Don Juan: Canto the Eighth

Original Text: 
Byron, Works. 17 vols. London: John Murray, 1832-33. PR 4351 M6 1832 ROBA
970     Himself or bastion, little matter'd now:
971His stubborn valour was no future shield.
972     Ismail's no more! The Crescent's silver bow
973Sunk, and the crimson Cross glar'd o'er the field,
974     But red with no redeeming gore: the glow
975Of burning streets, like moonlight on the water,
976Was imag'd back in blood, the sea of slaughter.
977All that the mind would shrink from of excesses;
978     All that the body perpetrates of bad;
979All that we read, hear, dream, of man's distresses;
980     All that the Devil would do if run stark mad;
981All that defies the worst which pen expresses;
982     All by which Hell is peopl'd, or as sad
983As Hell--mere mortals, who their power abuse--
984Was here (as heretofore and since) let loose.
985If here and there some transient trait of pity
986     Was shown, and some more noble heart broke through
987Its bloody bond, and sav'd perhaps some pretty
988     Child, or an aged, helpless man or two--
989What's this in one annihilated city,
990     Where thousand loves, and ties, and duties grew?
992Just ponder what a pious pastime war is.
994     Are purchas'd by all agonies and crimes:
995Or if these do not move you, don't forget
996     Such doom may be your own in aftertimes.
998     Are hints as good as sermons, or as rhymes.
999Read your own hearts and Ireland's present story,
1001But still there is unto a patriot nation,
1002     Which loves so well its country and its King,
1003A subject of sublimest exultation--
1004     Bear it, ye Muses, on your brightest wing!
1005Howe'er the mighty locust, Desolation,
1006     Strip your green fields, and to your harvests cling,
1007Gaunt famine never shall approach the throne--
1009But let me put an end unto my theme:
1010     There was an end of Ismail--hapless town!
1011Far flash'd her burning towers o'er Danube's stream,
1012     And redly ran his blushing waters down.
1013The horrid war-whoop and the shriller scream
1014     Rose still; but fainter were the thunders grown:
1015Of forty thousand who had mann'd the wall,
1017In one thing ne'ertheless 'tis fit to praise
1018     The Russian army upon this occasion,
1019A virtue much in fashion now-a-days,
1020     And therefore worthy of commemoration:
1021The topic's tender, so shall be my phrase:
1022     Perhaps the season's chill, and their long station
1023In Winter's depth, or want of rest and victual,
1024Had made them chaste--they ravish'd very little.
1025Much did they slay, more plunder, and no less
1026     Might here and there occur some violation
1027In the other line; but not to such excess
1028     As when the French, that dissipated nation,
1029Take towns by storm: no causes can I guess,
1030     Except cold weather and commiseration;
1031But all the ladies, save some twenty score,
1032Were almost as much virgins as before.
1033Some odd mistakes, too, happen'd in the dark,
1034     Which show'd a want of lanterns, or of taste--
1035Indeed the smoke was such they scarce could mark
1036     Their friends from foes--besides such things from haste
1037Occur, though rarely, when there is a spark
1038     Of light to save the venerably chaste:
1039But six old damsels, each of seventy years,
1040Were all deflower'd by different grenadiers.
1041But on the whole their continence was great;
1042     So that some disappointment there ensu'd
1043To those who had felt the inconvenient state
1045(Since it was not their fault, but only fate,
1046     To bear these crosses) for each waning prude
1048Without the expense and the suspense of bedding.
1049Some voices of the buxom middle-ag'd
1050     Were also heard to wonder in the din
1051(Widows of forty were these birds long cag'd)
1052     "Wherefore the ravishing did not begin!"
1053But while the thirst for gore and plunder rag'd,
1054     There was small leisure for superfluous sin;
1055But whether they escap'd or no, lies hid
1056In darkness--I can only hope they did.
1059While mosques and streets, beneath his eyes, like thatch
1060     Blaz'd, and the cannon's roar was scarce allay'd,
1061With bloody hands he wrote his first despatch;
1062     And here exactly follows what he said:
1064Eternal!! such names mingled!) "Ismail's ours."
1065Methinks these are the most tremendous words,
1067Which hands or pens have ever trac'd of swords.
1068     Heaven help me! I'm but little of a parson:
1069What Daniel read was short-hand of the Lord's,
1070     Severe, sublime; the prophet wrote no farce on
1071The fate of nations; but this Russ so witty
1072Could rhyme, like Nero, o'er a burning city.
1073He wrote this Polar melody, and set it,
1074     Duly accompanied by shrieks and groans,
1075Which few will sing, I trust, but none forget it--
1076     For I will teach, if possible, the stones
1077To rise against Earth's tyrants. Never let it
1078     Be said that we still truckle unto thrones;
1079But ye--our children's children! think how we
1080Show'd what things were before the World was free!
1081That hour is not for us, but 'tis for you:
1082     And as, in the great joy of your millennium,
1083You hardly will believe such things were true
1084     As now occur, I thought that I would pen you 'em;
1085But may their very memory perish too!
1086     Yet if perchance remember'd, still disdain you 'em
1087More than you scorn the savages of yore,
1088Who painted their bare limbs, but not with gore.
1089And when you hear historians talk of thrones
1090     And those that sate upon them, let it be
1091As we now gaze upon the mammoth's bones,
1092     And wonder what old world such things could see,
1093Or hieroglyphics on Egyptian stones,
1094     The pleasant riddles of futurity--
1095Guessing at what shall happily be hid,
1096As the real purpose of a pyramid.
1097Reader! I have kept my word--at least so far
1098     As the first Canto promised. You have now
1099Had sketches of love, tempest, travel, war--
1100     All very accurate, you must allow,
1101And Epic, if plain truth should prove no bar;
1102     For I have drawn much less with a long bow
1103Than my forerunners. Carelessly I sing,
1104But Phoebus lends me now and then a string.
1105With which I still can harp, and carp, and fiddle.
1106     What further hath befallen or may befall
1107The hero of this grand poetic riddle,
1108     I by and by may tell you, if at all:
1109But now I choose to break off in the middle,
1110     Worn out with battering Ismail's stubborn wall,
1111While Juan is sent off with the despatch,
1112For which all Petersburgh is on the watch.


969] After a sojourn in a Turkish harem, Juan escapes only to find himself taking part in the Russian siege of Ismail, a Turkish fortified city at the mouth of the Danube, which began on November 30, 1790. Byron's historical account follows the Histoire de la Nouvelle Russie by Marquis Gabriel de Castelnau. The carnage and destruction which followed the taking of the city seem to have been appalling. Back to Line
991] Muscadins: dandies. Back to Line
993] Gazette: see note on I, i, 3. Back to Line
997] debt: the National Debt, driven to a new peak by the cost of the Napoleonic wars. Back to Line
1000] Wellesley's glory. Richard Colley, Marquis of Wellesley, brother of the Duke of Wellington, organized an attempt to relieve the Irish during the famine of 1822. Back to Line
1008] great George. The bulky Prince Regent had become George IV in 1820. Back to Line
1016] the rest were silent all! Castelnau claims that 38,860 Turks perished in the slaughter. Back to Line
1044] "single blessedness": see Midsummer Night's Dream, I, i, 78. Back to Line
1047] Roman sort of Sabine wedding. The abduction or "rape" of the Sabine women by Roman soldiers took place around 290 B.C. Back to Line
1057] Suwarrow: Alexander Vasilievich Suvorov (1729-1800), the officer commanding the siege. Back to Line
1058] Timour ... Zinghis: Timour the Lame (1336-1405) and Genghis Khan (1162-1227), two famous Mongol emperors and conquerors. Back to Line
1063] "Glory to God and to the Empress! ... Ismail's ours": accordig to Byron's note (which quotes a Russian two-line version), "a kind of couplet; for he was a poet." The Empress is Catherine the Great. Back to Line
1066] "MENE, MENE, TEKEL," and "UPHARSIN": see Daniel, 5: 25-28. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
published anonymously
RPO poem Editors: 
M. T. Wilson
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.519.