Although the style of Don Juan is personal and subjective, the themes are universal and handled objectively— playfully, on the surface, as Byron freely confesses, but with an underlying seriousness. The grand theme, implicit in the story and the satire, is Nature vs. Civilization, or as Byron might have defined it, if any one had pinned him down with a question. Truth and Feigning, or Reality and Appearance. In Byron's mind, it runs through everything, from natural and political history to metaphysics. Byron's preoccupation with it is typically romantic.Byron uses a multitude of themes from time to time in the course of the poem. The best summary of these themes appears at the end of Canto VIII—"Love—Tempest— Travel—War." In Canto XIV. after many preliminary hints in Cantos X—XIII. he adds :
"A bird's eye view. too. of that wild. Society;
A slight glance thrown on men of every station."
He remarked to Medwin that Don Juan is about Love, War. and Religion, the classic subjects of the epic. One might append to the list. also, the topics for digression,— what Byron calls his "lubrications"—on metaphysics, freedom, education, literary criticism, his personal confessions and a host of lesser subjects.
"At the outset, we must note that the principal substance of Byron's thought is conveyed in his story. It is easy in reading Don Juan to be too much diverted by the digressions and to regard the story as comparatively trivial, a thread of interest barely strong enough to hold the poem together and keep the reader's curiosity alive from canto to canto. Byron writes as if he were himself very little concerned with it and was being forced only by convention to return to it and keep it spinning." (E.F. Boyd).*
As Byron turned over "all the adventures that he had undergone, seen, heard of. or imagined, with his reflections on life and manners." The epic theme of love naturally occupied a very large position in his thoughts. For all his too well known amours, strange to say. Byron has been accused of exhibiting very little knowledge of the female heart because he made the women in his verse tales stereotyped romantic dolls. As a matter of fact, he was a very accurate reader of feminine character, aided, perhaps by the feminine traits of his own mind.
Byron chose the famous legend of Don Juan and set about retelling it in the light of truth. Love is the most important theme in the poem, viewed from the standpoint, of the general theme. Nature vs. Civilization. To the first mention of love in
the digression on the sweetness of first love. Byron instantly appends the corollary of wonder at Canto I. the inscrutable creation. Man.
In the story of Don Juan. Byron rejects the simple diabolism of the Spanish legend. Fundamentally, he says, the nature of man is good; and love is one of his most beautiful and sublime instincts. If Don Juan becomes a libertine monster, a man worthy of Hell, the fault lies in society, which has wrecked his primal nobility and twisted his good impulses to evil ends. This is Byron's Rousseauism.
It has been suggested that Byron shared Pope's rather cynical view in Moral Essay on the Characters of Womc.n, that women are mere pretty animals who possess but two ruling passions—the love of pleasure and the love of sway. But. though Byron did not like to see a woman eat. he was not so contemptuous as that. In Don Juan, he assigns as woman's ruling passion the need to love and to be loved :
"Man's love is of man's life thing apart.
'T is a woman's whole existence; "
So Julia from the convent where she has been shut .up, writes her farewell letter to Juan as he is setting forth on his adventures. This truism, by the way. first met Byron's attention in Mine, de Stael's Corinne. It stands as a text for the fates of all the heroines of Don Juan, from gentle Julia and innocent Haidee, to the great whore Catherine II. who was a least "three parts woman."
Pity for the sad lot of women is a keynote in many passages. Women. Byron thinks, can really love but once, and that love is invariably betrayed. The simplicity of this Byronic view of woman, however true to nature and to the condition of women in Byron's day, belies somewhat the subtlety and the effect of infinite variety in the portraits of individual women in Don Juan. Byron's observation and dramatic characterization in this particular are more comprehensive than his philosophizing. The women, fundamentally mere lovers and objects of love, like the earlier Byronic heroines, are now endowed with complete personalities, and exhibited at every age and at every stage of their careers. In the earlier tales, the predominant importance of the Byronic hero relegated the heroines to the backgroud. where they show only in silhouette. In Don Juan they are set forth "in the round." Byron recognized their loyalty and capacity for friendship. He understood the spiritual craving in love experienced by the good and sensitive woman. Lady Adeline, for example, found something lacking in her noble husband. Lord Henry :
"A something all-sufficient for the heart
Is that for which the sex are always seeking: 1 But how to fill up that same vacant part?
There lies the rub "
On the whole, he admitted the potential humanity of women, but thought it criminally stifled by the prevailing conditions of society.
"Byron's view of marriage is uncompromisingly unfavourable : some of the bitterest verses of Don Juan are reserved to condemn this, to him. uncomfortable and artificial state of being. Love is an institution of nature, but marriage of society, and the two are rarely compatible. This romantic view, hallowed by the ages, was no conventional pose with Byron. His own experience of unhappy marriage confirmed what he read in Pope's Eloisa and Rousseau's Nouvellc Hcloise. Especially in
, he says, where marriages depend upon money, no matter what hypocritical society may declare to the contrary, matrimony is the opposite of love. He takes up Scott's phrase and proves that Love is not the rules of Camp, Court, and Grove, but that Money is. (XII. 1:3—16)." (E.F. Boyd) England
Byron is at pains to condemn the hypocrisy of society and individuals toward love. He begins in Canto I attacking the hypocrisy of parents and husbands toward love and marriage, and in the last cantos he is still spurring to the charge. All hypocrisy in love is wicked and one of the prime evil effects occasioned by love, especially the hypocrisy of "Platonics" and other forms of self-deception. As a literary critic, he condemned the hypocrisy of romantic amatory writing. He thought the duty of the poet is to speak out plainly and with full responsibility, and he tried in the various and successive love episodes of Don Juan to exemplify his conception of the truth about love.
Byron's purpose in the first canto, the Julia episode, is to present a picture of first love, callow-, dreamy, and naively sweet, against a background of gross hypocrisy. The effect is to be bitter sweet, and is to be accomplished by a lightness of touch typifying adolescent calf love seen in retrospective. The style and attitude must be comic, brushing with laugther even the humiliation of Juan escaping naked through the dark streets, and the tragic fate
of Julia buried alive in the convent. First love, as far as man is concerned Byron seems to suggest, is light love, and thoughtless and unreal, in both its animal and its sentimental aspects, and therefore good material for farce comedy. This is Juan's first love in the civilized world, and it is debased by hypocrisy. Byron tries to make it quite clear that the reason Donna Inez was not prompt to separate Juan and Julia, when the fact that they were falling in love became obvious, was that Inez, now a widow, had once been courted by Julia's husband. Don Alfonso, and that she was consequently jealous of Julia and wanted to destroy her reputation and even her marriage. Using Juan as an unwitting tool, she succeeded in separating Julia from Don Alfonso by divorce and getting her locked up in a convent. In Canto X we learn from Inez's letter to Juan that Inez is married and Juan already has a little brother. The suggestion is that she married Don Alfonso. The jealous hypocrisy of Inez and Alfonso is clearly sketched. Byrons ridicule of the romantic love reaches its peak when we learn. "Romantic love can survive violent ills, fever and wounds, but a cold in the head or an attack of seasickness is invariably too much for it."
In Canto II we are introduced to the second love-episode, a passionate, naturalistic, pastoral. The contrast to the stuffy civilization of
is intense; in the sea-washed island under "all the stars that crowded the blue space." Juan and Haidee Seville
"form a group that's quite antique Half naked. loving, natural, and Greek."
Shocked awake by his severance from all familiar surroundings and by the terrible experience of sufferings and death at sea. Juan finds real romance for the first and the last time. He and Haidee are children of nature, and their love is the real, natural passion. But it is attended by youthful inexperience and recklessness which are bound to prove its undoing. Headlong passion in a natural state of innocence collides with the cruel passion of Lambro,"who typifies the barbaric civilization of the Orient. The fainl ending- of the Haidee episode, brought about by the extravagant passions of all three actors—Juan. Haidee. and Larnbro—is Byron's comment on the fragility of natural love in an unnatural world. Byron says that they were lucky to have their happiness interrupted by violence, and not. slowly diminished by age and care and indifference.
Juan's reactions to each new situation are physical reflexes. Gulbeyaz's fatuous love-making causes him to burst into tears with the memory of Haidee and with pride injured by his fall into slavery. Then at Gulbeyaz's humiliated weeping, he automatically unbends and begins to yield. Under the soldier Johnson's influence, he forgets love-making and sorrow for the glories of military action. But in the heat of the carnage of Ismail, he is swept by a wave of self-gratifying pity and devotion for the orphan Leila. From glitter to blood and back again to glitter. Juan is hurried along to the overripe civilization of the Empress Catherine's court. The pace of events and sensations is so swift, thought unfortunately not Byron's pace in relating them, that Juan has no time to pause and take stock. The result is an illness that affects both his body and his spirits. He is hopelessly entangled in the contradictions that the w-orld and his own behaviour have presented to him.
'The relationship between Juan and Leila, though left in an unfinished state, is clearly meant of illustrate yet another type of love. We can only speculate on what role Leila would have played in the English episode perhaps she was to remind Juan of Haidee. and to disturb him with the recollection of oriental love when he is deeply embroiled with the English "gem"
, and the ladies of Amundeville and of Fitz-Fulke. Byron is at some pains to explain the curious affection between Juan and his ward; it was neither parental nor fraternal and still less a sensual love. In contrast to Juan's unselfish love for Leila, his love for Catherine was purely selfish and sensual. Byron is careful to explain how a youth hitherto described as naturally generous and pure-hearted could be suddenly perverted by temptation. The weakness was his vanity— that "imperious passion, Self-love.'' Catherine's favour flattered his vanity both in his male physical prowess and in his sudden elevation thereby to be a sort of King. In yielding to this impulse, Juan fell still further into the inevitable consequences of dissipation. His fever and ennui were not only the reaction from all his past experiences but a speedy repayment for his errors." (E.F. Boyd). Aurora
Still convalescent Juan arrives in
and enjoys a period of indifference to womankind resulting from his physical and psychic reactions. However, a short time is sufficient for youth to recover at least outwardly most of its elasticity. Inwardly his experiences have left corroding deposits which produce in him a comparative soberness, a more worldly circumspection, and a tendency to brood in melancholy fashion when he is alone. He feels "restless, and perplexed, and compromised" by Lady Adeline's machinations and advice; he "feels somewhat pensive, and disposed for contemplation rather than his pillow;" he "muses on Mutability, or on his Mistress—terms synonymous." In this mood, he sees a ghost. The poem leaves him surrounded by more or less consciously predatory women, his mind perplexed by a mingling of sorrow-tinged nostalgia, disenchantment, longings, and metaphysical speculation. He has reached the last stage of adolescence and begins to contemplate life with the tear-dazzled doubt and wonder proper to romantic youth : England
"Between two words Life hovers like a star, 'Twixt Night and Morn, upon the horizon's verge."
Without condemning any individual in this story as utterly black, Byron is going to show the rottenness of the social system to which they belong. They will wreck Juan with their scheming, contriving, and cross interests, and then, herding together hypocritically, they will expel him with all the blame concentrated upon him.
'Travel is another important aspect of Don -Juan. For Byron, the ocean stood for escape and liberation. But for Don -Juan, who experiences the sea at its most impersonally cruel and tedious, the wreck and the sufferings in the long boat and the final exhausting efforts of swimming were meant to intensify the naturally purifying effect of a sea voyage."
'The important objects of travel in Don Juan are modern societies and modern people and their effect on the unfolding consciousness of the hei'o. Don Juan is not a travelogue, but a Wanderjahr. The reader sees the world, now through the eyes of Byron, and now through those of Juan, but the different angles of vision are trained on the present, on the modern, actual world. Childe Harold is a passive contemplative travelogue: Don Juan is the travels of a man of action."
The educative influences of contact with rude nature and personal experience of distance and physical hardship. Byron adds firsthand acquaintance with a wide variety of peoples, places, and manners. But he makes another use of travel, as the technical device for conveying satire. He uses the technique of travel and the eyes of a voyager from another civilization to give the utmost point to the satire on his own. Travel in Don Juan serves a double purpose. It fosters and chastizes the hero, educating him as no mother or book learning in
could do; and it educates the reader, by juxtaposing view after view of the modern real world. Seville
Juan's itinerary is dictated partly by the legend and by Byron's own experience, but also by the purposes of satire and use of the travel theme to illustrate Nature vs. Civilization. The story necessarily starts in
, in keeping with the legend, and the Spanish civilization is even more pointedly ripe for satire than the English. It goes to Spain inevitably, since English society and English responsibility in continental politics are principal butts of the satire. But what is the significance of England and of Greece ? Russia . enslaved under Greece , and Turkey , tyrannical and treacherous, the remote corners of Russia Europe, provide contrasts to the homelands of both Juan and Byron, and give unparalleled opportunities for reflection on the themes of nature and civilization, war, tyranny, and freedom.
"In a travel story, whose hero is to die as a champion of freedom, it is highly appropriate that Juan should find his highest emotional satisfaction and his first brutal acquaintance with tyranny and slavery in
, the cradle of beauty and freedom, and the most downtrodden of modern slave nations. Catherine and Greece are to represent a superficial civilization actualities are worse than barbaric Russia or Greece , and lest the reader of 1822 should miss'the satiric point. Byron has already reminded him by way of an apostrophe to Catherine's grandson, the "grand legitimate Alexander," in canto V, that the present Russian member of the Holy Alliance belongs to this tradition of tyranny:' Turkey
All wars, thought Byron, are terrible, hells upon earth. but wars in support of freedom are justifiable, even praiseworthy. He had indeed perceived that "Revolution alone can save the earth from hell's pollution." War. however, embodies every human crime conceivable, but the worst is that it breeds a colossal hypocrisy, a blindness of ignorance and party prejudice. War hypocrisy induces hero worship or a general, a "butcher in large business," who has enriched himself by war. while it forgets the miseries and murders of untold anonymous millions. It allows a poef, who should know better, to call "Carnage God's daughter." "War cuts up not only branch, but root." It destroys in one hour, at the command of one mad leader what nature can scarcely rebuild in thirty years. The pursuit of the hollow glory of individual fame, alive only in the throat of quickly forgetful mobs, is the worst folly and hypocrisy of all. This is the will-o'-the-wisp that keeps up the spirit of militarism and glorifies martial prowess.
In the introduction of the theme of war Byron's 'epic satire' departs widely from the simple unity of the Don Juan legend, but it is still concerned with the central moral problems of the legend, honour and the ends for which men live. Nowhere else in Don Juan did Byron deal a stronger blow for progressive liberal thought than in Cantos VII-VIII. condemning wars of conquest. With all the Napoleonic world, he had been meditating furiously on war and conquest through the whole span of his adult life. This was the period when the ideas of isolated philosophers, poets, and groups, who for centuries past had inveighed against war. began, under the stress of current events, to spread to the multitudes and to take shape in political and social organizations for world peace, and the outlawing of war.
History. Byron thought, ought to be written to divest war of its charm. The public should be let in on the facts behind the headlines in their morning papers, behind the long casualty lists, where names as often as not are misspelled :
"History can only take things in the gross;
But could we know them in detail
But could we know them in detail
"And why?—because it brings self-approbation..."
From the public standpoint, war is wasteful; and from the private, war does not give the individual the' need of honour and glory he is seeking. The momentary fame of military glory is "nothing but a child of Murder's rattles."
Byron uses his theme of war in civilized
Europe to illustrate again his general theme of nature and civilization. One extra-ordinary digression occurs in Canto VIII at the height of the battle, when Ismail had been entered but not taken.—the stanzas on Daniel Boone, 61-67 :
'"God made the country, and man made the town. So Cowper says—and I begin to be of his opinion, when I see cast down
— Rome — Babylon — Tyre — Carthage — Nineveh
In the broad sense, all of Byron's Don Juan deals with society, the modern European world both east and west. But the last six cantos are especially concerned with the state of society in
, and the field of thought embraces both society at large and the haul monde of England 's London West End. In general. Byron condemns English society for its materialism, its selfish irresponsibility, its frigidity, and its unnaturalness. He deals in Canto XII with the pow'er of money, as it is specifically exercised in "the marriage mart." He ridicules abstract theorists, like Malthus, who set up new philosophical codes for an already artificial society, living by unnatural conventions.