Allow me to offer you another barely relevant image to illustrate the latest in my series of short talks on Byron’s Don Juan. This one is a poster for the 1948 Errol Flynn swashbuckler, The Adventures of Don Juan. After all, Byron made a habit of using irrelevancies in his great poem. Who am I to dissent?
The film is a technicolor mis-mash of Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, and an implausible costume-drama of the Aragonese court in which good-old Errol — although nearing the end of his screen career — confirms once again that he’s good in tights, has refined well-rounded vowels and a great fencing style.
He also gets to tongue-twist, eventually, with the gorgeous Viveca Lindfors who plays the widowed Queen Someone-or-other: in her first big role looking for all the world like Ingrid Bergman with perhaps even more fire when scornful.
In Byron Bits No. 5, I try to make amends for starting this series of talks at the wrong end of the poem. Just as Byron insists that he is the most orderly of dramatists and — despite all the evidence to the contrary — has a deep respect for the dramatic unities of Aristotle, so I will follow his lead in being orderly. I avoid discontinuity by moving backward from the end of Don Juan to the ante-penultimate verses, so as not to confuse anyone who has not yet read that far into the poem.
So, in BB5 titled “… And Before That?” I discuss what happened in the lead-up to Don Juan’s midnight groping with the Ghost of Newstead Abbey. Although it’s difficult to treat the narrative in Don Juan seriously — the story was never the point, of course — Byron has laid the ground in the final Cantos for some torrid sexual tension among his players of the kind that, I assume, house parties were famous for.
Juan’s young and pretty hostess, Lady Adeline Amundeville who, we suspect, is a bit bored with her marriage, is plotting a romance for Juan; so she tells herself. But, like Donna Julia in Canto I, Adeline seems to be deluding herself. She is likely much more interested in a romance with Juan. I mean ‘romance’ euphemistically, of course.
Juan up to now has been, as usual, a charming guest: a striking young ‘Russian’ diplomat who somewhat outshines the fox-and-hounds set with their graceless equestrian style that comprises most of the party. Of course, he has been his quiet, passive self; hardly noticing the attention directed to him. But, he is beginning to be intrigued by one woman, exactly his age, catholic (like him), studious, bright but quiet: a dark jewel named Aurora Raby. Adeline is apparently jealous.
Now read on… (as they say). Or, rather, listen if you prefer.
BB5 “… And Before That?”
To make up for this gossipy episode, Byron Bits the Sixth takes a more critical, even querulous, approach to the poem.
Sure, Don Juan has a lot of pretty slick verse and clever provocations. And it’s shockingly funny in parts. But what’s the point? Did Byron have a point in Don Juan? Or did he just go on because he couldn’t stop?
Byron keeps insisting that his poem is strictly for his own amusement and, possibly, useful as a moral fable for the correction of error and the instruction of youth.
Obviously no reader believes him. Nor does he believe that himself. So what is the real point of Don Juan?
Of course, in BB6 (below), I tell you what I think is the point of Don Juan. But before you listen, why not take a minute to consider what you think the poem is for. Is it for anything? Might entertainment really be its purpose, as Byron insists?
Perhaps. But if that were so, why did he risk so much — a split with his first-rate, patient, generous Tory publisher who had paid him well for all of his productions for more than a decade and who continued to support him in exile — over an entertainment?
Might there not be some other point?