From Byron's Don Juan:

There was a man, if that he was a man,
Not that his manhood could be call'd in question
For had he not been Hercules, his span
Had been as short in youth as indigestion
Made his last illness, when, all worn and wan,
He died beneath a tree, as much unblest on
The soil of the green province he had wasted,
As e'er was locust on the land it blasted.

What is the meaning of the phrase in bold, especially if that he was a man?

"If he was anything at all, he was first and foremost a man"? But why then the next line begins with Not that his manhood could be called in question?

  • 4
    Inclusion of the word that in the first line is an obsolete feature of Chaucerian English. The second line could be seen as a "parenthetical aside" - Byron is suggesting that Hercules might be more than a man (a demi-god, perhaps), but he certainly wouldn't want to question his "manliness" (we wouldn't use "manhood" there today, since nowadays it's usually a euphemism for the male genitalia). Jan 12, 2018 at 15:51
  • @FumbleFingers - I think it was an euphemism for genitalia in Byron's work because he writes of Count Potyomkin, a lover of Catherine the Great Jan 12, 2018 at 16:01
  • 4
    'if that he was' would usually be rendered 'if he actually was' nowadays. Jan 12, 2018 at 16:02
  • @CowperKettle: Things like that are open to "Lit Crit interpretation", but I honestly think it's unlikely Byron would have intended any such crude allusions in the context of heroic poetry. It's not exactly a "dirty limerick" style. Jan 12, 2018 at 16:11
  • 1
    Catherine the Great! The great whore of history. As Byron would be well aware, but that would hardly license him to wallow in the gutter with dick jokes. (Q: Is having a penis fun? A: It has its ups and downs.) Jan 12, 2018 at 16:24

2 Answers 2


I think it is less about sexuality than it is about humanity. The man is being compared to a locust in this passage. The implication is that masculine virility alone is not enough to arm oneself against mortality. Sure, it may have lengthened his life -- but it failed to help him avoid the inevitable end.

The author contrasted the two most common basic meanings of the word, man:

  1. An adult human male.

  2. A human being of either sex; a person.

  • 2
    I think this interpretation is correct in conjoining the human sense of "man" with an allusion to the ανηρ sense of manliness and in the "manhood" line. Essentially Byron's thought process seems to be "There was a human being, if indeed he was a human being and not a demigod—not that there could be any doubt, given the events of his life, that he was manly enough. It's a bit of jokey wordplay, as well as (as you say) a comment on the limited powers of even the most extreme masculinity.
    – Sven Yargs
    May 13, 2018 at 19:20

It is after all a complex topic, sexuality. Byron is referring to the son of Zeus, and describing him as a man, then immediately retracting the previous statement by implying he is a god, then going on to describe how manly he is. He's basically saying Hercules was more manly than any man.

Now this is the territory where you must be left wanton, for truely, who is to say what constitutes a manly man? It is a rather hot button issue currently.

Essentially, a manly man is said to be one who is muscular, strapping, and large. In truth however a manly man is someone who cries. And is goofy, and kind.

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