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When Lord Byron published the first two cantos of Don Juan in 1819, he told his publisher that he didn't want to get either of them into any trouble. But the fact that he published these cantos anonymously shows that ol' Byron knew people weren't going to react all that well. That's because Don Juan is chockfull of adultery from its very first stanzas. Now, it's true that other writers in Byron's time would have portrayed adultery in their works. The difference is that they would have brutally punished the hero or heroine for committing such sins. Byron, on the other hand, just makes fun of adultery and portrays it in a humorous way.
Our hero, Don Juan, grows up with two spoiling and flawed parents, who shield him from all knowledge of sex. This plan backfires when Don hits puberty and starts feeling urges he never felt before. These urges take him into the arms of a married woman named Julia. But Julia's husband finds out about the affair and Don Juan has to leave Spain. The rest of the book tells us about all the wacky and sexy adventures he has afterward.
It's hard to overstate just how huge Don Juan is in the canon of world literature. The famous poet Goethe wrote that Don Juan was "a work of boundless genius" and critics have tended to agree ever since. You'll be hard-pressed to find a major anthology of British poetry that doesn't have at least an excerpt of Don Juan in it. This is due to the fact that Byron is both a great rhymester and unique for his time when it comes to humor. Byron was writing during an era when other poets wanted to talk about taking nature walks and the horrors of industrial society. But Byron just wanted everyone to pop a chill pill and stop taking themselves too seriously.
Have you ever been told to stop acting silly or to show some respect? We bet that didn't make you feel too great, and Lord Byron is right there with you. No matter what time you live in, there will always be other people who think they have the right to tell you what's proper. Byron was one of the first poets, though, who believed in the power of the individual. He didn't buy into the idea that society should give us all our rules to live by and he doesn't want you to buy into it either. And throughout history, mockery and satire has been a pretty great way to talk to people who take themselves and the world way too seriously.
Here's the thing about satire, though: it's not good enough to point at a person in authority and say, "You're a poopy head." You have to be clever about it if you want to be effective. You have to show people that you have the skill to be good at whatever you want, but you just choose to use it for mockery. That's what made Byron's satire so effective. He basically told his audience: "Here's some of the best poetry you've ever seen, and I'm going to use it to take you down a peg."
That's the real magic of Byron and the magic of other Byron-like writers who have come since him. A similar example today is a show like South Park, which seems childish on the surface but has clever satire underneath. So yeah, being really clever always helps when you want to undermine the person who's trying to tell you how to live your life.
The International Association of Byron Societies
Here's your main hub for all of the Byron lovers from around the world.
Leave it to Byron fans to write Byron fan fiction.
Byron at Englishhistory.net
If fan fiction isn't your thing, here's a more cut-and-dry look at Byron's life and work.
"Sweet Hours" Video
Here's a great video set to an especially pretty chunk of Don Juan.
Click this link to sit back and learn all you can about the life and work of literature's original bad boy.
Michael Chance Reads Lord Byron
Here we go. A flesh-and-blood human reading the words of the immortal Byron.
Don Juan Canto I Audiobook
Eyes feeling a little tired? We understand. Four hundred pages is pretty long for a poem.
Alternate Canto I
In case that last version didn't suit you.
Getting tired of Don Juan? Well here's an audio version of another great Byron poem to give you a break.
Technically, all his portraits are young because he died young. But this one gives you a sense of what he looked like in the peak of his womanizing days.
Byron with Interesting Hat
Here's Byron going for a more eastern look.
Byron Looking Handsome at his Desk
No wonder the ladies (and maybe the men) loved him so much.
Mad, Bad, and Delightful to Know
Journalist Boyd Tonkin takes a look at how Byron became such a rock and roll star in his time and today.
How to Be a Monster
As you can tell from the title, not everyone has the most sympathetic view of LB.
Poet of All the Passions
This article from The Guardian argues that Byron was actually chased from England because he was gay.
The Late Lord Byron
This book delves into all the stuff that came out about Lord Byron right after he died. All sorts of interesting things happened, but no one ever bothered to write much about it before this book.
Orientalism in Lord Byron's "Turkish Tales"
Ever get the feeling in Don Juan that Byron is a little racist toward Turks and Muslims? Well this book's got you covered.
Lord Byron's Life in Italy
After he fled from England because of public harassment, ol' Byron needed somewhere to go. This book will tell you all about what happened afterward…
The Bad Lord Byron
This old flick from 1949 shows Byron on his deathbed wondering whether he lived a good life. That's a question that people have been asking ever since his death too.