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…