In college I took a year-long survey of British literature in which I probably learned a lot--I had much to learn--though only one classroom moment has stayed vivid in my memory. I recall my professor declaring that Byron's Don Juan may be the quickest poem in the language. This seemed right to me then, and seems right to me now.
If true, it's a deeply ironic truth. Quick? But doesn't quick imply small? And the poem is so vast, it takes forever to read. It comprises seventeen spacious cantos, and I suspect most readers, even the well-intentioned, never get much past Canto II. (Canto III has some sizable longueurs.) And the poem is larger still when you envision it not in reality but in conception. It was left unfinished when Byron died, of a fever, at thirty-six. As it stands, the poem leaves so many loose ends that you can imagine it might require twice its present length to tie them all up.
Still, this is a behemoth that moves nimbly and briskly. It's an elephant that runs on tiptoe.
The poem's sensation of speed is partly the result of Byron's comedy. (No English poet was ever wittier.) Partly it's his slapdash, conversational tone. ("Hail, Muse! et cetera--We left Juan sleeping, / Pillow'd upon a fair and happy breast...") Partly it's his sudden, dismissive transitions. ("But scarce a fee was paid on either side / Before, unluckily, Don Jose died.")
The poem may be at its quickest in the shipwreck scene of Canto II. At his mother's command, Juan heads off to exile, following a scandal with a beautiful older woman. But heaven intervenes, and his ship goes down. The howling gales all but pull the poem's stanzaic norm apart. Don Juan is written in ottava rima (a-b-a-b-a-b-c-c), a form which often proceeds with measured stateliness but which here reflects racing and raging chaos, as lines and rhymes all but collapse in upon each other:
Again the weather threaten'd,--again blew
A gale, and in the fore and after hold
Water appear'd; yet, though the people knew
All this, the most were patient, and some bold,
Until the chains and leathers were worn through
Of all our pumps: -- a wreck complete she roll'd,
At mercy of the waves, whose mercies are
Like human beings during civil war.
The storm may be uncontrollable, but Byron has got things in hand. He's a master. A good poet will manage to establish an autonomous pace: his or her poems will move at a rate different from, usually slower than, the average rate at which words move. The better poet goes an additional step, first establishing a pace and then varying it--speeding it up, slowing it down. A good poet builds a contrast between the words within a poem and the words outside it. The better poet lays on another contrast--that between the poem's standard velocity and its local accelerations and decelerations. Don Juan keeps galloping along at a headlong clip and then abruptly--often in the natural pause of the stanza's final couplet--pulling up sharply on the reins.
Sometimes, especially with some of his outrageous rhyming, the two effects--the speeding up and the slowing down--seem to happen simultaneously. One of Byron's most celebrated rhymes occurs in a couplet from Canto I:
But Oh! -- ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not hen-pecked you all?
The poem quickens as the couplet's final three words are comically jammed together in order to achieve some sort of rhyming parity with intellectual. At the same time, Byron brakes: he asks of the reader a stilled moment of admiration.
The best poetry often seems like this to inhabit not a Newtonian but an Einsteinian universe. There's a lot of shifting of perspectives going on, and you can't always be quite certain whether you're speeding up or slowing down--whether you're coming or going.