Summary and Analysis
Don Juan gets out of his carriage and walks behind it in order to get a general view of London. As he meditates on what a law-abiding city London is, a knife is flashed in his face and a voice cries, "Your money or your life." Impulsively, he draws his pistol and mortally wounds the robber. This is Juan's introduction to life in England.
After he settles down and presents his credentials in the proper places, Juan is accepted by the class of society to which he belongs by birth. He becomes an object of romantic interest to unmarried and married young ladies. The bluestockings want to talk about literature with him. At parties large and small he meets the leading English writers of the time. He devotes his mornings to business, his afternoons to visits and luncheons, and his evenings to going to parties. As a young, rich, and handsome noble, Juan is very much in demand.
There is little action in Canto XI and a great deal of satirizing. Byron's main purpose in placing Don Juan in the aristocratic world of early nineteenth-century England is to expose the shallowness, hypocrisy, and. self-interest of that world. There is no genuine virtue in this society; there is only the appearance of virtue, according to Byron. It is interested in young men of Juan's class only for the sake of what it may get out of them. In the canto Byron's main purpose is to give a general, unfavorable, picture of this society and so let the readers of Don Juan know what perils their hero is exposed to. Later, he will concern himself with action and character. The broad outline is given first; the details will come later. Byron effectively establishes the tone of his social analysis at the beginning of the canto by having Juan held up by a robber with a knife just as Juan is meditating on how much virtue there must be in so vast a city as London. Even though it seems rather unlikely that Juan should look down on London from Shooter's Hill with such thoughts in his mind, the ironic incident serves its purpose very well. Juan's illusions are promptly shattered. He will not be deceived by appearances again during his sojourn in England.
Byron's purpose in having Juan mortally wound the would-be robber may be to keep Juan a realistic character and not let him become a mere device to achieve a piece of dramatic irony. Juan is prompt to act in war and love; his act of shooting Tom is characteristic of him; so too is his wish that "he had been less hasty with his flint" (St. 14) and his wish to help the wounded robber to his feet. It is also characteristic of Byron that he should expand the incident into ten stanzas and use it to show off his knowledge of low-life slang.
In demonstrating that Juan is well received in England because he is a foreigner of rank-young, handsome, and accomplished-Byron ridicules the bluestockings, a name given to women who were, or affected to be, interested in learning and literature. They were a favorite target of Byron's satire.
Juan, who was a little superficial,
And not in literature a great Drawcansir,
Examined by his learned and especial
Jury of matrons, scarce knew what to answer:
His duties warlike, loving or official,
His steady application as a dancer,
Had kept him from the brink of Hippocrene,
Which now he found was blue instead of green. (St. 51)
Juan got out of his literary difficulties by replying at random "with / A modest confidence and calm assurance" (St. 52). In addition,
Juan knew several languages — as well
He might-and brought them up with skill, in time
To save his fame with each accomplished belle,
Who still regretted that he did not rhyme. (St. 53)
The bluestockings, Byron implies, are shallow and easily taken in by a superficial parade of knowledge that is not apropos.
The English poets of the time are also swept into Byron's satirical net. Southey receives one more blow, and Keats, the reader is told, "was killed off by one critique" (St. 60). In bringing up the subject of other poets, Byron grows truculent and promises that if he were in England and "in good satire" he would show up the long list of pretenders to poetry. While Byron is devoting nine stanzas to his fellow poets, Don Juan is temporarily shelved.
A third block of stanzas in Canto XI is 76-85, in which Byron develops his own variation of the "Where are the snows of yesteryear?" theme. Byron is looking back over a period of eight years, and in five stanzas beginning with the word "Where" he asks what has become of various persons, some known to history, like Napoleon, others known only to Byron, the friends or associates of earlier years. All have changed, not for the better, or have died. In the last three stanzas of this section of the canto, each of which begins with the words "I have seen" Byron reports other changes that have occurred, none of them good. The section ends with a piece of cynical advice to Don Juan: Carpe diem, get all you can out of each day in the way of pleasure and profit for you.