Byron starts Canto 5 by telling us of the dangers of writing love poetry: “Even Petrarch’s self, if judged with due severity,/Is the Platonic pimp of all posterity.” (Canto V, 1) I’d never thought of it like that, but I think he’s right. Love poems (or today’s equivalent–love songs) help facilitate hooking up. To prevent this from happening, Byron assures us that he himself will always attach a good moral message to his poems. Yeah, I’m sure that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
So anyway, when we last left Don Juan, he’d been sold into slavery. This canto opens with him meeting a fellow slave, an Englishman named John Johnson who’s been married three times. He was serving in the Russian army as a mercenary when he was captured and sold as a slave. He takes the whole thing in stride though. “Knowledge, at least, is gain’d; for instance, now,/We know what slavery is, and our disasters/May teach us better to behave when masters.” (Canto V, 23) And really, when you think about it, all men are slaves:
“But after all, what is our present state?
‘Tis bad, and may be better–all men’s lot.
Most men are slaves, none more so than the great,
To their own whims and passions, and what not;
Society itself, which should create
Kindness, destroys what little we had got:
To feel for none is the true social art
Of the world’s stoics–men without a heart.”
-Canto V, 25
As we’ve come to expect, Byron then goes on a digression. Surprisingly, a man got shot outside his house in real life! He had the man brought inside his house and attended to, but he ended up dying. The man was a military commander who had fought on the battlefield only to be killed in a peaceful city. Byron tried to make sense of the death:
But it was all a mystery. Here we are,
And there we go: –but where? five bits of lead,
Or three, or two, or one, send very far!
And is this blood, then, form’d but to be shed?
Can every element our elements mar?
And air–earth–water–fire live–and we dead?
We, whose minds comprehend all things? No more.
But let us to the story as before.
-Canto V, 39
Juan ends up being bought and taken to Constantinople. Byron starts to describe the plants of the area, then criticizes other poets for doing it: “Of late your scribblers think it worth/Their while to rear whole hotbeds in their works,/Because one poet travell’d ‘mongst the Turks.” (Canto V, 42)
Juan discusses trying to escape with his new friend. Johnson is in favor of it… but not right away. “I’m hungry, and just now would take,/Like Esau, for my birthright, a beef-steak.” (Canto V, 44) They’re taken into a lavish palace and his friend again advises “In Heaven’s name let’s get some supper now,/And then I’m with you, if you’re for a row.” (Canto V, 47) As Byron explains:
But I digress: of all appeals, –although
I grant the power of pathos, and of gold,
Of beauty, flattery, threats, a shilling, –no
Method’s more sure at moments to take hold
More tender, as we every day behold,
Than that all-softening, o’erpowering knell,
The tocsin of the soul–the dinner-bell.
-Canto V, 49
Byron tells us the reason he’s so melancholy is he spends his time alone in his huge mansion. Being solitary out in nature is fine,
But in a mighty hall or gallery, both in
More modern buildings and those built of yore,
A kind of death comes o’er us all alone,
Seeing what’s meant for many with but one.
A neat, snug study on a winter’s night,
A book, friend, single lady, or a glass
Of claret, sandwich, and an appetite,
Are things which make an English evening pass;
Though certes by no means so grand a sight
As is a theatre lit up by gas.
I pass my evenings in long galleries solely,
And that’s the reason I’m so melancholy.
-Canto V, 57-58
Just as an aside, there’s another digression about Queen Semiramis and her relationship with a horse in stanza 61 which was censored from my copy.
As Juan and the other new slaves are being led through an opulent palace and being dressed in fancy new clothes, Baba, the black eunuch who is escorting them, recommends they get circumcised (i.e., convert to Islam). Johnson thinks it reasonable to participate in such a noble and ancient rite. Juan, however, doesn’t like that idea. “Strike me dead,” Juan says, “But they as soon shall circumcise my head.” (Canto V, 71)
Baba then instructs Juan to dress up like a lady. Juan asks why and Baba won’t tell him. “What, sir,” said Juan, “shall it e’er be told/that I unsex’d my dress?” But Baba stroking/the things down, said, — “Incense me, and I call/Those who will leave you of no sex at all.” (Canto V, 75) So, in order to keep his sex, Juan puts on a dress.
In Stanza 77, Bryon uses a Scottish word and admits he did it for the sake of rhyme, which I thought was kind of funny. Anyway, Juan ends up meeting his new owner, a sultan’s bride named Gulbeyaz who bought him to be her plaything. She wanted him disguised as a woman so her husband wouldn’t know. She asks if Juan is capable of love, and Juan starts crying remembering his previous lover Haidee. Seeing this, Gulbeyaz tears up, even though she’s never felt sympathy before. Nevertheless, as Juan’s new owner, she insists Juan become her lover. He responds that:
“The prison’d eagle will not pair, nor I
Serve a sultana’s sensual phantasy.
“Thou ask’st if I can love? be this the proof
How much I have loved–that I love not thee!
In this vile garb, the distaff’s web and woof
Were fitter for me: love is for the free!
I am not dazzled by this splendid roof.
Whate’er thy power, and great it seems to be–
Heads bow, knees bend, eyes watch around a throne,
And hands obey–our hearts are still our own.”
-Canto V, 126-127
Byron describes the situation as similar to Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in the Bible (Canto V, 131) Enraged at the rejection, “Her first thought was to cut off Juan’s head;/Her second, to cut only his–acquaintance.” (Canto V, 139) Once again, Juan seems to be in danger of losing his sex.
But instead of cutting anything off him, Gulbeyaz bursts into tears, which makes Juan feel sorry for her. As Canto V draws to a close, we’re introduced to her husband, the Sultan. Gulbeyaz is the favorite of his four wives and all his harem. We’re told he marries his daughters off in political marriages, sometimes when they’re as young as six. He also kills off his sons, so basically, we’re not supposed to root for him.
As a side note, I wonder if Lord Byron was the first person to come up with the term throwing shade: “She laid/Some stress upon those charms which seldom are/By the possessors thrown into the shade.” (Canto V, 129)
Wow, a lot happened in this Canto. How will Don Juan this situation fix? For answers, let’s next peruse canto six.