Well, this is it. We’ve finally reached the final canto of Lord Byron’s Don Juan. (He did get a few stanzas into Canto 17 before dying, but there’s not much there to comment upon.) I’ll do one more wrap-up post after this, but we’ve pretty much reached the end.
As a reminder, Don Juan has been hanging out amongst English society for the last few cantos, going fox hunting, attending fancy dinner parties, and such. At last count, there were three women interested in him. His host Lady Adeline (married to Lord Henry), the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke (also married, although her husband is absent and doesn’t seem to mind that she has other lovers), and the sixteen-year-old orphan Aurora Raby (Juan himself is 21 and has only been with older women up to this point). Which one of these potential love interests will Juan end up with, if any?
Lord Byron starts this canto by arguing that belief in ghosts is rational. This isn’t just another of his famous digressions, however, for canto 16 is about a ghostly monk who haunts the halls of Norman Abbey, which was once a monastery. (According to his friend Thomas Moore, Lord Byron said he saw such a ghost himself in his home of Newstead Abbey, the inspiration for Norman Abbey.) It’s a nice change of pace from the previous few cantos in which not much happened to give us a canto devoted to a ghost story. In fact, I think this canto has less digressions than any other.
Don Juan is restless one night thinking about Aurora. He can’t sleep, so he goes walking through an ancient gallery. In this canto, I think Lord Byron really gives Edgar Allan Poe a run for his money as far as horror poetry goes. There’s some pretty spooky images here. For instance:
The forms of the grim knights and pictured saints
Look living in the moon; and as you turn
Backward and forward to the echoes faint
Of your own footsteps — voices from the urn
Appear to wake, and shadows wild and quaint
Start from the frames which fence their aspects stern,
As if to ask how you can dare to keep
A vigil there, where all but death should sleep.
-Canto XVI, 18
Juan then hears something. He thinks it might be a mouse at first. But…
It was no mouse, but lo! a monk, array’d
In cowl and beads and dusky garb, appear’d,
Now in the moonlight, and now lapsed in shade,
With steps that trod as heavy, yet unheard;
His garments only a slight murmur made;
He moved as shadowy as the sisters weird,
But slowly; and as he pass’d Juan by,
Glanced, without pausing, on him a bright eye.
-Canto XVI, 21
Juan manages to go back to his room after this fright. After a fitful sleep, he joins the others the next morning. They can tell he’s freaked out about something. He’s pale, but he says he’s not sick. Lord Henry guesses it’s the Black Friar said to haunt the place and Adeline sings a song about the legend.
Next, there’s a big section about what Lord Henry does in a typical day, which I’ll skip to get back to the ghost story. At the next dinner (which is attended by many local people Lord Henry needs to stay on good terms with), Juan is still distracted by thoughts of the ghost and makes a faux pas. Everyone laughs at him except Aurora who smiles at him with pity.
After the locals leave, we’re told Adeline doesn’t speak ill of them herself, but encourages others to do so:
Like Addison’s “faint praise,” so wont to damn,
Her own but served to set off every joke,
As music chimes in with a melodrame.
How sweet the task to shield an absent friend!
I ask but this of mine, to — not defend.
-Canto XVI, 104
The only two who don’t join in making fun of the locals are Don Juan and Aurora, which makes Aurora think more highly of Juan. Although the reason he didn’t join in is because he was still thinking about the ghost.
He’s frightened again that night, much like the night before. He hears a sound. What is it? He listens again.
And not in vain he listen’d — Hush! what’s that?
I see — I see — Ah, no! — ’tis not — yet ’tis —
Ye powers! it is the — the — the — Pooh! the cat!
The devil may take that stealthy pace of his!
So like a spiritual pit-a-pat,
Or tiptoe of an amatory Miss,
Gliding the first time to a rendezvous,
And dreading the chaste echoes of her shoe.
-Canto XVI, 112
Then his door begins to open…
It open’d with a most infernal creak,
Like that of hell. “Lasciate ogni speranza
Voi che entrate!” The hinge seem’d to speak,
Dreadful as Dante’s rhima, or this stanza;
Or — but all words upon such themes are weak:
A single shade’s sufficient to entrance a
Hero — for what is substance to a spirit?
Or how is’t matter trembles to come near it?
-Canto XVI, 116
I like Byron’s self-deprecating nature when he tells us the creak of the door is as dreadful as this stanza. The quote from Dante, of course, translates to “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.”
The door opens and there stands the Black Friar.
Don Juan shook, as erst he had been shaken
The night before, but being sick of shaking,
He first inclined to think he had been mistaken,
And then to be ashamed of such mistaking;
His own internal ghost began to awaken
Within him and to quell his corporal quaking —
Hinting, that soul and body on the whole
Were odds against a disembodied soul.
-Canto XVI, 118
It makes sense. A body and soul together outnumber a disembodied soul. Why should the living fear the dead? So Juan confronts the ghost and discovers it has sweet breath and a nice smile. When he reaches out his arm, he feels a “glowing bust,/Which beat as if there was a warm heart under (Canto XVI, 122).” The final stanza gives us the big reveal.
The ghost, if ghost it were, seem’d a sweet soul
As ever lurk’d beneath a holy hood:
A dimpled chin, a neck of ivory, stole
Forth into something much like flesh and blood;
Back fell the sable frock and dreary cowl,
And they reveal’d (alas! that e’re they should!)
In full, voluptuous, but not o’ergrown bulk,
The phantom of her frolic grace — Fitz-Fulke!
-Canto XVI, 123
I did not see that coming. Unfortunately, that’s all he wrote, so we’ll have to leave Juan there. I’ll do one more wrap-up post on Don Juan as a whole. See you then.