Don Juan: Canto the First

Original Text: 
Byron, Works. 17 vols. London: John Murray, 1832-33. PR 4351 M6 1832 ROBA
1I want a hero: an uncommon want,
2     When every year and month sends forth a new one,
4     The age discovers he is not the true one;
5Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
6     I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan,
8Sent to the Devil somewhat ere his time.
10     Prince Ferdinand, Granby, Burgoyne, Keppel, Howe,
11Evil and good, have had their tithe of talk,
14     Followers of fame, "nine farrow" of that sow:
15France, too, had Buonaparté and Dumourier
18     Pétion, Clootz, Danton, Marat, La Fayette
19Were French, and famous people, as we know;
20     And there were others, scarce forgotten yet,
21Joubert, Hoche, Marceau, Lannes, Desaix, Moreau,
22     With many of the military set,
23Exceedingly remarkable at times,
24But not at all adapted to my rhymes.
25Nelson was once Britannia's god of War,
26     And still should be so, but the tide is turn'd;
27There's no more to be said of Trafalgar,
28     'Tis with our hero quietly inurn'd;
29Because the army's grown more popular,
30     At which the naval people are concern'd;
31Besides, the Prince is all for the land-service,
34     And since, exceeding valorous and sage,
35A good deal like him too, though quite the same none;
36     But then they shone not on the poet's page,
37And so have been forgotten: I condemn none,
38     But can't find any in the present age
39Fit for my poem (that is, for my new one);
40So, as I said, I'll take my friend Don Juan.
42     (Horace makes this the heroic turnpike road),
43And then your hero tells, whene'er you please,
45While seated after dinner at his ease,
46     Beside his mistress in some soft abode,
47Palace, or garden, paradise, or cavern,
48Which serves the happy couple for a tavern.
49That is the usual method, but not mine--
50     My way is to begin with the beginning;
51The regularity of my design
52     Forbids all wandering as the worst of sinning,
53And therefore I shall open with a line
54     (Although it cost me half an hour in spinning),
55Narrating somewhat of Don Juan's father,
56And also of his mother, if you'd rather.
1594     Divided in twelve books; each book containing,
1595With love, and war, a heavy gale at sea,
1596     A list of ships, and captains, and kings reigning,
1597New characters; the episodes are three:
1598     A panoramic view of Hell's in training,
1599After the style of Virgil and of Homer,
1600So that my name of Epic's no misnomer.
1601All these things will be specified in time,
1602     With strict regard to Aristotle's rules,
1604     Which makes so many poets, and some fools:
1605Prose poets like blank-verse, I'm fond of rhyme,
1606     Good workmen never quarrel with their tools;
1607I've got new mythological machinery,
1608And very handsome supernatural scenery.
1609There's only one slight difference between
1610     Me and my epic brethren gone before,
1611And here the advantage is my own, I ween,
1612     (Not that I have not several merits more,
1613But this will more peculiarly be seen);
1614     They so embellish, that 'tis quite a bore
1615Their labyrinth of fables to thread through,
1616Whereas this story's actually true.
1617If any person doubt it, I appeal
1618     To history, tradition, and to facts,
1619To newspapers, whose truth all know and feel,
1620     To plays in five, and operas in three acts;
1621All these confirm my statement a good deal,
1622     But that which more completely faith exacts
1623Is, that myself, and several now in Seville,
1624 Saw Juan's last elopement with the Devil.
1625If ever I should condescend to prose,
1626     I'll write poetical commandments, which
1627Shall supersede beyond all doubt all those
1628     That went before; in these I shall enrich
1629My text with many things that no one knows,
1630     And carry precept to the highest pitch:
1631I'll call the work "Longinus o'er a Bottle,
1632Or, Every Poet his own Aristotle."
1633Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
1634     Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
1635Because the first is craz'd beyond all hope,
1636     The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthy:
1637With Crabbe it may be difficult to cope,
1639Thou shalt not steal from Samuel Rogers, nor
1640Commit--flirtation with the muse of Moore.
1642     His Pegasus, nor anything that's his;
1644     (There's one, at least, is very fond of this);
1645Thou shalt not write, in short, but what I choose:
1646     This is true criticism, and you may kiss--
1647Exactly as you please, or not--the rod;
1648But if you don't, I'll lay it on, by G{-}d!


3] gazettes: official journals, listing (among other things) military honours, promotions, deaths. Back to Line
7] pantomime. There were various stage versions of the Don Juan story, including plays by Molière and Shadwell and operas by Glück and Mozart. Which versions Byron had seen or to which he refers in this and later stanzas remains uncertain. Back to Line
9] Vernon, ...: assorted eighteenth-century military leaders on land and sea, most of them British. Back to Line
12] filled their sign-posts: gave their names to streets and landmarks, as Wellesley did to Wellington Street. Back to Line
13] Banquo's monarchs: see Macbeth, IV, i, 65. Back to Line
16] Moniteur and Courier: French newspapers. Back to Line
17] Barnave, ...: assorted political, philosophical and military figures of the French Revolution. Back to Line
32] Duncan, ...: British naval heroes of the war with Revolutionary France. Back to Line
33] Brave men were living before Agamemnon: a translation of Horace, Odes, IV, ix, 25-26. Back to Line
41] Most epic poets plunge in "medias res": see Horace's discussion of Homer in Epist. ad Pisones, II, iii, 148; also the adherence of Virgil, Spenser, and Milton to this supposed epic law. Back to Line
44] episode. The epic poets of the previous note all provide an example of such an episode. Byron seems to be thinking particularly of Aeneas's tale to Dido in Æneid, II. Back to Line
1593] These stanzas come after Byron's lengthy account of Juan's ancestry, education, and first affair, which ends in discovery by the husband and a forced departure from Spain.
My poem's epic. "It is an epic as much in the spirit of our day as the Iliad was in Homer's" (remark attributed to Byron by Thomas Medwin in Conversations of Lord Byron at Pisa). Back to Line
1603] Vade Mecum: handbook. Back to Line
1638] Hippocrene: fountain sacred to the Muses in Greek mythology. Back to Line
1641] Mr. Sotheby: William Sotheby: contemporary poet, dramatist, and translator (see Dear Doctor, note on lines 23-36). Back to Line
1643] "the Blues": bluestockings, i.e., literary ladies and their societies. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
published anonymously
RPO poem Editors: 
M. T. Wilson
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.521.