He had a clubfoot, but the curls alone would have been enough to make any woman overlook such a defect. Lord Byron was the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Elvis Presley of his day all rolled up into one. He was a dashing romantic figure who made the bloomers of more women fall to the cold floors of Gothic mansions than all the other Romantic poets of his day combined. As such, is there any suspicion whatever that Lord Byron would one day come to write a poetic masterpiece about one of history’s most infamous lovers, Don Juan. And, yes, just in case did not know, Don Juan is not pronounced Don Wan, but Don Jew-un.
The heroes of the past had to be looked back to by the Romantic Poets because in contemporary times, the era in which these poets wore their puffy shirts, heroes as they were known had become a sweet dangerous whisper of that which might have been, or perhaps never was. Lord Byron, the clubfoot who was the dream vision of desperate young love-starved women and spinsters with a penchant for onanistic deliverance looked to the past to create his modern version of a proper hero. That hero would be flawed, of course, because a central component of Romantic poetry, indeed all genres of Romantic literature, was that it was not just that the heroes of the past were dead; heroism as a concept was in the throes of agony.
Lord Byron chose as his hero the fantastical lover of all things, but especially women. It was a strange choice on Byron’s part because Don Juan certainly does not wear the garb of the hero as he was generally believed to exist. Read a goodly section of Lord Byron’s heroic poetry that casts Don Juan at the center and you will discover a beautifully frightening thing. Don Juan’s greatest claim to the feat of the hero is his ability to slip into bed with nearly any woman he so desires. One can only guess that Don Juan was perhaps a bit of the doppelganger of his creator in this sense.
One of the quintessential figures in heroic literature for all of the Romantics was Prometheus, the man who stole fire from the gods. Surely, indeed, Prometheus is a hero of our time as well as theirs, not to mention his own. Comparing Don Juan to Prometheus leaves a parenthetical opening in the conception of Lord Byron that cannot be adequately closed. The Shelleys, both Percy and Mary, looked to the thief of fire in their works; Mary’s “Frankenstein” is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus” lest you forget. Lord Byron chose a man who does not even possess the heroism necessary save the lovely Julia from her destiny as a nun. The point being that nobody saw the legendary figure of Don Juan in Promethean terms before Lord Byron. Of such leaps of faith are perspectives of an entire generation constructed upon.
But then, perhaps Lord Byron’s essential point in choosing Don Juan as his Promethean connection to the heroism of the classical age is the very fact that he is rather a failure in all things heroic. To read the work of Lord Byron is to penetrate to the very essence of heroism, which is that no one was ever born a hero. All heroes throughout history are made. You are familiar with the old saying about those who have heroism thrust upon them, yes? Well, in Byron’s world it would appear that there is no true heroism except that which is thrust upon you. What makes a Byronic hero boils down to how a person responds when the call of heroism comes their way.
What Lord Byron is doing in choosing Don Juan as his example of a hero is nothing less dangerous than daring to penetrate beneath surface of the heroic act itself to determine the depth of heroism. Byron wrote Don Juan during a period in which the reigning Poet Laureate of England, Robert Southey, failed to live up to his earlier radicalism and settled into the easy comforts of being the kind of empty maverick of the sort that occasionally runs for President. A maverick in name only. Robert Southey faced the call of heroism and ever so politely turned his back upon on the one who knocks. For Byron, the real test of heroism is not just opening the door, but aggressively pulling inside the one who knocks.
With Don Juan, it is entirely possible and even probable that Lord Byron was simply making a statement that heroism as was known in the classical era was not just in the agonized grip of death throes, but was totally and entirely lacking in a mortal connection to this world.
With heroism either dead or a cruel joke, then, Lord Byron’s choice of the decidedly unheroic Don Juan to become his Prometheus was a loud clarion call to the world to admit that all true heroes really were dead and buried and not to be resurrected unless they, too, are ready to rush to the sound of some unknown guy knocking on the door.