When we last left Don Juan, he had become the toast of the town in London. So what happens next? Well, as usual, Byron starts with some general musings. I liked this bit in which he points out that there isn’t that much difference between a saint who lives a life of poverty and a miser:
Why call the miser miserable? as
I said before: the frugal life is his,
Which in a saint or cynic ever was
The theme of praise: a hermit would not miss
Canonization for the self-same cause,
And wherefore blame gaunt wealth’s austerities?
Because, you’ll say, nought calls for such a trial;–
Then there’s more merit in his self-denial.
-Canto XII, 7
Byron also talks more about the fleeting nature of fame. Many people who are currently famous think they’ll be remembered by posterity, but Byron points out: “Why, I’m posterity–and so are you;/And whom do we remember? Not a hundred./Were every memory written down all true,/The tenth or twentieth name would be but blunder’d (Canto XII, 19).”
About all we get plot-wise in this canto is that the women of London high society insist that Juan’s ward Leila be educated and he picks one Lady Pinchbeck as her tutor. She’s respectable, although there are rumors about her.
Olden she was–but had been very young:
Virtuous she was–and had been, I believe
Although the world has such an evil tongue
That–but my chaster ear will not receive
An echo of a syllable that’s wrong:
In fact, there’s nothing makes me so much grieve
As that abominable tittle-tattle,
Which is the cud eschew’d by human cattle.
-Canto XII, 43
Now that we’re twelve cantos in, you might be surprised to learn that the poem is just now beginning.
But now I will being my poem. ‘Tis
Perhaps a little strange, if not quite new,
that from the first of cantos up to this
I’ve not begun what we have to go through.
These first twelve books are merely flourishes,
Preludios, trying just a string or two
Upon my lyre, or making the pegs sure;
And when so, you shall have the overture.
-Canto XII, 54
That’s right, Byron thinks twelve cantos are just a prelude, he intends “to canter gently through a hundred (Canto XII, 55).” Somehow, I don’t think he’s going to make it.
Byron goes on to tell us that London society can’t stand a young unmarried man. For there are “single ladies wishing to be double” and “The married ones” wish “to save the virgins trouble (Canto XII, 58).” The women of high society try to get eligible bachelors to marry as soon as possible. “For talk six times with the same single lady,/And you may get the wedding-dresses ready (Canto XII, 59).”
However, there are other dangers in London society besides getting roped into a quick marriage. There’s also “the amphibious sort of harlot” who is “neither white nor scarlet (Canto XII, 62).”
Such is your old coquette, who can’t say “No,”
And won’t say “Yes,” and keeps you on and off-ing
On a lee shore, till it beings to blow–
Then sees your heart wreck’d, with an inward scoffing;
This works a world of sentimental woe,
And sends new Werters yearly to their coffin;
But yet is merely innocent flirtation,
Not quite adultery, but adulteration.
-Canto XII, 63
Werter is a references to The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in which a young man commits suicide because he couldn’t have the woman he loved. This apparently led to a series of copycat suicides known as Werter Fever in which many young men dressed up as Werther and shot themselves with the same type of pistols. Authorities were so worried about Werther Fever, the book was banned in many places.
Anyhow, Juan did not find English women to be attractive at first since he preferred women from the other countries he had visited, but after a while, he did begin to fancy them. Byron tells us he himself has never been to Africa, “But if I had been at Tombuctoo, there/No doubt I should be told that black is fair” (Canto XII, 70).” It was certainly a different time if this needed to be pointed out.
If this short canto seemed a bit too lean, just wait till we get to number thirteen.