Back in 1968, when I was editing Poetry Review, published by the Poetry Society, I started a campaign to have a memorial to Byron placed in Poets’ Corner. I was tentative in my first approach to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, suspecting they might not be particularly enthusiastic about giving space to a man who boasted of having enjoyed a hundred different women during his first two years in Venice and who thought that ‘all sense and senses’ were against belief in religion.
Fortunately the Dean at the time was Eric Abbott, a highly cultivated and intelligent man who sympathized when I pointed out that at the very least Byron sought to believe, even if he found it as difficult as ‘walking in the dark over a rabbit warren – or a garden with steel traps and spring guns’. But confessing he knew little of the poetry, the Dean asked me what he should read to convince him that Byron was indeed a great poet. I steered him determinedly towards Don Juan. Within a month, he had persuaded the Chapter to give permission, with the support of the Poetry Society the funds were raised, and William Plomer eventually unveiled the stone in the floor of Poets’ Corner.
We don’t read long poems these days, more’s the pity. Yet they are often wonderful achievements, and by restricting ourselves to popular extracts we do ourselves a disservice. But I must not sound like the preacher Byron once heard, who leaned from the pulpit and exclaimed: ‘No hopes for them as laughs.’ The cure for those who
think long poems unreadable and necessarily dull is – as the good Dean found – a dose of Don Juan.
It was that earlier long poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage that legendarily made Byron famous overnight. He started Juan six years later, in 1818, and I really think originally for his own amusement rather than very obviously for publication – even he thought it perhaps ‘too free for these very modes
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