Thursday, September 16, 2010

Don Juan

BBAW Thursday topic: A book that should get more attention.

I suggest Lord Byron's poem Don Juan. Byron was the famous bad boy of his day, and his long verse poem is full of jokes, ideas, and adventure. He said that it was "meant to be a little quietly facetious upon every thing" and soothed would-be moralists by adding that it would not encourage anyone to admire the legendary figure of Don Juan: "I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell, or in an unhappy marriage, not knowing which would be the severest. The Spanish tradition says Hell: but it is probably only an Allegory of the other state."

Beginning an epic poem in an era in which they were no longer in fashion, Byron forces a rhyme to differentiate his comic hero from the romantic figure of yore:

I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one.
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--
We all have seen him, in the pantomime,
Sent to the Devil somewhat ere his time.

Rather than the traditional (and correctly Spanish) pronunciation, in which "Juan" is one syllable rhyming with "Don," Byron requires us to pronounce the name as "Jew-on" to rhyme with "true one" and "new one." This is just the beginning of the silliness.

Although "most epic poets plunge 'in medias res,'" Byron tells us,

That is the usual method, but not mine--
My way is to begin with the beginning;
The regularity of my design
Forbids all wandering as the worst of sinning

Then, of course, he proceeds to digress in true epic fashion for seventeen cantos (457 pages in my Riverside Edition).

Don Juan's first lover, in Byron's version of the story, is a virtuous Spanish matron named Julia who falls in love and is sorely tempted to enjoy the sins of the flesh with 16-year-old Juan:

Her plan she deemed both innocent and feasible,
And, surely, with a stripling of sixteen
Not Scandal's fangs could fix on much that's seizable,
Or if they did so, satisfied to mean
Nothing but what was good, her breast was peaceable--
A quiet conscience makes one so serene!
Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded
That all the Apostles would have done as they did.

In other words, she is rationalizing what she wants to do--sleep with Juan--in terms of the end (true love!) justifying the means (unfaithfulness to her husband), with a arrow at hypocritical but pious-seeming Christians let loose on the way.

The sixteen-year-old Juan is discovered with Julia and flees for his life, finding beautiful women and adventure wherever he goes in the world. At one point when he has been enslaved, he thinks:

But after all, what is our present state?
'T is bad, and may be better--all men's lot:
Most men are slaves, non more so than the great,
To their own whims and passions, and what not;
Society itself, which should create
Kindness, destroys what little we had got:
To feel for none is the true social art
Of the world's Stoics--men without a heart.

I love the comic touches like "and what not" in otherwise serious-seeming passages like this one. Don't you?

The speaker of the poem--Byron in his public "bad boy" persona--wonders how much the man who has just sold Don Juan as a slave enjoys his dinner afterwards:

I wonder if his appetite was good?
Or, if it were, if also his digestion?
Methinks at meals some odd thoughts might intrude,
And Conscience ask a curious sort of question,
About the right divine how far we should
Sell flesh and blood. When dinner has oppressed one,
I think it is perhaps the gloomiest hour
Which turns up out of the sad twenty-four.

Isn't this so much more fun than criticizing the guy for selling his fellow man? Pretending to sympathize with him gets the satiric point across more effectively, since it's the reader who must say "wait...".

By the time you get to Canto the Eleventh, you are reminded that this is not supposed to be a deep piece of literature, rife with symbolism and other things your high school English teacher forced you to pick out of poems. It is "only fiction," Byron says:

Though every scribe, in some slight turn of diction,
Will hint allusions never meant. Ne'er doubt
This--when I speak, I don't hint, but speak out.

The speaker of the poem is continually immodest and rude, calling attention to how well-made his poem is and refusing to respect (much less venerate) his reader--as many more traditional epics do:

Whether Don Juan and chaste Adeline
Grew friends in this or any other sense,
Will be discussed hereafter, I opine:
At present I am glad of a pretence
To leave them hovering, as the effect is fine,
And keeps the atrocious reader in suspence:
The surest way--for ladies and for books--
To bait their tender--or their tenter--hooks.

I particularly like the play on words for the cliche--"on tenter-hooks"--because it's one that people sometimes misspell these days. Since few people know what a "tenter-hook" is anymore, they hear the expression phonetically as "tender-hooks," unwittingly re-creating Byron's joke.

The final joke is that this epic does not end, with either hell or marriage:

Our Hero was, in Canto the Sixteenth,
Left in a tender moonlight situation,
Such as enables Man to show his strength
Moral or physical: on this occasion
Whether his virtue triumphed--or, at length,
His vice--for he was of a kindling nation--
Is more than I shall venture to describe;--
Unless some Beauty with a kiss should bribe.

One of the many pleasures of this long poem, as Byron continually inserts himself to remind us, is thinking about conventional morality from the rogue's point of view, not seeing the hero conventionally rewarded or punished.

Byron is a poet who doesn't like to play by the rules. He successfully flouted the rules of his society all his life (this was made easier by his title), and Don Juan, besides being a romp, is one of his symbolic middle fingers to the increasing moralism of the nineteenth century.

19 comments:

Harriet M. Welsch said...

Does Don Juan not get attention anymore? Maybe just to English majors. I fell in love with it and the whole Byronic thing when I first encountered Don Juan in a high school English class. I should really reread it. It's been a while. I have a secret desire to teach a class on the figure of Don Juan pinned by Don Juan and Don Giovanni. I'm sure it's been done before, but it sounds like great fun, nevertheless.

Amanda said...

For some reason, I'm fascinated by Lord Byron, but I still don't think I could read his poetry!

Jeanne said...

Harriet, good idea! Have you seen the Johnny Depp movie, Don Juan DeMarco?

Amanda, this poem is really not intimidating--quite the opposite.

jenclair said...

I love this poem! One of the funniest part is the description of Don Juan's parents fighting...I always thought the movie War of the Roses was such a great echo of the this section.

Don Juan DeMarco with Johnny Depp is also a great film to watch in connection to the poem.

bermudaonion said...

I'm kind of embarrassed to say that I don't think I've ever read an epic poem. I know my son read several in college and thoroughly enjoyed them, so I should really get past my fear and give one a try.

Jenny said...

I read part of this poem in senior English, and I really enjoyed the parts I read. But I associate Byron with Shelley and Keats, the way you do, and I'm not crazy about either of them, so I always think I won't like Byron either. It's a totally silly reason not to read his stuff.

Jeanne said...

Jenny, try imagining Byron's arched eyebrow when he hears Shelley moaning "I fall upon the thorns of life! I weep!"

Jeanne said...

Kathy, this isn't typical epic, but winter is the time to try one, I think. My other favorite is, of course, mock epic, Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock. It makes fun of a girl who made a fuss when a society boy took a lock of her hair without permission so he could brag about her as a conquest. Pope blows the incident way out of proportion in five (in the final version) hilarious cantos about this "hideous crime."

Jeanne said...

Jenclair, War of the Roses is a funny comparison; I like it.

Jenny said...

What a great analysis. This is such a fun poem to start with, and you make it even more fun. Thanks for this.

Jeanne said...

Other Jenny,
Second Jenny to comment,
Jenny from Spokane,
(uh, we need a way to keep you Jennys straight!)
That's the best compliment--because that's exactly what I was trying to do--make it more fun. It doesn't take long to be able to understand the archaisms once you start reading.

Care said...

Wow! This IS fun. I knew you would have a terrific recommendation for today. :)

Jeanne said...

Care, I aim to please!

Marie said...

nice. i think we should all read more poetry!

Memory said...

I have a wonderful old copy of this poem back in Canada. Nineteenth-century epic poetry has always rather scared me, but it sounds like this one's certainly worth a go.

Jodie said...

What is a tenter hook if you don't mind explaining?

Jeanne said...

Marie and Memory, one of the things I like about Don Juan is that you don't need to commit to reading the whole thing--it doesn't end, after all! It's fun to just dip in for a stanza or two.

Jodie, a tenter is a wooden frame used to stretch cloth. See http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-ont1.htm

S. Krishna said...

Poetry is a great choice for this topic - I haven't read Don Juan in a very, very long time!

Jeanne said...

S. Krishna, I think sometime you need to reread things you were assigned in high school or college because you weren't necessarily old enough to understand them back then! (How can a high school student really understand Death of a Salesman?)