Byron's Biography: Don Juan and Byron's Existential Angst

Scott C. Holstad

About the Author

Byron's epic poem, Don Juan, addresses so many issues that it is difficult to narrow the scope of the poem to just one or two. Is the poem an attack on what was current Romantic Era ideology? Is the poem about love and romance? Is it primarily social commentary? Is the poem a description of the Fall of Man? Could it be Byron's own attempt at self therapy? Does the poem hold to a specific world view and if so, is it inherently nihilistic or is the poem actually a moral poem endorsing traditional principles? What, finally, is the poem about? These questions, and more, are some of the relevant issues raised when analyzing Don Juan. As it is certainly likely that Byron is rebelling against stringent Calvinistic principles, it would be remiss to construe the poem as part of the "Either/Or" Syndrome (positive/moral-negative/nihilistic, good/bad, cold/hot, heaven.hell, et cetera). Rather, the poem is a manifestation of Byron's own existential frustration - a complex masterpiece therapeutically exercising human angst and effectively addressing all of the previously mentioned issues. And unlike the angry existential philosophers who follow him some years later, Byron's existential vision is a theistic one: a vision comprised of isolation and loneliness while encompassing a compassion for humanity as a greater whole.

Perhaps it would be best to begin this discussion by addressing the most obvious issue raised by the poem: Byron's satire. Byron beganDon Juan(literally in his "Dedication") as "a literary... manifesto to his age," and he "vigorously attacks the literary pretensions" of his fellow Romantic poets, or as Jerome J. McGann terms them, the poets of "the Lakist School" (57).

Byron's poetic idol was Pope (Bloom 1) and he felt that by attacking Pope, Byron's Romantic contemporaries "showed their neglect of the rules of propriety in verse, a neglect which carried over to the debasement of political and ethical ideas. The decline of poetry," he felt, was "but a function of the decline of public values" (McGann 70-1). Byron hoped that by ridiculing his contemporaries, he could enact "a practical return to the poetic position and understanding of earlier and more traditional poets" (McGann 73). He accuses Wordsworth of being unintelligible ("Dedication IV), Coleridge misguided (II), Bob Southey insolent and untalented (III), and concludes that they are "shabby fellows" (VI).

"The point of Don Juan, then," as Jerome J. McGann remarks, "is to clarify the nature of poetry in an age where obscurity on the subject, both in theory and practice, was becoming rampant" (78). This obscurity had "developed from the increasing emphasis upon privacy and individual talent in Romantic verse" (78). The paradox of Byron's crusade to save the traditional form of poetry from those bent (in his view) on its destruction is evident when juxtaposed against the myth of Don Juan and Byron's own life. Byron's traditional ideas on poetry, and his conservatism (McGann 160) in his attitude toward imagination appear all the more ironic when placed next to Juan's hedonistic lifestyle and Byron's rebellious nature.

Satire, as employed by Byron, enables him to address serious issues throughout the poem while serving to undercut the seriousness of those same issues. It becomes an effective vehicle for "educating" ("Dedication" XVII) as he entertains, and it serves as Byron's qualifying device for his theme of "appearance versus reality" (Lovell 21). This idea that things are not always what they seem is representative of both Byron's outlook and the idea that the alleged cynicism in Don Juan is but a facade covering a greater issue.

If there are some obvious external reasons for the harsh satire in the text (and Byron's world view), there are even more possible internal elements which result in the Byron vision. It seems too obvious to assert that Don Juan is autobiographical, yet in a letter to his publisher, Byron wrote, "'The truth is that (the poem) is TOO TRUE'" (Bostetter 7). Leslie A. Marchand's biography of Byron (as referred to in Candace Tate's essay) tells us that Byron's childhood was remarkably similar to Juan's. Byron's father, Captain John Byron, thus becomes Don Jose, and Donna Inez, like Byron's mother, becomes "repression personified" (Tate 91).

Canto 1, then, becomes a "deliberate innovation to the traditional Don Juan myth," and in it "Byron's own oedipal problems emerge as the ultimate conflict in his psychodrama, with Juan as the protagonist of myth and psychodrama both" (Tate 90-1). In the poem, Byron "depicts the formative events of his life, his experiences as son and husband, but so thoroughly rearranged as to raise a private past into a public fiction. The impulses behind the rearrangement are the key to the poem, for in retelling in this oblique fashion the circumstances of his childhood and marriage Byron is able to construct an ideal version of them, one that is favorable to the ego whose fragility is betrayed by the divided self-presentation" (Manning 46). Byron is especially sympathetic to Byron-as-Juan, and depicts him "not as the ruthless seducer but as the innocent seduced" (Bostetter 3).

Byron confronts the angst obsessing him, but from a safe distance: "what Byron-as-Juan painfully endures, Byron-as-narrator rises above, turning to comedy the bitterest elements of his own life and indeed narrating them as if they were not part of his life at all. The narrator, above the action and exercising supreme control over it, is an image of Byron as he would like to be, a self-reassuring demonstration that he was master of the problems that tormented him.... By showing Juan in his childhood Byron demythologizes the story and gives instead a psychological sketch of the effects of environment on character" (Manning 46).

Because he is educated/influenced/manipulated by women, it is little wonder that Byron-Juan has no voice in Canto 1 and feels the need to escape. His tragedy is that he moves from one mother figure to another. "As Inez's social and psychological peer, Julia becomes a parental substitute for Juan.... she embodies again (Byron's) own mother's violent hatred toward her husband and the emotional excesses that her stern Presbyterian principles neither disciplined, nor relieved, but as with Julia, and Inez, hatred is nicely submerged beneath a veneer of respectability, and the hated husband is replaced by the more easily dominated son" (Tate 94).

A further twist in this Oedipal dilemma is the fact that Don Alfonso doubles as a father figure to both Julia and Juan, and the incest implication is obvious. "Alfonso's relationship with Inez and the chance of his being Juan's actual father, or at least old enough to substitute as the father symbol in the exclusive 'only mother,' 'only son' affliction, sets up an oedipal configuration between these three characters, which is further complicated by the possibility that Julia is 'sister-mother' to Juan" (Tate 94-5).

Canto 1 allows Byron "to recreate through fantasy, and memory, the bizarre relationships with his own overprotective mother, and wife, and to joke about his own oedipal, or sister-mother, relationship with Augusta Leigh." Yet, "because they are a mystery, all women represent an external threat to Juan's sexuality, and Byron needs Juan to enact an escape from their motherly manipulations. Juan's role as the 'innocent' in Canto 1 differentiates him from the traditional Don Juan character: he is the conquered, not the conqueror" (Tate 96-7).

The tormented feelings Byron suffered due to his own upbringing, then, are transferred to Juan in the text and we see how the Oedipal dilemma contributes to a loss of (sexual) innocence and the subsequent alienation. Byron's own psyche was scarred and we see the resulting cynical view of the world through his (Juan's) eyes.

The apparently oppositional elements of the poem create havoc when attempting to analyze Don Juan. We have seen how (and why) satire plays such an important part of the poem and we have explored some of the possible underlying motives for much of the poem's chaotic tendencies. What, however, is Byron trying to do with the poem? Where is he trying to go?

George M. Ridenour, one of the preeminent Byron scholars, contends that the important point in reading Don Juan is in viewing the poem as representative of the myth of the Christian Fall. This view would be a logical extension when considering Byron's Calvinistic background combined with his psychological neuroses. "Whether it was the result of the Calvinistic influences of Byron's Scottish childhood, whether it was temperamental, aesthetic, the product of his own experience, or any combinations of these factors, Byron seems throughout his life to have had peculiar sympathy with the concept of natural depravity.... 'Byron held consistently to a belief in the existence of sin and the humanistic ideal of virtue as self-discipline. The fall of man- however he resented the injustice of its consequences- is the all-shadowing fact for him.'... It is clearly true... that in the poem the Christian doctrine of the Fall is a metaphor which Byron uses to express his own personal vision" (Ridenour 20-1).

Harold Bloom concurs with Ridenour and reminds us that "Canto 1 deals with Juan's initial fall from sexual innocence. The tone of this canto is urbanely resigned to the necessity of such a fall, and the description of young love and of Donna Julia's beauty clearly ascribes positive qualities to them. Yet Julia is rather unpleasantly changed by her illicit love affair, and her parting letter to Juan betrays dubious sophistication when we contrast it to her behavior earlier in the canto." Byron is (ironically enough) telling his reader that "the price of passion... may be damnation" (3-4).

However, while the Fall is clearly a negative image in Christian lore, associated with death, "'falling' for Byron is not necessarily an event which marks the loss of paradise" (McGann 143). For Byron, there were two distinct "falls," or at least two different kinds of descents from paradise: a fall from innocence and a revolutionary type of fall. Canto 1 is clearly a depiction of the first type of fall and as such represents both a true loss and a true gain. The positive consequence for this fall is that it enables man to "'return (himself) to (his) Natural Element'" (McGann 143). Byron's first fall is a descent from a psychologically unknown region into the Natural World. "What is lost in the first fall is a sense of security, peace, and coherence between one's inner life and its actual circumstances. Juan suffers the fall in his encounter with Julia, which results in his exile from Spain and his enforced encounter with a world of trying experiences." Thus, in Canto 1, puberty becomes "Byron's analytic joke for revealing the human meaning of the first fall (as well as a continued attack against Wordsworth), a meaning which has always been sublimated by the religious myths of biblical tradition" (McGann 143-45).

If, as Ridenour suggests, Don Juan is a poem concerned with the Fall of Man, and if, as McGann suggests, the Fall is not inherently negative, what type of viewpoint is Byron expressing? We have seen that Byron's vicious use of satire against his peers is not a trivial matter of personality differences, but rather a violent extension of his own poetic philosophy. He is trying to show the error of what was current Romantic ideology and lead his contemporaries back to a more traditional (righteous?) viewpoint and way of writing. This seems to be an admirable, if not idealistic goal. We have seen how Byron's repressed Calvinistic upbringing led to a(n unconscious) cycle of use/be used, retreat, and escape, and how this pattern is initially manifested in Canto 1 to parallel Byron's own life. Now, finally, can it be said that Byron is holding either a truly nihilistic outlook or a truly moral outlook? Brian Wilkie states emphatically:

in Don Juan Byron wanted to create a poem that was deliberately and in every sense inconclusive, since he wanted to show life itself as ultimately without meaning.... The central fact about Don Juan is that he has no mission (and his) failure to have a mission is, rather, part of Byron's attempt to depict realistically the actual conditions of all heroism, the fact that although a hero may be admirable and do some impressive things, his deeds cannot lead to any meaningful result. (73-4)

However, while Wilkie seems to just be looking at the surface and going no further, even he admits "one of the most striking facts about Juan is his ability to live in the world while somehow remaining unaffected by it" (74). Elizabeth F. Boyd goes on to state, "Don Juan, for all its negations, is fundamentally an affirmative poem.... (Byron's) cynicism, if at bottom he has any, springs from his ideal of perfection in human nature which he sees everywhere betrayed by frailty and ignorance" (98-9). Edward E. Bostetter continues in this vein:

Byron has an evident fondness for the human condition he so castigates and deplores. If he doubts the ultimate meaningfulness of man in the universe, he at the same time believes in man's capacity to improve his lot here. The very tone in which he writes in his attack on war and the cant of society indicates that he finds life sufficiently worth while to expose the fundamental evils that stand in the way of realizing human potentialities. He holds certain implicit views for social improvement, and the need for social action.... It is his conviction that life is better if we live without illusions about ourselves. Man is a comic animal and should see himself as such. (14)

Yet, a major tendency of much criticism "is to emphasize the negative, indeed the nihilistic, character of Byron's view of life- the extent to which he seems to anticipate and fit in with the existentialist and absurdist trends in modern literature- in Sartre, Becket, Genet, for example.... ironically, Don Juan is (often) taken with great and even morbid seriousness -- it is found 'grim,' 'despairing,' 'sad and frightening,' 'terrifying'" (Bostetter 13-4). Wilkie also notes the similarity with twentieth-century existentialism, but he contends that Byron "differs from many, perhaps most, of them in that he feels sadness rather than anger at man's lonely meaninglesness," (83) and that sadness is the key to Byron.

It can be argued with justification that Byron is indeed a type of pre-existentialist, but, as Wilkie notes, not one who rants at and into the "great abyss." Rather, the distinction lies in the notion that he is a type of theistic existentialist. He aligns himself with Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky in sensing perhaps a more humanistic existential vision: the notion that man is isolated and, in one sense, leads a meaningless existence; however, when cultural constraints are stripped away man has the freedom to create his own personal meaning. This outlook is neither nihilistic or idealistic; rather it is realistic. Byron is sincere when he writes, "The illusion's gone for ever... All things that have been born were born to die" (CCXV, CCXX), yet Byron, as he does so well throughout the poem, undercuts rhetoric with the truth of action. Life may seem meaningless, but that doesn't stop Byron/Juan from going on and living it to the fullest. Significantly enough, Byron created his own type of meaning when he gave his life in the fight against human oppression.

Underneath the cynical veneer is a man of compassion- compassion for humanity and the human condition. Byron constructed his own meaning: "In an age full of new inventions, 'for killing bodies, and for saving souls,' both alike make with great good will, the satirist finds a true function in exploring the ambiguities of human aspiration.... Byron despaired of apocalypse, and yet could not be content with Man or nature as given. He wrote therefore with the strategy of meeting this life with awareness, humor, and an intensity of creative aspiration..." (Bloom 4, 14). Byron was indeed a suffering soul, yet those factors in his life which tormented him, his "sense of sexual guilt, the bleak view of human destiny, the passionate hatred of tyranny and war, and the revolutionary zeal for the freedom of oppressed peoples" (Bostetter 3), were the same factors which made Don Juan a masterful exploration of the human condition and which made Byron himself great. Don Juan, finally, is neither a nihilistic or idealistically moral work. To consider it one or the other would do Byron injustice. It is a complicated tale of a human existential dilemma, encompassing both nihilism and traditional morality. Don Juan is Byron in a nutshell: as he was and as he wished humanity to be; a disillusioned yet continually idealistic portrait of mankind.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold, ed. Lord Byron's Don Juan. New York: Chelsea, 1987.

Bostetter, Edward E., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Don Juan. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice, 1969.

Boyd, Elizabeth F. "From Byron's Don Juan: A Critical Study." Bostetter 98-100.

Byron, George Gordon. Don Juan. English Romantic Writers. Ed. David Perkins. San Diego: Harcourt, 1967. 829-910.

Lovell, Ernest J., Jr. "Irony and Image in Don Juan." Bostetter 21-28.

Manning, Peter J. "The Byronic Hero as Little Boy." Bloom 43- 65.

McGann, Jerome J. Don Juan in Context. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.

Ridenour, George M. The Style of Don Juan. New Haven: Yale UP, 1960.

Tate, Candace. "Byron's Don Juan: Myth as Pschodrama." Bloom 87-105.

Wilkie, Brian. "Byron and the Epic of Negation." Bostetter 73- 84.

Works Consulted

Beatty, Bernard. Byron's Don Juan. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1985.

Grahamn, Peter W. Don Juan and Regency England. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990.

©Copyright Scott Holstad