Is Don Juan a Romantic Character?

Don Juan – the very word has been used to refer to a male romantic person who is adept at charming women. However, during the Romantic era, the word romantic had different connotations and it referred to the state of being in touch with one’s inner feelings and emotions. In the light of this meaning, it is interesting to explore whether Don Juan was a really romantic person or not and whether he really cared about internal feelings and emotions. Byron’s “Don Juan” traces the adventurous life of a young man as he passes through various stages in life as an overprotected teenager, castaway, lover, slave, soldier, kept man, and ornament in English society. However, Don Juan through all these phases shows that he is very much a man in touch with his true feelings and hence he can be considered to be a true romantic.

Don Juan, like any romantic hero has an adventurous life and faces shipwreck, romance, enslavement, sale, military siege, military service, aristocracy and love affair. Though these experiences sound exciting, he repeatedly faces disillusionment and sadness. The poet, in Canto I, after listing possible historical heroes, chooses Don Juan.

To the first mention of love in Canto I, the digression on the sweetness of first love, Byron instantly appends the corollary of wonder at Man, the inscrutable creation.

In the story of Don Juan, Byron rejects the simple diabolism of the Spanish legend. Fundamentally, he says, the nature of man is good, and love is one of his most beautiful and sublime instincts. If Don Juan becomes a libertine monster, a man worthy of Hell, the fault lies in society, which has wrecked his primal nobility and twisted his good impulses to evil ends. This is Byron’s Rousseauism. Byron’s purpose in the first canto, the Julia episode, is to present a picture of first love, callow, dreamy, and naïvely sweet, against a background of gross hypocrisy. The effect is to be bittersweet, and is to be accomplished by a lightness of touch typifying adolescent calf love seen in retrospect. The style and attitude must be comic, brushing with laughter even the humiliation of Juan escaping naked through the dark streets, and the tragic fate of Julia buried alive in the convent. First love, as far as man is concerned, Byron seems to say, is light love, thoughtless and unreal, in both its animal and its sentimental aspects, and therefore good material for farce comedy. Illusions fade, and romantic notions are soon forgotten, leaving nothing behind, or at most only a slightly bitter taste. Vanity of vanities!

“Alas!
All things that have been born were born to die,
And flesh (which Death mows down to hay) is grass;
You’ve passed your youth not so unpleasantly,
And if you had it o’er again –‘t would pass –
So thank your stars that matters are no worse,
And read your Bible, sir, and mind your purse.” (I, 220)

This is first love in civilized Seville, and it is touched and debased, for all except Juan, by hypocrisy. As for Juan, Byron’s ridicule of his adolescent romance is tenderly severe. Like Wieland Don Silvio de Rosalva, Juan has been brought up in ignorance of reality under the tutelage of a strict and unsympathetic male relative. The effect of this mortmain education and strict protection is to re-enforce the adolescent state of insulated solitude. Wandering like Don Silvio through the woods dreaming unutterable dreams, Juan indulges in reveries that remind us of the inquiries meditated by D’Israeli’s romantic bluestockings in Flim-Flams:

“He thought about himself, and the whole earth,
Of man the wonderful, and of the stars,
And how the deuce they ever could have birth;
And then he thought of earthquakes, and of wars,
How many miles the moon might have in girth,
Of air-balloons, and of the many bars
To perfect knowledge of the boundless skies; –
And then he thought of Donna Julia’s eyes.”(I, 92)

Romance for Juan burgeoned in the wilderness “where Transport and Security entwine,”5 whether he was physically present in the woods or in Donna Julia’s bedroom; in his romantic insulation, Juan never considered that he should “beg ‘Security’ will bolt the door,” and he is rudely awakened to the prosaic ignominy of concealment, discovery, scuffling, and stripping, being lucky to escape with his life and reach his home “in an unseemly plight.” The episode is forever closed for him on shipboard, when, reading Julia’s farewell letter and vowing never to forget her, he is overtaken by seasickness. Romantic love can survive violent ills, fever and wounds, but a cold in the head or an attack of seasickness is invariably too much for it.

The curtain is dropped upon the farce comedy, and after an interval, we are introduced to the second love episode, a passionate, naturalistic pastoral. The contrast to the stuffy civilization of Seville is intense; in the sea-washed island under “all the stars that crowded the blue space,” Juan and Haidée

“form a group that’s quite antique,
Half naked, loving, natural, and Greek.”

Shocked awake by his severance from all familiar surroundings and by the terrible experience of suffering and death at sea, Juan finds real romance for the first and the last time. He and Haidée love not like the children of nature, as in the feigning of the pretty romances Byron deplored. They are children of nature, and their love is the real, natural passion. But it is attended by youthful inexperience and recklessness which are bound to prove its undoing. Headlong passion in a natural state of innocence collides with the cruel passion of Lambro, who typifies the barbaric civilization of the Orient. The fatal ending of the Haidée episode, brought about by the extravagant passions of all three actors — Juan, Haidée, and Lambro — is Byron’s comment on the fragility of natural love in an unnatural world. Byron says that they were lucky to have their happiness interrupted by violence, and not slowly diminished by age and care and indifference.

Juan is now truly bereaved, but his dim and superficial understanding of what has happened to him is complicated through new adventures by new shocks and disillusionments. The variation of physical and spiritual trials to which he is subjected is intricately life-like. Wounds and fatigue, physical hardship and danger, desperate uncertainty and change of scene keep his inward self under a kind of anaesthesia and postpone grief and maturity. His reactions to each new situation are physical reflexes. Gulbeyaz’s fatuous love-making causes him to burst into tears with the memory of Haidée and with pride injured by his fall into slavery. Then at Gulbeyaz’s humiliated weeping, he automatically unbends and begins to yield. Under the soldier Johnson’s influence, he forgets love-making and sorrow for the glories of military action. But in the heat of the carnage of Ismail, he is swept by a wave of self-gratifying pity and devotion for the orphan Leila. From glitter to blood and back again to glitter, Juan is hurried along to the overripe civilization of the Empress Catherine’s court. The pace of events and sensations is so swift -though unfortunately not Byron’s pace in relating them — that Juan has no time to pause and take stock. The result is an illness that affects both his body and his spirits. He is hopelessly entangled in the contradictions that the world and his own behavior have presented to him.

The relationship between Juan and Leila, though left in an unfinished state, is clearly meant to illustrate yet another type of love. We can only speculate on what role Leila would have played in the English episode; perhaps she was to remind Juan of Haidée, and to disturb him with the recollection of oriental love when he is deeply embroiled with the English “gem” Aurora, and the ladies of Amundeville and of Fitz-Fulke. Byron is at some pains to explain the curious affection between Juan and his ward;6 it was neither parental nor fraternal and still less a sensual love. He loved her because he had saved her from death and slavery and ignorance; she was his peculiar property. Yet the egotism of this love did not make it possessive; it remained altruistic and generous, and it is an ironic comment that the best that Juan could do for his ward was to take her to London and confide her to the duennaship of Lady Pinchbeck.

In contrast to Juan’s unselfish affection for Leila, his love for Catherine was purely selfish and sensual. Byron is careful to explain how a youth hitherto described as naturally generous and pure-hearted could be suddenly perverted by temptation. The weakness was his vanity that “imperious passion, Self-love.” Catherine’s favor flattered his van.

At sixteen, Juan meets Donna Julia, the young wife of Don Alfonso, who had been a former suitor of Donna Inez. The propinquity of this romantic young pair, strangely encouraged by Donna Inez, inevitably results in their falling in love. On the sixth of June, at half-past six in the evening, Juan at last realizes that he is in love with Julia, as they sit together in the summerhouse; and Julia abandons her Platonic resolutions and capitulates. The poet apostrophizes Pleasure, and lists the sweet things of life, the sweetest of all being First Love. Then he enumerates the marvellous discoveries and inventions of this new ages in medicine and war and every art affecting the body of man, but none so marvellous as Man himself, whose destiny is obscured beyond the gates of death.

The poet, meanwhile, has taken a poetical license to skip six months and proceeds to the rapid narrative of the November night farce in Donna Julia’s room. Don Alfonso, whose suspicions, on his first inspection for a hidden stranger, are lulled by Julia’s harangue, returns again to apologize, discovers Juan’s shoes, and the game is up. Juan escapes, but Alfonso sues for a divorce. Inez, vowing to the Virgin Several pounds of candles to remove this stain from Juan’s reputation, sends her son off to travel. Donna Julia is consigned to a convent, and writes her famous farewell letter to Juan.

In the last twenty-three verses of Canto I, the poet introduces his work and talks about Don Juan. He says that the poem is meant to be an epic and written over twelve books. He assures that the one difference between his epic and those of the earlier poets will be that his story his true: “Whereas this story’s actually true” (Canto I: CCII). The poet testifies that he is himself a witness to the last elopement of Don Juan. “But that which more completely faith exacts/ Is that myself, and several now in Seville,/ Saw Juan’s last elopement with the devil” (Canto I: CCIII). He pleads with the readers that they must not hastily judge the poet as an immoral one as “this is not a moral tale, though gay”.

Having

CCXIII

But now at thirty years my hair is grey
(I wonder what it will be like at forty?
I thought of a peruke the other day) –
My heart is not much greener; and, in short, I
Have squander’d my whole summer while ‘t was May,
And feel no more the spirit to retort; I
Have spent my life, both interest and principal,
And deem not, what I deem’d, my soul invincible.

CCXIV

No more – no more – Oh! never more on me
The freshness of the heart can fall like dew,
Which out of all the lovely things we see
Extracts emotions beautiful and new,
Hived in our bosoms like the bag o’ the bee:
Think’st thou the honey with those objects grew?
Alas! ‘t was not in them, but in thy power
To double even the sweetness of a flower.

CCXV

No more – no more – Oh! never more, my heart,
Canst thou be my sole world, my universe!
Once all in all, but now a thing apart,
Thou canst not be my blessing or my curse:
The illusion’s gone for ever, and thou art
Insensible, I trust, but none the worse,
And in thy stead I’ve got a deal of judgment,
Though heaven knows how it ever found a lodgment.

CCXVI

My days of love are over; me no more [*]
The charms of maid, wife, and still less of widow,
Can make the fool of which they made before, –
In short, I must not lead the life I did do;
The credulous hope of mutual minds is o’er,
The copious use of claret is forbid too,
So for a good old-gentlemanly vice,
I think I must take up with avarice.

CCXVII

Ambition was my idol, which was broken
Before the shrines of Sorrow, and of Pleasure;
And the two last have left me many a token
O’er which reflection may be made at leisure:
Now, like Friar Bacon’s brazen head, I’ve spoken,
“Time is, Time was, Time’s past:” – a chymic treasure
Is glittering youth, which I have spent betimes –
My heart in passion, and my head on rhymes.

CCXVIII

What is the end of Fame? ‘t is but to fill
A certain portion of uncertain paper:
Some liken it to climbing up a hill,
Whose summit, like all hills, is lost in vapour;
For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill,
And bards burn what they call their “midnight taper,”
To have, when the original is dust,
A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust.

CCXIX

What are the hopes of man? Old Egypt’s King
Cheops erected the first pyramid
And largest, thinking it was just the thing
To keep his memory whole, and mummy hid;
But somebody or other rummaging,
Burglariously broke his coffin’s lid:
Let not a monument give you or me hopes,
Since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops.

CCXX

But I being fond of true philosophy,
Say very often to myself, “Alas!
All things that have been born were born to die,
And flesh (which Death mows down to hay) is grass;
You’ve pass’d your youth not so unpleasantly,
And if you had it o’er again – ‘t would pass –
So thank your stars that matters are no worse,
And read your Bible, sir, and mind your purse.”

CCXXI

But for the present, gentle reader! and
Still gentler purchaser! the bard – that’s I –
Must, with permission, shake you by the hand,
And so “Your humble servant, and good-b’ye!”
We meet again, if we should understand
Each other; and if not, I shall not try
Your patience further than by this short sample –
‘T were well if others follow’d my example.

CCXXII

“Go, little book, from this my solitude!
I cast thee on the waters – go thy ways!
And if, as I believe, thy vein be good,
The world will find thee after many days.”[33]
When Southey’s read, and Wordsworth understood,
I can’t help putting in my claim to praise –
The four first rhymes are Southey’s every line:
For God’s sake, reader! take them not for mine.

Works Cited

Lord Byron’s “Don Juan”.