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by Evan Mantyk and Kathy Brellan

Lord Byron was born George Gordon Byron in London on January 22, 1788 and died just 36 years later in 1824. Yet, despite his short time on Earth, he remains known as one of the greatest English poets of all time. It is often said that his life was larger than his poems.

Byron was born with a clubfoot and his father died when he was only three. When he was ten, his uncle died and he inherited the title of Baron, including estates and a seat in Parliament—hence “Lord.” Despite his disability, he was known for being inclined toward physical activity, including boxing against the renowned pugilist John “Gentleman” Jackson and swimming four miles across the tumultuous waters of the Hellespont, which separates Europe from Asia. He traveled extensively across Europe, spending time with the famous Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein) in Switzerland, editing a newspaper that advocated Italian independence from Austria, dedicating his wealth and life to the fight for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, and finally dying from an illness in Greece, where he is still regarded as a hero to this day.

 

‘Degenerate Modern Wretch’

Alongside the adventure, he lived a flamboyant lifestyle, racking up huge debts as well as an array of sex scandals. He directly called himself a “degenerate modern wretch” in one poem, and in one of his most famous works, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the main protagonist is described in what are probably thinly veiled autobiographical terms:

Whilome in Albion’s isle there dwelt a youth, [Whilome: Formerly. Albion: England]
Who ne in virtue’s ways did take delight; [ne: never]
But spent his days in riot most uncouth,
And vexed with mirth the drowsy ear of Night.
Ah, me! in sooth he was a shameless wight, [wight: man]
Sore given to revel and ungodly glee;
Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree. [wassailers: revelers, drinkers]

 

Scandals (Take Them with a Grain of Salt)

Among the scandals, whether true or false, disputed or accepted, that have plagued Byron, these are the most notable in roughly chronological order:

Homosexual experimentation in college? Some now claim that Byron was involved with choirboy John Edleston while in college and composed a poem in Edleston’s honor when he died in 1811, although Edleston’s name is not mentioned in the poem or as a dedication.

Lady Caroline Lamb? Byron is claimed to have had an illicit love affair with this married lady in 1812. She was the cousin of Annabelle Milbanke, who would later marry Byron.

Lady Oxford? After Lady Caroline Lamb in 1812, Byron is claimed to have moved on to this married baroness, who was fourteen years his senior and was a friend of Lamb

Augusta? It is claimed that in 1813 Byron was incestuously involved with his half-sister and even fathered her child.

Lady Annabelle Byron: Lord Byron married her in 1815 only to separate from her a year later. It is hypothesized that he was possibly forced into unofficial exile under Annabelle’s accusations that Byron had an incestuous relationship with Augusta.

Claire Clairmont: While visiting Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley in Geneva, Byron fathered a child, Allegra Byron, with Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, in 1817.

Teresa Guiccioli: While traveling Europe, Byron met this 19-year-old Italian countess in 1818 who had just been married a few days earlier. Shortly after, she separated from her husband to be with Byron.

 

The above scandals should be taken with a grain of salt. People’s level of morality was generally higher at that time than it is now. The idea of men being with men was forbidden. Attitudes were actually toughening in this regard; a man only had to be suspected of being in a relationship with another man and they could both be hanged. Additionally, Byron was described as a having a “lifelong love for the Bible.”

It is also worth noting that today’s scholars and academics often read old letters and poems and reach conclusions on the basis of the declined moral standard. For example, back then, “making love” meant to express your devotion, your admiration, and your praise for someone. To “make love” to the king or queen was common and had no sexual connotation whatsoever. Additionally, men and women were generally kept separate and thus formed stronger bonds with those of their own gender because they simply could not honorably and easily be around members of the opposite sex who weren’t family members. Thus, poets like Byron have been to some extent made worse by the writings of today’s historians who simply find it too boring to conclude that very little went on between him and some of these women and men that most readers would today find very sexually exciting. Back then, a mere thought, a mere glance, and even the accidental touch of a hand could create intense emotions and scandal.

In conclusion, Byron certainly made mistakes and was a villain in his own day—and he probably paid in good order with his early demise. However, he should not be considered a villain by today’s standards. Looking back at him, any ambiguity should err on the side of goodness, as that was the general state of those times.

Meanwhile, there is much that is good and worthwhile about the poetry of Lord Byron. These are just two of the most positive attributes:

 

The Sharp Wit

Perhaps the greatest trait of Lord Byron’s poetry is his sharp wit. Sharp since he delivers it in precise rhyme and carefully carved meter, but also sharp because he goes on the attack and does not beat around the bush.

One such example is Byron’s treatment of the Romantic poet William Wordsworth and other poets with whom he found himself at odds, as seen in this stanza from Byron’s unfinished mock epic Don Juan:

Young Juan wander’d by the glassy brooks,
Thinking unutterable things; he threw
Himself at length within the leafy nooks
Where the wild branch of the cork forest grew;
There poets find materials for their books,
And every now and then we read them through,
So that their plan and prosody are eligible,
Unless, like Wordsworth, they prove unintelligible.

Personally, I am a fan of Wordsworth. However, it is easy understand how some readers could get lost in his profound reflections on the natural world, which could seem so deep and immense in scope as to be rendered bottomless and therefore meaningless. For Byron, Wordsworth likely represented the establishment which did not look kindly on Byron’s scandals. At any rate, Byron perfectly captures the common man’s Wordsworth dilemma.

Byron’s sharp wit does not spare himself either. In another section form Don Juan, Byron laments being middle aged, which he humorously relates to the time period known as the Middle Ages:

Of all the barbarous middle ages, that
Which is most barbarous is the middle age
Of man; it is—I really scarce know what;
But when we hover between fool and sage,
And don’t know justly what we would be at—
A period something like a printed page,
Black letter upon foolscap, while our hair
Grows grizzled, and we are not what we were;—

Too old for youth,—too young, at thirty-five,
To herd with boys, or hoard with good threescore,—
I wonder people should be left alive;
But since they are, that epoch is a bore:
Love lingers still, although ‘t were late to wive;
And as for other love, the illusion ‘s o’er;
And money, that most pure imagination,
Gleams only through the dawn of its creation.

 

A Feeling of Sublime Beauty

Lord Byron does what other great Romantic poets do, which is to capture a feeling of nature, of beauty, and of the sublime that escapes rational expression. It flies in the face of science and rationality and taps into those forces of creativity, imagination, and the supernatural that have lured reader down winding wooded paths even to the present.

This section, from Childe Harold, could perhaps be considered some of the first environmental poetry. At any rate, it is quintessentially Romantic and exciting:

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

In another piece, Byron uses anapestic meter (two soft beats followed by a hard one) to paint a picture of his noble manor, “Newstead Manor,” depicting not only what is on the surface but the feeling of sadness and decline that seems alive through the manor. Here are the first two stanzas.

In the dome of my Sires as the clear moonbeam falls
Through Silence and Shade o’er its desolate walls,
It shines from afar like the glories of old;
It gilds, but it warms not—’tis dazzling, but cold.

Let the Sunbeam be bright for the younger of days:
‘Tis the light that should shine on a race that decays,
When the Stars are on high and the dews on the ground,
And the long shadow lingers the ruin around.

Finally, in “She Walks in Beauty,” Lord Byron’s description intermingles natural imagery and a lady’s natural beauty to create verse of charming perfection. This beauty we may read as the very beauty of the times in which Byron lived and which, as described above, could be considered his saving grace.

 

She Walks in Beauty

I.

She walks in Beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.

II.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

III.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

 

 


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10 Responses

  1. James Sale

    A well written piece on a worthy subject, and full of interesting facts. I regard Byron’s Don Juan as the greatest mock epic in our language. I am more into epic than mock epics what surprised me when I first read it was that I couldn’t put it down! The writing is so powerful you simply have to read on. Of course, the same is true of Paradise Lost, but to find something so funny and so compelling really surprised me – such is the power of genius!

    Reply
  2. Sathyanarayana

    A very comprehensive yet compact article on Lord Byron. Well, personal controversies of celebrities are always very interesting like a little hush-hush gossip.

    Reply
  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    I’m glad someone is paying attention to the great Lord Byron again. He was wildly popular in his own day — practically equivalent to a modern rock star. Unfortunately, today in academia no one has the nerve to teach his poetry, out of a craven fear of the feminist and #MeToo mafia.

    But I don’t see why we should even be discussing his personal scandals and sexual peccadilloes. These things have no bearing whatsoever on his literary merit. Whatever he did or didn’t do, whatever he said or believed, or however he behaved, can in no way be used to “judge” the man’s poetry. Bandying words like “villain” and talking about moral “standards” is totally out of place in literary criticism. Byron was an excellent poet (and yes, he did sleep with his sister, you can read about it in his poem “Manfred”). His work is of stellar quality. Nothing else matters.

    Let’s not fall into the habit of our leftist enemies, who have now tied themselves into strangulating knots by insisting that literary judgments must take second place to political and moralistic inquisitions into a writer’s opinions and beliefs and personal sins.

    Reply
  4. Michael Dashiell

    I love and appreciate these comments. I might add, much can be achieved in hours of idleness, the early scientists can agree.

    Reply
  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    This admirable piece is educative and utterly engaging. I once wrote a dry thesis on Don Juan without a full understanding of the genius behind the words. This has enabled me to view this master of literary wonder with a fresh and appreciative eye. Thank you!

    Reply
  6. David Watt

    An informative article which rightly places poetic brilliance above that of supposed character blemishes. The enduring popularity of Byron’s poetry (at least within traditional society) must give him the last laugh.

    Reply
  7. Basil Drew Eceu

    Of all the Romantics, for me Byron was the most gifted in poetry, more so than Coleridge (though I am drawing from him deeply now) or Wordsworth, Shelley or Keats, and so many others. I agree with Mr. Sale, that, although Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” is a more polished mock-heroic poem, Byron’s “Don Juan” is not only scintillating, but it also has great joie de vivre, an expansive vision, and many other excellent qualities that make it superior to Pope’s work in many ways. One thing I really like about “Don Juan” is Byron’s ability to make fun of even the most serious of things. In my early twenties, when I was perhaps more cynical and more disillusioned in comparison to my other attitudes than I am now, Byron was one of those writers I enjoyed reading over and over.

    T. S. Eliot once wrote of Byron that
    “The bulk of Byron’s poetry is distressing, in proportion to its quality; one would suppose that he never destroyed anything. Yet bulk is inevitable in a poet of Byron’s type; and the absence of the destructive element in his composition indicates the kind of interest, and the kind of lack of interest, that he took in poetry. We have come to expect poetry to be something very concentrated, something distilled; but if Byron had distilled his verse, there would have been nothing whatever left.” I suppose that is why even now I admire Byron’s poetry, as much as I do (which is limited), and in many ways more so than Eliot’s, et. al.

    I agree, too, with Mr. Salemi (a rarety indeed) that he doesn’t see why we “should even be discussing his [Byron’s] personal scandals and sexual peccadilloes”.

    Continuing quoting T. S. Eliot:
    “I have come to find in him certain qualities, besides his abundance, that are too uncommon in English poetry, as well as the absence of some vices that are too common. And his own vices seem to have twin virtues that closely resemble them. With his charlatanism, he has also an unusual frankness; with his pose, he is also a poète contumace in a solemn country; with his humbug and self-deception, he has also a raffish honesty…I am speaking of the qualities and defects visible in his work, and important in estimating his work: not of the private life with which I am not concerned.”

    Here is one of my more recent asides, which included Byron:

    Sense and Sensibility

    George Gordon and Jane Austen kept their heads
    above th’ Romantic fray, that frayed foray
    into morbidity, which to this day
    has left so many unraveling threads
    flapping in the winds of Wime. What thin shreds.
    Yet Byron and Jane Austen could not stay
    the avalanche. It would come—come what may,
    and in its path all manner of Manfreds.

    Finally, it is perhaps easier to see that in mathematics, where, as interesting as the biographical material may be (even for poetic purposes), it is the mathematics that matters in the end and is truly significant.

    Reply
  8. Mal Beveridge

    Thank you. Thoroughly enjoyable. It made me pull Byron off the dusty shelf and open his pages to the light.

    Reply

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