Don Juan (Byron)
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Don Juan is a long narrative poem by Lord Byron, based on the legend of Don Juan. It is a variation on the epic form. Unlike the more tortured early romantic works by Byron, exemplified by Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Don Juan has a more humorous, satirical bent. Modern critics generally consider it to be Byron's masterpiece. The poem was never completed upon Byron's death in 1824.
Byron was a rapid as well as a voluminous writer. Nevertheless, the composition of his two great poems, Childe Harold and Don Juan, was all but coextensive with his poetical life. He began the first canto of Don Juan in the autumn of 1818, and he was still at work on a seventeenth canto in the spring of 1823. The poem was issued in parts, and with long intervals of unequal duration between the parts. The interruptions in the composition and publication of Don Juan were due to the disapproval and discouragement of friends, and the very natural hesitation and procrastination of the publisher. Canto I. was written in September, 1818; Canto II. in December-January, 1818-1819. Both cantos were published on July 15, 1819. Cantos III., IV. were written in the winter of 1819-1820; Canto V., after an interval of nine months, in October-November, 1820, but the publication of Cantos III., IV., V. was delayed till August 8, 1821. The next interval was longer still, but it was the last. In June, 1822, Byron began to work at a sixth, and by the end of March, 1823, he had completed a sixteenth canto. But the publication of these later cantos, which had been declined by John Murray, and were finally entrusted to John Hunt, was spread over a period of several months. Cantos VI., VII., VIII., with a Preface, were published July 15; Cantos IX., X., XI, August 29; Cantos XII., XIII., XIV., December 17, 1823; and, finally, Cantos XV., XVI., March 26, 1824.
See main article Summary of Lord Byron's Don Juan.
There is little to be said with regard to the "Sources" of Don Juan. John Hookham Frere's Whistlecraft had suggested Beppo, and, at the same time, had prompted and provoked a sympathetic study of Frere's Italian models, Francesco Berni and Luigi Pulci; and, again, the success of Beppo, and, still more, a sense of inspiration and the conviction that he had found the path to excellence, suggested another essay of the ottava rima, a humorous poem "à la Beppo" on a larger and more important scale. If Byron possessed more than a superficial knowledge of the legendary "Don Juan," he was irresponsive and unimpressed. He speaks (letter to John Murray, of "the Spanish tradition;" but there is nothing to show that he had read or heard of Tirso de Molina's El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra (The Deceiver of Seville and the Stone Guest), 1626, which dramatized the "ower true tale" of the actual Don Juan Tenorio; or that he was acquainted with any of the Italian (e.g. the Convitato di Pietra of Giacinto Andrea Cicognini or French adaptations of the legend (e.g. Le Festin de Pierre, ou le fils criminel, a tragicomedy of Abbé De Villiers, 1659; and Molière's Dom Juan, ou Le Festin de Pierre, 1665). He had seen Carlo Antonio Delpini's pantomime, which was based on Thomas Shadwell's Libertine, and he may have witnessed, at Milan or Venice, a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni; but in taking Don Juan for his "hero," he took the name only, and disregarded the "terrible figure" "of the Titan of embodied evil, the likeness of sin made flesh", "as something to his purpose nothing"!
The name and motif
Why, then, did he choose the name, and what was the scheme or motif of his poem? Something is to be gathered from his own remarks and reflections; but it must be borne in mind that he is on the defensive, and that his half-humorous paradoxes were provoked by advice and opposition. Writing to Thomas Moore , he says, "I have finished the first canto ... of a poem in the style and manner of Beppo, encouraged by the good success of the same. It is ... meant to be a little quietly facetious upon every thing. But I doubt whether it is not—at least as far as it has gone—too free for these very modest days." The critics before and after publication thought that Don Juan was "too free," and, a month after the two first cantos had been issued, he writes to Murray (August 12, 1819), "You ask me for the plan of Donny Johnny; I have no plan—I had no plan; but I had or have materials.... You are too earnest and eager about a work never intended to be serious. Do you suppose that I could have any intention but to giggle and make giggle?—a playful satire, with as little poetry as could be helped, was what I meant." Again, after the completion but before the publication of Cantos III., IV., V., in a letter to Murray , he writes, "The Fifth is so far from being the last of Don Juan, that it is hardly the beginning. I meant to take him the tour of Europe, with a proper mixture of siege, battle, and adventure, and to make him finish as Anacharsis Cloots in the French Revolution.... I meant to have made him a Cavalier Servente in Italy, and a cause for a divorce in England, and a Sentimental 'Werther-faced' man in Germany, so as to show the different ridicules of the society in each of these countries, and to have displayed him gradually gâté and blasé, as he grew older, as is natural. But I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell, or in an unhappy marriage, not knowing which would be the severest."
Byron meant what he said, but he kept back the larger truth. Great works, in which the poet speaks from the heart, and the man lays bare the very pulse of the machine, are not conceived or composed unconsciously and at haphazard. Byron did not "whistle" Don Juan "for want of thought." He had found a thing to say, and he meant to make the world listen. He had read with angry disapproval, but he had read, Coleridge's Critique on (Charles Maturin's) Bertram, and, it may be, had caught an inspiration from one brilliant sentence which depicts the Don Juan of the legend somewhat after the likeness of Childe Harold, if not of Lord Byron: "Rank, fortune, wit, talent, acquired knowledge, and liberal accomplishments, with beauty of person, vigorous health, ... all these advantages, elevated by the habits and sympathies of noble birth and natural character, are ... combined in Don Juan, so as to give him the means of carrying into all its practical consequences the doctrine of a godless nature ... Obedience to nature is the only virtue." Again, "It is not the wickedness of Don Juan ... which constitutes the character an abstraction, ... but the rapid succession of the correspondent acts and incidents, his intellectual superiority, and the splendid accumulation of his gifts and desirable qualities as coexistent with entire wickedness in one and the same person." Here was at once a suggestion and a challenge.
Would it not be possible to conceive and to depict an ideal character, gifted, gracious, and delightful, who should "carry into all its practical consequences" the doctrine of a mundane, if not godless doctrine, and, at the same time, retain the charities and virtues of uncelestial but not devilish manhood? In defiance of monition and in spite of resolution, the primrose path is trodden by all sorts and conditions of men, sinners no doubt, but not necessarily abstractions of sin, and to assert the contrary makes for cant and not for righteousness. The form and substance of the poem were due to the compulsion of Genius and the determination of Art, but the argument is a vindication of the natural man. It is Byron's "criticism of life." Don Juan was taboo from the first. The earlier issues of the first five cantos were doubly anonymous. Neither author nor publisher subscribed their names on the title-page. The book was a monster, and, as its maker had foreseen, "all the world" shuddered. Immoral, in the sense that it advocates immoral tenets, or prefers evil to good, it is not, but it is unquestionably a dangerous book, which (to quote Charles Kingsley's words used in another connection) "the young and innocent will do well to leave altogether unread." It is dangerous because it ignores resistance and presumes submission to passion; it is dangerous because, as Byron admitted, it is "now and then voluptuous;" and it is dangerous, in a lesser degree, because, here and there, the purport of the quips and allusions is gross and offensive. No one can take up the book without being struck and arrested by these violations of modesty and decorum; but no one can master its contents and become possessed of it as a whole without perceiving that the mirror is held up to nature, that it reflects spots and blemishes which, on a survey of the vast and various orb, dwindle into natural and so comparative insignificance. Byron was under no delusion as to the grossness of Don Juan. His plea or pretense, that he was sheltered by the superior grossness of Ariosto and La Fontaine, of Prior and of Fielding, is nihil ad rem, if it is not insincere. When Murray (May 3, 1819) charges him with "approximations to indelicacy," he laughs himself away at the euphemism, but when Hobhouse talked to him "about morality," he flames out, "I maintain that it is the most moral of poems." He looked upon his great work as a whole, and he knew that the "raison d'être of his song" was not only to celebrate, but, by the white light of truth, to represent and exhibit the great things of the world—Love and War, and Death by sea and land, and Man, half-angel, half-demon—the comedy of his fortunes, and the tragedy of his passions and his fate.
During the 1600s and 1700s, Spain experienced a quick decline from power in Europe. This fall was accompanied by what many saw as relative cultural poverty when compared to France. By Byron's time, Spanish culture was often considered both archaic and exotic. This led to a Romantic valorization of Spanish culture. Many scholars note this work as a prime example of Spanish exoticism.
Don Juan has won great praise from the great. Sir Walter Scott maintained that its creator "has embraced every topic of human life, and sounded every string of the divine harp, from its slightest to its most powerful and heart-astounding tones." Goethe described Don Juan as "a work of boundless genius." Percy Bysshe Shelley , on the receipt of Cantos III., IV., V., bore testimony to his "wonder and delight:" "This poem carries with it at once the stamp of originality and defiance of imitation. Nothing has ever been written like it in English, nor, if I may venture to prophesy, will there be, unless carrying upon it the mark of a secondary and borrowed light.... You are building up a drama," he adds, "such as England has not yet seen, and the task is sufficiently noble and worthy of you." Again, of the fifth canto he writes, "Every word has the stamp of immortality.... It fulfils, in a certain degree, what I have long preached of producing—something wholly new and relative to the age, and yet surpassingly beautiful." Finally, Algernon Swinburne, neither a disciple nor encomiast of Byron, pays eloquent tribute to the strength and splendour of Don Juan: "Across the stanzas ... we swim forward as over the 'broad backs of the sea;' they break and glitter, hiss and laugh, murmur and move like waves that sound or that subside. There is in them a delicious resistance, an elastic motion, which salt water has and fresh water has not. There is about them a wide wholesome air, full of vivid light and constant wind, which is only felt at sea. Life undulates and Death palpitates in the splendid verse.... This gift of life and variety is the supreme quality of Byron's chief poem".
A recurring joke throughout the poem is that most of the Spanish words and names are rhymed in a way which indicates that the names are being pronounced incorrectly. For example:
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan
In the above passage, "Juan" is rhymed with "true one", as if the word were being read according to the phonetic rules of the English language. The correct pronunciation of Juan is Hwan.
In fact, "JOO-un" is the traditional English pronunciation of Juan, though not a name traditionally used in England. In the same tradition, the character Maria in Mansfield Park is called correctly "Ma-RYE-uh", as she would be in modern English. The pronunciation is a joke in Don Juan, since this Juan is Spanish, but it is not exactly "incorrect."
In stanza 190 of the first canto, Byron rhymes "ladies" with "Cádiz," the city in Spain.
And then, by the advice of some old ladies, / She sent her son to be embark'd at Cadiz.
The true pronunciation is with an open A as in "father". This is most certainly done for comedic effect.
The poem is dedicated, with some scorn, to Robert Southey, then Poet Laureate - You, Bob! are rather insolent, you know, / At being disappointed in your wish / To supersede all warblers here below, / And be the only Blackbird in the dish;. In its first publication, Byron cautions Murray: "As the Poem is to be published anonymously, omit the Dedication. I won't attack the dog in the dark. Such things are for scoundrels and renegadoes like himself". According to the editor of the 1833 Works of Lord Byron the existence of the Dedication "became notorious" in consequence of Hobhouse's article in the Westminster Review, 1824. He adds, for Southey's consolation and encouragement, that "for several years the verses have been selling in the streets as a broadside," and that "it would serve no purpose to exclude them on the present occasion." But Southey was not appeased. He tells Allan Cunningham that "the new edition of Byron's works is ... one of the very worst symptoms of these bad times" .
The dedication also takes issue with the Lake Poets generally - You—Gentlemen! by dint of long seclusion / From better company, have kept your own ... There is a narrowness in such a notion, / Which makes me wish you'd change your lakes for Ocean - and specifically - And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing, / But like a hawk encumbered with his hood,- / - Explaining Metaphysics to the nation — / I wish he would explain his Explanation; Wordsworth - T is poetry-at least by his assertion,; and Southey's predecessor as Laureate, Henry James Pye in the use of and pun on the old song Sing a Song of Sixpence, four and twenty Blackbirds in a pye.
- Much of this article is based on an essay in The Works of Lord Byron, Volume 6, by Ernest Hartley Coleridge.
- A printable version of Byron's cantos
- Notes of Don Juan
- Summary by Michael McGoodwin
- The Works of Lord Byron, Volume 6, edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge