Byronic Bicentenary

Today (19 April 2024) is the 200th anniversary of the death of George Gordon Byron, known to us as Lord Byron. He was a hugely popular poet of his day. The characters in his long poems and his own colourful life have given us the adjective “Byronic”.

To understand being Byronic it is important to understand Byron. There is a marvellous quote by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker earlier this year which probably sums up how many of us know Byron:

“… he is at once idolized and belittled. You could say that this procedure awaits all major poets; they are doomed to be more talked about than read, and, even when they are read, the poetry is parsed as a coded transcription of the life.”

Byron is the epitome of this. I know the biography but not the poetry. I like poetry but my taste has not taken me to Byron. He wrote in the early 19th century in a time before the mass media. His poetry provided what the modern media provides us with to pass the time—adventure, travel, and tantalisation.

About Byron

Byron was an immensely popular writer in his lifetime. He was an aristocrat, a libertine and an adventurer. He was a highly gifted writer that captured both beauty and character. But he wrote long ode-like poems that you needed hours to read. The Bronte sisters were great admirers.

As a libertine he had affairs with many married women, and it is believed with many young men. His reputation was damaged with accusations of incest with his half-sister that may have resulted in a child. He left England.

You may have heard the summation of Byron’s life in the words of Caroline Lamb, the wife of a future British prime minister with whom he had an affair—“mad—bad—and dangerous to know”. She wrote several novels, including “Glenarvon” with a main character, Lord Ruthven, reasonably well thought to be based on Byron.

He travelled extensively in Europe (with the benefit of his wealth) and wrote long poems with exotic places as their backdrops.

Being Byronic

The Byronic “hero” is a paradoxical mix of virtue and vice. He (always male) is characterised by brooding introspection, passionate temperament, and disdain for societal norms—a rebel, a loner who stands defiantly against the constraints of convention and authority (perhaps, we call them sociopaths nowadays).

Childe Harold is the protagonist of Byron’s epic poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”—a disillusioned young nobleman who embarks on a journey of self-discovery through Europe. He is reflective, melancholic, and deeply introspective.

Don Juan, the star of the satirical epic poem “Don Juan”, is a charming, charismatic young man entangled in a long series of amorous adventures. His moral complexity serves as a vehicle for the commentary on love, society, and human nature.

Conrad is the central character in Byron’s unfinished novel “The Corsair”,  a pirate captain depicted as a swashbuckling antihero who defies authority and adheres to his own moral code, to embody the romantic ideal of freedom and rebellion.

If you Google “ Byronic Hero” the Internet will list Heathcliff from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights”; Mr. Rochester from Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”; Captain Jack Sparrow from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” film series; and Severus Snape from J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. I cannot possibly comment.

Death in Greece

Byron died on 19 April, 1824, at the age of 36 in Missolonghi, Greece, where he had been living and participating in the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. His death was attributed to a fever, which may have been caused by complications from an infection. However, his recovery was compromised by the massive blood-letting that his doctors subjected him to (modern doctors suggesting that he was so weakened that he could not recover).

He had been a strong advocate for the Greek cause in England and donated his fortune (and eventually his life) to the Greeks to fight the war. He is considered a hero to the Greeks who benefited from his support.