Lord Byron


Died in 1824 aged 36


But quiet to quick bosoms is a hell,
And there hath been thy bane; there is a fire
And motion of the soul which will not dwell
In its own narrow being, but aspire
Beyond the fitting medium of desire;
And, but once kindled, quenchless evermore,
Preys upon high adventure…
                (Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: Canto III, 42)


Byron addressed these words to Napoleon, but he could equally well have been speaking to himself. These were, after all, the two greatest celebrities of the 19th century.  Byron was really an even greater celebrity than Napoleon, as the scope of those who idolized him ranged from intellectual titans to silly schoolgirls. Napoleon was never a big pin-up for the schoolgirls. Throw in Beethoven and you have the Holy Trinity of Romantic Heroism that for the past 200 years has shaped and is still shaping Western Civilization.  We’re still under this sway because no matter how much we may prefer a world that is rational and structured, one which offers reasonable prospects of success based on quantifiable input, and no matter how content we might be to set our own aspirations within “the fitting medium of desire,” we are irresistibly seduced by the death-defying daring of those individuals who throw caution and reason to the four winds and who let those winds be the source of their imagination and the fuel of the fire that nourishes their creativity. As bewitched spectators, we’re seduced also by the possibility that this creative fire may consume its creator, as it did with both Napoleon and Byron.
In a sense, Byron was luckier that Napoleon. After the great general’s creative fire had burned itself out at Waterloo, he endured the hell of a long quiet on St. Helena before his death. Byron organized things rather better and made sure that his death was consummated in the very acting out of his high adventure. In fact, “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it. He died as one that had been studied in his death.” These words from Shakespeare’s Macbeth must have been a brooding inspiration for Byron throughout his life, all the more so as he could trace his maternal lineage to the historical Macbeth of 11th century Scotland. Byron’s paternal ancestry was no less colorful. The most immediate sequence of male Byrons offered him a portrait gallery of rogues and madmen beyond the brush strokes of the most imaginative painter. “Truth is stranger than fiction,” as Byron wrote in Don Juan, painfully aware of the truth of his words from the evidence of his own exotic background. It was a background that demanded he create a life that would out-Byron his Byronic heritage.
Byron believed he was tainted with a family curse, a double-dose no less of Anglo-Scots lunacy. He never knew his English father, Captain John Byron, who’d already abandoned one wife and child, before he took up with Byron’s mother, a wealthy Scots gentlewoman called Catherine Gordon of Gight. Within two years, “Mad Jack” gambled and drank his way through his wife’s fortune, then absconded again, leaving wife and infant son virtually destitute. He died the following year, the sordid circumstances of his leave-taking suggesting suicide. By this time, Byron’s mother had moved to Aberdeen, where she demonstrated her own brand of madness. Her passionate and very public displays of “motherly concern” set young Byron apart from his school fellows, a few of whom viewed the tormented lad as an object of pity, though, boys being boys, the majority saw him as an object of derision. His mother’s concern sprang, in part, from the fear that, without proper discipline, young George would inherit the evil ways of his reprobate father. But it was also her genuine albeit overzealous anxiety about her son’s physical health arising from his painful and embarrassing deformity. If Byron needed concrete evidence of a demonic family curse, it was there from birth in his clubfoot, which caused him to limp throughout his life. Today, this genetic defect is curable if treated early, but the agonizing treatment young Byron suffered at his mother’s obsessive directing only made his condition worse. We can well imagine with what pride the twenty-two year old Byron swam from Greece to Asia Minor against the fierce currents of the Dardanelles.
To complete the emotional baggage Byron was acquiring as a boy, his pretty young Scots nanny awoke within his soul a heightened sense of guilt, achieved through a bizarre combination of fire-and-brimstone Scottish Calvinism and a sexual affinity for wee George when he was a mere lad of nine. He would later confess to a close Cambridge friend that a free Scots girl used to come and play tricks with his person. As an eight-year old, Byron had already displayed a precocious romantic devotion to a lass called Mary Duff. So it’s hardly surprising that the adult Byron developed an insatiable sexual appetite, which became most voracious during his two-year stay in Venice, where, on top of writing a prodigious amount of poetry, he indulged in an estimated two hundred love affairs. But for the most part, Byron shied away from real attachment, convinced that he was unworthy of love. On the occasion of his thirty-sixth birthday, just a few weeks before his death, he opened his own epitaph with a cry de profundis,

        ‘T is time this heart should be unmoved,
        Since others it hath ceased to move:
        Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
            Still let me love!

As suggested by the sentimental simplicity of this last line, demonic despair was just one half of Byron’s genius. He also loved the richness life had to offer and cultivated the intimate friendship of a few kindred spirits, such as Shelley. He even recalled his Scottish childhood with affection, notwithstanding his mother’s fits of madness and the dire straits to which his profligate father had reduced them. “ I would I were a careless child, still dwelling in my Highland cave,” he writes in his first published book of poetry. Later, in his epic masterpiece Don Juan, he takes us farther still down the path of affectionate remembrance of things past,
        
        All my boy feelings, all my gentler dreams
        Of what I then dreamt, clothed in their own pall,
        Like Banquo’s offspring. Floating past me seems
        My childhood in this childishness of mine:
        I care not – ‘tis a glimpse of Auld Lang Syne.

It’s hard to know where Byron’s life would have taken him if he’d remained in Aberdeen as “Cathy Gordon’s poor wee lame boy.” But in 1798, a twist of Fate took him back to England and set him upon the stage where he would prove himself the supreme actor, bringing down the final curtain in Greece to universal critical applause, which, for an Englishman, is surpassed only by that for Shakespeare. A combination of fortuitous deaths in the accursed Byron family meant that ten-year old George became the sixth Baron Byron and the inheritor of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, to which ancient manor Cathy Gordon promptly moved as a place far more befitting her own aristocratic lineage than a shabby tenement dwelling in Aberdeen. To the widow Byron’s chagrin, the Norman Abbey was dilapidated and barely habitable. But for her son it was the stuff of his childish dreams. Byron’s fertile imagination could now complement the glens and mists of the Scottish Highlands with the Gothic architecture of medieval England, an added bonus being the proximity of Sherwood Forest and the legends of Robin Hood, which young George could feel in every tree. Here as a teenager he nurtured wild fantasies of adventure and heroic deeds that would eventually find poetic outlet in such exuberant romps as Mazeppa, Manfred, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and, most gloriously, Don Juan.
Though never free of his demons, the wealth and prestige that came from being a member of the House of Lords helped Byron enormously in the struggle with his self-loathing. He developed an elegant poise and self-assurance commensurate with his striking good looks. No sooner had he made a poetic name for himself in London than he became the object of every fashionable young lady’s erotic desire, creating the mold for the ‘pop idol’ that, in our own time, rock music, cinema, and television has reproduced by the score. His success both as a published poet and as a rake encouraged a swagger in his demeanor that to uncharitable eyes was pure arrogance. Perhaps he was arrogant, but as an outsider who had acquired power, it’s perfectly understandable that he would live his life with bravado, indifferent to the hostility this might arouse. For example, while an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, he famously defied certain domestic regulations and shared his rooms with a noisy menagerie that included a monkey and a brown bear.
Such gestures suggested to Byron’s critics that he was a mere poser, a sensualist who went to extreme lengths merely to provoke polite society. Through his numerous affairs in London, Byron did much to encourage such a view, though even he made a conservative retreat from the prodigal displays of adulterous arousal shown towards him by the free wheeling Lady Caroline Lamb. But one affair proved too much, even for the loose moral standards of Regency England, because it involved Byron and his married, half-sister Augusta, “Mad Jack’s” daughter by his first marriage. Byron had first met Augusta when he was a confused teenager dealing with his mother’s mania, and when Augusta was a beautiful young woman, who offered him the emotional support of an older and wiser fellow outcast. Byron adored Augusta, and their mutual love was almost certainly consummated. In 1814 she gave birth to a daughter, and many believed that Byron was the father. It’s probable that when Byron’s hero “Manfred” refers to his deceased beloved “Astarte,” it is also Byron describing Augusta and the harm he has done her through his love,
    
She was like me in lineaments – her eyes
    Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone
    Even of her voice, they said were like to mine;
    But softened all, and tempered into beauty;
    She had the same lone thoughts and wanderings;
    The quest of hidden knowledge, and a mind
    To comprehend the universe; nor these
    Alone, but with them gentler powers than mine,
    Pity, and smiles, and tears – which I had not;
    And tenderness – but that I had for her;
    Humility – and that I never had.
    Her faults were mine – her virtues were her own –
    I loved her, and destroyed her!

In a strange way, Byron’s scandalous incest exemplifies the position he has come to command in the vanguard of the “Romantic Movement.” Neither Byron nor any of his contemporaries used the term “Romantic” to describe themselves or their art. But they did refer to a “spirit of the age” – a Zeitgeist as the German Romantics called it - confident that they – a gifted few – represented something new, not merely in artistic expression, but also in social and moral values. Sex has always been the most highly charged aspect of morality, and many Romantic poets and philosophers achieved notoriety by openly challenging the institution of marriage and by suggesting that sexual affinity was natural and healthy between those with strong blood ties. Byron’s own affair with his half-sister Augusta has strong spiritual ties with 19th century German Romanticism on which he had an enormous influence. We can see it most strikingly in Wagner’s opera Die Walkürie, which opens with a married woman Sieglinde giving hospitality to a weary wanderer called Sigmund. They immediately respond to a mutual magnetic attraction, discover that they are brother and sister separated at birth, have joyous sex, and produce the super hero Siegfried. Byron’s own foreshadowing of the incest and adultery of Sigmund was more than his society could tolerate. So, like Sigmund, he became a wayfarer, seeking the wider world as his stage for the last acts of his drama.
But it wasn’t just sexual aberration that made Byron an outcast from conventional English society. He grew up in tumultuous times: it was the era of the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, the long period of warfare that engulfed Europe, and finally, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, an era of repressive reaction by the victorious monarchies representing the continued survival of the old order. Like the major British Romantics before him – Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, and Coleridge – Byron was a staunch advocate of the “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” that, in theory at least, were at the core of the French Revolution. He displayed his own radical colors very early in his public career, choosing the occasion of his maiden speech to the House of Lords in 1812. Byron caused quite a stir by speaking eloquently and passionately on behalf of the distressed factory workers in his home county of Nottinghamshire. In particular, he attacked the British government’s new law which had made it a capital offense for workers to engage in acts of sabotage against factory machinery, the cause, as Byron saw it, of so much unemployment and hardship throughout Britain. Byron was branded as a Luddite, his response being a poem in praise of Ned Ludd, the Nottinghamshire factory worker who has become the symbol of resistance to technological advancement,

        As the Liberty lads o’er the sea
        Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
        So we, boys, we
        Will die fighting, or live free,
        And down with all kings but King Ludd.

The sentiment expressed here is not merely pro-American republicanism, but also, as viewed by His Majesty’s government, high treason. Fortunately, Byron penned them in December 1816, when he was already safely in exile, enjoying the first of his two hundred Venetian conquests.
Byron left England with some heartache, knowing that his exile would be permanent. In his semi-autobiographical Childe Harold he disguises the pain with his typically cheeky humor,

        And now I’m in the wide world alone,
        Upon the wide, wide sea:
        But why should I for others groan,
        When none will sigh for me?
        Perchance my dog will whine in vain,
        Till fed by stranger hands..

But there was also something inevitable in Byron’s exile from England. Always conscious of being half-English and half-Scots, and aware of the differences between the twain, he never embraced a true national identity of his own. Like Robert Burns before him, a poet he admired immensely, Byron believed in the brotherhood of man regardless of nationality. He announced himself as a “citizen of the world,” taking his cue from the language of the French Revolution in which, deep down, he still believed despite its obvious failures. With the defeat of Napoleon, even the good that remained in that Revolution was systematically undone with the return of the London sponsored ancien régime. So exile in France was out of the question, though Byron believed that the spirit of Napoleon still “bruited in men’s minds,”
        
Conqueror and captive of the earth art thou!
        She trembles at thee still…

The idea of America briefly fired his imagination, as it had fired the even more fiery imagination of Blake. But America was now free from the “colonial oppression” of Britain’s ancien régime and had begun its ascent up the mountain of industry and commerce, which Byron and most other anti-materialistic Romantics viewed with contempt. How strange that the very energy Byron might have found so repulsive in America has attracted huddled masses and enterprising individuals ever since! By contrast with the United States, much of the Old World still endured the tyranny of repressive governments and, in some cases, foreign domination.
Ironically, Byron spent the first five months of his exile in Switzerland, where he forged a strong friendship with fellow poet and wanderer Percy Shelley. He also had a torrid affair with Shelley’s sister-in-law Jane, and came close to an affair with Shelley’s young wife Mary. We must, however, be grateful for whatever emotional hurly burly bubbled at this time, as it provided Mary Shelley with a suitable environment to create Frankenstein with its infamous monster, that strange concoction of love and hate. Mary Shelley’s monster probably owes part of his inspiration to Byron, who called himself “a strange mélange of good and evil.” But Byron had no desire to end like Frankenstein’s monster. He was on a mission that would lead to his glorious death, and such a death was not possible on the placid shores of Lake Geneva.
Italy offered more honorable prospects, all the more so as the once great city states of the Renaissance were now controlled by the Hapsburgs of Vienna. Byron lived a full life during the seven years of his Italian sojourn, which included what was perhaps his most serious “conventional” love affair with a young aristocratic beauty called Countess Teresa Guiccioli. She even made things easier for Byron by obtaining papal permission for a separation from her elderly husband. Teresa was also Byron’s introduction to the Italian resistance against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in which struggle the dilettante English poet proved himself an extremely disciplined and resourceful comrade-in-arms. A solid apprenticeship in revolution for the sterner test awaiting him in Greece! Byron took numerous risks on behalf of the Italian resistance, though his position as an expatriate English aristocrat of growing literary repute probably saved him from formal punishment by the Hapsburg authorities. If only those authorities had appreciated with what hatred Byron was viewed by Britain’s Prince Regent, who in 1820 became King George IV.
Byron was joined in Italy by his close friend Shelley, who also acted as his courier, returning to England with manuscripts for Byron’s publisher. This was a remarkably magnanimous gesture of friendship given that poor Shelley saw hardly any of his own poems published. By contrast, the scandals Byron had left behind him in London seemed to arouse even further public demand for his work. And then Shelley drowned in July,1822, aged twenty-nine. One can well imagine that while he attended the cremation of Shelley’s body on the shores of the Mediterranean, Byron brooded on the chilling stanza from Don Juan that he’d written two years earlier,
        
        ‘Whom the gods love die young’ was said of yore,
        And many deaths do they escape by this:
        The death of friends and that which slays even more,
        The death of friendship, love, youth, all that is,

Almost 150 years later, Jim Morrison announced with Byronic grandeur that he would soon be “Number Three!” a clear reference to two other American rock icons whose recent deaths had shocked the music world. Byron may well have felt that after, first, the death of Keats, whom he admired, and now, just a year later, the death of Shelley, whom he loved, he surely was “Number Three.” It was merely a matter of the time and the place; as Hamlet told his friend Horatio, “the readiness is all.”

After leaving England, Byron’s Childe Harold took himself to Greece,

        Fair Greece! Sad relic of departed worth!
        Immortal, though no more; though fallen, great!
        Who now shall lead thy scatter’d children forth,
        And long accustomed bondage uncreate?
        Not such thy sons who whilome did await,
        The hopeless warriors of a willing doom,
        In bleak Thermopylae’s sepulchral strait –
        Oh! Who that gallant spirit shall resume,
        Leap from Eurota’s banks, and call thee from the tomb?
                            (Canto II, stanza 73)

Byron had first visited Greece while still a Cambridge undergraduate and had witnessed the “sad relic” of a great civilization now under the “long, accustomed bondage” of the Ottoman Empire. He had no particular gripe against the Turks. In fact, he rather liked what he had seen on his travels in Asia Minor, which had included his heroic swim across the Dardanelles. But he was saddened by what he viewed as the Greeks’ passive acceptance of their bondage. With prophetic foresight, Childe Harold stirs the docile Greeks to action. Thirteen years later, in 1821, the Greek Revolt against the Turks began, the very first shots ringing in Byron’s ears as a call to arms. Now in his mid-thirties, he was seduced by the idea of liberating the ancient nation that was the very cradle of the civilization that had nurtured him. He would lead the “scattered children forth;” he would “resume the gallant spirit” of the Spartan warriors of Thermopylae; he would call Greece “from the tomb.” In July 1823, he sailed to Greece to perform the short fifth act of his drama.     
It soon became clear to Byron why the Greek Revolt had gotten off to such a pitiful start. The unflattering reports he’d heard about military incompetence and the lack of a coherent nationalist ideology were, alas, well founded. Driven like a proverbial Spartan, Byron worked tirelessly to instill military discipline and to inspire patriotic fervor, both with some degree of success. His status as a National Hero of modern Greece is well earned, and no Greek will brook a bad word said against him, especially as his was a lone English voice condemning the English plunder of Greece’s ancient treasure: those fabulous “Elgin Marbles,” which have stood “proudly” in the British Museum for almost 200 years. They brought an “undescribable feud” to the noble heart of Keats, and they aroused anger in the noble heart of Byron,

    Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee
    Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
    Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
    Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
    By British hands, which it had best behoved
    To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
    Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved
    And once again thy hapless bosom gored
    And snatched thy shrinking Gods to northern climes abhorr’d!
                (Childe Harold: Canto II, stanza 15)

Perhaps Byron felt that as an Anglo-Scot (Lord Elgin was a Scot) he had to atone for Britain’s great sin against Greece. But by the time he wrote the poem on the occasion of his thirty-sixth birthday, he must have sensed that the Greek struggle was futile and that he would die not as a liberator, but as a martyr. It would in fact take almost another hundred years for Greece to win its freedom, when the holocaust of World War I brought the destruction of the sickly Ottoman Empire. Significantly, another young Byronic Hero, T.E. Lawrence, was involved in this final phase of the struggle against the Turks, in his case on behalf of their Arab subjects. But despite the disillusionment and the physical anger Byron launched against the laziest and most dishonorable of his troops, Byron remained fiercely loyal to the idea of Greece and to the purity of its cause.
        
The sword, the banner, and the field
        Glory and Greece around me see.
        The Spartan, borne upon his shield,
            Was not more free.    

In the besieged town of Missolonghi, Byron became violently ill with fever, but rallied sufficiently to motivate his men, adorning himself with his impressive helmet, breastplate, and cutlass. Just as the cruel doctors of Scotland and England had added to the misery of his deformed foot, so now the cruel doctors of Greece added to the misery of his fever, and he died on April 15 1824 after several weeks of horrible convulsions. But in his soul, he died sword in hand,

        The land of honorable death
        Is here: up to the field, and give
            Away thy breath!

        Seek out – less often sought than found –
        A soldier’s grave, for thee the best;
        Then look around, and chose thy ground,
            And take thy rest.

Writing about Byron six years after his death, his friend Mary Shelley described him as “…fascinating, faulty, childish, a philosophical being, daring the world, docile to a private circle, impetuous and indolent, gloomy and yet more gay than any other,” a full definition of the bi-polar temperament that modern psychologists detect in many artistic geniuses. But Byron is more than an artistic genius; he is a myth. His enduring influence on contemporary culture has been so enormous that in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, arguably the greatest historical survey of philosophy, Byron gets his own chapter. As Russell points out, Byron was not a philosopher in the strict, academic sense of the word. But he had a huge impact on European philosophy, most notably on the titanic intellect of Friedrich Nietzsche. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche acknowledges that his own concept of the Superman (Der Übermensch) owes much to Byron, in particular to Byron’s defiant and independent hero Manfred. Nietzsche goes so far as to say that as a model for the fully autonomous hero, in charge of his own destiny and in need of no salvation from beyond his own soul, Byron’s Manfred is even greater than Goethe’s Faust! Composers no less than philosophers were inspired by Byron and his heroes. Berlioz, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky were just three of the musical heavyweights of the 19th century who transcribed Byron’s words into sweeping orchestral tone poems.
In our own time, all the defiant young heroes of the past fifty years have in some manner inherited the Byronic mantle, be they rebels with or without a cause. Byron himself was a real aristocrat, and, by creating the aura of celebrity for others to follow, he has sanctioned later celebrities to assume the mantle of natural aristocracy. In many cases that we have witnessed, the mantle simply does not fit, and hangs loose like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief. But a select few have come close to Byron’s nobility of motive and to his prophetic vision. Perhaps the closest we have seen is John Lennon, who, like Byron, “loved liberty and detested cant.” Even the lone, laconic, and nameless heroes of Clint Eastwood’s “spaghetti westerns” are inconceivable without Byron. And there are a few, who, through their own early deaths, have echoed Manfred’s last words,
    
“Old man! ‘tis not so difficult to die.”

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