"Peoples Ancestors Are History's Game": Byron's Don Juan and Russian History

By Walker, David | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

"Peoples Ancestors Are History's Game": Byron's Don Juan and Russian History


Walker, David, Studies in the Literary Imagination


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 E 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.

I

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 Chillon 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. …

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