A Thunderstorm Against the Wind

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Byron struck an image that still enthrals many. Mike Gonzalez traces the sources of his popularity.

Lady Caroline Lamb's spiteful description of her ex-lover Lord Byron--'mad, bad and dangerous to know'--has remained with us in a cascade of society scandals. Now it is the title of a new travelling exhibition, linked to a new biography by Fiona McCarthy. Suddenly Lord George Gordon Byron is everywhere. In an age of tabloid fascination with 'celebrity', it is the flagrant, challenging homosexual, the athletic lover, the dandy with the club foot, the merciless satirist, the man who courted scandal by parading his love for his sister, who is rediscovered. 'Byronic' then becomes a description that, in McCarthy's view, can link Byron to Disraeli, Oscar Wilde, Che Guevara and Mick Jagger in a continuous line.

But there's much more to Byron than the travelling aristocrat with a penchant for living and a wicked line in deflating the pompous and the priggish--and much more than the dressing up and the sexual athletics. In a letter to Marx, Engels says, 'Byron and Shelley are read almost exclusively by the lower classes; no "respectable" person could have [their] works on his desk without coming into the most terrible disrepute.' Strange that 100 years on, and suitably diluted, both would be regarded as essential reading for the educated middle classes. We know that for many years anthologies of Shelley's work left out the magnificent political polemics like 'The Masque of Anarchy'. We know too that Byron's friends got together after his death and burned his memoirs--presumably because of their celebration of homosexual love and vicious attacks on some of the leading figures of the age.

Byron was not, like Shelley, a revolutionary. But like Shelley he was appalled by the massacre at Peterloo and praised Milton because, unlike Wordsworth and Southey and the older Romantic poets, he never lost his rage or his political independence:

'Would he adore a sultan? he obey
The intellectual eunuch Castlereagh?'

Byron's huge popularity began with 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage' (1812-16). This long narrative in verse recounted a journey across a Europe torn by conflict and violence. The hopes awoken by the French Revolution lay in ruins. Napoleon, for whom Byron always expressed an enormous admiration, was defeated. In fact, Byron spent the last ten years of his life wandering across this dark landscape--Shelley called him 'the pilgrim of eternity'.

Childe Harold is, of course, Byron himself--or perhaps Byron became increasingly like his own invention. He was an isolated individual--isolated from his own class (the landed aristocracy), from his literary peers and from his own country. When Byron left Britain for good in 1816, it was almost certainly because his homosexuality was about to be exposed--and in those black times of reaction, sodomy was punishable by death.

'Yet Freedom! yet thy banner torn but flying,
Streams like the thunder storm against the wind;
Thy trumpet voice, though broken now and dying;
The loudest still the tempest leaves behind.'

Why was this poem so hugely popular, selling more than 10,000 copies at its first publication? Was it the cult of youth at its heart ('Who loves, raves--'tis youth's frenzy...')? Or was it its affirmation of individual freedom, rebellion and a defiance of moral regulation? As we use the word today, 'Byronic' has come to mean just that--a defiant, nihilistic, sometimes melancholic, sexually daring and morally unhampered human being, an isolated hero, insisting on the right to imagination even amid the debris of earlier hopes.

Byron came back to that idea in his last great work, 'Don Juan', its subject a man moved by passion alone, restless, constantly moving, but still obsessed by some vision of human freedom.

We know that in the end Byron plunged full length into the Greek war of independence against the Turks. He armed a force of 1,500, though he couldn't resist paying for golden helmets to go with their red tunics, and financed the squabbling freedom fighters' first warship. And he died--absurdly as it turned out--at Messalonghi, of a mistreated fever. In Greece he is a celebrated hero. In Britain he is being rediscovered only as a kind of emblematic celebrity.

Perhaps Marx was right to say that Shelley, had he lived, would have become a political revolutionary--while Byron, had he survived, would have turned into an old reactionary. But he died at 37, and left an idea of the poet not just as an outsider, but also as an iconoclast, a smasher of images, a sexual adventurer, a 'conduit of feeling'. And although it might not seem so now, he spoke--from his aristocratic comfort--in a language that was accessible and a form that broke the mould and was vibrant and alive.

Byron's writings reach us from a time of change, upheaval and uncertainty across Europe. And they still speak of defiance, and of hope.