Lord Byron's Don Juan
Byron, George Gordon Byron, Baron
- Henderson, Schuyler
- Date of entry: Apr-26-2006
- Last revised: Nov-28-2006
The story itself commences after the vituperative dedication to Robert Southey and several stanzas mocking contemporary heroes, with Don Juan's birth in Seville to Donna Inez and Don José. The adventures begin with his affair with Donna Julia, his mother's best friend. Donna Julia's husband, Don Alfonso discovers the secret romance, and Don Juan is sent to Cadiz. A shipwreck along the way sees him stranded, the lone survivor; there he meets a pirate's daughter, Haidée. Expelled from this paradise by Haidée's father, the pirate Lambro, he is captured, and sold into slavery.
Gulbayaz, one of the Sultan's harem, has him purchased and smuggled into her company dressed as a girl; after he spends the night in the bed of one of her courtesans, Gulbayaz threatens both with death. When next we see Don Juan, he has escaped. He joins in the Russian attack on Ismail, where he fights valiantly and rescues Leila, a Muslim child. They are taken to St Petersburg, where he impresses Catherine The Great and joins her entourage. Due to illness, he is sent to London, where, as an ambassador for Russia, he joins the Court and finds for Leila a suitable governess; the final cantos see him amongst the Lords and Ladies of British aristocracy, in particular Lady Adeline and the mysterious Aurora Raby.
Written in ottava rima (eight lines of iambic pentameter with an abababcc rhyme scheme), Don Juan consists of a dedication, 16 full cantos (averaging around 100 stanzas) and the introductory fragment of a seventeenth canto. Byron reported that he planned to write many more, boasting that these were but an introduction; his death in Greece at 36 years old marked the end of the poem. If the nominal hero of the poem is Don Juan, the protagonist figures far less than the narrator himself. Because the bulk of Don Juan is an extended riff on other poets, history, patriotism, philosophy, religion, glory in war and social mores, it is not inconceivable that Byron could have gone on for far longer, in the superficially desultory, conversational tone of the narrator.
Don Juan, though beloved and loving, is not a rakish libertine, but a rather sweet young man without much personality. He can be heroic at times, and so worthy of an epic, and yet is often quite passive, especially with the richly-evoked women who dominate the story. His survival is not so much due to his naïveté as to a wholesome innocence, and his loves are marked by fidelity as well as amorous passion.
Byron's famous comedy glitters with caustic couplets and is a paragon of the satirist's art, slashing at cant, hypocrisy and the elevation of mediocrities (or of those whom Byron sees as mediocrities). Byron squeezes humor out the poem's overall form, celebrating "unity" in a poem whose most consistent unity is its digressions, all the while apologizing for the digressions that make up much of the book. He exploits to comic effect the ottava rima itself, with its rhythmic crescendo leading to the concise bathos of the final couplet. Similarly, he has a great deal of fun with the art of rhyming, always finding the most damning homonym.
But while Byron produces comedy out of cannibalism, shipwrecks, religious figures, catastrophes, martial and political heroes, and family relationships (particularly between husband and wife), there are moments of tender compassion and affecting gravity (the death of Haidée in Canto IV is one such moment; the battle of Ismail in Canto VIII is gut-wrenching).
Health care workers may particularly enjoy Canto X where, in the Court at St Petersburg, Juan becomes ill, "at which the whole court was extremely troubled / The Sovereign shocked, and all his medicines doubled" (X.39). The narrator reports the court's speculation about the cause in Stanza 40 and, in Stanza 41, provides a list of prescriptions and medical interventions. Stanza 42 is a charming commentary on how people think of physicians (" . . . But although we sneer / In health, when ill we call them to attend us / Without the least propensity to jeer.")