Don Juan, Lord Byron, 1820
In his long poem “Don Juan” Byron reimagines the legendary Latin Lover as a luckless young man, tossed about by circumstance in 1820s Europe. Highly susceptible to feminine charms, he falls in love over and over again. We tend to think of Don Juan as a scheming seducer. Byron turns him into a well-intentioned, affectionate chap who inspires consuming passions in the opposite sex. Those passionate females create a lot of trouble for Juan.
As you might imagine, Don Juan has a number of lovers. Byron describes intimate scenes with more detail than previous poets dared to use. The poem was declared immoral by many critics. Byron’s publisher often hesitated to publish new installments and some of Byron’s friends begged him to stop writing it. However, many of his fellow poets declared it a work of genius and it was popular with the public.
I agree that it has elements of genius. When Byron manages to stay focused on his plot, the poem is amazing. His passages about falling in love are breathtaking. I read from one of them during my brother’s wedding ceremony:
They look'd up to the sky, whose floating glow Spread like a rosy ocean, vast and bright; They gazed upon the glittering sea below, Whence the broad moon rose circling into sight; They heard the wave's splash, and the wind so low, And saw each other's dark eyes darting light Into each other—and, beholding this, Their lips drew near, and clung into a kiss; A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love, And beauty, all concentrating like rays Into one focus, kindled from above; Such kisses as belong to early days, Where heart, and soul, and sense, in concert move, And the blood 's lava, and the pulse a blaze, Each kiss a heart-quake,—for a kiss's strength, I think, it must be reckon'd by its length.
He really captures the gigantic, encompassing feelings born of little, intimate moments between two people. No?
Byron very successfully describes these things too:
- The bittersweet feeling of leaving your home behind to go on an adventure.
- The charms of Middle Eastern women.
- Don Juan’s courage in battle or when sparring with a lover’s huband/father.
- Petty jealousies.
- Unhappy marriages.
Unfortunately, he grants an enormous number of lines to insulting other poets, insulting social institutions and rambling on about his personal philosophy. I think satire is most effective, not to mention entertaining, when contained within the plot. When Byron directly attacks society, the quality of his poetry diminishes. Fact: philosophy is boring. Don Juan is over 16,000 lines long, but to me it only drags when Byron goes off on philosophical tangents.
Bryon dedicated Don Juan to Robert Southey. Sounds nice, right? I like Southey. Byron didn’t. The caustic, ironic dedication sets the tone for Byron’s other acerbic digressions. Byron’s good friend Shelley escapes his harsh pen, but the Lake Poets take a beating, in verse of course. He tears into Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats. As far as I’m concerned, he can have at Wordsworth, but Coleridge? Keats? Back off Byron; those guys are paragons. At first, the idea of viciously attacking other artists in your genre seemed really odd to me. Also, it’s a precarious perch for Byron, who was far from perfect. Then I thought of rap battles. We certainly have a contemporary equivalent of abusing your artistic competition in rhyme. Let’s pretend that Byron originated the rap battle, shall we?
You might like Don Juan if:
- you want to read beautiful verse about the misadventures of a dashing young man as he’s tossed across Europe by Lady Fortune.
You might not like Don Juan if:
- you don’t want to dig through Byron’s philosophy, social commentary and bile to get to the adventure story.
Final thoughts: I loved/hated Don Juan, but mostly I loved it. When it is good, it is very, very good. When it is bad, it is boring. The story is gripping and told so incredibly well, that I got really annoyed with Byron for all his digressions. I am very glad I read it. To me it was worth the long slog. However, I hesitate to recommend it. Realistically, most readers will not have the requisite patience