Canto VII, one of the shortest in Don Juan, is primarily an introduction to Canto VIII, in which Byron describes the Battle of Ismail. In the first seven stanzas Byron defends himself against those critics of Don Juan who accuse the poet of "A tendency to under-rate and scoff / At human power and virtue . . ." (St. 3). In holding up the nothingness of life he only does what writers like Solomon, Dante, Swift, and others have done. He laughs at all things, for all things are merely a show. He will now tell his readers about the siege of Ismail.
Ismail is a Turkish fortress at the mouth of the Danube, defensible against attack by land but not by water. The Russians arrive by water, set up their artillery on an islet in the Danube and begin firing on the city. When their cannonading does not bring about the surrender of the city, the commander of the Russian flotilla decides to withdraw. At this point a courier arrives with the news that Marshal Suvaroff (Suwarrow) has been put in command of the Russian troops.
The arrival of Marshal Suvaroff raises the spirits of the discouraged Russians. He immediately begins preparations for a fresh assault. He even teaches the raw recruits how to use the bayonet. He is everywhere, "Surveying, drilling, ordering, jesting, pondering" (St. 55).
In the midst of his preparations, some Cossack soldiers bring before him a group dressed in Turkish clothing. They are Don Juan, Johnson, a eunuch, and two women. Suvaroff knows Johnson by reputation and commands him to report to his old regiment Juan is to serve with the marshal, and the women are sent to the baggage wagons. Meanwhile the work of preparation for an attack the following day goes on.
The general background of Canto VII is one of the several wars waged between Russia and Turkey. During this war Catherine the Great was czarina of Russia. The immediate background is the siege and capture of a Turkish stronghold on the Danube, now part of Rumania, by one of Catherine's generals, Aleksandr Vasilievich Suvorov, in 1790. The details of the siege of Ismail Byron found in a French work, An Essay on the Ancient and Modern History of New Russia, by the Marquis Gabriel de Castelnau, as he acknowledged in the Preface to Cantos VI, VII, and VIII, which were published as one volume. The war ended with the defeat of the Turks by Russia.
The freshness of a new subject in Don Juan and Byron's strong feelings about war make Cantos VII and VIII two of the most absorbing and liveliest books in the poem. The most interesting character in Canto VII is, of course, General Suvorov, or Suwarrow, as Byron calls him, the Russian general whose chief achievements were his part in defeating the French Revolutionary armies in 1799 in northern Italy. Byron shows good narrative technique in introducing him dramatically in Stanza 43 just when the Russians, who had bungled the attack on Ismail, are about to retreat. The sixty-year-old general by word and example restores the sagging morale of the Russian troops. While Byron seems to admire the spirit and efficiency of Suvorov, he by no means idealizes him. He is "the greatest Chief / That ever peopled Hell with heroes slain, / Or plunged a province or a realm in grief" (St. 68). Suvorov is a professional soldier who cares little for human lives or women's tears. His business is leading armies, winning victories, and gaining glory. It makes little difference to him who the enemy is or whose blood is shed. Freedom means nothing to him.
Byron brings Don Juan back into the story in a similarly dramatic way in the middle of the canto on the day before Suwarrow is to make his attack on Ismail. With him are Johnson, a eunuch, and two women. Byron does not bother telling the reader how Johnson and Don Juan got together again, nor how the party of five escaped from the harem. Nor does he identify the three companions of Juan and Johnson. The eunuch, however, is probably Baba, and one of the women may be Dudu. The other may be Lolah or Katinka, who might have offended the sultana by asking the Mother of the Maids to let Juanna share their beds (Canto VI, Sts. 47-49). Here once more Byron is teasing the reader and leaving him to his own devices. The eunuch and the two women are introduced into Canto VII and we never hear of them again.
Byron's sympathies in the canto are neither with the Russians, who are as interested in material gain as in defeating the infidel, nor with the Turks, but with those who are to be killed or wounded in the attack, and his scorn is for all who confuse glory and bloodshed. He is, he feels, presenting truth, an unwelcome and unpleasant commodity generally — when it concerns man's behavior. In all this he has time to play with the difficulty of pronouncing and spelling Russian names and to ridicule the blunders of Turks and Russians alike, to comment on the accidental nature of fame, man's bloodthirstiness, and to defend himself against his critics.
The last two stanzas, which soberly anticipate the slaughter of the morrow, make a very effective conclusion to the canto, and the line with which he ends, "The death-cry drowning in the Battle's roar" strike the keynote of Canto VIII.