George Noel Gordon
Don Juan
the plot of the poem
The story is about a young man of Seville, Don Juan, who has a
love affair with an older and married woman. His pious mother,
accordingly, sends him abroad to keep him from further
indiscretions. He is shipwrecked but, naturally, survives. He and
his few fortunate companions finally come to a Greek island and
there he is comforted by Haide, the beautiful daughter of a pirate.
When Haide's father discovers that Juan and his daughter are in
love he has Juan put in chains and sent away on one of his ships.
Haide goes mad and dies. Juan is sold into slavery in
Constantinople. His purchaser is a sultana who has fallen in love
with his manly beauty. His troubles, however, are far from over.
The sultana becomes jealous and orders Juan's death. The boy
manages to escape and joins the Russian army. His gallantry and
handsomeness attract the favorable attention of Catherine the
Great, who was notorious throughout Europe for her amorousness.
Catherine sends Juan on a political mission to England. This is the
point at which the story halts.
Don Juan
the theme of the poem
In a certain sense, indeed, Don Juan can be read as a comic poem
that has beneath its surface some profoundly valuable things to be
said about life. The tone is irreverent; however, the irreverence stems
from the poet's hatred for hypocrisy, smugness, and sickening
sanctimoniousness. First in the first Canto, the poet makes a direct
satirical comment on the bourgeois-aristocratic society in England and
exposes thoroughly their parasitic life of luxury and idleness such as
that of Juan's mother.
In the Haidee episode, the poet also calls up the Greek people to rise
against their Turkish ruler and gain their natural independence and
freedom. In this episode the poet inserted the famous song “The Isles
of Greece” in which he repeated his earlier utterance in Childe Harold's
Pilgrimage and elsewhere.
Especially important are Byron's fiery speeches against tyranny
and for revolution(Cantos 8 and 9). He also shows his belief that
people will rise up one day against the tyrants and that revolution is
the only remedy to change the world.
Don Juan
Background information
The style of the poem
Don Juan is Byron's most enduring achievement.
It is a vast, sprawling comic poem. During his
residence in Italy, Byron became interested in
Italian poets of the Renaissance. He became
particularly interested in their ability to alternate
from the jaunty and gay to the sentimental. He
observed how the Italians used the lively language
of everyday speech but interspersed it with
deliberately “poetic” language. He recognized that
the Italian ottava rima was suitable to the
expression of his own devil-may-care, defiant,
cynical but emotion-fraught view of the universe.
Don Juan owes much to Italian poetry. During his
stay in Italy, Byron saw the possibility of imitating
the Italian ottava rima in his masterpiece.
The Italian ottava rima
It is similar to the Spenserian stanza of Childe
Harold Pilgrimage. It is also predominantly iambic
pentameter. It dispenses, however, with the
expanded ninth line and thus it achieves a rapidity
and raciness that the Spenserian stanza
deliberately avoids. The rhyme scheme of the ottava
rima is different from the Spenserian stanza in that
its pattern of rhymes runs abababcc. It proved to be
a stanza admirably suited to Byron's mocking,
sardonic view of life.
Don Juan
Background information
The dazzling variety of incidents, scenes, and
moods makes this poem a masterpiece. The
inexhaustible energy of the ottava rima stanzas is
another reason for the poem's popularity. And
Byron's comments on an almost endless number
of subjects — love, selfishness, generosity,
heroism, cowardice, jealousy, politics — add to
the importance of a work that only pretends to be
light and frivolous.
Robert Southey vs Byron
The poem is mockingly dedicated to Robert
Southey. At the time, Southey was considered
one of the most important of the Romantic poets.
In 1813 he was made Poet Laureate, a traditional
honor given by the Crown. The fact that the king
extended this honor to Southey shows not only
that his poetry was highly regarded but that his
political ideas were acceptable to the
Government. He was safe. Like Wordsworth and
Coleridge, with whom he had been friendly and
with whom he made up that band of poets called
the “Lake Poets” , Southey once had advocated
revolutionary ideas. Like them he later changed
his mind and became a conservative. And as
such, he attracted Byron's withering scorn.

George Noel Gordon