Mad, Bad, and Dangerous Not to Know

"Lord Byron on the shore of the Hellenic sea," by Giacomo Trecourt. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

George Gordon Byron, who passed away 200 years ago yesterday, was at once both the Romantic period’s most famous poet and its most scandalous public figure. His love affairs and radical political views tarnished his reputation during his lifetime, but his verse—which helped define the artistic spirit of his age—remains remarkably fresh, funny, and even shocking today.

Byron was born in London in 1788. His father’s nickname was “Mad Jack”—not a promising sobriquet for a paternal guardian. Unsurprisingly, he abandoned his wife, Catherine, when the young George was still an infant. George spent much of his childhood in Scotland until he was 10 years old, when upon the death of his great-uncle he became the 6th Baron Byron and inherited Newstead Abbey, an estate in Nottinghamshire. 

The young Byron enjoyed a privileged childhood, not a simple one. In addition to being without his father from early in life, he was born with a club foot and was sexually abused by his nurse from the age of 9. The latter experience likely affected his treatment of sexual partners later, but the physical deformity did not impede his remarkable athleticism, including an aptitude for long-distance swimming. 

Although he attended Cambridge, the adolescent Byron had, according to literary scholar Andrew Stauffer, “no great respect for the intellectual life of the university” and preferred “drinking, gambling, and whoring.” He wrote, too. His first poems, published when he was still a student, were not warmly received. An anonymous review in an influential journal recommended “that he do forthwith abandon poetry, and turn his talents, which are considerable, and his opportunities, which are great, to better account.” 

The condescending reception to his work both wounded the young lord’s pride and spurred him to write a poetic rebuttal. The result, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), is a satirical tour-de-force, more than 1,000 lines of venom spat at some of the most famous poets (including Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Walter Scott) and critics of the day, all in elegant heroic couplets evocative of his 18th-century poetic hero, Alexander Pope. Byron presents himself as a formerly naive poet who “now, so callous grown, so changed since youth, / [Has] learned to think, and sternly speak the truth; / Learn’d to deride the critics harsh decree, / And break him on the wheel he meant for me.” This combative humor would characterize much of his poetry to come. 

In 1809, Byron set off on a grand tour of the continent. He forged a deep affection for Italy and Greece—indulging in pederasty and prostitutes while also gathering inspiration for the poems that would make him Britain’s most popular poet. When he returned to England in 1812, he published the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Depicting a young man’s departure from England and travels through the continent, this long, semiautobiographical narrative deploys the same stanzas Edmund Spenser had used for The Faerie Queene at the end of the 16th century, but for radical purposes. It was a chivalric poem for an unchivalric age, and it introduced what would become known as the Byronic hero—a withdrawn, brooding young man fleeing a mysteriously dark past. An early stanza sets the tone:

Apart he stalked in joyless reverie,

And from his native land resolved to go,

And visit scorching climes beyond the sea;

With pleasure drugged, he almost longed for woe,

And e’en for change of scene would seek the shades below.

The poem’s success was immediate, as Byron suggested with his quip, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” More fame followed when, between 1812-14, he published several poems known as Eastern or Turkish Tales, which combined romance and adventure in exotic settings. The most popular of these, The Corsair (about a Byronic pirate who raids an Ottoman palace, is captured, and then rescued by a harem girl), sold more than 10,000 copies the day it was published and went through 10 editions by 1818.

Biographer Fiona MacCarthy points out that “self-absorption, the recasting of his personal and often painful history, was the mainspring of much of Byron’s work.” Nonetheless, his range was extensive. In addition to sharp satires and sweeping tales of adventure, Byron was capable of composing poignant romantic lyrics (“She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies; / And all that’s best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes”) and remarkable character studies. His several poems and passages about Napoleon offer deeper insights into the figure than Ridley Scott’s recent two-and-a-half-hour biopic. Consider this description, from Canto III of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

There sunk the greatest, nor the worst of men,

Whose spirit antithetically mixed

One moment of the mightiest, and again

On little objects with like firmness fixed,

Extreme in all things! Hadst thou been betwixt,

Thy throne had still been thine, or never been.

Byron, if not extreme in all things, was certainly so in his love life. His first notorious affair—coinciding with the launch of his fame in 1812—was with Lady Caroline Lamb, who later bestowed to Byron the tagline that might have been concocted by a rock band’s publicist: “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” After an affair with his half-sister Augusta, he married Annabella Millbank in the spring of 1815. They had a daughter that December but Lady Byron left him early the following year. The tea she spilled—of incest, sodomy, insanity, and general depravity—stained his reputation and, along with substantial debt, compelled him to flee England in 1816. 

Byron traveled for several months. He famously spent that June near Lake Geneva with fellow writers Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley, as well as with Mary’s sister Claire Claremont (with whom Byron would soon have a child, too) before eventually making Italy his home. There, he continued his lascivious ways before settling down—albeit with a married woman. Byron was scandalous even when he was monogamous. 

In the meantime, he wrote more adventure narratives set on the continent and more cantos of Childe Harold, composed provocative closet dramas and satires of rival poets, penned countless letters, and indulged in a memoir that was so scandalous that his friends and publisher burned it after his death. There was also his greatest achievement: the unfinished comic epic Don Juan

The first cantos of Don Juan were published in 1819. Like Childe Harold, it is a rollicking, digressive narrative about a young man’s travels across Europe. And although its tone is more comical and its hero less melancholy, Byron again marries a conservative instinct for poetic tradition with radical political thought. Indeed, his knowledge and mastery of his art’s traditions made his radicalism all the more powerful. Don Juan adapts a verse form called ottava rima, traditionally associated with Italian chivalric epics of the Renaissance, for satirical purposes. The following stanza, about Juan’s religious education, is typical in both form and substance: 

Sermons he read and lectures he endured,

And homilies and lives of all the saints,

To Jerome and to Chrysostom inured;

He did not take such studies of restraints.

But how faith is acquired and then insured,

So well not one of the aforesaid paints

As Saint Augustine in his fine Confessions,

Which make the reader envy his transgressions.

The feminine rhymes in the first six lines (endured / inured / insured) keep the stanza light despite its complex sentence structure. The final couplet, another feminine rhyme, drives the humor—and skepticism—home. 

Irreverence runs throughout Don Juan, starting with the title character’s name: to fit the poem’s meter and rhyme scheme, it should be pronounced as the anglicized “Joo-one” or “Joo-wan.” There’s the hero’s behavior, too. In preceding versions of the Don Giovanni story, the title character had been a libertine who seduces women and is punished for his sins; Byron transforms him into a charming naif. 

After Juan is caught in bed with a married woman, his mother sends him from Spain “to mend his former morals or get new.” The poem traces the ensuing accidents, adventures, and affairs, including a shipwreck, an encounter with cannibalism, slavery, a military siege, a royal court, and a ghostly abbey. The story, like Juan, is constantly waylaid—the narrator admits, “I must own, / If I have any fault, it is digression”—and Byron uses these interruptions to comment on the moral and political hypocrisies of his age. After early cantos of the poem drew rebukes for being misanthropic, Byron’s narrator places himself in the tradition of great writers who believed “this life was not worth a potato.” He asks, “Must I restrain me through the fear of strife / From holding up the nothingness of life?”

Yet Byron was not an absolute nihilist. Like many of his poems, Don Juan is infused with republican aspirations: “‘God save the king!’ and kings!, / For if he don’t, I doubt if men will longer— / I think I hear a little bird, who sings/ The people by and by will be the stronger.” He dismisses the Duke of Wellington as “Villainton,” yet praises generals like “Leonidas and Washington, / Whose every battlefield is holy ground, / Which breathes of nations saved, not worlds undone. / How sweetly on the ear such echoes sound.”

Byron wrote the latter lines months after the Ottoman army slaughtered 25,000 Greeks in the Chios massacre. That year (which also included the death of Byron’s  5-year-old daughter and the drowning of his friend Percy Shelley), Byron resolved to aid the Greeks in their struggle for independence, eventually traveling to Greece and at one point commanding a rag-tag group of warriors. 

But he never saw battle. After riding horseback in a storm, Byron developed a serious fever and lay ill for days. On April 19, 1824, he passed away at the age of 36, only weeks after the last completed cantos of Don Juan were published.

It is comforting to believe that as premature as Byron’s death was, its context demonstrates that he had matured from a selfish Lothario, a radical without a cause, into a selfless and truly noble nobleman. Walter Scott eulogized: “The voice of just blame, and that of malignant censure, are at once silenced; and we feel almost as if the great luminary of Heaven had suddenly disappeared from the sky.” Even from a distance of two centuries, and even as his personal life remains scandalous, the liveliness, humor, passion, and formal excellence of Byron’s poetry still astounds.

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