Ford Madox Brown: The Finding of Don Juan by Haidee (detail)
Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the Penguin 1996 edition. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.
Overall Impression: This is a never-completed satirical mock-epic, very funny for the first 5 cantos, less so thereafter (there are 17 cantos).
Comments: Unlike Mozart's Don Giovanni, this Don Juan is portrayed as an innocent whom women fall for and try to seduce. The poem is packed full of topical digressions on politics, poets, etc., which add to the humor, particularly inasmuch as the poet, writing pretty much in Byron's own persona, often tries without success to bring himself back to the stated subject at hand. Note that Juan is probably pronounced "Jew - on" in view of the rhyming.
The following is a bare outline of the core plot of the protagonist, without any attempt to review the material contained in the digressions. The full text of Don Juan can be found at www.sensible.it/personal/resio/donjuan/byron/canto1.html.
Byron speaks out against his contemporary poet rivals Southey (a Tory turncoat), Wordsworth, the "intellectual eunuch Castlereagh", etc.
In Sevilla, Juan's father Jóse is married to Juan's mother Inez, but has various affairs, causing her to plot against him and file for divorce. Conveniently he dies, leaving Juan the sole heir. His classical education is intended by his mother to shield him from salacious material (this effort is unsuccessful). Inez strikes up an affair with Don Alfonso, and in turn Alfonso's 23 y/o lovely wife eyes the 16 y/o Don Juan. Such things are more common in sun-drenched climes. On a summer day in June, an inadvertent touch of her hand on his leads on to stolen glances, sighs, Platonic love, kissing, etc., and finally she "consents" (for which Plato and Inez are to blame). One night Don Alfonso arrives to find Julia in bed with Antonia her maid, but he is suspicious and searches with his lackeys for her suspected male lover unsuccessfully. Julia makes an extended speech of outrage and indignation. After Alfonso leaves, a half-smothered and slender Don Juan emerges from the bed where he had hidden all along. But Don Alfonso returns, and eventually discovers Juan's shoes next to the bed, and then Juan, whereupon Juan flees. Alfonso files for divorce, and Julia is sent to a nunnery. Donna Inez decides that her son should travel and see the world, so makes plans to send him to Cadiz. He carries a tearful letter of goodbye from Julia upon his departure.
Juan embarks on a voyage from Cadiz on the ship Trinidada, accompanied by 3 servants and a tutor Pedrillo, still in love with Julia (and seasick), intending to travel for 4 years. But a storm sinks the ship. Juan and his fellow survivors cram into a longboat and eventually find themselves starving. They draw lots (using Julia's letter for paper) to see who will be eaten--sadly it is Pedrillo. Eventually, Juan as the sole survivor washes ashore on an island in the Cyclades in the Aegean. He is discovered by the lovely 17 y/o Haidée (like Nausicaa) and her c. 18 y/o maid, Zoe. He is tended by them in a cave by the beach. Juan and Haidée's love blossoms, though they cannot initially understand each other's spoken language. Her Greek father, Lambro, is a "fisherman" and pirate who makes his living plundering ships that shipwreck there--he takes the cargoes and sells the occupants into slavery, etc. Haidée has no mother. Her love for Juan is innocent, idyllic, needs no vows--it is like the first parents Adam and Eve. She was "Nature's bride... Passion's child... One made but to love..." "Their priest was Solitude, and they were wed."
The opening line is "Hail Muse! et cetera...", parodying classic epic conventions. The poets thoughts on marriage. Lambro her father has been away for a while, and was thought to have died. His house was in mourning for several weeks. But now however, he returns (like Odysseus to a house full of unwelcome suitors) to find that Haidée and Juan have moved into his house and are having a large celebration. He bides his time unrecognized, making discrete inquiries of others, and there are lengthy digressions on poetry, etc. The Isles of Greece poem is sung by their poet, celebrating the former glories of Greece (Byron was a philhellene).
After the celebration is over, Haidée and Juan are asleep together, "a nymph and her beloved". She dreams and her dream evolves into real image of her father--he stands over them and confronts them. Lambro attacks and, with the aid of his pirate associates, defeats Juan despite Haidée's efforts to defend her lover. Juan is severely wounded, and placed in the hold of a slave ship as part of the cargo of slaves. Haidée despairs at the loss and refuses food, dying after 12 days of fasting, her unborn child dying within her. The isle is now deserted--the graves of Haidée and her father are all that are left to suggest former human habitation.
Juan finds himself a captive at sea, passing Ilion (Troy) and entering the Hellespont. The slave ship has a troupe of singers, dancers, and other entertainers aboard. Juan is paired up in chains with an Englishman, a man of the world named John Johnson. They are taken to the slave market in the capital, Istanbul, as the slave ship stands at anchor beneath the palace walls.
Juan in the slave market. He converses with the Englishman, telling of his lost love, whereas the more experienced John says he had to run away from his 3rd wife. A black eunuch from the seraglio, Baba, buys Juan and John, and takes the infidels to the palace. He takes them back to an inner chamber, where he insists that Don Juan dress as a woman, and threatens him with castration if he resists. Finally, Juan is brought into an imperial hall to meet the sultana, Gulbeyaz, a 26 y/o beauty who is the sultan's fourth, last, and favorite wife. Full of stubborn pride, he refuses to kiss her foot and finally compromises by kissing her hand. She had spotted Juan at the market, and had asked Baba to secretly purchase him for her, despite the risk of discovery by the sultan. She wants Juan to "love" her, and throws herself on his breast. But he still has thoughts of Haidée and spurns her advances, saying "The prisoned eagle will not pair, nor I / Serve a sultana's sensual phantasy." She is taken aback, enraged, and thinks of having him beheaded, but breaks out in tears instead. Before they can progress further in their relationship, Baba rushes in to announce that the Sultan is coming: "The sun himself has sent me like a ray / To hint that he is coming up this way." The sultan arrives, preceded by a parade of damsels, eunuchs, etc. (he is 59 y/o and has 1500 concubines). Looking around, he takes note of the attractive Christian woman (Juan), expressing regret that a mere Christian should be so pretty (Juan is a giaour, or non-Muslim). Byron comments on the necessity to secure the chastity of the women in these unhappy climes--that "wedlock and a padlock mean the same."
The sultan retires with Gulbeyaz. Juan, still dressed as a woman, is taken to the overcrowded seraglio. He is asked to share a couch with the young and lovely 17 y/o Dudù, who calls him Juanna. She is a "kind of sleepy Venus ... very fit to murder sleep... Her talents were of the more silent class... pensive..." She gives Juanna a chaste kiss and undresses. The chamber of odalisques is asleep at 3 AM. Dudù suddenly screams, and awakens agitated, while Juanna still lies asleep and snoring. The women ask the cause of her scream, and she relates a suggestive dream of being in a wood like Dante, of dislodging a reluctant golden apple clinging tenaciously to its bough (which at last willingly falls), of almost biting into the forbidden fruit when a bee flies out from it and stings her to the heart. The matron of the seraglio decides to place Juanna with another odalisque, but Dudù begs to keep her in her own bed, hiding her face in Juanna's breast. The poet is at a loss to explain why she screamed.
In the morning, the sultana asks Baba to tell her how Don Juan passed the night. He tells of "her" stay in the seraglio, but carefully omits details about Dudù and her dream. But the sultana is suspicious nevertheless, becomes enraged, and instructs Baba to have Dudù and Juan killed in the usual manner (drowning). Baba pleads with her that killing Juan will not cure what ails her. The sultana summons Dudù and Juan. [We do not see how this scene plays out.]
Juan and John Johnson have escaped with 2 women from the seraglio, and arrive during the siege of Ismail (historically 1790), a Turkish fort at the mouth of the Danube on the Black Sea. Field Marshall Suvaroff, an officer in the Russian army, is preparing for an all-out final assault against the besieged fortress. The battle rages. He has been told to "take Ismail at whatever price" by Prince Potemkin, the commander-in-chief of the Russian army. The Christian empress Queen Catherine II is the Russian head-of-state. John Johnson appears to Suvaroff (with whom he has previously served in battle at Widdin) and introduces his friend Juan--both are ready to join the fight against the "pagan" Turks. Suvaroff is unhappy with the women the 2 men brought, but they state that they are the wives of other men, and that the women aided their escape. Suvaroff consents for the women to stay.
Juan and John join fearlessly and bravely in the savage assault on Ismail. They scale the walls of the town and charge into battle. The conquest of Ismail causes the slaughter of 40,000 Turks, among them women (only a few of whom are ravished) and children. Juan nobly rescues a 10 y/o Muslim child Leila from two murderous Cossacks intent on killing her, and immediately resolves to adopt her as his own child. A noble Tartar khan valiantly fights to the death alongside his 5 sons, just as instructed by Mahomet, presumably to be rewarded with houris in heaven.
Juan is a hero and is sent to Petersburgh, Russia, accompanied by Leila, whom he makes a vow to protect.
Dressed as a war hero in military uniform, Juan cuts a handsome figure in the court of Queen Catherine II, who lusts after him. She is c. 48 y/o [historically actually 61-2 y/o] and "just now in juicy vigour". He becomes one of her favorites and is flattered by her interest as well as promoted for it. "Love is vanity, / Selfish in its beginning as its end, / Except where 'tis a mere insanity." Juan still lovingly cares for Leila.
Juan enjoys the good life, is in demand at court with "damsels and dances, revels, [and] ready money", and gradually becomes very polished. But he also becomes a little dissipated "in this gay clime of bearskins black and furry". He writes his mother Donna Inez, who worries about his exposure to Greek worship, etc. Gradually, Juan becomes ill, still strong but delicate. His doctors say he needs to travel to get back to sunnier climes, etc. Catherine arranges for him to go to Britain on an undisclosed "mission". Juan loves Leila, who stubbornly remains a Muslim and refuses conversion to Christianity. They travel to London, passing through Poland, the Rhine river, Holland, etc. (Byron has now been away from England in exile for 7 years.) Leila marvels at Canterbury cathedral, but wonders how God could tolerate infidels (Christians) there.
Juan kills a man in self-defense. He is presented to and settles into fashionable society in London. He is in demand by fair virgins and wedded dames. He is superficial and blasé, living "amongst live poets and blue ladies", pursuing business in the morning ("a laborious nothing that leads to lassitude"), lunching, lounging, and boxing in the afternoons, dining and dancing in the evening, etc. The poet cautions Juan not to become complacent: "But carpe diem, Juan, carpe, carpe! / Tomorrow sees another race as gay / And transient and devoured by the same harpy."
The poet laments middle age, now 35 y/o. Juan is still idling in London, flirting, etc. Several persons compete to take up Leila's education, and he finally chooses Lady Pinchbeck, of whom Juan is a favorite. Juan, coming from a land of passions and is not impressed by the reserved London women at first, though they gradually grow on him.
The Lady Adeline Amundeville and her husband Lord Henry Amundeville host Juan and others. She is "the fair most fatal Juan ever met", the "queen bee, the glass of all that's fair, / Whose charms made all men speak and women dumb". Diplomatic relations often bring Juan ("the envoy of a secret Russian mission") and Lord Henry together, and he befriends Juan and makes him a frequent guest at their London mansion. The Amundevilles invite numerous distinguished guests for a party at their country estate. The banquet... English ennui. They all retire for the evening.
Juan acquits himself well on a fox hunt. He is attractive to the ladies, including the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke, who begins to flirt with him. Lady Adeline is jealous of the Duchess (who has had many amorous exploits), and resolves to protect the "inexperienced" Juan from her enticements. Juan and Adeline are both 27 y/o. Lady Adeline has a vacant heart and has a cold but proper marriage. She is not in love with Juan, but the poet will only later divulge whether they have an affair (apparently not).
Lady Adeline is at risk for losing her honour over Juan. Juan has a seductive manner because he never seems anxious to seduce. He neither brooks nor claims superiority. Adeline advises Juan to get married, but he acknowledges the women he is attracted to tend to be already married. Adeline tries to deduce a suitable match for Juan, but intentionally omits mention of the 16 y/o and enticing Aurora Raby, a Catholic. Juan is attracted to her--she is purer than the rest, and reminds him of his lost Haidée. An elaborate dinner is described in detail. Juan is seated between Adeline and Aurora. Aurora has little to say initially, and thaws only a little during the dinner.
Juan is smitten with the beautiful Aurora, and thinks of her on retiring. At night, he walks into the hall, viewing the gallery of paintings. He hears footsteps, and sees a monk in cowl and beads. Is this a ghost, a phantasy? He does not see his face, though the monk passes and repasses several times.
The next morning, Adeline appears pale, the Duchess looks at Juan hard, and Aurora surveys him "with a kind of calm surprise". Adeline wonders if he is ill, and he tells of seeing the monk. Lord Henry relates the story of the "Black Friar", the "spirit of these walls" who used to be seen often but had not been seen of late. He had seen the Black Friar on his honeymoon. Adeline offers to sing the story of the ghost, accompanying it on her harp. The song begins, "Beware! beware of the Black Friar! / Who sitteth by Norman stone, / For he mutters his prayer in the midnight air, / And his mass of the days that are gone. / When the Lord of the Hill, Amundeville, / Made Norman Church his prey, / And expelled the friars, one friar still / Would not be driven away." Aurora remains silent, but Lady Fitz-Fulke appears mischievous. She suggests that Adeline has sung this to laugh Juan out of his dismay. Juan's spirits are lifted. He visits with Lord Henry. A pregnant country girl and other petitioners present themselves to Lord Henry in his capacity as Justice of the Peace.
Another banquet, at which Juan is preoccupied. He wonders if Aurora had been the ghost--did he catch a smile on her cheek? He is vexed with uncertainty, while Aurora sits pale and only a little flushed. Adeline goes about her duties, while the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke is very much at ease.
They retire for the evening. Juan thinks about Aurora, who has reawakened feelings in him which had been lately lost. After going to bed, he hears the tiptoe of footsteps again. The doors opens, and again it is the sable Friar concealed in his solemn hood. He pursues the friar up against a wall, notes the "ghost" has sweet breath, a straggling curl, red lips and pearls, a glowing bust--in short, the "friar" is the voluptuous Duchess of Fitz-Fulke.
At breakfast the next morning, Don Juan appears wan and worn as if he had combated two ghosts, and the Duchess "Seemed pale and shivered, as if she had kept / A vigil or dreamt rather more than slept." The poet does not say whether vice or virtue had triumphed during the night.