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PAUL FLECK Romance in Don Juan* Byron wrote to Lady Melbourne on 1 July 1813 that he had I a natural love of contradiction and paradox,' and he acknowledged to himself (6 December ) in the journal he began to keep in the same year that if he were honest with himself every page would contradict and utterly abjure the page before. 1 Critics of Byron's greatest work have quite rightly started by taking him at his word and have observed, as Byron himself characterized the view of one contemporary reviewer, that Don Juan i drenches' us in one stanza only to 'scorch' us in the next.2 The reviewer objected that such a procedure was totally incompatible with experience. Byron's reply is justly well known: Blessings on his experience! ... Did he never play at Cricket, or walk a mile in hot weather? Did he never spill a dish of tea over his testicles in handing a cup to his charmer, to the great shame of his nankeen breeches? Did he never swim in the sea at Noonday with the Sun in his eyes and on his head, which all the foam of Ocean could not cool? Did he never draw his foot out of a tub of too hot water, damning his eyes and his valet's? Did he never inject for a Gonorrhea? or make water through an ulcerated Urethra? Was he ever in a Turkish bath, that marble paradise of sherbet and Sodomy?3 [II, 807] Byron's reply attends to the reviewer's immediate concern, which was the first two cantos of the poem. There, contradiction reigns. The characteristic structure of these cantos and of those which take Juan as far as Russia is that of explosion: the explosion of an illusion into a kind of reality which is itself little more than an awareness of the scattered fragments of the initial illusion. 'Little more' refers to the quantity of the awareness and not to its quality. The variety of the awareness is remarkable : sometimes, it is satiric, as in Juan's love for Julia; sometimes tragic, as in the death of Haidee; sometimes satiric-tragic, as in the fate of Julia, and sometimes tragic-satiric, as in most of the war episodes. And there is, overall, a kind of comic awareness in the rush of the poem on to its next episode. Alvin Kernan is particularly helpful here: The bewildering number of contradictory opinions which the poem offers through the voice of the narrator and the actions of dramatis personae resolve ultimately into three senses of life: comic, satiric, and tragic. In the interweaving of these senses, Kernan continues: *This paper was read at a conference on Don Juan convened at the University of Western Ontario, November 1974. 94 PAUL FLECK What we are faced with is not a simple irony which involves only two points, what seems and is, but an endlessly complicating ambiguity, a series of perspectives , each of which is as true as any other. In the end the narrator recognizes that all these opposites tend to cancel one another out, and we are left with the possibility that rather than having one, or two or three opinions, he actually may have none at all.4 What I wish to do in this essay is to add to Kernan's senses or perspectives a fourth - romance - and to argue that in the first part of the poem Byron reacts tragically, comically, and satirically to the impossibility of that fourth sense. Reality, common sense, experience, reason, history itself contradict romance. However lingeringly, however sadly, however humorously, the narrator must therefore bid it farewell. The thing is impossible. The possibility of learning how to handle one's dish of tea more deftly is so remote as to urge that no second attempt be made. In the English cantos, however, particularly after the introduction of Aurora Raby, romance comes to function in a different way. It ceases to be the sense which common sense seems merely to dissolve. Contradiction begins to assume the shape of paradox; irony, the force of satire. What was impossible begins to look possible. I do not say probable: that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 93-108
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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