The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

II. Byron

§ 15. Don Juan

In Don Juan, the work upon which his literary powers were chiefly expended during his last five years in Italy (1818–23), Byron attains to the full disclosure of his personality and the final expression of his genius. It is impossible to quarrel with the poet’s own description of it as an “Epic Satire,” but, in the earlier cantos, at least, the satire is often held in suspense; in the “Ave Maria” stanzas and the magnificent “Isles of Greece” song, he gives free play to his lyricism, while, in his Juan-Haidée idyll, he fashions a love-romance as passionate as that of Romeo and Juliet and as virginal as that of Ferdinand and Miranda. In the sixteen thousand verses of Don Juan, every mood of Byron’s complex and paradoxical nature is vividly reflected: here is the romanticist and the realist, the voluptuary and the cynic, the impassioned lover of liberty and the implacable foe of hypocrisy. And this variety of moods is accompanied by a no less remarkable variety of scenes. His hero is equally at home in camp and court; he suffers shipwreck and storms a fortress, penetrates the seraglio, the palace and the English country-house; and, true to his fundamental principle of obedience to nature, bears good and ill fortune with equal serenity.

In a letter to captain Medwin, Byron describes his poem as an epic—“an epic as much in the spirit of our day as the Iliad was in that of Homer.” But it is an epic without a plan, and, rightly speaking, without a hero. For Don Juan is little more than the child of circumstance, a bubble tossed hither and thither on the ocean of life, ever ready to yield to external pressure, and asserting his own will only in his endeavour to keep his head above water. Yet, Don Juan is a veritable Comédie Humaine, the work of a man who has stripped life of its illusions, and has learnt, through suffering and the satiety of pleasure, to look upon society with the searching eye of Chaucer and the pitilessness of Mephistopheles. In the comedy which is here enacted, some of the characters are great historic figures, others thinly veiled portraits of men and women who had helped to shape the poet’s own chequered career, while others, again, are merely creatures of the imagination or serve as types of the modern civilisation with which Byron was at war.

In Don Juan, Byron, in the main, is content to draw his materials out of the rich resources of his own personal experience, and it was only when experience failed him that he drew upon books. In such cases, he proved a royal borrower. It is well known that his description of the shipwreck in canto II, and of the siege of Ismail in canto VIII—where he combines the realism of Zola with the irony of Swift in his most savage mood—is very largely drawn from the narratives of actual shipwrecks and sieges recorded by voyagers or historians. What is not so familiar is the fact that the whole mise-en-scéne, together with many of the incidents of Juan’s adventures at the court of Catherine II of Russia, are drawn from Casti’s satiric epic, Il Poema Tartaro, and materially add to Byron’s indebtedness to the eighteenth century master of the ottava rima. In his early manhood, Casti had spent several years at the Russian court, and, in his satire, he describes, under the thinnest of topographical disguises, the career of an Irish adventurer, Tomasso Scardassale, who has escaped with a Turkish girl from the clutches of the caliph of Bagdad, and, arriving at Caracona (Petrograd), becomes the prime favorite of the empress Cattuna (Catherine II). The resemblance between the two poems is enhanced by the fact that many of the details in the siege of Ismail, and much of Byron’s diatribe against war, find a close parallel in Il Poema Tartaro.

Judged as a work of art, Don Juan is well-nigh perfect. Byron’s indebtedness to his Italian masters is almost as great in diction as in verse, but what he borrowed he made peculiarly his own; a bold imitator, he is himself in mitable. He is triumphantly successful in the art of harmonising manner to matter and form to spirit. His diction, in the main, is low-toned and conversational, as befits a poem in which digression plays an important part; but it is, at the same time, a diction which is capable of sustained elevation when occasion demands, or of sinking to bathos when the end is burlesque. No less remarkable is the harmony which is established between his diction and his verse; the astonishingly clever burlesque effects which he produces with his double and triple rimes lie equally within the provinces of diction and metre, while the epigrammatic gems with which his cantos are bestrewn gain half their brilliance by being set within the bounds of the couplet that rounds off the ottava rima.

It is in Byron’s digressions that the reader comes nearest to him. Swift and Sterne, each in his turn, had employed the digression with telling effect in prose narrative, but Byron was the first Englishman to make a free use of it in verse. Here, again, he was under the spell of the Italians, Pulci, Berni and Casti, though the wit and humour and caustic criticism of life which find a place in these digressions are all his own. In them, the dominant mood is that of mockery. Byron, indeed, would have us believe that

  • if I laugh at any mortal thing,
  • ’Tis that I may not weep;
  • but it would be idle to deny that, in these digressions, the motley of the jester, for him, was the only wear. Their very brilliance is a proof of the delight which their author found in girding at the world and waging war upon “cant political, cant religious, cant moral.” Europe has long looked upon Byron as the inspired prophet of political liberty, but it is the Byron who wrote The Prophecy of Dante and who laid down his life in the cause of Greek freedom, rather than the author of Don Juan, that justly awakens this regard and evokes this homage. In his “epic satire,” his criticism of life is almost wholly destructive. We take delight in his pitiless exposure of effete institutions and false ideals, and gladly acknowledge that the hammer-blows which he delivers at hypocrisy are as salutary in their effect as they are delightful to watch; but we must, at the same time confess that he lacks the constructive genius of his friend and contemporary, Shelley, who sapped the foundations of society with equal resolution, but who razed only in order to rebuild.