Sometimes I write stupid things about the Romantics. And then sometimes I use a vaguely related calendar event to share them.
Seeing as it is Lord Byron’s birthday, I thought I’d do a Byron-related post, as someone who has definitely never ever dressed up as him. He’s a poet mostly known for his bear and his sex life (well, and being a dick, but if there’s anything you learn from an English degree, it’s that so were most writers). My favourite burn is from an old All Souls exam paper that I remember finding online: ‘was Byron as funny as he thought he was?’ (depends on the day, for both him and the reader in question).
This post isn’t to give his life story. For that, read Fiona MacCarthy’s brilliant biography Byron: Life and Legend. And also bear in mind that this is someone who lived for 36 years, did a lot of self-mythologising and being fictionalised by other people, and then two hundred years of people changing, adding, believing, and a whole lot more with these stories.
There’s not even really space to talk about his poetry, partly due to how long some of it is. Byron uses a lot of stupid rhymes, dramatic imagery, and frankly flimsily-veiled references to his life (the fourth and final canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a tour round Europe slash meditation on being a brooding Romantic figure, features Byron complaining people thought he was the titular pilgrim even though he’s sure he made it very certain that he’s not, not at all). Two of his short poems are famous and get in general anthologies (‘She Walks In Beauty’ and “So, We’ll Go No More A Roving”). His famous major works, the previously mentioned Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the sprawling and more comic Don Juan, are long and not necessarily easy to get into.
The short ‘Darkness’ is fantastic: dramatic and unnerving. If you know anything about the Romantic period (or are willing to read a lot of notes to get the references) then read the dedication to Don Juan, which has some of the best use of terrible rhymes as comic insults (on Coleridge: “Explaining metaphysics to the nation— / I wish he would explain his Explanation”). As it is his birthday, read ‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’ and remember he died three months later.
I could write many things about books relating to Byron/using him in a fictionalised way/referencing him for some reason or another, but I’ve already posted on here about Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon (and its similarity to Twilight) and this has become quite long already. Instead, here’s a video to enjoy, the amazingly weird ‘Dread Poets’ Society’, aka Benjamin Zephaniah accidentally meets the Romantic poets on a train (I would’ve also linked to the Horrible Histories Byron parody about him not being a vampire just a pretentious poet, but sadly I can’t find it on YouTube).
The poem that got me into liking Byron (and, in fact, probably Romantic poetry as a whole) was having to read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in the holidays before we did the paper including the Romantics during my undergrad degree. Some of it is the way the poem sounds—the best lines are the ones you want to keep reciting aloud—and also just the way things are phrased and described was unlike what I’d seen before (“And thus the heart will break, yet brokenly live on”). The end of canto III has some of the most quotable bits all at once, so I’ll give a little bit to close on:
“I have loved not the world, nor the world me, — / But let us part fair foes”.