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).

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