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 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.
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.
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.