Editor’s Note: This column is the first of a trilogy celebrating three great English poets of the Regency period: Lord Byron, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley had a friendship with both Byron and Keats, but Keats and Byron never met. All of them died away from England and within three years of each other.
Unusual among poets, George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) came from money and inherited a title. He went to Cambridge University and had a seat in the House of Lords. He traveled abroad extensively, reaping ideas and impressions while sowing wild oats.
As a poet, his early works, some privately printed, had little following and were attacked by the critics. Then on March 10, 1812, his world changed when “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” was published, and he became what we might now call an Overnight Sensation. It was said that traffic outside his lodgings in St. James was backed up as carriages arrived delivering invitations. Everyone was dying to meet him, most especially Lady Caroline Lamb, whose husband would later become Prime Minister. She was infatuated with Byron, perhaps because, as she said in her journal, he was “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know.” She would often lay in wait for him at parties disguised as a page boy (See video below), and for a time, their celebrity affair was all the talk of Regency London.
That Byron might be considered “mad” or “bad” or at least “moody” should come as no surprise if one examines his heritage. His great uncle, the head of the family, was known as “The Wicked Lord” after murdering his cousin and driving his wife away. His grandfather was called “Foul Weather Jack,” his father, “Mad Jack.” And on his mother’s side were five murders, two hangings and a suicide. All that and a foot crippled from birth.
Because of which deformity Byron could not undertake the waltz, which had recently arrived in England and was captivating society. His reaction was satirical, more than a bit envious and included a dig at the corpulent Prince Regent:
Round all the confines of the yielded waist,
The strangest hand may wander undisplaced;
The lady’s in return may grasp as much
As princely paunches offer to her touch.
Pleased round the chalky floor how well they trip,
One hand reposing on the royal hip;
The other to the shoulder no less royal
Ascending with affection truly royal!
Thus all and each, in movements swift or slow,
The genial contact gently undergo;
The breast thus publicly resign’d to man,
In private may resist him – if it can.
As for the new poem, though Byron denied it, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” immediately struck readers as being at least semi-autobiographical. Walter Scott, later to be Sir Walter Scott, said: “The hero is a modern man of fashion and fortune, worn out and satiated with the pursuits of dissipation . . . you cannot for your soul avoid concluding that the author is doing so in his own character.”
And while Byron wrote in a Spenserian style, the substance of the verse was unmistakably of the moment and quick to catch attention.
Whilome in Albion’s isle there dwelt a youth,
Who ne in virtue’s ways did take delight;
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,
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.
After Childe Harold, Byron wrote a copious amount of poetry, often in epic poems and dramas , such as “Manfred” and “The Corsair,” and often with leading characters that came to be known as Byronic heroes. The impact of these works on the burgeoning Romantic Movement in Europe was extraordinary. It inspired composers like Berlioz and Tchaikovsky, painters like Delacroix and Turner, and poets like Pushkin in Russia, who was especially excited when he learned that his new mistress had formerly been Byron’s.
For my money, Byron’s masterpiece is “Don Juan” (pronounced joo-one to rhyme with new one), a mock-epic by turns satirical, ironic, and comic featuring a fumbling libertine easily seduced by women. The narrative is free-wheeling, including a visit to Catherine the Great. (Virginia Woolf admired its “haphazard galloping nature.”) The rhymes are often quirky and colloquial.
Well—well, the world must turn upon its axis,
And all mankind turn with it, heads or tails,
And live and die, make love and pay our taxes,
And as the veering wind shifts, shift our sails;
The king commands us, and the doctor quacks us,
The priest instructs, and so our life exhales,
A little breath, love, wine, ambition, fame,
Fighting, devotion, dust,—perhaps a name.
And here’s a couplet that Gilbert and Sullivan would have envied:
But — Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck’d you all?
The poem is over 16,000 lines long but was never completed. Originally published anonymously, it was criticized for its immoral content . . . which pretty much assured its popularity.
* * *
Now lest you think Byron incapable of quiet lyricism, I can’t fail to include what is perhaps his best-loved poem and one that has been frequently set to music. It dates from 1814 and was written the morning after meeting the exquisite Mrs. Anne Wilmot at a party.
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 mellow’d to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d 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.
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!
* * *
In 1823, Byron decided that he would join the forces fighting for Greek independence from the Ottomans. He had always felt a close kinship with Greece:
The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.
The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.
After providing substantial funds and while preparing a brigade for battle, Byron contracted a fever and died in Missolonghi, age 36. In England, hearing the news, a devastated fourteen-year-old named Alfred Tennyson raced to a rock outcropping and sobbed as he carved “Byron is Dead.”
And of no significance to anyone but me, I would note that a chap named William Parry (close enough!) stood by and comforted Byron during his closing days.
Byron’s body was denied burial in Westminster Abbey due to “his questionable morality,” and it was not until 1969 that a memorial floor stone was placed in the Poets’ Corner.
But now to earlier and happier times. If you’ll click on the video below, we’ll take you back to 1812 where a grand party at Devonshire House is in progress. You will meet:
Lady Bessborough . . . . . . . . . . . Rachel Gurney
Lady Caroline Lamb (her daughter) . . . Gwen Collin-Lewis
Samuel Rogers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Steven Sutherland
Thomas Moore . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . James Walch
and running late but soon to arrive
Lord Byron . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Neil Hunt
The poetry is from “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.”
CLICK ON THIS LINK FOR VIDEO: LORD BYRON