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.
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…
Anyway, Haidee doesn't speak any Spanish, but that's just A-OK; they're in love. Her father is a pirate who wants to sell Juan as a slave and does not approve of their relationship, so she has to hide him - he just can't catch a break with a normal relationship here. We go into Cantos III and IV, where we hear more about them; they get the news that Haidee's father is dead, so they mourn him for a little bit, then they decide to move in together and have a huge party. They do that; then Lambro, her father, turns up, and he's unhappy - they're spending all his money. He orders his men to seize Don Juan. Haidee is so upset that she suffers a brain hemorrhage and dies. Juan is sent to the slave market.
In Cantos V and VI, Juan meets an awesomely named Englishman, John Johnson. They're sold as slaves to a sultan. Juan has to dress as a woman for reasons that are not really explained. Even dressed as a woman, one of the Sultan's wives in the harem wants to sleep with him. A whole bunch of shenanigans go down and he gets thrown out of the Sultan's palace.
A whole bunch of other stuff goes on. He ends up in a battle against the Russians that's based on a real battle with Catherine the Great. Then he ends up with the Russians and Catherine the Great wants him. Everybody wants this guy!
Don Juan ends up in a battle that is based on a real battle with Catherine the Great.
The war section actually gives Byron a chance to critique war, which is part of his thing. There's extreme violence; Juan starts off thinking he can be a war hero, but the extreme violence, immorality and horrors of the battle get described in really sharp detail. Even so, Juan is considered a war hero, so he kind of compares those things.
Juan is sent off to St. Petersburg. Again, Catherine the Great's kind of into him. Then she sends him to England because he's too cold in Russia. Then there's just a whole bunch of cantos about Juan interacting with all sorts of Lords and Ladies of England and having affairs with a bunch of them. And that's kind of all that goes on.
In the midst of all this, we do get a very famous line that you've probably heard of: 'for truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction.' That is from Byron's Don Juan, so now you know that's where that comes from.
The story ends unfinished; we don't really know what Byron intended to happen to Juan. It could be that he ends up in love with one of the many married women in England that he has affairs with, but we'll never really know. It's kind of like Freaks and Geeks gets cancelled before we really know most of the story; it ends with Lindsay riding off in the VW bus. That's kind of what happens to Don Juan.
Just to sum things up, Don Juan is Lord Byron's epic satirical poem in which he takes his own life as a wandering womanizer and flips it around, making his hero seduced by lots of women. Love is a source of pleasure and of pain in the poem. The latter is highlighted when he loses his true love, Haidee (when she has a brain hemorrhage and dies because he's going to be sold). It's also, briefly, a commentary on the brutality of war, before Juan goes back with the ladies. As a Romantic poem, the language is all really accessible, and it's funny. This is accentuated by the form, ottava rima, which allows for that rhyming couplet at the end of each stanza. And that's a broad overview of Don Juan!
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Explain Byron's inspiration for Don Juan
- Describe the structure of the poem, including the cantos and rhyme structure
- Understand the basic plot of the poem