The publication of the first cantos of Lord Byron's Don Juan coincided with the politically charged atmosphere of the second half of 1819 – this period saw the Peterloo Massacre and the passing of the Six Acts, which made mass meetings illegal and strengthened the laws against anti-government publications.
How was Lord Byron caught up in the political situation with regard to publishing?
A group of radical publishers were active from 1816 up to 1822, and were feared and detested by the establishment; the group included William Hone, Richard Carlisle, William Sherwin, Henry and John Hunt. Anti-radical Tory pamphlets of 1820 linked Byron to the radical publishers and writers and to Paine and the proto-evolutionist William Lawrence.
John Murray, Byron’s longstanding publisher, published the first two cantos of Don Juan without his name as publisher, and at a price that would exclude poorer readers. But this meant that his copyright was insecure, and publishers who also produced radical pamphlets rushed to produce pirate editions of what was seen as a potentially seditious work. Attacks on the poem did not begin until after the first pirated edition – the conservative Literary Gazette had, two days after Murray’s publication, described it merely as ‘witty if a little licentious, and delightful if not very moral’. The following year it was attacked as a work whose ‘very basis is infidelity and licentiousness, and the most obtrusive ornaments are impure imagination and blasphemous sneers’ (Edinburgh Monthly Magazine).
By 1822 the poem, and the writer, were unavoidably linked to the radical publishers who were producing cheap editions. An article published in April 1822 attacked Don Juan – particularly pointing out that cheap editions would stir up the masses to immorality and sedition.
Disputes between publishers forced the price down even lower, with pirate copies issued through the 1820s, including this edition by Smeeton from 1826, the first year the poem was published in its entirety. Murray eventually bought the rights to Cantos 6-16 in 1829.
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