Summary and Analysis
The storming of Ismail begins with a Russian artillery barrage, which is soon answered from within the fortress. The Russian columns are ordered to attack and the slaughter commences. Instead of attempting to describe the battle in detail, Byron concentrates on the fortunes of Juan and Johnson, who are fighting in the same unit. They begin their march forward "dead bodies trampling o'erl Firing, and thrusting, slashing, sweating, glowing," wallowing "in the bloody mire / Of dead and dying thousands" (St. 19), sometimes gaining ground, sometimes being forced to yield ground. Byron's excuse for Juan's part in the attack is that he is a creature of impulse and is fascinated by the honor to be gained in battle.
By chance Juan becomes separated from his unit As he rushes along he finds himself in General Lascy's second column. Johnson, who had "retreated," makes a reappearance. Favored by accident and blunder they and their companions find themselves inside the walls of Ismail and Juan is commended by General Lascy himself. In spite of fierce resistance from the Turks, the Russian forces advance and succeed in closing in on the Turkish commander-in-chief, to whom they offer quarter. He refuses and is killed. The whole city is then captured but only part by part, for the Turks refuse to surrender:
The bayonet pierces and the sabre cleaves,
And human lives are lavished everywhere,
As the year closing whirls the scarlet leaves
When the stripped forest bows to the bleak air,
And groans, and thus the peopled city grieves,
Shorn of its best and loveliest, and left bare;
But still it falls in vast and awful splinters,
As oaks blown down with all their thousand winters. (St. 88)
Juan shows his humanity by saving the life of a Turkish girl of ten trying to hide in a pile of slaughtered women. Two Cossacks are about to put her to the sword when Juan arrives and by slashing the hip of one and the shoulder of the other saves the wounded little girl. When Juan insists that he will advance no farther until he has put the girl in a place of safety, Johnson commands a number of his followers to guard the girl.
Among the last of the Turks to yield are a Tartar Khan and his five sons. He rejects an opportunity to surrender and sees his sons killed one by one before his eyes. Even then he will not yield and joins his sons in death.
When the whole of the city is under the control of the Russians, crimes of every description are committed:
All that the mind would shrink from of excesses —
All that the body perpetrates of 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. (St. 123)
After the battle Suwarrow pens a message for Queen Catherine: "Glory to God and to the Empress! . . . Ismail's ours" (St. 133).
In his attack on war and its false glory through his account of the capture of Ismail, Byron's general method is to stress the bloodshed and loss of life involved. The soldiers have to march over the bodies of the dead and wounded in order to advance; they must wallow "in the bloody mire / Of dead and dying thousands" (St. 20). The Russians "fell as thick as harvests beneath hail, / Grass before scythes, or corn before the sickle" (St. 43). They slide "knee-deep in lately frozen mud, / Now thawed into a marsh of human blood" (St. 73). "The city's taken — only part by part — / And Death is drunk with gore" (St. 82). "Upon a taken bastion, where they lay / Thousands of slaughtered men, a yet warm group / Of murdered women . . ." (St. 91) may be seen. ". . . the glow / Of burning streets like moonlight on the water, / Was imaged back in blood, the sea of slaughter" (St. 122).
In addition to showing the horrors of war, Byron subjects war to a continuous blistering attack of satirical comment. The combination of the two methods is calculated to make the reader strongly anti-war. War is hell, says Byron. Here he becomes involved in a dilemma, because he defends wars of liberation, wars in defense of freedom. (Sts. 4-5) If war is hell, there can be no exception for in wars in defense of liberty as much blood may be spilled as in wars of aggression. The dilemma is inescapable when war is condemned by showing its horrors. The battles fought by Leonidas and Washington (St. 5) can result in as much bloodshed as battles fought by tyrants.
Even though Byron does not escape from the dilemma in which his vividly concrete and hyperbolical method of condemning war involves him, he shows that war is not all horror by having Don Juan save the life of a ten-year-old Turkish girl by the somewhat incongruous method of wounding two of his allies in the process. Furthermore, quarter is offered to the enemy by the Russians on more than one occasion.
Byron, on the whole, is sympathetic toward his very human and imperfect hero, Don Juan. Why then does he allow Juan to commit the major crime of enthusiastically waging war against the inhabitants of a city that had done him no injury? Byron does not excuse him; he makes sarcastic comments on his behavior in Stanzas 24 and 25, calling his valor "a thing of impulse." It might be added that Juan as killer is a victim of the plot of Don Juan, in which, among many other things, Byron wants to attack war — specifically, aggressive war.
Byron himself becomes a victim of the "noble savage" legend of the eighteenth century in Stanzas 61-67 of Canto VIII. In these stanzas he digresses to deliver a panegyric on Daniel Boone, whose fame had come to his ears. Daniel, he says, was the happiest of mortals who, killing nothing but a buck or bear spent "the lonely, vigorous, harmless days / Of his old age in wilds of deepest maze" (St. 61). Byron says nothing or knows nothing of the number of Indians that Boone had killed in his time. To Byron, Boone was not the only one of his kind, for around him grew up a race of tall, strong, cheerful, incorrupt people of the woods. But the poet does not mention that Boone and his followers took, by force, the place of another incorrupt people of the woods. He ignores this fact, and boldly asserts that these kindly folk are the product of Nature. What goes on at Ismail is the product of Civilization. (St. 68).