When Byron died, a 14-year-old Tennyson carved his name into a rock at Somersby. By the time he had made his own name, Byron's reputation had declined; Wordsworth was ascendant. John Mortimer once wrote about the sadness he felt on recognising that Wordsworth was the better poet – a common evolution of taste. I say "common": among certain bookish and poetically inclined children. But the feeling that the guy you looked up to when you were a kid isn't quite as good as some other guy who meant nothing to you... most of us have suffered from that.
Don Juan is Byron's answer to that feeling. People don't start reading Byron for Don Juan. They read Childe Harold, the book that made him famous, or one of the Eastern tales. A sense of guilt runs through these works – nameless, vaguely sexual, inescapable. It's a guilt that adolescents know about. The Byronic hero is defined by it. If it weren't for sex, he might be noble and good, as well as handsome, courageous, intelligent and charming. But sex always gets in the way.
The trouble with appealing to adolescent tastes is that adolescents outgrow them. The world turns out to be less gloomy and alienating than they thought, or it turns out to be gloomy and alienating in a less exciting way. Wordsworth's steady, sober self-involvement seems more and more significant. And then, you discover Don Juan. One of the great strange things about it is that it isn't at all about sexual guilt. The Don drifts disastrously from encounter to encounter and loves and grieves through each of them, sincerely and sweetly. He suffers expulsion, shipwreck, enslavement, war, celebrity – without any effect on his ability to love or grieve again. The problem for the Byronic hero is that he can't get over anything; the problem for Don Juan is that he can.
Shelley instantly recognised it as Byron's masterpiece; Byron lost his publisher over it. John Murray wanted him to cut some of his blasphemies – he moved too quickly in it from gay to grave. "Is it not life?" Byron replied. "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 a vis? – on a table? – and under it?"
A great book should have something in it to suit every mood. I used to play a lot of basketball and liked to imagine myself on the bus between games with a single, much-battered volume. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, etc. But the truth is, I get sick reading on buses, and spent most of my time playing cards or watching bad movies. Otherwise, Don Juan would have been a contender. It has a little bit of everything in it – not least a reminder that we don't have to give up on the heroes of our youth.
Benjamin Markovits's 'A Quiet Adjustment' is published by Faber & FaberReuse content