8

Canto II of Don Juan contains the following, which I found absolutely hilarious:

They look upon each other, and their eyes
Gleam in the moonlight; and her white arm clasps
Round Juan’s head, and his around her lies
Half buried in the tresses which it grasps;
She sits upon his knee, and drinks his sighs,
He hers, until they end in broken gasps;
And thus they form a group that ’s quite antique,
Half naked, loving, natural, and Greek.

I haven't actually read the whole poem; I saw this particular part elsewhere. But I don't understand how this "group" (Haidée and Don Juan) is Greek. Haidée was the daughter of a Greek pirate, so that part checks out, but Don Juan was not a Greek, was he? Although his mother knew how to read Greek, Juan had to be taught Romaic, and he learned his "alpha beta" from "Haidée's glance." His father was "a true Hidalgo, free from every stain / Of Moor or Hebrew blood,' who "traced his source / Through the most Gothic gentlemen of Spain."

Either I am missing something, or the "half" applies to all of those adjectives, not just the extent of their nudity (i.e., one of them's naked, one of them's loving, one of them's natural, and one of them's Greek), in which case it's even funnier—though I'm not sure if that makes sense in the context. What's the explanation?

Another dumb question: What does Byron mean by "natural"?

2 Answers 2

16

The word group here has a specific meaning referring to sculpture. From the OED:

1.a. Fine Art. An arrangement of two or more figures or objects forming either a complete design, or a distinct portion of a design. Also in figurative contexts.

“Group, N., Sense 1.a.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, December 2023, https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/1174349866.

Byron is saying that Don Juan and Haidée resemble a Greek sculpture. The Boncompagni Ludovisi Collection of the Museo Nazionale Romano furnishes a couple of examples of groups where one or both of the figures are partially or completely naked. First, Orestes and Electra:

Statue of Electra and Orestes, from the Museo Nazionale Romano

Next, Pan and Daphnis:

Statue of Pan and Daphnis, from the Museo Nazionale Romano

Byron's depiction of Don Juan and Haidée is meant to evoke such groups, but he is being ironic. As throughout the poem, the closing couplet of the ottava rima stanza is used for satiric effect. The lovemaking of Don Juan and Haidée is presented quite explicitly by nineteenth century standards ("they end in broken gasps"), in apparent contrast to the classical ideals of Greek sculpture. But as the two examples depicted above show, despite the icy remoteness of Greek statuary, the stories it represented were typically erotic and/or violent. Byron's tone neatly exploits the incongruity of comparing his lovers to Greek sculpture, while also pointing to the justice of the comparison.

Such ironic juxtaposition relies on doubleness, putting forward two opposing ideas at once. As you suggest, the word "half" also does double duty here. The surface meaning is that Don Juan and Haidée are like the antique statues: partially unclad, depicted in loving attitudes, realistic in appearance, and Greek. But there's also a suggestion that the lovers are half-naked, half-loving, half-natural, and half-Greek. The first is obvious enough, and you have observed that only one half of the pair is Greek. As for half-loving, Don Juan is a seducer, after all, and while he might be sincere in the moment, we know (as does Byron) that he will not stay true to Haidée or her memory for very long. So if we assume that Haidée's love is sincere, Don Juan's is not. Alternatively, one could imagine that Don Juan is half loving, half a cad, and Haidée half loving, half fearful.

Finally, the lovers are half natural in a couple of senses. First, natural can mean naked, so Byron reiterates that they're only partially clothed. Second, it underlines the comparison to sculpture, contrasting nature to art. The pair's resemblance to a work of art is strong enough, Byron says, that they are only half natural, being half artwork.

0
3

In my opinion, the line means that they look like a antique Greek statue of lovers. Like a statue of Cupid and Psyche, for example. In this case "antique" would meanfrom the era of Antiquity.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.