Byron Matters: Lessons on the Life and Death of a Romantic Poet

by Mike Dillon

April 19, 2024 marks the bicentennial of the death of Lord Byron. The devastatingly handsome British poet—“mad, bad and dangerous to know,” in Lady Caroline Lamb’s memorable words—was only thirty-six years old when, weakened by his physician’s incessant bloodletting, he died of fever in the tidal marsh town of Missolonghi (or Messolonghi), Greece, far from the boudoirs and scandals of London and Italy that made him perhaps the most famous man in Europe after Napoleon.

Byron had journeyed to Greece to lend his fame and money to the Greek War of Independence, which erupted in 1821 after four centuries of Ottoman rule. Though he is still regarded as one of the essential Romantic poets and remembered for his wildly picaresque adventures, Byron’s life-long opposition to political and personal oppression may be his most enduring legacy—and it bears special resonance in our own era, when the torch of democracy flickers in an ill wind.

The Greek War of Independence attracted liberal Philhellenes in England and across Europe, much like the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War more than a century later attracted liberal sympathizers in the U.S. and on the continent. Fifth-century Athens was the wellspring of self-government the American Revolution drew from; Byron looked to the new American nation (and especially its already iconic leader George Washington) with envy and admiration. 

After the drowning death of his friend and fellow poet Percy Shelley in 1822, Byron cast about for the next chapter in his life. He even thought of venturing to South America to aid freedom-fighter Simon Bolivar in his campaign against the Spanish Empire. But Byron chose Greece, where he had traveled as a young man, embracing the Greek cause as his own. As he wrote in “Journal in Cephalonia”:

The dead have been awakened — shall I sleep?
   The World’s at war with tyrants — shall I crouch?
The harvest’s ripe — and shall I pause to reap?
   I slumber not; the thorn is in my Couch.

Byron outfitted Greek fighters and exercised a strong hand in strategy and the training of troops. His leadership skills and command of detail, let alone his money and fame, introduced the needed gravitas to cool the friction between Greek factions.

Byron’s death in Messolonghi shocked the English-speaking world and galvanized Greek resistance to the Ottomans. In his 1924 study of the poet’s final years, Byron: The Last Journey, Harold Nicolson wrote: “Lord Byron accomplished nothing at Missolonghi except his own suicide; but by that single act of heroism he secured the liberation of Greece.”

Yet if Byron’s ten-month Greek adventure is a coda tacked on to one of the most colorful author biographies of all time, his fateful journey to Missolonghi is the fulfillment of what had come before. A prime example occurred on February 27, 1812, when Byron rose to deliver his maiden speech in the House of Lords—a speech that deserves to be bold-faced in any account of Byron’s legacy.  

Byron, a titled young man of twenty-four educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, proceeded to defend the enraged weavers in the north of England who, in one of the first acts of rebellion against the Industrial Revolution, went about destroying the new textile frames that were taking away their daily bread. The Tory government called in the troops and the House of Commons proposed a bill calling for the frame breakers to be hung. When the bill moved on to the House of Lords,  Byron’s speech, worthy of Voltaire or Swift, addressed the protesters’ violence:

But whilst these outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress; the perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, once honest and industrious, body of the people, into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community.

Then, with supreme facetiousness:

In the foolishness of their hearts they imagined that the maintenance and well-doing of the industrious poor were objects of greater consequence than the enrichment of a few individuals by any improvement, in the implements of trade, which threw the workmen out of employment, and rendered the laborer unworthy of his hire.

Towards the end of his impassioned address, Byron drove the point home:

I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never under the most despotic of infidel governments did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return in the very heart of a Christian country.

With a child of privilege speaking out in defense of the angry Luddites, the bill was watered down to the point where hanging was no longer an option. In the next century W.H. Auden famously wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen”; sometimes, however, as in this case, the eloquence of poets does.

Byron’s poetry, for generations all the rage, has slipped in the critical canon, but there are still good reasons to read his work. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is the sourcebook for the brooding, mercurial introversion later dubbed “Byronic,” as well as a marvelous travelogue of the Mediterranean basin through the eyes of the young lord. His unfinished satirical masterpiece Don Juan—with its whip-smart, easy-going handling of ottava rima, a difficult form—might be considered an avatar of rap: “I want a hero: an uncommon want, / When every year and month sends forth a new one, / Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant, / the age discovers he is not the true one,” the rhapsodic tale begins; it proceeds, through sixteen cantos, to eviscerate the pomposities and hypocrisies of the age.

Byron’s copious letters, too, reveal the brilliance and insouciant wit, often self-deprecating, that tugged paramours of both sexes in his direction. It’s this wit, in fact, that allowed him to look up from his deathbed at the mournful faces gathered around him and mutter, in Italian, one last Byronic quip: “O, this is a beautiful scene.”

Missolonghi, a small town on the Gulf of Patras, is sacred in Greek history for its role in the War of Independence. Following a siege by the Ottomans, after stout resistance, starvation, and sacrifice, Missolonghi’s terrible suffering culminated in a massacre two years after Byron’s death. The atrocity captured Europe’s attention, much as Byron’s martyr-status had, and strengthened the cause of Greece’s freedom. At the entrance into the town is the Garden of Heroes, honoring those who resisted Ottoman rule; Byron’s marble statue stands there, in the place where his heart was buried. Byron’s body was shipped back to England and interred in the family vault in St. Mary Magdalene Church in Nottinghamshire, having been refused burial at Westminster Abbey (though a memorial stone was finally placed there in 1969).

This July, the Messolonghi Byron Society will host its 48th International Byron Conference to mark the bicentennial of Byron’s death; the conference is titled “Byron: The Pilgrim of Eternity,” a moniker Shelley hung on his quicksilver friend. Among the array of scholarly topics on the agenda, a discussion of Byron’s ongoing afterlife is prominent. The society’s three-story building bordering the sea is the north star of Byron studies in Greece and plays host to scholars, classroom field trips, and curious travelers.

It’s no surprise that Byron vociferously opposed the removal of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, and he wrote a long poem, “The Curse of Minerva,” declaiming his position. More than 200 years later, the Elgin Marbles still reside in the British Museum, and are the subject of white-knuckled negotiations between Britain and Greece for their return. The ever-present past carries on. As does the urgency of these words from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which should resonate in our own chaotic times:

Yet let us ponder boldly; ‘tis a base
Abandonment of reason to resign
Our right of thought, our last and only place
Of refuge — this, at least, shall be mine.

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