Manuscript of Scottish poet’s Don Juan goes on public display

The manuscript of one of the greatest poems of the 19th century ' Lord Byron's Don Juan ' will go on display at the National Library of Scotland
The manuscript of one of the greatest poems of the 19th century ' Lord Byron's Don Juan ' will go on display at the National Library of Scotland
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The manuscript of one of the greatest poems of the 19th century - Lord Byron’s Don Juan -is to go on public display for the first time ever to mark the 200th anniversary of its publication.

George Gordon Byron, the half Scots poet famously described by lover Lady Caroline Lamb as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, published his masterpiece in 1819.

Condemned by one leading Edinburgh reviewer as “filthy and impious”, the epic poem led the novelist Sir Walter Scott to make comparisons with Shakespeare.

The fragile manuscript, divided into sections known as cantos, will go on display at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh from Thursday until July 27 to mark the 200th anniversary of its publication.

For the first time, people will have the opportunity to view the working manuscripts which show changes and additions made by the poet, giving an insight into his creative process.

Also on show will be an array of material relating to Byron from the Library’s collections, including from the John Murray Archive.

John Scally, the National Librarian, said: “Lord Byron was at the height of his powers when he penned Don Juan. The epic poem was before its time and he knew it.

“It was deliberately provocative, but his intent was to expose the hypocrisies of British society as much as it was to shock readers with depictions of war, slave markets, harems, and perhaps most famously, the protagonist’s litany of love affairs.

“We have been collecting Byron’s work for the past 30 or 40 years. The Byron papers in the National Library are a rich and unique research resource and we are proud to be one of the leading centres for the study of Byron’s life and work.

“It is a special moment to share these manuscripts, in all their raw and immediate detail, with the public.”

Byron was born in London in 1788, the son of Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron and his second wife, Catherine Gordon, heiress of Gight in Aberdeenshire.

Byron was taken by his mother back to Scotland, and he attended Aberdeen Grammar School. On the death of his great-uncle, Byron, aged 10, inherited the title 6th Baron Byron, along with an estate at Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire.

He attended school at Harrow and played in the first Eton v Harrow cricket match at Lord’s in 1805, before going to Trinity College, Cambridge.

Byron became a leading figure in Romanticism and is still regarded as one of the greatest European poets.

He is also widely regarded as the first modern-style “celebrity” and was famous for his good looks, life of extravagant living, numerous love affairs and debts.

Byron’s account of the adventures of Don Juan is famous for its exotic locations, adventure, romance, wit and dazzling language.

However, he also mocked religions and ridiculed fellow poets and public figures and was dismissive of the work of fellow poets including Wordsworth, Coleridge and Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate.

Byron was living in Italy at the time of writing Don Juan, in which he described his Scottish heritage as “half a Scot by birth, and bred a whole one.”

His publisher, John Murray, was so concerned about being prosecuted that the first two cantos of Don Juan were published on 15 July 1819 without the author or publisher’s name on the title page.

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine condemned Don Juan as “filthy and impious” and William Blackwood himself refused to sell it.