Byron iron­i­cal­ly choos­es a hero for his epic poem whose rep­u­ta­tion matched his own scan­dalous celebri­ty: Don Juan, the jaun­ty, titled, sex­u­al preda­tor of pan­tomime who, after a thou­sand amours and intrigues, was dragged down to hell by the Devil.

A fit­ting sub­ject, it seemed, for Eng­land’s most wicked, pop­u­lar, roman­tic exile.

The Eng­lish estab­lish­ment — Byron’s own class — guard­ed its con­tempt for him. As late as 1924, the Dean of West­min­ster, refus­ing a memo­r­i­al in the Abbey to one of England’s great­est roman­tic poets claimed that

Byron, part­ly by his own open­ly dis­solute life and part­ly by the influ­ence of licen­tious verse, earned a world­wide rep­u­ta­tion for immoral­i­ty among Eng­lish-speak­ing peo­ple. A man who out­raged the laws of our Divine Lord, and whose treat­ment of women vio­lat­ed the Chris­t­ian prin­ci­ples of puri­ty and hon­or, should not be com­mem­o­rat­ed in West­min­ster Abbey.” (Quot­ed in: Antho­ny Lewis, Lon­don Cor­re­spon­dent, New York Times, May 7, 1969 p. 19)

(It was not until 1969, one hun­dred and forty-five years after his death, that Byron was final­ly com­mem­o­rat­ed by a plaque in the Poets Cor­ner of West­min­ster Abbey.)


When the twen­ty-some­thing Gorge Gor­don, Lord Byron, fled to Italy in 1816 to escape the sen­sa­tion­al rumours (true!) of an inces­tu­ous liai­son with his beau­ti­ful half-sis­ter and of cru­el treat­ment of his bright, prig­gish young wife, he was Lon­don’s — even Europe’s — most admired poet of the Napoleon­ic years.

He estab­lished him­self in Venice where he soon became known for tor­rid affairs with mar­ried women, hero­ic swim­ming in the canals and gal­lop­ing his hors­es along the sand flats of the Lido. Here, short­ly after com­plet­ing the roman­tic fan­ta­sy that made his ear­ly lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion (Childe Harold), Byron set out on a much longer, wit­ti­er, more per­son­al poet­ic adven­ture, Don Juan, in which he iron­i­cal­ly exam­ined the pol­i­tics, reli­gion, sex, food, sport, edu­ca­tion, hopes and hor­rors of the bril­liant Regency age.

Still rag­ing from the dis­ap­point­ment of Napoleon — who crowned him­self Emper­or — and the repres­sion of reac­tionary Euro­pean regimes that defeat­ed him, Byron, Shel­ley and their cir­cle of rad­i­cal poets, authors and pam­phle­teers tossed lit­er­ary bombs from abroad at the self-sat­is­fied but fear­ful ( of pop­u­lar revolt) Eng­lish Regency estab­lish­ment and their “mouthy” sup­port­ers; espe­cial­ly the tame, con­ser­v­a­tive poets Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge.

Byron’s dis­tin­guished Lon­don pub­lish­er, John Mur­ray — cau­tious of his rep­u­ta­tion and of the pow­er­ful cen­sor­ship laws — was hor­ri­fied by the first Can­tos of Don Juan. The poem was (mild­ly) blas­phe­mous, rid­dled with sex­u­al allu­sions, made libel­lous attacks on the con­ser­v­a­tive British Prime Min­is­ter, Lord Castlereagh, and showed lit­tle rev­er­ence for the stan­dards of polite soci­ety. He refused to pub­lish the first two parts — they appeared anony­mous­ly — and broke with his most prof­itable author after the fifth instal­ment (only to buy all the rights to the poem at auc­tion after Byron’s death).

But how quick­ly pub­lic opin­ion swung to Byron’s side! Refused the pro­tec­tion of copy­right (because sus­pect­ed of sedi­tious libel) Don Juan was instant­ly pirat­ed in cheap ver­sions that were wide­ly dis­trib­uted. It quick­ly became anoth­er hit for the Wicked Lord.

Far from being a “wicked” poem Byron’s Don Juan is no more than sug­ges­tive. But it’s still aston­ish­ing­ly sexy, sar­cas­tic and uproar­i­ous­ly rude. The hero, Juan, is mod­est, charm­ing, brave and rather earnest. Even a bit dull. For­tu­nate­ly, how­ev­er, his hero­ines are any­thing but…

Byron fan (not fanatic); poetry lover (not tragic); doctor of melancholia (not gloom).

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