The crescendo of tone, the broadening and deepening of scope are well supported through the first twelve cantos. Then the poem takes a dip again into frivolity, though there are indications that much greater seriousness is to come. All the entangling lines for the English episode, when Don Juan is to become the “cause for a divorce.” are left in the air, but they point towards a savage expose of British hypocrisy. Commenting on the last 4 cantos, T.S. Eliot remarks. “The last four cantos are. unless I am greatly mistaken, the most substantial of the poem.”
Considering the doubts, delays, and obstractions attending the composition of Don Juan, we may well be surprised that it turned out as coherent as it is. But the changes Byron made in his plans and purposes, though partly due to his difficulties, were also inherent in his subject matter and manner and in his growing conception of the poem. Don -Juan begins in fun. but it ends in bitterness and sadness.
Beginning probably as a burlesque of the Spanish legend of Don Juan, “the poem grew under his hand into the great satiric picture of modern society that it is.” “You ask me.” Byron wrote to Murray, August 12, 1819. “for the plan of Donny Johnny. 1 have no plan…Do you suppose that I could have any intention but to giggle and make giggle?” On the one hand. Byron thought of his coming adventures in Greece as material for Don Juan provided thev were comic; on the other, he seriously declared that “Don Juan will be known by and bye. for what it is intended—a Satire on abuses of the present state of Society. and not an eulogy of vice…” Now he calls his poem epic. however irreverently bows to Horace, Aristotle, Milton. Dryden, Pope, or invokes eternal Homer to help him paint a siege more blood}’ than the siege of Troy. Now Ariosto and Pulci arc his masters, as with “Capering spirits” he sails his “still sea-worthy skiff of Poesy, or promises
“to prattle Like Roland’s horn at Roncesvalles‘ battle.”
Frequently, then he complains that he has lost the thread of his story, indulging his vice of digression; that he has forgotten what he meant to say :
“But let it go :—it will one day be found With other relics of a former World;”
or that he has deviated into matters rather dry. Thus he underlines ironically the moral “stuffling” of his story.
This is the tone of the humorist, of master who. though imitating a model, is perfectly willing and able to subordinate imitation to his own shim or free invention. Byron’s Don Juanism belongs to no school; it does not set itself up adherent to any System. It is heir of all the ages, can use or toss aside any literary reference or philosophical idea, any fact or mood that comes to hand. It is rich and free. As Byron himself said. “The soul of such poetry is its licence.” He expected his audience to recognize and relish not only his free imitation of the Italians but every least allusion to the world of letters or of European society.
To write a great poem, Byron must aim high, and epic was still the topmost branch of poetry. Thinking over all the modern epics he had to compete with, he resolved that his should be an epic with a difference, namely, that it would be true, and that it would have an ordinary, faulty human being for hero. The ancient heroes, all except tyrants like Alexander, have been forgotten: they mean nothing to us or worse than nothing ; “But oh! ye modern Heroes with your cartridges. When will your names lend lustre e’en to partridges?”
Solemnity and sustained heroics, Byron thought, are not true to life, and besides they were not for an author who shied at the possiblity of failure and ridicule. Don Juan should combine the congenial manner of the Italian jocose epics with the advantages of the best in satiric prose romance : Lucian. Rabelais. Don Quixote, Gil Bias, Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy. Byron would adopt the easiest form of fiction, the story told by the omniscient author in his own person, who comes out to the front of the stage like Fielding, whenever he feels called upon to address his audience directly. He will disguise the author at first a little, since the poem is to be published anonymously, and he will begin small and very jocose with Don Juan’s earliest scrape :
I shall proceed with his adventures is Dependent on the public altogether.”
“My poem’s epic.” Byron declared toward the end of the first canto, and meant it as sincerely as Fielding meant his declarations of epic pretensions in Joseph Andrews. The question whether Don Juan should be classed as an epic is a moot point, for its epical qualities are subordinate architectural ornaments. Ariosto-like introductions and conclusions to cantos, “new mythological machinery and supernatural scenery.” catalogues of heroes, invocations to the Muses, are decorative flourishes or mere sarcasm and irony. Love, wreck, and war are classic epic themes, but they belong also to the realistic novel. Wordsworth’s Preface of 1815 lists among the types of Narrative Poetry, “that dear production of our days, the metrical Novel. Of this class, the distinguishing mark, is that the narrator. however, liberally his speaking agents be introduced, is himself the source from which every thing primarily flows.” The real model of Don Juan is the picaresque novel, the great catchall of narrative and reflection, subject to no ;;~w but the author’s desires. A spontaneous proof that trereading public saw Don Juan immediately in this light is the fact that some of the earliest spurious cantos that came from the piratical presses were picaresque romances. Would-be continuators of the anonymous and unprotected poem took up their pens to write under the inspiration of the same Muse, and turned out stories of adventure in distant climes or at home in the underworld of London.
The story in Don Juan is only half the poem; the other half is a racy commentary on life and manners. Don Juan is the record of a remarkable personality, a poet and a man of action, a dreamer and a wit. a great lover anJ a great hater, a man with many airs of the eighteenth century and yet wholly of the nineteenth, a Whig noble and a revolutionary democrat. The paradoxes of his nature are fully reflected in Don Juan, which is itself both a romantic epic and a realistic satire, and it owes the wide range and abundant wealth of its poetry to the fact that Byron had in reality and remained faithful only to those which meant so much to him that he could not live without them.