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A Few Impressions

What of the Ottava Rima in Byron’s 'Don Juan'?

Parallels between the extensive and quasi-exotic love story and modern day graphic novels.

Lord Byron’s use of ottava rima – a form of poetry with an ABABABCC rhyming pattern – in his mock-epic poem Don Juan stems from his belief to deliver seriocomic material. The poem builds up content, alternating rhyming lines then cinches with a facetious end. Byron first used ottava rima in 1817 for Beppo: A Venetian Story – a good match for the extensive and quasi-exotic love story. So, it’s natural that he took up the same seriocomic tone of the ottava rima a year later, when he wanted to satirise Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey forms that he had just been using. Eventually this project turned into his long satiric poem Don Juan, a long and erotic adventure tale told in 17 sections. Regardless of how or why Byron decided on ottava rima for Don Juan, the form undoubtedly influenced the poem's content through tone, pace, and lineation.


For a poem, Don Juan is a new approach to content, breadth and action. In his essay, “Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel,” Bakhtin claimed that all forms of literature look forward to the novel and that in times when “the novel reigns supreme, almost all the remaining genres are to a greater or lesser extent novelised.” In drama, examples include Henrik Ibsen, Richard Hauptmann, the entirety of Naturalist drama and epic poetry like Childe Harolde and Lord Byron’s Don Juan.

Don Juan is told in third person, and unlike lyric poetry that delves into the inner life of the protagonist, there is little concern for that. The poem is also highly visual and plot-driven. In fact, reading Don Juan as opposed to Childe Harolde is more enjoyable, because the visuals are concrete and rich, and are connected with a strong plot through lines.

In the 1986/87 limited series comic bookWatchmen there is a comic within the comic that relates the story of a shipwrecked man whose crew has been murdered by pirates. He must now make it back to his home before the pirates get there and do more damage. The journey he takes is similar in many aspects to the boat section in the Second Canto of Don Juan, but the form is different and thus changes the inflection of the content. Let’s compare sections of Watchmen and the ottava rima of the poem Don Juan, to see how these two adjuncts of the novel work on the material in different ways.


Lord Bryon appropriated true accounts of shipwrecks into the cannibalism episode of the boat section of Don Juan. The use of ottava rima transforms the non-fiction account and Byron’s fictional verse. Like, this passage:

He requested to be bled to death, the surgeonbeing with them, and have in his case of instruments in his pocket when he quitted the vessel. – (“Sufferings of the Crew of the Thomas,” Shipwrecks, etc.)

The rhyme scheme ultimately diverts your attention from the savage account of the cannibalism and turns it into a fun, adventure tale. A handful of stanzas after the his tutor, Pedrillo, is gently put down by the surgeon, he is revealed as a cannibal concerned solely with his own welfare: he sucks the blood straight from Pedrillo’s open veins. The reader can swallow this murderous and bestial act, only because Byron uses the verse and his ironic tone:

The surgeon, as there was no other fee,
Had his first choice of morsels for his pains;
But being thirstiest at the moment, he
Preferred a draught from the fast-flowing veins;
Part was divided, part thrown into the sea,
And such things as the entrails and the brains
Regaled two sharks, who followed o’er the billow –
The Sailors ate the rest of poor Pedrillo.

The surgeon doesn’t suck another man’s blood; he “Preferred a draught from the fast-flowing veins,” as if he is drinking life-giving manna from a long sought spring. The “fast-flowing” description gives a true sense of the graphic extremity of the scene: a man was slicked open in front of a flesh-hungry crowd, but everything else in the description works against this horror. The entrails and the brains are removed, which would seem much more gruesome if the entrails had not “regaled two sharks,” as if the sharks are just part of the feast. He equates the viciousness of the sharks with the viciousness of the shipmates, but it is all glossed through a faux-civilized diction so it becomes comedic and entertaining.


Finally, the destruction and rabid consumption of the tutor is turned into a joke by the sing-songy conclusion of the stanza: “Who followed over the billow - / The Sailors ate the rest of poor Pedrillo.”  The repeated double “l” and “o” rhyme sounds capricious and innocuous. This whimsical touch afforded by the concluding couplet of the ottava rima makes the consumption of another man – an act that could be made into the most gruesome scene – a delicious conclusion for the reader.

Similarly, a scene from Watchmen presents cannibalism with different infliction drives the same feeling. Like Don Juan, the reader encounters corpses in the first few panels, but there is an actual visual: the dead limbs are drawn for us. But they are drawn in a comic-book style; they are green and not photo realistic, even though there is enough detail to suggest decay. Thus, the text doesn’t carry the burden to describe the gruesomeness of the scene. The text also doesn’t need to provide a comedic undertone to make the images more tasteful, because the comic book sheen allows the reader to engage without getting neauseous. Thus, the text can actually be more earnest:

Occasionally, I would pause in my work, entranced by the startling beauty of a tattoo or the enigma of an old scar.

The man ties corpses in order to float a raft, a scene that would make a human vomit in reality, but in this presentation it is as readable as Don Juan. The mitigating factor here is the comic-book style. You could say that the drawing style is the seriocomic aspect of this piece because it is depicting serious imagery in a cartoonish tone – albeit a mature and graphic one. It could be argued that actually the mature comic-book drawing style here is working in an the opposite direction to Byron’s use of a light style, because the artist Dave Gibbons depicts the scenes with exaggerated gruesomeness (for example the bodies are green). But this exaggeration is actually a way to incorporate the material in an entertaining that’s easy to digest. The subplot has its own style: exaggerated colors, heavy contrast, sparser narrative packed with more hot points of horror than the main narrative of Watchmen. Like CSI and other police-crime shows, the ostensibly gruesome depiction of corpses in this comic book makes the subject matter palatable and entertaining by exaggerating it. If shown in the stark light of reality, say a newspaper, the reader would feel differently.


Now that we are in a world where cinema and video can capture moving photographic images we are used to narrative feeling more like life. Watching film we are even less dependent on the imagination to provide images that the text of a poem might prompt or the preceding and following moments that a sculpture might imply; movies can give everything, or at least they can give the impression of everything.

Bakhtin states,

Those genres that stubbornly preserve their old canonic nature begin to appear stylised. In general any strict adherence to a genre begins to feel like a stylisation, a stylisation taken to the point of parody …in an environment where the novel is the dominant genre, the conventional languages of strictly canonical genres begin to sound in new ways, which are quite different from the ways they sounded in those eras when the novel was not included in “high” literature. 

If this comparative effect made Don Juan look stylized in the 19th century, then cinema and video have made it look antique. Movies have made comics and even realistic sculpture look cartoonish. At this stage of cultural development, style – or anything that Bakhtin might categorise as not having the novelistic fluidity of form capable of grasping all aspects of life – can be used to combat realistic depiction. Style is aware of itself because technology has made the capturing of reality accessible to anyone.

Comic books and novels have become even more experimental than Bakhtin could have imagined because of video and hypertext capabilities. Text remains more realistic and moving than film, because our imaginations are more vivid than anything. As films depend more on special effects and take us further into fantasy, the images that literature can evoke in the mind seem more and more “real.”

Below I have depicted the cannibal episode and the shark episode in a vintage comic-book aesthetic. The ottava rima is gone but the events of the episode remain the same. The adventure tale now plays for an audience that appreciates clever immature drawings, because it recalls something of their own lifestyle – even if the events depicted are from a different era. The pictures depict the gruesomeness of the scenes but the characters are cartoonish so the images won’t incite any psychosomatic reactions as a movie might (I witnessed several people pass out in screenings of 127 Hours when my character simply cut his arm off.  Because it was depicted with heightened realism – close shots, an energetic score and lots of fake blood – it made an impression as if it were really happening, imagine the reactions to a man’s entire body cut open and devoured if it were shot in a comparable way).

Here the irony is heavy because the form and style are foregrounded. The figures are comedic because there is an obvious attempt to make draw them imperfectly – and even a little silly. The style gives a different colour to the sequence: it’s ironic and jaded  But I suppose that is the same affect Byron was attempting by writing in ottava rima back in the day.