Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1777
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.
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...
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- Critical Essays