Don Juan (Byron)

Don Juan (Byron)
Byron's Don Juan (Penguin Classics version)

Don Juan (play /dɒn ˈən/) is a satiric poem[1] by Lord Byron, based on the legend of Don Juan, which Byron reverses, portraying Juan not as a womanizer but as someone easily seduced by women. It is a variation on the epic form. Byron himself called it an "Epic Satire" (Don Juan, c. xiv, st. 99). Modern critics generally consider it Byron's masterpiece, with a total of over sixteen thousand individual lines of verse. Byron completed 16 cantos, leaving an unfinished 17th canto before his death in 1824. Byron claimed he had no ideas in his mind as to what would happen in subsequent cantos as he wrote his work.

When the first two cantos were published anonymously in 1819, the poem was criticized for its 'immoral content', though it was also immensely popular.



Byron was a rapid as well as a voluminous writer. Nevertheless, the composition of his great poem, Don Juan, was coextensive with a major part of his poetical life. He began the first canto of Don Juan in the autumn of 1818, and he was still at work on a seventeenth canto in the spring of 1823. The poem was issued in parts, with intervals of unequal duration. Interruptions in the composition and publication of Don Juan were due to the disapproval and discouragement of friends as well as the publisher's hesitation and procrastination. Canto I. was written in September, 1818; Canto II. in December–January, 1818-1819. Both were published July 15, 1819. Cantos III. and IV. were written in the winter of 1819-1820; Canto V., after an interval of nine months, in October–November, 1820, but the publication of Cantos III., IV., V. was delayed till August 8, 1821. In June, 1822, Byron began to work at a sixth, and by the end of March, 1823, he had completed a sixteenth canto. But the publication of these later cantos, which had been declined by John Murray, and was finally entrusted to John Hunt, was spread over a period of several months. Cantos VI., VII., VIII., with a Preface, were published July 15; Cantos IX., X., XI, August 29; Cantos XII., XIII., XIV., December 17, 1823; Cantos XV., XVI., March 26, 1824. It has been said that the character of Donna Inez (Don Juan's mother) was a thinly veiled portrait of Byron's own wife, Annabella Milbanke (daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke).


Canto I

Don Juan lives in Seville with his father Jóse and his mother Donna Inez, a well-read scholarly woman in an unhappy marriage. Donna Julia, 23 years old and married to Don Alfonso, 50, begins to desire Don Juan when he is 16 years old. Despite her attempt to resist, Julia begins an affair with Juan. Julia falls in love with Juan. Byron remarks that "such things are more common in sun-drenched climes." Don Alfonso, suspecting that his wife may be having an affair, bursts into their bedroom followed by a "posse concomitant" but they do not find anything suspicious upon first searching the room, for Juan was hiding in the bed. However, when Alfonso returns on his own, he comes across Juan's shoes and a fight ensues. Juan escapes, however. In order to avoid the rumors and bad reputation her son has brought upon himself, Inez sends him away to travel, in the hopes that he develops better morals. He then makes love to Julia.

Canto II

Canto II describes how Juan goes on a voyage from Cadiz with servants and his tutor Pedrillo. Juan is still in love with Julia and after a period of seasickness a storm sinks the ship. The crew climb into a long boat but soon run out of food. The crew decide to draw lots in order to choose who will be eaten. Juan's tutor Pedrillo is chosen after Juan's dog has also been eaten. However those that eat Pedrillo go mad and die. Juan is the sole survivor of the journey, he eventually makes it onto land at Cyclades in the Aegean. Haidée and her maid, Zoe, discover Juan and care for him in a cave by the beach. Haidée and Juan fall in love despite the fact that neither can understand each other's language. Haidée's father Lambro is a "fisherman" and pirate who makes money from capturing slaves.

Canto III

Canto III is essentially a long digression from the main story in which Byron insults his contemporaries William Wordsworth, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This canto also contains a section called the Isles of Greece - a section numbered differently to the rest of the canto with a different verse which explores Byron's views on Greece's status as a "slave" to the Ottoman Empire.

Canto IV

Haidée and Juan wake to discover that Haidée's father Lambro has returned. Lambro confronts Juan and attacks him with the aid of his pirate friends. Haidée despairs at losing her lover and eventually dies of a broken heart with her unborn child still in her womb.

Juan is sent away on a ship and ends up at a slave market in Istanbul, Turkey.

Canto V

Juan is in the slave market. He converses with an Englishman, telling of his lost love, whereas the more experienced John says he had to run away from his third wife. A black eunuch from the seraglio, Baba, buys Juan and John, and takes the infidels to the palace. He takes them to an inner chamber, where he insists that Don Juan dress as a woman and threatens him with castration if he resists. Finally, Juan is brought into an imperial hall to meet the sultana, Gulbeyaz, a 26-year-old beauty who is the sultan's fourth, last, and favourite wife. Full of stubborn pride, he refuses to kiss her foot and finally compromises by kissing her hand. She had spotted Juan at the market and had asked Baba to secretly purchase him for her, despite the risk of discovery by the sultan. She wants Juan to "love" her, and throws herself on his breast. But he still has thoughts of Haidée and spurns her advances, saying "The prisoned eagle will not pair, nor I / Serve a sultana's sensual phantasy." She is taken aback, enraged, and thinks of having him beheaded, but breaks out in tears instead. Before they can progress further in their relationship, Baba rushes in to announce that the Sultan is coming: "The sun himself has sent me like a ray / To hint that he is coming up this way." The sultan arrives, preceded by a parade of damsels, eunuchs, etc. (he is 59 years old and has 1500 concubines). Looking around, he takes note of the attractive Christian woman (Juan), expressing regret that a mere Christian should be so pretty (Juan is a giaour, or non-Muslim). Byron comments on the necessity to secure the chastity of the women in these unhappy climes—that "wedlock and a padlock mean the same."

Canto VI

The sultan retires with Gulbeyaz. Juan, still dressed as a woman, is taken to the overcrowded seraglio. He is asked to share a couch with the young and lovely 17 year old Dudù, who calls him Juanna. She is a "kind of sleepy Venus ... very fit to murder sleep... Her talents were of the more silent class... pensive..." She gives Juanna a chaste kiss and undresses. The chamber of odalisques is asleep at 3 AM. Dudù suddenly screams, and awakens agitated, while Juanna still lies asleep and snoring. The women ask the cause of her scream, and she relates a suggestive dream of being in a wood like Dante, of dislodging a reluctant golden apple clinging tenaciously to its bough (which at last willingly falls), of almost biting into the forbidden fruit when a bee flies out from it and stings her to the heart. The matron of the seraglio decides to place Juanna with another odalisque, but Dudù begs to keep her in her own bed, hiding her face in Juanna's breast. The poet is at a loss to explain why she screamed.

In the morning, the sultana asks Baba to tell her how Don Juan passed the night. He tells of "her" stay in the seraglio, but carefully omits details about Dudù and her dream. But the sultana is suspicious nevertheless, becomes enraged, and instructs Baba to have Dudù and Juan killed in the usual manner (drowning). Baba pleads with her that killing Juan will not cure what ails her. The sultana summons Dudù and Juan. [We do not see how this scene plays out.]

Canto VII

Juan and John Johnson have escaped with two women from the seraglio, and arrive during the siege of Ismail (historically 1790), a Turkish fort at the mouth of the Danube on the Black Sea. Field Marshal Suvaroff, an officer in the Russian army, is preparing for an all-out final assault against the besieged fortress. The battle rages. He has been told to "take Ismail at whatever price" by Prince Potemkin, the commander-in-chief of the Russian army. The Christian empress Catherine II is the Russian head-of-state. John Johnson appears to Suvaroff (with whom he has previously served in battle at Widdin) and introduces his friend Juan—both are ready to join the fight against the "pagan" Turks. Suvaroff is unhappy with the women the two men brought, but they state that they are the wives of other men, and that the women aided their escape. Suvaroff consents to the women staying.

Canto VIII

Juan and John join fearlessly and bravely in the savage assault on Ismail. They scale the walls of the town and charge into battle. The conquest of Ismail causes the slaughter of 40,000 Turks, among them women (only a few of whom are ravished) and children. Juan nobly rescues a ten-year-old Muslim girl, Leila, from two murderous Cossacks intent on killing her, and immediately resolves to adopt her as his own child. A noble Tartar khan valiantly fights to the death beside his five sons, just as instructed by Mahomet, presumably to be rewarded with houris in heaven.

Juan is a hero and is sent to St Petersburg, accompanied by Leila, whom he makes a vow to protect.

Canto IX

Dressed as a war hero in military uniform, Juan cuts a handsome figure in the court of Catherine II, who lusts after him. She is about 48 years old (historically, actually 61 or 62 years old) and "just now in juicy vigour". He becomes one of her favorites and is flattered by her interest as well as promoted for it. "Love is vanity, / Selfish in its beginning as its end, / Except where 'tis a mere insanity." Juan still lovingly cares for Haidee.

Canto X

Juan falls ill because of the Russian cold and so is sent westward to more temperate England. His job ostensibly is that of a special envoy with the nebulous task of negotiating some treaty or other, but it is nothing more than a sinecure to justify the Empress Catherine in securing his health and lading him with money and expensive gifts.

Canto XI

Juan lands in England and eventually makes his way to London where he is found musing on the greatness of Britain as a defender of freedoms - until he is interrupted by a cockney mugger, demanding money with menace. Juan shoots the man and, being of strong conscience, then regrets his haste and attempts to care for the dying mugger. However, his efforts fail, and after muttering some last words the mugger dies on the street.

Later, Don Juan is received into the English court with the usual wonder and admiration at his looks, dress and mien although not without the jealousy of some of the older peers.

In this Canto, Byron famously makes his comment on John Keats "who was kill'd off by one critique".

Canto XII

Don Juan seeks out a suitable tutor and guardian for Leila, the orphan from the destroyed city of Ismail. He finds one in Lady Pinchbeck, a woman not unassailed by rumours on her chastity, but generally considered a good person and an admirable wit.

Canto XIII

The Lady Adeline Amundeville and her husband Lord Henry Amundeville host Juan and others. She is "the fair most fatal Juan ever met", the "queen bee, the glass of all that's fair, / Whose charms made all men speak and women dumb". Diplomatic relations often bring Juan ("the envoy of a secret Russian mission") and Lord Henry together, and he befriends Juan and makes him a frequent guest at their London mansion. The Amundevilles invite numerous distinguished guests for a party at their country estate. The banquet... English ennui. They all retire for the evening.

Canto XIV

Juan acquits himself well on a fox hunt. He is attractive to the ladies, including the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke, who begins to flirt with him. Lady Adeline is jealous of the Duchess (who has had many amorous exploits), and resolves to protect the "inexperienced" Juan from her enticements. Juan and Adeline are both 21 years old. Lady Adeline has a vacant heart and has a cold but proper marriage. She is not in love with Juan, but the poet will only later divulge whether they have an affair (apparently not). The popular saying "truth is stranger than fiction" originates from this canto: "'Tis strange — but true; for truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction."

Canto XV

Lady Adeline is at risk for losing her honour over Juan. Juan has a seductive manner because he never seems anxious to seduce. He neither brooks nor claims superiority. Adeline advises Juan to get married, but he acknowledges the women he is attracted to tend to be already married. Adeline tries to deduce a suitable match for Juan, but intentionally omits mention of the 16 year old and enticing Aurora Raby, a Catholic. Juan is attracted to her—she is purer than the rest, and reminds him of his lost Haidée. An elaborate dinner is described in detail. Juan is seated between Adeline and Aurora. Aurora has little to say initially, and thaws only a little during the dinner.

Canto XVI

Juan is smitten with the beautiful Aurora, and thinks of her on retiring. At night, he walks into the hall, viewing the gallery of paintings. He hears footsteps, and sees a monk in cowl and beads. Is this a ghost, a fantasy? He does not see his face, though the monk passes and repasses several times.

The next morning in reaction to how pale Juan looks, Adeline turns pale herself, the Duchess Fitz-Fulke looks at Juan hard, and Aurora surveys him "with a kind of calm surprise". Adeline wonders if he is ill, and he tells of seeing the monk. Lord Henry relates the story of the "Black Friar", the "spirit of these walls" who used to be seen often but had not been seen of late. He had seen the Black Friar on his honeymoon. Adeline offers to sing the story of the ghost, accompanying it on her harp. The song begins, "Beware! beware of the Black Friar! / Who sitteth by Norman stone, / For he mutters his prayer in the midnight air, / And his mass of the days that are gone. / When the Lord of the Hill, Amundeville, / Made Norman Church his prey, / And expelled the friars, one friar still / Would not be driven away." Aurora remains silent, but Lady Fitz-Fulke appears mischievous. She suggests that Adeline has sung this to laugh Juan out of his dismay. Juan's spirits are lifted. He visits with Lord Henry. A pregnant country girl and other petitioners present themselves to Lord Henry in his capacity as Justice of the Peace.

Another banquet, at which Juan is preoccupied. He wonders if Aurora had been the ghost—did he catch a smile on her cheek? He is vexed with uncertainty, while Aurora sits pale and only a little flushed. Adeline goes about her duties, while the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke is very much at ease.

They retire for the evening. Juan thinks about Aurora, who has reawakened feelings in him which had been lately lost. After going to bed, he hears the tiptoe of footsteps again. The doors opens, and again it is the sable Friar concealed in his solemn hood. He pursues the friar up against a wall, notes the "ghost" has sweet breath, a straggling curl, red lips and pearls, a glowing bust—in short, the "friar" is the voluptuous Duchess of Fitz-Fulke.

Canto XVII

A Canto that Byron failed to complete but added to in the run up to his death, it lacks any narrative and only barely mentions the protagonist. It is instead a response to his critics who object to his views on the grounds that "If you are right, then everybody's wrong!". In his defence, he lists many great people who have been considered outsiders and revolutionaries including Martin Luther and Galileo.

The Canto ends on the brink of resuming the storyline from Canto The Sixteenth where Don Juan was left in a "tender moonlit situation".


Byron's epic poem has a host of literary precedents. For example, John Hookham Frere's mock-heroic Arthurian tale Prospectus and Specimen of an intended National Work had suggested Beppo, and, at the same time, had prompted and provoked a sympathetic study of Frere's Italian models, Francesco Berni and Luigi Pulci; and, again, the success of Beppo, and, still more, a sense of inspiration and the conviction that he had found the path to excellence, suggested another essay of the ottava rima, a humorous poem "à la Beppo" on a larger and more important scale. If Byron possessed more than a superficial knowledge of the legendary "Don Juan," he was irresponsive and unimpressed. He speaks (letter to John Murray), of "the Spanish tradition;" but there is nothing to show that he had read or heard of Tirso de Molina's El Burlador de Sevilla y el Convidado de Piedra (The Deceiver of Seville and the Stone Guest), 1626, which dramatized the "ower true tale" of the actual Don Juan Tenorio; or that he was acquainted with any of the Italian (e.g. the Convitato di Pietra of Giacinto Andrea Cicognini or French adaptations of the legend (e.g. Le Festin de Pierre, ou le fils criminel, a tragicomedy of Abbé De Villiers, 1659; and Molière's Dom Juan, ou Le Festin de Pierre, 1665). He had seen Carlo Antonio Delpini's pantomime, which was based on Thomas Shadwell's Libertine, and he may have witnessed, at Milan or Venice, a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni; but in taking Don Juan for his "hero," he took the name only, and disregarded the "terrible figure" "of the Titan of embodied evil, the likeness of sin made flesh", "as something to his purpose nothing"! But many readers have also detected echoes of eighteenth-century comic novels in Don Juan, pinpointing the poem's rambling, desultory style, flamboyant and distractible narrator, and heavily ironic tone—qualities that Byron may have gleaned from novels like Fielding's Tom Jones, as well as the writings of Tobias Smollett. Likewise, Don Juan belongs to the tradition of the picaresque, a genre of fiction (originating in Spain) that followed the adventures of roguish young men of low birth who made their way in a corrupt society via their cunning and courage. (Fielding's and Smollett's novels also belong to this genre.) Finally, Byron was probably inspired by Cervantes's Don Quixote and Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, two works which he greatly admired and borrowed from liberally.

The name and motive

Many of Byron's remarks and reflections on the motive behind his poem are humorous paradoxes, provoked by advice and opposition. For instance, writing to Thomas Moore, he says, "I have finished the first canto ... of a poem in the style and manner of Beppo, encouraged by the good success of the same. It is ... meant to be a little quietly facetious upon every thing. But I doubt whether it is not—at least as far as it has gone—too free for these very modest days." Critical opinion aligned itself with the opinion that the poem was "too free," however, a month after the two first cantos had been issued, Byron wrote to Murray , "You ask me for the plan of Donny Johnny; I have no plan—I had no plan; but I had or have materials.... You are too earnest and eager about a work never intended to be serious. Do you suppose that I could have any intention but to giggle and make giggle?—a playful satire, with as little poetry as could be helped, was what I meant." After the completion but before the publication of Cantos III., IV., V., in a further letter to Murray , he writes, "The Fifth is so far from being the last of Don Juan, that it is hardly the beginning. I meant to take him the tour of Europe, with a proper mixture of siege, battle, and adventure, and to make him finish as Anacharsis Cloots in the French Revolution.... I meant to have made him a Cavalier Servente in Italy, and a cause for a divorce in England, and a Sentimental 'Werther-faced' man in Germany, so as to show the different ridicules of the society in each of these countries, and to have displayed him gradually gâté and blasé, as he grew older, as is natural. But I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell, or in an unhappy marriage, not knowing which would be the severest."

Conversely, it has been argued that Byron did not "whistle" Don Juan "for want of thought" – but instead he had found a thing to say, and he meant to make the world listen. He had read, albeit with angry disapproval, Coleridge's Critique on (Charles Maturin's) Bertram, where Coleridge describes the legendary Don Juan as a figure not unlike Childe Harold, or for that matter, Byron himself: "Rank, fortune, wit, talent, acquired knowledge, and liberal accomplishments, with beauty of person, vigorous health...all these advantages, elevated by the habits and sympathies of noble birth and natural character, are...combined in Don Juan, so as to give him the means of carrying into all its practical consequences the doctrine of a godless nature... Obedience to nature is the only virtue." Again, "It is not the wickedness of Don Juan...which constitutes the character an abstraction, ...but the rapid succession of the correspondent acts and incidents, his intellectual superiority, and the splendid accumulation of his gifts and desirable qualities as coexistent with entire wickedness in one and the same person." It is therefore conceivable that Byron read these passages as either a suggestion or a challenge, or both.

Byron was under no delusion as to the grossness of Don Juan, though he protested that he was sheltered by the superior grossness of Ariosto and La Fontaine, of Prior and of Fielding. When Murray charges him with "approximations to indelicacy," he laughs at the euphemism, but when Hobhouse talked to him "about morality," he flames out, "I maintain that it is the most moral of poems." Ernest Hartley Coleridge concludes that Byron looked upon his great work as a whole, and he knew that the "raison d'être of his song" was not only to celebrate, but, by the white light of truth, to represent and exhibit the great things of the world—Love and War, and Death by sea and land, and Man, half-angel, half-demon—the comedy of his fortunes, and the tragedy of his passions and his fate.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Spain experienced a quick decline from power in Europe. This fall was accompanied by what many saw as relative cultural poverty when compared to France[citation needed]. By Byron's time, Spanish culture was often considered both archaic and exotic. This led to a Romantic valorization of Spanish culture. Many scholars note this work as a prime example of Spanish exoticism.

Peer opinion

Sir Walter Scott maintained that its creator "has embraced every topic of human life, and sounded every string of the divine harp, from its slightest to its most powerful and heart-astounding tones." Goethe described Don Juan as "a work of boundless genius." Percy Bysshe Shelley, on the receipt of Cantos III, IV, V, bore testimony to his "wonder and delight:" "This poem carries with it at once the stamp of originality and defiance of imitation. Nothing has ever been written like it in English, nor, if I may venture to prophesy, will there be, unless carrying upon it the mark of a secondary and borrowed light.... You are building up a drama," he adds, "such as England has not yet seen, and the task is sufficiently noble and worthy of you." Again, of the fifth canto he writes, "Every word has the stamp of immortality.... It fulfils, in a certain degree, what I have long preached of producing—something wholly new and relative to the age, and yet surpassingly beautiful." Finally, Algernon Charles Swinburne, neither a disciple nor encomiast of Byron, pays eloquent tribute to the strength and splendour of Don Juan: "Across the stanzas ... we swim forward as over the 'broad backs of the sea;' they break and glitter, hiss and laugh, murmur and move like waves that sound or that subside. There is in them a delicious resistance, an elastic motion, which salt water has and fresh water has not. There is about them a wide wholesome air, full of vivid light and constant wind, which is only felt at sea. Life undulates and Death palpitates in the splendid verse.... This gift of life and variety is the supreme quality of Byron's chief poem".


Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan

In the above passage, "Juan" is rhymed with "true one", the word being read according to the rules of English orthography as /ˈən/ jew-ən. (The usual modern English pronunciation of Juan is /ˈwɑːn/ wahn.)

Similarly, in stanza 190 of the first canto, Byron rhymes "ladies" with "Cadiz", the city in Spain:

And then, by the advice of some old ladies, / She sent her son to be embark'd at Cadiz.

suggesting it is to be /ˈkdz/ kay-deez. The usual modern English pronunciation of Cadiz is /kəˈdɪz/ kə-dizz.

Robert Southey dedication

The poem is dedicated, with some scorn, to Robert Southey, then Poet Laureate - You, Bob! are rather insolent, you know, / At being disappointed in your wish / To supersede all warblers here below, / And be the only Blackbird in the dish;. In its first publication, Byron cautions Murray: "As the Poem is to be published anonymously, omit the Dedication. I won't attack the dog in the dark. Such things are for scoundrels and renegadoes like himself". According to the editor of the 1833 Works of Lord Byron the existence of the Dedication "became notorious" in consequence of Hobhouse's article in the Westminster Review, 1824. He adds, for Southey's consolation and encouragement, that "for several years the verses have been selling in the streets as a broadside," and that "it would serve no purpose to exclude them on the present occasion." But Southey was not appeased. He tells Allan Cunningham that "the new edition of Byron's works is ... one of the very worst symptoms of these bad times" .

The dedication also takes issue with the Lake Poets generally - You—Gentlemen! by dint of long seclusion / From better company, have kept your own ... There is a narrowness in such a notion, / Which makes me wish you'd change your lakes for Ocean - and specifically - And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing, / But like a hawk encumbered with his hood,- / - Explaining Metaphysics to the nation — / I wish he would explain his Explanation; Wordsworth - T is poetry-at least by his assertion,; and Southey's predecessor as Laureate, Henry James Pye in the use of and pun on the old song Sing a Song of Sixpence, four and twenty Blackbirds in a pye.


The poem is in eight line iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme ab ab ab cc - often the last rhyming couplet is used for a humor comic line or humorous bathos. There are mostly 10 syllables per line, aside from the rhyming couplet that closes each stanza, these are composed in mostly iambic hexameter, with 12 syllables per line. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is known as ottava rima. In Italian, because of the common rhymed endings, the effect of ottava rima is often highly comedic or highly tragic. Because of its few rhymed endings, the effect of ottava rima in English is often comic, and Byron chose it for this reason[citation needed]


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