Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Humor in Don Juan

When the name Don Juan is uttered in modern society people think about a suave, good looking, and womanizing man. In the literary world Don Juan is the name Lord Byron's mock epic that was written during the early 19th century. Lord Byron is considered to be one of the great second generation romantic poets, alongside Percy Shelley and John Keats. The story of Don Juan is written into 16 separate cantos that Lord Byron wrote throughout the last six years of his life. The epic poem breaks off in the 16th canto even though it is said that he started the 17th before his death "but even in its unfinished state Don Juan is the longest satirical poem, and indeed one of the longest poems of any kind in English."[1] The combined epic is 16,000 lines long not counting the seventeenth canto and is written in ottava Rima which was "Originally an Italian stanza of eight 11-syllable lines, with a rhyme scheme of ABABABCC."[2] The narrative is told in the third person point of view and the speaker who is Lord Byron is telling the story of Don Juan who in his eyes wanted to tell the story of a hero and so picked the story of Don Juan who himself was a fictional character. The first canto focuses on Don Juan's childhood right up until his mother sends him off to see the world after an encounter with the husband of his first lover. What is it that makes this particular poem memorable? It is the aspects of comedy within the narrative and Lord Byron's sense of humor throughout his narrative of Don Juan's life.

Don Juan's younger years are met with the comedy that revolves around his parents and how they raised their son around their slight hatred of one another. After the unfortunate death of his father Don Jóse, the epic's titular character is raise by his mother Donna Inez who was as formidable as a tiger mom would be today. Donna Inez was a well-educated woman in science, language and mathematics which is something rare in the time that the original story of Don Juan took place in the 14th century as well as the time that Lord Byron's epic takes place in the mid to late 18th century. One area in which Juan was educated in was Mythology, in which his mother detested. This passage is partially humorous because of how the teaching of this subject is in a way prophesizing his future life. The first lines of the 41st section says "His classic studies made a little puzzle, Because of filthy loves of gods and goddesses, Who in earlier ages made a bustle, But never put on pantaloons or bodices;"[3]  In the future sections Don Juan is caught in situations because of his love with women throughout his years. Yet since he was being taught these particular titles; The Aeneid, The Iliad, and The Odyssey, which were essential in the education of any young male especially if they learn them in their original language, the tutors had to constantly apologize to Donna Inez. What makes this particular humorous is the image of an educator of this time apologizing for doing their duty, which is reminiscent of modern times when parents are constantly making the educators apologize for their own children's failing grades or the curriculum in which they have to teach in schools today. In the 21st century the teachings of the Greek classics aren't as essential as they were during the 18th century, maybe Lord Byron knew that things would turn out this way or he found humor in the fact of an educator apologizing for what they have to teach. Much of what Don Juan learns during the years in which his mother was in charge of his education wouldn’t be useful in the real world which means that she was as much of an overprotective parent as any modern day parents.       
Another passage in which the humor of Lord Byron is prominent is in the 55th section of the first Canto in which the reader is introduced to Don Juan's first love Donna Julia who is a married woman and seven years older than him. Donna Julia is a friend of the family who has watched the young man grow up.  What makes this section especially surprising is that the final four lines are in a way a joke by Lord Byron towards Donna Julia. In describing Donna Julia the epic says
5"Of many charms in her as natural
6As sweetness to the flower, or salt to ocean,
7 Her zone to Venus, or his bow to Cupid,
8(But this last simile is trite and stupid.)"[4]         
The sixth line is a simile in which the speaker of the poem compares Donna Julia to the nectar of a flower which is the aroma of a flower and is the sweetest part, but also to the salt in the water in the ocean. The final couplet in this section in itself lays a joke by Lord Byron in which he compares Donna Julia to wearing a belt in which makes her irresistible to anyone, and then he says that the simile he wrote lacks originality and then just calls it stupid. This humor from the author himself is what makes this an interesting form of an epic poem because he’s addressing the audience in the fact that he could make something sound so clichéd and silly, even though that was the main focal point in him writing the mock epic.                   
The first romance of Don Juan’s life is met with the most clichéd end in any form of literature and is probably the basis of what most comedic films of the 20th and 21st centuries base the escape of someone after being caught in a compromising position. Even though an age difference between Don Juan and Donna Julia wasn't was much of an issue during this time the fact that she was married was much more of an issue. A married man could have as many affairs as they wanted but heaven forbid if a woman would do this. In the 137th section of this epic poem illustrates the humor in the hurried tones of the maid of Donna Julia because of course the husband Don Alfonso has speculated of his wife’s affair with the young man and of course it’s the maid’s hurried tones that set the stage for the humor of a man being caught in bed with a married woman.
"For God's sake, Madam - Madam - here's my master,
With more than half the city at his back -
Was ever heard of such a curst disaster!
'Tis not my fault - I kept good watch - Alack!
Do pray undo the bolt a little faster -
They're on the stair just now, and in a crack
Will all be here; perhaps he yet may fly -
Surely the window's not so very high!"[5]
The maid uses words like Alack to express her regret for not being able to keep the oncoming husband from coming; the word crack also has a different meaning because it means that he would be there in a moment. She even suggests that Don Juan jump out the window; this sounds like the most extreme reaction to being found out of an affair. Of course the window isn't too high, just make sure he takes his shoes with him. The most surprising thing about this particular section is that it’s delivered as dialogue, and creates the imagery of what is happening with the dialogue which will have the reader reacting to the hurried tones of the maid. This isn’t the first time that Lord Byron uses dialogue in Don Juan but this is the first time where it’s delivered in such a humorous tone that the reader can almost forget they’re reading an epic poem.
            The humor in the first Canto of Don Juan is what makes the mock epic worth reading as it hooks the reader into the story. The characterization and actions of each person who makes an appearance throughout the first Canto is vivid in the minds of readers. Don Juan is sent away by his mother after the incident with Donna Julia, who hopes that her son will learn better in the world. Julia is sent is sent to a convent because that’s where wayward wives are sent when they have affairs unbecoming of a lady. What makes each of these sections different is how Lord Byron creates tension in the characters but also how each passage has its own form of humor, either using his own words within the text or how the maid’s hurried tones come across just before the husband finds his wife with another man. Compared to other works of the romantic era it’s easy to see why this particular piece has become a favorite of many and is considered a great work by an author. Most of the works that came out during this time were teeming with the sadness and struggle of the time as well as how many writers were attempting to write for the common man but Lord Byron decided to write something that would make people laugh. Humor during times of great strife is always something that people need, and it’s in Don Juan that Lord Byron was ahead of his time.

[1] George Gordon Lord Byron, "Don Juan" The Norton Anthology English Literature: The Romantic Period Vol. D, ed. 9 (New York, London, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012) 672
[2] "Ottava Rima" Poetry Foundation, Available from
[3] George Gordon Lord Byron, "Don Juan", 679
[4] Ibid, 681
[5] Ibid, 690