The First Line of Don Juan

Byron cheekily begins his greatest poem in precisely the wrong way for an “epic”:

I want a hero!…

Nothing could be more absurd than an Epic without a hero. The essence of an Epic is the struggle of the hero against his own nature and the enmity of gods! No hero, in an Epic, means no story and no plot.

Homer’s Illiad (via Alexander Pope) announces the hero in the first word!

Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!

Homer’s Oddessy (via Robert Fitzgerald) begins with the character of Odesseus:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story Of that man, skilled in all ways of contending, The wanderer…

Virgil’s Aneid (via John Dryden) is about the role of one man in founding Latium:

Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate, And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate, Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.

The beginning of Don Juan is misdirection and farce, like much of the rest. Byron has, of course, already chosen his hero whom he finally introduces some forty lines later. But he makes this admission only after allowing himself hautily to dismiss contemporary heroes of revolution and counter-revolution in Europe and even the most romantic of British heroes (after Francis Drake): Horatio Nelson. Byron prefers to all of these a parody of a pantomime villain, Don Juan.

The satire is — or would have been in 1819, when classic literature was at the heart of grammar school education — evident to his readers. Still, since the mild young hero Byron offers cannot be taken too seriously either at the start or at any later point in the poem. So it’s not amiss of us to ask: Did Byron ever find the hero he was looking for?

It was evident to his contemporaries as to us that Byron chose his Juan — a victim not of divine malice and malign circumstance but only of the admiration of his acquaintance (especially female) and of good luck — as an autobiographical joke. A satyrical counterpoint to his own rakish reputation as a wicked exile. The passive Juan is hardly more than a device.

But something similar could be said of Achilles or Ulysses or Aneas. None could be described as fully-developed dramatic actors: they have fixed, rather superficial characters that see no psychological development in the course of the narrative. As befits oral poetry, they are creatures of their own epithets. Juan is slightly more rounded than Achilles or Odysseus or Aeneas. He does develop some moral and even poltiical sophistication, especially after he arrives in England. But he is more often out of focus in “Don Juan” than is typical for an epic hero. He is ‘forgotten’ during long diversions from his, or any other, narrative — more than any of the classic epic heroes.

Then, when Juan is offstage — and often when he is onstage — Byron makes himself the center of attention. But “Byron” cannot be the hero he seeks in the poem’s first line. He claims centerstage only in a discursive way, as the voice of commentary and diversion; never part of the “epic” action. “Byron” has no fixed character or epithets. Nor is “Byron” a victim of fate and divine meddling any more than Juan. He holds himself — so he pleads — accountable for his own actions, however much he may regret some and believe others misconstrued.

Byron hints at dark memories and ‘sin’. But he does not dwell on these and does not confess. He offers sentimental regrets and then jokes about them (women, drunkenness, over-indulgence of other kinds); he seems to accept some blame; repents wasted opportunities and the loss of attachments. He hopes for the vindication of literary fame: securely, he contends, though not forever. Salvation never enters into it.

Nor is “Byron’s” end heroic in the epic sense, although Byron’s was romantic and in some ways even heroic. Wherever Juan might be headed — or “beheaded”: Byron once joked he might send Juan, at last, to the guillotine with the other Aristos in France — Byron’s own fate was, and will forever be, the end of the poem’s epic. As narrative, his journey breaks-off rather than concludes. Byron’s failure ever to return to home to England or to vindication, like Odysseus, or to found a race like Aeneas (his legitimate daughter, Ada, died childless), or even to transcend by a fateful death in battle like Achilles sadly disqualifies the ‘epic’ in his personal narrative.

Then, if we could interrogate his ghost, it would likely scorn the idea that Byron found the ‘hero’ he sought in himself as a sort of pathetic fallacy. He might answer that the mild Juan was his answer to precisely this question.

But, suppose we ask not whether he found his ‘hero’, but whether in the course of five years and sixteen finished Cantos he had found, at least, his protagonist? Lady Constance Blessington in her “Conversations of Lord Byron” argues that Byron could not find himself:

Byron has remarkable penetration in discovering the characters of those around him, and he piques himself extremely on it: he also thinks he has fathomed the recesses of his own mind ; but he is mistaken : with much that is little (which he suspects) in his character, there is much that is great, that he does not give himself credit for : his first impulses are always good, but his temper, which is impatient, prevents his acting on the cool dictates of reason ; and it appears to me, that in judging himself, Byron mistakes temper for character, and takes the ebullitions of the first for the indications of the nature of the second.

“Connie” is clever and insightful. This is entirely plausible. But I suspect it is a characterization of Byron. I suspect he had, by the time he left Genoa, arrived as some sort of pact with himself. Greece was the quietus he sought.

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