Byron, George Gordon (Noel), Lord Byron
George Gordon (Noel) Byron, Lord Byron 1788–1824
English poet, dramatist, and satirist.
Both celebrated and vilified during his lifetime, Byron was one of the most flamboyant of the English Romantic poets. He is now perhaps best known as the creator of the figure of the "Byronic hero," a melancholy man, often with a dark past, who rejects social and religious strictures to search for truth and happiness in an apparently meaningless universe.
Byron was born in London to John "Mad Jack" Byron and Catherine Gordon, a descendent of a Scottish noble family. He was born with a clubbed foot, with which he suffered throughout his life. Byron's father had married his wife for her money, which he soon squandered and fled to France where he died in 1791. When Byron was a year old, he and his mother moved to Aberdeen, Scotland, and Byron spent his childhood there. Upon the death of his great-uncle in 1798, Byron became the sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale and inherited the ancestral home, Newstead Abbey in Nottingham. He attended Harrow School from 1801 to 1805 and then Trinity College at Cambridge University until 1808, when he received a master's degree. Byron's first publication was a collection of poems, Fugitive Pieces, which he himself paid to have printed in 1807, and which he revised and expanded twice within a year. When he turned twenty-one in 1809, Byron was entitled to a seat in the House of Lords, and he attended several sessions of Parliament that year. In July, however, he left England on a journey through Greece and Turkey. He recorded his experiences in poetic form in several works, most importantly in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. He returned to England in 1811 and once again took his seat in Parliament. The publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold in 1812 met with great acclaim, and Byron was hailed in literary circles. Around this time he engaged in a tempestuous affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, who characterized Byron as "mad—bad—and dangerous to know." Throughout his life Byron conducted numerous affairs and fathered several illegitimate children. One of his most notorious liaisons was with his half-sister Augusta. Byron married Annabella Millbank in 1815, with whom he had a daughter, Augusta Ada. He was periodically abusive toward Annabella, and she left him in 1816. He never saw his wife and daughter again. Following his separation, which had caused something of a scandal, Byron left England for Europe. In Geneva, Switzerland, he met Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Godwin Shelley,
with whom he became close friends. The three stayed in a villa rented by Byron. During this time Mary Shelley wrote her famous novel Frankenstein, and Byron worked on Canto III of Childe Harold, which was published in 1816. In 1817 Byron moved on to Italy, where he worked on Canto IV, which was published the next year. For several years Byron lived in a variety of Italian cities, engaging in a series of affairs and composing large portions of his masterpiece Don Juan as well as other poems. In 1823 he left Italy for Greece to join a group of insurgents fighting for independence from the Turks. On April 9, 1824, after being soaked in the rain, Byron contracted a fever from which he died ten days later.
Byron is difficult to place within the Romantic movement. He spurned poetic theory and ridiculed the critical work of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Although he was a friend of Shelley, Byron was not, as his friend was, part of the mystic tradition of Romanticism. Byron's first successful work, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, is a satire in the neoclassical tradition of Alexander Pope. His Eastern verse tales—including The Bride of Abydos. A Turkish Tale and The Giaour, A Fragment of a Turkish Tale—and, especially, such poems as Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Manfred are more typically Romantic, with their portraits of outlaws and brooding heroes. Beppo, A Venetian Story dispenses with the Byronic hero and turns again to satire, as does Don Juan, a mock epic which casts a critical eye on society, presenting its title character not as the notorious womanizer of legend but as a naive victim. This complex, digressive satire, influenced by Italian burlesque poetry, was condemned on its publication as obscene and has been described by some as careless and meandering; however, most critics now regard Don Juan as Byron's masterpiece, citing its skillful rendering of a variety of narrative perspectives and its treatment of an array of topics, including politics, society, and metaphysics.
Byron's poetry was extremely popular during his lifetime, although some reviewers regarded both his personal life and his writing as immoral. He was nearly forgotten by critics in the second half of the nineteenth century, and during the first half of the twentieth century, he was often ranked as a minor Romantic poet. Since then, however, his poetry has met with increasing critical interest—in particular for its employment of satire and verbal digression, for its presentation of the individual versus society, and for its treatment of guilt and innocence. Finally, Byron's place within the Romantic movement and his debt to the eighteenth-century neoclassical writers before him are a source of ongoing interpretation and reassessment.
* Fugitive Pieces 1807
English Bards and Scotch Reviewers 1809
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: A Romaunt [Cantos I and II] 1812
The Bride of Abydos. A Turkish Tale 1813
The Giaour, A Fragment of a Turkish Tale 1813
Waltz: An Apostrophic Hymn 1813
The Corsair, A Tale 1814
Lara. A Tale 1814
Ode to Napoléon Buonaparte 1814
A Selection of Hebrew Melodies Ancient and Modern 1815
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Canto the Third 1816
The Prisoner of Chillon, and Other Poems 1816
The Siege of Corinth. A Poem. Parisina. A Poem 1816
The Lament of Tasso 1817
Manfred, A Dramatic Poem (verse drama) 1817
Beppo, A Venetian Story 1818
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Canto the Fourth 1818
Don Juan [Cantos I and II] 1819
Mazeppa, A Poem 1819
Don Juan, Cantos III, IV, and V 1821
Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice. An Historical Tragedy, in Five Acts. With Notes. The Prophecy of Dante, A Poem (verse drama and poetry) 1821
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SOURCE: "The Fatal Bounds of the Will," in The Blind Man Traces the Circle: On the Patterns and Philosophy of Byron's Poetry, Princeton University Press, 1969, pp. 61-90.
[In the excerpt below, Cooke analyzes the nature of the self and the strength of individual will as they are presented in Byron's dramatic poem Manfred.]
Critical theorists celebrate as one of the outstanding marks of romanticism the realization that the seat of value is in the self, and the obligation of the self the apprehension of its home beyond brute circumstances of time and place; its "heart and home," as Wordsworth declares, "is with infinitude." A decisive shift in orientation takes place here. For where traditional Christianity had promised redemption of the individual from eternal wretchedness by a briefly incarnate Christ, Agent of Infinitude, romanticism is seen propounding a redemption of infinitude from entrenched materialism by the self, Bearer of Infinitude—so that Christ, as used by Blake for example, comes to represent man-as-God more truly than God-as-man. It would appear quite fitting, then, for Byron to have been brought home to himself in 1816, just as it would appear standard for him, in the name of that self, to have laid claim to infinitude. But Byron's situation and his response admit of features that have no exact parallel within the romantic complex.
The cardinal quality that sets Byron's...
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SOURCE: "Byron's Strange Perversity of Thought," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 33, December, 1972, pp. 405-19.
[In this essay, DePorte analyzes Byron's depiction of the struggle for individual freedom in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, claiming that for Byron the desire for freedom can ultimately result in a form of madness.]
Byron's affection for Augustan satire is well known, but Childe Harold is hardly the poem one would turn to for echoes of Swift. Nevertheless, canto 3 contains lines strikingly reminiscent of the "Digression on Madness" [in Swift's Tale of a Tub], where the lunatic is pictured as a man unwilling to "pass his Life in the common Forms" and intent on "subduing Multitudes to his own Power, his Reasons or his Visions," and where it is argued that all conquerors, contrivers of philosophical systems, and founders of new religious sects are thus mad.
Byron has been reflecting on the fate of the latest conqueror, praising him really. The assessment of Napoleon seems balanced because of the careful antitheses—"An Empire thou couldst crush, command, rebuild, / But govern not thy pettiest passion" (3.38)—yet the balance turns out to be mainly grammatical. That Napoleon can sway empires and at the same time be unable to control himself is not the paradox for Byron it might be for others. He expects irrationality and imprudence of...
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SOURCE: "The Narrator of Don Juan," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 5, No. 2, April, 1974, pp. 49-58.
[In the following essay, Parker contends that the narrator of Don Juan is intentionally inconsistent and that Byron patterned him after the literary figure of the rogue.]
As a poet and as a man, Byron was a poseur, everyone agrees, but some of Byron's posturing is more interesting than most poets' sincerity, and by no means everyone disapproves of it. Nevertheless, for those like myself who feel that what there is of value in Byron is not to be dissociated from this posturing, there is a problem; not one that immediately affects our enjoyment of the poetry, but one that can ultimately do so, once we start puzzling about meaning: it is often difficult to know who is saying what is said, how seriously, and with what shade of irony, if any. The problem has been complicated by current intellectual fashions. Problems of identity are all the go, and it is tempting to see Byron as a Regency Borges with a passion for masks, as a precursor of existentialism, or as a devotee of the absurd. I think he probably does have some importance in the history of these phenomena, but simply to say that Byron was doing what lots of writers today are trying to do seems to me neither accurate, nor a good way of seeing where he stands in literary history, nor indeed a reason why we...
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SOURCE: "The Byronic Pilgrimage to the Absurd," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XV, No. 4, Summer, 1974, pp. 325-65.
[In the following essay, Hinkel contends that Byron's poetry reflects his continuing attempts to come to terms with a world he considered chaotic and meaningless.]
In 1821, only three years before his death, Byron wrote in his diary: "It is all a Mystery. I feel most things, but I know nothing except—." He then covered the page with a series of blanks. The best of Byron's poetry is variation on that theme. The theme assumes nearly as many different emphases as the poet assumed poses, but the recurring motif, from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage through the fragmented Canto XVII of Don Juan, asserts an essentially absurdist view of the world. In one sense, Byron was born out of phase with time. While Coleridge and Wordsworth affirmed the organic unity of life and the blessedness afforded one who participates in an ultimately benevolent process, Byron traced the shrineless pilgrimage of Childe Harold who searches relentlessly for he is not sure what. While Shelley—even in Byron's presence—found "flowering isles" in the "sea of life and Agony" (imaginatively, if not actually), Byron allowed Manfred to die out of an unbearable, guilt-ridden existence. While Keats was steeling himself against misery with his doctrines of disinterestedness and "soul-making," Byron prepared Don Juan...
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SOURCE: "Masses and Solids: Byron's View of the External World," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 3, September, 1974, pp. 257-71.
[In the essay below, Bostetter examines Byron's ideas regarding the relationship of the human mind and the physical world as expressed in his poems.]
John Locke's theories affected all the major Romantics, even those like Coleridge who repudiated them with such scorn. In particular, they were influenced by his separation of senses into primary and secondary sensations, the external world versus the inner world. The distinctions Locke drew were simple and dramatic: the "primary" qualities of objects—solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number—are those that really exist in the objects, whether anyone's senses perceive them or not; and secondary qualities—colors, sound, tastes, etc.—"in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities, i.e., by the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of their insensible parts" [An Essay Concerning Human Understanding].
Take away the sensation of them, let not the eyes see light or colours, nor the ears hear sounds; let the palate not taste, nor the nose smell; and all colours, tastes, odours and sounds, as they are such particular ideas, vanish and cease, and are reduced to their causes, i.e., bulk, figure,...
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SOURCE: "The Byronic Heroine and Byron's The Corsair," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1, January, 1978, pp. 71-83.
[In the following essay, Hull—focusing particularly on Gulnare in The Corsair—analyzes the general characteristics of Byron's heroines.]
The phrase, "the Byronic heroine," usually evokes an image which is epitomized by a sketch executed for Byron's Corsair by Richard Westall, a contemporary painter famous for his mannered book illustrations. Westall's watercolor shows a tall, tragic-stricken young woman in Oriental dress—including billowy pants, a long camisole tunic, and a trailing, embroidered train—leaning forlornly against the outer wall of a vine-covered, Mediterranean cottage which is perched high on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea. Her hair straggles untended down her face, shoulder, and back; her figure is stooped; and her hands hang listlessly. She has turned from a departing ship which is disappearing into the distance, while the vast lonely horizon further accentuates her grief.
This character represents Haidée and the women of the narrative tales which Byron produced in 1813-14, and is usually considered to be "the Byronic heroine." More importantly, she is the figure so designated by Byron himself. Despite the excellence of some of his other female characters (for example, Aurora Raby in...
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SOURCE: "Byron's Don Juan: Myth as Psychodrama," in The Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. XXIX, 1980, pp. 131-50.
[In the essay below, Tate reads Don Juan as a "psychodrama," in which "the poem served the poet as a kind of therapeutic theater in which he could reenact certain of his own problematic amorous adventures."]
In his "uncommon want" of a hero, Byron deliberately chose Don Juan as one whose myth satisfied his own needs both as poet and as private man. Examining Byron's poetic reworking of the Don Juan myth in relation to his own psychology yields a reading that lends continuity to a poem still being termed a "hold-all." The myth is descended from Tirso de Molina's El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (ca. 1616), which combines an account of the amorous adventures of a fictive character whom Tirso named Don Juan, with the Spanish folktale of a stone statue that comes to life and delivers the village rouge to hell. Both the amorous adventures of the Don and the avenging stone statue are central to Byron's presentation of the myth.
The classical, or pre-Romantic, Don Juan is renowned more for his ceaseless efforts than for his actual triumphs. He resorts to all sorts of chicanery: even his successes tend to be comically colored by the overintensity of his assaults. The Byronic Don Juan, on the other hand, is l'homme fatal, universally irresistible....
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SOURCE: "Politics and Religion in Byron's Heaven and Earth" in The Byron Journal, No. 11, 1983, pp. 30-9.
[In this essay, Watkins argues that in Heaven and Earth Byron demonstrates how religious beliefs can be manipulated to support authoritarian political views.]
Byron's faith in the ability of readers to understand and appreciate his poetry seems to have disappeared completely in his later years. His famous response to the strong moral criticisms of Don Juan reflects his sense of how far the public missed his literary aims: "it may be bawdy—but is it not good English?—it may be profligate—but is it not life, is it not the thing?" Criticism of the history plays, too, derived from ignorance; the plays, he claimed, would be appreciated only when properly "understood." His impatience perhaps reached its peak in his sardonic comment that Cain was subtitled "A Mystery" "in honour of what it probably will remain to the reader."
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SOURCE: "Byron's Laughter: Don Juan and the Hegelian Dialectic," in The Byron Journal, No. 11, 1983, pp. 40-3, 46.
[In the essay below, Proffitt examines the function of the comic aspects of Don Juan.]
In his preface to Man and Superman, Shaw ridicules Byron's Don Juan as being a mere "vagabond libertine." Shaw was wrong. Byron's "hero" is, by force of circumstance, a vagabond; but he is no libertine. He is as essentially chaste and as passive as Shaw's own Tanner—never the seducer, always the seduced. Shaw, of course, disparaged Shakespeare, too—his disparagement being a sure sign of his debt. But my point is not that Shaw was influenced by Byron. Given Shaw's own chastity and contrariness, he would probably have come up with a chaste, passive Juan in any event. But Byron! What was he doing with such a hero?
Before I attempt an answer to this question, let me quickly establish the passivity—that is, with respect to matters sexual—of Byron's protagonist. The keynote of that passivity is struck in Canto V, when Juan, in female disguise and known as Juanna, is to be taken from the seraglio to the Sultan. Bidden by his friend Johnson to "Keep your good name; though Eve herself once fell," Juan, as "maid," modestly replies:
… the Sultan's self shan't carry me,
Unless his Highness promises to marry me.
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SOURCE: "Speed and Space: Byron," in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Vintage Books, 1991, pp. 347-64.
[In the following essay, which was first published in 1990, Paglia regards Byron as instrumental in the development of the phenomenon of the male sex symbol.]
The second generation of English Romantic poets inherited the achievement of the first. Byron, Shelley, and Keats read and absorbed Wordsworth and Coleridge's poems and gave them new form. The younger men created the myth of the doomed Romantic artist. All three went into exile and died young, in pagan Italy and Greece. Publicity and fashion made them sex-heroes of European high society: they were real-life sexual personae, as Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge were not. The poems of Byron, Shelley, and Keats are theatrical gestures of self-definition. The first Romantic generation released the psychic energy in which the second swam and sometimes drowned. Achieving freedom is one problem, surviving freedom another. The early deaths of Byron, Shelley, and Keats demonstrate the intolerable pressures in the Romantic and liberal world-view. Blake and Wordsworth wanted identity without personality: but personality is ultimate western reality. Byron, Shelley, and Keats had a love-hate relationship with personality, their own and others'.
Lord Byron makes Romantic incest stunningly explicit. I see...
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SOURCE: "Byron's Beppo: Digression and Contingency," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 73, Spring, 1993, pp. 18-33.
[In the following examination of Beppo, Curtis concludes that Byron used digressions from the main plot or theme of his poems as a metaphor for life experience.]
You ask me for the plan of Donny Johnny—I have no plan—I had no plan—but I had or have materials….—Why Man the Soul of such writing is it's licence?—at least the liberty of that licence if one likes—not that one should abuse it.
[Byron, letter to John Murray, 12 August 1819]
The Romantics valued narrative uncertainty, and Byron certainly was the rule rather than the exception. His brand of uncertainty was of a different order, however. Whereas the Ancient Mariner had "strange power of speech" or Wordsworth's Prelude prophesied "Something evermore about to be," Byron understood narrative uncertainty more as rhetorical liberty than the groping of one's consciousness in the effort to create one's self. Keats pointed out that Byron cut a figure and was one too; but, as his correspondence reveals, consciousness for Byron was often claustrophobic. The narrative uncertainty Byron preferred was boundless or encyclopedic like that of Sterne's Tristram or Burton's Anatomy. The use...
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Quennell, Peter. "Lord Byron: Man and Legend." The Critic XXXIII, No. 2 (January-February 1975): 36-43.
Reassesses Byron's life and reputation 150 years after his death.
Beatty, Bernard and Newey, Vincent, eds. Byron and the Limits of Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1988, 291 p.
Essays by various critics examining the narrative patterns in Byron's works.
Boker, Pamela A. "Byron's Psychic Prometheus: Narcissism and Self-Transformation in the Dramatic Poem Manfred." Literature and Psychology XXXVIII, Nos. 1-2 (1992): 1-37.
Applies theories of psychology to the Byronic hero Manfred, judging him a projection of the author.
Bold, Alan, ed. Byron: Wrath and Rhyme. London: Vision Press, 1983, 216 p.
Essays by various critics examining Byron's works and ideas.
Brisman, Leslie. "Byron: Troubled Stream from a Pure Source." English Literary History 42 (Winter 1975): 623-50.
Examines Byron's ideas about humanity's origin as they are presented in his poems.
Chew, Samuel C. Byron in...
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