The works of George Gordon, Lord Byron have long been controversial, nearly as controversial as his lifestyle. Gordon Byron was born with a clubfoot and his sensitivity to it haunted his life and his works. Despite being a very handsome child, a fragile self-esteem made Byron extremely sensitive to criticism, of himself or of his poetry and he tended to make enemies rather quickly. The young Byron was often unhappy and lonely any many of his works seem to be a sort of introspective therapy. Throughout his writings and life history there is much evidence to suggest that his poetry was greatly influenced by his mental instability. In many ways, Byron seems to use his work as an escape from a difficult reality. The lengthy poem Don Juan offers an especially intimate glimpse of Byron’s psyche.
In order to understand the depth of Byron’s psychological troubles and their influence on his poetry, it is important to examine Byron’s heritage and his upbringing. Young George Gordon inherited the title of Lord Byron at the age of six. This him a rank in society and a bit of wealth to go along with it. Byron’s heritage is a colorful one. His paternal line includes the “Wicked Lord”, “Mad Jack and “Foul Weather Jack (Grosskurth 6).” The family propensity for eccentric behavior was acerbated by young George Gordon’s upbringing.
When Byron was just three his financially irresponsible father died, leaving the family with a heavy burden of debt. Byron’s mother then proudly moved from the meager lodging in Aberdeen, Scotland to England. Young Byron fell in love with the ghostly halls and spacious grounds of Newstead Abbey, which had been presented to the Byron’s by Henry VIII, had received little care since. He and his mother lived in the run down estate for a while. While in England he was sent to a “public” school in Nottingham where he was doctored by a quack named Lavender who subjected the boy to a torturous and ineffective treatment for his clubfoot (Bloom 45). During this time, young Byron was left in the care of his nurse May Grey. He was subjected to her drunken tantrums, beatings, neglect, and sexual liberties (Grosskurth 28). This abuse was not stopped early enough to protect the boy from psychological injury. Byron confesses to his sister that “My passions were developed very early- so early that few would believe me (Grosskurth 40).” Byron also suffered from constant exposure to his mother’s bad temper. Mrs. Byron alternately spoiled her son and abused him, often calling him a “lame brat (Crompton 82).” Eventually John Hanson, Mrs. Byron’s attorney, rescued him from the unnatural affections of May Grey, the tortures of Lavender and uneven temper of his mother. The effects of his early experiences were to be felt by the poet for many years. “The consequences of these tortured episodes blend into his entire life in the anticipated melancholy that he always experience (Eisler 41).”At seventeen he entered Cambridge University. Determined to overcome his physical handicap, Byron became a good rider, swimmer, boxer, and marksman. He enjoyed literature but cared little for other subjects. After graduation he embarked on a grand tour that supplied inspiration for many of his later works. Of the many poems in which Byron reveals details from his own experiences, Don Juan offers the most intimate look into the life of the artist.
Canto I of Don Juan describes Juan’s mother, Donna Inez as being a woman who look’d a lecture, each eye a sermon (Longman 577).” Donna Inez watched carefully over every detail of her son’s education and Catherine Byron did the same for her son, attempting in her clumsy way to provide Byron with preparation for life as a member of the gentry. “Mrs. Byron became obsessed with making her son perfect and he in turn submitted stoically to various forms of torture (Grosskurth 29).” Although the description of Donna Inez is often interpreted as being directed at Byron’s ex-wife, much of Inez’s personality is similar to Catherine’s. It is possible that Byron’s opinion of women was formed by his exposure to these two and many of his female characters would bear their mark.
In stanza 61 of Canto I Donna Julia is described with a mixture of affection and sarcasm. Bright with intelligence, and fair and smoothher stature tall-I hate a dumpy woman (Longman 586).” Byron begins with a fairly conventional description of a pretty girl but ends the stanza with what seems to be a truly backhanded compliment.
Donna Julia follows the pattern of the idealized heroine. She is portrayed to be pretty, gentle, sweet, the perfect and passive wife. When she interacts with Don Juan, however Donna Julia breaks out of the traditional role by being the older woman who is eager to educate young Juan in the ways of love. Byron thus reverses gender roles and with a sexually mature woman who actively seducing a naive and innocent young man. “Don Juan at sixteen is a pious mamma’s boy, dedicated to heaven by a mother from hell (Eisler 612)”. This relates directly to Byron as a youth who had been reared by a suffocating mother and prematurely initiated into sexuality by someone the family trusted. His mother unknowingly entrusted her son with a viper when she brought Donna Inez into the family home. While Donna Julia is not as vicious as May Grey, she took equal advantage of the family’s trust.
Even more general attributes of this poem and it’s characters reflect details from the author’s own life. Juan is able to survive shipwreck because he could swim. Byron was also known as an exceptionally strong swimmer. Don Juan embarks on a grand adventure that includes travels very similar to Byron’s own. He has a number of sexual conquests during his journey, as did the randy author. Even the naivete of young Juan is strikingly similar to the shy young George Gordon.
In Don Juan, Byron says “I want a hero” and he adopts a one from the past. He alters the legend of Don Juan to fit his own needs because he cannot find a modern hero that fits the bill. Don Juan’s character a direct personification of the poet who has grown older and wiser that his young subject. The author is reflected instead in the many details of the epic drawn from the author’s own experiences. Although Don Juan’s narrator is not purely Byron’s voice, it does seem to speak for him. The poet expresses himself through his interpretation of the story and by using the voice of the narrator to speak for him. Byron’s narrator is always present in the poem, commenting and showing off, making quite certain that the he is not being ignored. His voice permeates Don Juan and he appears to be reflecting much of his own life in his creation. Perhaps Byron used this enormous poem as a catharsis for his trouble emotions; perhaps this is the reason that Don Juan was never finished. It was extended throughout the remainder of the poet’s life. The poem, like Byron’s psychological healing was never finished.