It is astonishing to us, now, that the amusing, clever, mostly-light-hearted tales in Cantos I and II of Don Juan were condemned by the English establishment for blasphemy, depravity and inciting misbehaviour (among the lower classes). Byron protested, accurately, that his poem was innocent when measured by the standards of Classical Roman verse, or or Dante or even Milton.
But Byron knew well what he was up to — whom his satire would sting and whom it would please — and clearly delighted in it.
To appreciate the daring, as well as the fun, of Don Juan we must bear in mind the bitterly charged politics and near class-warfare that gripped England in the the year (1819) that the poem first appeared. The propertied classes — nobility, gentry, the army, church and parvenu industrialists — feared riot, revolt or even bloody revolution by workers and their radical allies of the constitutional Reform movement.
I could not tell the story of that year better than this excerpt from David Erdman’s 1944 talk “Byron and Revolt in England”
“In January the laborers of Manchester paraded with red flags surmounted by red caps of liberty. In February and March there were strikes (the word was new) of weavers and colliers, and a month-long hubbub in Westminster where a stormy bye- election was won by the pooling of Tory and Whig votes against a field of Radicals led by Byron’s associate Hobhouse; crowds in Covent Garden attacked the successful candidate shouting “Hobhouse for ever.”
In April the Quarterly [Review] came out with a tardy but copious denunciation of Shelley’s Revolt of Islam as a production of “that industrious knot of authors” whose work “loosened the hold of our protecting laws … and blasphemed our holy religion.”
In June the weavers were making wage demands again, and a wave of Reform meetings swept the counties, continuing in July to fill news- papers with accounts of banners, placards, and (at Rochdale, one of Lord Byron’s fiefs) female Reformers marching 5,000 strong. Reform was in their mouths, said Sidmouth, “but rebellion and revolution in their hearts.” That month the government arrested several “malicious, seditious, evil-minded persons,” including the editors of the [radical weekly newspaper] Black Dwarf and the Manchester Observer, as well as Major Cartwright, whose Radical Hampden Club Byron had joined in 1813.
[In July] John Murray, in spite of politics, published what another Tory called a diabolic burlesque poem “loosely written in every sense of the word called the Two First Cantos of Don Juan.” It appeared, because of politics, without the names of author or pub- lisher, but [radical publisher William] Hone soon “unmasked” “Don John (Murray),” and everybody knew it was Byron’s.
Bankruptcies and the distress of the laborers increased. In Keswick [Poet Laureate, Tory mouthpiece and Byron’s antagonist Robert] Southey heard the poor talk of “parceling out” estates. And then on the 16th of August 60,000 men and women “marched” to St. Peter’s Fields, near Manchester, where, said the government papers, they would have been incited to treason by the “democratical” Orator [Williamn] Hunt, but for the timely, if bloody, action of the magistrates, mostly clergymen, on whose orders Constables and Yeomanry dispersed the crowd with sabre and pistol, killing 11 and wounding 600.
Following [the] Peterloo [“Massacre”] the more extreme Radicals, [radical London publisher Richard] Cariile for instance in his new Republican, openly defied the government, urging huge protest meetings and calling upon the people to “arm against the coming evil,” boasting “we can beat off the combined Yeoman Cavalry of the whole country.”
In September the government was still finding signs of the coming “simultaneous insurrection,” especially in an ominous silence on the part of the Radicals. [Arthur Wellesley, Lord] Wellington sent “troops with cannon … into Cheshire, Lancashire, and Yorkshire.” The Duke of Hamilton reported that he had seen Radicals surveying his park. Lord Dudley, in a more inclusive view, saw “the whirlpool of democracy” swirling nearer. Alarm swept the Emergency session of Parliament that opened November 23rd, shortly following a panic among the moneyed men. The question was not whether Reformers were marching “in military array” but how many thousands? Bootle Wilbraham claimed to have seen pistols and pikes and the plans of the poor to divide the land “by force.”
In October hundreds of pulpits rejoiced over the defeat of “Satan and Carlile” when the latter was convicted of selling the “Theological Works” of [the author of the “Rights of Man”] Tom Paine.
[In November, William] Cobbett’s recent return from America -“to die for Reform,” wrote one Radical- had been followed by an ominous reconciliation of the Radical factions. Alarming enough to Tories and Conservative Whigs was the appearance, within Parliament itself, of two new Radical members: Douglas Kinnaird and John Cam Hobhouse, bosom friends of Byron [since their days as students in Cambridge], who was known to have joined their “Radical Rota Club” in absentia.™ … [In the debate on the trial of the Peterloo demonstrators] Hobhouse spoke so very much like an inciter to rebellion that the House, in mounting hysteria, voted him to a cell in Newgate jail.”