'Don Juan,' "A Problem, like All Things." (Lord George Gordon Byron)
LaChance, Charles, Papers on Language & Literature
From its first printing in 1819 till now--nearly two centuries later--readers have disputed the big ideas and real values of Don Juan. Its problematical genius appears to resist all ideological interpretations and themes. Scanning its ottava rimas, we sense something difficult to recognize and troublesome to name. Surely the blame for much of this trouble lies with Byron. In 1819--when Murray, Kinnaird, Crabbe and even Hobhouse blast Don Juan as depraved--Byron defends it as "most moral" (Marchand, LJ 6: 99). Yet he also opines it is "too free for these very modest days" and is "quietly facetious upon everything" (Marchand LJ 6: 67-68). Indeed he cautions his publisher, Murray, not to be "too earnest and eager about a work never intended to be serious. Do you suppose that I could have any intention but to giggle and make giggle?" (Marchand, LJ 6: 208). Nonetheless Byron confesses to Kinnaird Don Juan is dangerously "profligate" and "bawdy" (Marchand, LJ 6: 232). In the poem itself, though, he avows it is "merely quizzical" (9.41.3).(1) As a commentator on his own verse, Byron borders on incoherence.
His discordant remarks reverberate in the clashing observations of contemporary artists and critics. In the Edinburgh Review Francis Jeffrey charges that Don Juan displays not one "particle of respect for [noble sentiments] ... or of belief in their intrinsic worth or permanent reality" (450). In his diary, Hobhouse complains of the work's "blasphemy and bawdry" (2: 107). Blackwood's Magazine attacks the "cool unconcerned fiend" who has authored such profanity and poured "scorn upon every element of good or noble nature in the hearts of his readers" (513). Keats grouses Don Juan comes from "a paltry originality, that of being new by making solemn things gay & gay things solemn" (Rollins 2: 134). Wordsworth warns that "the institutions of the country" are imperiled by Byron's poem (Morley 2: 850-51). Southey cries it commits "an act of high treason on English poetry" (C. C. Southey 5: 21). Thus Jeffrey and this band of detractors accuse Don Juan of the gravest offenses.
Conversely, Shelley praises it as an ethical piece which portrays "what is worst in human nature" and illustrates "what we should avoid" (Jones 357-58). Other critics of the period concur. Reviewing the first two cantos, Leigh Hunt attests to the propriety of the poem since it "does no more than relate the consequences of certain [social] absurdities" (702). John Wilson Croker agrees there is "very little offensive" material in it (Jennings 145), clearly" nothing so bad as Tom Jones" (Smiles 1: 414). Overall, Shelley and these latter critics read Don Juan as a moral tale whose singular sin is its probity.
In Shelley's, Jeffrey's and Byron's commentary, we discover a controversy enduring to this day, albeit critical progress has occurred. Whereas nineteenth-century readers rushed to join camps of condemners or partisans of Don Juan, present-day critics perceive stylistic and ideational refinements reaching far beyond rudimentary drills in evil and good. Yet the problem nowadays is that one still hears so many keen people saying such a riot of things. Like the legendary blind men who touch different parts of an elephant's anatomy, scholars continue to offer incongruous accounts of Byron's poem.
Ideal spirituality is the theme of Bernard Beatty, who avers that "in the midst of satire, farce and festivity" Aurora Raby incarnates "an indestructible spiritual reality on which comedy's celebration of the contingent rests." Don Juan "ends, like any comedy, with a joyously recovered starting point" (187). Beatty's perspective resembles that of a platonic-Christian satire, such as Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender or Sidney's The Arcadia. Like Sidney's pious Pamela, Byron's saintly Aurora is seen as the "realised ideal from which satire takes its energy and authority" (211). The "comic terminus" of Don Juan descends in the figure of this Catholic maiden, "an unmitigated exemplar," whose physical endowment is surpassed only by her immaculate soul (197-99). …