Every successful poem is unsurpassable in its own way. Even a brief rhyme, like—
—cannot be improved upon, repeated, or replicated. It is a closed system. It serves as a lodestone rock that shipwrecks its imitators. John Dryden asked the elderly John Milton permission to recast Paradise Lost in rhymed couplets. The Italian poet Torquato Tasso, in his late-life madness, rewrote the entire Jerusalem Delivered as the (I am told) much inferior Jerusalem Conquered. After the fait accompli of someone else’s successful poem, the best that pen-envy can do is incorporate through pastiche, sampling, and allusion.
Allowing for this individual unsurpassability of successful poems, and the futility of ranking one kind of successful poem above another, I would like to nominate two poems in this language as being unsurpassable, not in their individual word-configuration, but categorically. This requires me to introduce two arbitrary (but not meaningless) categories: The Serious Poem and the Unserious Poem. If we divide (yes, arbitrarily and broadly) English-language poems into these two categories, two Absolutely Unsurpassable poems distinguish themselves. The first is Shakespeare’s King Lear. The second is Lord Byron’s Don Juan.
At this point I should insist that, if you haven’t read Don Juan, please put it on the top of your list. Just as it was a corrective for the Romantic Era in English verse, it is triply a corrective for 21th-century American verse, which has spliced Romantic self-absorption with Modernist obscurantism with a prosaic formal slackness all its own: We have sucked up and distilled the worst tendencies of the past two centuries. This is a tragic phenomenon but not without remedy: Byron’s Don Juan, specifically. The book ought to be required reading in poetry-writing programs nationwide. End digression.
Byron was the supreme comic poet in this language, just as Shakespeare was the supreme tragic one. I have tried to learn what I can from these two Unsurpassable poems, and I’ve found that these twin Everests in English-language poetry have two things in common.
One: They both harness the opposite effect to their primary purpose. Lear has sustained comic stretches starring the Fool, but the wit and (literally) madcap verbal comedy are there to make the tragedy more tragic. In a mirror-image way, Byron launches into occasional Romantic passages that parody the Romantic Poet Par Excellence—who happens to be the younger Lord Byron of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the Oriental Romances. The suddenly serious passages, describing, say, Juan and Haidee on the seashore, are serious passages set there to set off the comedy. Yet when they’re done they are done, curiously enough, in earnest. He doesn’t undercut the stanza with a wink or a rolling of the eyes. The lesson to be learned here, I think, is heterogeneity. Not just serious-unserious heterogeneity of content; both poems have formal heterogeneity as well. Shakespeare achieves it with blank verse and the “prose poetry” of the mad scenes; Byron does it with variations in tone and register within his ingenious ottava rima.
Another aside: there is something inherently absurd or comic about rhyming thrice on the same sound in English. This is why comic ghazals in English (like Edward Lear’s “The Akond of Swat”) work so much better than serious ones. This is also why Byron’s ottava rima (abababcc), which he derived from Ariosto and Tasso, is the only verse form funnier in English than the well-turned couplet (and actually recruits the well-turned couplet, in the stanza’s last two lines). Ottava rima is supremely, almost innately comic in English, and Byron sensed this instinctively. He successfully makes you forget its origin; in its native Italian, this stanza was used for chivalric romances full of thrills and pathos and the First Crusade.
The second thing these unsurpassable poems have in common is something unexpected: nihilism. A larger framework of moral justice and cosmic comeuppance is missing from Lear.
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the Gods; they kill us for their sport.
The same thing is missing from Don Juan, too, in a way it isn’t, say, from Paradise Lost. This was, perhaps, the unspeakable advantage of Shakespeare the Tragic Poet and Byron the Comic Poet, each at his unsurpassable best: This refusal to justify the vivid pageantry of their language with a cosmic consolation. As Byron himself wrote to a friend about Don Juan,
It may be profligate, but is it not life, is it not the thing?
It may be that Don Juan has not received its due because it is unfinished, though I doubt it; Chaucer’s and Spenser’s big narrative poems are both unfinished, too. All three of these unfinished English narrative poems possessed from the start something outsize, something infinite in their structure which made their completion impossible. The seemingly most ambitious English narrative poem, Paradise Lost, is actually the most modest, in spite of its claims: For in it Milton shies from the people-cluttered pageant of life (cf. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron) and opts for the neatly pre-structured Bible story: Eve, not the Wife of Bath. That people-cluttered pageant, by the way, would soon become the provenance of novels. Byron’s was the last attempt to contain it in verse; and he contained it, not in the characters and events of the story, but entirely, miraculously, in the voice of the poem’s narrator. This narrator is the most fully developed comic character since Falstaff, who isn’t half as funny or a quarter as clever. To be honest, I have no idea why this poem isn’t much more famous. I feel like I never hear about it.
The fact that Byron’s narrator is cut off in mid poem—actually, is where Don Juan cuts off really the middle of the poem? Isn’t the whole poem constantly in medias res, isn’t this “comic epic” not really about its hero or what he does, but about its narrator and his own endlessly inventive, endlessly divagating monologue? In the poem’s abrupt cut off—which corresponds in “real life” to a debauched English nobleman in Greece trying to do something actually noble with himself, and dying in the process—the nihilism underlying the poem is perfectly expressed. Its form, by accident, matches its spirit. We talk far too much about the Byronic hero. The really interesting thing in Byron’s oeuvre is the sudden silence at the end of this poem: the silence of Byronic laughter.