As we read in history, since ancient times the Indian subcontinent has attracted explorers and invaders to raid its wealth, or, once arrived there, to possess it entirely for themselves. Such exploration involves having to go through a narrow pass before arriving in an enchanting land. That image was in Lord Byron’s mind when, in his poem ‘Don Juan’, he makes a reference to the “North-West Passage/ Unto the glowing India of the soul.”
Such a geographical reality has long been a metaphor for many human activities: the scientist drawn to investigate some previously unknown phenomenon or the artist pursuing a new idea is each an explorer who must first go through a long passage of experimentation with its many misleadingly beckoning alleys. We are first in the dark or tempted by sirens to lose our way, passionate storms overtake us, but then, at the end of our Odyssey, light dawns and ours is the thrill of gazing at the glowing land as if it had been newly lit up within our soul.
Other poets have created variations on the exploration image, the most notable example being by John Keats in his sonnet, ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’, where he describes the glowing vision in his mind on reading the Homer translation — a vision that has him staring in silent wonder as did the early European explorers in the New World when they first crossed Panama and, from a peak in Darien, found themselves staring at the Pacific. And long before Keats, John Donne drew images from the wonders of geographical discovery that, describing the beloved’s body as a new-found land, give some of his love poems the glowing vividness of Renaissance paintings of beautiful women.
Applying this metaphor to creative activity, we have only to read the letters, interviews and essays of some of the major writers, artists and composers to see that all, either directly or by implication, refer to their pursuit of art that does not merely convey ideas, but one that glows. And the very few who succeed, produce that gleaming light as an inexpressible aesthetic experience, for which Byron’s “glowing India of the soul” is so illuminatingly suggested that even an unbelieving rationalist accepts it as true.
Drawn to create a work without having an idea as to what is that interior experience pressing to be discovered, the artist proceeds to explore a seemingly barren and unpromising region where too many passages lead to dead ends, enforcing a retreat and recommencement to experiment with a formerly forbidding direction, only to come up with a new blockage; one is compelled to retreat and look for an alternative and this is where, the prospect seeming hopeless, many works get abandoned. But stubbornness or sheer good luck pays off, for where what first appears to be a distracting gleam just at the line where the shadows cast by the towering cliffs are the darkest, one comes to the window which gives the first glimpse of the glowing land.
Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ is an extraordinary poem. In his 1937 essay on Byron, T.S. Eliot identifies it as his best poem though, shockingly for Eliot, instead of praising the carefully constructed natural flow of Byron’s language he dismisses it insultingly as “the schoolboy command of language, that makes his lines seem trite and his thoughts shallow.” Eliot was a first-rate literary critic, but I rather suspect that there was a mischievous streak in him that made him taunt, as we see him do in his essays on John Milton and Byron, putting them down in that affected evangelical voice of his. While there is no doubt that the best literary criticism has been written not by professors of literature, but by writers who have themselves produced notable original work, there is inevitably a self-serving element in some of their assertions and one comes across examples where, when they attack another writer — especially a contemporary praised highly by others — there is a haughty subtext in their criticism that implies an assertion of their own superior originality. A close reading of ‘Don Juan’ shows it to be one of the finest poems in the English language, not the one so glibly put down by Eliot.
Readers drawn to ‘Don Juan’ expecting a salacious account of the hero who, as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous Don Giovanni (in his opera that Gustave Flaubert said was “one of the three finest things God ever made”) philandered his way to hell, will be surprised, or even puzzled, that Byron begins his poem with a mocking and derogatory dedication in which he attacks his fellow poets Robert Southey and William Wordsworth. But that mocking tone projecting the poet’s inner voice, expressing his harsh opinion of popular trends, will be heard throughout the poem. And though in the first of the poem’s 15 cantos we are shown the young Juan’s early amorous exploration, making for a very absorbing narrative, the poem’s intellectual interest comes from Byron’s many digressions. As the poem proceeds, we are looking not at Juan’s love affairs, even though they take him to the arms of the Russian empress Catherine the Great, but at the mind of Lord Byron.
The scientist investigating unknown phenomenon or the artist pursuing a new idea is each an explorer who must first go through a long passage of experimentation.
The passages narrating Juan’s affairs are beautifully composed, the imagery fresh and strikingly modern with nothing anachronistic about the language. Two hundred years after it was written, Byron’s rendition of that glowing vision of the soul within the sexually engaged lover’s throbbing body has not been expressed so well in literature, though we’ve had some superb examples from D.H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov. And yet, that is not what Byron’s poem is about for, at the beginning of the 10th canto, he describes how, when resuming work on the poem that morning, just picking up a sheet of paper on which to write, his “bosom underwent a glorious glow” and his “internal spirit” did a dance because he was filled with the thought that what he was doing for poetry was like what an astronomer does for astronomy — discover new stars. And though the narrative returns from time to time to Juan, who has been sent by the Russian empress on a diplomatic mission to England, the remaining five cantos are only very incidentally about him. The poem is really about Byron’s ideas, which range from metaphysical observations to a devastatingly scathing attack on the English aristocracy whose glum hypocrisy Byron sought to escape by abandoning Britain for Greece.
That Eliot considered Byron’s language and ideas “trite and shallow” is shocking, considering that he himself had worked on a PhD dissertation in philosophy when a scholar at Oxford and should have observed that Byron’s was no casual banter, but sound philosophical thought and that, as a great poet himself, Eliot would, in his own finest poem ‘Four Quartets’, write “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started.”
Byron had done that exploration. He had penetrated the mind’s northwest frontier and found the passage to that beauty which great art opens before us like a glowing spiritual ecstasy within the soul.
The columnist is a poet, novelist, literary critic and Professor emeritus at the University of Texas. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 23rd, 2019