When I first started reading Don Juan by Lord Byron, I was expecting a long boring epic poem. Surprisingly, Don Juan is actually a satire and it’s full of humor. My summary probably won’t be as funny as reading the poem for yourself since I’ll mainly be providing punchlines without all of the set up, but we’ll see how it goes.
Lord Byron breaks the fourth wall throughout. He starts off by telling us why he chose to write about Don Juan and why he isn’t going to follow the in media res convention. When he does get around to the story, he starts by telling us about Don Juan’s parents. His mother, Donna Inez (purportedly based on Byron’s own mother) is described as smart in a mocking sort of way. “She knew Latin—that is, ‘the Lord’s prayer,’/And Greek, the alphabet, I’m nearly sure.” (Canto I, Stanza 13) He also includes a quote from her concerning the relationship between English and Hebrew that I found funny:
‘Tis strange-the Hebrew noun which means ‘I am,’
The English always use to govern d–n.
-Canto I, Stanza 14
Donna Inez is so perfect that “her guardian angel had given up his garrison” (I, 17). Her husband Don Jose, on the other hand, “like a lineal son of Eve,/Went plucking fruit without her leave.” (I, 18) The world “Whisper’d he had a mistress, some said two,/But for domestic quarrels, one will do.” (I, 19)
Byron apparently wasn’t a fan of educated women, for in an aside, he asks, “But–oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,/Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck’d you all?” (I, 22)
Anyway, we’re first introduced to the titular Don Juan as “A little curly-headed, good-for-nothing,/And mischief-making monkey from his birth.” (I, 25) If only his parents spent less time quarreling and more time raising him, he might have turned out better.
Donna Inez continues putting up with her husband’s bad behavior while secretly wishing him ill. As Byron says, “Revenge in person ‘s certainly no virtue,/But then ’tis not my fault if others hurt you.” (I, 30) She’s not above letting all Seville know about his indiscretions and was happy to bring up old quarrels. “And science profits by this resurrection–/Dead scandals form good subjects for dissection.” (I, 31)
Unfortunately for the lawyers, just when the divorce case between Donna Inez and Don Jose is gearing up, he dies. “His house was sold, his servants sent away,/A Jew took one of his two mistresses,/A priest the other.” (I, 34)
Donna Inez raises Don Juan in a puritanical way, instructing his tutors to leave out the naughty bits of history, mythology, and literature. However, not wanting to completely deface the classics, his tutors put the offensive bits in an appendix “Which saves, in fact, the trouble of an index.” (I, 44)
Speaking of which, my edition of the Works of Lord Byron Including the Suppressed Poems from 1849 censored some lines (I guess they didn’t actually include all of the suppressed poems after all). And it doesn’t even put the censored lines into an index in the back either, so I had to look them up online! They removed a reference to the suicide of the lawyer Sir Samuel Romilly (who took the side of Byron’s wife during their divorce proceedings) (I, 15), as well as references to the great pox (i.e., syphilis) (I, 129-131), which was apparently so controversial back then, you couldn’t even mention its existence.
Anyway, the widow Donna Inez befriends a woman named Donna Julia. Julia is in her twenties, however, she is married to Don Alfonso who’s in his fifties. Just to make things complicated, Inez is secretly attracted to Alfonso while young Don Juan is attracted to Julia. Julia just thinks of Juan as a kid until he turns sixteen and she realizes he’s becoming a man.
This line isn’t humorous, but I’ll quote it because I like it : “Oh love! how perfect is thy mystic art,/Strengthening the weak and trampling on the strong.” (I, 106)
To get back to the funny, I’ll quote a stanza in which Byron contemplates the number fifty, given that Julia is married to a man of that age:
When people say, “I’ve told you fifty times,”
They mean to scold, and very often do;
When poets say “I’ve written fifty rhymes,”
They make you dread that they’ll recite them too;
In gangs of fifty, thieves commit their crimes;
At fifty, love for love is rare, ’tis true;
But then, no doubt, it equally as true is,
A good deal may be bought for fifty Louis.
Alfonso ends up getting jealous and starts to suspect Julia is being unfaithful to him. Along with several other men, he breaks into her room in order to catch her red-handed, but finds… no one. The mob then starts searching Julia’s room: “Arras they prick’d and curtains with their swords,/And wounded several shutters, and some boards.” (I, 143) Meanwhile, Julia berates the mob for searching her room and protests her innocence for 13 stanzas, the very definition of protesting too much.
Not finding anyone, Alfonso leaves with the mob and Don Juan emerges from his hiding spot: “‘Tis odd, not one of all these seekers thought,/And seems to me almost a sort of blunder,/Of looking in the bed as well as under.” (I, 144) However, when Alfonso returns to apologize later, he discovers Juan’s shoes and the jig is up.
Subsequently, Julia is sent to a convent and Juan’s mother decides to send him on a tour of Europe. Julia writes a letter pointing out how unfair this is.
Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,
‘Tis woman’s whole existence; man may range
The court, camp, church, the vessel, and the mart;
Sword, gown, gain, glory, offer in exchange
Pride, fame, ambition, to fill up his heart,
And few there are whom these cannot estrange:
Men have all these resources, we but one–
To love again, and be again undone.
Canto I wraps up promising more to come if the public shows interest and Byron claims the story is true. One more quote before we go, Byron’s ten commandments for poets:
Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope:
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey,
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthey:
With Crabbe it may be difficult to cope,
And Campbell’s Hippocrene is somewhat drouthy:
Thou shalt not steal from Samuel Rogers, nor
Committ–flirtation with the muse of Moore:
Thou shalt not covet Mr. Sotheby’s Muse,
His Pegasus, nor any thing that’s his:
Thou shalt not bear false witness, like “the Blues,”
(There’s one, at least, is very fond of this):
Thou shalt not write, in short, but what I choose:
This is true criticism, and you may kiss–
Exactly as you please, or not–the rod,
But if you don’t, I’ll lay it on, by G-d!
I admit I don’t understand all the references, but it’s still fun to read.
That is all for now, my readers, adieu. If you find these lines I write a delight, I’ll provide a review of Canto II.