The version of the poem used here is an online annotated edition based upon the 1904, 1957 and 1958 reprints1 and although not a definitive scholarly edition is clear and accessible for close reading and critical analysis. Byron's letters are cited from Byron: A Self-Portrait in His Own Words, edited by Peter Quennell2, and are from 1798 to 1824 and so cover the period when Byron was working on Don Juan up to the time of its publication. Quennell begins by offering us, as biographer and editor, a useful warning when dealing with Byron's work and character:
Byron is the most alluring of themes, and although there is no great man who appears at first sight to reveal himself more readily, his character, if we study him closely enough and follow him hard enough, often seems, as our knowledge increases, to be among the most elusive.3
Therefore, close reading of a long poem like Don Juan will be, at times, both revealing and frustrating, but is as good a means as any to attempt to investigate the character of the poet, his philosophies and passions. The choice of Canto the Second is meant to indicate Byron's variety in the tone and momentum in this work. Canto the First is about Don Juan's childhood and youth and how he first experiences passion, love and sex. It is farcical in its tone in places, relating the story of how Juan falls for Donna Julia and gets caught in her bedroom and has to flee. It is light-hearted, like a theatrical farce when the cuckolded husband surprises the two lovers. Don Alfonso, Julia's husband, decides he has to divorce her, so that at age sixteen Juan is responsible for a huge scandal.
Canto the First also involves Byron's satirical voice aimed at his fellow poets, especially the Poet Laureate of the time Robert Southey. Southey comes in for particularly vitriolic criticism, and witty asides, and sometimes downright sarcastic comments in Byron's work as a whole, not just Don Juan. With supreme confidence, making his tone all the more attractive, at the conclusion of Canto the First, Byron finishes with an attack on his contemporaries:
"Go, little book, from this my solitude!
I cast thee on the waters -- go thy ways!
And if, as I believe, thy vein be good,
The world will find thee after many days."
When Southey's read, and Wordsworth understood,
I can't help putting in my claim to praise --
The four first rhymes are Southey's every line:
For God's sake, reader! take them not for mine.
(Canto the First, Stanza CCXXII)
His quotation here comes from Southey's Epilogue to the Lay of the Laureate and with barbed comments he distances himself from such work, the quality of which he doubts. This is part of Byron's allure, as Quennell mentions that makes his work intriguing, amusing and charming. That, however, is not all that is contained here. Don Juan is a work of light and shade, changing moods and differing momentum. It is after all an attempt at the biography of the legendary fictional rake, whose exploits have been charted by many writers, poets and composers up to the present day. Don Juan, and Don Giovanni as he is sometimes known (such as in Mozart's eighteenth century opera), is an archetype of the eighteenth century. He is the lover who travels Europe having encounters with women of various nationalities and social status.