Don Juan & the Meaning of Byron

The literary work Don Juan is arguably Spain’s most copied piece of literature and Byron’s version of it is his masterpiece. While Byron was a key playmaker in the Romantic Movement, as we shall later see, his work Don Juan was anything but a romantic write.

The original Don Juan was penned by Tirso de Molina and published in 1630 entitled not Don Juan but El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest). The story is set in fourteenth century Seville recounting the deeds of a fictional libertine. It has been retold so many times that it has become a literary legend. The very term a Don Juan exists in many languages referring to a womaniser, extolling the sexual virility of the hyperactive male. The most renowned versions of Don Juan are Molière’s play Dom Juan ou le Festin de Pierre (1665),  José de Espronceda’s poem El estudiante de Salamanca (1840) and José Zorrilla’s play Don Juan Tenorio (1844), which all Spanish speakers know better than Molina’s version. For many though, their first and lasting contact with the fable is the opera Don Giovanni, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with the libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. It was first performed in Prague in 1787 and has been subsequently staged yearly throughout the world ever since.

While each interpretation varies in its method, the means of expressing the story invariably remain the same for the great part. The protagonist is a Seville nobleman who rejoices in his seductive prowess whatever the woman’s calling or station in life. Don Juan kills Don Gonzalo, the troubled father of Doña Ana, a recent amorous conquest. The action ends with Don Juan inviting the deceased patriarch to dinner and here endings veer off into myriad conclusions. Molina’s original was written as a parable to stress his sins and deceitful nature. As a consequence he passes into the next life denied absolution by God. Espronceda’s Don Felix descends into hell of his own will, whereas Zorrilla’s protagonist begs for redemption and is pardoned. One can see why perhaps, Zorilla’s rather than Molina’s version has been most remembered. It is a case of one’s priorities.

There have been over a hundred works inspired or based on Molina’s initial story and even as recent as 2013 there has been the film Don Jon starring Julianne Moore and Scarlett Johansson. The great and good of the literary and drama world have paid the bounder pen-service down through the ages. In 1830 Pushkin wrote the opera ‘Kamenny Gost’, The Stone Guest. A year later and Alexandre Dumas produced the play Don Juan de Maraña. In the same year Balzac wrote the short story L’Élixir de longue vie (The Elixir of Life) based on the Seville satyr. In 1834, another Frenchman Prosper Mérimée produced the novella Les âmes du Purgatoire. Then the world of music saw Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem Don Juan in 1888. The Edwardians were not immune and in 1903 George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman saw Don Juan in the dream sequence of the third act appear in Hell. The Edwardian era came to an end with Gaston Leroux’s novel Phantom of the Opera in 1910, where an autobiographical musical composition written by the protagonist is entitled Don Juan Triumphant. Hollywood soon succumbed in 1934 with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s last film The Private Life of Don Juan. The Second World War briefly halted the creative flow but shortly afterwards in 1949, Errol Flynn took over where Fairbanks had ended with the Adventures of Don Juan. In 1952 the English writer V.S. Pritchett wrote ‘A Story of Don Juan’, a short ghost story. The Rock ’n’ Roll era saw Buddy Holly sing ‘Modern Don Juan’ in 1956. Nine years later and Sci-Fi got the bug in Star Trek’s episode ‘Shore Leave’ from the first season, Yeoman Tonia Barrows is accosted by Don Juan. Even pop music has been inspired by the 14th century cad when The Pet Shop Boys sang ‘Don Juan’ in 1988, which used the story as a metaphor for the Nazi seduction of the Balkans during the 1930s.

Such unrelenting interest would deem that the Don Juan character, for better or worse, has struck upon a universal personality that embodies a characteristic, human behaviour, which ignites passionate opinions.

Byron was the darling of the Romantic era and ideal. Not only did he embody this in his writing but equally so in his deeds. The Romantic Movement stemmed from the German literary and musical development Strum und Drang – ‘Storm and Urge’ which took effect from the mid-to-late eighteenth century. Personal subjectivity was given priority over the previously established constraints and rationalism argued by the Age of Enlightenment. In reaction to the urban sprawl of industrialisation and the rationalisation of nature, the artist sought the free expression of emotional extremes especially that experienced when beholding the wilds of Mother Nature. One was encouraged to delve into the depths of their imagination in order to seek truth and inspiration. The Romantic Movement reached its apogee in the 1850s and exercised influence over education, historical perception and even politics. Initially it was related with radicalism and liberalism but soon became associated with nationalism. At its height it was essentially an escape from the ‘dark satanic mills’ of industrialism that now began to engulf rural Europe and was a polar opposite of ‘Realism’ that would supersede it. Romanticism reached back into the past to revive the organic forms of medieval aesthetics and in so doing it elevated folk art and gave importance to the exotic and the anonymous.

This last phrase sounds as if it is a description of Byron, who Lord Macaulay described as “a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection”. George Gordon Byron was born on 22nd January, 1788 the son of Captain John ‘Mad Jack’ Byron and his second wife, the Catherine Gordon, heiress of the Gight estate in Aberdeenshire. Byron’s father had previously seduced a married woman who he eventually married and then proceeded to abuse in a “brutal and vicious” manner. She died during childbirth and her daughter, Augusta, became Byron’s half-sister.Byron’s father then adopted the additional surname ‘Gordon’ from his second wife in order to claim her Scottish estate. Although Byron is often referred to as George Byron Gordon, he went by this name only for a time. The poet gained his noble title at the tender age of 10 when he inherited the English Barony of Rochdale from his great-uncle. George Byron now became the sixth baron, becoming Lord Byron and the name that we most recognise him by.

Byron’s ancestors had a history of their own and the young Lord had had a kick start on the rungs of fortune in life. His paternal grandfather was Vice-Admiral the Hon. John ‘Foulweather Jack’ Byron, who had circumnavigated the globe, and was the younger brother of the 5th Baron Byron, known as ‘the Wicked Lord’. Poetic names abounded in the male lineage. Byron was christened ‘George’ after his maternal grandfather George Gordon of Gight, a descendant of James I of Scotland, who had committed suicide in 1779. Madness also seemed to run on both sides of the family tree.

He began his schooling at Aberdeen Grammar, which he confessed in a letter to William Gifford that he was “early disgusted with a Calvinistic Scotch school where I was cudgelled to Church for the first ten years of my life”. Much later in life his attitude had mellowed when in 1822 he wrote to Scott, to whom he had dedicated Cain, “my ‘heart warms to the Tartan’ or to any thing of Scotland which reminds me of Aberdeen and other parts not so far from the Highlands as that town.” He then moved south of the border and continued his education in Dulwich. In 1801 he entered Harrow, where he played in the first ever Harrow vs. Eton cricket match despite being undistinguished in the field. Byron more importantly fell in love with Mary Chaworth, while at Harrow. When the new school year began in 1803 he refused to return due to his freshly found love. Despite his mother’s frequent interference with his education, on this occasion she had a positive effect and managed to persuade him to complete his studies. In 1805, the year of the Battle of Trafalgar, he left for Trinity College, Cambridge, which initially unimpressed him, “This place is wretched enough – a villainous chaos of din and drunkenness, nothing but hazard and burgundy, hunting, mathematics and Newmarket, riot and racing.” He had planned to leave when his first poems brought him sudden success and he decided to stay so as to further develop his writing and scholarship. It was at this time that the stories of Byron eccentricities began. He skinny dipped in the quadrangle fountain and kept a bear, angered at college rules forbidding the keeping of dogs. There was nothing in the regulations against having a bruin. During this time he would return to his mother’s residence at Southwell, Nottinghamshire. She had now divorced Byron’s father after having been long hounded by him; a man constantly plagued by debts. Byron’s mother observed the same of her son as having a “reckless disregard for money.”

In Nottinghamshire the formative poet was urged to continue with his poetry and his first published work included poems from when Byron was just 14. His publishing career would see a to-and-fro between his critical reviewers and his satirical literary retorts, which on one occasion resulted in the challenge of a duel by one of his detractors. Eventually, it was considered the highest form of flattery for Byron to take his pen to you. You were no one in society if Byron had not considered you important enough to denounce in torrents of his artistic ink: ‘Fools are my theme, let satire be my song.’

In 1809 Byron spent the next two years on the Grand Tour, which saw him avoid northern Europe and head instead for the Mediterranean due to the raging Napoleonic wars.

“What should I have known or written had I been a quiet, mercantile politician or a lord in waiting?

A man must travel, and turmoil, or there is no existence.”

            This is not to say Byron would not have naturally found his way there eventually. From an impressionable age he had been attracted to the Levant having read about the Ottoman and Persian empires. He was also fascinated by Islam and particularly the mystic dimension of Sufism so much so that he wrote, “With these countries, and events connected with them, all my really poetical feelings begin and end.”

Byron’s Grand Tour began when he disembarked in Portugal and he fell in love at once with Sintra, just north of Lisbon, which he described as ‘glorious Eden’ in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. From Lisbon he travelled overland to Seville, which he portrayed as, “A pleasant city, famous for its oranges and women”. And before leaving for the eastern Mediterranean he wrote to his mother:

TO MRS. BYRON, Gibraltar, Aug. 11, 1809

. . . We lodged in the house of two Spanish unmarried ladies, who possess six houses in Seville, and gave me a curious specimen of Spanish manners. They are women of character, and the eldest a fine woman, the youngest pretty, but not so good a figure as Donna Josepha. The freedom of manner, which is general here, astonished me not a little; and in the course of further observation, I find that reserve is not the characteristic of the Spanish belles, who are, in general, very handsome, with large black eyes, and very fine forms. The eldest honoured your unworthy son with very particular attention, embracing him with great tenderness at parting (I was there but three days), after cutting off a lock of his hair, and presenting him with one of her own, about three feet in length, which I send, and beg you will retain till my return. Her last words were, “Adios, tu hermoso! Me gusto mucho.” – ‘Adieu, you pretty fellow! You please me much.’ She offered me a share of her apartment, which my virtue induced me to decline; she laughed, and said I had some English amante (lover), and added that she was going to be married to an officer in the Spanish army. . . .

After Seville he went on to Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, and Gibraltar where he set sail for Malta and finally Greece. In Athens, Byron learnt Italian at the hand of Niccolò Giraud, who became more than a good friend. Byron sent the young man to a monastic school on Malta and intended to bequeath him £7,000. In the year 1810 while still in the Hellenic capital Byron wrote ‘Maid of Athens, ere we part’ for a 12-year-old girl, who he apparently offered £500 for.

Byron and his close travelling companion John Hobhouse made their way to Constantinople aboard the HMS Salsette. While the ship weighed anchor Byron and Lieutenant Ekenhead swam the Hellespont. He swam it in honour of Leander, who in Greek Mythology, would swim nightly across this stretch of water to his lover Hero. It is an event which is mentioned in the second canto of Don Juan. Today an annual swim along the Dardanelles, formerly the Hellespont, commemorates Byron’s feat. The race takes place on the 30th August, which is a date that commemorates the final victory for the Turks in the Turkish War of Independence in 1922 over the Greeks.

Byron’s fortunes changed forever in 1812 when his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was received with great acclaim.In his own words, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”

In the same year his affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb, whose husband William Lamb later became Prime Minister, was a national scandal. She said of their first meeting that Byron was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, thus giving him his lasting elegy.

Lady Lamb may have been his first high profile romantic interest but it was certainly far from his last. He soon ended the relationship and then moved from flower to flower. While Byron had found it easy to love and leave, Caroline Lamb was tormented by the loss. On one occasion she left the message “Remember me!” inscribed on one of his books, which Byron put to cruel effect in his poem titled Remember Thee! Remember Thee! which ends with the line ‘Thou false to him, thou fiend to me.’ The charges of incest, often levied against the poet, concern his half-sister Augusta Leigh who he spent much time with during his adult days. The fine line between innocent and incestuous is for literary bookworms to better distinguish, as the evidence is not apparent.

With time he fell for Anne Isabella Milbanke, Caroline Lamb’s cousin, and eventually accepted his second marriage proposal. Annabella, as she was known, was intelligent, apt at mathematics like Byron’s sister and an heiress. It seemed that Lord Byron had more than just one of his father’s vices; perhaps he too chased money in marriage. They married in County Durham in 1815, the year Byron’s hero met his Waterloo.

Despite the matching of intellects the marriage was not a happy one and Byron, once more in his father’s mould, treated his spouse poorly as rumours of domestic violence were circulated. They did however produce a daughter, Augusta Ada, who Anne Milbanke took with her when she left her husband in 1816. Their marriage also had to bear malicious gossip concerning his Lordship’s infidelity, liaisons with men and the insinuated incest with his half-sister miss Leigh. Such a list would be sufficient to put any matrimony asunder. Much of the slander was not surprisingly given full vent through Lady Caroline’s network of socialite busy bodies. In fact, 1816 was the year when Lady Caroline published her fashionable novel Glenarvon, which depicted Byron as the sordid Lord Ruthven.

What made Byron’s amorous exploits all the more unexpected is the fact he had a club foot, which he went to great lengths to conceal. The causes of his deformity have never been adequately ascertained, however, from birth he was afflicted with a limp that also left an equally serious psychological mark. Despite the physical handicap, he was blessed with fair looks and a magnetic personality, which won him the favours he notoriously enjoyed.

Byron possessed more than just a penchant for the ladies, he also had a fondness for animals and kept, in addition to innumerable dogs and horses: a badger, five cats, an Egyptian crane, a crocodile, a crow, an eagle, a falcon, a fox, three geese, a goat with a fractured leg, two guinea hens, a heron, four monkeys, a parrot and five peacocks. Except for the horses, all his creatures enjoyed the comforts of his various residences sharing the living space with the unconventional Byron. And no piece on Byron is complete without making at least brief mention of his dear Newfoundland dog, Boatswain, who he adored so much that he even nursed the beast when it was taken by rabies without fear of being bitten. In 1808 Boatswain was defeated by his rabies and the poet wrote a memorial to his faithful companion, now known as Epitaph to a dog. It was engraved on a marble plaque and mounted on a funerary monument at his Newstead Abbey estate. The funeral memorial was bigger than that eventually erected for Byron himself and it was surprisingly the only building work which he carried out on the estate, despite its dilapidated condition when he inherited it. He also undertook such works at a time when he was crippled by debt. Three years later he had his will include the condition that he should be buried alongside his old friend. The poem that Byron dedicated to Boatswain has become one of his most popular pieces and is faithfully reproduced below, but speculation has surrounded its true authorship. Byron’s close Cambridge friend John Hobhouse, who certainly wrote the introduction inscribed on the poem, has also been credited with having written the entire text from a letter written by Hobhouse and discovered in 1830. According to the document Byron decides to use Hobhouse’s epitaph rather than his own. However, as Boatswain would have agreed, this is a bone of contention.

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.

This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18, 1808.

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory, but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.

Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –
Who knows thee well must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who behold perchance this simple urn,
Pass on – it honors none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one — and here he lies.

Byron was a nobleman and briefly exercised his peerage right to sit in the House of Lords and pass comment of the affairs of state. His interventions were very much in keeping with what one would expect of Britain’s most celebrated idealist. His short-lived stint of but three months in the spring of 1809 saw him campaign for social reform and he was one of the very few members of the House that spoke out in defence of the Luddites. He sympathised with their fate now displaced by the nascent mechanisation of factory production and the inhuman death sentence passed against them for having broken industrial hardware. His first speech rallied against the hyped ‘benefits’ of mechanisation and criticised the second-rate quality of textiles produced in such a way. He was outraged by the show trials of York which passed the death penalty and penal transportation. Such passion and defence of social justice would, one imagines, today see his sarcastic tirades voiced against the ‘benefits’ of globalisation and the substandard produce this has led to, not to mention the unemployment of consuming nations in exchange for the enslavement of the manufacturing masses. Byron’s intervention didn’t end here. He also contested the established religion on the grounds that it undermined people of other faiths. His parliamentary speeches led to him writing such political poems as Song for the Luddites, The Landlords’ Interest, The Age of Bronze, The Best of the Cut-Throats, which hit back against Wellington and The Intellectual Eunuch, which attacked Castlereagh.

His dabble in politics came to an end just as it was beginning, when he left for the Continent for the second and last time. He would never return to Britain for the remaining eight years of his abridged life, not even for the burial of his daughter. The year was 1816 and the Lord left the House and the nation to escape the growing social pressure that was encircling him.

His lesser tour of Europe this time passed through Belgium and swept down the Rhine, settling by Lake Geneva at the Villa Diodati. He shared the residence with his personal physician, John William Polidori. It was here that Byron met Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Shelley’s wife-to-be Mary Godwin. Mary’s stepsister also came out to join them, namely Claire Clairmont, Byron’s old London flame.

The name of the Villa Diodati has passed into literature folklore. It was here during three ‘incessant’ rainy days of a ‘wet, ungenial summer’ when the five house guests spent their time reading fantastical stories, such as Fantasmagoriana, and concocted their own tales. Polidori wrote The Vampyre and with it was born the genre of the gothic vampire novel. Mary Shelley, however, produced what would become a classic of English literature. She read her story of a possessed doctor creating life to the four luminaries huddled around the Swiss hearth and from the lake-side embers was born Frankenstein.

After his sojourn in central Europe Byron wintered in Venice, where he enjoyed the affections of Marianna Segati, in whose palazzo he was lodging. Again it was a casual romance that was at once replaced by another; this time the young Margarita Cogni. Both ladies had two things in common: they were both Italian as well as married. Margarita Cogni’s infatuation led her to abandon her husband and move in with Byron but they soon bickered and in an age-old scenario with a Venetian twist, this meant that Byron would storm out of the house and sleep the night in his gondola. Eventually Byron demanded her to leave, at which she threw herself into the canal.

It was still 1816 when Byron visited the Venetian island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, which, as it name suggests, was given to Armenians. The Mechitarist Order obtained the island in 1717 and increased its land surface fourfold as well as constructing the present monastery. It was a prominent centre of Armenian culture, as it is today, and the experience entranced the well-travelled poet. Byron threw himself headlong into his cultural muse. He learnt Armenian history, attended seminars and studied the language. His involvement led to him write English Grammar and Armenian in 1817 and Armenian Grammar and English two years later. He also assisted in the assembling of the English Armenian dictionary in 1821. He contributed the preface where he outlined the historic struggle of the Armenians for their freedom against the pashas and satraps of the east. Byron considered Armenian a highly efficient spoken language and asserted in his memoirs that “God spoke to the world in Armenian.”

By 1819 Byron had now left Venice for Ravenna and his new bride Teresa Guiccioli. Here he continued with his writing, especially Don Juan and equally significant was his work with Tomas Moore in piecing together his biography, as if destiny had warned him that time was running out. However, a decision was taken just a month after the scribe’s death that it was better to consign the ‘life and adventures’ to the flames than have future generations read it and think… well, we shall never know.

In 1821 Byron left Ravenna and attended Shelley’s funeral after he had drowned in a boating accident. His time on Italian soil was dwindling and his last abode would be in Genoa, precisely where the Grand Tour began and this was where his last tour came to an end.

“I am so convinced of the advantages of looking at mankind instead of reading about them, and of the bitter effects of staying at home with all the narrow prejudices of an Islander, that I think there should be a law amongst us to set our young men abroad for a term among the few allies our wars have left us.”

A year later and the agitated optimist decided to take up the Greek cause. His Italian wife Teresa Guiccioli wrote that “He loved the mountains of Greece because they recalled those of Scotland.” Byron had always had the deepest sentiment and respect for the cultural heritage of ancient Greece and was a harsh opponent of Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles. He was enraged when Elgin’s agent gave him a tour of the Acropolis and he saw the vacant friezes. He penned a poem, The Curse of Minerva, deploring Elgin’s infamous ‘vandalism’. In it he wrote some of the most scathing anti-Scots lines ever. Minerva accuses an Englishman of defacing the Hellenic monument but we discover that Lord Elgin was Thomas Bruce:

She ceased awhile, and thus I dared to reply,

To soothe the vengeance kindling in her eye:

“Daughter of Jove! in Britain’s injured name,               125

A true-born Briton may the deed disclaim.

Frown not on England; England owns him not:

Athena, no! thy plunderer was a Scot.

The following verse from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage also carries the same sentiment of shame at an act that provoked a parliamentary debate over the scandal and the reported underhand methods of the acquisition from the occupying Ottomans:

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see

Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed

By British hands, which it had best behoved

To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.

Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,

And once again thy hapless bosom gored,

And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

Despite Byron’s deep fascination for the east, Islam and all things Ottoman he was shocked to find the Parthenon an eastern bizarre instead of the model classical world that had been the corner stone of his learning. Byron chartered the aptly named ship Hercules to carry him to Greece and came ashore Kefalonia in the Ionian Islands. He donated £4,000 to refit the Greek fleet and then joined the Greek politician Alexandros Mavrokordatos in Missolonghi.

They planned to attack the Turkish fortress that stood at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. Byron ordered the preparation of artillery and took command of part of the rebel army despite no soldiering experience. That was the plan, but before the expedition could sail, Byron fell ill, and the subsequent bloodletting employed to cure him only weakened him to the point of no return. Byron did recover in part, but a few months later he was again seriously ill with a cold which, when combined with further bleeding, led to a violent fever and he died on 19 April 1824.

The loss of the man who ‘shined twice as bright and burned half as long’ was mourned not only by Britons but probably more so by contemporary Greeks and Dionysios Solomos, the nation’s poet, wrote the poem To the Death of Lord Byron. To this day Vyron, the Greek form of Byron, continues to be a popular name for newborn males and there is even the Athens suburb of Vyronas, which was named in his honour.

Byron’s embalmed body was returned to England, however, legend has it that his heart was buried in Missolonghi. Initially he was to join his brothers in quills and rest in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. However, the ancient doors were closed to him for reasons of ‘questionable morality’. This didn’t stop the Byron faithful from paying their respects as they filed past for two days as his body lay in state. He was in due course interred in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. In 1852 his only legitimate child, Ada Lovelace, who he never knew, was buried by his side as she had requested. The Countess of Lovelace became the world’s first ‘computer programmer’ when she worked closely with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine.

It was Byron’s friends who had to raise the necessary money in order to commission a statue of the poet and they enlisted the famous Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen who produced a work in Greek marble to honour his Hellenic heroics.

A decade later in 1834 it was ready for view and then one by one, Britain’s institutions refused it space within their hallowed walls: Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the British Museum and the National Gallery. Eventually his Alma Mater took him in thirty years later and Trinity College, Cambridge, fittingly placed the sculpture in the Wren Library after the university chapel also passed it over. This didn’t mean that the matter of giving Byron a national resting place had been abandoned. However, it wasn’t until 1907 that the lobbying for a memorial was seriously undertaken. An article in The New York Times read, “People are beginning to ask whether this ignoring of Byron is not a thing of which England should be ashamed … a bust or a tablet might be put in the Poets’ Corner and England be relieved of ingratitude toward one of her really great sons.”

Despite the interest and the writer’s following, it took nearly a century and a half for the relevant commemoration to be emplaced in Westminster Abbey. And this was for a man who had had a decisive influence on Continental literature and art, where his standing as a poet was arguably more notable than in Britain or America, and continues to be so though to a lesser extent. Moreover, in his day Byron was popularly regarded as the world’s greatest poet and inspired such men as Berlioz, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Verdi.

His greatest work, which concerns us here, was and is Don Juan, a curious tale for a Romantic and yet his retelling of the Seville legend, though inverted, did not make the immoral swindler of Andalucía a darling of women’s affections. Don Juan finds himself easily seduced and not the great seducer. Byron’s work is very much in keeping with the heartless rogue, “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.” The same could not be said for Molière’s work which strict aficionados have said ruined the original tale by softening the rascal’s edges and making him an acceptable character in polite society.

Byron is often considered English and despite an English father one can easily glean from reading thus far that there is much of the Scot in the bard; from a Scottish mother to a formative Scottish childhood and primary education. Although he left Scotland in 1798, never to return, it is evident that the experience had had a decided effect. He possessed a faint Scots accent, which was noted by his listeners and it was even claimed that his strident satirical voice was given to him from the Scots ‘flyting’ tradition. Even some of his rhymes, especially that of Don Juan, can only work if pronounced à la manière ecossaise. It is safer to say then, that Byron was an Anglo-Scot with a firm foot on either side of the border.

He began the 16,000 line verse in the autumn of 1818, publishing the first two extended cantos in 1819 anonymously, after disputes with his publisher over the shocking nature of the poetry. By this time, he had been a famous poet for seven years. Though Byron was a rapacious writer, what is unique about the work is that it spans his entire poetical career, right up until his death. Sixteen cantos were completed but the seventeenth, which was still being worked on in the spring of 1823, was not.

The epic was worked on in England, on the Continent, on the shores of the Adriatic in Venice and Ravenna, inland in Pisa where he finished Cantos 6–12 and by the Mediterranean in Greece. It was evidently a work in progress that waxed and waned according to the land where he found himself. The changes in climates and Byron’s divergent cultural experiences were instilled into his writing. To Thomas Moore he wrote, “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.” Later he commented on further cantos to Murray, “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.” With a work spanning five years of a prolific poet it was no surprise that there was an indefinite path for the prose as Byron himself declared 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.”

Don Juan has given us a host of memorable and dazzling phrases that have worked their way into the Pantheon of poetic vernacular, for example:

What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,

Is much more common where the climate’s sultry.


All tragedies are finish’d by a death.

All comedies are ended by a marriage.


Alas! How deeply painful is all payment!

All who joy would win

Must share it, – Happiness was born a twin.


Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;

The best of life is but intoxication.


But what did Byron think of his work? Here is one opinion:

‘As to “Don Juan,” confess. . . that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing; it may be bawdy, but is it not good English? It may be profligate, but is it not life, is it not the thing? Could any man have written it who has not lived in the world? And tooled in a post-chaise? In a hackney coach? In a Gondola? Against a wall? In a court carriage? In a vis-à-vis? On a table? And under it?’

Often described as the most flamboyant and notorious of the major Romantics, Byron was celebrated in life for aristocratic excesses, despairing debts, copious love affairs, rumours of a scandalous incestuous liaison with his half-sister, and self-imposed exile. He said of himself, “I am such a strange mélangé of good and evil that it would be difficult to describe me.” And one can find myriad conflicts in his person and actions, but what is clear is that he was the protagonist in the poem of his own life and reading Don Juan allows us to get close to that poetic genius and conflictive temperament.

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