Don Juan is nowadays regarded as Byron’s crowning achievement and his greatest long poem. Unlike the Satanic self-dramatizing that was the source of his fame in the 19th century, in Manfred and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage especially, Don Juan shows Byron at his most self-aware, and the voice of the poem is very close to the voice of his letters. In fact, in one of those letters, to his friend Douglas Kinnaird, his expression of self-delight with the first two cantos captures that voice perfectly: “As to Don Juan, confess, confess—you dog and be candid—that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing—it may be bawdy but is it not good English? It may be profligate but is it not life, is it not the thing? Could any man have written it who has not lived in the world?—and tooled in a post-chaise?— in a hackney coach?—in a gondola?—against a wall?— in a court carriage?—in a vis a vis—? on a table?—and under it?”
The poem is full of vitality, but as everywhere in Byron vitality, it is a response to an intensely pessimistic view of life and of the world. Byron’s energies, as the essayist William Hazlitt noted in a review of Don Juan written days before Byron’s death, are directed against the listlessness and despair that would otherwise drag him down. Hazlitt conceded Byron’s skill but rebuked him for using that skill only to shock, as Hazlitt thought. Powerful and gripping pieces of writing give way to moments of sudden and hilarious deflation, and Hazlitt complained that this meant Byron was using the powerful moments only parodically, rather than with any ambitious poetic intent.
Against Hazlitt we should cite Percy Bysshe Shelley’s view that Don Juan was Byron’s greatest work. Their difference in point of view may come down to a difference in critical evaluation of the purpose and procedure of Don Juan. Byron’s hilarity is indeed a response to grimness of vision, but as such a response it also measures that grimness. The mocking, rollicking style of the poem displays a kind of gallantry in the face of despair, and that gallantry is impressive.
It is a poetic gallantry as well: The poem itself bears witness to its author’s endless inventiveness. Many of Byron’s rhymes are outrageous, but Byron’s spirited gaiety in forming them is part of the point. As Hazlitt rightly said of Don Juan, “It is a poem written about itself.” And it is: Byron is constantly commenting on it—not only on the rhymes, but on his process of composition, what he thinks of the poem or its characters, where or how the narrative might unfold next. But this very fact shows the extent to which the poem’s manic energies are their own reward, and the only reward to be had in the midst of the gloominess of human life.
Don Juan is written in ottava rima, an Italian eightline stanza form that rhymes abababcc. It was used for both comic and serious work in Italian, and both Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533) and Torquato Tasso (1544–95) wrote their great epics in the form. Their English translators followed suit in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it never took hold, partly because in English multiple rhymes are hard to come by (Italian rhymes much more easily). The main legacy of ottava rima in English was the heroic couplet derived from the last two lines of the stanza (the cc rhymes), which sum it up and give it epigrammatic point. John Dryden’s and Alexander Pope’s heroic couplets, which Byron so much admired (see Don Juan’s first poetical commandment: “Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope” [1. 205, 1]), derive from Edward Fairfax’s translation of Tasso. But Byron’s most direct model was John Hookham Frere’s 1817 imitation of the 15th-century comic poet Luigi Pulci, Whistlecraft; Byron was captivated by Frere’s poem and wrote his own comic poems Beppo, The Vision of Judgment, and Don Juan in the form. After Byron, it more or less took hold. Shelley, who encouraged Byron to continue the poem after he had read the first cantos, tried his own hand at ottava rima with a somewhat different tonality in his translations of the Homeric hymns and in his great poem The Witch of Atlas, and later poets such as Kenneth Koch and Anthony Burgess would write verse novels in the form.
The first two cantos of the poem were published in 1819. Byron decided to hold back the wonderful prefatory note and the verse mock dedication to Robert Southey, refusing to attack him anonymously (it was the custom to publish anonymously).
Only after the preface and long dedication are we introduced to Juan, who in many respects is like Byron, in many respects not. Juan is not a figure whom Byron treats with great psychological subtlety. He is passive, the seduced rather than the seducer, attractive for his beauty and his sweetness. Although sexually experienced (after canto I), he is fundamentally an innocent (rather like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones) and therefore attractive to innocent women, whom he never corrupts. His most important relationship is with Haidée in the second, third, and fourth cantos, and the narrator says of their love that it was innocent though illicit: “Yet they were happy—happy in the illicit / Indulgence of their innocent desires” (III.13, ll. 1–2), since they were essentially “children still / And children still should they have ever been” (IV.15, ll. 1–2) if the world was not what it was.
But this means that, unlike Byron, they are not fitted for the world. For Byron’s own attitude in the poem is not innocent. Rather, it might be described as a kind of dashing and daring ruefulness. His most tender moments are for the innocence of his characters when they are innocent; but that is an innocence that he has passed beyond. One mode of that superseded innocence is a belief (for him) in the importance of poetry such as his own earlier and much more transcendently ambitious Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. He no longer believes this (see canto XI, stanza 55), and makes fun of the time when he was ambitious to be reckoned as “The grand Napoleon of the realms of rhyme” (XI.55, l. 8). Time has changed ambitions that were “once romantic to burlesque” (IV.3, l. 8). Part of what makes Don Juan so great is its author’s realism.
That realism is gallant, though, and not despairing or at least not just despairing. The poem’s most famous lines are probably the closest thing it contains to a moral: “Let us have wine and women, music and laughter, / Sermons and soda water the day after” (II.178, ll. 7–8). This is not a serious moral because the moral is that seriousness leads finally to despair. The point, as Byron adds, is that “Man being reasonable must get drunk” (II.179, l. 1), a pun meaning it is reasonable to get drunk because reason is unbearable and drunkenness is how to escape it.
Edward FitzGerald’s magnificent version of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám insists repeatedly on the same point. While this is the final truth of human life—that reason does not lead to some transcendent truth, and that this is liable to make reason despair—it is not the only truth in the poem, nor is the poem contemptuous of idealism. The same radical idealism that would lead Byron to join the rebellion for Greek independence from Turkey (in addition to contributing large sums of money, he was made a commander and died in the field of a fever) led him to similar commitments in his poetry and in particular in Don Juan. (For similar sentiments about Greek independence, see Shelley’s verse drama Hellas as well.) One of the most beautiful moments in Don Juan is the interpolated song in the third canto, “The Isles of Greece,” which looks backwards to Greece’s idealized past to despair about her present but to build hopes for her future.
Byron’s politics were in fact similar to William Hazlitt’s (though Hazlitt suspected Byron’s flair for dramatizing himself). Hazlitt disliked Byron’s insults of William Wordsworth, his strictures on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and his utter contempt for Southey, but it is important to see that Byron felt as he did about the Lake Poets because of their conversion to the Tory party, to which, in Byron’s view, they abased them selves in order to win sinecures from the government in power. Byron’s poetic models are Milton, Dryden, and Pope, and his model of a political poet is Milton in particular, who “closed the tyrant-hater he begun” (from Don Juan’s dedication). Byron would never convert politically as the Lake Poets did, although in accusing them of being motivated only with an eye to patronage, he perhaps neglected their genuine commitment to the views they espoused.
This does not mean that Don Juan is only parody. Parody provides its basic tonality, but it does so only because for Byron parody was the form that was adequate to the strange and irreconcilable varieties of life. Virginia Woolf called Byron’s form an “elastic shape which will hold whatever you choose to put into it” (quoted by Addison), and Byron manages an amazing number of different tones within Don Juan.
One of the most impressive scenes in Don Juan, and perhaps the scene that shows the poem’s powers, intentions, and origins most fully, is the grueling shipwreck recounted in canto II. Juan has left the scandal of his affair with Julia to travel to Italy, but the waves that cause the hilarious seasickness at the start of his journey turn into a dreadful and endless storm. The comic expectations that the poem has established and met so far contrast with an extraordinary sense of the duration and grimness of the storm, the wreckage, and the privation in the marooned lifeboat it causes; we keep expecting relief, both narrative and comic, and instead things go from bad to worse. Since ottava rima is so fitted to comic verse, the way Byron uses it for this grim and tragic tableau of the “dim desolate deep” (2.49, l. 7), without ever losing a sense of gallows humor, shows the sheer power of his technical skills (like writing a serious limerick). This section is in some ways a conscious and acknowledged rewriting of the similar nautical disasters in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which also works by using a somewhat discrepant form for serious purposes.
In addition to grimness, which has the energy but not the delight of the hilarious sections of Don Juan, Byron manages tenderness, love, regret, asperity, satire, and interpolated lyric. In a perhaps unparalleled fashion the poem contains and combines every kind of literary emotion or feeling. It is indecorous, in the technical as well as informal sense of the word: It does not keep to literary decorum (not confining itself to one genre) but tracks all the different moods or modes of life itself. For this reason, it might be more easily compared to the variety of tone typical of the novel and not poetry. But it is a poem, all its great effects are poetic effects, and while it may not be the most intense work of poetry written in the 19th century, it certainly combines more varieties of intensity than any other 19th-century work, and does it splendidly. It is a fit tribute to Byron and the capacious and various vitalities of his own personality.
Addison, Catherine: “Ottava Rima and Novelistic Discourse.” Journal of Narrative Theory 34, no. 2 (2004): 133–145.
Bloom, Harold. The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961.
Duffy, Edward. Rousseau in England: The Context for Shelley’s Critique of the Enlightenment. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
Hazlitt, William. Spirit of the Age; or, Contemporary Portraits. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
McGann, Jerome. Don Juan in Context. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Saintsbury, George. History of English Prosody, from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day. New York: Russell & Russell, 1961.
Thorslev, Peter Larsen. The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962.