The Muslim East in Byron's Don Juan
Rishmawi, G. K., Papers on Language & Literature
The Eastern affinities which Byron developed while he was in Turkey and Greece, and which colored his Oriental Tales (Rishmawi 48-62), are still felt in his later poetry, particularly in his masterpiece. Yet it should be stated that although the East of the Tales is the same East of Don Juan, we notice important changes in Byron's attitude toward it. On the one hand, the East of the Tales offered Byron a perfect setting as well as a strong motive for his hero's involvement with eastern men and women, an involvement in which the Byronic hero indulges himself in violence and revenge, and suffers the subsequent feelings of guilt and remorse. On the other hand, the East of the Tales gave Byron an emotional by-pass which he so badly needed during his hectic years of fame and which prevented him from going mad. The East of Don Juan is of quite a different nature. Since Byron's memories of his Eastern experiences had almost faded by the time he wrote Don Juan, we notice that the material in it is not the result of first-hand experiences, but rather of Byron's readings and observations of Turkish history and manners. Thus, Byron's attitude toward the East in Don Juan is calculated, subtle, and satirical, a far cry from the passionate and obsessive attitude which we have seen in the Tales. Furthermore, Byron no longer needed to go to the East (in his imagination) in search of an emotional outlet, simply because in his later (and more mature) poetry Byron seems to have escaped from the feelings of guilt and remorse which, as Blackstone comments, "have dogged him from his pilgrimage years" (315). This shift in Byron's attitude toward the East coincides favorably with another shift in his poetical career, i.e., the shift from romances to satires in which, as Rutherford believes, Byron found his real voice as a poet (A Critical Study 142).
Having established the direction of Byron's approach toward the Eastern material in Don Juan, we move into the consideration and analysis of the Eastern elements in his longest poem, which are concentrated in the fifth and sixth cantos and referred to in the seventh and the eighth. One can say that Byron's involvement with the East in Don Juan is focused on the seraglio, the symbol of Eastern power and corruption and the most powerful aspect of the Muslim East in the western imagination. Byron's interest in the seraglio is two-fold: social and political. At the social level, Byron exposes the inhabitants of the seraglio-the Sultan, his favorite wife (Sultana Gulbeyaz), his maids and eunuch-and reveals the perverse patterns which characterize the relationships which exist among them, as well as those which they have with the outside world. This perversity is strongly felt in the dramatic encounter between Gulbeyaz and Juan, in the Sultan's attitude toward his wives and many maids, and in the harem, the most secretive wing of the seraglio. At the political level, Byron criticizes the reckless, indifferent, and lustful master of the seraglio, and partially blames him for the catastrophic siege of Ismail which resulted in the death of thousands of innocent people. Moreover, the seraglio helps Byron launch his severest attack against tyranny and tyrants (in this case the Sultan and Gulbeyaz)1 who abuse the power invested in them by their people. Yet one has to remember that Byron's relentless fight against Turkish tyrants does not prevent him from appreciating the courage and heroism of Turkish soldiers who die in the defense of their homes, and from making Juan, his hero, risk his life for the sake of saving Leila, the orphan Turkish child. In fact, Byron achieves a high level of moral impartiality 2 in his objective attitude toward the siege and the subsequent destruction of the Turkish city of Ismail. It serves as his strongest reason for condemning aimless wars and vain generals.
Before we discuss Byron's exposition of the intricate social life in the seraglio, and his realistic, serio-comic, and psychological analysis of the characters of its inhabitants, it is important to dwell upon the manner in which Juan, Byron's hero, actually enters the seraglio-a place reserved for people of royal background or connections, or to the Sultan's harem and eunchs. …