[This is one of the finalists in the 2024 book review contest, written by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked]

O Muse! Awaken from your hibernation,
For Poesy has fallen since you’ve rested;
Each word’s now placed with careful calculation,
Each sentence focus-grouped and tried and tested.
So lead us on a flight of inspiration,
To leave the public stirred, moved, roused, arrested;
We’ll soar on wings of song — just one reproach:
Sweet Musie, don’t you dare put us in coach.


I need a poem — well, I need a _poet
_ To give us some heroic tale to sing.
Shakespeare? Each tale’s the same — besides, you know it:
The king’s most trusted ally kills the king;
Someone, disguised, is smitten (yet can’t show it);
They all soliloquize on everything;
The actors play, a noble plays insane;
They die (or wed), except one guy to reign,

And one to tell the tale, plus two disarming
Poor commoners who— well, you get the point.
Blake?__That’s been done. Keats? There’s no doubt he’s charming,
But none too popular around this joint.
Ovid’s just porn; Piet Hein’s too bent on harming

Our eyes
with all
those line breaks
to anoint.

Pope? Clickbait, ‘less you’ve realized — I’ll reward ya —
“Pope, Alexander” won’t refer to Borgia.

But Byron? After all, it’s been a century
Since George gave up his life to join the Greeks
In breaking from their Turkish penitentiary
Before the Brits could lap up their antiques.
However great his corpus, what adventure re-
Sung here can match its author’s final weeks?
Yet still, I told myself that I’d review one,
And so I guess we’ll settle for Don Juan.

Don Juan (rhymes with ‘through one,’ à la gringo)
Dates back to — I don’t know — some days of yore.
The legends say this playboy struck a bingo
With women wed and single, rich and poor:
He’d charm, disguise, connive — forgive the lingo —
To please (ahem) his little matador,
And shush his conscience, nagging at his vice,
By crying, “Tan largo me lo fiàis!”

Until one Doña Ana was his victim,
Which set the mai— the now-_ex_ -maiden’s father
Ablaze with hope to kill, maim, or afflict him;
He slayed her old papá — but did he bother
Repenting to embrace his Savior’s dictum
Beside the old man’s tomb? He rather (rah-ther?
For Rhyme is king here) asked — oh, witty sinner! —
The effigy upon it home to dinner.

Yet when our dear corrupter of the ladies
Sat down to dine that evening, soon his face
Immediately forgot its usual staid ease:
The statue came, accepting Juan’s grace,
And dragged the screaming fellow down to Hades,
With crazed Satanic courts to try his case.
(Repent, ye sinners! If you won’t return, know
You too could find yourself in the Inferno.)

We owe this tale to Tirso de Molina,
Who sought to school young Spaniards in morality,
Though others showed it — odds are if you’ve seen a
Production, it’s Molière’s — some partiality;
Mozart saw (says each self-proclaimed Athena)
His father in the statue’s grim finality,
And Strauss made it a piece that— fine, I’ll say it:
I’d sooner dine in Hell than try to play it.

But Byron makes the story, well, Byronic :
Propelled on by the clip-clap of his cadence,
It’s devilish , of course, but less demonic ,
In subject after subject making stray dents,
With tangents far too long to be so chronic,
That leave us, puzzled, questioning the way dents
Like George’s grow to chasms while digressing—
It does, I must admit, keep readers guessing.

And yet, the greatest change with this young Juan
(For Byron starts his story from his birth)
Is that he doesn’t pave his road to ruin
By being the greatest rake on God’s green earth.
(Perhaps his fate was meant to match the true one —
The work’s unfinished) Here, he proves his worth
Stumbling into affairs, not even bent to
Seduce — why try, when Lady Luck’s your Yenta?


Don Juan’s childhood was a true anomaly;
His father was a serial philanderer,
So Juan’s learning was awash with homily:
His brilliant mother (I don’t want to slander her)
Defied her intellect and raised a qualm all ye
Free-thinkers understand — or so I’ll gander: her
Son learned the classics, but with strict omission
Of sex, to keep him from his pop’s tradition;

Yet soon, one Donna Julia, twenty-three,
Fell for young Juan’s charms (for he had plenty);
She had a husband (fifty) — says Lord B.,
“’Twere better to have TWO of five and twenty” —
And though she nursed her feelings guiltily,
Don Juan’s youth still masked to what extent he
Had fallen, ‘till he finally learned to grapple
With love (Man’s fall requires an Adam’s apple).

“Then there were sighs, the deeper for suppression,
And stolen glances, sweeter for the theft,
And burning blushes, though for no transgression,
Tremblings when met, and restlessness when left,”
But let’s move on — the gradual, slow progression
Of their affair’s too long, however deft
The telling — to a cloudy night that fall,
With Julia sleeping gently (if at all).

Her husband led a mob into her quarters
(And one fee-hunting lawyer, loath to miss a row);
They rummaged through the bedroom on his orders
To find a man, but Julia went full Cicero
And gave a speech, protesting that no boarders
Were occupying her bed (the thought!): at this, a row
Of searchers left; her husband followed suit,
And — last — the lawyer, doubting her repute.

Her lord came to apo— well, to excuse
_ The raid (‘ere her harangue had made him pause it) —
He didn’t justify __ his great _J’accuse
But did try to explain what made him cause it,
Until he stumbled on a pair of shoes
And found their owner hiding in the closet;
Don Juan, naked, sprinted through the foyer —
And likely made a killing for that lawyer.

With Julia told to “get thee to a nunnery,”
Don Juan’s mother shipped him to Leghorn;
His ship, though it avoided hostile gunnery,
Soon hit a storm and, mast by mast, was torn.
He watched his lifeboat-mates drop one by one (or he,
Perhaps, just rued the day that he was born);
They killed his dog; no sooner had they chewed her
Than, starving, they drew lots — and ate his tutor.

Juan abstained — and wisely, for the horde
Of tutor-eaters fell to some disease;
The rest, with only raindrops for their board,
Gave up their late companions to the seas,
Until a dove (and turtle, which they gored
And ate) announced the rocky Cyclades;
They ran, but sharks — yes, sharks — bit each poor diver,
‘Till Juan crawled ashore, the sole survivor.

He woke up in a cave — not quite platonically,
For staring at him was a lovely maiden;
Her maid (and friend) beheld the pair sardonically
And gave a dish to Juan, freshly laden
With eggs and fish and bread, while she symphonically
Spoke Greek to him (‘twas Greek to him); he stayed in
This bed, beside the sources of his aid:
Haidée and Zoe, maiden and her maid.

Dear Haidée’s courage (for we should admire it)
Kept Juan, hidden, healing in the cave:
Her father was a feared and fearsome pirate
Who gladly would have made the youth a slave —
And from his island (which, should he require it,
Had wealth enough to last him to the grave),
If found, our hero would be quickly hauled —
Except he sailed away, for booty called.

Not that way, you sick freak: the impious sailor,
Lambro, on far-flung loot began to creep;
Now Juan, free from his unknowing jailer
And Haidée, walked along the azure sweep;
O Fates! Show me a purer love — or frailer!
Her first, his best — her last — do you not weep?
Beneath the rosy sky and weathered stone,
The couple— well, we’ll leave the two alone.
Godspeed, dear Muse, to Lambro’s swift return:

He found his house in Bacchanalian revels,
Where dancers whirled, wine flowed from every urn,
Pipes played, and fruits were stacked in bulging levels;
They’d heard reports that (so he soon would learn)
His soul was now his Maker’s — or the Devil’s —
And once they’d mourned, their mistress, newly boasting
Her father’s wealth, had gaily turned to hosting.

Old Lambro, seeing the couple, took Haidée,
As Juan fought his crew (for Juan’s part,
He battled well) but couldn’t win the fray
‘Gainst twenty pirates, practiced in their art;
They bound the wretch; once he’d been shipped away,
Haidée soon perished of a broken heart.
(Poor Juan, I’ve no doubt, had planned to marry her —
Assuming they could scale the language barrier.)


Our hero’s luck, he found, had reached its nadir:
From Don to slave, Fortuna’s rash vicissitude
Had struck; he met actors, sold by their traitor
Of a director with no great solicitude;
They sailed by Troy, an instance (there’s no greater)
Of how far one can fall; and, lest we miss it, you’d
Best catch the Hellespont — Byron remarks,
He swam the strait once (no, that had no sharks).

They reached Constantinople, richly gleaming
With palaces along the Golden Horn;
And, chained, were brought to market, buyers teeming
With offers as the slaves looked on, forlorn.
Our Juan met an Englishman who, seeming
At ease, had from the Russian front been borne:
“And taking lately, by Suwarrow’s bidding,
A town, was ta’en myself instead of Widin.”

The two were purchased by an old black eunuch,
Baba, who led them to the Sultan’s palace,
The greatest from Hyderabad to Munich
(Though I to dear Vienna mean no malice);
He gave Johnson (the Englishman) a tunic,
And Juan — in a manner cold and callous —
A dress, which Juan finally deigned to touch.
(Methinks the “lady” did protest too much.)

Juan soon met the Queen — not genuflecting,
Despite her wishes — as her concubine:
She asked him, “Christian, canst though love?”, expecting
That this would move him; yet he kept his spine,
Insisting that enslavement (while reflecting
On poor Haidée) can’t make his heart align —
Love’s not a prize, however great your ardor,
You earn by hunk’ring down and wanting harder.

Now Queen Gulbeyaz thought of execution,
But what good would that do? And though her cries
Soon filled the room for lack of a solution,
A great crescendo bid her dry her eyes:
The Sultan came, and Juan’s restitution
Among his concubines (hence his disguise)
Allowed him to escape her growing spite —
But made for an odd place to spend the night.

Our Juan (or Juanna) made it through
The day; the matrons overlooked his trick,
And had him share a bed with one Dudù,
Though she was, as the kids say, “dummy thicc;”
Her scream that night was heard in Kathmandu,
And woke all (save Juanna): if you’re quick,
Its cause , I’m sure, you’re tempted to divine —
Your guess, dear Reader, is as good as mine.

Yet with the morn in russet mantle clad,
On to the jealous Queen came new suspicions;
She, fearing Juan was no Galahad,
Heard Baba’s news — and pressed for his omissions.
She sent her eunuch to go fetch the lad
And sweet Dudù (and maybe the morticians) —
But, trusting him, we’ll leave this splendid shore
And fly, in Byron’s wake, to sing of war.


Along the flowing Danube stood the fortress
Of Ismail, commanded by the Turks,
With rows of nested palisades (too torturous
To scale), walls, bastions, ramparts, and such works;
The Russian fleet, without some loyal portress,
Was firing with the rage of Norse berserks,
And yet each bursting, thund’ring cannonball
Could scarcely be enough to breach the wall.

Commanding in the camp was one Suwarrow
(Or Suvorov), a favorite of the court,
Who drilled the troops himself; quick as an arrow,
He switched from cool command to warm cavort.
The Providence in any falling sparrow
Paled next to what he’d need to take the fort;
And yet, no sooner had the cannons halted
Than he declared the town should be assaulted.

On came Juan and Johnson, nearly tardy,
Two women and a eunuch in their train
(Were Baba and Dudù among the party?
Here, Byron doesn’t bother to explain),
One proving he was valiant and hardy;
The other, his position to regain;
They left the others (as will we — a pity),
And led the great assault to breach the city.

Though Byron’s writing oddly found a beauty
Among the cannons, here the waves of blood,
As soldiers slaughtered far beyond their duty,
Proved that Humanity deserved the Flood;
Juan avoided this appalling _tutti
_ And in these burning branches found a bud:
He saved an orphan’s life amidst the mania
(Much as Lord B. himself did near Albania).

After the siege, Don Juan, for his battling,
Received a further triumph for his fate:
He and the orphaned Leila, carriage rattling,
Went to the court of Catherine the Great
And met the Queen; despite the nobles’ prattling,
She took him as her lover (Byron’s hate
For despots enters here with forceful trumpeting —
And several jokes about this despot’s strumpeting).

Our hero’s health soon foundered, for the chirrups
Of spring had yet to reach the Baltic coast;
Again, Juan (with Leila) took the stirrups
To Britain as an envoy; lest he boast,
As Juan galloped through those towns of Europe’s,
Byron points out how much he owed his post.
(“Post” in both senses — do not reprehend,
For if you pardon, we will innuend.)

Juan had lived through shipwrecks, loves, and warring,
‘Ere he arrived in London Town at last;
Compared to that, the rest is rather boring,
As Byron dwells at length upon his past:
Society can’t help but leave him snoring,
Yet he can’t help but satirize his caste;
And so we get soirées that blend together,
Though George’s wit still sears in milder weather.

In London, Juan found himself in fashion:
Blue-stockings were pursuing him in droves
And, practicing their Spanglish with a passion,
Swapped rumors of his time in Grecian coves.
He found Leila a tutor — the once-ashen
Girl safe, he spent his autumn in the groves
And house of his dear friends, to hunt and dine:
Lord Henry A. and Lady Adeline.

The polished, youthful Adeline was planning
To pair our Spanish bachelor with a bride;
She spent her husband’s lavish banquets scanning
The table, ‘till each maiden had been eyed,
And yet she disapproved when Juan’s panning
(Perhaps she wished to end up at his side?)
Fell on ethereal Aurora Raby,
An orphan (Adeline thought her a baby).

One night, while thinking through the whole affair,
He saw a ghost, cowled in a friar’s habit;
The next day, Juan asked about this scare:
The house was haunted by that spectral abbot,
His hosts said; so, that night, to clear the air,
He sought the ghost — and, trembling, reached to grab it:
“In full, voluptuous, but not o’ergrown bulk,”
He found — the impish Duchess of Fitz-Fulke.

Soon morning came, Lord Henry’s guests convening
To take their breakfast in the sumptuous hall;
Fitz-Fulke and Juan looked — so thought the preening
Guests — worn, as if they’d barely ‘scaped a brawl;
Dear Reader, I’m aware you want the meaning
Of this (in fact, I want it most of all),
But here we hit the end, abrupt and terse —
For when the poet dies, so goes the verse.


What should we glean from Byron’s sacrifices
In leaving us this masterpiece of style?
Its lavish scenes can make you smell the spices;
Its wit can leave you rolling in the aisle.
Yet Juan’s just an object: the devices
Of lovers, friends, and Fortune all beguile
Him into his affairs, with little grunting.
He has no game — he is game, ripe for hunting.

The work, in mockery, is dedicated
To Robert Southey, who betrayed his morals
(In Byron’s view) at once when he created
His odes to George the Third — for copious laurels.
His former liberalism denigrated,
He and Lord Byron soon began their quarrels,
For Byron hated men (or so he prodded)
Who sold their independence to be lauded.

Instead, our fiery author pours his praise
On Bonaparte, who proved at last — in lighting
His country and his continent ablaze
To save (or end) his reign — that one man’s fighting
To shape the world could do so; Juan’s days
Are less agentic (though no less exciting).
Why weaken , then, Molina’s sly romancer?
Perhaps this might help point us toward an answer:

In 1812 a youth, now back in Britain
From his Grand Tour along the Mare Nostrum ,
Entranced the social set with verse he’d written,
And rumors swirled around him; from this rostrum,
His mad, bad, dangerous ways left maidens smitten,
And each wife craved the days when Fate had tossed her him:
A man, without a tail, and yet a siren —
The man, of course, was one George Gordon Byron.

But gossip turned against him: speculation
That Byron slept with his half-sister made a
Great splash; his marriage, loveless, in frustration
Collapsed (Or Lovelace? It did give us Ada);
The slanders grew, until he fled the nation
(The accusations could have filled a Veda);
Though scandal’s in the eye of the beholder,
It must have left a chip upon his shoulder.

Was Juan meant to end up as a rake,
So rakes — like Byron — would be more relatable?
Did Byron want a hapless foil, to make
His own mystique seem greater? It’s debatable
That this unfinished work will let us take
A lesson here (besides “It’s untranslatable”),
For on our questions, Byron’s all but quiet —
You want a moral? Fine, then: I’ll supply it.


It’s tempting, now to want to be our hero
(Or any hero — here, they’re all the same),
And stumble into love and war, with zero
Effort on your part (J.R.R.’s to blame
For this phenomenon, says Mr. Greer) O
Readers: don’t hate the player, hate the game!
Lest this pathetic wallowing continue,
Allow this verse to rouse the agent in you.

For Byron, too, had gone on his adventures
(And, unlike Juan, at his own direction);
His sexcapades in full would make your dentures
Fall out; and he, to end the Greeks’ subjection,
Took up his arms and perished. Your indentures
To safety leave you with a fine objection:
“It’s risky!” Quite — and yet, if you with doubt look
On this, I’ll leave you with Lord Byron’s outlook:

“Well, if I don’t succeed, I have succeeded,
And that’s enough; succeeded in my youth,
The only time when much success is needed:
And my success produced what I in sooth
Cared most about; it need not now be pleaded—
Whate’er it was, ‘twas mine: I’ve paid, in truth,
Of late, the penalty of such success,
But have not learned to wish it any less.”