"Begin With The Beginning"

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Last Updated on June 3, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

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Context: In the literary world, the Spanish Don Juan Tenorio is the symbol of the great lover, the profligate libertine, with feudal power but without feudal obligation. One is not sure how much Byron knew of the Spanish play that introduced this character to the literary world, the Golden Age El Burlador de Sevilla (The Mocker of Seville) by Tirso de Molina (1584?–1648). Don Juan Tenorio (1844) by the romantic dramatist José Zorrilla (1817–1893) did not appear until later. Certainly Byron did not know how to pronounce the Spaniard's name, for instead of Don Hwahn (to rhyme with "John"), he rhymed it with "ruin." But then, he rhymed Cádiz with "ladies" and the three-syllable "capote" with "boat." Nor did he follow the story line of the Spanish original. Started out like a bedroom farce, it let him indulge his talent for insults and ridicule. Its dedication insults Wordsworth, Coleridge, and "Sir Laureate" Robert Southey, who lives to sing about kings "very ill." About Coleridge, Byron remarks that the poet explained metaphysics to the nation, then adds: "I wish he would explain his explanation." Wisely, the publisher, Murray, who published Cantos I and II in July, 1819, and Cantos III, IV, and V in August, 1821, issued them without mentioning either his name or the name of the author. Of course the authorship was quickly guessed, and upon Byron fell a storm of obloquy for their voluptuousness and skepticism. Consequently Murray refused to publish any later cantos. They were printed in sets of three by John Hunt in 1823 and 1824. Byron was writing Canto XVII when he died of a fever in Greece. Byron announced that he intended to write an epic of modern life; however, the poem fails to follow the epic tradition, since the poet departs from the story with frequent digressions, as he does in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. He refers to many people and things, as well as indulging in bitter tirades against England, society, wealth, and power. So the adventures of the Don are incidental to a satire that is, in the opinion of many critics, the greatest in English, as well as the poem above all others of his pen into which are gathered the most outstanding traits of his genius. It is written largely in ottava rima, an Italian meter: eight lines of ten syllables with the first six rhyming alternately, and a rhymed couplet at the end. As an example, see the stanza quoted here. In the opening lines of the first canto, Byron remarks: "I want a hero," and therefore he takes Don Juan, familiar as a figure in the pantomime, sent to the devil before his time. Then the author digresses to list some of the heroes of the present and past, all of whom he finds unfit for his poem. He also comments on the usual way of plunging somewhere into the middle of the action in an attempt to seize attention at once. But as he comments:

That is the usual method, but not mine–
My way is to begin with the beginning;
The regularity of my design
Forbids all wandering as the worst of sinning,
And therefore I shall open with a line
(Although it cost me half an hour in spinning)
Narrating somewhat of Don Juan's father,
And also of his mother, if you'd rather.


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