Don Juan: The Greatest Comic Poem in English

Ger­maine Greer once observed1 that Don Juan is the great­est com­ic poem in Eng­lish. It should be as pop­u­lar she thought as Ariosto’s Orlan­do Furioso in Italy or, for that mat­ter, Pushkin’s Eugene One­gin in Russia.

True, in my view! Still, if Don Juan enjoyed the pop­u­lar renown of those “nation­al” poems then every high-school kid would learn to quote it and to read in at least longish excerpts and per­haps return to it as an adult to find things they’d missed the first time around.

Why is Don Juan not like this?

Pos­si­bly, the poem is too adult for schools. In a let­ter to his friend and agent Dou­glas Kin­naird three months after the pub­li­ca­tion of Can­tos I & II, Byron iden­ti­fied in a boast­ful­ly-blokey kind of way what may be the poem’s chief strength:

As to “Don Juan” – con­fess – con­fess – you dog – and be can­did – that it is the sub­lime of that there sort of writ­ing – it may be bawdy – but is it not good Eng­lish? – It may be prof­li­gate but is it not life, is it not the thing? – Could any man have writ­ten it – who has not lived in the world? – and tooled in a post-chaise? – in – a hack­ney coach? – in a Gon­do­la? against a wall? in a court car­riage? – in a vis a vis? – on a table? – and under it? (Byron to Kin­naird, 26 Octo­ber 1819)

In fact Can­tos I & II have no racy con­tent, but Don Juan is a poem of the world.

For exam­ple, the bed­room farce of Can­to I is rather mod­est — at most sug­ges­tive — in its detail. But to appre­ci­ate the jokes about Inez’s machi­na­tions, the hint about Juan’s parent­age, the real­i­ty of Julia’s fool­ish self-decep­tion and Juan’s semi-con­scious inno­cence, or; to under­stand the com­ic ten­sions between Julia and Alfon­so in the bed­room scenes, or; even to grasp the tone of Byron’s asides about sci­ence, mar­riage, fam­i­lies and infi­deli­ty in the poem, read­ers need some actu­al world­ly expe­ri­ence. Access to Google won’t cut it.

Byron’s intel­li­gence and wit aris­es from his peer­less man­age­ment of sub­jects and mate­ri­als that “every­body knows” because they are mun­dane and even vulgar.

His revised epi­gram2 for the first two Can­tos — “dif­fi­cile est pro­prie com­mu­nia dicere” — is entire­ly accu­rate. The expec­ta­tions that Don Juan has of its read­ers — that they will recog­nise and appre­ci­ate Byron’s satyri­cal will­ing­ness to joke about what every­one knows but does not dis­cuss — are a world away from Byron’s own ear­li­er roman­tic fan­tasies and from the ‘tran­scen­dent’ poet­ry of Wordsworth, Keats or Coleridge (Shel­ley is a dif­fer­ent case). To be fair, the “Lak­ers” project, too, was to focus on things that “every­body knows”. But their tame vers­es express­ing “emo­tion rec­ol­lect­ed in tran­quil­i­ty” are com­pre­hen­si­ble, at some lev­el, to any teenag­er. Byron’s poet­ry is for grown-ups.

Still, it’s the antithe­sis of solemn. The verse has great ener­gy, end­less­ly clever rhyme, “real” char­ac­ters and scenes, jokes and ironies that are — except, pos­si­bly, for those that don’t meet con­tem­po­rary stan­dards of ‘cor­rect­ness’ — as amus­ing today as they were two cen­turies ago.

The vul­gar­i­ties are apt; the sex­u­al innu­en­do hilar­i­ous. Byron’s lan­guage is still either cur­rent or antique-but-acces­si­ble. The satire still shines and most of its tar­gets are still ‘fair game’: the war between men and women; the hypocrisy of church and state; the decep­tions of love; the brevi­ty of youth; the bloody waste of war; the van­i­ty of celebri­ty; the sex­u­al ener­gy of pow­er; the empti­ness of polit­i­cal ban­ners; the vul­gar­i­ty of the mid­dle-class, etc. etc. There is touch­ing romance, inspi­ra­tional reflec­tion, super­cil­ious cat­ti­ness, hard-won wis­dom, can­ni­bal­ism in a small boat, dwarf-toss­ing, a ghost sto­ry and even cross-dressing.

So what’s not to like!?

Even if we admit that Don Juan is not very suit­able for the school-room, it is still curi­ous that it is not more read by adults. I’d like to sug­gest three plau­si­ble expla­na­tions, each of which con­tributes some­thing to the poem’s con­tem­po­rary status:

  • That Don Juan is unnec­es­sary to the mod­ern image of Byron;
  • That Byron’s lit­er­ary fame suf­fered a sort of acci­dent in the late 19th cen­tu­ry that lift­ed his short­er poet­ry to the top of the Roman­tic lit­er­ary canon, at the expense of his great­est poem;
  • That the way we con­sume lit­er­a­ture today makes Don Juan hard­er to con­sume than it used to be.

I will explore each of these in a lit­tle more detail in a fol­low­ing post. In brief, I doubt that there is much rem­e­dy for the first of these. I believe the sec­ond rea­son and the third are linked, how­ev­er, and that there’s a way to ame­lio­rate the problem.

I sug­gest that bet­ter media can res­cue the glo­ries of Don Juan (I’ll explain how lat­er). Inter­est in Byron’s longer verse could be restored – as inter­est in Jane Austen’s nov­els was restored – by bet­ter pre­sen­ta­tion of his works in more acces­si­ble media.

More next time…

  1. “Byron” an ati­cle in the Guardian Books sec­tion avail­able at: accessed Sep­tem­ber 2018
  2. From Horace’s Let­ter to Piso (On the Art of Poet­ry, line 128): “It is hard to sing about things we all expe­ri­ence”. Byron’s choice of epi­gram is iron­ic. Horace, at this point in his advice to poets, is say­ing that it is safer to choose some well known “poet­ic” sub­ject such as “Troy” rather than try to be com­plete­ly orig­i­nal by deal­ing with the mun­dane. But Byron – like Mar­tial and Cat­ul­lus – intends to take the risk.
Byron fan (not fanatic); poetry lover (not tragic); doctor of melancholia (not gloom).

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