Don Juan, Canto 2


When we last left Don Juan, his mother had sent him away to another country after discovering he’d had an affair with a married woman. When we start Canto II, he’s sailing away on a ship. He bids farewell to Spain, his mother, and most especially Julia. While in the midst of declaring his undying love for her (saying things like “Sooner shall this blue ocean melt to air/Sooner shall earth resolve itself to sea” (II, 19) than he forget about her), the ship lurches and he grows sea sick.

“Sooner shall heaven kiss earth–(here he fell sicker)
Oh, Julia! what is every other woe!–
(For God’s sake, let me have a glass of liquor–
Pedro! Battista! help me down below).
Julia, my love!– (you rascal, Pedro, quicker)
Oh, Julia!–(this cursed vessel pitches so)–
Beloved Julia! hear me still beseeching–
(Here he grew inarticulate with retching).
-Canto II, 20

I love that Juan’s overboard professions of love are interrupted by retching. Kind of sums up the way many of us feel about romantic poetry. However, it turns out he had good reason to be sick. A storm is brewing, and it’s so fierce, it causes his ship to sink. Juan manages to get to a lifeboat with a couple dozen others, but the rest of his shipmates aren’t so lucky.

All the rest perish’d; near two hundred souls
Had left their bodies; and, what’s worse, alas!
When over Catholics the ocean rolls,
They must wait several weeks, before a mass
Takes off one peck of purgatorial coals,
Because, till people know what’s come to pass,
They won’t lay out their money on the dead–
It costs three francs for every mass that’s said.
-Canto II, 55

Here, Byron points out that the practical consideration for money tends to trumps religious belief. Well, you don’t want to waste money on a mass for someone who might still be alive, and really, what’s a few weeks in purgatory in the grand scheme of things?

Juan tries to save Battista and Pedro, his valet, but they too are drowned. Since Pedro was drunk at the time, “he found a wine-and-watery grave” (II,57). The waves are so high the survivors in the long boat are kept wet “so that themselves as well as hopes were damp’d” (II,60). We are told of the survivors in the boat: “They grieved for those who perish’d with the cutter,/And also for the biscuit casks and butter.” (II,61) You really shouldn’t make fun of victims of a ship wreck, but Byron goes there.

In an aside, Byron tells us “‘Tis very certain the desire of life/Prolongs it; this is obvious to physicians,/When patients, neither plagued with friends nor wife,/Survive through very desperate conditions” (II,64). Byron tells us that man “like the shark and tiger, must have prey:/Although his anatomical construction/Bears vegetables in a grumbling way” (II,67). As I said in the previous post, these punchlines probably aren’t as funny if you read them without all the setup, but I got a kick out of them.

Anyway, instead of wisely rationing their food, the survivors eat all their provisions and drink all their wine right away, hoping the wind will blow them to shore. It doesn’t. They end up eating Don Juan’s poor spaniel, then his poor tutor Pedrillo. The most ravenous of the cannibals go mad and die. After a while, a beautiful white bird flies by, giving the men hope. However, it does not land, and Byron explains why this is fortunate:

But in this case I also must remark,
‘Twas well this bird of promise did not perch,
Because the tackle of our shatter’d bark
Was not so safe for roosting as a church;
And had it been the dove from Noah’s ark,
Returning there from her successful search,
Which in their way that moment chanced to fall,
They would have eat her, olive-branch and all.
-Canto II, 95

Skipping ahead a bit, Juan ends up being the sole survivor of the ship wreck. He washes up on the beach of a Greek isle where he is discovered by a couple young women who nurse him back to health. The identity of these women is kept secret for several stanzas. So why the mystery? Who are they?

I’ll tell you who they were, this female pair,
Lest they should seem princesses in disguise,
Besides I hate all mystery, and that air
Of clap-trap, which your recent poets prize;
And so, in short, the girls they really were
They shall appear before your curious eyes,
Mistress and maid; the first was only daughter
Of an old man who lived upon the water.
-Canto II, 124

As she nurses him back to health, Haidee and Juan fall in love with each other, despite the fact they don’t speak the same language. Haidee’s father is wealthy, but how did he get so rich? Well, he was a fisherman in his youth and still is a fisherman…sort of.

A fisher, therefore, was he–though of men,
Like Peter the Apostle,–and he fish’d
For wandering merchant-vessels, now and then,
And sometimes caught as many as he wish’d;
The cargoes he confiscated, and gain
He sought in the slave-market too, and dish’d
Full many a morsel for that Turkish trade,
By which, no doubt, a good deal may be made.
-Canto II,126

So, her father is a pirate and slave-trader. Knowing her father would probably sell Juan as a slave, Haidee decides it best to hide him from her father in a cave for the time being. As before, Byron goes off on a few tangents. I liked this one about the benefits of waking up early versus staying up late:

I say, the sun is a most glorious sight,
I’ve seen him rise full oft, indeed of late
I have sat up on purpose all the night,
Which hastens, as physicians say, one’s fate;
And so all ye, who would be in the right
In health and purse, begin your day to date
From day-break, and when coffin’d at fourscore,
Engrave upon the plate, you rose at four.
-Canto II,140

And in praise of making merry: “Few things surpass old wine: and they may preach/Who please,–the more because they preach in vain,–/Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,/Sermons and soda-water the day after.” (II,178) He then goes on to say that when you’ve got a hangover, soda-water is the most sublime pleasure.

He describes a good kiss as being a heart-quake (II,186) which I liked. Juan and Haidee press together “As if there were no life beneath the sky/Save theirs, and that their life could never die.” (II,188) However, Byron warns us that hell-fire is prepared for “people giving/Pleasure or pain to one another” (II, 192). I’d never thought about it like this, but most sins do seem to amount to either giving another person pain or pleasure, don’t they?

That brings us to the end of canto II. Next time join me for canto III, won’t you?

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