Shipwrecks in Modern European Painting and Poetry: Radical Mobilisation of the Motif as Political Protest

By | 16 August 2019

Shipwreck as send-up of consumer-sublime in Byron’s Don Juan: Canto II

Like Géricault, most probably having read Corréart and Savigny’s account, Lord Byron had also done serious practical research, having already risked shipwreck himself (Riding, no date) to ensure an outrageous mix of realism and pathos buffeted by bathos in his scintillating versified naufrage: Canto II of his Don Juan (1819-1824). He was to exploit the sunken treasure behind the ‘sublime’ motif of the wreck, the fragility of human rationality, ‘civilised’ behaviour, ‘honour’ and compassion and the ever-more insistent spectre of cannibalism. He derided Wordsworth and the other so-called ‘Lake Poets’ as ‘pond poets’ and took the romantics further down the satirical slide to the grotesque by a splinter-by-splinter demise of his comic hero’s boat. But as critics have suggested, Byron’s depiction of the shipwreck in Don Juan jolted readers into considering their own ghoulish delectation in the genre, its form a ‘vortex of diminishing possibilities’ (Cooper 1983) and with the shocking incongruities on which parody depends (Rose 1979; Hutcheon 2000) , delivering an anti-sublime satire. It’s worth reflecting why his jocular diction and deft handling of the ottava rima with the whip-tail deflation of the closing comic couplet of each octet might have delivered such shock, even to those primed by the account of the Medusa story.

The fourth day came, but not a breath of air,
And Ocean slumber’d like an unwean’d 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, in spite of his entreating,
Was kill’d and portion’d out for present eating.

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
Devour’d it, longing for the other too.

The seventh day, and no wind–the burning sun
Blister’d and scorch’d, 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.

At length one whisper’d his companion, who
Whisper’d 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,
T’was but his own, suppress’d till now, he found:
And out they spoke of lots for flesh and blood,
And who should die to be his fellow’s food.
                                                         Byron 1819 (emphasis added)

Byron signals with casual brio the incipient emergence in the human animal of vulture and wolf. Lots are drawn; the fate falls to Don Juan’s tutor Pedrillo and it’s the flippancy in the following, combined with the witty intertextual reference to Dante’s authority that might most have scandalised Byron’s contemporaries:

And if Pedrillo's fate should shocking be,
Remember Ugolino condescends
To eat the head of his arch-enemy
The moment after he politely ends
His tale: if foes be food in hell, at sea
'T’is surely fair to dine upon our friends,
When shipwreck’s short allowance grows too scanty,
Without being much more horrible than Dante.
                                                         Byron 1819

This is coprophagic etiquette: allow even your arch-enemy to finish his tale before severing and consuming his head. The enjambment of lines 5-6 is a lovely pivot for suspense, magnifying the irony: we are all at sea in terms of ‘civilised’ morality and, quite wickedly, the polyglot Byron anglicises Dante’s name, bringing him with that very British snicker right down to the common survivor’s sea-level.

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