Poem introduction

One of my favourite episodes from Don Juan is the grimly comic scene at sea after Juan and his tutor Pedrillo have been shipwrecked. The 16-year-old Juan has been caught trying to escape from his married lover Julia’s bedroom; she has been hustled off to a nunnery in disgrace, and Juan’s mother has sent him on a long sea voyage for his education. Here he is, with Pedrillo and some of the crew, in the longboat.

Don Juan (extract)

LXVI

'Tis thus with people in an open boat,
  They live upon the love of Life, and bear
More than can be believed, or even thought,
  And stand like rocks the tempest's wear and tear;
And hardship still has been the sailor's lot,
  Since Noah's ark went cruising here and there;
She had a curious crew as well as cargo,
Like the first old Greek privateer, the Argo.

LXVII

But man is a carnivorous production,
  And must have meals, at least one meal a day;
He cannot live, like woodcocks, upon suction,
  But, like the shark and tiger, must have prey;
Although his anatomical construction
  Bears vegetables, in a grumbling way,
Your labouring people think, beyond all question,
Beef, veal, and mutton, better for digestion.

LXVIII

And thus it was with this our hapless crew;
  For on the third day there came on a calm,
And though at first their strength it might renew,
  And lying on their weariness like balm,
Lulled them like turtles sleeping on the blue
  Of Ocean, when they woke they felt a qualm,
And fell all ravenously on their provision,
Instead of hoarding it with due precision.

LXIX

The consequence was easily foreseen—
  They ate up all they had, and drank their wine. In spite of all remonstrances, and then
  On what, in fact, next day were they to dine?
They hoped the wind would rise, these foolish men!
  And carry them to shore; these hopes were fine,
But as they had but one oar, and that brittle,
It would have been more wise to save their victual.

LXX

The fourth day came, but not a breath of air,
  And Ocean slumbered like an unweaned child:
The fifth day, and their boat lay floating there,
  The sea and sky were blue, and clear, and mild—
With their one oar (I wish they had had a pair)
  What could they do? and Hunger's rage grew wild:
So Juan's spaniel, spite of his entreating,
Was killed, and portioned out for present eating.

LXXI

On the sixth day they fed upon his hide,
  And Juan, who had still refused, because
The creature was his father's dog that died,
  Now feeling all the vulture in his jaws,
With some remorse received (though first denied)
  As a great favour one of the fore-paws,
Which he divided with Pedrillo, who
Devoured it, longing for the other too.

LXXII

The seventh day, and no wind—the burning sun
  Blistered and scorched, and, stagnant on the sea,
They lay like carcasses; and hope was none,
  Save in the breeze that came not: savagely
They glared upon each other—all was done,
  Water, and wine, and food,—and you might see
The longings of the cannibal arise
(Although they spoke not) in their wolfish eyes.

LXXIII

At length one whispered his companion, who
  Whispered another, and thus it went round,
And then into a hoarser murmur grew,
  An ominous, and wild, and desperate sound;
And when his comrade's thought each sufferer knew,
  'Twas but his own, suppressed till now, he found:
And out they spoke of lots for flesh and blood,
And who should die to be his fellow's food.

LXXIV

But ere they came to this, they that day shared
  Some leathern caps, and what remained of shoes;
And then they looked around them, and despaired,
  And none to be the sacrifice would choose;
At length the lots were torn up, and prepared,
  But of materials that must shock the Muse—
Having no paper, for the want of better,
They took by force from Juan Julia's letter.

LXXV

The lots were made, and marked, and mixed, and handed,
  In silent horror, and their distribution
Lulled even the savage hunger which demanded,
  Like the Promethean vulture, this pollution;
None in particular had sought or planned it,
  'Twas Nature gnawed them to this resolution,
By which none were permitted to be neuter—
And the lot fell on Juan's luckless tutor.

LXXVI

He but requested to be bled to death:
  The surgeon had his instruments, and bled
Pedrillo, and so gently ebbed his breath,
  You hardly could perceive when he was dead.
He died as born, a Catholic in faith,
  Like most in the belief in which they're bred,
And first a little crucifix he kissed,
And then held out his jugular and wrist.

LXXVII

The surgeon, as there was no other fee,
  Had his first choice of morsels for his pains;
But being thirstiest at the moment, he
  Preferred a draught from the fast-flowing veins:
Part was divided, part thrown in the sea,
  And such things as the entrails and the brains
Regaled two sharks, who followed o'er the billow—
The sailors ate the rest of poor Pedrillo.

LXXVIII

The sailors ate him, all save three or four,
  Who were not quite so fond of animal food;
To these was added Juan, who, before
  Refusing his own spaniel, hardly could
Feel now his appetite increased much more;
  'Twas not to be expected that he should,
Even in extremity of their disaster,
Dine with them on his pastor and his master.

LXXIX

'Twas better that he did not; for, in fact,
  The consequence was awful in the extreme;
For they, who were most ravenous in the act,
  Went raging mad—Lord! how they did blaspheme!
And foam, and roll, with strange convulsions racked,
  Drinking salt-water like a mountain-stream,
Tearing, and grinning, howling, screeching, swearing,
And, with hyæna-laughter, died despairing.

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Recordings

Lord Byron

Lord Byron Downloads read by Fleur Adcock & Daljit Nagra

1Don Juan (read by Fleur Adcock)

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2She walks in beauty... (read by Fleur Adcock)

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3Canto III (read by Fleur Adcock)

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4Beppo, Stanzas 41-45 (read by Fleur Adcock)

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5The Destruction of Sennacherib (read by Daljit Nagra)

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