has gone right or gone wrong. It isn’t principle that brings the missionary doctor and the distressed mother together at the hospital bedside of a child with cholera: it is a shared concern for this particular child. And you do not need to be a missionary or an ethnographer to discover such moments: it happens also when we read. what we find in the epic or novel, which is always a message in a bottle from some other position, even if it was written and published last week in your hometown, derives not from a theoretical understanding of us as having a commonly understood common nature–not, then, from an understanding that we (we readers and writers) all share–but from an invitation to respond in imagination to narratively constructed situations.
Byron’s praise for Pope: He is the moral poet of all civilization; and as such, let us hope that he will one day be the national poet of all mankind….If his great charm be his melody how comes it that foreigners adore him even in their diluted translations.
Rather than parochial or chauvinistic, Byron’s point is that Pope’s success ought to be measured by his success abroad: by his being able to be a part of the conversation and debates across nations. The English have it wrong, the Scottish Byron says; considering our poets we need to be more sensitive to what others, who are not of one nation, find in them; it is a project of literature that might lead to a project of history.