"The Loudest Wit I Ever Was Deafened With"
Context: Between 1818 and 1824, the year of his death, Byron was busy with an epic poem about the great Spanish lover, Don Juan. The plot is slender. Juan, after an affair with one of his mother's friends, is sent on a tour of Europe. A shipwreck during the first stage involves him in a passionate affair with the beautiful daughter of a slave-trader who sells him to a sultana. The attack upon her palace by Russian forces lets him escape her clutches, but he is sent to carry news to the Empress Catherine of Russia, who also wants him for a lover. Because of his illness, she sends him on a diplomatic mission to England. Here his charm and polish bring many opportunities for marriage, with Lady Adeline to point out the advantages of the various ladies. The only one to interest him is prim, melancholic Aurora Raby. Her indifference to him, as she sits beside him at a banquet in Lady Adeline's house, piques him. That evening he sees the ghost of the Black Friar, who had once lived in that house. Thomas Moore, the Irish poet and friend of Byron, in his life of the poet, asserts that Byron himself during a visit to Newstand Abbey in 1814 fancied he saw the ghost of the Black Friar who had haunted the place since the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. The ghost's appearance was supposed to presage a death, a wedding, or a birth. The next morning the guests talk of the ghost, and Adeline sings a song about the Black Friar and warns them all to beware of him. However, that night Juan forgets the warning. When seeing a shadowy figure, he pursues it and discovers "beneath the sable frock and dreary cowl," the voluptuous figure of one of the guests, the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke. This incident ends the narrative. Before Byron could conclude the next canto, he died in Greece, encouraging the Greeks to fight for their independence. In the 1903 edition of Byron's poems, fourteen stanzas of Canto XVII were included, printed from a manuscript in the possession of the family of a close friend, John Hobhouse, to whom the fourth canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and The Siege of Corinth were dedicated. The final stanza takes up the narrative and reports the appearance next morning of a wan and weary Juan, looking as if he had struggled with ghosts, and of a pale Duchess. How could this slight narrative occupy seventeen cantos, some with more than a hundred stanzas? It could do so because of the constant digressions, flippant comments, ironical opinions about people and history, satire of many great men of the past, and invectives against leading figures of Byron's time. One example comes in the midst of the Black Friar episode. Speaking of the country acres of Lady Adeline Amundeville and Lord Henry, Byron interjects a personal note about his preference for city life over country life, scoffing at those whose choice lies in the other direction. Someone has guessed that this invective is directed against the Reverend Sydney Smith (1771–1845), whose Peter Pymley Letters was published in 1807. It takes place during an election banquet given by Sir Henry, with lords and ladies from the city, and also guests from the rural regions.
There were some country wags too–and, alas!Some exiles from the town, who had been drivenTo gaze, instead of pavements, upon grass,And rise at nine in lieu of long eleven.And lo! upon that day it came to passI sat next that o'erwhelming son of heaven,The very powerful parson, Peter Pith,The loudest wit I e'er was deafen'd with.