At Cadiz, Spain, Juan boards the ship Trinidada bound for Leghorn, Italy, where he is to visit relatives settled there. His suite consists of three servants and a tutor. As Juan has no experience on shipboard, he promptly becomes seasick. Hardly has the ship set sail when a storm blows up. Even though the crew takes in sail, the rough seas tear away the Trinidada's rudder, and the pumps have to be manned, for the ship has sprung a leak. The men try in vain to plug the leak by stuffing cloth into it. A sudden squall lays the ship over on its beam ends. The crew immediately cut away the masts and the ship rights itself. In desperation the men try to get at the liquor supply, but Juan shows his intrepidity by holding them off with a pair of pistols.
Without a rudder, masts, or sails, and leaking so badly that the pumps are useless, the ship lies rolling helplessly in the trough of the waves and at length begins settling by the head. Some of the crew manage to get the cutter and the longboat off the ship and to salvage a little food and drinking water. The other boats have been stove in during the storm. Anything that would support a man is thrown overboard. The two boats have hardly been lowered, when the ship sinks, carrying with it almost two hundred men. Only thirty-nine, Don Juan and his tutor among them, manage to save their lives. Soon the number is reduced to thirty, for the little cutter with nine men aboard is swamped by the towering waves. The men in the longboat manage to keep it afloat and even rig up a sail and mast out of two blankets and an oar. At length there comes a calm, and the bone-weary men get some sleep for the first time in three days. When they awake they are ravenous and promptly devour all of their meager supplies. When hunger begins to gnaw again, they kill and eat Juan's old spaniel, which he had rescued. Then they eat their leather caps and their shoes.
When they have been seven days in the longboat and no breeze has blown for four days, one of them whispers to his companion and the whisper goes from him to another and so all through the boat. They have decided that one of their number should be sacrificed for food. The lot falls on Pedrillo, Juan's tutor, who is thereupon bled to death. Almost all in the boat commit cannibalism except Juan and three or four others. Several of those who have partaken of human flesh drink sea water and go into convulsions. In spite of this, they might have cast lots again had they not succeeded in catching three sea birds and had it not rained for the first time since the ship sank. Later they have the good fortune to catch a turtle that is sleeping on the water.
At length, when only four are left alive, land appears but the coast is steep and rocky. The current and the prevailing wind carry the longboat swiftly toward land, and when they strike a reef the boat overturns. One of the four men is snatched away by a shark; two, unable to swim, drown; but Juan, with the help of the oar, is able to crawl up on the sand and there collapses, unconscious.
When Juan regains consciousness, the first object he sees is a lovely female face peering into his. With her is another young lady, and together they do what they can to restore his strength. After they have rubbed his cold limbs and covered him with a cape, they shelter him in a nearby cave.
The two ladies attend to Juan daily, and under their care he soon recovers his strength. The name of one is Haidée; the other, Zoe, is Haidée's maid. Haidée's father is Lambro, a Greek pirate, who has built a palatial home on the Aegean island on which Juan has been cast up.
Because Haidée's father would sell Juan as a slave, Haidée does not dare take him into her house to recuperate but keeps him in the cave and brings him clothing, furs for a couch, and a daily supply of food. When Juan has recovered his strength, Haidée gives him lessons in Greek, a language Juan knows nothing of, by pointing and repetition. Soon the two fall in love.
After Juan has stayed in the cave for a month, Lambro's fleet puts out to sea and Juan is able to leave his hideout and take daily walks with Haidée, in the meantime improving his Greek. During these walks their love for each other deepens. Soon Haidée's heart is hopelessly lost to Juan, until one night, under the stars
By their own feelings hallowed and united,
Their priest was Solitude, and they were wed:
And they were happy-for to their young eyes
Each was an angel, and earth Paradise. (St. 204)
Canto II is divided into five general parts: (1) a transitional beginning by means of Juan's seasickness; (2) the storm and shipwreck; (3) existence in a small boat after the ship has sunk; (4) Juan's arrival on an island in the Aegean Sea and the swift development of a secret love affair between him and Haidée, the only child of a wealthy Greek pirate, smuggler, and slave trader; and (5) a "philosophical" concluding section on love, conceived of as one of the main sources of both pain and pleasure in this world.
After the cynical comic brilliance and mocking commentary on marriage in Canto I, Canto II may disappoint some readers. Byron substitutes disaster at sea for disaster in marriage, but in the end brings the canto back to the main subject of Canto I, namely, love. In the interests of variety and unity, he might have ended Canto II with Stanza 110, where Juan, who has barely escaped with his life, falls unconscious on the shore of an island. As it is, Juan, whom we saw at the close of Canto I fleeing naked, a rather ridiculous figure, from one illicit love, is thrown, almost naked, into another illicit love, in the last part of Canto II. Juan remains pretty much unchanged; he has learned nothing from experience. There is no indication that he is in the slightest concerned with the possible disastrous effects of his new love, just as he had not concerned himself with the consequences of his first love. In this respect he is in the tradition of the classical Don Juan, who goes gaily from one love to another. Byron does not condemn him, although he had made him an object of laughter in Canto I; neither does he condone his conduct with Haidée. Although Juan and Haidée merely responded to the gravitational pull of physical compatibility, they had both been brought up Christians, as Byron is careful to tell us. Finding themselves in an occasion of sin, they had yielded to nature seemingly without a struggle. Byron, however, has his eye on the reader, especially the critic, who would be quick to charge him with immorality. He provides no suggestive details, and in Canto III he shows how the wages of sin is death for Haidée and serious injury for Juan. Even with these precautions, he did not escape the charge of immorality. Robert Southey, the poet laureate, made him the leader of the Satanic school of poetry.
Byron's treatment of Haidée is quite different from his treatment of Donna Julia. He analyzes Julia's conduct with amused irony because she was a product of a sophisticated Christian society, and married besides. Haidée belongs to a more primitive society and is single. Byron explains her conduct by saying that she forgot her Christian principles in a crisis of love:
And Haidée, being devout as well as fair,
Had, doubtless, heard about the Stygian river,
And Hell and Purgatory — but forgot
Just in the very crisis she should not.(St. 193.)
No doubt Byron feels that she is more entitled to our sympathy because she did not manipulate her conscience as Donna Julia had; she did not try to convince herself that her course of conduct was other than what it was. She didn't think at all, in fact, and so as a mirror of humanity is far less interesting than Donna Julia, for whom the reader can feel pity because she was trapped in a loveless marriage. Haidée's case was not at all similar. She had had suitors; while growing to womanhood she had rejected several, as Byron informs us in Stanza 128 — and the field was still wide open. Byron seems to have forgotten these suitors and all they imply, when he writes in Stanza 190:
Haidée spoke not of scruples, asked no vows,
Nor offered any; she had never heard
Of plight and promises to be a spouse,
Or perils by a loving maid incurred;
She was all which pure ignorance allows.
The shipwreck scenes are vivid and unforgettable, with something of the realism of the eighteenth-century novelist Tobias Smollett about them in addition to a seasoning of Byronic irony. Byron's chief source for his materials in this episode was a collection of shipwreck accounts, by men who had been involved in the incidents, edited by Sir J. G. Dalyell in 1812, entitled Shipwrecks and Disasters at Sea, but he used other accounts too, including Captain Bligh's account of the mutiny on the Bounty. From these sources he got the cutting away of the masts to right the ship, the effort of the sailors to get at the liquor supply, some of the sailors lashing themselves in their hammocks, the dog, the cannibalism, the choice of a victim by drawing lots, bleeding the victim to give him an easy death, the rain shower, the capture of the sleeping turtle, and other details. A reviewer was quick to point out Byron's indebtedness.
Byron's picture of man in the shipwreck stanzas is one which on the whole is all too true. In such circumstances principle and reason are apt to vanish. What we miss in all this is compassion for poor, miserable mankind, and Byron's occasional facetiousness is out of place and angered the reviewers. Artistically, the cannibalism incident may be a blemish. It is ugly and may have been put in to shock rather than to show how men may behave adrift in a small boat without provisions. To make it plausible Byron should have gone into much greater detail in showing how it came about Cannibalism among shipwrecked men adrift in a small boat is so rare that the literary use of it demands an adequate background, including sufficient characterization of those who suggest it and commit it. Without this the element of probability is weakened.
The island idyll in Canto II in its realism and detailed description commands the reader's keenest interest. As a realistic presentation of a love affair between two young people whom we see gradually falling in love with each other, there is nothing quite so good as it in English literature before Byron. We are not simply told that Juan and Haidée fall in love with each other. We see the process taking place before our eyes.