This long, digressive satiric poem is a loose narrative held together only by the hero, Don Juan, and the narrator, Byron himself, who maintains a mocking, ironic relationship with the story. Byron claimed that he had no plot in mind as he wrote the poem, and he continued to add episodes as long as he lived, completing sixteen cantos before his death. He began the poem in 1818 in Italy during a period of wild self-indulgence and profligacy. The first two cantos were published in 1819. Like many satires, it was criticized by some as being immoral
STYLE. The Stanza form is ottava rima, an eight-line iambic pentameter stanza with the rhyme scheme ab ab ab cc. The final two lines of each stanza form a couplet which Byron frequently uses for a punch line or comic wind-up. Byron also creates comic effects with his use of forced rhymes ("new one" . . . "Juan") and rhymes of two or three syllables ("intellectual" . . . "henpeckedy you all"). The poem's light tone suggests that Byron does not take the characters and events seriously; the language is colloquial, conversational, and slangy.
THE DON JUAN CHARACTER. Certain incidents and characters are drawn from Byron's life, but he is not Don Juan. He names his hero after the most notorious lover and seducer of women in European literature. Originally a villain in a Spanish story, Don Juan had become the archetype of the heartless, remorseless seducer.
The Don Juan character represents a merely physical desire divorced from any spiritual or even humane feelings. Ironically, Byron gives the name of this cold and callous stock character to his own, more modest hero. Byron's young lover is, at first, simple and naive. Every woman who meets him finds him charming; thus he has not need for force, treachery, or the seductive arts. Byron projects his own, more worldly personality as the narrator.
CANTO I. Canto I presents the birth, childhood, and education of Don Juan up through his first seduction and affair. Don Juan is the son of an aristocratic father and an intellectual mother. After the father's early death, little Juan is educated according to his mother's plan. She has him tutored in arts and sciences, but she forbids him to learn anything "that hints continuation of the species." Further, in his study of classical literature he cannot read any of the "looser" or suggestive poems; he must read only expurgated versions of these. In stanzas 52 and 53 the narrator protests such a distorted education.
The narration moves forward to Juan's sixteenth year, when his mother's friend, Donna Julia, begins to find him attractive. She is a pretty, young woman married to an elderly husband, and she deceives herself into believing that she can subdue her attraction to Juan. She vows not to see him but then goes the next day to visit his mother. Donna Julia imagines that she can maintain a platonic love for Juan, but all her resolve fails when she finds herself alone with him. Naive Juan, meanwhile, does not know the cause of his own discontent. He seeks answers in nature and in philosophy. Stanza 115 pictures Juan and Julia in a garden, half-embracing. The poet undercuts this romantic scene with a mocking tirade against Plato for spreading false ideas about love. In stanza 116 the temptation has become too great, and she "whispering 'I will ne'er consent' -- consented." Byron shows the folly of self-deception that would deny the physical basis of love.
After a digression the poet returns to Julia and Juan six months later. Their affair has intensified, and Julia's husband, Don Alphonso, has become suspicious. He breaks into her bedroom one night with a posse of friends and servants, makes a comic search, but finds nothing. Sending the others away, he apologizes to his wife for his foolish jealousy. As he lingers by her bed, he sees Juan's shoes. Young and slim, Juan has been hiding in the bed clothes all the time. There is a confrontation between lover and husband, but luckily neither has a sword. Juan escapes, but scandal follows. Julia's husband sends her to a convent, and Juan's mother sends him away on a grand tour to, ironically, perfect his morals.
Canto I ends with an address by the poet to the reader in which he claims the story is true and gives as proof the many similar stories that appear in newspapers, plays, and operas.
Then Byron as narrator sets out some poetical commandments by which he claims his writing is governed. Generally, he follows the principles of classical and English poetry and rejects the taste of his romantic contemporaries. He claims also that his poem is moral and promises a very moral conclusion in the final canto.
Finally he comments on his own situation. Finding himself used up and burnt out at the age of thirty, he say, "I have squandered my whole summer while 'twas May" (stanza 213). He laments the loss of freshness and creative power but believes he has gained in judgment. He resolves to live more tamely from now on. Finally, he dismisses fame as a delusion and as a false motive for writing poetry.
SUBSEQUENT CANTOS. The next cantos of this poem describe young Juan's many and varied adventures. He loses his tutor when their ship becomes wrecked. The lovely and innocent Haidee discovers him washed ashore on a Greek island. Their ideal love is opposed by Haidee's father, the pirate Lambro. Juan loses a fight with Lambro and is put into chains. Haidee's heart is broken, and she fades away and dies. Meanwhile, Juan is sold as a slave to a sultana in Constantinople. She also loves him, but when she becomes jealous, Juan fears for his life. He escapes and joins the Russian army, eventually finding himself at the court of Catherine the Great, who, of course, also loves him. She sends him on a diplomatic mission to England.
The final cantos show Juan moving about in English society, providing an opportunity for Byron to satirize contemporary social behaviors of his compatriots. He attacks the hypocrisy of the English, their false morality and their bad taste.
In Don Juan Byron found a form suited to his tastes and abilities. Unconfined by a set narrative line, he allows himself as narrator the freedom to comment ironically on the action and characters, to digress into personal allusion, and to instruct the reader about how to read and judge the poem. having a seemingly endless supply of incidents and comments, Byron might have gone on forever. But the poem was cut short by Byron's heroic and fatal attempt to help liberate the Greeks.
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