Last Updated on June 3, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394
Context: Instead of following the usual custom of starting to tell a story "in medias res," that is, in the middle of exciting events, Byron decided to start with the childhood of his hero. He tells of young Juan's boyhood beside the waters of the Guadalquivir (which he rhymes with "river"). The Spanish original introduces its anti-hero in an inn of Seville after his year of roistering, love-making, and dueling in Italy. Chiefly, however, the first canto of Byron's poem pokes ridicule at the feminine cult of knowledge, since Juan's mother, Inez, seeks to know everything. Her perfection makes her insipid; so her husband, Don Jóse, goes "plucking various fruit without her leave," until he dies. Juan's mother takes over his education with books "expurgated by learned men," who leave out all the grosser parts but collect them into an appendix. Told in the first person by the narrator, the beginning informs the reader of Juan's training in fencing, riding, and shooting. But the boy does not need training when he finds himself alone one day with his mother's young friend, Donna Julia, married to an elderly husband. In a flippant style, the poet recounts Juan's growing realization of Julia's charms. The boy is described wandering in self-communion, like Wordsworth beside "glassy brooks," and turning like Coleridge into a metaphysician, staying away from home so long that he misses his dinner. Finally on the sixth of June ("I like to be particular in dates"), at about six-thirty, he and Julia are sitting in her bower. Perhaps she meant to "clasp his fingers in a pure Platonic squeeze," as she thinks about her husband Don Alfonso's fifty years, and resolves to remain true to him. The poet pauses to devote a stanza to the "confounded fantasies" of Plato, and his responsibility for more immoral conduct than all the poets and romancers. Julia protests, but perhaps, as in Act III of Hamlet, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." And as Byron goes on:
And Julia's voice was lost, except in sighs,
Until too late for useful conversation;
The tears were gushing from her gentle eyes,
I wish, indeed, they had not had occasion;
But who, alas! can love, and then be wise?
Not that remorse did not oppose temptation;
A little still she strove, and much repented,
And whispering, "I will ne'er consent"–consented.