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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