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From Byron's Don Juan:

But those who scaled, found out that their advance
Was favour'd by an accident or blunder:
The Greek or Turkish Cohorn's ignorance
Had palisado'd in a way you'd wonder
To see in forts of Netherlands or France

(Though these to our Gibraltar must knock under) --
Right in the middle of the parapet
Just named, these palisades were primly set:

So that on either side some nine or ten
Paces were left, whereon you could contrive
To march; a great convenience to our men,
At least to all those who were left alive,
Who thus could form a line and fight again;
And that which farther aided them to strive
Was, that they could kick down the palisades,
Which scarcely rose much higher than grass blades.

I first thought that "Ignorance had palisadoed cohorns there, just like you may see in forts of Netherlands".

But why is there the possessive s after "cohorn"? Okay.. let's try to assume that "Cohorn's ignorance" is subject in this clause. This "ignorance" had "palisadoed" something - but what exactly?

And "palisades not higher than grass blades"? What is he talking about? I can't wrap my mind around this, and thus I fail to understand these three lines. What do they mean, in plain English?

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Palisado is an obsolete form of palisade, which as a verb means:

To equip with a palisade

... a palisade (noun) in this context being:

A wall of wooden stakes, used as a defensive barrier.

As a verb, "palisade" is usually transitive (has an object), but in context its meaning as an intransitive verb is clear: the object is implied without being mentioned. We can get some idea of the usage of the verb by checking the examples on this Wiktionary page:

  • 1853, Mary Howitt., Strife and Peace:

    The sea breaks upon this coast against a palisadoed fence of rocks and cliffs, around which swarm flocks of polar birds with cries and screams.

  • 1816, Robert Kerr, A General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels, Volume 17:

    At Chaco they had a little earthen fort, with a small ditch palisadoed round it, and a few old honeycombed guns without carriages, and which do not defend the harbour in the least.

Cohorn, in this verse, apparently refers to a Dutch engineer. At least according to Peter Cochran, ed., Aspects of Byron's Don Juan; in the chapter "Mary Shelley's Fair-Copying of Don Juan", he writes:

At VIII, 46, 3, 3, Byron has to identify the Dutch engineer as "Cohorn".


OK, now let's look at your bolded lines again:

The Greek or Turkish Cohorn's ignorance
Had palisado'd in a way you'd wonder
To see in forts of Netherlands or France

Translating this into "plain English", as you asked for:

The ignorant Greek or Turkish engineers had done a bad job of fortifying the defences - you wouldn't see that in Dutch or French forts!

The object of "palisado'd" here is implied by context: it's the parapet being stormed by "our men". The subject is the "ignorance" only symbolically: it was the 'Cohorn' who palisado'd the parapet, but it was their ignorance which screwed up the job.

  • Ah! I thought "cohorn" was a portable mortar. I never wondered why it's capitalized. And I construed the wrong meaning for "you'd wonder". – CopperKettle Jan 13 '18 at 13:14
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    @CopperKettle "Cohorn" is the most confusing word in this passage, I think. It does seem to mean a portable mortar nowadays, but that doesn't make sense in context; I literally had to Google what is a cohorn byron to find some references for this. – Rand al'Thor Jan 13 '18 at 13:18

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