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Byron's Don Juan: Summary, Quotes and Analysis

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  • 0:11 Byron's Satirical Masterpiece
  • 1:36 History and Form
  • 4:15 An Epic Summary
  • 11:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

When a complicated, fascinating writer like Lord Byron devotes a huge chunk of his life to a single, sprawling work, you're assured a product that's just like its author, except when it isn't. In this lesson, you'll learn about Lord Byron's epic masterpiece, 'Don Juan.'

Byron's Satirical Masterpiece

When you think of 'Don Juan,' what comes to mind? Womanizer? Seducer? Maybe Johnny Depp? Maybe none of those things, and that's okay too. To clarify, those are the things you should've thought of; Don Juan's associated with seducing lots of women, and Johnny Depp played him in a movie, because who else could play him but Johnny Depp, really? But in Lord Byron's epic Don Juan, it's actually the opposite of what you'd expect. The title character is the opposite of Don Juan; he's not a suave womanizer, and it's actually the women who are always trying to seduce him, so it's a little role reversal.

It's kind of a funny idea for a poem, and it is a humorous poem, but it's hugely long. It's a real epic at 16,000 lines. Just for comparison, if you've heard of Paradise Lost, which is Milton's epic poem about Satan's rebellion against God (which sounds a lot more serious and deserving of lines than Don Juan), that's only 10,000 lines, so Byron's got him beat by a lot. This is a long poem. There's no way we can talk about everything that happens, but we can do a few important things - we can talk about how the poem is written and its structure, and we can do a high-level plot summary. So we're going to go through some of the major themes as we go and give you a sense of the thing, at least for a few of its 16,000 lines. So here we go.

History and Form

Let's start with the poem's history. Byron started working on Don Juan in the fall of 1818, when he was about 30 and living in Venice. At this point in his life, he'd pretty much lived out the life of the fabled Don Juan. He was living in exile from his native England because of all of his scandalous affairs with married women (and some men too, it's rumored). Part of his problem was that he liked married women and noblewomen, which got him in huge amounts of trouble.

He starts writing this poem, and he writes it in sections that he calls cantos. Each canto is kind of like an episode of a TV series. It has a contained story, but it's also part of a greater whole. The first two cantos of Don Juan were published in 1819. The sexual content raised eyebrows, but they were a big hit - maybe they were helped by the sexual content, really; sex sells, even then. He continued working on additional cantos until he died in 1824.

When he died, there was a 17th canto that was left unfinished. Some people thought that he had an ending in mind, kind of like J.K. Rowling knew Harry Potter was going to be seven books (or eight movies)… I don't think we really needed that whole last book of wandering around the forest, but anyway, she at least did have it planned out. Don Juan was written in serialized form, so some people think that maybe it was just going to keep going on and on until people stopped reading, which, again, is more like a TV show that's open-ended - kind of like The Simpsons, really; it just keeps going and going.

As for structure, Don Juan is written in ottava rima, which refers to the stanzas in each canto. Each has eight lines, hence the 'ottava' (for you music folks, it sounds like 'octave;' 'ottava' means 'eight'). The rhyme (the 'rima') is a fixed pattern: you've got A-B-A-B-A-B-C-C for your eight lines. This rhyming couplet at the end lends itself to humor, and we'll see how Byron uses it. It's almost like a punchline or a rim shot at the end of each stanza, because this is satire, right? It's supposed to be funny. It's very clear throughout the whole thing that Byron is not taking it seriously. He was open about the fact that he didn't really know where the plot was going, unlike the writers of Lost, who claimed they knew where it was going and were clearly liars. That will be more clear as we talk about the plot a bit more, so let's get to that.

An Epic Summary

Actually, we're not going to get to that now. Before the story begins, there's the dedication. It's dedicated to Robert Southey, who's a fellow poet. But kind of like the Don Juan in this poem, who's not what you'd expect from a Don Juan, the dedication is not what you'd expect from a dedication. Byron basically spends the dedication trashing Southey, as well as Wordsworth, Coleridge and a whole bunch of his contemporaries. He's kind of like a rapper who calls out everybody; it's like 'you suck, you suck.' It even kind of sounds like a rap; the first lines are the sarcastic: 'Bob Southey! You're a poet, poet laureate, / And representative of all the race.' Then there's a funny slam of Coleridge:

'And Coleridge too has lately taken wing,

But like a hawk encumbered with his hood,

Explaining metaphysics to the nation.

I wish he would explain his explanation.'

Oh, snap! He's taking down Coleridge!

That sets the tone right there. That's not really a dedication; it's just saying 'you guys are awful.' That starts it off with a bang.

Canto I describes Don Juan's early life in Seville, which is 'famous for oranges and women' as Byron says. His father, who cheated on his mother, dies early. His mother, an intellectual, really is determined to keep him from learning anything at all about sex. In terms of his studies, she says 'not a page of anything that's loose, / Or hints continuation of the species' - where 'continuation of the species' means 'having sex.' That's tough, because the Greek and Roman classics he was reading are full of gods and goddesses getting it on. You might as well forbid him to learn about vowels as forbid him to learn about sex; it's just not going to happen.

When Don Juan turns 16, along comes Donna Julia. She's 23, married to a 50-year-old dude, and hot for Don Juan. The description of her gives you a good sense of how Byron uses these joke rhyming couplets at the end.

'There was the Donna Julia, whom to call

Pretty were but to give a feeble notion

Of many charms in her as natural

As sweetness to the flower, or salt to ocean,

Her zone to Venus, or his bow to Cupid

(But this last simile is trite and stupid).'

That couplet at the end comments on its own self and is designed to make you chuckle. Maybe you chuckled, maybe you didn't. Anyway…

Donna Julia is the first in a long line of women who seduce Don Juan. She's a married woman (much like Byron's real-life lovers) and their affair becomes a scandal. Her husband sends her off to a nunnery, and Don Juan's mother decides to send him off to travel in order to regain his morals, which is a horrible idea. I guess she hadn't seen Eurotrip, but clearly if you send 16-year-olds off to party in Europe they're not going to regain any kind of morals. What are you thinking, woman?

The mother of Don Juan sends him off to travel in order to regain his morals.
Don Juan

That's Canto I. The subsequent cantos find Juan traveling around, having adventures, and getting seduced by tons of women. We're not going to talk about all of them because we'd be here all day, but we're going to go through a few to give you a sense of what happens.

Canto II is actually kind of important, and it's different from Canto I. Juan is on a ship sailing for Italy. The ship sinks in a storm and Juan ends up on a longboat with a bunch of men. He doesn't seduce any of them. The food runs out and people start cannibalizing each other. Then Juan is actually rescued by a woman named Haidee, who he falls in love with, even though they don't understand each other's language; which, if you've seen Love Actually, you know is not a problem (the Portuguese maid who Colin Firth can't understand). You might have noticed too, that all the women in that film are under superiors - the men are their bosses, who they fall in love with. Anyway…

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