By Jenna Jauregui
Humor is a great achievement; timeless humor is a masterpiece. If there is one memorable aspect of Lord Byron’s mock epic Don Juan, it is the many smiles and bursts of laughter that occur while reading the clever verses. Even modern readers can giggle at the folly, absurdity, and wit that enliven each line. While it may seem paradoxical to use humor in order to discuss a more serious issue, great satirists know that magnifying a trivial matter to hyperbolic proportions is a powerful tool for social commentary. Exaggerated tales expose deeper meaning through literature and language.
Byron’s satirical portrayal of Don Juan’s mother, Donna Inez, as the supervisor of young Don Juan’s education finds modern relevance in its comments regarding what subjects are most appropriate for school curriculums—a debate that continues to this day. In canto 1, stanzas 38-44 and 52-53, Byron employs a variety of poetic devices that contribute to the humorous quality of the poem; his engaging language provokes both laughter and thought. He also uses a wildly intrusive, funny, and opinionated narrator to voice the satirical story of Don Juan—an element that allows Byron much opportunity for social commentary and humor as he questions whether censorship of controversial material is an effective educational method.
Byron wrote Don Juan as a “mock epic”—a satirical poem that pokes fun at the elevated style and heroic themes present in traditional epic poetry. The poem’s intent is to subvert the qualities of classic epics and thus mock their loftiness. Like most epics, Don Juan is written in a poetic structure known as ottava rima: each stanza contains eight iambic lines and keeps to an ABABABCC rhyme scheme. The poem’s settings expand over Europe and the current Middle-Eastern regions—the various locations keep with the vast journeys of traditional epics that sent heroes across entire worlds. While these similarities between Byron’s mock epic and classic epics exist, Don Juan builds much of its humor through its overturning of other epic elements.
Though the narrator opens the poem with the statement, “I want a hero” (canto 1 stanza 1), this invocation begins a story of a man who in many ways may be the opposite. A common hero for a traditional epic poem is one that exemplifies strong character and moral values. This is not the case for Don Juan, whose reckless “immoral” seductive behaviors and misadventures hardly measure up to the godlike heroes of classic literature. Because Byron elevates Don Juan to this heroic status, however, he satirizes the grossly inhuman goodness of epic heroes in a comedic fashion. By refusing to begin in “medias res” (canto 1 stanza 6) like most epic poets—that is, to begin the story in the middle of the action, Byron allows the narrator to first speak of Don Juan’s parentage and childhood. Perhaps, Byron suggests, Don Juan’s oversexed character was more a product of too-strict parenting and forced naiveté.
Byron begins his discussion of Don Juan’s education by describing Donna Inez’s intent that her son would “be quite a paragon, / And worthy of the noblest pedigree” (canto 1, stanza 38). A determined woman, she is eager for Don Juan to receive the finest schooling in order to live up to his prestigious ancestry. She wants him to be educated in noble act of chivalry—“the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery” (canto 1 stanza 38) though the narrator points out that knights are not as noble as they always seem. They know “how to scale a fortress—or a nunnery” (canto 1 stanza 38). Chivalric knights engage in “immoral” sexual escapades as often as they courageously fight in wars; Byron winks and nudges at this fact through an innovative rhyme that surprises the reader with unexpected humor. With this statement from the narrator, Byron sets up the hilarious episode in which Donna Inez attempts to censor her son’s education. The reader finds comedic irony in her pursuits to omit any sexual references from Don Juan’s schooling—most subjects, even noble chivalry and classic literature, include blatant sexual undertones that cannot be avoided.
Byron’s narrator explains that Donna Inez wishes for her son to receive a strictly moral education; it is what she most desires. She noses her way into his studies and asks that each lesson be submitted to her for approval. The narrator tells the reader, “no branch [of study] was made a mystery / to Juan’s eyes, excepting natural history” (canto 1 stanza 39). Thus, Don Juan receives no sex education—even botany, with its study of plant stamens and pistils, is off-limits from his adolescent mind. Instead, Don Juan is schooled in “The languages, especially the dead, / the sciences, and most of all the abstruse, / [and] The arts, at least all such as could be said” (canto 1 stanza 39). This list of subjects humorously displays the true “value” of Don Juan’s education. He learns many dull, useless, and obscure subjects, but nothing of how to contain or control his budding sexuality. He reads “not a page of anything that’s loose, / Or hints continuation of the species, / … lest he should grow vicious” (canto 1 stanza 39). His innocence proves a difficult thing to preserve, however, once his studies turn to classic literature—a subject that has to be deeply read in order to achieve the high education standards his mother has imposed upon him.
While Donna Inez “dreaded the mythology,” she did not forbid it. Don Juan’s proper education mandates that he be well versed in the classics, though they make “a little puzzle, / Because of the filthy loves of gods and goddesses” (canto 1 stanza 40). In this instance, Byron injects a comedic comment on Donna Inez’s futile struggle to give her son a “moral” education. The situation becomes a hilarious paradox in that she desires to educate Don Juan in every subject so that he may enhance his pedigree, but she does not want him exposed to any immorality. Most of classic literature—including the epic poems Byron is satirizing in this piece—includes unabashed sexual themes as well as nudity and erotica.
In the next two stanzas, Byron’s narrator takes a stronger role as the comedy ringmaster of Don Juan’s tale. He points out all of the great poets and writers who wrote “naughty bits” into their work: “Ovid’s a rake, as half his verses show him / Anacreon’s morals are still a worse sample / Catullus scarcely has a decent poem, / I don’t think Sappho’s Ode is a god example” (canto 1 stanza 42). In these lines, the narrator is directly commenting on each author’s body of work—exposing the “immorality” present in each and pointing out the fact that many classic authors had their attentions on the smutty fringe of literature. They had “dirty minds,” yet the critics still praised their words: “…Longinus tells us there is no hymn / Where the sublime soars forth on wings more ample” (canto 1 stanza 42).
The narrator becomes more intrusive as the verses progress, heightening the level of humor. His tone turns sarcastic as he describes other authors, mocking Donna Inez and the comments she would make on their writings while making them seem like his own opinions. He says, “Lucretius’ irreligion is too strong / For early stomachs, to prove wholesome food” (canto 1 stanza 43). Here, he is poking fun at Donna Inez and the contradictory fact that Don Juan’s “moral” education would inevitably include references to the “immoral” sacrilege that comes from questioning God’s existence—Lucretius wrote that the universe and its mysteries can be explained through science and not the Divine. This “[un-]wholesome food” may corrupt young Don Juan’s faith, but he must study the literature. Philosophy, not just mythology, proves to be dangerous territory.
The rest of the humor in the stanza comes from the narrator’s playful rant about Juvenal and Martial—two authors who wrote satires about society and its scandalous vices: “I can’t help thinking Juvenal was wrong, / Although no doubt his real intent was good, / for speaking out so plainly in his song, / So much indeed as to be downright rude” (canto 1 stanza 43). The narrator practically giggles his way through these lines—how dare these writers use “rude” descriptions of sex and other bad behaviors to prove their point? Another surprisingly funny rhyme closes the stanza while continuing his previous thought: “And then what proper person could be partial / To all those nauseous epigrams of Martial?” (canto 1 stanza 43). Honestly, who reads this smut? Obviously, the narrator cleverly points out, many people must find it literature worthy of attention; all of these authors have their place within the classic literary cannon. However, Donna Inez has her own opinion. She insists that Don Juan read everything except the naughty bits in order to preserve his morality and innocence.
The ridiculousness of Donna Inez’s extreme censorship reaches its peak when the narrator states how the scandalous parts of classic literature were hidden from Don Juan—though not as well as his mother may have hoped. The “best edition” that Don Juan’s tutors use for his instruction was “Expurgated by learned men, who place, / Judiciously, from out the schoolboy’s vision, / The grosser parts” (canto 1 stanza 44). In order to keep Donna Inez’s wishes (and their jobs) the tutors teach from censored books. However, the tutors could not bring themselves to slash the classic literature so liberally: “…but fearful to deface / Too much their modest bard by this omission, / And pitying sore his mutilated case, / Then only add them all in an appendix” (canto 1 stanza 44). The tutors’ literary integrity and sensitivity to the classic authors’ art motivates them to place the censored material in the book’s appendix. There is some ironic humor in this idea in that an appendix is an unnecessary organ in the body but in this case it includes information that the tutors deem too valuable to discard. Comedy also comes from the fact that Donna Inez is being fooled—her strict supervision cannot compete with the cleverness of Don Juan’s tutors. The stanza only gets funnier in the final line when the narrator comments that an appendix saves “in fact, the trouble of an index” (canto 1 stanza 44). Don Juan would never have to go searching for explicit examples if forbidden immorality; everything is neatly packaged in the appendix. He could freely enjoy the scandalous literature like a pre-teen with a Playboy—if he was made aware of what the appendix included. The reader never learns if Don Juan knew the juicy contents of this seemingly dull and useless portion of the book—something that many students would likely avoid.
The final two stanzas of this section feature the narrator’s honest opinion of Donna Inez and her educational style. In keeping with the narrator’s established voice, whose silliness comes from its intrusive, conversational, and opinionated commentary, Byron allows him to open with a humorous contradictory statement: “For my part I say nothing—nothing—but / This I will say” (canto 1 stanza 52). As hard as he tries to stay impartial and non-judgmental, he cannot help but speak his mind on this matter—a familiar situation throughout the poem. He goes on to say that if he had a son, (though thank God he doesn’t,) he would send him to college instead of the hyper-religious, hyper-moral Donna Inez. He was college-educated himself, and he believes it to be the best way to gain knowledge (canto 1 stanza 52).
He rambles on, struggling to sort out his ideas. The fragmented sentences and digressing interruptions add a comedic aspect to what he is trying to say: “For there one learns—‘tis not for me to boast, / Though I acquired—but I pass over that, / As well as all the Greek I since have lost” (canto 1 stanza 53). He states that he learned “knowledge of matters” (sex) but never married; he has no son. In spite of this lack of ethos, he humorously asserts his authority in saying that he knows how sons should be educated. Through these vocalizations from the narrator, Byron is vicariously commenting on Donna Inez and her methods. How can a young man expand his mind learning only the catechism—the traditional and moral guidelines of religion—and nothing controversial or questionable? College introduces students to many different realms of thought and a variety of ideas while teaching all manner of subjects. Young men must form their character on what truths they extract from these studies, not from being told what to believe and having limited access to anything that suggests differently.
The character of Don Juan emerges from this period of repressed sexual education with a lusty appetite and no way to manage it. His erotic escapades lead him away from his mother’s strict moral guidance and into trouble—the epitome of a rebellious youth. Would Don Juan have had so many misadventures if he had been educated in a more liberal fashion? Byron suggests an answer to this question through his use of humor and satirical strategies—aided by a hilariously wordy yet thought-provoking narrator. By constantly mocking Donna Inez and her censorship, Byron’s narrator succeeds in arguing that true education is multifaceted and promotes free thought. Repression only encourages rebellion, and Don Juan is the unfortunate victim of this sad fact.
About jennajaureguiI have a Bachelor's of Arts degree from California State University, San Marcos in Literature and Writing Studies with a minor in Film Studies. I love to read, write, think, and expostulate. My blog "something says this" is a collection of my own writings. All posts done by me are strictly for public viewing and may not be copied or stolen in any way. I retain full copy rights for my personal work. All work on my blog is mine unless otherwise noted.
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Don Juan Lord Byron
English long poem, 1819-1824, written by George Gorden Noel, Lord Byron.
The following entry presents criticism on Byron's Don Juan from 1945 to 2000. See also, Manfred Criticism.
Don Juan (1819-24) is considered Byron's foremost achievement and one of English literature's great long poems. Variously described as a satire, epic, and novel in verse, the unfinished work defies critical categorization despite the consensus that it contains some of the sharpest social criticism in the English language. Writing in an animated style, Byron utilized a variety of narrative perspectives to comment on a wide range of concerns, including liberty, tyranny, war, love, sexuality, hypocrisy, and the mores of high society. The poet's ironic observations and brutally candid portrayal of human weaknesses garnered widespread condemnation from his contemporaries, who subjected Don Juan and its author to an unforgiving and almost relentless campaign of personal slander and critical abuse. Today, however, critics regard Byron's complex, profoundly skeptical yet often humorous work as a remarkable anticipation of both the mood and thematic occupations of modern literature.
The unique relationship between Byron and his audience that later played an important role in the reception of Don Juan began with the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: A Romaunt (1812). When Childe Harold appeared in the spring of 1812, Byron became England's most celebrated author virtually overnight, gaining access to the country's highest social and literary circles. The close association in the public mind between Byron and his protagonists, first established in Childe Harold, continued throughout the poet's career and profoundly affected the critical reception of later works, especially Don Juan.
Byron continued to enjoy unyielding public adoration for several years following the publication of Childe Harold, attending exclusive social events and carrying on a series of affairs with married women, notably Lady Caroline Lamb and Lady Jane Oxford. In 1815 he married Annabella Milbanke, who left him just over a year later. The couple's separation has been the subject of extensive research, and some biographers have suggested that an affair between Byron and his half-sister Augusta Leigh prior to the marriage caused the estrangement. The breakup of the marriage and rumors about Byron's conduct drew scorn in his social circle, and Byron found himself snubbed by his peers and chastised in the press. Byron and Milbanke officially separated on April 21, 1816. Four days later, Byron left England forever.
Byron's meteoric rise to fame and equally abrupt exile hardened him against a society whose rigid notions of decorum had always aroused his suspicion. The poet was able to channel his acute awareness of social mores into his writing, and he produced his first satirical work in October 1817, while living in northern Italy. Beppo: A Venetian Story (1818) offers light, humorous criticism of Venetian morality and customs, and is largely regarded as a precursor to the stanzaic form and narrative style of Don Juan. The positive reception of the work pleased Byron, prompting him to investigate the rich tradition of Italian burlesque poetry written in ottava rima, including the works of Pulci, Francesco Berni, and Giambattista Casti. Under the influence of these models, he began drafting Don Juan in July 1818.
Don Juan, which is composed of sixteen cantos written between 1819 and 1823, is regarded as largely autobiographical in nature and can be traced to a wide range of literary and theatrical influences. In addition to the Italian poets, Byron borrowed from the epics of Virgil and Homer; the satire of François Marie Voltaire, Miguel de Cervantes, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift; and the picaresque novels of Tobias Smollett, Henry Fielding, and Laurence Sterne. Byron also incorporated a broad selection of nonfiction, including passages from historical works, directly into his text. The result is a work satiric in tone, epic in scope, and harshly realistic in its portrayal of human behavior and events. Despite its wide-ranging commentary, the work remains incomplete. Byron moved to Greece in 1823 to aid the fight for that country's independence from the Turks. He died there on April 19, 1824, from an illness contracted after becoming drenched in a rainstorm, less than one month after the publication of Don Juan's last completed cantos.
Plot and Major Characters
Don Juan follows the travels and relationships of a youthful protagonist who, though he shares the same name, bears little resemblance to the heartless libertine of popular European legend. Juan's story, however, represents only a part of Don Juan. Through the series of adventures as overprotected teenager, castaway, lover, slave, soldier, kept man, and ornament in English society, Byron deliberates on a vast array of social, political, poetic, and metaphysical topics. Byron's use of a narrator with a distinct personality, as well as the presence of the poet's own voice in the work, allows him simultaneously to tell Juan's story and to comment on it from various perspectives, a technique that contributes to the ironic qualification of nearly every level of meaning in the poem.
The poem begins with Juan's birth to Don Jose and Donna Inez, his education, and his early love affair with Julia, wife of Don Alfonso of Seville. Subsequently, the poem moves from one geographic area—and transformative episode—to another: a shipwreck on the voyage from Seville; a romantic encounter with Haidée on a Greek island; enslavement by Haidée's pirate father, Lambro; sale to Gulbeyaz, a Turkish sultana; escape and subsequent participation in the Siege of Ismail; service in Russia for Catherine the Great; and finally entrance into English aristocratic society and a possible affair with the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke. While his experiences and geographic range are vast, Juan's journeys are beset with disillusion. His romantic encounter with Julia dissolves into farce when Alfonso bursts into Julia's bedroom. Haidée offers a chance at true love, but the tryst is thwarted by the reappearance of Lambro. Juan next encounters the evils of war and conquest, imperialistic tyranny, and the hypocrisies of English society. Aurora Raby appears to offer another opportunity for romance, but is displaced by the flirtatious Duchess. Nothing in Don Juan is as idyllic as on its surface it seems. Grand passions and lofty ideals are consistently undermined by vicious schemes.
Although many of Byron's contemporaries focused on the poet's indictment of English high society in Don Juan, the poem actually contains myriad subjects and offers sardonic commentary on a vast range of societal ills. Upright Regency-era views of love and sexuality are among Byron's central targets, but Don Juan also offers biting commentary on war, religion, restraints on personal liberty and freedom of speech, and injustices rendered upon society's weakest inhabitants. A passive character, Byron's Juan reacts to, rather than manipulates, the world around him. Brave, resourceful, but essentially without motivation or direction, he is a victim of a harsh, hypocritical world. By casting outside forces as corrupting influences on a character traditionally depicted as extravagant and callous, Byron reversed popular legend to suggest that society, not the individual, bears responsibility for evil in the world.
While Juan is largely regarded as an innocent victim of the harsh world in which he lives, the poem's narrator provides a more hardy voice. A continually shifting character who at times represents Byron, the narrator sympathizes with the weaknesses displayed by the various characters in Don Juan, although his overall tone is one of cynical amusement. His eventual argument that pity, humor and compassion must counteract a chaotic, unfair world becomes the poem's overarching message.
Byron had an early taste of the imminent critical backlash against Don Juan when his publisher, John Murray, vehemently contested the poet's plans to publish the first two cantos of the work in 1819. Byron's attack on the Poet Laureate Robert Southey in the Dedication, his thinly veiled, unflattering depiction of Lady Byron in the character of Donna Inez, and the irreverent attitudes toward sex and religion made publication of the poem impossible, Murray and his advisors contended. Eventually, Byron and Murray reached a compromise, with Byron agreeing to retract the Dedication and several slanderous stanzas. The first two cantos were published with neither Byron's nor Murray's names on the title page in July 1819, and a critical uproar followed. The influential Scottish journal Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine launched the first salvo, praising the artistic merit of the work but thoroughly condemning its moral implications and subject matter. Other influential critics followed suit, many noting the autobiographical elements in the poem and using their reviews to deride the author as well as his work. One highly regarded critic, Leigh Hunt, came to Byron's defense in the liberal Examiner. Hunt defended both the morality and realism of Don Juan and offered his own attack on conservative values. Hunt's praise notwithstanding, critics continued to rebuke Byron and Don Juan with the release of subsequent cantos between 1821 and 1824. The general public's opinion countered the critics', however; while the first two cantos sold poorly, the remainder of the series proved immensely popular. Despite the brisk sales, Murray refused to publish Don Juan after the fifth canto, and the rest of the poem was published by Leigh Hunt's brother, John.
Don Juan remained largely contested or ignored for over a century following Byron's death, but the publication in 1945 of book-length studies of the poem by Elizabeth French Boyd and Paul Graham Trueblood (see Further Reading) began to turn the tide. Both the serious approach to and the quantity of essays on the poem during this period helped to establish it as Byron's most important work. Since 1945, scholars have focused on the structure, style, literary background, and philosophy of Don Juan. The appearance in 1957 of both Leslie Marchand's biography of Byron (see Further Reading) and a variorum edition of the poem edited by Truman Guy Steffan and Willis W. Pratt (see Further Reading) provided critics with a wealth of primary source material and information about the work's composition, textual history, and place in Byron's oeuvre. A surge in Don Juan criticism followed. Modern-day critics have countered their nineteenth-century predecessors with regard to Byron's portrayals of women, love, and sexuality, casting Byron's female characters as powerful and his views on sexual mores as liberated. Critics have maintained that the women characters in Don Juan are as diverse and complex as those created by William Shakespeare, have traced the literary traditions from which Don Juan stems, including the tradition of popular spectacular theater. Scholars have also offered psychoanalytic approaches to the poem, applying the noted theories of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Otto Rank to Byron's use of myth, his portrayals of women and relationships, and noting an overarching theme of guilt in the poem. Critics have also commented on the religious and geo-cultural themes in Don Juan.