I have always been fascinated by Don Juan‘s structure: “My way is to begin with the beginning” (50). In some ways, I see Byron possibly invoking Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, a long but satirical novel about digressions and delayed beginnings. In similar fashion, Byron mocks formal narrative structures that rely closely on temporal frameworks like starting from the middle (medias res). Does he actually begin from the beginning and avoid “all wandering as the worst of sinning” (52), or is he mocking both medias res and ab ovo (from the womb/beginning) temporal frameworks? Moreover, what can we call Don Juan‘s temporal structure if we accept that it is neither medias res nor ab ovo?
The very first line: “I want a hero, an uncommon want” (1). We’ve seen writers from Jane Austen to Sir Walter Scott immersed in detailing heroes and heroines. Wanting a hero is not too “uncommon,” Byron! In any case, how does Don Juan further complicate our understanding of the romantic ‘hero’?
Away from Byron, let’s look at Marshall Brown. He claims, “[T]he uses to which we put periods depend crucially on how we delimit them. Boundaries can be synchronic or diachronic, rough or smooth, externally or internally motivated. The art lies in the cutting” (315). According to Brown, periods are about limits, yet I think his definition is far too loose to even reconcile the ‘problem’ of periods. Is there something at stake in saying periods depend on delimiting, delimiting that is perhaps too broad and possibly evades any stable definition of ‘period’? And finally, how would Siskin respond to Brown’s argument?
Don Juan: Discussion Questions
1) “My way is to begin with the beginning” (50). I found this line an extremely humorous little punch at the literature that was being produced at the moment. This line is not only preceded by a lengthy dedication but also six stanzas; furthermore, the line doesn’t even begin the stanza. While this seems like a little joke sprinkled in, it is actually a very good indicator on what the reader will expect to see in the rest of the cantos. Lord Byron plays with not only the set concepts of genre but also accepted poetic structure. The hero is completely unexpected as are the situations he manages to get into. So I would like to discuss how this line is a hint to the readers about how Don Juan, everything from the pronunciation of the hero’s name, to the poem that follows.
2) As an add on to the previous discussion question about the unexpected hero, I would like to talk about how a gender problem that also arises in regards to Don Juan. The first easily noticeable occurrence of this appears when he slips out of Julia’s bed. She not only stands and verbally fights her husband but she seems to take not only the masculine role of Don Juan but also of her husband, Don Alfonso; each man seems summarily disarmed and verbally dismembered. Perhaps more problematic are the scenes in the harem where Don Juan is not only taken in a dressed as a female but he is among females who are specifically subordinates to one man. The lack of masculinity that Don Juan seems to have is troubling but what makes it somehow even more of a problem is how is woman that appear to be exhibiting the masculinity that he should while he embodies the femininity that they lack.
3) Also, I believe that we should take a quick look at Stanzas 38 through 48. The choice of texts Donna Inez allows and bars from her son’s education are intriguing. She is creating her own sort of cannon that seems completely illogical. I’d like to discuss how this relates to the literature being taught in college and school at the time, especially to boys. It wouldn’t be too crazy to also take a moment and briefly touch on how Lord Byron may be making a commentary on this through Donna Inez’s whims in a sort of reflection of the way Northanger Abby’s narrator burst forth to vehemently discuss books and female writers.
In Canto II, verse 170, Byron writes: “But who is their purveyor from above/ Heaven knows,—it may be Neptune, Pan, or Jove” (476). And in Canto II, verse 132, he writes: “But, by God’s grace, here wrecks were in such plenty,/ That there was fuel to have furnish’d twenty” (466). Mellor’s article explains some of the philosophical background behind Byron’s and others’ acceptance of the world as impossible to fully understand. However, existence of a higher power seems to be playing some role in Byron’s poem. Is this satirical? Is this just a convention he includes because he is writing in epic form? Or is this a version of what Abrams, described in Mellor’s article, calls the romantic writers’ tendency to “present a secularized Judaeo-Christian conception of an ordered, teleological universe in which mankind progresses toward an apocalyptic marriage with the divine and a return to paradise” (5)? I’m trying to figure out how a reactionary stance against the Enlightenment could or couldn’t relate to this.
In Anne K. Mellor’s “The Paradigm of Romantic Irony,” Mellor examines Friedrich Schlegel’s conception of romantic irony as paradigmatic model to explain romantic irony as a “philosophical conception of universe and artistic program” (4) that constitutes a “mode of consciousness or way of thinking about the world that finds a corresponding literary mode” (24). This literary mode demands a certain ironic artist who “engages in the difficult but exhilarating balancing between self-creation and self destruction…and articulates this experience in a form that simultaneously creates and de-creates itself” (Mellor 24). Mellor’s argument outlines philosophical irony and artistic irony (philosophical irony’s implications) to make certain claims about the ironic works of art and the authors of these works. Generally, Mellor holds that “artistic irony can manifest itself in the work of art as a process of simultaneous creation and de-creation: as two opposed voices or personae, or two contradictory ideas or themes, which the author carefully balances and refuses to synthesize or harmonize…the use of opposing voices, ideas, and even artistic structures operates both to affirm and to undermine the artist and his vision” (18).
Specifically, she notes that the “ironic author always makes his audience aware of his presence behind and in the work of art, a presence that simultaneously creates and wittily mocks the work before them,” a conception of artistic irony Schlegel categorizes as “transcendental buffoonery” (17).
Mellor cites Byron’s Don Juan as the “greatest exemplar” of romantic irony, a “deliberately open-ended and inconclusive” work (6) while also listing “Keats’s unresolved Odes, love poems, and The Fall of Hyperion…[as well as] Coleridge’s guilt-ridden ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ as “[presenting] a simultaneously creative and de-creative form” (6).
Thus, I’d like us to test Mellor’s claim by exploring how Byron (and perhaps some of our previously studied authors such as Keats and Coleridge) enacts Mellor’s/Schlegel’s conception of romantic irony. How do Byron’s works enact this irony in comparison to other authors? Where can we as the audience see his presence as an author behind and in his work of art? (And what value is gained here?) Why does it matter that Byron and Keats can be considered to produce this literary mode? Finally, what value or application does romantic irony add as a mode of consciousness to our study of romanticism?
In McGann’s article Mobility and the poetics of historical ventriloquism, he explores the idea of Romantic mobility–as Byron put it, “an excessive susceptibility of immediate impressions…though sometimes apparently useful to the possessor, a most painful and unhappy attribute” (39). He asserts that mobility “involves a structure of social relations and not simply a psychological characteristic” (40). What seems to be most important to note is “the negative dimension which Byron sees in the artist of mobility” (41)—evident in Lady Adeline’s “barely perceptible ‘look…/ Of weariness or scorn” in the midst of playing her “grand role” and the lack of such expression or sentiment in Southey and his engagement with “those who might advance his literary career and projects” (42).
McGann’s perception of Byron’s idea of Romantic mobility becomes most interesting where he pulls Byron’s own self representation into the poetry. He asserts that Byron “gestures toward similarities and differences which link Byron to his dark double, Robert Southey” (42). What do you think of McGann’s assertion that intermixed within the stanzas that allude to Southey are stanzas that “disturb the proprieties which customarily govern Byron’s satire”? Do you agree that in the allusion to Southey, we do indeed see the “outlines of another, unexpected face”–that which Byron inserts of himself?
In “Immediacy, Hypermediacy and Remediation,” Bolter and Grusin write that “The logic of hypermediacy multiplies the signs of mediation and in this way tries to reproduce the rich sensorium of human experience” (34) Reading this led me to think back to our discussion of the multiple voices in Shelley’s Frankenstein. To what extent might we consider these voices indicative of hypermediacy? Bolter and Grusin also argue that “To achieve transparency, …the artist must also work the surface to erase his brush strokes” (25). What evidence do we have to support the notion that Shelley might have been aiming for transparency through the erasure of her authorial voice?
I also considered this absence of authorial voice in contrast to Lord Byron’s very present authorial voice in Don Juan. We are, at all times, aware of the narrator and his personality and identity. Is this an experience of hypermediacy, and if so, how does this help to “reproduce the rich sensorium of the human experience?” Does such a voice affect the authenticity of the reading experience? Do Don Juan’s classifications as a satire and an epic of sorts indicate its status as a remediation? And if so, bearing in mind Bolter and Grusin’s belief that creators of remediations “want to emphasize the difference rather than erase it” (46), what differences does Byron highlight and how?
Finally, is it valid to apply Bolter and Grusin’s theories regarding visual media to literature, or is it problematic to do so? Is transparency always the goal of literature, as Bolter and Grusin claim it is the goal of visual media (46)?
In his book chapter “Mobility and the poetics of historical ventriloquism,” McGann writes:
Byron everywhere speaks of the degeneracy of his period, a condition he deplored in the political, poetical, and moral cant which was being delivered by contemporary ideologues like Southey. These are the voices who speak with authority of what is right and wrong, good and evil, angelic and satanic. Byron’s voice, by contrast, undercuts and renders ironic every voice which pretends to assume this kind of authority. (49)
While he specifically refers to Canto III with this statement, I think that this statement could apply to Byron’s creation of Donna Inez. He frequently points to her hypocrisy, particularly in relationships between men and women as well as in the education of her son. She is the voice of authority who determines binaries, while Byron’s narrator’s tone continually emphasizes the failings in her ideas. Where else do we find examples of this clashing between the ideologues and irony? Is this a trait common to Byron’s female characters, or do the males also fall prey to Byron’s wit and questionably morality?
In the poem “A Fragment,” there are a some questions that I have and some lines that I would like to examine more closely.
- The title seems to suggest that it was created due Byron not naming the piece. Is this true?
- Why was the poem left as a fragment? Was it simply incomplete at the time of Byron’s death? Or was its fragmentary nature supposed to be a consistent with the theme of life and death in the poem?
- What does an incomplete poem bring to our understanding of Byron’s work? Should we even include “A Fragment” in Byron’s canon? When considering what to place in an author’s canon, what forms of writing are deemed important enough to include? How do you decide what to leave out? Incomplete work? Letters (as with Keats)? Laundry receipts?
- The concept of the “the Absent are the dead” is somewhat vague. Is Bryon literally referring to the absence of the dead from our lives? Or are living individuals not currently present (geographically/ temporally) somehow symbolically dead? Why is the word “Absent” capitalized? Are the Absent being treated like other collective groups (i.e. Greeks, Protestants, etc.)? Lastly, how are the dead absent when the “millions mingled” are overwhelming present later in the poem?
Though the eponymous title indicates that Don Juan might be the central focus of Byron’s satirical epic poem, it seems to me that the narrator is really the main character here. I’m interested in the constant interjections that the narrator makes. He persistently announces his stance as a figure of moral authority, goes into long digressive diatribes, makes bold claims about his ability as a poet, and harshly criticizes the Lake poets (which feels anachronistic and misaligned with the genre). Can we attribute any of the asides or commentaries on adultery, education, morality, gender, etc. to Byron’s personal beliefs or is he poking fun at his subject matter and the audience throughout the entire piece? Also, is the narrator a sympathetic one, or is the sympathy feigned and acting as a mask for actual cynicism? What can we make of the fact that the narrator claims at several points to have bore witness to these events (“All these confirm my statement a good deal / But that which more completely faith exacts / Is, that myself, and several now in Seville, / Saw Juan’s last elopement with the devil”) (ll 1621-1624)?
After the narrator indulges in Orientalist fantasy in Canto III of Don Juan, the narrator introduces the poet of Haidee’s feast, who “sung like the Sultan and the Pacha / With truth like Southey and with verse like Crashaw” (631-632). In the very next stanza, the narrator claims:
He was a man who had seen many changes,
And always changed as true as any needle;
His polar star being one which rather ranges,
And not the fix’d—he knew the way to wheedle:
So vile, he ‘scaped the doom which oft avenges;
And being fluent (save indeed when fee’d ill),
He lied with such a fervor of intention—
There was no doubt he earn’d his laureate pension. (633-640)
Thinking back to Leigh Hunt’s condemnation of poor “Mouthey” Southey, how does Byron figure the poet’s role within social and national contexts? The critique in this stanza is of inconstancy, similar to Hunt’s critique of Wordsworth and Southey for betraying, and hence being inconstant, to their revolutionary commitments. There are other models of inconstancy within Don Juan, notably the gendered models of sexual and romantic desire. How does this poem make meaning at the intersections of the poet figure, gender, and the nation?