This is the manuscript of the sixth and seventh Cantos of Lord Byron’s epic poem Don Juan (1819-24).
Why is precisely dating this part of the poem difficult?
Though he left the year, 1822, Byron obliterated the day and month of composition at the beginning and end of Canto VI, and at the end of Canto VII. Yet with infra-red and ultra-violet light, we can see that the erased dates were ‘January 1822’ at the beginning of Canto VI, and ‘June 28 1822’ at the end of Canto VII; the end of Canto VI either says ‘January’, ‘February’ or ‘April’.
As Byron kept silent about the Cantos until they were completed, it may be that he was trying to disguise slow progress he had made after beginning Canto VI in January; his daughter, Allegra died on 20 April and he seems to have resumed work partly ‘to hold off’ the grief, and finished in June.
What happens in the cantos?
Beginning with our hero, Juan, hiding in women’s clothing in a harem, Canto VI is a lightly ironic mixture of comedy and eroticism. Canto VII, however, changes gear to involve Juan in the horrifically bloody Russian siege of the Ottoman stronghold of Ismail in 1790. With these cantos, Byron found a renewed sense of purpose for his poem, and added a prose preface (not present in these drafts) connecting it squarely with contemporary politics. Don Juan’s satirical and sexual content had always been challenging, but his publisher John Murray thought them ‘outrageously shocking’; the more radical Leigh Hunt, issued it in July 1823.