Although Lord Byron said that Don Juan was to be an epic, his story does not follow epic tradition. It is a vehicle for digression on any and every subject and person that entered Byron’s mind as he wrote. The plot itself is almost a minor part of the poem, for much more interesting are Byron’s bitter tirades on England, wealth, power, society, chastity, poets, and diplomats. The poem holds a high place among literary satires, even though it was unfinished at Byron’s death.
George Gordon Byron, who became the sixth Lord Byron by inheriting the title from his uncle, William, was born on January 22, 1788. His father, the notorious “Mad Jack” Byron, deserted the family, and young Byron was brought up in his mother’s native Scotland, where he was exposed to Presbyterian concepts of predestination, which distorted his religious views throughout his life. In 1801, he entered Harrow, a public school near London; in 1808, he received the master of arts degree from Cambridge; in 1809, he took his seat in the House of Lords. From June, 1809, to July, 1811, Byron traveled in Europe. In 1812, he met Lady Caroline Lamb, who later became his mistress; in 1813, he spent several months with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, who later bore a daughter who may have been Byron’s. Byron married Annabella Milbanke in 1815; she bore him a daughter, Ada, a year later and left him shortly thereafter. In 1816, Byron left England, never to return. That year found him in Switzerland with the Shelleys, where, in 1817, Clare Clairmont bore his illegitimate daughter Allegra. After 1819, Countess Teresa Guicciola, who sacrificed her marriage and social position for Byron, became his lover and comforter. Byron died on April 19, 1824, in Missolonghi, where he had hoped to help Greece gain independence from Turkey. His most famous works are Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818, 1819), Manfred (1817), Cain: A Mystery (1821), The Vision of Judgment (1822), and Don Juan, his masterpiece.
Don Juan, a mock-epic poem written in ottava rima, is permeated with Byronic philosophy. Its episodic plot, narrated in first person by its author, tells the story of young Juan, who, victimized by a narrow-minded and hypocritical mother, an illogical educational system, and his own fallible humanity, loses his innocence and faith and becomes disillusioned. The poem’s rambling style allows for Byron’s numerous digressions, in which he satirizes many aspects of English life: English government and its officials, religion and its confusions and hypocrisies, society and its foibles, war and its irrationality, woman and her treachery, man and his inhumanity. Even English poets feel the fire of Byron’s wrath. Thus Byron has been accused of a completely negative view in Don Juan—anti-everything and pro-nothing. The...
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