This epic poem is a retelling of the legend of Don Juan. Don Juan is normally seen as a scoundrel and womanizer, but in Byron’s retelling, he is instead just a beautiful young man easily seduced by women. The poem tells of all of Juan’s various adventures in love, war, and travel, while at the same time attacking everything from social and class customs to other poets in Byron’s time.
For some reason I can’t explain, I’ve grown rather obsessed with Lord Byron recently. I’m not sure how I became interested in him, but I’ve been reading what I can find about his life and work, and he fascinates me! I really ought to find a good biography. I knew that I needed to read some of his poetry, and when I found out he’d written Don Juan, I knew that this was the one.
The poem starts off with a humorous tone, ribald and eye-waggling. It almost feels as if Byron is winking or making bedroom eyes at you the whole time you read. The rhyme scheme (ab ab ab cc) is silly to the point of ridiculousness, and the content ranges from hush-hush erotica to cannibalism. Byron frequently talks to the reader, discussing his own poem’s fate out in the world or spearing his contemporaries’ work. To give you some examples of what the poetry is like:
He woke and gazed and would have slept again,
But the fair face which met his eyes forbade
Those eyes to close, though weariness and pain
Had further sleep a further pleasure made;
For woman’s face was never formed in vain
For Juan, so that even when he prayed
He turned from grisly saints and martyrs hairy
To the sweet portraits of the Virgin Mary.
or, one of my personal favorites:
When people say, ‘I’ve told you fifty times,’
They mean to scold and very often do.
When poets say, ‘I’ve written fifty rhymes,’
They make you dread that they’ll recite them too.
The poem continues on this tone for about six of the seventeen cantos, with Juan getting up to all sorts of crazy stuff, including dressing as a member of a harem at one point. After the six cantos, though, the poem takes a sudden shift. The end of a scene is simply not given and we jump through time, and suddenly the poem becomes focused on war and adventure. Now, Byron wrote these cantos over five years, in sporadic bursts, and I imagine his mood, age, and experience played heavily on the content and tone of the poem. Unfortunately, while I know the rest of the poem is exquisitely written and a masterpiece of style, after the shift it never quite regained the flow of the beginning and, I admit, I got bored really fast. I was very happy to reach the end of the war cantos, but still, I never really got back into the poem even after that. I never felt that eye-waggling quality that was so fun in the beginning. Instead, things grew sharper, more bitter and cynical.
Byron died before getting too far into the seventeenth canto. He said he had no real plan for the poem, but just thought up each new adventure before writing it, so that the poem could have gone on for much longer, or ended at any time. There was no over-arching plot, but instead more of a series of episodes. I do wonder where the poem might have gone if Byron hadn’t died.
I admit, while the latter part of the poem didn’t do much for me, I am still fascinated by Byron himself and want to read more about him, as well as more of his poetry. I probably won’t try another epic like this again for a while – it took me nearly three weeks to read Don Juan – but I’ve heard some of his individual poems are supposed to be quite beautiful.