About Don Juan


Like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Byron's Don Juan is an unfinished poem. How Byron might have ended it is idle speculation. It could have gone on indefinitely like a comic strip as long as the public showed an interest in its continuation. All Byron had to do was to change the locale and introduce new episodes. Byron spoke once or twice of letting Juan be killed off in the French Revolution. That would have made a suitable conclusion to a drifting, planless life just as the Greek revolution made a suitable, even immortalizing, conclusion to Byron's drifting, planless life. He could have had Empress Catherine, or her son Paul I, transfer her envoy to France, perhaps as a spy, and have him blunder into the guillotine while being pursued by some beautiful goddess of reason. Such an ending would have been consistent with the personality and character of Juan, who is swept along with the current, who does not seek out but is sought out.

Don Juan is such a vast creation that it is difficult to judge it as a whole. It has something for every kind of reader and a good deal that will please no reader. There are numerous dull stanzas in it in which Byron says or does nothing of interest. To borrow a word used by Byron near the beginning of the poem, it has its longueurs, or tedious passages. Byron's skepticism and cynicism become tiresome. His hero, Don Juan, as sometimes happens in novels, is of less interest than several of his other characters, even though he does develop and is more mature in Canto XVI than in Canto I. But he never develops a strong moral sense. In regard to sex he remains amoral, or so it would seem. He remains a drifter, although he becomes a better judge of human nature as the poem progresses.

But granting some weaknesses in structure, characterization, and philosophy of life, Don Juan is an epic carnival, as Truman Guy Steffan calls it in his The Making of a Masterpiece. It has scope, variety of human types and experience, common sense, much matter for laughter, clever and witty observation, ease, and fluency. It may not reveal a wealth of learning and a depth of thought and insight, but it does reveal a wide range of experience derived from books and from life. An index of the topics in Don Juan would be very long. In some parts it is unsurpassed by anything of a similar kind in English poetry before it, for instance, the Don Juan-Donna Julia episode, the development of the love affair between Don Juan and Haidée, and the savage, mocking indictment of war. Last, it gives us a great deal of Byron himself, one of the most interesting personalities of English literature.