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This week: DON JUAN by Lord Byron (1819-24)
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The Independent Culture
Plot:This unfinished epic in 16 cantos is the greatest comic poem in the language. Written in eight-line stanzas with a highly elaborate rhyme scheme, it tells of Juan's (pronounced Joo-un) youthful adventures. Byron's hero is not the clapped-out rake of Moliere and Mozart; closer to Tom Jones, he stumbles into sexual intrigue, more often the seduced than the seducer.

After hanky-panky with Donna Julia, Juan is exiled from Seville by his mother. His ship is wrecked and Juan is forced to eat his pet spaniel; meanwhile his starving shipmates tuck into his tutor Pedrillo.

Eventually Juan lands on a Greek island; he is rescued by Haidee the daughter of a tough pirate; the couple fall in love; her father disapproves; Juan is sold into slavery; Haidee dies of grief.

In Constantinople, the sultana who has bought Juan, wants to capitalise on her investment. Unfortunately she proves to be obsessively jealous and Juan deserts her for the Russian Army. He besieges the city of Ismael and so impresses that he is sent with dispatches to St Petersburg arousing the fathomless appetite of the Empress Catherine.

He leaves for England on a diplomatic mission and this enables Bryon to set about toffs, country houses and the parochialism of the John Bull mentality.

Theme: The poem is "meant to be a little quietly facetious upon everything" (Bryon). It attacks cant and the way individuals prettify their own motives whilst damning others as hypocrites and snobs.

The absurdities of Romanticism are exposed as mankind's highest aspirations are shown to be a prey for biological urges: food and sex continually cut across fine feeling.

Style: Byron the poet/narrator is the hero. His pyrotechnics with the awkward verse form seem effortless. Rhymes are thrown together with the gentlemanly ease of the Regency buck who must dash off another canto or two before the next glass of claret: "If you think 'twas philosophy that this did/I can't help thinking puberty assisted".

Chief strengths: The tone is satiric, farcical, lyric, nostalgic. Byron seems to be in the room laughing at the reader, laughing at himself, laughing at the boredom of poetic composition. Underneath all is a restless melancholy: "Statesmen, chiefs, orators, queens, patriots, kings/And dandies are all gone on the wind's wings."

Chief weakness: Some of the digressions are self-indulgent and the poem tends to sprawl: a result, perhaps, of serial publication.

What they thought of it then: Wordsworth thought it "infamous", Keats "flash". The public preferred Byron's serious verse tales, with their beetle-browed outcasts. Only Goethe saw it was a work of "boundless genius".

What we think now:

There is still a tendency to believe that comic poetry must be light verse. WH Auden is the poem's most acute critic: "Don Juan is the most original poem in English; nothing like it had ever been written before."

Responsible for:

Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin and Auden's experiment in the same stanzaic form, "Letter to Lord Byron". (which conclusively demonstrates Byron's pre-eminence).

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