In Don Juan Lord Byron Criticises English Literature Essay

In Don Juan, Lord Byron criticises and mocks many of the values of his day, seeking to sketch the world ‘exactly as it goes’ and offering us a harsh dose of reality coupled with a direct disregard for convention. In ‘A Thousand Colours’ [1] , Guy Steffan highlights our inclination to assume Don Juan to be largely, if not wholly, negative in its expression as a result of the constant and numerous portrayals of the inconvenient truths of society at the time. Though Byron does provide readers with little celebration of his time, this does not mean that he does not offer readers any positive values of his own. It is actually quite the opposite; the values Byron offers us in Don Juan are, in many ways, the most positive values he could offer us. These are the precious values such as truth, education, introspection, hope; in a manner, that is energetic, good humoured and colourful. Byron himself asserts, “Good workmen never quarrel with their tools” (Canto 1 Stanza 201). As Helen Gardner most aptly notes, in her essay ‘Don Juan’ [2] – “Although Byron can be bitter…he is not sour”, and while the sceptic attitude he has can be found today, his mighty spirits and passion for life are much rarer qualities.

By giving us a depiction that is ruthless and unflattering to our hopes, Byron does not deflate us, but reminds us – through the example and choice of protagonist – that the ordinary man is capable of acts of great compassion and kindness. Byron finds a balance – refraining from the self-righteous nature of the epic traditions without sacrificing his thirst to paint the thousand colours of reality. He is also wise enough to understand the nature of truth as being ever changing and complex – too complex for him to declare a universal truth, instead wisely stating “I don’t pretend that I quite understand/My own meaning when I would be very fine;” (Canto 4 Stanza 5). Byron takes the accepted mould of not just the epic tradition but society as a whole; and does not just question and criticises them, but also, and more importantly, leads us as the reader to question them. This is one of, if not the, most important and most positive value he offers readers.

One of the main ways Byron’s does this is through the character of Don Juan. The choice in making Don Juan the protagonist for his poem is an important one. From the first canto, Byron’s principle is set in opposition to the established line, reflected through his choice in his epic hero – much to the disregard of calls from his contemporaries such as John Murray to produce a ‘great work’. Why is this choice an important one? Don Juan represents a choice in a man who was an infamous womaniser and rogue – seemingly a counter intuitive choice to make after declaring, “I want a hero, an uncommon want,” in the very first line. However, the fictitious Juan created by Byron is not the active agent in his pursuit of adventure and women throughout the entirety of the poem, but victim of the ambitions of successive women, including his own mother, Donna Inez. The Juan created by Byron is very different to what we would expect – eternally young, innocent and “good at heart”. Despite the constant changes, whether in setting, lovers or situations, he remains to some degree the same and changes very little. Therefore, when set against the existing creeds and conventions of Byron’s time, the character of Juan blends in as a natural man of his environment. We are able to explore the nature of the relationship between the individual and society from a perspective that is equal to that of society – Juan is neither a hero nor villain. The perspective Byron gives us through the character of Juan is honest. He is not the best or the worst of his time and this works in Byron’s favour, and more importantly in our favour, as we are able to see things from a more honest human perspective – for all its flaws and contradictions. By using a figure as well chronicled and known as Don Juan, Byron is able to play with our expectations, as they are not the values we would anticipate from Juan.

The horrors of the battle of Ismail, in which 30, 000 men are massacred, shows us one of the best examples of our expectations being taken by surprise and the human perspective offered by Juan. As pointed out by Guy Steffan, Juan is susceptible to the current of “wild seas and wild men” (Canto 3 Verse 54) but is able t0 kill without hatred to rise in his compassion and save the life of Leila the orphan – the sole kind deed amongst a “contagion of glory madness”. Byron depicts the ‘madness that has seized’ us in detail in Canto 8 Verse 123, when he writes:

All that the mind would shrink from of excesses,

All that the body perpetrates of the bad,

All that we read, hear, dream of man’s distresses,

All that the devil would do if run stark mad

All that defies the worst which pen expresses,

All by which hell is peopled, or as sad

As hell, mere mortals who their power abuse,

Was here (as heretofore and since) let loose.

The values depicted to the reader here are extremely bleak, portraying a vivid image in our minds of something reminiscent of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The effect is powerfully emotive, as shown through the combination of all of ‘man’s distresses…run stark mad’ are ‘let loose’. Byron does not limit the inferno of Ismail to this single moment, but extends this image to the present, reverberating in our minds the gravity of this ‘blindness’ as ongoing and endless – much like that of the Hell depicted by Dante. As a result of these scenes, the narrator’s earlier comments that “War cuts up not only branch, but root,” (Canto 7 Verse 41) now carry greater poignancy and meaning amidst ‘the sea of slaughter’. There are no positive values offered here by Byron. To be more precise, there seem to be no values in sight – only an abundance of vices, ‘cemented in human blood’ by the ‘Cyclops mad with blindness’ – all of which is juxtaposed when the chief Pasha calmly puffs his pipe with ‘martial stoicism’. The image created in the readers’ minds by Byron is extremely bleak, as the hellish scenes of war are brought to life at Ismail, as the elite few sit back to observe the violence. George D.F Lord describes the manner used by Byron as ‘hard-edged casualness’ in his essay “Heroic Mockery”; and Byron uses this hard edge to dismantle the arena provided by the battlefield within which we usually find our epic heroes – ‘the dream becomes a nightmare’, as Guy Steffan shrewdly notes. Steffan surmises that the political and military conquests are revealed as ‘crimes against humanity,’ conquests which suffer a collapse morally, as the 30,000 who are slaughtered are commemorated by the ‘witty rhyme of victory’ sent by Suwarrow.

Despite these piercing illustrations, Byron does offer us a speck of hope – a good deed amongst a plethora of carnage and destruction. Earlier in Canto eight, in the third verse, the narrator lightly suggests “The drying up a single tear has more/Of honest fame than shedding seas of gore.” Byron tells us, without any of the bravado and exuberance he often employs, comments that the value of compassion is so great, that it outweighs any amount of violence. Upon first reading these comments, it would be easy for this statement to be lost in the ‘battle’s roar’ because of the quiet manner in which Byron touches on the subject, moving smoothly along with the narrative – not allowing us to dwell for even a moment to absorb the weight of his words. This does not however result in the poignancy of his message being overlooked, as this assertion is later bolstered through Juan’s act of kindness in rescuing the orphan Leila, and in doing so, fulfilling the actions to give greater the meaning and significance to the narrator’s words. Drummond Bone comments – “duality pervades most of the poem”, and this is evident in the battle of Ismail. The battlefield of Ismail is a place where a general can display his ‘talents’ on the ‘noble art of killing’, and on the other end of the spectrum, Juan is moved to tears in his compassion to protect the ‘Moslem orphan’. The result of this is, we are shown that Juan, who is not elevated to the status of an epic hero, a common and natural man, is able and capable of great acts of compassion, loyalty and kindness. Therefore, we as the reader, even if we do not learn anything from the parody and humour, are shown that there can be a speck of hope amidst the chaos of even the inferno of Ismail. Byron softens the hard blows and we are able to take comfort that even a character like that of Juan is able to succeed where so many others are not.

This is not the only positive value offered by Byron in order to comfort the blows provided by the mockery and attack of western culture throughout the poem. Through Juan’s romance with the character of Haidée, we are given for a short time a romantic image of a youthful passion that is innocent and pure – embodied in the perfect physical image of Haidée. Even the narrator is taken in, despite the ominous signs of ‘poison through her spirit creeping’ (Canto 3 Verse 1) with sentimentality and remarks ‘oh, that quickening of the heart, that beat!’ (Canto 2 Verse 203).

Byron may suggest to his reader that he sings ‘carelessly’, however, on closer inspection of the numerous revisions and meticulous planning which he put in Don Juan, we know that this is not the case. It was not until 1944, when Professor G. Steffan began his lengthy study of the manuscripts of Don Juan, did the focus shift from Byron the man to Byron the poet. The result was a print that included variations of Don Juan, including drafts and notes made by Byron. This gives us a valuable insight in seeing Byron at work as a poet, through the changes and approaches he made – the various revisions of the first canto being a prime example of this. Helen Gardner comments that the revisions show us the efforts made by Byron in order to give ‘maximum expressiveness to the truth of substance and force of feeling’. This brings us onto another positive value offered to the reader by Byron – his ‘gusto of expression’ as Steffan calls it.

Beneath the digressive nature of his epic and the good humour of his narration, lies what George D.F Lord writes as, a rebellious and defiant voice, stemming from John Milton’s character of Satan in his epic poem, Paradise Lost. Despite drawing roots from the voice of Milton’s Satan, Byron’s defiant voice rebels against the ‘wrong poetical revolutionary system’ when Byron mockingly declares: “Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope” (Canto 1 Verse 205) followed later on by cries of “Hail, Muse! et cetera” (Canto 3 Verse 1). In the chapter entitled “Irony and epic passion: Byron & Keats”, Michael O’Neill commends the voice used by Byron stating: “His ottava rima is an affront to Milton who chose blank verse…his poem mock epic pieties, but manages to create a vision that has an epic validity.” [3] It is not only the manner of this voice which is effective, but also the end itself. As we move further into the depths of Byron’s epic, his opinions and feelings are completely clear. As a result of breaking the conventions of the epic tradition by not giving us the omniscient narrator’s divine-like judgement, Byron instead gives us a detailed reality (of war, or love for example), and then feeds the reader with questions. These questions are left the reader to answer, rather than giving us a crystallised judgement, and these questions are another example of the positive values he offers in Don Juan. This is a view shared by E.W Marjarum, in Byron as Sceptic & Believer (1938), who comments Byron “educates us, but does not answer us” [4] . In Don Juan Byron does satirise many of the values of his day, even so, in doing so he offers readers a scope on reality, which is a positive value in itself, without any claims to knowing a universal truth. Byron as a poet is confident and intuitive enough to understand that values such as the truth will themselves cut through “canals of contradiction”, yet also humble enough to realise that “But what’s reality? Who has its clue…Ask a blind man, the best judge…I know nought; nothing”. As a result, Byron is able to, despite his own feelings being clear, mock the negative values of his time and present the reader with the truth. He does this not by portraying the truth itself, but by bringing together and satirising the consistent dualities throughout his epic; allowing the contradictions to expose themselves. The result is the reader is provided with an image truth, which is unflattering, but revealing nonetheless in its purity – without the intrusion of Byron or his narrator.

There is, because of these vivid depictions of the truth, a danger that the poem becomes lost in negativity and dullness. However, Byron strongly detested dullness and Guy Steffan remarks it was Byron’s aim to “blast dullness out of the epic. The more earnest Byron is about what he has to say, the more energetic he becomes in the way he says it” [5] . The result, Steffan proposes, is that Byron provides the entertainment and enjoyment to fulfil the needs of readers plagued by boredom and restlessness. Steffan sums up the positive value offered by Byron in Don Juan as a whole when he writes: “We can be struck as much by the manner as by the matter, and frequently only by the manner. The poet should make the manner, but sometimes in Juan, the manner makes the poem” [6] . To give further evidence to back up this statement, we can see a number of examples of this throughout the poem, one of which in particular can be seen in Canto 3 Verse 88:

But words are things, and a small drop of ink,

Falling like a dew upon a thought, produces

That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.

‘Tis strange, the shortest letter which man uses

Instead of speech, may form a lasting link

Of ages. To what straits old Time reduces

Frail man, when paper, even a rag like this,

Survives himself, his tomb, and that’s his.

The poetic image created here by Byron is a beautiful expression of the power of thought. Byron, amidst his digressive bombardment of criticisms against Homer, Milton, Horace, Pope and Dryden, briefly displays the depths ability as a poet as he reflects on the immortality of a poet’s words, striking the reader with its deep poignancy. The manner in which he does so reminds us of William Shakespeare’s famous closing lines in Sonnet 18 – “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”, and this is yet another example of the positive values Byron offers to the reader.

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