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One of the celebrities of the early Romantic period was the glamorous and intellectual Tzarina of Russia, Catherine II, dubbed “the great” by her legislative commission in 1767. The most powerful female ruler in Europe since Elizabeth I, Catherine attracted notice for her cunning exercise of power, her physical energy, and her boundless charm. In England her political and personal effectiveness engaged, among others, her young contemporary, the poet and political commentator, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote surprisingly much about her. Coleridge’s writings about Catherine in prose and verse in turn influenced Lord Byron in the next generation of Romantic poets, prompting him to devote four cantos of Don Juan to Catherine’s multi-faceted vitality and providing for him a philosophical groundwork for his critique. As the fascination with Catherine spread widely over Europe, these two poets grappled with Catherine’s personal and political assertions of power and drew wide conclusions about political rule, sex, and death.

Coleridge’s close attention to foreign policy in 1795 and 1796, his youthful moral outrage at injustice and cruelty, and his alertness to women as physical, emotional, and intellectual beings converge in his rarely discussed “Ode On the Departing Year,” written in December, 1796. Much of this intricate ode exults in the death six weeks earlier of Catherine II. Such glee at the death of a woman is unusual for Coleridge, who addressed many poems to ordinary women and some to famous women such as Mary Robinson and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, sympathizing with their sufferings and encouraging their successes (Taylor EC 105-20). His love poems are appreciatively sensual (Taylor EC, 7-103). In the context of his other public writings about women, this vengeful poem on Catherine, mocking her sexuality and raging at her cruelty, is an anomaly sparked by Coleridge’s political fervor. Coleridge’s anger at her, as well as the specific details he mentions, reverberates twenty-five years later in Byron’s Don Juan cantos 6-10, where Byron is inspired to write his own indictment of Catherine, also in highly sexualized terms.

As both poets acknowledge at moments, Catherine herself is a complex and in her early years an admirable figure. (Fig. 1) This is a little-known portrait of her painted in 1782 by the British painter Richard Brompton (1734-1783). Invited by Catherine to escape his debts in London and to paint in the luxury of her court in St. Petersburg, Brompton catches the Empress at age 53. She glows with energy; her skin flushes, her eyes are wide, pale blue, glistening, and intelligent. Her golden north German hair curls and flies off as she seems to come briefly to a halt, having been running or riding. Her bodice is cut low, bordered with varying silks, her chin and neck plumply sensual. A bit of fur on her neckline hints not only at her icy climate but also at her animal affinities. She seems triumphant, joyful, and focused. She is looking just past Richard Brompton with a mischievous eye: might he be serving her in some other way as well? He died at age 49 a year after this portrait, which captures the exultation and deliciousness of her being—“rosy, ripe and succulent,” as Byron describes her (DJ 9:62)—so different from the stiff portraits that are usually reproduced, where her bearing and her face are smug and tight, or lax and ferocious, darkened by brutality or lacquer.[1]

Fig. 1

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Catherine’s charm in Brompton’s portrait is corroborated by the British envoy George Macartney in 1766. He is amazed “with what address she mingles the ease of behavior with the dignity of her rank, with what facility she familiarizes herself with the meanest of her subjects, without losing a point of her authority and with what astonishing magic she inspires at once both respect and affection. Her conversation is brilliant.” British spies and ambassadors such as Sir Charles Hanberry-Williams, John Hobart, Earl of Buckingham, and Sir James Harris confirm her beauty and liveliness, while the French secret agent Jean Louis Favier, underscoring her intelligence, reports her “hermit-like” work in her library as she makes a serious study of Diderot’s Encyclopedia, adapting its principles for her own treatise on government, named The Great Instruction, which was called a “masterpiece” of enlightenment reforms (Alexander 99-100, 74, 284, 59, 101). Reforms based on her widely distributed book got bogged down in wrangling committees and were only partially enacted. In Enlightenment France, her Great Instruction was banned as too radical (Massie 350).

But this brainy follower of Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot, who had counseled clemency, founded hospitals and orphanages, considered universal male suffrage, undergone vaccination, and urged religious toleration generally and toward Muslim populations in the Crimea specifically, changed her tack as a result of external events. In 1774, fearful of the “orgies of cruelty” in the Pugachev revolt in the south and of a northern invasion by Gustavus III of Sweden, she made an abrupt shift away from Enlightenment values, as Massie, her most admiring biographer, is compelled to admit (399, 410). First, she conspired with Frederick II of Prussia and Joseph II of Austria to dismember Poland in the three Polish partitions, even as Poland was ruled by one of her early lovers, Stanislaw Poniatowski, who was consoled for the loss of his kingdom by gifts of serfs, land, and diamonds. Catherine acted viciously in Poland, especially to Koskiusko, the liberator beloved by Wordsworth and Coleridge (Massie 558). Second, she turned Generals Potemkin and Suvarov loose in the South in the ongoing war with the Ottoman Empire, where the most famous of many unforgiving battles was the siege of Ismail on 22 December 1790. Her major favorites—Saltykov, Orlov, and Potemkin—helped her seize and maintain her power through a combination of erotic and strategic schemes that gave her a salacious reputation, now often admired as realpolitik and also feminist self-development.[2] Even as she wrote Voltaire explaining her strategy, she ploughed ahead with wars on three fronts, calling up larger drafts of manpower and taxes from the provinces.

When Catherine was 63, a grandmother doting on her grandsons Alexander and Constantine, Coleridge was only twenty, but already studying her tactics. In his 1792 Latin declamation at college, Coleridge lambasts Catherine for sending General Suvorov to destroy a city for no purpose but her own fame, bidding her commander to leave no one alive. He commands his listeners: “Reflect therefore on the unhappy war recently waged by the Russians against the Turks; see before your eyes the capture of the town of Izmail, the walls destroyed, the buildings ravaged by fire, and thirty thousand people breathing their last; and since you were not there picture in thought the miseries, the tears, the wails of the survivors. Would you not wish to examine carefully those responsible for such great disasters? Yet this too was Fame!” (SWF 1: 22-3). The specificity of the numbers and the vivid panorama anticipate Don Juan, canto 8.

The young Coleridge was a shrewd reader of politics. In numerous sections on “Foreign Intelligence” in The Watchman (1796), his journal observing the current political scene, Coleridge warns his country to attend to Catherine’s distant maneuvers. While most political commentators of the 1790s concentrate on France and French imperial ventures into Switzerland, Italy, and Germany as well as French threats to England, Coleridge exhorts his readers to notice how Catherine, taking advantage of the preoccupation with France, extends her borders south to Kerch, west into Poland, and north into the Baltic sea area also claimed by Gustavus III of Sweden. On 17 March 1796, he reports the heroic defiance of one of the Polish prisoners of war, whose dying shout was, “Tell the Czarina, before whom you only crawl and cringe, that Poland still contains Republicans” (Watchman 113-4, 254). As the Russian troops rolled into the fortress of Choczim on 30 March 1796, Coleridge warns England and the rest of Europe to pay attention: “it was while the south of Europe was exclusively attached to the war against France, that the Courts of Vienna, of Petersburgh, and London, concluded that famous Treaty of Alliance, of which the invasion of Poland was the prelude. This event, so important in itself, has not turned the attention of a single Power of Europe from the war they carry on against France” (Watchman 296). In an analysis worthy of von Clausewitz, Coleridge sees Pitt facilitating the Russian advances into southeastern Europe as a buffer against the French and the Ottomans, anticipating Sir Alexander Ball’s predictions about this same strategy by thirteen years.[3] Gillray’s cartoon shows Pitt on a tight rope balancing power between the Ottomans and a blowsy and lascivious Catherine (Fig. 2). Coleridge is “amazed at the inaction of the Powers of Europe” during the invasions of both Poland and of the Ottoman Empire, allowing the Empress of the North to shift the balance of power in a huge area of several colliding empires. Coleridge also warns against her foray into Finland, and the reactions of the Swedes to this third front (Watchman 326).

Fig. 2

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Surprisingly, even as he rails against her willingness to “let loose all the furies of Death and Famine on her unoffending neighbours,” he also acknowledges that she has attempted “to diffuse knowledge and happiness among her subjects, to remove bad laws, or to substitute good ones,” and that her domestic reforms based on enlightenment principles have been balked in her own country by vested interests and dangerous conspiracies (Watchman 306). In The Watchman, then, Coleridge’s warnings against the Empress of the North are political; he regards her as a ruthless, profligate, but strategically sly leader. In The Watchman he attacks her policies, not her person.

A mere six months later, however, Coleridge’s alarm at Catherine’s actions has mutated into a personal hatred for her. Carl Woodring says that “above all other tyrants he detested Catherine.” He felt “genuine moral abhorrence” for her: like Clytemnestra, she is monstrous, lecherous, and murderous (Woodring 49-50). Instead of the balanced discussion of strategies set forth in his prose, his “Ode on the Departing Year” describes her in scurrilously sexual terms, terms that he would only use much later in his satire on high class divorce called “Philosophical Apology for the Ladies, An Ode, addressed to Lord Kenyon” (EOT 3: 302) where sexually errant women are comically compared to insects (Taylor EC 135-6). This change in emphasis raises questions. Was this scurrility released by his shift into poetry from the balanced political analysis of his journalism? Did the horrors of the wars that Catherine waged unleash hysterical fears? Was this unusually sexual vocabulary the only way he could rouse his male readers to notice the coming peril?

The sudden introduction of sex into his thinking about Catherine’s power is striking. She is more physically sexual than the fearsome female “Nightmare Life-in-Death” in the later Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as engulfing as the predatory Geraldine in the later “Christabel.” At the same time that the poem expresses disgust at Catherine’s sexual body, the poem transforms her into an allegory, a figure like “Sin” out of Milton’s Paradise Lost book 2, lovely above the waist, horrific below, less than human and simultaneously inhuman, politically vicious and personally voracious, an “insatiate Hag” (l. 45) and an “exterminating Fiend” (l. 58). Even as Coleridge speaks of her as an allegory of the abstract forces that are destroying Europe, he knows that she is a real person, a real force, and a real danger.

“Ode on the Departing Year” opens with an epigraph from and then reenactment of Cassandra’s cries in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. The poet speaks in the voice of an outcast woman soon to be killed as the bearer of bad news. The prophetic voice, melding Greek and Hebrew traditions, swirls through the opening strains of the poem, as Coleridge summons the spirits of the earth and hears the groans of the old year giving birth to the new one. He recreates an oratorio of voices organized in a slightly varied version of the classical ode. Cassandra had prophesied the death of another tyrant guilty of sexual and political offenses (sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia and a generation of men for his own fame). With a demonic shriek, the poet channels the howling Cassandra to denounce Catherine, who has just died a month before, allegedly either in the saddle or under a horse, but actually alone, of a stroke, at 67 (Alexander 324-5).

In the first version of the ode in 1796, published in The Cambridge Intelligencer and then in a pamphlet, but not in Sybilline Leaves of 1817, a long footnote rises up from the bottom of the page. The footnote speaks with a different voice, this time chattily informative then exploding into a tirade:

(I never dared figure the Russian Sovereign to my imagination under the Dear and venerable character of WOMAN—WOMAN, that complex term For Mother, Sister, Wife!) “I rejoice as at the disenshrining of a Daemon! I rejoice, as at the extinction of the evil Principle impersonated!

PW 1: 309

The footnote enlarges on Coleridge’s loathing of Catherine’s “foul” life in the poem (l. 59); it emphasizes the discrepancy between Catherine’s beauty and her rapine, her nurturing roles as wife, mother, and daughter contrasted with her destructions of people. It works to allegorize and further dehumanize the empress. Catherine is not a woman. She is a daemon, and the evil Principle personified. Catherine ceases to be a person and becomes an abstraction, reversing the allegorical process of another poem of this period, “Fire, Famine, Slaughter,” where abstractions are personified (Taylor, “Fire”). Catherine is an allegory of “the evil Principle” while at the same time she is an energized spirit as a “Daemon,” also impersonal. In claiming that she is not a person, Coleridge is absolved of his uncharitable fury and can despise her freely. He rejoices in her death, for, as Byron will agree in attacking “carotid-artery-cutting Castlereagh” (DJ 10: 59), death does not change the tyranny, cruelty, or failure of the life that preceded it.

Even while she is disembodied from person to abstract principle or daemonic spirit, her personal body and its excesses of violence and sexuality overwhelm the footnote. Denouncing the massacre of Ismail, which occurred six years before the day of Catherine’s death, the “THIRTY THOUSAND HUMAN BEINGS, MEN, WOMEN, & CHILDREN, murdered in cold blood,” Coleridge asks, “Why should I recall the poisoning of her husband, her iniquities in Poland, or her late unmotivated attack on Persia, the desolating ambition of her public Life, or the libidinous excesses of her private Hours!” In this list, public injustices such as Poland and Persia alternate with Catherine’s private acts of arranging her husband’s murder and enjoying “libidinous excesses.” His note ends with a gauntlet thrown down to future poets: “I have no wish to qualify myself for the office of Historiographer to the King of Hell---.” Possibly Byron, reading this poem, which he claimed to prefer along with “Fire, Famine, Slaughter” to any others, thought to himself: “Hah! I will be that historiographer.”

Ending the page-long footnote, the reader comes up for air into the first epode. Here an allegorical male figure “Ambition,” a “mailed Monarch,” perhaps an amalgam of European royalist military leaders, seeks Catherine: “Ah! Whither does the Northern Conqueress stay?” “The Northern Conqueress” can no longer charge forward and weigh down her chariot with her vast girth. At last she has been “stunn’d by Death’s twice mortal mace”;

No more on MURDER’S lurid face

Th’ insatiate Hag shall glote with drunken eye!


Rejoicing in her death, the poet recalls her life with revulsion. He imagines her as a hideous female looking face to face at a gigantic personification named “Murder” over whom she drools. She is a hag, old, ugly, and drunken, whose desires can never again be fulfilled. The spirits of all the dead “that gasp’d on Warsaw’s plain” or “fell” “at Ismail’s tower,” of the mothers and infants who were massacred and left “uncoffin’d,” circle around her grave.

Th’exterminating Fiend is fled—

(Foul her Life and dark her Doom!)


Coleridge, the Romantic bard and new Cassandra, summons the dead from Ismail and Warsaw to dance in magical rites around Catherine’s tomb, rousing the power of the people against tyranny:

Mighty Army of the Dead,

Dance, like Death-fires, round her Tomb!


The Epode concludes with a general attack on tyrants, putting Catherine in the larger context of Coleridge’s horror at injustice around the globe, making a quick turn to the ongoing siege of Mantua by Napoleon’s troops, parallel to, but less gruesome than, the siege of Ismail. Wailing against suppressions during the departing year of 1796, the poet prophesies the doom of Albion (l. 130) and retreats from engagement with political chaos. “Unpartaking of the evil thing,” he “recenters” his immortal mind (ll. 163, 167).

In these fertile stanzas Coleridge introduces some of the techniques that he will develop in later poems and that will influence the next generation of Romantic poets: he deploys numerous voices, suspends clauses in sinuously enjambed articulations, imitates magical chants, quickens and delays his meters, and experiments with the complex transformations of allegory as a method of representing in blocks a multitude of individual acts of violence. The poem is flush with metrical, rhetorical, and thematic invitations to others for future work. Byron is one who accepts these invitations.

Coleridge’s work inspires two aspects of Byron’s Don Juan. Byron had read Coleridge’s “Ode to the Departing Year” with enthusiasm. In 1819 he called Coleridge a “future vates, poet and seer of the Morning Post . . . who ultimately prophesied the downfall of Buonaparte, to which he himself mainly contributed, by giving him the nickname of ‘the Corsican,’ was then employed in predicting the damnation of Mr. Pitt, and the desolation of England, in the two very best copies of verses he ever wrote, to wit, the infernal eclogue of `Fire, Famine, and Slaughter,’ and the ‘Ode to the Departing Year” (Some Observations 308). Recognizing Coleridge as a prophet and as a potent writer who caused by his language a change in the career of Napoleon, Byron thus elevates these two poems above the more famous “Kubla Khan” and “Christabel,” which he often recited and recommended to others. A second influence was Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, which Byron read in the autumn of 1817. In addition to suggesting an ethical framework for his poem, as will be shown later, Biographia also provided hints for a possible hero for Byron’s epic. In the added chapter 23, where Coleridge derides Charles Maturin’s gothic play Bertram, Coleridge suggests to future writers the popular figure of Don Juan the libertine, atheist, materialist, and seducer as a potential hero. He suggests that this hero would allow the development of themes of wickedness, free agency, and “great intellectual Lordship” and that readers would have mixed feelings about that “outrageous drawcansir in love affairs” (BL 2: 213). Pursuing Coleridge’s suggestion of writing about Don Juan—a man who possesses “the power of captivating and enchanting the affections of the other sex,”—Byron enriches it with the specific suggestions offered in the earlier “Ode to the Departing Year.” Sparked by Coleridge’s passionate outrage at Catherine, Byron directs his hero Don Juan to Russian and Ottoman settings, where Catherine comes to be the tyrant who engulfs men and devastates worlds.

Twenty-five years after Coleridge’s Ode was published, Byron in Don Juan cantos 6-10 is similarly repelled and fascinated by Catherine. He borrows Coleridge’s lurid connection between massacre and sexuality. He echoes Coleridge’s rage at Catherine’s predations on the battlefield and in the bedroom, sharpening the view that sex is central “to Byron’s conception of oppression” (Kernberger 48). Byron dwells on Catherine at length.[4] He adapts two of Coleridge’s important strategies: portraying her as the personification of evil and extensively probing her sexuality, her “drunken” eye, her “insatiate” desire, and her “Foul” life, as Coleridge called it.[5] Coleridge debased her to the level of a ravenous animal, freeing himself to exult in her death. Byron identifies her with sex and death on a cosmic scale. Coleridge plants the seed of sexual innuendo when he asks “what care I for the libidinous excesses of her private hours?” Byron answers, “I care:” he does want to know about the lascivious bed and the “foul” life. Coleridge’s line— “Ah! Wither does the Northern Conqueress stay?”—is an Oh-ha moment. It resonates in Byron’s rhapsodic lines:

Oh Catherine! (for of all interjections,

 To thee both oh! And ah! belong, of right,

In Love and War

9: 65

The “Ah!” and the “Oh!” expostulate her enthusiasm for murder and for sex. This “Ah!,” echoed from Coleridge’s ode (l. 40), elides into the “Oh!” on a continuum of vowels. These almost identical outcries sound out the close aural affiliation of Love and War and bespeak their common origin. Classical myths support this identification. Where Woodring had linked Coleridge’s Catherine to Clytemnestra, Manning compares Byron’s Catherine to Pasiphae, yoking lust and war, receiving tribute in the disguise of a cow. Manning called Catherine “the archetype of the devouring mother whose forced embrace unmans her son” (Manning 51, 61-2). As Avkhimovich argues, Catherine’s absolute power is embodied in her body (28-30).

Taking a cue from Coleridge’s dehumanization of Catherine, Byron in Don Juan dehumanizes her by identifying her political power with her genitalia. He encapsulates her in the rhetorical device of synecdoche. Rather than being a person, she is the essential gate of entry and exit, life and death, the mysterious female center. Unlike England’s great queen Elizabeth, whom Byron calls stingy and cold (9: 81), Catherine fucks, breeds, exhausts, discards, or suffocates her victims in a remote and frozen cell. She is both preying mantis and queen bee. The vocabulary encircling Catherine debases her to a whole shrunk to a hole. In her case the word “whole” reverberates with homophonic innuendoes, “the whole Empress,” “this great whole” (DJ 9: 58). When Byron calls her the “grand Epitome/ Of that great cause of War” (9: 57), he uses another form of synecdoche, “a part or thing that is representative or typical of the characteristics or general quality of the whole.”

Already in Canto the Sixth Byron begins his riff on Coleridge’s “insatiate Hag,” now transformed into “the greatest of all sovereigns and w[hore]s” (DJ 6: 92). At the same moment he bows gallantly to his fellow aristocrat, Catherine’s cherished grandson Alexander II, the current Tzar. Surreptitiously, he casts doubt on the legitimacy of Alexander’s father Paul, who was probably not the son of Catherine’s husband Peter III, but of her lover Saltykov, whom she summoned to her bed to break nine years of childlessness due to her husband’s impotence (DJ 6: 90, iii; Alexander 46). Avkhimovich suggests that such doubts about Alexander’s legitimacy cast a shadow over the dynasty, and implicate Alexander in the lineage of tyranny (6). Byron insinuates that he has a personal interest in such slips in legitimacy through his probably spurious connection with “Biron,” the Count of Kurland, who was the favorite of the Princess Anna (DJ 9: 58, 4).[6] Byron thus presents his somewhat shaky mitteleuropaische credentials.

Not only is Catherine “the greatest of all sovereigns and w[hores]s,” but she is also the “Queen of Queans” (9: 96). In the cantos from Ismail to St Petersburg Byron spins out the synonyms for female genitalia, “quean” fitting well as a homophone for her royal role. In these cantos Catherine’s quean is the core matter. In canto 9 stanzas 55 and 56 Byron turns from his narrative to address directly this imperial “queint,” a Chaucerian variant of quean. He shifts his mode of address to an intimate “Thou,” and makes bold to speak to “it” for sixteen lines.

Oh thou “teterrima causa” of all “belli”—

 Thou gate of Life and Death—thou nondescript!

Whence is our exit and our entrance,—well I

 May pause in pondering how all souls are dipped

In thy perennial fountain; —how man fell I

 Know not, since Knowledge saw her branches stripped

Of her first fruit; but how he falls and rises

Since, —thou hast settled beyond all surmises.

9: 55

Several critics have noted this “apostrophe to the vulva,” as Lang calls it (164). Chandler explains that “the addressee of the apostrophe in stanzas 55 and 56, the causa in question, as the Latin allusion makes clear, is the Horatian cunnus, and Byron’s figurings of it at this key juncture in the poem mark some of the most complex poetry he ever composed” (383-8). In roughly the center of book 9, the climax of the poem, the book about the fall modeled on Milton’s book nine of Paradise Lost, Byron’s narrator addresses Catherine’s quean directly in a two-stanza apostrophe. The second stanza is almost tender in its wooing praise:

Some call thee “the worst cause of War, but I

 Maintain thou art the best: for after all,

From thee we come, to thee we go, and why

 To get at thee not batter down a wall,

Or waste a World? Since no one can deny

 Thou dost replenish worlds both great and small:

With—or without thee—all things at a stand

Are, or would be, thou sea of Life’s dry land!

9: 56

Speaking intimately to the cunnus as a “Thou,” Byron paradoxically transforms the “Thing” (another synonym) into a “Thou,” a person. The “thing” is personified, while the queen herself in depersonalized or “bething’d,” to use a Coleridgean coinage. The “private part” is universal and double; the worst cause of all wars, and also the source of all life, the “perennial fountain,” whence birth emerges and where lust returns to “die.”

With the cunnus the site of individual dramas of rising and falling and also the nexus of lust and war, the second stanza admires the well-known “monosyllable” or “nondescript.” It extends its blazon to the female genitalia in general, epitomized specifically by Catherine’s private part or even by her radiating person taken as a “whole,” or “three parts of this great whole.” Catherine’s “thing” is “the oldest thing on record and yet new!” (9: 64); “a Kind of Thing” (9: 69, 70). These epithets point forward to Yeats: the “wall” and the “waste” of “a world” forecast Yeats’ similar telescoping of sex and massacre in “Leda and the Swan.” In this stanza the “fountain” of the previous stanza becomes a “sea of Life,” feeding the desert around it. As a “mons veneris” Catherine is a “heaven-kissing Hill” (9: 66) where “gigantic gentlemen” (9: 54, 4) “stand” to satisfy her “prime of life, just now in juicy vigour” (9: 72). She is a “whirlwind” in her head, a “whirlpool full of depth and danger” below (9: 64), the “sulphurous pit,” as Lear eloquently recalled his dead wife (King Lear, Act 3, scene 7, 125-9), and yet, miraculously, the origin of all.

Turning Catherine’s “thing” into a “Thou” at this juncture complicates Byron’s meaning. Do the recurrent plays on synonyms for Catherine’s “thing” point to revulsion at her sexuality and consequent debasement of her being or to celebration of the life force that the “thou” embodies and generates? In his ability to keep these alternate views in suspension, Byron moves away from Coleridge’s furious disgust. He differs from Coleridge in finding Catherine’s libido funny and in directing his witticisms to his sociable manly audience, who would relish these fast-flying slangy puns and share in the pleasure of a common thing. Coleridge himself, also a sociable fellow who in early life composed erotic verses, admired Byron’s “convulsive Drolleries and Spasmodic Funninesses” (Garrett 67). By addressing the synechdochal “Thing” as an apostrophized, personified “Thou,” however mockingly, Byron opens the possibility of admiration for the great woman’s vitality and perhaps for female vitality in general. In this humorous praise Byron’s ironies are so complex that a glimpse of delight enters the depiction of Catherine. She appreciates sexual vitality, as Jackson shows that Byron does (29-37). Instead of tossing Don Juan and Dudu into the ocean in a sack, as the powerful Ottoman Sultana, Gulbayez, plans to do (DJ 6: 113), she generously sends her young lover on a rest cure.

Byron’s word-play and allusions continue in canto eleven where English women, too, are “sites,” “places,” and “things” (e.g. 11: 34), easily rhymed synonyms for what Farmer and Henley’s Slang and its Analogues gathers in ten dense pages under the euphemism “Monosyllable.”[7] “The Garden of Eden” is another such synonym, amusingly relevant to the theme of the Fall in Canto 9, where descent is caused by woman, or by a man weakened by a woman, with many reference to Eve, apples, and falling. Byron’s fallings recall Milton’s syncopated falls, with sentences winding and collapsing down to the waste water (Ridenour 39-45). Byron’s references to Hell and Dante in cantos 8, 9, and 10, pursue the infernal aspect of the Don Juan theme as portrayed in Moliere’s Dom Juan and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, fulfilling the task Coleridge assigned him to be the “historiographer of Hell.”

Byron’s apostrophe to the “Thou” that is Empress Catherine’s essence is the center of gravity in the poem, a place to fall into or rise to salute. Centrally positioned in the crucial ninth canto, it interrupts the narrative of Don Juan’s arrival in St. Petersburg bearing a message about the annihilation of the city of Ismail. This annihilation has been ordered by a powerful person extraordinarily invigorated by her sexuality. With his hymn to the queen’s quean, Byron alerts us to the chasm of darkness underlying all life, especially precarious for men. While the “nondescript” replenishes worlds, it also engulfs them. It brings death as well as life, “dying” as well as “standing.” The fall into the “thing” destroys male individuality; it is a “lion’s den,” an “ocean,” “the lap of the salt sea, or Thetis” (9: 69). In Manning’s words, “the numerous genital puns are a gauge of the depersonalization” (64). These puns underlie a broader view of femaleness as the cause of the downfall of man, either because, as Wolfson declares, “women are always the predators” (598), or because, as Franklin argues, both men and women are predators when they have the power (148). Political horror gives Byron a doorway to talk about sexual predation.

Andrew Elfenbein records “the dark horror of sexuality” in Don Juan (66-72). He describes the charming way Byron eludes with dashes and rhymes the taboos of incest with sisters and pedophilia with boys. But some taboos are not banal or charming; they are nightmarish. Most prevalent in Canto 9 is the Oedipus taboo against mothers or older women corrupting boys, which Byron finds particularly repulsive in the figure of the rapacious Catherine ogling the young guardsmen whom she could summon to her chambers at the flick of an eyelash, send to the front lines, or behead in more ways than one. Juan brings the message from the front lines that Ismail has been crushed; the messenger pleases as much as the message (9: 57-58). Then begins the engulfing of Don Juan by the gigantic empress, embodying the maelstrom of femaleness, as some children fear going down with the bath water in the tub. The theme of falling reiterates: Don Juan falls into places, sites, things. He falls so often, “dies” so often, that by canto 10, stanzas 37- 44, he is sick with exhaustion and pollution. Massie describes the enfeeblement of Catherine’s last boy-toy Mamonov (successor to Lanskoy) and his desperation to escape (487). Similarly, Don Juan has to be shipped on a diplomatic mission to England (a back-handed compliment to the country Byron has abandoned) to be cured. Coleridge’s denunciation of the “insatiate Hag” inspired Byron in his bitterly comic denunciation of the Empress herself and “the dark and vicious place” (King Lear, Act 5, scene 3, 173) that she epitomizes in canto 9 of Don Juan.

A fundamental connection between the two poets is their attention to the eroding distinction between persons and things. By the time Byron began writing Don Juan in 1818 in Venice, Coleridge had already established in 1817 in Biographia Literaria the ethical distinctions between the essentially different entities of “person” and “thing,” formulations that drew from Kant but came to dominate his own sense of justice. Coleridge extended the principle to child labor, to slavery, and to uncompensated labor in Lay Sermons (BL 1: 205; LS 207). He pronounced the central principle of morality to be “that a person can never become a thing, nor be treated as such without wrong” (Friend 1: 190). As inexplicable as he claimed to find Coleridge’s prose, Byron could not have missed this central principle, which became predominant in the Catherine cantos of Don Juan. Byron’s “Russian Cantos” culminate his “universal anti-war critique” (Avkhimovich 28-30). For both Coleridge and Byron, independently or not, the personal and the political relate in a policy of using other persons as things or commodities, as cannon fodder, serfs, slaves, property, young boys as lovers picked up and discarded at whim,[8] and teenagers in arranged marriages. Catherine herself had been forced by her ambitious mother in collusion with the Empress Elizabeth of Russia to marry at 16 the sickeningly disfigured Paul, also 16, whom she may or may not have murdered. For Catherine the slaughter at Ishmael was a “pastime,” “a main of cocks, / Wherein she liked her own to stand like rocks” (9: 29), ending in the “manure of clay.” In an epic that Manning has shown is essentially concerned with “liberty” (59), the liberty of individuals to choose their own directions to live, being treated as a person is the essential right, as a thing, the essential wrong. Without such a right “men are but maggots of some huge earth’s burial” (9: 39). Revulsion against using others as things is the crucial connection between the two poets, even more central than their humor, sociability, biblical expertise, metrical elegance, syntactical variety, and interest in the freedom to divorce from spiritually suffocating unions.

Catherine’s beauty and intelligence do not outweigh the fact that she murdered 30,000 men, women, and children in a day in Ismail, not to speak of the many thousands killed in the massacre of Praga and other Polish predations. This is the number that Coleridge gives in his early college declamation, and Byron repeats it, borrowing also the roiling and tossing carnage. Paradoxically, however, Catherine is just the sort of blonde, light, racing, intelligent woman that Coleridge admired, when he praised the Duchess of Devonshire in his ode to her power and beauty, and when he described in an inked-out notebook entry his first meeting with Sara Hutchinson, flushed from riding (Cheshire 23-4). Both energetic, dewy women were riders, in Catherine’s case wearing men’s riding gear and straddling her horse “Brilliant.” For Byron, Catherine’s casual liaisons resemble the parallel aristocratic culture of London that Byron enjoyed, bedding various middle aged Whig ladies, whose husbands looked the other way (Elfenbein 65). Catherine may look superficially like the real women that Coleridge and Byron admired in England, but her ferocity as a ruler transforms her into a different order of being, a nightmarish figure of rampant control.

This Northern “Scarlett” Empress, extraordinary in her physique, her athleticism on horseback, her drive to power, her sexual voracity, her linguistic skills, her vast and enlightened reading, her sly but generous management of deputies, and her beauty, was a site for these two poets to struggle with the aberrant cruelty of the female in power, to expand her into an allegory or compress her into a palpable image, and in Byron’s case, perhaps even to praise her zest.