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Adventurous and contemplative : a reading of Byron's Don Juan Addison, Catherine Anne


This dissertation on Byron's Don Juan begins with a history and analysis of the stanza form. Since ottava rima is a two-fold structure, comprising an alternately rhyming sestet followed by an independent couplet, it encourages the expression of dialectical ideas. Byron's prosodic virtuosity uses this potential to create a multivalent tissue of tones which is essentially—and almost infinitely—ironic. A view of prosody is developed here which is unique in its perception of the poem's existence in terms of a reading that unfolds in "real time." For various reasons, "reader-response" critics have not yet taken much cognizance of prosody. Don Juan is a good testing-ground for their approach because its narrator constantly addresses his reader, insisting on a present time which actively accumulates a past and projects a future, as a reader's consciousness moves sequentially forward through the text. The present time of the verse rhythms is the present time of the discourse, which is often most self-reflexive in the famous "digressions." Some of these begin with an epic simile whose vehicle grows out of proportion to its tenor; others are triggered by an interruption of the story, as the narrator—like a Renaissance improvisor in ottava rima— suddenly addresses his audience directly. Still other digressions are not metaleptic leaps from a fictional to a "real" world, or from one fictional world to another, however; they are the result of the narrator's tendency to linger too long in one world, elaborating descriptions until his story is forgotten. Despite the poem's many-voiced, digressive insouciance, an investigation of its moral and metaphysical components reveals that its irony has limits. Maugre those critics who would claim Don Juan as the paradigmatic work of unlimited, infinitely regressive Romantic irony, the issue of political liberty is not to be joked about, unlike the problem of erotic love. At this stable point in an otherwise absurd universe, Byron reveals a non-ironic self under the ironic mask. More effectively than traditional autobiography, because it is enacted rather than reported, this poem recreates its author dramatically, in terms of a shifting triangular relationship between narrator, protagonist and reader. The temporal locus of this relationship is a fictional present tense grounded in the "real" present time of a reading of the poem.

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