Reading Lord Byron’s poetry is never dull, reading Don Juan is a delighting way to pass your evening. From the very first stanzas the reader will be giggling and keeping a smile that will only be eclipsed at knowing the extent of the poem, for Byron himself joked about long poems “… When poets say, ?I’ve written fifty rhymes,?/ They make you dread that they’ll recite them too. ” (Don Juan, Lord Byron, Canto I, 108) Then, knowing that only Canto I (out of XVII cantos) has 222 stanzas… the reader may reconsider reading Don Juan and instead, trade it for Lara.
But we can just read some parts of the poem (for that is what I did too) and not feel guilty and take counsel from Harold Bloom “In reading a series of excerpts from Don Juan, we need not feel that we are betraying the poem, which frankly digressive, unfinished and unfinishable (it would have gone on as long as Byron did),” (The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, Harold Bloom, 265) That may help our conscience to rest, but let us always remember that reading Don Juan is not a burden, is a delight.
But what makes Don Juan a must read work? Why would Shelley thought that it was a revolutionary poem? Why did Harold Bloom state that Byron had accomplished “… – Don Juan and everything else. ” (235)? In this essay I will try to understand and point out some of these virtues that make Don Juan a masterpiece of both Lord Byron and the Romantic period in England.
First of all, Don Juan was composed in a very complex and exotic way for the English, which is called the ottava rima, a complex Italian stanza which rhyme is abababcc It was upon a day, a summer’s day A Summer’s indee a very dangerous season, B And so is spring about the end of May. A The sun no doubt is the prevailing reason, B But whatsoe’er the cause is, one may say A And stand convicted of more truth than treason B That there are months which Nature grows merry in. C March its hare, and May must have its heroine. ” (I, 102) C But such a difficult rhyme is not the only thing that caused this poem?s style and beauty, for it certainly is like a merry jingle, but the tone which is achieved.
While we go to Byron’s contemporaries, such as Wordsworth or Coleridge, the serious tone in their poetry is solemn; such is the case of The Lucy Poems or Dejection: An ode, the completely opposite tone is used in Don Juan, we can say that is a more “… comic and chatty narrative” (Don Juan in Context, Jerome J. Mc Gann, 69) a wickedly ironic attitude: “… 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. ”(Dedication, II). According to Jerome J. Mc Gann in his book Don Juan in Context the counterpoint between the verse formalities with the rhythm of the colloquial talk is where the success of the poem lies. But this chit chat attitude does not come from Don Juan himself but from the Poetic I, Byron, the real subject of the poem are not the adventures of Don Juan but Byron and what he thinks. In this cauldron of thoughts, we can find “… wit, poetry, passion, imagination, philosophy, epigram, irony, idealism, sarcasm, sentiment. ” (Child Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan, Ed. John Jumo, 111).
For what we have said before, we can then estate that Don Juan’s spirit is a humorous epic. For Byron stated in the poem that his poem was intended to be an epic (Canto I, 200), the humour in the situations and the addition of pathos (That quality in a work of art which evokes feelings of pity) makes it a humorous epic. Let me point out, that even when the jokes may refer to a real person (often Byron’s contemporaries), it also exits for the laugh’s sake, without wicked intentions, for example in the shipwreck scene: “… She gave a heel, and then a lurch to port,/ And, going down headforemost- sunk, in short. (II, 51). Of course, black humour in actual persons, is not so much intentional as it is in everyday actions or memories that Byron could have experienced. As said by William J. Calvert in his essay Don Juan as a Humorous Epic, Don Juan is drawn from real life “either that or of people he knew” (116). These parts of the poem when experiences are the base such as men, women, facts, things, past, present and future, the poem flows easily and believable, but when Byron’s imagination flows, we get scenes that conquer reality; such as the spectacular shipwreck scene.
Byron’s Don Juan doesn’t limit us to Spain, but take us to wherever he wants, just as Virginia Woolf’s comment on the poem “… is a discovery by itself. It’s what one has looked for in vain- an elastic shape that will hold whatever you choose to put into it. ” (Don Juan In Context, 132). Another aspect that may keep readers through the poem is the expectations; the unforeseen consequences throughout Don Juan, all characters have their own purposes on the story, but nothing turns out as they or the readers expected, from Don Alfonso finding out about Donna Julia’s affair to Pedrillo being the subject to cannibalism.
In the second canto the Nature’s forces also stand as a symbol of unforeseen factor in the poem. Therefore, Byron as narrator should, presumed, know already everything that is going to happen, but it is not like that: “… note or text,/ I never know the word which will come next” (IX,41) The readers are meant to keep distance between the narrator and themselves, he may change the course of the story at any time. Unfortunately, the inconstancy of the story will prevail till the end… ecause there is not an actual end. Such a poem is difficult to talk about in an analytically way, the jokes, the themes, some of course not all, are in plain sight, speaks so clearly that we can even say “Just read the poem! ” without further explanation. But is also clearly what makes this poem so different and revolutionary for the period, the humours tone, the variety of themes, the ottava rima, and many more. And just as the French critic Hippolyte Taine said about Byron “… e is so great and so English that from him alone we shall learn more truths of his country and of his age than from all the rest together. ” (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Stillinger/ Lynch, 607). With such statement in mind we cannot forget Byron, if not for that then for his life story, either way, Don Juan is a work that cannot be missed, if not for the sake of reading a master piece of English poetry, then for the fun of his playful tone.