S Editor's note

Byron's Don Juan - a short note

The preparation of this annotated web version of Byron's Don Juan has been a labor of over four years. And very pleasant work, too. The text I have followed is that of Coleridge (1904), with frequent reference to the Riverside Edition edited by Leslie A. Marchand (1958) and to the definitive variorum edition by Truman Guy Steffan and Willis W. Pratt (U. Texas Press, 1957).

The annotations fall into three classes:

Despite the length of time and the wonderfully high quality of the sources, this remains both an amatuer and an incomplete effort. I am no scholar, and you should trust my editing but little, my annotations less, and my opinions not at all. The notes I have already made are incomplete; I will be adding annotations for probably another four years.

Fortunately, my deficiencies will not detract from your enjoyment of Don Juan, which is probably the most entertaining long poem in the English language. The wit is crisp, the jokes still seem fresh. The informal manner of the poem draws your sympathy to Byron and that sympathy makes the skewering of his targets the more satisfying. The language is chaste enough for a child, but the poem and its situations are distinctly adult. If this is your first introduction to the poem, your reaction is likely to that you didn't know good poetry could be so much fun.

The poem should be read at the same pace as a novel, though with perhaps a more careful appreciation of the author's skill in the language. It isn't about anything, except possibly Byron and his opinions. Don Juan has been described as "an incessant monologue, in the course of which a story manages to be told". The frequent allusions to people and incidents in Byron's life can, however, slow you down. My annotations are mainly intended to provide the referential basis for enjoying the poem. An overview of Byron's life and career is also useful, so I have included part of the Chambers' biographical article:

[George Gordon, 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale was] born in London (1788), son of the irresponsible and eccentric Captain "Mad Jack" Byron (1756-91) and Catherine Gordon of Gight, Aberdeen, a Scottish heiress. His grandfather was admiral John ("Foulweather Jack") Byron. His first ten years were spent in his mother's lodgings in Aberdeen, her husband having squandered her fortune in France. Byron was lame from birth and the shabby surroundings and the violent temper of his foolish, vulgar and deserted mother produced a repression in him which explains many of his later actions.

In 1798 he succeeded to the title on the death of 'the wicked lord' his great uncle. He was educated at Aberdeen grammar school, then privately at Dulwich and at Harrow, proceeding to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1805, where he read much, swam and boxed, and led a dissipated life.

An early collection of poems under the title of Hours of Idleness was reprinted with alterations in 1807 and was "savagely cut up" by the Edinburgh Review in 1808. Byron replied with his powerful Popian satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), and set out on his grand tour, visiting Spain, Malta, Albania, Greece, and the Ægean, returning after two years with "a great many stanzas in Spenser's measure relative to the countries he had visited," which appeared under the title of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in 1812 and were widely popular.

He became the darling of London society, and lover of Lady Caroline Lamb, and gave to Europe the concept of the "Byronic hero". In 1815 he married an heiress, Anne Isabella Milbanke, who left him in 1816 after the birth of a daughter, Ada (later Countess Lovelace [and much later a cult-figure among computer programmers]). He was also suspected of a more than brotherly love for his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and was ostracized. He left for the continent, traveling through Belgium and the Rhine country to Switzerland, where he met Shelley, and on to Venice and Rome, where he wrote the last canto of Childe Harold (1817).

He spent two years in Venice and met the Countess Teresa Guiccioli, who became his mistress. Some of his best works belong to this period, including Beppo (1818), A Vision of Judgment (1822), and Don Juan (1819-1824), written in a new metre (ottava rima) and in an informal conversational manner which enabled him to express the whole of his complex personality.

He gave active help to the Italian revolutionaries and founded with Leigh Hunt a short-lived journal, The Liberal. In 1823 he joined the Greek insurgents who had risen against the Turks, and died of marsh fever at Missolonghi. His body was brought back to England and buried at Hucknall Torkard in Nottingham.

If you are interested in the details of how Don Juan was created and in critical analysis of the poem, I recommend The Making of a Masterpiece by Truman Guy Steffan (U Texas Press, 1957). There are some earlier critical studies also, rather hard to find now.

I am still finding typographical and other errors in my preparation of this poem. Far from being offended, I will be grateful to you for pointing out textual and factual problems with this edition, which you can report to me at bblair48@yahoo.com.