Byron’s Don Juan begins with disarming directness: ‘I want a hero’ (1.1) and, a few lines later, names this hero as ‘our ancient friend Don Juan’ (1.1). Such a Chaucerian opening is unlike that of any of the great Romantic long poems and, critically, it has never sat easily alongside them.
Don Juan is direct and it does disarm but it relies on multiple indirectnesses to achieve this sustained candour. The relation between directness and indirectness, and between declared improvisation and declared planning, forms the art and life of the poem. In its first published version, the briefest of epigraphical overtures tells us that the poem takes such relationships as its Horatian foundation: ‘difficile est proprie communia dicere’, which Byron himself translated as ‘’tis no slight task to write on common things.’
That is not how the present reader encounters the poem. Depending on the edition, we will find a series of competing overtures before we reach the main text. Some of these were withdrawn by Byron with or against his better judgment; one was unwittingly omitted. Taken together, they invite the reader to make certain helpful presumptions both in what they say, and in the reasons for their omission. We can begin with them.