Nature, Spirituality and Individuality in Don Juan
The Romantic Era was a period in which poets and intellectuals challenged the emphasis on reason and science espoused by the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Lord Byron, or George Gordon Byron, was a leading romantic poet who lived during the nineteenth century and was best known for his epic poem Don Juan. Byron’s poem follows the life of a young man, Don Juan, as he is exiled from his home and journeys across the Mediterranean. Don Juan is a satire whose purpose is to critique nineteenth-century societal norms and conventions. At one point during Juan’s journey, his ship sinks in the middle of the Mediterranean. Stranded in the middle of the ocean with no hope of rescue and with ravenous hunger ensuing a number of the men aboard Juan’s ship resort to cannibalism. Those that partake in consuming the man chosen, Pedrillo the priest, eventually go mad and die. Juan is the only survivor of the shipwreck and the only man who does not succumb to cannibalism. This cannibalistic episode challenges pre-romantic concepts of nature, spirituality and individuality. When life and death hang in the balance reason, religion, science and god no longer matter. This cannibalistic episode is but one of many instances in which Byron seeks to challenge societal norms throughout the epic. These episodes, coupled with an extensive characterization of Juan, powerfully satirize and censure society’s control of the individual.
Revolutionary thinkers like Byron abstracted and complicated nature beyond the confines of science and reason. Nature is not described in scientific terms, instead, Byron describes nature in a metaphorical and symbolic way. Byron writes describing the ocean, “And the sea yawned around her like a hell, And down she sucked with her the whirling wave / Like one who grapples with his enemy / and strive to strangle him before he dies”(Wordsworth, 231). Here, the ocean is described like a man fighting to defeat an enemy, in this way, nature is presented as a force to be reckoned with and not just as a scientific reality. Byron therefore introduces nature as the dominating force of the episode alluding to the fact that it will cause a lot of the action that ensues. Nature produced both the storm that caused the ship to sink, and the hunger that caused the men to kill and eat another human being. As Byron writes, “’Twas Nature [that] gnawed them to this resolution / By which none were permitted to be neuter / And the lot fell on Juan’s luckless tutor”(Wordsworth, 232). Byron states that it was nature that aggravated the sailors to a point that allowed them to consider cannibalism. While polite society and religion would deem cannibalism unthinkable and unforgivable, nature dominates with its unrelenting hunger. Byron is clearly constructing a vision of nature that goes beyond theory, equations and reason. The nature at work here is mysterious, elusive and omniscient; it cannot be reduced to a single interpretation and it cannot be tamed by society. Nature dictates that the sailors do everything and anything in their power to survive, which meant killing and eating another human being. Byron is constructing a world in which nature, and not god or humanity, rules. It is a world in which nature should take the place of religion.
Byron sought a retreat not only from a rational interpretation of nature, but also from an adherence to organized religion and its institutions. Before Pedrillo is killed and eaten, Byron writes, “He [Pedrillo] died as born, a Catholic in faith, / Like most in the belief in which they’re bred, / And first a little crucifix he kissed, / And then held out his jugular and wrist” (Wordsworth, 232). Byron emphasizes Pedrillo’s religiosity; he is born Catholic and clings to his religion up until his last breath. It is no coincidence that Byron chooses to murder the only religious figure on board. Pedrillo’s position as a priest should have barred the men from choosing him as their victim, but it does not because they no longer care about religion and its precepts. In this moment these men are overcome by nature and are slaves to its will. While society upholds a clear distinction between that which is sacred and that which is animal, in the struggle for survival this distinction holds no weight. The blurring of these boundaries challenges organized religion and its control of culture and society. Byron asserts that human beings must shape nature in order to survive because nature, not god, controls the universe.
Similar to the shift in focus from god to nature, Byron’s Don Juan also introduces a shift in focus from the soul to the self. While it is riveting to read the tale of a sea voyage gone awry, the true task of the piece is to focus attention on the inner dialogue of the characters. Byron ends this section of Don Juan by saying, “If foes be food in Hell, at sea / ‘Tis surely fair to dine upon our friends, / When shipwreck’s short allowance grows too scanty, / Without being much more horrible than Dante” (Wordsworth, 234). In referencing Dante’s Inferno, which details an allegorical journey through hell and deals with the afterlife and the existence of god, Byron challenges the relevance and existence of god on earth. He is making a pointed statement that god and religion could not prevent the cannibalism that took place here and that the actions taking place are consequences of individuals and their needs. The poem deals with Juan’s particular reactions to the cannibalism and his actions in response to it. While the ship is in the midst of sinking Juan attempts to save all those dear to him. He helps Pedrillo onto the lifeboat, saves his dog and unsuccessfully attempts to save his servant Pedro, even before worrying about saving himself. Prior to Pedrillo’s gruesome end Byron writes, “Twas not to be expected that he should, / Even in extremity of the their disaster, / Dine with them on his pastor and his master”(Wordsworth, 233). Juan was not successful in saving Pedrillo, but the least he could do was abstain from eating his own priest. Juan is the only character who has enough of a moral compass to not only prevent him from eating another human being, but to cause him to try and save others. Juan adheres to polite society’s conception of what is morally acceptable, and yet he is considered a social outcast. At a young age Juan is cast away from home because of the illicit sexual relationship he has with a married woman. Polite society rejected Juan for his infractions, and yet, when it matters most he is courageous, generous, loyal and moral. Byron therefore exposes the hypocrisy of society’s control of the individual. Byron humorously and ironically critiques society. In the middle of the second canto which tells the story of the shipwreck, Byron writes, “’Tis said that persons living on annuities / Are longer-lived than others- God knows why, / Unless to plague the grantors – yet so true it is / That some, I really think, do never die! /”(Wordsworth, 229). In the middle of the poem describing a dramatic shipwreck Byron inserts a seemingly unrelated anecdote about moneylenders and borrowers. With the inclusion of ‘God knows why’ Byron is mocking the prevalence of god in day-to-day matters, he is commenting that all too often god is inappropriately brought into the mix. These insertions of Byron’s knowledge and opinions from his own life reflect the nature of the entire epic. He is quick, witty and sharp in his admonishment of many of the functions of society. Similarly, instead of punishing Juan for his promiscuous nature, Byron celebrates his sexual pursuits. Not all human beings are created the same, which makes adhering to a specific set of guidelines for behavior extremely difficult. Juan is an example of a person who cannot adhere to a set of guidelines dictating how to behave. In response to sexual advancements Juan will often fall prey to temptation, but when it comes to issues of life and death he will make the moral decision. Yet society only judges Juan for the decisions he makes in the realm of sexuality. Byron implores his reader to assess people and situations in a vacuum, isolated from social conventions and rules. Society unjustly controls people’s behavior, topics of discussion and even writing, and Byron exposes these hypocrisies and shortcomings in a humorous and exaggerated way. Byron’s epic seeks to not only redefine the definitions of concepts such as individuality, spirituality and nature, but also to criticize society’s rigid control of the individual.
The section of the epic poem labeled “Shipwreck” exhibits the lengths man will go to in the struggle for survival. The shipwreck and the events surrounding it provide Byron with a way of critiquing his society’s preoccupation with god, religion and science. The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment would seek to explain the sinking of the ship in terms of logic, researching the climactic and atmospheric conditions that lead to this occurrence. After studying the scientific reasoning for the occurrence most would look to a religious explanation for why this happened, explaining that sin and retribution were involved. Then finally, the act of cannibalism would be attributed to the fact that these men were no doubt sinners. Byron seeks to change the perspective regarding events like the shipwreck.
In place of a reliance on god, science and religion, Byron advocates for a focus on nature and the individual. Nature, not god, shapes and determines the actions of the individual. Rather than adhering to society and its preconceived notions of morality, Byron advocates that individuals seek out morality based on nature and experience. Furthermore, he exposes the futility of seeing people and their actions solely through the prism of what society deems appropriate. Byron gives his reader a character that subverts, albeit in a humorous and exaggerated way, concepts of a moral and honorable man and functions instead based on his personal brand of morality, courage, loyalty and honor. All too often, even today, people function based on what others dictate, Byron instead implores his counterparts to pave a new way for themselves not just in their writing, behavior and speech, but also in their entire way of life.
Wordsworth, Jonathon and Jessica, editors. The Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry. London: Penguin, 2005. Print.
Byron, Lord. “Shipwreck.” The Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry, edited by Jonathon and Jessica Wordsworth, Penguin, 2005, 228-234.
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