on November 17, 2005
"When I want to know the news, I read Byron"
-- Frank O'Hara
And when you REALLY want to know the news, reach for "Don Juan" (pronunciation hint: 'Juan' is spoken as 'Joo-wan,' i.e. it rhymes with 'tear him a new one.')
This, sports fans, is the original Thing Itself: not only is it caustic, sharp, and hysterically funny (remember that, readers -- it's meant to be FUNNY!), but Byron dictated a lot of it out loud while he was shaving in the morning. I'm not kidding. Read this brilliant stuff, and imagine a guy just making it up as he goes along, in the bathroom while he's shaving. (Yup, the original freestyler -- unbelievable.)
It's worth reading the whole long thing just to come across gems like:
"Her first thought was to cut off Juan's head;
Her second was to cut off his... acquaintance."
And as to its enduring relevance, well, consider Byron's razor-sharp two-line appraisal of women's rights in Muslim countries...
"I speak of Christian lands in this comparison ---
Where wives, at least, are seldom kept in garrison."
Kick back, relax, and have yourself a Lord Byron: ice-cold, pure, and bottled at the source.
on December 19, 2000
This has to be the longest poem I've ever finished, and yet it still wasn't long enough. It's compulsively entertaining, touching, funny, exciting, and life-affirming. You don't have to be an academic to appreciate it. And even if you don't finish it, you'll appreciate what you do finish for its own sake.
on April 28, 1999
Don Juan is one of those works that live forever. One of the greatest works of literature, Byron succeeds in encompassing everything in mock-epic. It has love, politics, passion and satire, to name but the few, and everyone should read it. Aeneid, Iliad, Metamorphoses and Don Juan, are in the same category, but the latter outshines them all!!
Although I normally read and review only novels, I was intrigued by the short excerpts from Byron's "Epic Satire" DON JUAN that Stendhal used as chapter-epigraphs in THE RED AND THE BLACK, and read both simultaneously. Published between 1819 and 1824, in sixteen cantos containing an average of 125 eight-line stanzas in each, Byron's work is essentially a vast novel in verse, a coming-of-age story, an erotic romp, and a fount of social commentary all in one. He reverses the normal characterization of Juan, turning the serial seducer into a pretty innocent who is himself seduced by woman after woman; he also changes the pronunciation, now rhyming with "true one." It is easy to see why Stendhal wanted to quote him. Both books begin with easily-seduced heroes; both take them into many different walks of society; and both are punctuated by philosophical commentary from their respective authors. In Byron's case, though, the commentary is almost more the point than the plot; it is certainly entertaining -- he can be a very funny writer.
Byron left the epic uncompleted at his death, but there is enough there already for several novels. Seduced at sixteen by a married woman, Juan is sent to Italy in the charge of a strict tutor. Surviving shipwreck (and a touch of cannibalism), he is washed up on a almost-deserted island, which becomes a second Eden in the arms of a girl of his own age, Haidée. His further adventures see him enslaved in a Turkish harem, taking part in a bloody siege, serving in the court of Catherine the Great, then engaging in amorous and diplomatic adventures at the English court, to end on the bosom of the "full, voluptuous, but not o'ergrown bulk" of the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke.
The implied rhyme here is one of the dominant characteristics of the poem, although it is seldom used so suggestively as to rhyme the Duchess' name with "bulk." Byron writes in eight-line stanzas, the "ottava rima" of Ariosto, with the rhyme-scheme abababcc. That final couplet gives a kind of punch line to each stanza. So he ends a passage on blue-stocking women with:
| But oh, ye lords of ladies intellectual,
| Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck'd you all?
Or Juan's distress on his exile from Spain:
| No doubt he would have been much more pathetic
| But the sea acted as a strong emetic.
And as we have seen, Byron can also be quite naughty; here he is describing the interior of a harem, into which Juan has been smuggled disguised as a woman:
| 'Twas on the whole a nobly furnish'd hall,
| With all things ladies want, save one or two.
| And even those were nearer than they knew.
Every now and then, Byron resists the temptation towards comedy and writes passages of pathos with even a touch of the sublime:
| Thus to their hopeless eyes the night was shown,
| And grimly darkled o'er the faces pale,
| And the dim desolate deep: twelve days had Fear
| Been their familiar, and now Death was here.
Some of the descriptions of the feasting of Juan and Haidée on her father's island have echoes of Homer or Virgil, and his famous elegy on departed grandeur, "The Isles of Greece," also comes from this section. I could personally have done with more seriousness and less comedy, and these moments were welcome when they came.
And Byron's commentary is always amusing. Some contemporary references may require annotation, but his views on literature are still stimulating. He had little time for the "glassy brooks and leafy nooks" of the Lake Poets, for example:
| There poets find materials for their books,
| And every now and then we read them through,
| So that their plan and prosody are eligible,
| Unless, like Wordsworth, they prove unintelligible.
Pointing out that "All tragedies are finish'd by a death; all comedies are ended by a marriage," he asks:
| Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch's wife,
| He would have written sonnets all his life?
For the most part, Byron's philosophy is the comfortable one of taking life as it comes:
| Well -- well, the world must turn upon its axis,
| And all mankind turn with it, heads or tails,
| And live and die, make love and pay our taxes,
| And as the veering wind shifts, shift our sails.
But towards the end of the epic, he reaches towards a deeper explanation of the Romantic search for wider and wilder experiences:
| The new world would be nothing to the old
| If some Columbus of the moral seas
| Would show mankind their souls' antipodes.
The soul's antipodes: those are destinations worth punching on one's ticket!
on February 17, 2003
"What a fine creed that is! So far as I can see, your religion consists of arithmetic." --said to Don Juan by his valet, Sganarelle
Richard Wilbur won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and he has served as Poet Laureate of the United States. His translation of Moliere's once censored comedy, Don Juan (1665), successfully conveys to English readers not only the words but also the humor of the original. For his translation, Wilbur wrote an insightful Introduction explicating the play's moral subtleties.
The play's renowned French comic dramatist, Moliere (1622-1673), previously authored Tartuffe (1664), a comedy lampooning religious hypocrisy. However, Tartuffe offended pious sensibilities to the point that performances of it halted prematurely. As observed in Wilbur's Introduction, Moliere may have hoped to placate religious militants opposed to Tartuffe with a comedy about a young, wealthy, atheistic, amorous scoundrel that gets his just punishment in hell.
However, if placation of religious scruples partially motivated Moliere to select the Don Juan character, his intention failed. The comedy outraged the pious, forcing him to make cuts after the first performance. Like Tartuffe, Don Juan closed early although it was a box-office success. Wilbur suggests that the primary reason it offended is its moral ambiguity. For although Don Juan gets his just punishment for his wickedness, mockery of orthodoxy is just below the surface of the plot.
For example, in Act 1, Scene 1, orthodox beliefs are implicitly put on a par with superstition when Don Juan's valet, Sganarelle, reports that his master "doesn't believe in Heaven, or Hell, or werewolves even." In Act 3, Scene 1, Sganarelle asks if Don Juan believes in Heaven, Hell, and the Devil, to each of which he makes plain his disbelief. Finally, Sganarelle asks if he believes in the Bogeyman, and he answers, "Don't be an idiot." Sganarelle then objects, "Now there you go too far, for there's nothing truer in this world than the Bogeyman; I'll stake my life on that." Thus, Moliere casts a nincompoop as an apologist of orthodoxy.
Another offensive characterization is the pious Poor Man in Scene 2 of Act 3. He is an idiot living alone for ten years in the woods praying for the prosperity of those who give him alms while he himself lacks "a crust of bread to chew on." Don Juan suggests that he worry less about others and pray to Heaven for a coat. Offering him a gold coin, Don Juan says, "Here it is, take it. Take it, I tell you. But first you must blaspheme." The Poor Man replies, "No, Sir, I'd rather starve to death."
Perhaps most offensive is Don Juan's explanation of why he has decided to become a religious hypocrite in Act 5, Scene 2. Being a hypocrite will make it easier to hide his misconduct and make obtaining forgiveness easier by repentance if found out. Moreover, being the hypocrite will enable him to accuse his enemies of impiety, thereby stirring up against them "a swarm of ignorant zealots."
Thus, in Moliere's Don Juan, nothing is sacred, and Richard Wilbur's translation captures every outrageous bit of it. Buy it, read it and laugh!
on March 3, 2000
As far as I am concerned this is what great writing looks like. Byron was, is, and shall forever be the master. This is poetry at its best; funny, enlightening, entertaining, beautiful. It is a work to be read and read again. It is a work to be absorbed. It is a work to be eaten.
on March 9, 2010
Don Juan is recognized as Lord Byron's masterpiece and English's greatest mock epic poem but is also one of the greatest epic poems period. It has the strengths of prior Byron masterworks like Childe Harold's Pilgrimage plus a wealth of additional biting satire and other humor, fantastic poetic dexterity, and sheer imaginative abundance. Though a favorite of many poetry buffs, it is also known for appealing to those who do not normally like poetry. It is an immortal work that continues to sparkle and invigorate nearly as much as ever for those alive to its magic.
The first thing one notices is its sheer length; at nearly two thousand stanzas and sixteen thousand lines, it is one of English's longest poems and its longest satirical work. That it is often printed as a standalone book - and a thick one at that - says much. Yet, like prior Byron pieces, it is thoroughly readable. Though such a thing is now almost impossible to even conceive, poetry was more popular than prose in the early nineteenth century, and Don was a stunning bestseller; people read it the way they now read Stephen King. It is easy to see why. Don practically leaps off the page; in distinct contrast to Wordsworth and other poets then popular, it can be read at near-pulp speed. This is partly due to Byron's effortless mastery of meter and other poetic facets; his ottava rima stanzas are immaculately conceived, the strict rhythm drawing us in and keeping us hooked. The audacious rhymes are also important. Byron had long had a reputation as a fearless rhymer but truly outdid himself here; time and time again, Don has the most incredible rhymes conceivable, especially in stanza-closing couplets, which are often milked for brilliant comic effect. This is so well-known that such rhymes are often called "Byronic." Rhyme lovers want to keep reading just to see what he will chime next. All this makes a poem that not only begs to be read quickly but almost forces itself to be so; unlikely as it seems, it can be read very quickly. Readers will be astonished at how rapidly they tear through and will actually end up wanting more. If anything, it seems too short. It is indeed incomplete and even breaks off at something of a cliffhanger, though the sixteenth canto - the last finished - is complete. Byron had no end in sight and indeed wrote without a plan; he began a seventeenth canto shortly before his death and perhaps would have continued ad infinitum. That he was unable is a true shame, but there is no arguing with what is here.
Content is in fact even more important than form, which is unsurprising in that the canvas is almost larger than life. Summarizing Don is not only superfluous but virtually impossible; it takes on practically every genre and contains almost every imaginable thought and feeling. This vast panorama contains everything from a war epic to several monumental love stories to various court dramas and seemingly everything between them. The poem can be appreciated on a very simple level as a picaresque adventure of the kind Byron had long specialized in but never taken anywhere near as far - literally or otherwise. Don travels through much of the world, seeing many landmarks and people and falling in and out of love many times. He is everything from a slave to a court favorite, an older woman's lover to a man disguised as a girl, a war hero to a society light. His adventures are as entertaining as any comparable novel's. Initial readers were enthralled by the virtual grand tour; today's can appreciate the fascinating historical peek.
Don himself is one of the most intriguing facets. He is as thoroughly Byronic as Harold and the many subsequent Romantic heroes but very different and at least as fascinating. Even younger - indeed but a teen at the start -, he shares their good looks and lust for adventure and sex but lacks their intellect and melancholy. He starts out very naïve and quite ignorant, full of potential but with little or no idea how to use it - in fact lacking a plan of any kind. We see him grow to a certain extent over the course of many escapades, making the poem a sort of bildungsroman on top of everything else. In many important ways, though, he remains unchanged; despite all he has been through - including much that went against conventional morality -, his fundamental youthful innocence is still there. His view of life and humanity changes little, and he is to a large degree still an overgrown boy at the end despite having had enough action - in both senses - to shame Casanova himself. This is of course a joke, especially in that, unlike prior Don Juan incarnations, he is consistently seduced rather than being a seducer. Like prior Byron protagonists, he to a great extent reflects how Byron saw himself. This fascinated initial readers, perpetuating an image of Byron that still subsists. Few people are as anecdotable, and the many still interested in him will find much to entice them. Byron initially chafed against such readings but came to accept them as inevitable, even reveling in them to a degree. When Byron realized the poem's popularity and saw that the image would not disappear, he began overtly using Don to advance his thoughts and ideas, most of which were quite radical, even more clearly than in prior works.
There are many other interesting characters, most of them colorful and quite a few of them unforgettable. Don's numerous loves have great verve and are memorable for various reasons, while his friends and enemies are at least as compelling. The most interesting other character, though, is the narrator, who often steals the proverbial show. Indeed, he often takes over, going on long digressions that are sometimes about Juan or tangentially relevant but mostly about scarcely related topics. He may go off for several stanzas about a story element that reminds him of something, which may remind him of something else; at many points he seems to forget he is supposed to be telling a story. Much of the comedy comes from this, and it is a large part of the reason the work is so hard to summarize. The narrator says virtually nothing about himself directly, but a distinct personality shines through inadvertently - one of the most hilarious and otherwise entertaining to ever tell a tale. A sort of idealized unidealized figure, he is partly an exaggerated side of Byron's own personality as well as other poets' and narrators'. Like many other parts of Don, this has a large parodical element lending itself well to satire, but many will be at least as absorbed by his Byron affinity, however hyperbolic.
Alluring as such crossovers are, they have unfortunately long overshadowed the poem's many conventional strengths. Few artists have suffered more from biographical criticism; it is all too easy to forget that Byron was a great poet on all fronts. Technical dexterity aside, Don is full of vibrant imagery; many descriptions and metaphors are superlative, even unforgettable. The lyricism often reaches sublime heights, and there is also much to provoke thought; Don challenged conventional morality and other accepted ideas as few popular works have and continues to be a touchstone. The poem is also very quotable and indeed often quoted. Perhaps above all, Byron's incredible diversity reached its peak here. Don constantly switches from ridiculous to sublime, often in close proximity; the tragedy is as grand as the comedy is hilarious, and there is a great deal of beauty and substantial material of various sorts in all the guises. Several of the love depictions are among the most vivid and memorable ever. The epic battle is so well-done that it is among the best of its kind - great enough to make Don a masterpiece in itself though it is not even the main part. It manages to convey both war's unparalleled dark side and its heroism; unlike most war stories, it is stirringly immediate and historically astute, truly seeming to bring a relatively obscure battle to life. Some of the more picaresque elements are just as good in their way, immensely entertaining and variously provocative.
Satirical brilliance is probably Don's most lasting aspect. Satire had been a large part of Byron's work almost from the beginning and became more and more pronounced, climaxing here with incredible force. Nothing is safe from Don's mockery; it critiques many aspects of European society as well as Europeans themselves. Don is thus a comedy of manners in addition to everything else; nearly every cultural aspect is savagely critiqued. Byron pokes fun at many prominent practices and kicks just about every sacred cow. Not least interesting are the ubiquitous digs at rival poets and other enemies; Robert Southey is especially eviscerated - indeed from the very first line! Besides being supremely entertaining, this is of great historical interest; though avowedly anti-realist, Don ironically gives a very clear picture of Europe in nearly every sector, much of it unflattering and all the more revealing and interesting in being so.
Simply put, this is essential for anyone who loves poetry, and even many who do not will be pleasantly surprised. It is that rare masterpiece with truly wide appeal; everyone from high-brow literary enthusiasts to the most casual readers can appreciate it - a truly notable accomplishment and a continuing testament to its multi-faceted vitality.
on September 25, 2008
The poem is as sexy as the life of its author, who died fighting for Greek national independence and lived with joie de vivre manifested both within his distinguished career as a poet, his sexual trysts, and his eccentricities, which included party trick mug made from a human skull. The book is a monumental achievement, a literary aphrodesiac, a genuine specimen of romance and whit. Byron's voice speaks clearly, beguilingly, insouciantly and with authority from beyond the grave in this literary classic.
on March 22, 2014
Don juan itself is an awesome book: 5 stars. It is a wonderful experience to read: funny, creative, imaginative, scandalous witty, etc. I liked it much more than other of Byron's works. I thought it was (ideologically and morally) a mind opening experience. The kindle edition, to which I give 3 stars, maybe 4, is very readable format wise but does not provide the notes as links nor numbers them which one would expect or even demand from an electronic edition; rather, one must manually go to the end of the book (which would work in a physical edition) and look up the information one needs, something impossible to do while trying to read the work.
on December 18, 2009
Don't waste your time. There is literally no text to this copy. The only reason this gets a one star rating is because zero stars is not an option.