Last Updated on June 3, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514
Context: In Venice, in the summer of 1818, Byron started what he intended to be an epic poem. Instead of the Spenserian stanzas of his earlier Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, he chose the Italian meter called ottava rima, the meter in which Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533) wrote the highest literary achievement of the Italian Renaissance, Orlando Furioso. Perhaps its reputation as the greatest of poetic romances influenced the British poet to select its eight-line, ten-syllable stanza for what turned out to be his own masterpiece. The Italian romance, however, is a serious work, while Don Juan sounds at times like a jest, often rising to great heights of poetic inspiration, only to poke fun at the reader for taking it seriously. There is as much satire in it as romance, beginning with the dedication that insults Southey, the Poet Laureate of the time, and criticizes Wordsworth and Coleridge, along with other contemporary writers, as the work progresses. Don Juan Tenorio was a famous character of Spanish romanticism, based on a Golden Age original, but he has little relationship to the title character of this poem, except as both were persistent pursuers of women. The English poem begins with the childhood of the hero, brought up by his mother, an intellectual, and getting his first knowledge of love-making through an affair with his mother's friend Donna Julia, the twenty-three-year-old wife of elderly Don Alfonso. From June until November they carry on their affair undiscovered; then Don Alfonso learns of the intrigue. Juan's mother decides to send the young man on a tour of Europe to improve his morals, and the first canto ends with the statement by the poet that whether he continues with Don Juan's adventures depends on how well the public buys the first sample. Despite the storm of protests rising because of Byron's voluptuousness that came when an anonymous publisher issued the anonymous first and second cantos published together, in July, 1819, Byron was encouraged to continue with Canto III which, like Canto III of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, is the most admired of them all. It expresses his devotion to Greece. In it, asked to sing at a party, Don Juan obliges. Having traveled much, he is able to fit his theme to the nationality of his audience, and so, following the 86th stanza, are inserted sixteen stanzas of his song, beginning with one of Byron's most quoted lines: "The isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece,/ Where burning Sappho loved and sung." The lover of liberty wonders, as he sings of the greatness of Greece, whether the present generation is content merely to blush when earlier Greeks bled for their land. The reference is to the 300 Spartans under Leonidas who held back the Persians under Xerxes in 480 B.C. at the Pass of Thermopylae for three days until the forces of Greece could gather to oppose him.
Must we but weep o'er days more blest?
Must we but blush?–Our fathers bled.
Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae.