Let me start my review of Byron’s epic poem Don Juan with a short poem of my own:
There was a British poet
and he wrote a famous poem
and Don Juan was what he called it.
When it was good, it was very very good,
but when it was bad it was horrid.
And that sums up how I feel about Don Juan, with the benefit of being much shorter. It starts out great! He makes jokes, stays on topic, it’s all good. Then he starts digressing. In the end, Byron spends more time talking about himself and his opinions than he does telling us about Don Juan. There are whole cantos where hardly more than a stanza is devoted to the events of Juan’s life. All the rest are fixated on Byron. His publishing woes. Pot shots at other famous writers. The public doesn’t appreciate him! Or his muse! And they should! (Well, they should, because he’s a good writer, but I wish he’d whine less about how they don’t.) I don’t know if Don Juan would be half the length if someone had taken all the digressions out.
Speaking of length: seventeen cantos. Multiple eight-line stanzas in each. Know why it’s not longer? Byron died while he was writing it. He talks within the poem about making it 18 or 24 cantos, and how he doesn’t know how long it’s going to be. So I was a little confused when I looked at the table of contents and saw it was only 17 cantos long. My confusion only increased when I reached (what I thought was) only part way into the 17th canto and the writing just stopped. It’s unfinished, and because Byron didn’t leave any notes about what he was planning to do (or make any plans about what he was planning to do) there’s no way to posthumously finish the tale. It’s very disconcerting to get to the last page expecting an ending and just get a cliff. Especially since Byron spent most of that last canto writing about himself. Again. I wouldn’t have minded so much if the first couple of cantos hadn’t gotten my hopes up. Other than being able to get the literary references to it, there isn’t much point in reading Don Juan. Go read Inferno instead. Or Homer.