Although the Don Juan of literary and operatic tradition is a coldly amoral seducer, Byron’s version of the character begins as a sheltered youth but is progressively tarnished by his worldly experiences. A wellborn Spaniard, Juan is sent abroad when his mother and her lover, Don Alphonso, discover him to be having an affair with Alphonso’s 23-year-old wife, Julia.
Don Juan’s grand tour of Europe, from Greece, Turkey, and Russia to England, contains all the material of epic convention: storm and shipwreck, slavery, warfare, and political diplomacy. Most prominent among his experiences, however, is love. Juan’s seduction by Julia is soon followed by an island idyll with a pirate’s daughter, Haidee. Enslaved by the pirate, he is purchased for the pleasure of a sultana, makes a conquest of a pretty harem girl, and, after aiding in the Russian victory at Ismail, becomes the latest in Catherine the Great’s parade of paramours. The poem ends at an English country house where three aristocratic beauties vie for his attentions.
The tale of Don Juan is a lively one, but much of the time only a pretext, a thread on which Byron strings the pearls of opinion. Byron’s digressions--some serious, some lighthearted, some savage, but all eloquent--treat a wide range of subjects. Byron shares his religious doubts, political convictions, and poetic values. He describes what he has read, eaten, seen, and felt. He shares his preferences and fiercely attacks his enemies, especially...
(The entire section is 617 words.)