Mapping Male Sexuality: Nineteenth-Century England

By Jay Losey; William D. Brewer | Go to book overview

“One Half What I Should Say”: Byron’s Gay
Narrator in Don Juan

JONATHAN GROSS

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him
a mask and he will tell you the truth

— Oscar Wilde

His voice and accent are particularly clear and harmonious, but
somewhat effeminate … he is too gay, too flippant for a poet

— Lady Blessington on Lord Byron

CRITICS WHO DISCUSS BYRON`S NARRATIVE METHOD IN DON JUAN (1819–24) note its debt to John Hookham Frere’s The Monks and the Giants (1817), Luigi Pulci’s Morgante Maggiore (1817), and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516).’ Although historically accurate, such observations distract critics from explaining what is original about Don Juan. The following essay argues that Byron makes use of a gay narrator in his mock-epic. If persuasive, my argument explains several aspects of the poem that have confused modern critics. Recognizing the closeted nature of the narrator’s sexuality can explain his digressive style and “conversational facility,” one of the poem’s most debated features.2 Focusing attention on the gay narrator of Don Juan also sheds new light on the poem’s comic puns and use of a conversational vernacular.3 In an influential study, titled Don Juan in Context, Jerome McGann referred to “the notorious lack of form in Don Juan.”4 I hope to show how double entendres provide a homoerotic thematics to the poem which serves as a unifying device in what is, only at first blush, a “versified Aurora Borealis.”5

My argument has certain implications for the editing and abridgment of this poem. To focus critical attention on a “gay” voice in Byron’s poem exposes the extent to which editions of Don Juan have privileged heterosexual plot over homoerotic digression. In the same way that “learned men” expurgate the young Juan’s clas-

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