Death in Don Juan

[This arti­cle is a work-in-progress: some notes rather than a full argu­ment. Make of it what you will. I’d wel­come your com­ments or sug­ges­tions on any of the ideas. Also, please vis­it the “All Things Byron” blog of the Byron Soci­ety of the UK where you’ll find some oth­er recent notes of mine that the Soci­ety has kind­ly post­ed.]

If Don Juan is lots of fun, as I claim, why does death fig­ure in it so fre­quent­ly?

The words “death” or “dead” or their com­pounds occur more than 100 times in the poem: for com­par­i­son “Juan” occurs just over 300 times. Why is death is one of the most promi­nent points of ref­er­ence in a poem that Byron meant to amuse?

Of course, Byron is hard­ly the only author to use death as mate­r­i­al for his com­e­dy. Think, for instance, of the clas­sic Frank Capra movie Arsenic and Old Lace about a ser­i­al mur­der­er. Or the Meryl Streep-Bruce Willis film Death Becomes Her. Or Mon­ty Python’s The Mean­ing of Life in which Death fig­ures as a char­ac­ter. Or the grim noir-com­e­dy of the Coen Brother’s Bal­lad of Buster Scrug­gs (come to think of it: most Coen broth­ers’ movies are some­how about death). Or Four Wed­dings and a Funer­al or… (you fill in the rest).

Still, in most of these exam­ples (oth­er than the Coens), death is just a gag; not a con­stant theme. Death and com­e­dy don’t sit eas­i­ly togeth­er. It’s not just that one is for laughs and the oth­er for tears.

As Byron, him­self, said (Can­to III.9) they belong in dif­fer­ent dra­mas.

All tragedies are finish'd by a death,
All comedies are ended by a marriage;

They point in dif­fer­ent direc­tions: com­e­dy unites, but death sep­a­rates.1

One answer I have for this appar­ent para­dox in the sub­ject mat­ter of Don Juan is anoth­er para­dox: death comes up so often in Don Juan because the poem is about life: “… It may be prof­li­gate but is it not life, is it not the thing?” [Byron to Kin­naird, 1819].

Don Juan is, first, about “Byron’s” life and then — because it speaks about things that every­body knows (the epi­graph) — it’s about our life, too. Death must be part of everyone’s life, oth­er­wise there’d be no need for sex. So Byron shies away from nei­ther.

Then, Byron is writ­ing Don Juan “live”: almost, if not quite, extem­pore. He began it six years before his own death but wrote most of it with­in a cou­ple of years of his fatal ill­ness in Greece. He hints sev­er­al times that he feels he has already lived a “com­pressed” life and that he may have near­ly exhaust­ed his can­dle (Can­to I.113)

I/ Have spent my life, both interest and principal,
And deem not, what I deem'd, my soul invincible.

Then there’s the occa­sion­al vale­dic­to­ry tone of the lat­er Can­tos: in Can­to XIV.10, for exam­ple:

In youth I wrote because my mind was full,
And now because I feel it growing dull.

It’s hard to know how seri­ous­ly we should take such protests because he’s jok­ing, in part at least. But there’s plen­ty of rea­son to believe his health and ener­gy were in decline before he sailed for Greece in 1823.

A sec­ond rea­son death might fig­ure so strong­ly is the hor­ri­ble con­flu­ence of events in 1822. The first death was antic­i­pat­ed and, if not wel­come at least ben­e­fi­cial: his Moth­er-in-Law, Lady Noël died leav­ing him a large incre­ment to his income. But then, in April his daugh­ter by Claire Clair­mont died of a child­hood dis­ease. To his own sur­prise, he was dis­traught at the loss. Then, in July, Shel­ley — his friend, although they were no longer close, and arguably his only peer in Italy or Eng­land at the time — drowned, leav­ing his fam­i­ly to depend on Byron’s sup­port (along with Leigh Hunt and his fam­i­ly).

In this same year, although unwell for the last few months, Byron com­plet­ed sev­en Can­tos of Don Juan. These are the Can­tos (VIXII) where death appears most often. The last four Can­tos con­tain one or two ref­er­ences — one, in par­tic­u­lar, in the first stan­zas of Can­to XIV about the fas­ci­na­tion of ani­hi­la­tion — but much less.

I think of death often (con­tin­ued Byron), as I believe do most peo­ple who are not hap­py, and view it as a refuge ’ where the wicked cease from trou­bling, and the weary arc at rest.’ There is some­thing calm and sooth­ing to me in the thought of death ;and the only time that I feel repug­nance to it is on a fine day, in soli­tude, in a beau­ti­ful coun­try, when all nature seems rejoic­ing in light and life. [Con­ver­sa­tions of Lord Byron — Count­ess Bless­ing­ton, record­ed (?) in Genoa in ear­ly-1823]

Per­haps there’s a third rea­son, too, why death has to play a part in Don Juan. Byron has cho­sen as hero for his poem a char­ac­ter doomed from the out­set to a messy end. Byron reminds us of that in the first verse of the first Can­to:

We’ve all have seen him in the Pantomime, 
Sent to the Devil somewhat ere his time.

The trag­ic irony of the poem, of course, is that Juan doesn’t die: Byron does.

It’s not just the sta­tis­tics that reveal the promi­nence of death in the poem. Death fre­quent­ly pro­pels either the action or the com­men­tary in the poem: or both.

The nar­ra­tive of Juan’s edu­ca­tion, loves, jour­ney and fame begins with a death. Byron kills off his first sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter, Juan’s father, Don José, after just twen­ty or so stan­zas. This death leaves Juan under the full sway of his strange, pos­si­bly manip­u­la­tive, moth­er and moti­vates the inno­cent Juan’s entan­gle­ment with Julia and her hus­band (pos­si­bly Juan’s real father), Alfon­so.

Can­to I ends with two more treat­ments of death. First, Julia con­signs her­self in a farewell let­ter to Juan to long­ing and death in a con­vent; seal­ing her let­ter with a Cor­nelian — a sym­bol that for Byron was a token of his dead Cam­bridge love, John Eldel­ston. Then Byron clos­es the Can­to with a half-seri­ous diver­sion on the “hopes of man” — wealth, fame — that are, of course, blight­ed by death.

Death fol­lows Juan as soon as he escapes to sea in Can­to II: ship­wreck, drown­ings, death from expo­sure and a rit­u­al mur­der fol­lowed by an “eucharis­tic” can­ni­bal­ism. Then death takes a pause — except for sar­cas­tic ref­er­ences to dead poets’ last pro­duc­tions being exhumed in an arche­ol­o­gy of the privy — until Can­to IV. There, Lam­bro cap­tures and enslaves Juan while Haidée declines into a stu­por and dies as roman­ti­cal­ly as pos­si­ble under the cir­cum­stances.

Juan is thrown into chains with cap­tives from a trav­el­ling opera troupe and while he sails East, Byron returns to the ques­tion of poet­ic fame mixed with famil­iar romat­ic tropes of bro­ken mon­u­ments and dusty tombs, includ­ing Dante’s in Raven­na (Can­to IV.102)

The very generations of the dead
Are swept away, and tomb inherits tomb,
Until the memory of an age is fled,
And, buried, sinks beneath its offspring's doom:

Then, show­ing his usu­al facilty for siez­ing an bare­ly rel­e­vant oppor­tu­ni­ty to escape his melan­coly, Byron exits this gloom with a tan­gent on the crit­i­cal judge­ment of “blue stock­ings”!

Juan’s adven­tures in the slave mar­kets of Con­stan­tino­ple and the Sultan’s palace (Can­tos V and VI) threat­en death by gar­rotte or drown­ing in the Bospho­rus on sev­er­al occa­sions. Can­to V, too, con­tains an inter­rup­tion (rather than a ‘diver­sion’) in which Byron tells us about the mur­der of an acquain­tance — the com­man­dant of the local Mili­tia — in the street out­side his appart­ments in Raven­na (“’Twas on Fri­day last…”). He had his ser­vants bring the man inside where he died of his gun­shot wounds. Byron describes his fas­ci­na­tion with the swift pas­sage from brav­ery, author­i­ty and vig­or to… noth­ing. Then has­tens to return to his sto­ry of Juan.

Sub­li­mat­ed sex in the Harem where Juan spends the night in Can­to VI leaves lit­tle room for oth­er cor­rup­tions. Until, that is, we get to Can­tos VII and VIII where “death is drunk with gore” in the Rus­sians’ bloody storm­ing of the Turk­ish strong­hold of Ismail, with Juan in the van.

Can­to IX begins with a trans­posed (from it’s orig­i­nal place in Can­to III) attack on the “Iron Duke” that becomes a lengthy (11-stan­za), allu­sive, amus­ing but — as usu­al — incon­se­quen­tial “riff” on the con­tempt of death for flesh and on the tor­tures of the flesh in life; espe­cial­ly indi­ges­tion.

Then the amorous Empress Cather­ine appar­ent­ly extracts too much from Juan’s flesh with unfor­tu­nate effects for her favorite. He becomes mys­te­ri­ous­ly ill and near­ly dies, despite or because of a pre­scrip­tion in med­ical latin that Byron vir­tu­osi­cal­ly rhymes. Cather­ine decides (Juan nev­er does so) to spare him the Russ­ian snows: she despatch­es him to Eng­land on a ‘secret mis­sion’.

And Death, the sovereign's sovereign, though the great
Gracchus of all mortality, who levels
With his Agrarian laws the high estate 
Of him who feasts, and fights, and roars, and revels,
To one small grass-grown patch (which must await
Corruption for its crop) with the poor devils
Who never had a foot of land till now, —
Death's a reformer — all men must allow.

There, almost the first thing Juan does is to kill some­one: he shoots a pick­pock­et whose brief death scene is fol­lowed by an eulo­gy in crim­i­nal cant — the one sort of cant of which Byron appar­ent­ly approves.

For the next three Can­tos, Juan ris­es through Eng­lish soci­ety to friend­ship with the powe­ful Amundev­illes and attends a house par­ty at their coun­try seat — New­stead by anoth­er name — lots of sur­round­ing frip­pery and no men­tion of death. Unitl, that is, the start of Can­to XIV that the sub­ject returns in the con­text of a philo­soph­i­cal excur­sion on sleep and eter­ni­ty. Once past this melan­cholic pas­sage, how­ev­er, Can­to XV leads into to an intrigu­ing sort of dal­liance with the host­ess Lady Ade­line Amundev­ille (who thinks she’s match­mak­ing) and, more dis­tant but more desired, with anoth­er house guest: Auro­ra Raby. Mat­ters of the flesh (and feasts) take cen­ter stage until the end of the Can­to when Byron intro­duces his ghost sto­ry that will occu­py most of Can­to XVI.

Here the poem ends, with­out con­clud­ing, with a sort of com­ic defeat of death. This is the rev­e­la­tion that, on this occa­sion at least, the ghost — death’s spec­tre — is a warm, volup­tous, woman who seems to have noth­ing spir­i­tu­al in mind for Juan.

I don’t want to leave this top­ic with­out not­ing that Byron is nev­er gloomy about death.

He offers strik­ing images and argu­ments that are both amus­ing and sophis­ti­cat­ed, in a lit­er­al sense, rather than ana­lyt­ic. Here’s an exam­ple from Can­to IX.11–22 where, as usu­al, in the course of some clever verse on a famil­iar trope — and a cou­ple of cute segués via Horace and Mon­taigne— he is con­tent with sug­ges­tion rather than con­clu­sion (he would retort: it’s satire; not phi­los­o­phy).

Nar­ra­tion by Peter Gal­lagher of an extract from Can­to IX of Don Juan
Death laughs — Go ponder o'er the skeleton
With which men image out the unknown thing
That hides the past world, like to a set sun
Which still elsewhere may rouse a brighter spring —
Death laughs at all you weep for: — look upon
This hourly dread of all! whose threaten'd sting
Turns life to terror, even though in its sheath:
Mark how its lipless mouth grins without breath!

Mark how it laughs and scorns at all you are!
And yet was what you are: from ear to ear
It laughs not — there is now no fleshy bar
So call'd; the Antic long hath ceased to hear,
But still he smiles; and whether near or far,
He strips from man that mantle (far more dear
Than even the tailor's), his incarnate skin,
White, black, or copper — the dead bones will grin.

And thus Death laughs, — it is sad merriment,
But still it is so; and with such example
Why should not Life be equally content
With his superior, in a smile to trample
Upon the nothings which are daily spent
Like bubbles on an ocean much less ample
Than the eternal deluge, which devours
Suns as rays — worlds like atoms — years like hours?

"To be, or not to be? that is the question,"
Says Shakspeare, who just now is much in fashion.
I am neither Alexander nor Hephæstion,
Nor ever had for abstract fame much passion;
But would much rather have a sound digestion
Than Buonaparte's cancer: could I dash on
Through fifty victories to shame or fame —
Without a stomach what were a good name?

"O dura ilia messorum!" — "Oh
Ye rigid guts of reapers!" I translate
For the great benefit of those who know
What indigestion is — that inward fate
Which makes all Styx through one small liver flow.
A peasant's sweat is worth his lord's estate:
Let this one toil for bread — that rack for rent,
He who sleeps best may be the most content.

"To be, or not to be?" — Ere I decide,
I should be glad to know that which is being?
'T is true we speculate both far and wide,
And deem, because we see, we are all-seeing:
For my part, I'll enlist on neither side,
Until I see both sides for once agreeing.
For me, I sometimes think that life is death,
Rather than life a mere affair of breath.

"Que scais-je?" was the motto of Montaigne,
As also of the first academicians:
That all is dubious which man may attain,
Was one of their most favourite positions.
There's no such thing as certainty, that's plain
As any of Mortality's conditions;
So little do we know what we're about in
This world, I doubt if doubt itself be doubting.

It is a pleasant voyage perhaps to float,
Like Pyrrho, on a sea of speculation;
But what if carrying sail capsize the boat?
Your wise men don't know much of navigation;
And swimming long in the abyss of thought
Is apt to tire: a calm and shallow station
Well nigh the shore, where one stoops down and gathers
Some pretty shell, is best for moderate bathers.

"But heaven," as Cassio says, "is above all — 
No more of this, then, — let us pray!" We have
Souls to save, since Eve's slip and Adam's fall,
Which tumbled all mankind into the grave,
Besides fish, beasts, and birds. "The sparrow's fall
Is special providence," though how it gave
Offence, we know not; probably it perch'd
Upon the tree which Eve so fondly search'd.

Oh, ye immortal gods! what is theogony?
Oh, thou too, mortal man! what is philanthropy?
Oh, world! which was and is, what is cosmogony?
Some people have accused me of misanthropy;
And yet I know no more than the mahogany
That forms this desk, of what they mean; Lykanthropy
I comprehend, for without transformation
Men become wolves on any slight occasion.

But I, the mildest, meekest of mankind,
Like Moses, or Melancthon, who have ne'er
Done anything exceedingly unkind, —
And (though I could not now and then forbear
Following the bent of body or of mind)
Have always had a tendency to spare, —
Why do they call me misanthrope? Because
They hate me, not I them. — and here we'll pause.

1 Although, the sar­cas­tic point Byron wants to make here is that both death and mar­riage lead to uncer­tain­ty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.