[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 (VI — XII) 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).
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! XII 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. XIII 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? XIV "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? XV "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. XVI "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. XVII "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. XVIII 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. XIX "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. XX 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. XXI 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.↩