A People Passing Rude
(visit book homepage)

2. Byron, Don Juan, and Russia

Peter Cochran

Russia posed a problem for Byron when writing Don Juan, for although he had never been there, the geographical, historical, and sexual themes of his comic epic dictated that his hero should go there. As a result of his study of Scott’s Waverley Novels, he was determined that no episode should pass without a firm backing either in his own experience, or in authentic prose sources. Don Juan should have a reality which his Turkish Tales, at least one of which, Lara, was, as he confessed to his publisher, set on ‘the Moon’,1 manifestly lacked.

There were a number of reasons why Don Juan should visit Russia. Firstly, he was enslaved in Constantinople, and had to escape—and Russia was the nearest stopping-off point on his anti-clockwise trip around Europe. Secondly, Byron knew that no epic in the tradition in which he wrote—the tradition of Pulci, Ariosto and Tasso—was complete without a Christian army besieging a Moslem city, and Suvorov’s siege of Ismail, in which Juan takes part, both fitted into his poem’s time-scheme, and was a perfect demonstration of that very idea.

A very important subtext for Don Juan is a novel by Thomas Hope called Anastasius, or the Memoirs of a Greek,2 which Byron’s publisher John Murray had brought out late in 1819, when Byron was writing the third and fourth cantos of his comic epic (the two cantos were originally one). Anastasius is a picaresque novel set in the eastern Mediterranean, whose protagonist claims to be either a Turk or a Greek, a Christian or a Moslem, depending on which label seems to give him the best advantage in whatever situation he finds himself. It casts the gravest doubt on the probity of the Greek nation, and upon the philhellenic concept in whose interest Byron was, in the myth, to ‘sacrifice his life’ five years later. At one point Anastasius finds himself in Bulgaria, near the town of Widin, in the company of General Suvorov. In another, he contemplates travelling to St Petersburg to become the toy-boy of Catherine the Great—but does not do so.

Byron’s written reaction to Anastasius was muted—a sure sign, in one so secretive, that he was studying it assiduously; and indeed we have the word of Lady Blessington that he admired it past reckoning, and envied Hope for having written it.3 He seems to have taken it with him to Greece in 1823,4 as if to test out its theories relating to the instability of ethnic barriers there, and the depth of Greek unscrupulousness. If he did, he found ample evidence of both. His own hero, Don Juan, also travels north from Constantinople, passes Widin,5 fights with Suvorov at Ismail, and (as a reward for his heroism) is sent to Petersburg, where he realises what for Anastasius is a mere ambition, and becomes, indeed, one of the many gigolos of ‘Great Catherine, whom glory still adores, / As greatest of all sovereigns and whores’.6 (Freudian analysts will be delighted when it is pointed out that Catherine was also the name of Byron’s mother.)

People have tried to ascribe a political motive to Byron for the writing of the Russian Cantos of Don Juan. To his London agent, Douglas Kinnaird, he writes:

With regard to the D. J.s – in addition to what I have stated within – I would add that as much rolls (in them) upon the White Bears of Muscovy – who do not at present dance to English Music – it is an appropriate moment to introduce them to the discerning public – in all their native intractability. – – Besides – they and the Turks form at the present the farce [after] the Congress melodrame upon Spain. – Their names & qualities are become more familiar household words – than when the D. J.s were written. – I am aware of no inferiority in the four.7

The Anglophobic Byron is not usually concerned when foreign powers refuse to ‘dance to English Music’: his explanation seems designed for Kinnaird’s benefit. However, it is true that throughout 1822, the year in which Byron wrote the Russian cantos, the cavortings of the Holy Alliance, inspired by the mysticism of Madame Krüdener and Alexander I, was very much in European evidence, in its plans to invade Spain and put down the liberal revolt there (in the event, although Russia wanted to invade, it was France who invaded).

In fact, Byron shows little overt interest in any of these issues. His commentary on Russian ambitions was more comical:

But oh thou grand legitimate Alexander!

Her Son’s Son; let not this last phrase offend

Thine ear, if it should reach; and now rhymes wander

Almost as far as Petersburgh, and lend

A dreadful impulse to each loud meander

Of murmuring Liberty’s wide waves, which blend

Their roar even with the Baltic’s; so you be

Your father’s son, ’tis quite enough for me. –

To call men love-begotten, or proclaim

Their mothers as the Antipodes of Timon,

That Hater of Mankind, would be a shame,

A libel, or whate’er you please to rhyme on,

But people’s Ancestors are History’s game,

And if one lady’s slip could leave a crime on

All Generations – I should like to know

What pedigree the best would have to show. –

Had Catherine and the Sultan understood

Their own true interests, which kings rarely know

Until ’tis taught by lessons rather rude,

There was one way to end their strife, although

Perhaps precarious, had they but thought good,

Without the aid of Prince or Plenipo:

She to dismiss her Guards, and He his Haram,

And for their other matters, meet and share ’em.

Don Juan, VI, sts.93-5

These stanzas bring us to the last and most important reason for Byron making Don Juan travel to Russia. The main theme of Don Juan is not—as in the Molina / Molière / Mozart tradition—the male sexual appetite, but rather the female sexual appetite. Juan is throughout the passive victim of predatory women. And the most famous example in recent history of a woman with not only a large sexual appetite, but the power to satisfy it too, was Catherine the Great. Byron’s jest—that she and the Sultan would be far better employed in bed than at war—is an amusing meditation on this theme.

Douglas Kinnaird found Byron’s treatment of Catherine unfair:

With regards to the new Cantos I am delighted with them – the political reflections, the address to Wellington & the Preface are admirable – but why call the Katherine a whore? – She hired or whored others – She was never hired or whored herself – why blame her for liking fucking? If she canted as well cunted,8 then call her names as long as you please – But it is hard to blame her for following her natural inclinations – She dared do it – others are afraid – She could do it with impunity; & would have been a fool not to have done it – I should be equally a fool to do it, if I could not do it with impunity – I looked for more liberality from you – You must not turn against rogering – even tho’ you practise it seldomer …9

This paper will chart Byron’s use of what sources he had to hand in making Juan’s Russian visit, and his sexual servitude to Catherine the Great, look authentic.

His primary source was William Tooke’s Life of the Empress Catharine II, (for which I’ve used the fourth edition of 1800), and his View of the Russian Empire (3 vols., 1799). This last is number 184 in the 1827 Sale Catalogue of Byron’s library; the absence of the Life does not mean Byron did not possess it, for only a remnant of his library was auctioned in 1827, most of it having been ‘cherry-picked’ by his friends. William Tooke was chaplain to the British merchants in St Petersburg from 1774 to 1792. A frequenter of Catherine’s court, he was friends with, for example, Falconet, creator of the famous statue of Peter the Great. His books on Russia bear a complex relationship with those of the French writer Jean-Henri Castéra, who published similar volumes between 1797 and 1800.10

However, Byron seems also to have used a different French book, Charles François Philibert Masson’s Secret Memoirs of the Court of St. Petersburg (1800 English translation); this is not in his library sale catalogue, but again, that does not prove that he did not have a copy. I shall mention other books en passant.

From Masson, Byron would have formed a very poor view of Russian manners and morals. Here is one of his milder passages:

Next to drunkenness, the most prominent and common vice of the Russians is theft. I doubt whether any people on earth be more inclined naturally to appropriate to themselves the property of others—from the first minister to the general officer, from the lackey to the soldier, all are thieves, plunderers and cheats. In Russia theft does not inspire that degrading contempt which stigmatizes a man with infamy, even among the lowest of the populace. What the thief dreads most is the being obliged to return his booty, for he reckons a caning as nothing; and, if detected in the act, he cries with a grin: “Vinavat gospodin! vinavat; I have done wrong, sir”, and returns what he had stolen, as if that were sufficient amends. This shameful vice, pervading all classes, scarcely incurs blame. It sometimes happens that your pocket is picked in apartments at Court, to which none but persons of quality and superior officers are admitted, as if you were in a fair. A stranger, who lodges with a Russian, even a kniaz, will find, to his cost, that he must leave nothing on his dressing-table or his writing-desk; it is even a Russian maxim, that what is not locked up belongs to anyone who will take it. The same quality has been falsely ascribed to the Spartans; but an Englishman, who has published a book on the resemblances between the Russians and the Greeks, after having proved that they eat, sing and sleep like them, has forgotten to add that in stealing they are still more expert.11

At Canto IX stanza 70, Don Juan, having been summoned to court and dressed for his new role, comes face to face with the Empress. Byron is mildly facetious:

And Catherine (we must say thus much for Catherine)

Though bold and bloody, was the kind of thing

Whose temporary Passion was quite flattering,

Because each lover looked a sort of king,

Made up upon an amatory pattern;

A royal husband in all save the ring,

Which, being the damn’dest part of Matrimony,

Seemed taking out the sting to leave the Honey.

Byron, Don Juan, IX, st.70

Next he uses a detail with which both Tooke and Masson provided him: the colour of Catherine’s eyes. His uncertainty as to what colour they in fact were is a sign that he has consulted both books, and cannot choose between them:

And when you add to this her Womanhood,

In its Meridian; her blue eyes – or Grey –

(The last, if they have Soul, are quite as good,

Or better, as the best Examples say:

Napoleon’s, Mary’s (Queen of Scotland) should

Lend to that Colour a transcendent ray –

And Pallas also sanctions the same hue,

Too wise to look through Optics black or blue.)

Byron, Don Juan, IX, st.71

And indeed we find that Tooke writes of the Empress, ‘She has fine large blue eyes’;12 whereas Masson writes of ‘… her grey eyes’.13

Byron now assays a more detailed description:

Her sweet smile, and her then majestic figure;

Her plumpness, her imperial condescension,

Her preference of a boy to men much bigger,

Fellows whom Messalina’s Self would pension;

Her – Prime of Life – just now in juicy vigour –

With other Extras which we need not mention –

All these – or any One of these – explain

Enough to make a stripling very vain.

Byron, Don Juan, IX, st.72

He may still have both Tooke and Masson open on his writing-desk at the same time; but he prefers the greater discretion of the Englishman. Tooke quotes a source from the 1770s, and has:

She [Catherine] is of that stature which is necessarily requisite to perfect elegance of form in a lady. She has fine large blue eyes; her eyebrows and hair are of a brownish colour; her mouth is well-proportioned, the chin round, the nose rather long; the forehead regular and open, her hands and arms round and white, her complection not entirely clear, and her shape rather plump than meagre; her neck and bosom high, and she bears her head with peculiar grace and dignity. She lays on, as is universally the custom with the fair sex in Russia, a pretty strong rouge… Her gait is majestic: in the whole of her form and manner there is something so dignified and noble, that if she were to be seen, without ornament or any outward marks of distinction, among a great number of ladies of rank, she would be immediately esteemed the chief. There is withal in the features of her face and in her looks an uncommon degree of authority and command. In her character there is more of liveliness than gravity. She is courteous, gentle, beneficent; outwardly devout.14

Whereas Masson, describing Catherine in the 1790s (Juan’s ‘period’) writes:

If, upon the introduction of a stranger, she presented her hand to him to kiss, she demeaned herself with great courtesy, and commonly addressed a few words to him upon the subject of his travels and his visit: but all the harmony of her countenance was instantly discomposed, and you forgot for a moment the great Catharine, to reflect on the infirmities of an old woman; as, on opening her mouth, it was apparent that she had no teeth. Her voice too was hoarse and broken, and her speech inarticulate. The lower part of her face was rather large and coarse; her grey eyes, though clear and penetrating, evinced something of hypocrisy, and a certain wrinkle at the base of the nose indicated a character somewhat sinister.15

Byron doesn’t want Juan’s ordeal in Catherine’s bed to be too onerous, so he leaves these details out. But he has borrowed from Masson in an earlier passage:

Though somewhat large, exuberant, and truculent

When wroth, while pleased, she was as fine a figure

As those who like things rosy, ripe and succulent

Would wish to look on – while they are in vigour;

She could repay each amatory look you lent

With interest – and in turn was wont with rigour

To exact of Cupid’s bills the full amount

At sight, nor would permit you to discount.

Byron, Don Juan, IX, st.62

Masson (or rather, his translator) gives the rhyme-word which the gentlemanly Byron implies without using:

She [Catherine] was of the middle stature, and corpulent; few women, however, with her corpulence, would have attained the graceful and dignified carriage for which she was remarked.16

Another source, still to be mentioned, is not a history book, but a poem: Il Poema Tartaro, by Giambattista Casti—a writer Byron admired and imitated, while hardly mentioning him, so risqué was he (few Italians these days have even heard of him). Il Poema Tartaro (which as usual is not in Byron’s library sale catalogues) was inspired by Casti’s time as a diplomat in Russia during the 1770s. He had conceived a great detestation of the place:

Utile insomma sarebbe all’Europa tutta di togliersi dai confini e slontanar più che sia possibile una Potenza rapace, infida, ingannevole, prepotente, inquieta, soverchiatrice, impertinente, pericolosa, insaziabile, che così sarebbe costretta a riconcentrarsi a Mosca e rinunciare a ogni influenza e ingerenza Europea, e ritornare come le altre volte a divenire Potenza asiatica. E così sia amen.

[To sum up, it would be useful if all Europe could combine to confine and keep at a distance more than has hitherto been possible a Power so rapacious, faithless, deceitful, arrogant, turbulent, overwhelming, impertinent, dangerous, and insatiable, so that it would be forced to centre itself again on Moscow, renounce all European influence and interest, and return as in past times to being an Asiatic Power. Let all say Amen.]17

Il Poema Tartaro travesties Catherine’s Russia by moving it a couple of thousand miles north-east, rechristening it ‘Mogollia’, Catherine ‘Cattuna’, Peter the Great ‘Djenghis-Khan’, Potemkin ‘Toto’, and so on. The joke makes Russia into an Asiatic power. The hero is a young Irishman with a big nose called Tomasso Scardassale, who does what Juan does, and serves ‘Cattuna’ sexually.

There are numerous echoes of Casti’s poem in Byron’s:18 but Byron is much less offensive than the Italian. Byron’s joke about Catherine’s appetite, just quoted (‘She could repay each amatory look you lent / With interest—and in turn was wont with rigour / To exact of Cupid’s bills the full amount / At sight, nor would permit you to discount’) is a more discreet version of a passage from Casti:

Me di fibra sensibile [says Cattuna to Tomasso], e di vive

Tempe, come ben sai formò natura

E diemmi ancor molle, e al piacer proclive,

Cor, che in van di resistere procura,

Alle dolci invincibili attrative

Di bella qual tu sei, maschil figura;

E o fanciulla foss’io, vedova, o moglie,

Invan m’opposi all’amorose voglie.

Or perchè sol regnando amar poss’io

Liberamente, e premiar chi degno

Parmi de’premii miei, dell’amor mio;

Perciò sol di regnar formai disegno;

Ne mai sott’altro aspetto a me s’offrio,

Il Diadèma Real; lo Scettro, il Regno,

E tutto’altro che il Trono ha in se di pregio

Miro con filosofico dispregio.19

[‘As you can tell, Nature has made me of sensitive stuff, and of passionate energies, and has given me tenderness, and a liking for pleasure; my heart, which cannot be resisted, obtains for itself those sweet invincible beauties which you, proud man, know all about; and, whether a maiden, a widow or a wife, it has always been impossible for me to resist my loving inclinations. / Now, since I reign alone, I may love liberally, and choose lovers from amongst the finest around me; and everything else that is offered me – the Royal Diadem, the sceptre, the power, and all of value that the throne offers – I regard with philosophical indifference’.]

One final detail: Catherine was rumoured, before engaging a favourite formally, to have him ‘tested’ by one of her ladies, Miss Protasoff. Byron, less nauseated and much wittier than Casti, creates far subtler effects. Thus Cattuna turns Tommaso over to Turfana, ‘Amazone di Venere, d’Amore’:20 Casti describes the ‘testing’ in some detail:21 a section, in fact, entirely verbal (which is perhaps a disappointment). Tommaso gets a good report, so Cattuna installs him as favourite. Byron, on the other hand, affects innocent incomprehension:

An order from her Majesty consigned

Our young Lieutenant to the genial care

Of those in Office, and all the World looked kind

(As it will look sometimes with the first stare –

Which Youth would not act ill to keep in mind)

As also did Miss Protasoff then there,

Named from her mystic office “l’Eprouveuse” – *

A term inexplicable to the Muse. –22

Byron, Don Juan, IX, st.84

There is in fact very little evidence that Miss, or Mlle., Protasova actually ‘proved’ the virility of all Catherine’s proposed lovers in advance of their taking up residence; all is rumour; but it is such a disgusting idea that posterity has found it impossible to discard it as myth. If she did so, it was a function she shared with another friend of the Empress, the Countess Bruce (whom Byron may have met in Geneva in 1816).23 William Tooke—an Anglican clergyman, anxious to place a dignified interpretation on all things imperial—even goes so far as to assert that the function at least of the later favourites of Catherine was simply decorative:

For a series of seventy years the monarchs of Russia have always had favourites officially: it is no wonder then that the custom, thus sanctioned for so long a period, should be almost decreed a fundamental law of the empire, and an appendage to imperial grandeur; for the age of the late sovereign latterly gave no room to think that she kept hers for any other purpose than in conformity to established usage, and as a property to the magnificence of the court.24

Byron regarded such Anglican cant just as he regarded all Anglican cant (though he can be almost as discreet as Tooke): his version of Catherine the Great is much more entertaining, in consequence, than those of his prose sources.

Of all the episodes in Don Juan, that at the Russian court is the briefest, and, in terms of action, the barest of incident. As is not the case with Donna Julia in Canto I, or with Haidee in Cantos II to IV, with the Sultana Gulbeyaz and the odalisques in Cantos V and VI, or with the three English ladies in the final cantos, nothing memorable is said by Catherine the Great (in fact she says nothing at all), and no incidents make the story memorable. At this, the lowest and most degraded point in his hero’s traversal of Europe, Byron shows the least interest in his tale. Perhaps Tooke, Masson and Casti did not provide him with sufficient compensation for the personal experiences on which he drew for the rest of the poem, or perhaps the Russophobic contempt of Masson and Casti had infected his view of Russia, and made him want not to investigate or portray the country in too much detail. But there is more to the Russian cantos than just Catherine the Great.

Potemkin, who ordered the attack upon Ismail in which Don Juan distinguishes himself, is briefly the subject of Byron’s poem:

There was a Man, if that he was a Man,

Not that his Manhood could be called in question,

For had he not been Hercules, his Span

Had been as short in youth as Indigestion

Made his last illness, when, all worn and wan,

He died beneath a tree, as much unblest on

The soil of the Green province he had wasted,

As e’er was Locust on the land it blasted.

This was Potemkin—a great thing in days

When Homicide and Harlotry made great;

If Stars and Titles could entail praise,

His Glory might half-equal his Estate;

This fellow, being six foot high, could raise

A kind of phantasy proportionate

In the then Sovereign of the Russian people,

Who measured men, as you would do a Steeple.25

Byron, Don Juan VII, sts.36-7

Potemkin was a character so much larger than life that one regrets that Byron felt able to devote only 2 stanzas to him. He brings him into the poem suddenly, and drops him in the same way. He derived his description of Potemkin’s death (from ‘Indigestion… beneath a tree’) from the following passage in Tooke:

As soon as the empress had intelligence that he was sick, she sent off to him two of the most experienced physicians at Petersburg. He disdained their advice, and would follow no regimen. He carried even his intemperance to an uncommon height[;] his ordinary breakfast was the greater part of a smoke-dried goose from Hamburgh, slices of hung-beef or ham, drinking with it a prodigious quantity of wine and Dantzic-liqueurs, and afterwards dining with equal voracity. He never controlled his appetites in any kind of gratification. He frequently had his favourite sterlet-soup, [a sterlet is a small sturgeon] at seasons when that fish is so enormously dear, that this soup alone, which might be considered only as the overture to his dinner, stood him in three hundred rubles… With this sort of diet it is no wonder that he perceived his distemper to be daily gaining ground[;] he thought, however, to get well by moving from Yassy. Accordingly he resolved to set out for Nicolayef, a town which he had built at the confluence of the Ingul with the Bogue. Scarcely had he gone three leagues of his journey when he found himself much worse. He alighted from his carriage in the midst of the highway, threw himself on the grass, and died under a tree, in the arms of the Countess Branicka, his favourite niece.26

As another of the poem’s themes, in addition to sex and imperialism, is feasting and over-indulgence, Potemkin’s diet and its consequences are of great relevance.

The Russian character whose depiction gives us the most insight into Byron’s preoccupations is Suvorov (or ‘Suwarrow’ as he is anglicised). Suvorov, a legend in Russia in his own lifetime, and a great Stalinist hero was one of the most successful generals ever—he never suffered a defeat. He was hugely popular with his troops, who happily died under his command. This success, however, is something Byron at first finds mockable:

For on the sixteenth, at full gallop, drew

In sight two horsemen, who were deemed Cossaques

For some time, till they came in nearer view;

They had but little baggage at their backs,

For there were but three shirts between the two;

But on they rode, upon two Ukraine Hacks,

Till, in approaching, were at length descried

In this plain pair, Suwarrow and his Guide.


             …Great Joy unto the Camp!

To Russian, Tartar, English, French, Cossacque,

O’er whom SouwarrowSuvorov shone like a Gas lamp,

Presaging a most luminous attack;

Or like a Wisp along the marsh so damp,

Which leads beholders on a boggy walk,

He flitted to and fro, a dancing light,

Which all who saw it followed – wrong or right.

Byron, Don Juan, VII, sts. 43 and 46

The detail about the shirts is not merely an inference from Castelnau’s Histoire de la Nouvelle Russie (the source of Byron’s military detail), but comes from the reactionary Anti-Jacobin journal (which we know Byron read):

It is not to be supposed that the toilet occupies any portion of his [Suvorov’s] time; but when he is not on active service, he is clean in his person, and frequently washes himself in the course of the day. He confines his dress to an uniform, and a kind of close jacket, called a gurtka: but robes de chambre, and riding coats, are banished from his wardrobe, and he never suffers the indulgence of gloves, or a pelisse, but when a winter’s march compels him to use them.27

However, much more sinister is the comparison of ‘Suwarrow’ to an ignis fatuus: this is one of Byron’s most favoured images of pessimism and doom,28 and the idea that the devotion shown to Suvorov by his men was a kind of supernatural curse is well in keeping with his use of the idea elsewhere.

Later, Suvorov’s ‘hands-on’ ways of training recruits seem to be mocked, but Byron keeps his best line to the last:

New batteries were constructed; was held

A general Council, in which Unanimity,

That Stranger to most councils, here prevailed,

As sometimes happens in a great extremity;

And, every difficulty being dispelled,

Glory began to dawn with due Sublimity,

While Souvaroff, determined to obtain it,

Was teaching his recruits to use the bay’net.*

(* Note: fact; Souvaroff did this in person.)

It is an actual fact, that He, Commander

In Chief, in proper person, deigned to drill

The awkward Squad, and could afford to squander

His time, a Corporal’s duty to fulfil;

Just as you’d break a sucking Salamander

To swallow flame, and never take it ill;

He showed them how to mount a ladder (which

Was not like Jacob’s) or to cross a ditch. –

Byron, Don Juan, VII, sts.51-2 and authorial note

Byron’s seeming disgust, at the idea of a Field-Marshal lowering himself like this, is from Castelnau:

Le 19 et le 20, Souvarow exerça les soldats; il leur montra comment il fallait s’y prendre pour escalder; il enseigna aux recrues la manière de donner le coup de baïonette: pour les exercises d’un nouveau genre, il se servit de fascines disposées de manière à représenter un Turc. [Note:] J’ai rendu au maréchal de Souvarow toute la justice qu’il appartient à un homme impartial d’exprimer; mais je trouve cet exercise, ces leçons de carnage, au-dessous d’un maréchal; n’y avait-il pas assez de bas officiers dans son armée pour qu’il se crût obligé de remplir la plus inhumaine de leurs fonctions?29

[On the 19th and 20th, Suvorov exercised the soldiers; he showed them how to scale a ladder; he demonstrated to the recruits how to use the bayonet; in a new kind of exercise, he dressed up dummies to represent Turks. [Note:] I have written of the Field-Marshal with all becoming justice; but I find this exercise, these lessons in carnage, to be beneath a Field-Marshal: were there insufficient officers of lower rank in his army, that he felt obliged to fulfil the basest of their functions?]

Castelnau cannot see that Suvorov’s training methods were the ones best-designed to get his soldiers to bond with him, and to fight well: in his humility lay his success. Byron’s mockery at first seems on the same level of impercipient snobbery; however, he concludes (in a passage which shows he has read the above passage from Castelnau):

Also he dressed up, for the nonce, fascines

Like men, with turbans, Scimitars and dirks,

And made them charge with bayonet these machines,

By way of lesson against actual Turks;

And when well practised in these mimic scenes,

He judged them proper to assail the Works;

At which your wise men sneered in phrases witty;

He made no answer: but he took the City.

Byron, Don Juan, VII, sts.51-3

Suvorov, though an aristocrat himself, was often described as gross and half-mad by those (mainly aristocrats) who disliked his success, and appreciated neither his style nor the pressures under which he worked; and, as he was the exclusive and willing tool of absolutism, liberals were anxious to malign him as well. The following description is typical of the writings about him which Byron could have read:

A stranger, who has heard the name of Suvarof, wishes, on his arrival [in St. Petersburg], to see this hero. An old man is pointed out, of a weather-beaten and shrivelled figure, who traverses the apartments of the palace, hopping on one foot, or is seen in the streets, followed by a troop of boys, to whom he throws apples, to make them scramble and fight, crying himself, “I am Suvarof! I am Suvarof!” If the stranger should fail to discover in this old madman the conqueror of the Turks and the Poles, he will at least, in his haggard and ferocious eyes, his foaming and horrid mouth, readily discern the butcher of the inhabitants of Prague [Praga, a suburb of Warsaw, attacked by Suvorov’s troops in 1794]. Suvarof would be considered as the most ridiculous buffoon, if he had not shown himself the most barbarous warrior. He is a monster, with the body of an ape and the soul of a bull-dog. Attila, his countryman, and from whom he is perhaps descended, had neither his good fortune nor his ferocity. His gross and ridiculous manners have inspired his soldiers with the blindest confidence, which serves him instead of military talents, and has been the real cause of all his successes.30

Byron sums up the Field-Marshal thus:

Suwarrow chiefly was on the alert,

Surveying, drilling, ordering, jesting, pondering;

For the Man was, we safely may assert,

A thing to wonder at beyond most wondering;

Hero, buffoon, half demon and half dirt,

Praying, instructing, desolating, plundering;

Now Mars, now Momus. and when bent to storm

A Fortress, Harlequin in Uniform. –

Byron, Don Juan, VII, st.55

Byron derived the idea of Suvorov as a clown from Masson:

At Court, he is sometimes seen to run from lady to lady, and kiss the portrait of Catherine which they wear at their breasts, crossing himself and bowing. Catherine told him one day to behave himself more decently.31

[…] Frequently he rides through his camp, naked to his shirt, on the bare back of a Cossack horse; and at daybreak, instead of causing the drums to beat the reveille, he comes out of his tent and crows three times like a cock, which is the signal for the army to rise, sometimes to march, or even to go to battle.32

But Byron would have been more impressed by what he understood to be the way in which Suvorov’s destructive talent was wedded to a modest creative bent:

Suwarrow now was a Conqueror – a Match

For Timour or for Zinghis in his trade;

While Mosques and Streets beneath his eyes like thatch

Blazed, and the Cannons’ roar was scarce allayed,

With bloody hands he wrote his first dispatch;

And here exactly follows what he said: –

“Glory to God and to the Empress!” (Powers

Eternal!! such names mingled!) “Ismail’s ours”.*

* In the original Russian –

“Slava bogu! slava Vam!

Krepost Vzala, y iä tam”.

A kind of couplet; for he was a poet.33

Byron, Don Juan, VIII st.133 and authorial note

Anyone, not just buffoonish but ‘antithetically mixed’ (Byron’s phrase for Napoleon, no less),34 able to crow like a cock and write poetry, would remind the poet of himself, just as Robert Burns did: in a Journal entry for 13 December 1813, Byron writes:

Allen… has lent me a quantity of Burns’s unpublished, and never-to-be-published, Letters. They are full of oaths and obscene songs. What an antithetical mind! – tenderness, roughness – delicacy, coarseness – sentiment, sensuality – soaring and grovelling – dirt and deity – all mixed up in that one compound of inspired clay!35

Byron senses an alter ego in Burns; and in this analysis the similarly Protean and uncategorisable Suvorov functions in the same way. When he went to Greece in 1824, with a view to forming a battalion and fighting the Turks, Byron may have intended to make Suvorov a role-model: but he died of despair and medical bloodletting before he saw any action.


Quotations from Don Juan are from the edition on the website of the International Byron Society www.internationalbyronsociety.org.

  1   Byron to Murray, 24 July 1814: text from National Library of Scotland (hereafter NLS) Ms.43488; Byron’s Letters and Journals, ed. L.A. Marchand (BLJ), IV (1975), pp. 145-6.

  2   See Peter Cochran, ‘Why Did Byron Envy Thomas Hope’s Anastasius?’, in P. Cochran, Byron’s Romantic Politics (Newcastle, 2011), pp. 221-62.

  3   Lady Blessington’s Conversations of Lord Byron, ed. Ernest J. Lovell jr. (Princeton, 1969), p. 51.

  4   See W.N.C. Carlton, Poems and Letters of Lord Byron Edited from the Original Manuscripts in the Possession of W.K. Bixby, of St. Louis (Society of the Dofobs, Chicago, 1912).

  5   Byron, Don Juan, VII, 61, 1.

  6   Ibid., VI, 92, 7-8.

  7   Byron to Douglas Kinnaird, 29 January 1823: text from NLS Ms.43454; BLJ, X (1980), pp. 92-3.

  8   Kinnaird echoes Byron’s words to him in a letter of 26 October 1819.

  9   Kinnaird to Byron, 15 October 1822: text from NLS Ms.43456. Byron had told Kinnaird on 16 November 1819 that he ‘had not now for a year—touched or disbursed a sixpence to any harlotry’.

10   See A.G. Cross, ‘The Reverend William Tooke’s Contribution to English Knowledge of Russia at the End of the Eighteenth Century’, Canadian Slavic Studies, III (1969), pp. 113ff.

11   Masson, Secret Memoirs of the Court of St. Petersburg, II (London, 1800), pp. 45-6.

12   William Tooke, Life of the Empress Catharine II, II (4th edn, London, 1799), p. 179.

13   Masson, I, p. 78.

14   Tooke, II, pp. 179-80 (quoting a source of 1772-3).

15   Masson, I, pp. 77-8.

16   Ibid., p. I 76.

17   Casti, dispatch in Bibliothèque Nationale, MS.1629 ff 152-61; quoted by Antonino Fallico, ‘Notizie e appunti sulla vita e l’operosità di G.B. Casti negli anni 1776-1790’, Italianistica, III (September-December 1972), p. 530.

18   See Cochran, ‘Casti’s Il Poema Tartaro and Byron’s Don Juan Cantos V-X’, Keats-Shelley Review, XVII (2003), pp. 61-85.

19   Casti, Il Poema Tartaro (2nd edn, n.p., 1796), Canto IV, sts. 76-7.

20   Ibid., Canto IV, st. 17, l.2.

21   Ibid., Canto IV, sts. 20-5.

22   For the term l’Éprouveuse, see Masson, I, p. 144n.

23   See Polidori, Diary, ed. Rossetti (London, 1910), pp. 141-3.

24   Tooke, II, pp. 271-2.

25   ‘A kind of phantasy proportionate / In the then Sovereign of the Russian people, / Who measured men, as you would do a Steeple’: J.J. McGann (Byron, The Complete Poetical Works, V (1986), p. 724) comments, ‘The lines probably involve an obscene suggestion’.

26   Tooke, II, pp. 322-4.

27   Frederick Anthing, History of the Campaigns of Count Alexander Suworow Rymnikski (London 1799), p. xxx; or a sympathetic review of the above, incorporating all of its biographical introduction, Anti-Jacobin (October 1799), pp. 133-8.

28   See Manfred, I i 195, The Prisoner of Chillon, l.35, The Vision of Judgement, st.105 l.5, Don Juan, VII st.46 l.5, VIII st.32 l.5, XI st.27 l.6, and XV st.54 l.6, The Two Foscari, III i 172-6, The Deformed Transformed, I i 478, or The Island, IV l.86.

29   Castelnau, Histoire de la Nouvelle Russie, II, pp. 207-8.

30   Masson, I, pp. 318-9.

31   Masson, I, pp. 217-8.

32   Ibid., I, p. 326.

33   Suvorov was indeed given to writing simple verse, although it is not clear where Byron got his information from, or how seriously he took it. For another ‘poem’ by Suvorov, written to Potemkin before Ochakhov in 1788, see Philip Longworth, The Art of Victory (London, 1965), p. 148. It was the general’s habit to parody the achievements of his professional enemies—of whom he had many—in the style of Ossian, the Russian translation of which was dedicated to him. For further examples of his doggerel, see A.V. Suvorov, Pis’ma, ed. V.S. Lopatin (Moscow, 1986), pp. 6 (in French), 8, 157, 190 (in French), 214, 220, 222, 224, 230, 261 (in French), 287 (to the poet Derzhavin), 293, 349 (in German), 378-9, and 394.

34   Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, III, 36.2.

35   BLJ, III (1974), p. 239.