Don Juan By Lord Byron Summary and Analysis Canto XVI

Summary

Canto XVI is divided into four sections. The first section is a ghost episode. On the night of the great supper, Juan, after he has gone to bed, feels "restless, and perplexed, and compromised." His mind is filled with thoughts of the sixteen-year-old Aurora and her cool unworldliness. In addition, there is a full moon. He walks out into a gallery hung with pictures. The pictures add to his pensive mood.

But by dim lights the portraits of the dead
Have something ghastly, desolate and dread. (St. 17)

Among them are portraits of once lovely women:

And the pale smile of Beauties in the grave,
The charms of other days, in starlight gleams,
Glimmer on high; their buried locks still wave
Along the canvas; their eyes glance like dreams
On ours, or spars within some dusky cave,
But Death is imaged in their shadowy beams.
A picture is the past; even ere its frame
Be gilt, who sate hath ceased to be the same. (St. 19)

Juan's state of mind, influenced by meditation on the pathos of the death of beauty, makes his succumb to paralyzing fear when "a monk, arrayed / In cowl and beads, and dusky garb" (St. 21) silently walks by him three times.

In the morning he still shows the effects of the fright he has had. He is pensive, distraught, and pale. Both Adeline and Aurora notice the change in him. Lord Henry remarks that he looks as if he had seen the ghost of the Black Friar. Adeline then takes her harp and sings a ballad of her own composition on the Black Friar (the Black Friars are the Dominicans, an order founded by St. Dominic, a thirteenth-century Italian) who haunts the house of the Amundevilles. Why she does this, Byron pretends he does not know:

Perhaps she merely had the simple project
To laugh him out of his supposed dismay;
Perhaps she might wish to confirm him in it,
Though why I cannot say-at least this minute. (St. 51)

The effect of the song is to bring back Juan somewhat to his former self.

In Stanza 55 the narrative turns away from the ghost of the Black Friar to the business of a typical day at Lord Henry's, which forms the second section of the canto. There is a race between greyhounds and a young race horse for the guests to watch. A picture dealer comes to Lord Henry to get his opinion on a Titian, for Lord Henry is a connoisseur and the friend of artists, if not of art. An architect comes with plans for the restoration of Norman Abbey; two lawyers come on Lord Henry's business; two poachers caught in a steel trap have to be taken care of; and a young unmarried pregnant country girl must be cross-examined, for Lord Henry is a justice, and justices of the peace, says Byron, must

. . . keep the game
And morals of the country from caprices
Of those who have not a license for the same. (St. 63)

The third section of the canto describes one of Lord Henry's public days, which he has either once a week or twice a month, to keep his political fences mended. The public day is an open house for the local squirearchy, who may drop in without a formal invitation. There is a great banquet for them at Lord Henry's. There is

Great plenty, much formality, small cheer, —
And everybody out of their own sphere. (St. 78)

At the banquet Juan is again confused and distracted, and his blunders "cost his host three votes." Moreover, he notices that Aurora is looking at him:

And something like a smile upon her cheek . . .
Indicative of some surprise and pity. (Sts. 92-93)

In the meantime Adeline is busy "playing her grand role" and Juan

. . . began to feel
Some doubt how much of Adeline was real; . . .
So well she acted all and every part
By turns . . . (Sts. 96-97)

After the last of the local guests have gone, Lady Adeline and her friends entertain themselves by making fun of those who have departed. Aurora and Juan do not take part in the game, Juan because he is still in a state of reverie. His silence is interpreted by Aurora as motivated by charity, and raises him in her esteem. Aurora has, in fact, renewed

In him some feelings he had lately lost,
Or hardened . . .

The love of higher things and better days;
The unbounded hope, and heavenly ignorance
Of what is called the World, and the World's ways. (Sts. 107-08)

These feelings seem to be chiefly associated with young love untainted by the world.

The last section of the canto is the resolution of the ghost episode. The feelings aroused in Juan by Aurora and the thoughts associated with them keep Juan awake that night and apprehensive of his spectral guest. As he sits in his bed, the door opens, and the ghost of the Black Friar enters his room. His first emotion is fear, which is soon succeeded by anger. He advances toward the ghost, reaches out a hand, and touches warm flesh. The ghost throws back its cowl and reveals the face of the Duchess Fitz-Fulke.

Analysis

In the first section of Canto XV we have a new Juan, or at least a Juan behaving in a way we have not seen him behave before. Never before has he shown any signs of fear, either in storm or in war, when taken by surprise or even when robbed indeed, in any situation created by man or by physical nature. But Juan had never encountered a ghost before. Furthermore, Don Juan is a Roman Catholic and a man like Byron, who had had a Protestant upbringing, would be likely to think of all Catholics as being superstitious because of their belief in a state of Purgatory, relics, miracles, and so on. Possibly Byron is influenced by the Don Juan of the legend here. In Tirso de Molina's play, The Rogue of Seville, which had put the legend in literary circulation, the ghost of Don Gonzalo, whom Don Juan had killed in the first act, appears to Don Juan and invites him to dine with him beside his tomb. When Don Gonzalo's ghost disappears, Don Juan, who had just exclaimed, "What! Me afraid?" is covered with sweat and admits that his very heart seems frozen. There was, moreover, the legend of a ghost of a black monk at Newstead Abbey. Thomas Moore, in his life of his friend, said that Byron claimed he had seen the ghost himself. In Canto XV and in Stanzas 3-7 of Canto XVI, Byron seriously tried to persuade the reader that there might be such creatures as ghosts. Skeptical as Byron was, there was a vein of genuine religious belief in him.

The ghost section that concludes Canto XVI is entertaining, but we are apt to feel that Byron has merely tricked us, that he is working in a ghost to no great purpose because there was a ghost legend connected with Newstead Abbey and therefore with Norman Abbey. What did her frolic Grace Fitz-Fulke expect to gain by masquerading as a ghost that she would not have gained otherwise-in her own seductive person? If she had decided on a conquest of Don Juan, there was little to be gained by frightening him, as she had, and then entering his room. She had reason to believe that she had more to gain by simply dropping in on him, since she was charming and he no woman-hater. Why indulge in a foolish prank that might have frightened other Amundeville guests if they happened to meet her in her masquerade and might have resulted in injury or humiliation to herself? Byron has not motivated her act sufficiently, but he might have supplied the motivation in Canto XVII, had he lived to finish it.

Canto XVI, which Byron wrote between March 29 and May 6, 1823, almost a full year before his death on April 19, 1824, shows no diminution in imaginative power. It is as good in its own way as any other canto in Don Juan. There are relatively few non-narrative and non-descriptive stanzas in it. The ghost episode is not without interest; the account of Lord Henry's business day in the country is concise, pointed, and witty. The assembly of country guests shows nicely the landed politician at work feeding and flattering those who can be useful to him in the way of furnishing votes. The concluding line of the canto shows that Byron knew the value of and could create climax. The construction is good. The canto begins with the first part of the ghost episode and ends with its conclusion. Between the two parts Byron carries out his satiric purpose by showing Lord Henry in different roles.

In the English cantos, which amount to more than a third of Don Juan, his narrative is rather thin, but Byron has created some of the most interesting people in Don Juan, and through and around them he held up the mirror to English aristocratic life in the early nineteenth century. The reflection is obviously a distorted one, but nevertheless it is factual as far as it goes, for Byron knew this society well at firsthand. He shows its members engaged in intrigue among themselves, maintaining a polite front while ceaselessly trying to win selfish advantages for themselves. Its women have no serious aim in life and its men are dull, pretentious, and unhappily married. They are all bored and spend their time in social activities of various kinds in the town or in the country. They are all other than what they seem to be.

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