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 philosophy of Don Juan is not wholly pessimistic, however, and its tone is consistently, especially in the digressions, sardonic and tongue-in-cheek. Furthermore, Byron’s flippant refusal to take Juan’s story (or life) too seriously and his extensive use of exaggerated rhyme (such as “intellectual” and “hen-peck’d you all”) are essentially comic. Thus the zest and the laughter in Don Juan belie the statements of despair and lend an affirmation of life despite its ironies; the lapses into lyricism reveal a heart that sings despite the poet’s attempts to stifle emotion with sophistication.
In Don Juan , Byron’s philosophical confusion seems to be caused by his natural affinity for a Platonic, idealistic view, which has been crushed under the weight of a realism he is too honest and too perceptive to ignore. He denies that he discusses metaphysics, but he comments that nothing...
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is stable or permanent; all is mutable and subject to violent destruction. Nevertheless, Byron, in calling the world a “glorious blunder,” is not totally blind to its temporary beauties. During the Juan-Haidée romance, the lovers live in an Edenic world of beautiful sunsets and warm, protective caves. Still, Juan’s foreboding and Haidée’s dream are reminders that nature’s dangers always lurk behind its façade of beauty. Even Haidée, “Nature’s bride,” pursues pleasure and passion only to be reminded that “the wages of sin is death.”
Byron’s view of the nature of humanity is closely akin to his complex view of natural objects. People have their moments of glory, integrity, and unselfishness. For example, Juan, the novice, does not flee from the horror of battle; he shuns cannibalism even though he is starving; he refuses to be forced to love the sultana; he risks his life to save young Leila. Often Byron emphasizes humanity’s freedom of mind and spirit. However, Byron believes that human self-deceit is the chief factor in decadence; false ideas of glory lead to bloodshed. Ironically, Surrow lectures his soldiers on “the noble art of killing”; humanity kills because “it brings self-approbation.” In fact, Byron suggests that men are more destructive than nature or God. Still, Byron does not condemn humanity. This is in spite of Byron’s opinion that humanity is basically flawed. Lord Henry, the elder sophisticate, is perhaps the best example of the human inability to retain innocence; caught in the trap of his own greed and hypocrisy and of society’s political game, Lord Henry finds that he cannot turn back, even though “the fatigue was greater than the profit.” Byron also strikes out against political corruption. He had strong hopes for England’s budding liberalism: a “king in constitutional procession” had offered great promise in leading the world to political freedom and morality. Byron, however, boldly declares England’s failure to fulfill this promise.
Byron does, however, offer positive values in Don Juan. He believes that momentary happiness and glory and love are worth living for. Although “A day of gold from out an age of iron/ Is all that life allows the luckiest sinner,” it is better than nothing. Humanity must fight, though it knows that it can never redeem the world and that defeat and death are certain. Since hypocrisy is one of the worst sins, people should be sincere. To Byron, the creative act is especially important, for it is humanity’s only chance to transcend mortality.
Throughout Don Juan, then, one follows humanity through its hapless struggle with life. Born in a fallen state, educated to hypocrisy and impracticality, cast out into a world of false values and boredom, a person follows the downward path to total disillusionment. One learns, however, to protect oneself from pain by insulating oneself with the charred shell of burned-out passion and crushed ideals. Blindly, one stumbles toward that unknown and unknowable end—death. Nevertheless, one goes not humbly but defiantly, not grimly but with gusto.
Therefore, Byron’s philosophy, despite its harshness, is one that embraces life, seeking to intensify and electrify each fleeting, irrevocable moment. It is a philosophy of tangibles, though they are inadequate; of action, although it will not cure humanity’s ills; of honesty, although it must recognize humanity’s fallen state. Although death is inevitable and no afterlife is promised, Byron maintains his comic perspective: “Carpe diem, Juan . . . play out the play.”