Don Juan, Canto 3

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Online, this engraving by W. H. Mote is named Lolah, but in my copy of Lord Byron’s Works from 1849 it’s titled Haidee. Was someone trying to pull a fast one?

When we last left Don Juan, he had been shipwrecked upon a Grecian island, but was brought back to health by a young woman named Haidee. The two fall in love, however, Haidee keeps Juan’s existence a secret from her father Lambro who is a slave trader. Let’s find out what happens next!

Canto III starts with “Hail, Muse! et cetera.” (III,1) Wow, Lord Byron’s sure putting a lot of effort into this epic, isn’t he? He then goes on a rant about how unfaithful women are. Maybe something happened in his personal life while he was writing this?

‘Tis melancholy, and a fearful sign
Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
That love and marriage rarely can combine,
Although they both are born in the same clime,
Marriage from love, like vinegar from wine–
A sad, sour, sober beverage–by time
Is sharpen’d from its high celestial flavour
Down to a very homely household savor.
-Canto III, 5

He points out how the same word changes its meaning before and after marriage: “passion in a lover’s glorious,/But in a husband is pronounced uxorious.” (III,6). He tells us that romances focus on wooings, not marriage. “Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch’s wife,/He would have written sonnets all his life?” (III, 8).

Anyway, Juan and Haidee aren’t married, so they’re happy. At least as long as Haidee’s pirate father is away. Before you judge him too harshly for being a pirate, “Let not his mode of raising cash seem strange,/Although he fleeced the flags of every nation,/For into a prime minister but change/His title, and ’tis nothing but taxation.” (III,14).

I liked this aside in which he tells us how the story of Ulysses would have ended in real life:

An honest gentleman at his return
May not have the good forture of Ulysses:
Not all lone matrons for their husbands mourn,
Or show the same dislike to suitors’ kisses;
The odds are that he finds a handsome urn
To his memory, and two or three young misses
Born to some friend, who holds his wife and riches,
And that his Argus bites him by–the breeches.

-Canto III, 23

Anyway, when Haidee’s father Lambro returns to the island, he finds a party going on. Apparently, he’d been gone for so long, that Haidee assumed he was dead and immediately set about squandering his fortune.

Here was no lack of innocent diversion
For the imagination or the senses,
Song, dance, wine, music, stories from the Persian,
All pretty pastime in which no offence is;
But Lambro saw all these things with aversion,
Perceiving in his absense such expenses,
Dreading that climax of all human ills,
The inflammation of his weekly bills.
-Canto III, 35

He’s understandably a bit upset, but he doesn’t fly into a passion as you’d think for “He was the mildest-manner’d man/That ever scuttled ship or cut a throat” (III, 41) We’ll have to wait until next time to find out what Lambro is going to do because when he discovers Juan and Haidee they are listening to a poet who takes up the rest of Canto III. According to Cliffs Notes, this poet is based on Byron’s rival Robert Southey:

He was a man who had seen many changes,
And always changes as true as any needle,
His polar star being one which rather ranges,
And not the fix’d–he knew the way to wheedle:
So vile he ‘scaped the doom which oft avenges;
And being fluent (save indeed when fee’d ill),
He lied with such a fervour of intention–
There was no doubt he earn’d his laureate pension.
-Canto III, 80

Byron goes on a bit more before remembering himself: “But to my subject–let me see–what was it?/Oh!–the third canto–and the pretty pair–” (III,81) I love it when he breaks the fourth wall like this. So anyway, before we bring Canto III to a close, Byron takes a few more potshots at other poets including this: “Wordsworth’s last quarto, by the way, is bigger/Than any since the birth-day of typography:/A clumsy frowzy poem, call’d the “Excursion,”/Writ in a manner which is my aversion.” (III,94)

Don’t you just love it when poets bad mouth each other in verse? Anyhow, Canto III is about half as long as the previous two, coming in at just over 100 stanzas. Is Byron starting to run out of steam? I guess we’ll just have to see. So anyway, if you can handle more, join me next time when I read Canto Four.

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