George Gordon Lord Byron’s poem Don Juan, though well received as art, was never equally well received as a moral vision. Unfortunately for the poet, this is a well established fact. One only has to peruse the historical record, to examine the letters and reviews of the day to see a consistent and fairly scathing account of both poem and poet. Indeed, upon further examination, one finds such opinions regarding many of his works. It is easy to opine, therefore, that feminists of any day would hold the opinion that Lord Byron’s version of manhood represented a rapscallion at best, and a misogynist at worst.
It feels almost uncomfortable to make such a broad and sweeping statement. Surely there must be redemption somewhere in Don Juan that would assuage such ill feelings. The poem itself is a life work, for one. It does not represent a focused wanton attack on women. Also, Don Juan himself, beginning as a naïve sixteen year old was adored and taken in by women in sympathy and/or love.
In some places it would appear that the women are coming for him, as opposed to the other way around. That would not be his fault- a point even feminists would have to concede. Perhaps that would have been the case if the period covered weren’t so extensive and allowed his awful character to develop along dark lines. But I will at least begin on this hopeful note as a means of contrasting the breadth of this essay.
Thomas Babington Macaulay represents this brief moment of respite for the attack on Don Juan. Writing in 1849, he owns up to reading the work (something not every well heeled gentleman would come to do in the future). Upon finishing, he had this to say:
I passed some hours over Don Juan and saw no reason to change the opinion I
formed twenty-five years ago. The first two cantos are Byron’s masterpiece.
The next two may pass as not below his average. Then begins the descent,
and at last he sinks to the level of his own imitators (in the Magazines). (3)
This almost half-hearted endorsement represents one of the kindest treatments Don Juan would receive. When one reads the work, he quickly finds that the cantos begin with a more innocent version of love – equitable to the sixteen year old Juan – and that as the cantos progress, the moralistic underpinnings of Juan regress. Thus the review. At least Lord Byron could have taken comfort from the fact that a critic of fair fame still remembered the things he fancied back in the earlier portions, having read to the end. As my paper will show, this almost sentimental feeling was nearly unmatched.
Having touched upon a reviewer who was much more conservative and objective in his approach, the time has come to exhibit the more universal renderings of public opinion. It must be remembered that it is somewhat unfair to look for avowed feminists in the time of Lord Byron, or to assign criticisms of Don Juan to only the realm of the feminists.
So I must proffer this about my use of ‘feminists’ opinions: I shall accept that feminists in this paper are those who take offense or are against the less than honorable treatment of females in text. Though this is somewhat ambiguous, it allows for a little better understanding of the times surrounding England during Byron’s writing and removes our more contemporary context of the word from the argument. As a result, those reviewers who come to the rescue and aid of females and/or moral uprightness are included as feminists.
Certainly a fine example to start with would be James Hain Friswell. He said, “No father would put Don Juan into his daughter’s hands; nor would he consent that his son should read it until his principles were fixed, and his judgment clear and defined” (322). Now it is true that one would not find Mr. Friswell in the ‘Who’s Who’ of feminists. He was a literary critic. More importantly, however, is the fact that Mr. Friswell was a father. This station puts him in a position of authority when it comes to the protection and prevention of abuse to women.
He is very clear that Don Juan is a poor influence, perhaps even a threat. This quote shows two reactions to the work that are important to understand. Feminists not only talk of the outright attack on women that this poem represents – which they would keep out of the hands of females so that they are not assaulted. The second part is just as important. Don Juan represents an ongoing threat to women. If males are exposed to this before their moral codes are laid down firmly, then they will run the risk of being abusers of women as well…just by being exposed to this ruinous work.
Mary Russell Mitford echoed that sentiment in 1824. In her Letter to B. R. Haydon, she offers a very personal opinion of the author of Don Juan that simply cannot be ignored. It represents an unabashed feeling, expressed openly.
But he seems to me to have wanted the power of admiration, the organ of
veneration; to have been a cold, sneering, vain, Voltairish person, charitable as
far as money went, and liberal so far as it did not interfere with his aristocratic
notions; but very derisive, very un-English, very scornful. Captain Medwyn
speaks of his suppressed laugh. How unpleasant an idea that gives! The only
thing that does him much credit in the whole book is his hearty admiration of
Scott…Well I think this book will have one good effect, it will disenchant the
whole sex. (Nov. 2)
I could end this essay at this point for the absolute lack of restraint on the part of Mitford. This is a very clear view on what the feminists’ opinion on the poem really is. There is no discussion on literary merit, or place in the genre. Instead it truly is opinion. Clear and simple. It sounds like the veritable soap box speech. Not only does Mitford here declare the derogatory qualities of Don Juan but she would have Byron excommunicated from the British society – all based upon a fiction of writing. This accusation speaks strongly to the depth of feeling brought about by the words of Don Juan.
Personal opinion speaks loudly as to the outrage Byron’s poem produced. It is one thing to condemn a work or an author in the public realm. Poor reviews, abhorrent commentary and analysis, these are poison to a writer. And yet this is still something survivable. An author could do an about face and redeem himself. He could shake off a work that was poorly received and reinvent himself with the next effort. When an attack becomes personal, however, spoken of in people’s day to day lives and brought out with the dirty laundry, well that is another thing altogether. It is very serious and can accurately be called opinion.
For the purpose of this paper, it is called feminist opinion. Thomas Carlyle was one person who had hoped for better things from Byron. He wrote of the pity that ‘poor Byron’ did not live long enough to overcome the exposition of his character (173). He was one of those who saw the merit in not entirely judging the man. His hope was dashed by the time Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges weighed in on the matter. And where did Brydges air his views? Not in the literary circles, but in his own Autobiography.
This crushes out any hope of vindication that Carlyle was holding out for. Again, personal opinions are much stronger indications of contempt that any review could be. There is not much more of a speech of conviction than a person looking back. Brydges’ conviction was this: “Byron had the strangest and most perverse of all vanities – the desire to surprise the world by showing, that, after all his sublime and spiritual flights, he could, on nearer inspection, be the lowest, the coarsest, the most familiar, and the most sensual of the low” (229).
The feminist point of view is reinforced again with ambitious vitriol. And once more, the feminist in question is not a female at all. I do feel the need to reintroduce this fact due to the connotations of our era about feminism in general. Not only is it important to remind contemporary readers of this, but I do think that Lord Byron would be taken aback by this fact.
I say to you: feminists are not gender based, but anti-feminism is. William Blackwood was clear about his target in a letter he wrote to Mr. Maginn in 1821. What is the thing to take from this letter of his? That he is offended by Don Juan on behalf of womankind and manhood, and that he not only doesn’t have an axe to grind about the book, but he should, rather wholeheartedly endorse it out of hand. Why? Mr. Blackwood was a bookseller by trade. Criticizing a book – and especially in his private life – was against his economic compass. Yet he persists:
I did read it (Don Juan), and I declare solemnly to you, much as I admire the
talent and genius displayed in it, I never in my life was so filled with utter disgust. It was not the grossness or blackguardism which struck me, but it was the vile, heartless, and cold-blooded way in which this fiend attempted to degrade every tender and sacred feeling of the human heart. I felt such a revolting at the whole book after I had finished it, that I was glad of the excuse I had…for refusing to sell it. (380)
This is strong, deeply personal feeling. It is centered on the protection of womankind and also on protection of the noble ideal of man. What is sacred, he says, has become profane through Don Juan. What should be tender, that moment of observation and interaction with a woman, has become vile and cold hearted. Quite an indictment this is!
Where do all these objections come from? What has been so mistreated by Byron? A few pieces come to mind and find themselves at the forefront of the argument against the misogyny of the Lord. Where did he go wrong? Consider as a converse his poem She Walks in Beauty. Of his subject, Byron writes:
She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow’d to that tender light which heaven to gaudy day denies. (707)
So it is apparently not Lord Byron in toto that offends. Don Juan peculiarly stands somewhat singularly. Let us now partake of a couple of pieces of that poem. From The Isles of Greece:
Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
Our virgins dance beneath the shade –
I see their glorious black eyes shine;
But, gazing on each glowing maid,
My own the burning tear-drop laves,
To think such breasts must suckle slaves. (2625)
And from Canto Fifteen:
The Lady Adeline, right honourable;
And honour’d, ran a risk of growing less so;
For few of the soft sex are very stable
In their resolves – – alas! That I should say so!
They differ as wine differs from its label,
When once decanted; — I presume to guess so,
But will not swear: yet both upon occasion,
Till old, may undergo adulteration. (VI)
It surely does not take long to see what the feminist opinion of these would be. It is not surprising, then, to see that the references I have brought are so concrete, so consistent. It is hard to interpret Don Juan in any other fashion. Especially because we can see, and others did see, that Lord Byron could be different, and could write differently. Don Juan then becomes a scourge to society when it is understood that it has intentional ill will. The Isles of Greece takes on a much different, more lascivious view of womankind than did She Walks in Beauty.
Perhaps it could at least only be perceived to be racist. Wouldn’t that be kinder? Of course not, but at least it would settle the feminist issue. But we cannot come to that concord because of the second piece, above. The fifteenth canto expresses more than enough to outrage the feminist as well. In it is found a sex that is only honourable as a vagary, and is prone to sway back in forth in prudence.
Not the ‘soft sex’ that is gentle in his other poems, but soft in resolve, and unstable, to boot! Finally, there is apparently always the chance that until a woman gets old, and this may be an allusion to the fact that in Don Juan’s opinion old women are no longer desirable, they may turn adulterous if the feeling catches them. This is not the way to make friends with women, nor those who would fancy women with honor.
So where does this leave the legacy of Lord Byron, as far as being the author of Don Juan? It is serious enough that it has overshadowed his very presence in the literary realm. Robert Southey, poet laureate, declares this particular work to not only be insidious, but that it is, “A foul blot on the literature of his country, an act of high treason on English poetry.” This particular verbiage brings us round full circle, back to Mitford. Both are unhappy with even sharing British-ness with George Gordon Lord Byron.
Even more striking is that this is not just populist sentiment…the two were writing personal letters that were unknown to the other over fifty years separated. That is why it is easier to say that they represent feminist thought. Feminism is a consistent pattern. It is one of respect for women, and defense of morals over a long period of time. As such, quotes from disparate peoples, disparate times and yet consistent criticism speak strongly to the association with a movement, not just a mode.
To bring this thought process to conclusion, I feel it is not enough to say that the feminists’ opinions on Don Juan would be uniformly against the work. It is not enough to state that many have rallied and railed against it over time with one voice. It is time to explore for a moment not only the ‘why’ of their disgruntlement. What would they have changed? It seems manifest that Byron himself may or may not have been the problem.
It would appear that he demonstrated proper respect, restraint and admiration for women in earlier poems. I do not feel that he would have been demonized had Don Juan taken on the direction it did. In fact I believe that feminists could have approved of the poem had Juan himself not been transformed. What would they have changed? If there was a drive or petition for recall, what would it include?
From the outset, there is room for understanding. There could be some common ground to be had. Feminists could take the side that Juan was an innocent young boy who was nearly irresistible to women. Surely it was scandalous when he became involved with Julia in the first canto. But this was dealt with as something to avoid, not prosecute. Juan was sent away.
There is nothing overly problematic in that. I do not think that a foul has been committed. Even at the fourth canto, Juan is not a reprobate. He is with Haidee but she is available for a paramour. It is easy to dismiss the rage of her father as pure protectionism. Again, Juan has not done anything overtly wrong, nothing to point a wagging finger at. This, then, is not what causes the feminists’ ire. We can actually sympathize for the deposed lad. He is getting sent around and around at whims.
Sadly for Juan, Don Juan, and ultimately Lord Byron himself, this pattern of globetrotting lover becomes unbearably ad nauseum. It becomes hard to defend him, and difficult to swallow. One cannot endure seventeen cantos of, “It’s not my fault.” Quickly one begins to realize from language, situation, circumstance and treatment that Juan is little more than a player.
He is not slowed down by penalty. Admonishment does not deter him. He continues to ‘catch the eye’ of any and all females, whether they are available or not. This treatment leads feminists to concur: Byron is calling womankind impetuous, and tools to be used. As long as nothing horrible befalls the hero, his behavior is not judged to be punishable. Therefore these constant encounters must be the cause of the women, who just cannot help but falling for an attractive male.
Is this accusation of Don Juan fair? It is. The feminist opinion of the poem is not only timely, but consistent. It was not a hot headed reaction merely founded at the time of publication. The assault did not begin at some fixed time in history to be abandoned quickly. The references above show a progressive awareness of the flaws of Juan. Knowing what Lord Byron was capable of, the romantic that he could be, the readers did have the context available to not jump to quick judgment.
It is the poem itself, the workings of the traveling Don Juan that begins to convince. Slowly over the length and breadth of the work, readers are allowed to see, and feminists are allowed to be convinced, that women are being disrespected and used only to satisfy a storyline and a personal satisfaction. As Don Juan suffers the attention of the generations since, it only causes a gelling effect. From female poets, to male editors, from personal acquaintances to contemporary businessmen, the opinion of feminists of any day resounds: Lord Byron’s version of manhood represented a rapscallion at best, and a misogynist at worst.
Blackwood, William. “Letter to Maginn.” William Blackwood and His Sons Vol. I. London:
Oliphant, 1821. 380.
Brydges, Sir Samuel E. Autobiography Vol. II. London: Cochrane and M’Crone, 1834. 229.
Byron, Lord George Gordon. “She Walks in Beauty.” The Oxford Book of English Verse
1250-1918. Ed. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949. 707-08.
Byron, Lord George Gordon. “The Isles of Greece.” The Home Book of Verse Vol. II (6th
Ed.). Burton Egbert Stevenson. New York: Henry Holt, 1918. 2625-27.
Byron, Lord George Gordon. Don Juan. London: Penguin, 2004.
Carlyle, Thomas. “Letter to Jane Welsh.” Life of Carlyle Vol. I. Ed. James Anthony Froude.
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