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

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