The peculiar trajectory of Canto III (Don Juan)

This is an intriguing Canto. It contains one of Byrons greatest characters — the pirate Lambro, modelled (probably) on Ali Pasha — and some of his best-known verse. Yet, it has a weaker-than-usual narrative structure, no climactic events, some heavy-handed scenery, an odd diversion into Mariolatry, his most sarcastic attack on Wordsworth and, an abrupt end due to a decision to split the original draft into two Cantos.

But this Canto also contains the first hints of Byron’s fateful attachment to an ideal of Hellenic liberation that (with help from his own doctors) would send him to his grave just a decade later.

Download an annotated (& illustrated) PDF of Canto III.

Although 111 verses long, Canto III captures just one event in Don Juan’s story: the return home of the pirate Lambro to find Juan installed as the consort of his daughter Haidee, (presumptive) mistress of the Isle. Juan has no active role in the Canto, and no speaking part. The only action in the Canto is Lambro’s.

After a long absence plying his craft as a slave-dealer and ‘sea attorney’, the old pirate returns undetected to his island (Byron draws a parallel with the return of Odysseus to Ithaca). He beaches his ship and leaves his crew to ‘careen’ her while he mounts the hill above his house and descends the other side, toward it. From a distance he sees his household servants dancing and feasting on the lawn. His daughter Haidée, convinced by his long absence that he had died at sea, has assumed his place and has installed Juan — her lover in the famous sea-cave scene of Canto II — by her side. Lambro, whom the idlers in his garden do not even recognise, learns from them of the island’s new “Mistress and Master”. He is astonished, clearly displeased by the lavish expenditure and, surprised no doubt by the news of his own death. But he shows no outwards sign of his anger as he enters his house by a back way; finding, of course, no greeting.

At this point, after only some 6o verses, the main thread of the narrative falls away. What follows, first, is description of the rooms of the house, the feast, the carpet, the wall hangings, the plate and Juan and Haidée’s oufits. Next, during an interlude in the feasting an unnamed poet regales the host and hostess with the much-anthologised song “The Isles of Greece”, written in a lyric style unlike the ottava-rima verse of the rest of the Canto. It is a call to contemporary Greeks to abandon their supine acceptance of Turkish rule, acknowledge their heritage and to rise up in arms against their occupiers.

Musing briefly on the song, Byron follows yet another thread of diversions that leads him through the ironies of poetic truth and fame to sarcastic reflections on the marriages and intellectual pretensions of Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth. He explains what he claims is his own ‘religious feelings’ and recalls the numinous beauty of a twilight canter in the woods south of Ravenna where Bocaccio set a particularly gory tale later imitated by Dryden. Then, after a curiously mawkish hymn to the virgin Mary, prompted by the Angelus, heard at a distance in woods, Byron interrupts himself to say he’s decided to break the Canto he is drafting into two, ending the first half at this point. He’d promised in Canto I that each book of his epic would be two-hundred verses (as Cantos I and II are). He explains he can make more money by dividing the books into two (but this is a misdirection on his part).

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