Canto 6, stanza 52, from Byron's Don Juan:

Dudù, as has been said, was a sweet creature,
Not very dashing, but extremely winning,
With the most regulated charms of feature,
Which painters cannot catch like faces sinning
Against proportion -- the wild strokes of nature
Which they hit off at once in the beginning,
Full of expression, right or wrong, that strike,
And pleasing or unpleasing, still are like
.

What is the meaning of this all in plain English - especially the part in bold?

My attempts at deciphering this:

  1. She had a symmetrical face ("regulated charms of feature")? Hm.. Or, to the contrary, her face and body were not symmetrical?

  2. Painters fail to reflect such "asymmetrical charms" in their paintings? In comparison, they fail to reflect "faces that sin against proportion".

  3. Painters "hit off" = "describe in few characteristic strokes of a brush" - in the beginning of their work upon a portrait.

  4. What does "that strike" refer to? The strokes left on the canvas by the painters "strike" the viewers as very interesting/beautiful?

  5. The phrase "still are like" leaves me completely baffled. Such strokes on the canvas, reflecting the irregular but characteristic features, are all alike, no matter who is being painted?

I've reread the stanza many times but I cannot get a grip on its meaning. Once I think I understand some particular phrase, the general meaning starts to crawl apart because it fails to dovetail with other phrases.

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The key to this passage is “like” meaning “to the same extent as”, but I will gloss the whole thing. When I give a numbered sense of a word, it’s from the Oxford English Dictionary.

With the most regulated charms of feature,

“Regulate” means “make regular or even in form” (sense 3), so this means that Dudù's looks were well-proportioned and symmetrical.

Which painters cannot catch like faces sinning
Against proportion

“Like” means “to the same extent as” (sense B1a), so this means that painters cannot capture well-regulated faces as well as they can ill-proportioned faces.

— the wild strokes of nature

“Wild” means “of strange aspect; fantastic in appearance” (sense 14b) or “aimed wide of the mark, or at random” (sense 15); and “stroke” means “movement of the brush in painting” (sense 16a) or “line of a face or form” (sense 18) so this is another description of ill-proportioned faces.

Which they hit off at once in the beginning,

“Hit off” means “reproduce successfully” (as you correctly noted in the post), so this means that painters are able to quickly and successfully sketch ill-proportioned faces.

Full of expression, right or wrong, that strike,

“Strike” means “impress or arrest (the eye, view, sight)” (sense 65), so this means that whether the painter captures the ill-proportioned subject’s expression accurately or not, the result nonetheless impresses the viewer.

And pleasing or unpleasing, still are like.

“Like” means “bearing a faithful resemblance to the subject” (sense 5) so this means that whether or not the effect pleases the viewer, the portrait (of the ill-proportioned subject) is still a faithful representation.

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