Don Juan Essay - Don Juan, Lord Byron

Don Juan, Lord Byron

Introduction

Don Juan Lord Byron

English long poem, 1819-1824, written by George Gorden Noel, Lord Byron.

The following entry presents criticism on Byron's Don Juan from 1945 to 2000. See also, Manfred Criticism.

Don Juan (1819-24) is considered Byron's foremost achievement and one of English literature's great long poems. Variously described as a satire, epic, and novel in verse, the unfinished work defies critical categorization despite the consensus that it contains some of the sharpest social criticism in the English language. Writing in an animated style, Byron utilized a variety of narrative perspectives to comment on a wide range of concerns, including liberty, tyranny, war, love, sexuality, hypocrisy, and the mores of high society. The poet's ironic observations and brutally candid portrayal of human weaknesses garnered widespread condemnation from his contemporaries, who subjected Don Juan and its author to an unforgiving and almost relentless campaign of personal slander and critical abuse. Today, however, critics regard Byron's complex, profoundly skeptical yet often humorous work as a remarkable anticipation of both the mood and thematic occupations of modern literature.

Biographical Information

The unique relationship between Byron and his audience that later played an important role in the reception of Don Juan began with the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: A Romaunt (1812). When Childe Harold appeared in the spring of 1812, Byron became England's most celebrated author virtually overnight, gaining access to the country's highest social and literary circles. The close association in the public mind between Byron and his protagonists, first established in Childe Harold, continued throughout the poet's career and profoundly affected the critical reception of later works, especially Don Juan.

Byron continued to enjoy unyielding public adoration for several years following the publication of Childe Harold, attending exclusive social events and carrying on a series of affairs with married women, notably Lady Caroline Lamb and Lady Jane Oxford. In 1815 he married Annabella Milbanke, who left him just over a year later. The couple's separation has been the subject of extensive research, and some biographers have suggested that an affair between Byron and his half-sister Augusta Leigh prior to the marriage caused the estrangement. The breakup of the marriage and rumors about Byron's conduct drew scorn in his social circle, and Byron found himself snubbed by his peers and chastised in the press. Byron and Milbanke officially separated on April 21, 1816. Four days later, Byron left England forever.

Byron's meteoric rise to fame and equally abrupt exile hardened him against a society whose rigid notions of decorum had always aroused his suspicion. The poet was able to channel his acute awareness of social mores into his writing, and he produced his first satirical work in October 1817, while living in northern Italy. Beppo: A Venetian Story (1818) offers light, humorous criticism of Venetian morality and customs, and is largely regarded as a precursor to the stanzaic form and narrative style of Don Juan. The positive reception of the work pleased Byron, prompting him to investigate the rich tradition of Italian burlesque poetry written in ottava rima, including the works of Pulci, Francesco Berni, and Giambattista Casti. Under the influence of these models, he began drafting Don Juan in July 1818.

Don Juan, which is composed of sixteen cantos written between 1819 and 1823, is regarded as largely autobiographical in nature and can be traced to a wide range of literary and theatrical influences. In addition to the Italian poets, Byron borrowed from the epics of Virgil and Homer; the satire of François Marie Voltaire, Miguel de Cervantes, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift; and the picaresque novels of Tobias Smollett, Henry Fielding, and Laurence Sterne. Byron also incorporated a broad selection of nonfiction, including passages from historical works, directly into his text. The result is a work satiric in tone, epic in scope, and harshly realistic in its portrayal of human behavior and events. Despite its wide-ranging commentary, the work remains incomplete. Byron moved to Greece in 1823 to aid the fight for that country's independence from the Turks. He died there on April 19, 1824, from an illness contracted after becoming drenched in a rainstorm, less than one month after the publication of Don Juan's last completed cantos.

Plot and Major Characters

Don Juan follows the travels and relationships of a youthful protagonist who, though he shares the same name, bears little resemblance to the heartless libertine of popular European legend. Juan's story, however, represents only a part of Don Juan. Through the series of adventures as overprotected teenager, castaway, lover, slave, soldier, kept man, and ornament in English society, Byron deliberates on a vast array of social, political, poetic, and metaphysical topics. Byron's use of a narrator with a distinct personality, as well as the presence of the poet's own voice in the work, allows him simultaneously to tell Juan's story and to comment on it from various perspectives, a technique that contributes to the ironic qualification of nearly every level of meaning in the poem.

The poem begins with Juan's birth to Don Jose and Donna Inez, his education, and his early love affair with Julia, wife of Don Alfonso of Seville. Subsequently, the poem moves from one geographic area—and transformative episode—to another: a shipwreck on the voyage from Seville; a romantic encounter with Haidée on a Greek island; enslavement by Haidée's pirate father, Lambro; sale to Gulbeyaz, a Turkish sultana; escape and subsequent participation in the Siege of Ismail; service in Russia for Catherine the Great; and finally entrance into English aristocratic society and a possible affair with the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke. While his experiences and geographic range are vast, Juan's journeys are beset with disillusion. His romantic encounter with Julia dissolves into farce when Alfonso bursts into Julia's bedroom. Haidée offers a chance at true love, but the tryst is thwarted by the reappearance of Lambro. Juan next encounters the evils of war and conquest, imperialistic tyranny, and the hypocrisies of English society. Aurora Raby appears to offer another opportunity for romance, but is displaced by the flirtatious Duchess. Nothing in Don Juan is as idyllic as on its surface it seems. Grand passions and lofty ideals are consistently undermined by vicious schemes.

Major Themes

Although many of Byron's contemporaries focused on the poet's indictment of English high society in Don Juan, the poem actually contains myriad subjects and offers sardonic commentary on a vast range of societal ills. Upright Regency-era views of love and sexuality are among Byron's central targets, but Don Juan also offers biting commentary on war, religion, restraints on personal liberty and freedom of speech, and injustices rendered upon society's weakest inhabitants. A passive character, Byron's Juan reacts to, rather than manipulates, the world around him. Brave, resourceful, but essentially without motivation or direction, he is a victim of a harsh, hypocritical world. By casting outside forces as corrupting influences on a character traditionally depicted as extravagant and callous, Byron reversed popular legend to suggest that society, not the individual, bears responsibility for evil in the world.

While Juan is largely regarded as an innocent victim of the harsh world in which he lives, the poem's narrator provides a more hardy voice. A continually shifting character who at times represents Byron, the narrator sympathizes with the weaknesses displayed by the various characters in Don Juan, although his overall tone is one of cynical amusement. His eventual argument that pity, humor and compassion must counteract a chaotic, unfair world becomes the poem's overarching message.

Critical Reception

Byron had an early taste of the imminent critical backlash against Don Juan when his publisher, John Murray, vehemently contested the poet's plans to publish the first two cantos of the work in 1819. Byron's attack on the Poet Laureate Robert Southey in the Dedication, his thinly veiled, unflattering depiction of Lady Byron in the character of Donna Inez, and the irreverent attitudes toward sex and religion made publication of the poem impossible, Murray and his advisors contended. Eventually, Byron and Murray reached a compromise, with Byron agreeing to retract the Dedication and several slanderous stanzas. The first two cantos were published with neither Byron's nor Murray's names on the title page in July 1819, and a critical uproar followed. The influential Scottish journal Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine launched the first salvo, praising the artistic merit of the work but thoroughly condemning its moral implications and subject matter. Other influential critics followed suit, many noting the autobiographical elements in the poem and using their reviews to deride the author as well as his work. One highly regarded critic, Leigh Hunt, came to Byron's defense in the liberal Examiner. Hunt defended both the morality and realism of Don Juan and offered his own attack on conservative values. Hunt's praise notwithstanding, critics continued to rebuke Byron and Don Juan with the release of subsequent cantos between 1821 and 1824. The general public's opinion countered the critics', however; while the first two cantos sold poorly, the remainder of the series proved immensely popular. Despite the brisk sales, Murray refused to publish Don Juan after the fifth canto, and the rest of the poem was published by Leigh Hunt's brother, John.

Don Juan remained largely contested or ignored for over a century following Byron's death, but the publication in 1945 of book-length studies of the poem by Elizabeth French Boyd and Paul Graham Trueblood (see Further Reading) began to turn the tide. Both the serious approach to and the quantity of essays on the poem during this period helped to establish it as Byron's most important work. Since 1945, scholars have focused on the structure, style, literary background, and philosophy of Don Juan. The appearance in 1957 of both Leslie Marchand's biography of Byron (see Further Reading) and a variorum edition of the poem edited by Truman Guy Steffan and Willis W. Pratt (see Further Reading) provided critics with a wealth of primary source material and information about the work's composition, textual history, and place in Byron's oeuvre. A surge in Don Juan criticism followed. Modern-day critics have countered their nineteenth-century predecessors with regard to Byron's portrayals of women, love, and sexuality, casting Byron's female characters as powerful and his views on sexual mores as liberated. Critics have maintained that the women characters in Don Juan are as diverse and complex as those created by William Shakespeare, have traced the literary traditions from which Don Juan stems, including the tradition of popular spectacular theater. Scholars have also offered psychoanalytic approaches to the poem, applying the noted theories of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Otto Rank to Byron's use of myth, his portrayals of women and relationships, and noting an overarching theme of guilt in the poem. Critics have also commented on the religious and geo-cultural themes in Don Juan.

Principal Works

Hours of Idleness (poetry) 1807

English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (satire) 1809

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: A Romaunt (poetry) 1812

The Bride of Abydos: A Turkish Tale (poetry) 1813

The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale (poetry) 1813

Waltz: An Apostrophic Hymn (poetry) 1813

The Corsair (poetry) 1814

Lara (poetry) 1814

Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte (poetry) 1814

Hebrew Melodies (poetry) 1815

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: Canto the Third (poetry) 1816

...

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Criticism

Elizabeth French Boyd (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: Boyd, Elizabeth French. “The Literary Background of Don Juan: Incidents.” In Byron's Don Juan: A Critical Study, pp. 112-38. New York: The Humanities Press, 1958.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1945, Boyd examines several figures and events that may have inspired various characters and scenes in Don Juan.]

Don Juan is a compound of self-expression and literary reminiscence. We have seen that Byron wrote fundamentally from his own feelings and ideas, and that when he read, he was likewise habitually conscious of himself and his world at the center of the book. He identified himself with characters, and visualized...

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Elizabeth French Boyd (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: Boyd, Elizabeth French. “The Literary Background of Don Juan: Ideas.” In Byron's Don Juan: A Critical Study, pp. 139-62. New York: The Humanities Press, 1958.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1945, Boyd illustrates how Don Juan's literary precursors likely influenced Byron's treatment of war, marriage, women, high society, the supernatural, and other themes that appear throughout the poem.]

1

Byron was indebted to literature not only for suggestions which enriched the situations, the sentiments, and the characterizations of Don Juan, but for the cultivation of many of his ideas. Ideas came...

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Michael G. Cooke (essay date summer 1975)

SOURCE: Cooke, Michael G. “Byron's Don Juan: The Obsession and Self-Discipline of Spontaneity.” Studies in Romanticism 14, no. 3 (summer 1975): 285-302.

[In the following essay, Cooke critiques the functions of spontaneity, improvisation and surprise in Don Juan.]

The Giaour, at just over 1300 short lines, and Don Juan, at something over 16 long cantos, have one crucial structural feature in common: both are fragments. Once this has been said, it seems necessary to ask whether they are, as fragments, similar in kind (the question of quality need not even arise). Does fragmentariness express the same boisterous self-aggrandizement in Don...

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Bernard Blackstone (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Blackstone, Bernard. “Don Juan.” In Byron: A Survey, pp. 287-347. London: Longman Group, 1975.

[In the following excerpt, Blackstone examines various themes of Don Juan, including femininity and masculinity, sexuality, love, and power.]

‘THE SEXUAL GARMENTS SWEET’

Don Juan is outstanding among English longer poems for the great gallery of women characters which it exhibits; here the only possible comparison is with Shakespeare in his total oeuvre. Each is minutely and sympathetically displayed and discriminated with all the adroitness of a man who (as Byron said in riposte to a Blackwood's...

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Rolf P. Lessenich (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Lessenich, Rolf P. “The Danger and Vanity of Human Passions.” In Lord Byron and the Nature of Man, pp. 57-98. Köln: Böhlau Verlag, 1978.

[In the following essay, Lessenich explores Byron's characterization of love and war as vain and perilous pursuits, designed to tempt death.]

A) THE DANGER AND VANITY OF LOVE

Though, in Byron's work, love and military glory appear as contrary passions with contrary moral values, they have this in common: their pursuit is both vain and dangerous.

The sufferings of Mazeppa, tied up and turned away on a wild horse, are too obviously reminiscent of the sufferings of the Ancient...

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Charles J. Clancy (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Clancy, Charles J. “Aurora Raby in Don Juan: a Byronic Heroine.” Keats-Shelley Journal 28 (1979): 28-34.

[In the following essay, Clancy argues that the character of Aurora Raby is a feminine version of the trademark Byronic hero.]

Aurora Raby is one of the most fascinating characters in the English episode of Byron's Don Juan. Her character, and her significance, have elicited comment from a large number of Byron critics. They indicate, in their variety, a lack of agreement as to her role in the totality of the poem. T. S. Eliot calls Aurora “the most serious character of his [Byron's] invention.”1 Edward E. Bostetter refers to...

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Peter J. Manning (essay date summer 1979)

SOURCE: Manning, Peter J. “Don Juan and Byron's Imperceptiveness to the English Word.” Studies in Romanticism 18, no. 2 (summer 1979): 207-33.

[In the following essay, Manning examines the various symbolic ways that characters in Don Juan employ silence and language.]

In a famous essay which mixes praise and contempt in characteristic fashion, T. S. Eliot observed in 1937:

Of Byron one can say, as of no other English poet of his eminence, that he added nothing to the language, that he discovered nothing in the sounds, and developed nothing in the meaning, of individual words. I cannot think of any poet of his...

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Andrew M. Cooper (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Cooper, Andrew M. “Shipwreck and Skepticism: Don Juan Canto II.” Keats-Shelley Journal 32 (1983): 63-80.

[In the following essay, Cooper argues that the shipwreck scenes in Don Juan Canto II symbolize the author's pessimistic view of the world at large.]

“Life is, in itself and forever, shipwreck. To be shipwrecked is not to drown. … Consciousness of shipwreck, being the truth of life, constitutes salvation.”

Ortega y Gasset, “In Search of Goethe from Within”

Mazeppa, composed simultaneously with Don Juan Canto I during the late summer of 1818,...

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Anne Barton (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Barton, Anne. “Don Juan Reconsidered: The Haidée Episode.” In Byron, edited by Jane Stabler, pp. 194-203. Edinburgh Gate, Eng.: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998.

[In the following essay, originally published in The Byron Journal in 1987, Barton assesses the relationship between Don Juan and Haidée and the significance of Lambro's advances toward the couple in Canto II of Don Juan. Barton argues that this incident is the focal point of the poem.]

When Byron's Lambro returns home from his last piratical voyage at the beginning of Canto III of Don Juan he goes ‘ashore without delay, / Having no custom-house nor quarantine / To ask...

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Caroline Franklin (essay date winter 1990)

SOURCE: Franklin, Caroline. “‘Quiet Cruising o'er the Ocean Woman’: Byron's Don Juan. and the Woman Question.” In Byron, edited by Jane Stabler, pp. 79-93. Edinburgh Gate, Eng.: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998.

[In the following essay, originally published in Studies in Romanticism in winter 1990, Franklin chronicles the methods by which Byron challenged traditional ideas about marriage, chastity, fidelity, and female power.]

The importance of the debate on the woman question, and of [Christoph] Meiners and [Joseph Alexandre Pierre] Ségur particularly, in framing a context in which to view Byron's ‘sexual Jacobinism’ is plain. In his comic epic,...

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Peter W. Graham (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Graham, Peter W. “All Things—But a Show?” In Don Juan and Regency England, pp. 62-88. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990.

[In the following essay, Graham examines the impact of popular spectacular theater on the style of Don Juan.]

The pantomimes of the ancients no longer exist. But in compensation, all modern poetry resembles pantomimes.

Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum Fragments

In England and the English, that insightful study of culture and character in the last years before Reform, Bulwer-Lytton observes that Byron would never have put a...

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Peter W. Graham (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Graham, Peter W. “England in Don Juan.” In Don Juan and Regency England, pp. 125-56. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990.

[In the following essay, Graham illustrates the ways in which Byron set Don Juan against the mores of Regency England and argues that the poem was written both for and from the viewpoint of the “cultivated man.”]

If the world is the aggregate of all that is dynamically affective, then the cultivated man will never succeed in living in just one world.

Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum Fragments

The last three essays have...

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David Punter (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Punter, David. “Don Juan, or, the Deferral of Decapitation: Some Psychological Approaches.” In Don Juan, edited by Nigel Wood, pp. 122-53. Buckingham, Eng.: Open University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Punter examines Don Juan through the lens of psychoanalysis, noting particularly the theories of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Otto Rank.]

I

I write this essay as a contribution to the psychoanalytic criticism of literature, but I have to begin by saying that such criticism is in an appalling muddle. The main source of this muddle, it seems to me, stems from a continuing inability to take on board, and to attempt...

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David E. Goldweber (essay date spring 1997)

SOURCE: Goldweber, David E. “Byron, Catholicism, and Don Juan XVII.” Renascence 49 (spring 1997): 175-89.

[In the following essay, Goldweber analyzes the Biblical overtones in Don Juan.]

Many literary critics continue to cast Lord Byron as a deviant and a miscreant who was contemptuous, or at least suspicious, of all that Western culture and Western religion revere.1 Indeed, as a young man who denied nothing but doubted everything, Byron explored superstition, deism, and skepticism on the mental side of things; drinking, gambling, whoring, homosexuality, and incest on the physical side.2 The early cantos of Byron's first masterpiece, Childe...

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G. K. Rishmawi (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Rishmawi, G. K. “The Muslim East in Byron's Don Juan.Papers on Language & Literature 35, no. 3 (summer 1999): 227-43.

[In the following essay, Rishmawi examines Byron's shifting attitudes toward the East between the Oriental Tales and Don Juan. Rishmawi contends that, unlike the passionate, firsthand accounts that appear in Byron's Oriental Tales, the East of Don Juan is based on readings and observation and, accordingly, is depicted in a more subtle and satiric manner.]

The Eastern affinities which Byron developed while he was in Turkey and Greece, and which colored his Oriental Tales (Rishmawi 48-62), are still felt in his later...

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Mark Phillipson (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Phillipson, Mark. “Byron's Revisited Haunts.” Studies in Romanticism 39, no. 2 (summer 2000): 303-22.

[In the following essay, Phillipson explores the themes of banishment, dislocation and return in Don Juan, contending that Byron's characters often return in ghostly ways to places past and the Byronic hero is “more phantom than man.”]

Before he left England in a flurry of scandal, and before he created that most disillusioned of expatriates, Childe Harold, Lord Byron was irresistibly drawn to self-exile. In particular he paid close attention to the example of Shakespeare's misanthropic exile, Timon of Athens. Not only did Byron fashion Harold in...

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