"Whatever Happened to Don Juan?"
Finding the Ending to Byron's Poem

by Thomas Hubeart

© 1996 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

Lord Byron's chief masterpiece is probably the comic epic Don Juan, which occupied its author from 1818 until nearly the end of his life (Trueblood 14-15). The sheer length of the poem is in itself impressive; its seventeen cantos take Juan through a variety of adventures, including the famous affair with Donna Julia, the sojourn with Haidee, experiences in Turkey and later in Russia as a slave, and finally episodes in England among high society (Boyd 22-30). Remarkably, however, Don Juan as Byron left it is obviously unfinished. Further, the poem was not published in an absolutely complete form until nearly eighty years after Byron's death (Steffan III 562). The unfinished state of Don Juan and the circumstances which led to it inevitably encourage speculation: how would Byron have ended his poem?

The final canto of Don Juan (XVII) is dated May 8, 1823, and was written just before Byron sailed from Italy to help the Greeks fight their revolution (Bostetter 9). Although he occasionally talked of continuing his poem, he wrote no more in the eleven months between his composition of the fourteen stanzas of this canto and his death in April of 1824 (Marchand 1125). The seventeenth canto of Don Juan was found among Byron's personal effects and papers after he died (Marchand 1234).

Meanwhile, in England, Cantos VI to XVI of Don Juan, which Byron had penned in an incredible burst of creative energy from April 1822 to May 1823, had been published by John Hunt in four installments, the last less than a month before its author's death in Greece (Bostetter 8-9). Even within Byron's lifetime, unscrupulous publishers had printed many spurious "continuations" of the poem during breaks in the issue of the true Don Juan (Chew 131-35), but after his death, a veritable deluge of "conclusions" to Byron's poem appeared, many admittedly not genuine, but some pretending to be so (Coleridge 1013n.). A great variety of conjecture is employed in them as to the fate of the poem's hero; among the conclusions one finds Juan saving Aurora Raby from fire, travelling to Scotland, being guillotined in the French Revolution, and turning into a reformed man who "spends much of his time in prayer," in accordance with the values of the rising Victorian period (Chew 136ff.).

But none of these seems to capture the true Byronic spirit. Samuel C. Chew, who describes these pseudo-Juans in detail, summarizes his findings:

On the whole, despite some scanty exceptions to the contrary, poverty of invention and servile imitation of Byron's mannerisms, with no ray of his genius, characterize the entire series of continuations . . . . [With a possible exception or two,] not one merits for its own sake even such feeble renewal of life as is given it in the pages of this article (146-7).

The editions of the true Don Juan available in the nineteenth century certainly encouraged these spurious sequels; they lacked the fragmentary seventeenth canto Byron had written before going to Greece (Coleridge 1013n.). Consequently, the reader of that day was left with a far more abrupt ending than we now have: at Canto XVI's end, Juan, who thinks he is encountering a ghost, puts forth his hand to touch it and unmasks "her frolic Grace--Fitz-Fulke," who has had a lustful eye on him ever since her introduction in Canto XIV. But the final stanza of XVII tells us--or at least lets us infer--what the result of the discovery has been:

Which best it is to encounter--Ghost, or none,
'Twere difficult to say--but Juan looked
As if he had combated with more than one,
Being wan and worn, with eyes that hardly brooked
The light, that through the Gothic window shone:
Her Grace, too, had a sort of air rebuked--
Seemed pale and shivered, as if she had kept
A vigil, or dreamt rather more than slept.
(Byron 457 [XVII: 14].) {1}

Has Fitz-Fulke seduced Juan, or has he successfully "combated" and "rebuked" her? Although the former seems likeliest, Byron decides to "leave the thing a problem, like all things" (Byron 457 [XVII:13, line 1]).

The episodic nature of Don Juan makes it difficult to say where Byron would have taken its hero before ending it. External evidence is little help, for throughout the poem's composition, Byron seems to have written without any specific plan concerning its plot: "I have no plan--I had no plan; but I had or have materials" (Bostetter 6). At times, Byron teased that he would "make 50 cantos" out of Juan, or that he would have his hero tour Europe (Byron viii-ix). Revolutionary activities seemed a distinct possibility (Trueblood 146). The poem itself hints at further developments; Mary Shelley, who made fair copies for Byron of much of Don Juan, saw that the poet was "preparing for a crisis" by the end of Canto XV (Steffans I 274). Aurora Raby, Lady Adeline, the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke, and even Juan's Turkish ward Leila were apparently to be utilized in some way (Chew 135).

There has been much speculation by later writers as to how Byron intended to conclude his poem. The poet W.H. Auden declared that Don Juan "could not ever be finished except by the author's death," since its protagonist "is a dummy, not a hero; a peg upon which Byron [could] hang his reflections about the world" (Bostetter 18). Roden Noel, assuming that Byron was "reflected faithfully in his work," thought that Juan would have rejected "the mere pursuit of personal pleasure" had the poet lived (Chew 135-6). Close to Noel's is Elizabeth Boyd's surmise--that Byron "had either to show Juan drifting towards disaster . . . [or] maturing in character to make a heroic stand against circumstances, so that he might survive for his destined role as a hero of liberty" (Boyd 160). Jerome J. McGann states that the English portion of Don Juan "evidently had some way to proceed before it would have been over," but suggests that a prediction of the poem beyond Canto XVII is nearly impossible, since "improvisation" pervades the last cantos to a greater extent than ever before (66).

Perhaps, after all, the attempt to second-guess Byron is futile. Karl Krober claims that "Don Juan is not of a piece," that "[i]t changes and develops" from eighteenth-century picaresque-style into "an anticipation of nineteenth-century fiction" (Bostetter 104). T.G. Steffan contends that "[i]t is useless to guess" what Byron would have done with his poem; all that is clear is that he "had in mind psychological complications more intricate than any he had thus far attempted" (Steffan I 274). And the imitations and continuations of Don Juan documented by Chew amply demonstrate how ridiculous the supposition is that anyone could complete Byron's masterpiece without Byron's genius.

Thus, speculate though we may, we shall certainly never know what Byron would have done with Don Juan. It may be that Boyd is right in suggesting that the poet "carried Juan's story as far as he could on the basis of his present positive knowledge and beliefs" (160). Noel's conviction that Byron's works reflect himself is at least borne out by the fact that neither Don Juan nor Byron's life ran their full course; Death snatched the resolution of the poem away with its creator. But it may be that after all, a formal ending is unnecessary, since the poem is actually a satisfying whole as it stands, even without a developed structure. Byron's Don Juan is a masterpiece, despite its loose construction, or perhaps partly because of it: the episodic, narrative flow gives it a lightness and fluidity that might not have been possible with a more rigid framework.

(November 27, 1985)


{1} Remarkably, even in our own twentieth century, although the complete text Byron wrote has been available for more than three-quarters of a century, some scholars still write as if they either know nothing of Canto XVII or refuse to recognize anything after Canto XVI as a part of Don Juan. Cf. Boyd 30, Trueblood 148, Bostetter 105, and Chew passim.

Works Cited

Bostetter, Edward E., Twentieth Century Interpretations of Don Juan. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Boyd, Elizabeth French, Byron's Don Juan: A Critical Study. NY: Humanities Press, 1958.

Byron (George Gordon, Lord Byron), Don Juan, ed. Leslie A. Marchand. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958.

Chew, Samuel C., "The Centenary of Don Juan." American Journal of Philology 40: 117-52.

Coleridge, Ernest Hartley, ed., The Poetical Works of Lord Byron. London: John Murray, 1905.

Marchand, Leslie A., Byron: A Biography, Vol. 3. NY: Knopf, 1957.

McGann, Jerome J., Don Juan in Context. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1976.

Steffan, Truman Guy, & Willis W. Pratt, eds., Byron's Don Juan: A Variorum Edition. 2nd ed.. 4 vols.. Austin: U of Texas Press, 1971.

Trueblood, Paul G., Lord Byron. NY: Twayne, 1969.

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