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From Byron's Don Juan:

Their poet, a sad trimmer, but no less
In company a very pleasant fellow,
Had been the favourite of full many a mess
Of men, and made them speeches when half mellow;
And though his meaning they could rarely guess,
Yet still they deign'd to hiccup or to bellow
The glorious meed of popular applause,
Of which the first ne'er knows the second cause.

What is the meaning of the line in bold? What is the first cause and what is the second cause? How can a cause know another cause?

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    "The first" might refer to "many a mess of men", that is, his tipsy audience, that doesn't even know why it's laughing. [Been there, done that, alas.] – kimchi lover Jan 6 '18 at 12:42
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    An alternative to @kimchilover's interpretation may be that "the first" is the poet who does not know the reason for the applause. – Bellerophon Jan 8 '18 at 13:36
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The only way that I can make sense of this line is if Byron messed it up for the sake of the rhythm and the rhyme. If you imagine starting out with the phrase:

the first never knows the cause of the second

and then turning it around so that ‘cause’ is at the end of the line where it can rhyme with ‘applause’, then ‘the second’ gets replaced by ‘which’ and the result is:

of which the first ne’er knows the cause

but this lacks two syllables of a pentameter, and ‘first’ is hard to make sense of without ‘second’ to go with it. So you’d like to put ‘second’ back in somewhere, but there is nowhere good to put it. If you put it in the only place where it (just about) fits syntactically, you get:

of which second the first ne’er knows the cause

which is hard to understand and doesn’t scan. So I imagine that Byron said, “to hell with syntax!” and put ‘second’ before ‘cause’ where it makes sense semantically but not syntactically.

There is no doubt that the ‘second’ is the applause, but what is the ‘first’? This is ambiguous: it could be the poet (meaning that he doesn’t know that the audience are applauding out of drunkenness and good humour and not because they appreciate his speech), or it could be the audience, the ‘mess of men’ (meaning that they don’t know why they are applauding). The satire seems more biting if we take it to be the poet.

  • It's pretty weak satire unless you take it to be the poet. – Peter Shor Apr 1 at 21:23
  • Thank you! It would have been more understandable then if it included a possessive "s": "of which the first never knows the second's cause" – CopperKettle Apr 2 at 4:14

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