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Inspired by ‘Don Juan’: Dr Dan Sperrin at The Byron Festival

Trinity Junior Research Fellow, Dr Dan Sperrin, who is writing a history of satire in English literature, is also a cartoonist, including for The London Magazine. He explains what inspired his new drawings for The Byron Festival at Trinity and why he isn’t a Byron fan.

What have you created for the Byron Festival Exhibition in the Wren Library?

I’ve done eight illustrations of Don Juan in sepia ink with hand-written quotations from the poem underneath. I’ve tried to imitate the casual, improvised, ‘notebook’ style of the manuscript of the poem, but I’ve also used the same materials as the artists Byron was hanging out with – this particular combination of pen, ink, and paper will be really familiar to people who are interested in unpublished drawings and watercolours of that period. I’ve tried to illustrate some famous bits (the sharks) and some less famous bits to catch something of the range and interest of the poem.

Why Don Juan? What inspired you?

At school I used to have a little ‘selected poems’ volume which contained some quite good things (like Darkness and so on, which I still think is Byron’s best poem). At that age I had no sense of Byron’s critical reputation. I was surprised to discover, later on, that everyone thinks Childe Harold is complete rubbish (for instance) and felt quite pained about it for a while.

I didn’t look at Don Juan much until I was reading for my English degree, and of course I found all the cannibalism and sharks and boozing quite good. I have a funny memory of my old Supervisor muttering under his breath on a dreary afternoon in November that ‘only Byron could rhyme Plato with potato’, which I think was supposed to be a half-hearted recommendation. But of course, I now like the things everybody else likes about it: the humour, the natural sense of delinquency, the attacks on the other Romantic poets, the inventiveness (and so on).

Frontispiece from a copy of ‘Don Juan ‘ in the Wren Library. Photo: Trinity College Cambridge

Would you describe yourself as a Byron fan?

No. Or, to be more precise (and Byronic) about it, I’m not a fan of his fans. Even in the nineteenth century, they all used to write these long, boring letters to him which said things like: ‘the interest I feel – the eager wish for power to contribute … to your happiness – arises from sympathy adding strength to compassion.’ Sorry, what?

So I think reluctant appreciation is a perfectly reasonable response to Byron. It’s always worth bearing in mind that he was, officially, supposed to be sitting in the House of Lords (although it is almost impossible to hold that in your mind while you’re reading him).

Can you describe your creative process?

Well, I agreed to do some illustrations and forgot. I ignored the reminder. I then forgot to reply to the reminder. I drew a few of them and forgot to do the rest. I then realised the deadline was coming up, so I rushed to finish them.

The artistic ‘process’ (ahem) involved reading Don Juan again and hoping there was something to illustrate which would actually be permissible in the context of the Wren Library and the Byron event – readers of Byron will know that it’s not exactly PG certificate. So it was quite a slow and thoughtful process …

What do you hope visitors to the exhibition will take away from them?

I just hope they’ll enjoy them! I hope it encourages them to read the poem again, as well – it’s full of brilliant things, so why not? What’s not to like: music, treason, disobedience, funny rhymes, parties …

Dr Sperrin’s illustrations inspired by Don Juan will be on display in the Wren Library 24 April – 17 June. Please check the Wren Library opening hours before your visit. 

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