Byron's Don Juan: A Critical Study

Byron's Don Juan: A Critical Study

Byron's Don Juan: A Critical Study

Byron's Don Juan: A Critical Study

Excerpt

During the past twenty years, since the centenary of Byron's death at Missolonghi in 1824, interest in his poetry and appreciation of his titanic role in romanticism have been steadily increasing. The pertinence and power of what Byron has to say to our generation, living through an era startlingly like his own, have given new lustre to his reputation.

Of all his vast poetic production, Don Juan, the last and greatest of his major works, offers the highest rewards to the modern reader. It not only stands out among his poems as the best expression of Byron, but it ranks with the great poems of the nineteenth century--Goethe Faust, Shelley Prometheus Unbound, Wordsworth Prelude, to name only a few--as representative of the era, and of modern European civilization.

For many reasons, there has been less critical exposition of Don Juan than so important a poem deserves. Critics, biographers, and public interest have been so overwhelmingly fascinated with the enigmatic character of Byron himself, full of contradictions and paradox, and with the dramatic story of his life, that consideration of his poetry is often approached almost as an after-thought. Don Juan especially has been overlooked. It is apparently simple and lucid, it is long and leisurely, it comes at the end of Byron's career, and it is filled with irony -- reasons sufficient in themselves to cause its comparative neglect. Moreover, it is a fragment and therefore less attractive for appraisal than the completed Childe Harold. Don Juan got off to a bad critical start by being published in parts and was made the object of hostile criticism from the moment of its appearance. An aura of traditional suspicion still clings to it in the popular mind.

Lord Ernle, the editor of Byron's letters and journals, in an article in The Quarterly Review (April 1924) occasioned by the publication of Samuel C. Chew Byron in England and H. J. C. Grierson's edition of Byron's poems, stuns up what is the real mystery of Byron -- the hidden creative life of the poet about whom far too many of the outward details are known. For as Lord Ernle says, neither the life story, nor the observations of people like Lady Blessington, nor Byron's letters, self-revealing as they are, can explain the poet:

"Judgments founded on such external evidence fail to account for the energy, industry, concentration, and effort that are involved in the production of a Vast and varied mass of poetry, none perhaps without flaw, but none, as his bitterest critic added, without value. . . . It is on such points as these that the omission of his intellectual occupations from his full and intimate cor-

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