Don Juan begins with a dedication to Robert Southey and William Wordsworth—both famous poets of the time, whom Byron lampoons here. The narrator distances himself from these “great” men by insisting that his own muse is of a lesser nature, and so his verse will be lesser as well.
The narrative then begins with the birth of Don Juan. The child of Donna Inez and Don Jose of Seville, Don Juan is sexually precocious, having an affair with his mother’s best friend, Donna Julia. Don Alfonso, Donna Julia’s husband, discovers the affair and Don Juan is sent to Cadiz.
En route to Cadiz, Don Juan is shipwrecked, the only survivor of the vessel, and left alone until he encounters Haidee, daughter of the pirate Lambro. Lambro’s men find both Haidee and Don Juan, who is captured and sold into slavery.
The lovely Gulbayaz, member of the Sultan’s harem, arranges for Don Juan’s purchase. She has him disguised as a girl and smuggled into her chambers. Don Juan almost immediately insults Gulbayaz by bedding one of her courtesans; Gulbayaz threatens to have both offenders killed, but Don Juan manages to escape.
Don Juan then joins the Russian army in its assault on Ismail; there he proves himself an able warrior and rescues the Muslim girl Leila. Victorious, the Russian army goes to St. Petersburg, where Don Juan and his captive are presented to Catherine the Great. Don Juan so impresses the Czarina that she invites him to join her court.
Don Juan then becomes ill and is sent to England as an ambassador from Russia. There he finds a governess for the girl Leila. Thus begin a series of shorter adventures among the British aristocracy.
Don Juan is written in groups of eight lines of iambic pentameter that follow an ABABABCC rhyme scheme, which is known as ottava rima. The dedication, sixteen cantos, and fragmentary seventeenth canto make up the poem, which Byron insisted was unfinished. Unfortunately, Byron died shortly after the publication of the last cantos and was therefore unable to complete the entire mock epic.
As with Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the protagonist, Don Juan, is often more a plot device than a character, as the narrator is subsumed into Byron himself. Byron becomes more central to the poem than the young hero. Don Juan is actually a rather flat character—he is young, of a sweet disposition, and simultaneously innocent and promiscuous. Don Juan falls (often literally) into his amorous adventures, the passive recipient of the erotic attentions of a succession of aggressive women of power.
Don Juan is a mock epic in that its protagonist—while often heroic (as in the battle of Ismail in Canto VIII)—is in fact naïve and his adventures almost entirely the result of accident. The tone of the poem is comic, which Byron accentuates with playful rhymes and—in particular—incisive homonyms. Byron makes his satire of the classical epics clear in Canto I, where he notes that “Most epic poets plunge ‘in medias res’” (1.6.41), but then states, “This is the usual method, but not mine” (1.7.49) and then proceeds to tell the tale of Don Juan from the very beginning: his birth.
Always self-conscious of his literary standing, Byron did not neglect to include literary and cultural criticism in his comedic epic, as he did in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. His dedication to Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth seems to be a humble distancing of his own low efforts from these poets’ grand accomplishments, but even a cursory reading demonstrates his incisive critique of their discursive and verbose styles of writing.
The adventures of Don Juan themselves are poetic re-imaginings of Byron’s own escapades and dysfunctional relationships with the women in his life. These make them of interest not just as poetry but also as windows into Byron’s biography from his own point of view. Byron retells the story of Don Juan with himself as the womanizer. Whether this long poem is a late masterpiece or self-indulgence or both remains a matter of debate.