When we last left off, Don Juan and his friend John Johnson had just joined the Russian army to fight against the Turks in The Battle of Ismail. Let’s see how this turns out.
You can tell Lord Byron isn’t exactly a fan of war in this description of a battlefield:
There the still varying pangs, which multiply
Until their very number makes men hard
By the infinities of agony,
Which meet the gaze, whate’er it may regard –
The groan, the roll in dust, the all-white eye
Turn’d back within its socket, – these reward
Your rank and file by thousands, while the rest
May win, perhaps, a ribbon at the breast!
-Canto VIII, Stanza 13
That must be some ribbon to be worth all that death and suffering. If you’re one of those who die in battle, surely, your name will go down in history, though, right?
And therefore we must give the greater number
To the gazette – which doubtless fairly dealt
By the deceased, who lie in famous slumber
In ditches, fields, or wheversoe’er they felt
Their clay for the last time their souls encumber; –
Thrice happy he whose name has been well spelt
In the despatch; I knew a man whose loss
Was printed Grove, although his name was Grose.
-Canto VIII, Stanza 18
Okay, so maybe the dead won’t be remembered to history. But surely each death makes a difference on the battlefield?
Thus on they wallow’d in the bloody mire
Of dead and dying thousands, – sometimes gaining
A yard or two of ground, which brought them nigher
To some odd angle for which all were straining;
At other times, repulsed by the close fire,
Which really pour’d as if all hell were raining,
Instead of heaven, they stumbled backwards o’er
A wounded comrade, sprawling in his gore.
-Canto VIII, Stanza 20
OK, so thousands of deaths may only get you a yard or two which will soon be lost again anyway. Maybe the bright side of battle is the camaraderie fellow soldiers share with each other while alive? Let’s see how Juan and his fellow soldiers stick together to the bitter end.
Juan, by some strange chance, which oft divides
Warrior from warrior in their grim career,
Like chastest wives from constant husbands’ sides,
Just at the close of the first bridal year,
By one of those odd turns of fortune’s tides,
Was on a sudden rather puzzled here,
When, after a good deal of heavy firing,
He found himself alone, and friends retiring.
-Canto VIII, Stanza 27
Well, that’s not good. Does Juan have the sense to join his friends in retreat? No, “Juan, following honour and his nose,/Rush’d where the thickest fire announced most foes” (Canto VIII, Stanza 32). What makes him act so bravely is his ignorance of the real danger surrounding him. Fortunately his friend Johnson, who previously retreated, did so only to rally the troops and has now returned. Surely this time, they’ll be braver.
Egad! they found the second time what they
The first time thought quite terrible enough
To fly from, malgre all which people say
Of glory, and all that immortal stuff
Which fills a regiment (besides their pay,
That daily shilling which makes warriors tough) –
They found on their return the self-same welcome,
Which made some think, and others know, a hell come.
-Canto VIII, Stanza 42
OK, we get it. War sucks. But just in case you’re not sold yet, here’s another grisly image for you:
A dying Moslem, who had felt the foot
Of a foe o’er him, snatch’d at it, and bit
The very tendon which is most acute –
(That which some ancient Muse or modern wit
Named after thee, Achilles) and quite through ‘t
He made the teeth meet, nor relinquish’d it
Even with his life – for (but they lie) ’tis said
To the live leg still clung the sever’d head.
-Canto VIII, Stanza 84
The Russians eventually take the city. Juan rescues a child from a couple Russian soldiers who are about to kill her. Johnson sets men to guard her while he and Juan attempt to capture the Khan.
The Khan and his sons refuse to surrender, even though they’ve lost by this point. After all of his sons die, he kills himself.
The soldiers, who beheld him drop his point,
Stopp’d as if once more willing to concede
Quarter, in case he bade them not “aroint!”
As he before had done. He did not heed
Their pause nor signs: his heart was out of joint,
And shook (till now unshaken) like a reed,
As he look’d down upon his children gone,
And felt – though done with life – he was alone.
But ’twas a transient tremor: – with a spring
Upon the Russian steel his breast he flung,
As carelessly as hurls the moth her wing
Against the light wherein she dies: he clung
Closer, that all the deadlier they might wring,
Unto the bayonets which had pierced his young;
And, throwing back a dim look on his sons,
In one wide wound pour’d forth his soul at once.
-Canto VIII, Stanza 117-118
So the Russians win. The town of Ismail is destroyed. Byron instructs his readers to “Read your own hearts and Ireland’s present story,/Then feed her famine fat with Wellesley’s glory” (Canto VIII, Stanza 125). Also, “Gaunt Famine never shall approach the throne -/Tho’ Ireland starve, great George weighs twenty stone” (Canto VIII, Stanza 126).
On the bright side, Byron tells us the Russian army restrained themselves a little: “Perhaps the season’s chill, and their long station/In winter’s depth, or want of rest and victual,/Had made them chaste; – they ravish’d very little” (Canto VIII, Stanza 128). Yep. Byron made a rape joke. Unfortunately, he doesn’t stop there.
Much did they slay, more plunder, and no less
Might here and there occur some violation
In the other line; – but not to such excess
As when the French, that dissipated nation,
Take towns by storm: no causes can I guess,
Except cold weather and commiseration;
But all the ladies, save some twenty score,
Were almost as much virgins as before.
Some odd mistakes too happen’d in the dark,
Which show’d a want of lanterns, or of taste –
Indeed the smoke was such they scarce could mark
Their friends from foes, – besides such things from haste
Occur, though rarely, when there is a spark
Of light to save the venerably chaste: –
But six old damsels, each of seventy years,
Were all deflower’d by different grenadiers.
-Canto VIII, Stanzas 129-130
Well, I guess if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry (Canto IV, Stanza 4). Byron ends on a hopeful note, addressing the people of the future who live in a world in which all are free:
That hour is not for us, but ’tis for you;
And as, in the great joy of your millennium,
You hardly will believe such things were true
As now occur, I thought that I would pen you ’em;
But may their very memory perish too! –
Yet, if perchance remember’d, still disdain you ’em.
More than you scorn the savages of yore,
Who painted their bare limbs, but not with gore.
-Canto VIII, Stanza 136
This post is a bit longer than I usually like to make ’em. I guess it makes up for the last one being shorter than usual. Anyway. If you enjoy these summaries of mine, I will be back to review Canto Nine.