What would have become of Juan

Don Juan is unfin­ished. At the end of the last com­plet­ed Can­to (XVI), Juan is in the midst of an amorous mid­night tan­gle with a “ghost” in the gallery of a restored Eng­lish Abbey (Byron’s ances­tral home at New­stead).

You can down­load record­ings I made a few years ago of the last Can­tos (for Lib­rivox) from the Inter­net Archive.

Only a few pre­lim­i­nary vers­es of Can­to XVII were found among Byron’s papers in Missa­longhi, Greece, where he died. Although the unfin­ished Can­to was intend­ed to con­tin­ue the roman­tic intrigue involv­ing Juan’s host­ess, Lady Amundev­ille, and the mys­te­ri­ous Auro­ra Raby — includ­ing, Byron sug­gests, a sur­prise on a bil­liard table (!) — we will nev­er know the details of Juan’s escapes from (yet anoth­er) design­ing lover. Or, indeed, the ulti­mate fate of Byron’s hand­some, brave, but pas­sive hero.

Byron insist­ed to his pub­lish­er, John Mur­ray, that he had only the loos­est plans for Don Juan

I meant to take him [Juan] on the tour of Europe – with a prop­er mix­ture of siege – bat­tle – and adven­ture – and to make him fin­ish as Anachar­sis Cloots – in the French Rev­o­lu­tion. –
To how many Can­tos this may extend – I know not – nor whether even if I live I shall com­plete it – but this was my notion. – I meant to have made him a Cav­a­lier Ser­vente in Italy, and a cause for a divorce in Eng­land – and a Sen­ti­men­tal ‘Werther-faced man’ in Ger­many – so as to show the dif­fer­ent ridicules of the soci­ety in each of those coun­tries – – and to have dis­played him grad­u­al­ly gâté and blasé as he grew old­er – as is nat­ur­al. But I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell – or in an unhap­py mar­riage – not know­ing which would be the sever­est – The Span­ish tra­di­tion says Hell – but it is prob­a­bly only an Alle­go­ry of the oth­er state. You are now in pos­ses­sion of my notions on the sub­ject

It’s easy to believe that this is true and not just Byron teas­ing the straight-laced Mur­ray with a plan that the busi­ness­man could only have con­sid­ered chaot­ic. Byron had the facil­i­ty to make it up as he went along. It’s a mode of com­po­si­tion — if not a plan — appar­ent­ly suit­ed to Juan’s picaresque adven­tures.

The idea that hell is an alle­go­ry of mar­riage is a sign that Byron is not (entire­ly) seri­ous about this out­line. But there’s a pathet­ic irony in his throw-away sug­ges­tion that the poem might not be com­plet­ed before his own death.

Of the fates out­lined for Juan, per­haps the most dra­mat­ic is the first: to have Juan guil­lotined in the French Rev­o­lu­tion. Anachar­sis Cloots, whom Byron men­tions — and whom he rejects, among oth­ers, as the sub­ject for his Poem in Stan­za 3 of the First Can­to — was an eccen­tric Pruss­ian noble­man who was con­vinced that the prin­ci­ples of the French Rev­o­lu­tion should be enlarged to a World gov­ern­ment and who styled him­self as the “per­son­al ene­my” of Jesus Christ. Although he adopt­ed French cit­i­zen­ship and played a part in the pros­e­cu­tion of Louis XVI, he was him­self false­ly accused and exe­cut­ed by bloody Robe­spierre in 1794.

My guess is that Byron would nev­er have com­posed an end to “Don Juan” (or Don Juan) in the sense of a final dis­po­si­tion of the hero after some cli­mac­tic event with all the threads tied off and the moral under­lined (as Da Ponte does, rather heavy-hand­ed­ly, in his libret­to for Mozart’s opera).

The last Can­tos of Don Juan (XIII-XVI) are among his best. But had he sur­vived his Greek expe­di­tion, I think Byron would have giv­en up on the epic — per­haps after com­plet­ing Can­to XVII — leav­ing Juan in “the midst of life” (this was the fate of Childe Harold… the char­ac­ter that brought him inter­na­tion­al fame in the 19th cen­tu­ry).

By 1822 — five years after flee­ing Eng­land — Byron seemed to be look­ing for a life oth­er than the one he had made for him­self with There­sa in Italy. Per­haps not a lit­er­ary life at all. I don’t think he knew def­i­nite­ly what he want­ed or expect­ed from the adven­ture in Greece. I think he want­ed some new direc­tion. I sus­pect he would have aban­doned Juan to an unfin­ished nar­ra­tive, just as he want­ed to aban­don his own recent nar­ra­tive.

Sad­ly, in April 1824, he aban­doned both…

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prospero

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

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