I will not write of Lord Byron's life; mblase has done as much already, and there are scholars on the site far more suited to that task. I will also not attempt to explicate the epic poem itself, in much detail, as it would take a work of immense length to accomplish any thorough analysis.
I will say that Byron could no more write nearly sixteen thousand lines about a swinging Spanish cavalier and his pan-European sexual exploits than you could sit still long enough to read them; Don Juan is about a great deal more than that; it is complex, satirical, egomanical, and utterly self-involved, as one would expect, but it is also insightful, intelligent, and thought-provoking.
Bear with me, please--this writeup will be less about a poem than a prophecy--one in which this site has been embroiled for a long time--and I swear, it will be relatively brief.
When we think of Romanticism, we often think of William Wordsworth; we think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of moonlight, nightingales, and Nature. We think of poets high on mountaintops awaiting the Apocalypse with open arms, looking forward to the world's regeneration in the aftermath. Beauty, love, impassioned optimism and hope ; the hearbeat of England, long unheard beneath the rumbling progress of the Enlightenment. The first generation of Romantic poets, writing in the last quarter of the 18th Century, might have believed it. They wrote through the War of American Independence and the French Revolution, they watched as nations rose against tyranny. Life, liberty, egalité, fraternité. Of course, it was inspiring.
But one movement did't take. Robespierre's Terror rose from the ashes of the Bastille, breaking the promise of 1789. A decade later, when Napoleon's armies were in Egypt under a French flag, Wordsworth and Coleridge saw England as the last line of defense against the spread of French Imperialism. Britain joined the European effort to halt Napoleon's progress, and restore the Bourbon dynasty to the throne.
Byron, and the "second generation" of Romantic poets, did not center their thoughts in the Terror, France's self-betrayal. They wrote from the turn of the century, and saw from that vantage a lengthening history of English leadership struggling to reestablish monarchical dominance on the Continent, a Continent Napoleon meant to restructure according to the Republican principles Byron identified as the basis of the Revolution in the first place. Britain, as he saw it, espoused the cause of freedom as justification for her actions abroad, but in truth only sought to position herself to the best possible advantage. He did not share Wordsworth's sense of hope. He saw an Apocalypse without a Resurrection, the decay of his nation. Byron's Romanticism was laced with cynicism and satire, political invectives and infuriated attacks on many of his contemporaries. He could not find a hero in Britain, which, in raising its own Imperial standard, lowered all its others.
Byron looked to the West as the new seat of liberty. Several times throughout Don Juan, Byron invokes the name of Washington as a paragon of all that Britain should have been, all that men like Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington turned out not to be.
I am an American. And now, when I hear the name George Washington , I sneer.
I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one...
Neither of Byron's long poems, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage nor Don Juan, are about the United States. But in many ways, reductively, perhaps, or only upon superficial observation, this nation has inherited from its mother country the same degenerative condition. The chatterbox and many a node have said as much. Every week an article in The Onion reminds us, and every day, CNN affirms it. It is not a good time to be a conscientious American. Nationalism and Patriotism, at the best of times united in meaning, would seem to have separated, for those who express discontent or seek change. How can you be a good American in a bad America?
Byron did not stay in England. He became an expatriate and an ex-patriot, who, unable to find an English hero, for his greatest work borrowed a Spanish character. That character wandered through almost every Empire in Europe, past or present. No Empire ever rose but ultimately Fell; Byron speaks severally of Adam and Eve, of power and ambition, of decline.
The U.S. is not, may never have been, the U.S. of 1776 as we now think of it. It has arrived at a terrible maturity, and like so many individuals will do, it seems to have turned on the ideals of its youth. We have no heroes, any more. There are no Great Men, or, if there are, they go unnoticed, ignored. Where is our General Washington? Where is our Jefferson, our Franklin, our Abraham Lincoln? Has all they stood for been reduced to portraits on our currency? In a hundred years, whose will have been the voice of Common Sense?
Ask me in whom I believe, I can give you no answer. Byron may have believed in himself, but that belief wasn't enough to change the course of history. He abandoned the future for the past, gave hundreds of pages and eventually his health to restoring the independence of mankinds' ancient seats in Italy and Greece. We only find our heroes amongst the dead. We have to do better.
And then with tears, and sighs, and some slight kisses,
They parted for the present, these to await,
According to the artillery's hits or misses,
What Sages call Chance, Providence, or Fate--
Uncertainty is one of many blisses,
A mortgage on Humanity's estate--
While their beloved friends began to arm,
To burn a town which never did them harm.
Byron's lines in Canto VII refer to Ismail, a city on the Danube taken in 1790 by combined, but mainly Russian, forces. The town was under Turkish, read Muslim, control.
The obvious parallel to the U.S. is Baghdad. In reading the passages, I cannot help but make connections, and each one disheartens me further. There is enough on this site and in the air about the current War, and all our current wars, that I need add nothing more. Support it or don't, there it is; happening again.
In Byron's lifetime, England was under Hanoverian royalty. George III, by 1811, was generally recognized as insane. His son, the Prince Regent, in 1820 George IV, from the onset, was generally recognized as an imbecile. In Don Juan, he gets no good review.
Of course, we have our own dubious George. He came to the throne in an unsavory manner, by large acknowledgment enitirely undeserving. He does not rule by majority consent, but with the help of his brother, usurped the throne. If that's what you believe. There are none who can say that all proceedings were beyond reproach. And there is nothing all who say as much could do about it.
I say, Don Juan, wrapt in contemplation,
Walked on behind his carriage, o'er the summit,
And lost in wonder of so great a nation,
Gave way to to't, since he could not overcome it.
'And here,' he cried, 'is Freedom's chosen station;
Here peals the people's voice, nor can entomb it
Racks, prisons, inquisitions; resurrection
Awaits it, each new meeting or election.
Thus does Don Juan greet England. But his description sounds very much like that now typically reserved for the U.S. We are, or hold ourselves to be, Freedom's chosen station; our democratically elected leaders hearken to us, our spirit is indomitable. Such words as appear in Stanza 9 of Canto XI are now overwhelmingly associated with America. But Byron is satirizing them. In the next stanza, Don Juan's praise of England is literally interrupted, mid-line, by his being robbed at knifepoint.
Byron no longer believed. Many of us here no longer believe. But in large measure, I no longer even have the will to lampoon. I don't know where to start, or how to proceed. I don't want to lend my voice to what I think are mindless America-bashers, choosing the most obvious target. But the most obvious also seems the most deserving, and all my attempts at defense seem poor excuses. "Yes,'' I say, it's true, we do these things, but...we've still the best system, the best quality of life, we still believe..."
It feels as though our margin is narrowing, that the cost is closing in on our benefit. We must become worse to keep our edge, sacrifice our integrity to our comfort. Our fingerprints are at too many crime scenes. We lie, cheat, and steal; we have become a nation of highwaymen.
I have no great cause to love that spot of earth,
Which holds what might have been the noblest nation;
But though I owe it little but my birth,
I feel a mixed regret and veneration
For its decaying fame and former worth.
Seven years (the usual term of transportation)
Of absence lay one's old resentments level,
When a man's country's going to the devil.
Alas! could She but fully, truly, know
How her great name is now throughout abhorred;
How eager all the earth is for the blow
Which shall lay bare her bosom to the sword;
How all the nations deem her their worst foe,
That worse than worst of foes, the once adored
False friend, who held out freedom to mankind,
And now would chain them, to the very mind;--
Byron didn't see an England at its end; he saw it on its way, recognized the path. Ascent, summit, decline. Britain in 1820 was not yet at its height. The sun would never set on Victoria's Empire, and only the end of another century would witness in appreciable qualities the fulfillment of Byron's fears. He felt the tremors early and wrote down his warnings. We have them. It has happened to every Empire before our own. We know what's coming. What are we supposed to do? Why can't we seem to stop it?
The last ten years have left me scared and isolated. The anger I feel on behalf of my country--this country--is decaying into a numbing sort of sadness. I want a hero--but do not want to be one. I do not want to be the Great Man who gives his life to restore America. Nothing I have seen, or done, or been, has bred that in me, and I wonder too often if that desire can flourish anywhere anymore, or if, like Byron's England, we are beyond a Resurrection.
I do not want to help--this is the most terrible thing, I think, this failure of my character, this urge I feel, like a rat, to flee a sinking ship. I should have been better, would have thought I'd be better, had hoped America would have made me--better. We somehow failed each other.
Is this what Byron felt, I wonder--this what he saw, but could not stem? Perhaps, and perhaps--or course--I'm a pretentious fuck; long-winded and arrogant, I've heard. I don't think I'd fight for anyone's independence but my own. I am part of the problem. I'm the first to admit it. But there are moments when I want to fight for something, even if I don't know what it is. Why shouldn't it be this, my country? One cause should be enough.
At least Byron bled for Greece.
When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,
Let him combat for that of his neighbors;
Let him think of the glories of Greece and Rome,
And get knock'd on the head for his labors.
To do good to mankind is the chivalrous plan,
And is always as nobly requited;
Then battle for freedom wherever you can,
And, if not shot or hang'd, you'll get knighted.