American Culture

Lord Byron's Birthday

byron.jpg Today, the 22nd of January, is George Gordon’s (née Lord Byron’s) birthday. He’d be 220.

Byron was acknowledged as the first Scrogue, or Scholar/Rogue by this blog, and it seems only fitting that we should mark the anniversary of his nativity while noting a few of his more interesting cultural and literary contributions.

– Byron first gave us the style of open collared shirts on men. This isn’t to say that such hadn’t been worn before – rather, Byron made wearing one’s shirt collar undone (by either neckerchief, ascot, or other ancestor of that bane of male fashion, the necktie) into a fad that became standard fashion – sort of the way that 60’s counter culture helped denim become a wardrobe necessity;

– Byron, and his contemporaries, particularly Percy Bysshe Shelley, popularized the idea of “live fast, love hard, die young”; Byron’s decadence and scandalous behavior that challenged social mores (his social set, the English peerage, sent mostly empty carriages to his funeral procession as a mark of their disapproval of his rebelliousness) made him both a hero and pariah in his own age – and a role model for every artistic rebel since.

– Byron died of fever while fighting in the Greek war of independence; his heart is buried in Greece. The rest of his remains were transported to England in a barrel of brandy, according to popular report.

– When Byron’s remains were returned to England in the fall of 1824 (he having died that spring at the age of 36), both the deans of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral refused him burial. He is buried near the family estate of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. A memorial was finally put up to him in Westminster in 1969 – at the height of that neo-Romantic era now known generally as the age of Classic Rock.

– The changing nature of the reading public (in large part based on the democratization of literacy) has led us to forget the power a poet like Byron can exert on the public. As a professor in a course on the history of the English novel once noted to me, “In 1815 the best selling book in England would be the latest volume of Byron’s poetry; by 1845, the best selling work in England would be Dickens’ most recent novel.” (We should note that the most popular “poet” of my generation, Bob Dylan, has never published a volume of (specifically) verse….

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The argument about Byron’s place in the history of English literature rages on as it has since his death. The two largest schools of thought are these: 1) Byron is a perfect example of talent wasted, and while Don Juan is a triumph of English poetry, it is really more an extension of 18th century satire in the vein of Pope than an expression of Romanticism, and his other major work, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, though full of brilliant passages, is too self-indulgent to be the poetic success it should have been (despite its enormous popularity at the time of its original publication); 2) Byron is more important as a cultural figure than as a literary one – as a professor noted to me when I argued that he’d given Byron short shrift compared to Wordsworth, “But you must understand, Mr. Booth; Wordsworth is a great poet – Byron is a great man!”

Still, Byron invented so much of what we think of when we think of artists – whether poets, writers, or rock stars – and his sensibilities are those which speak to youth of every age. Perhaps nowhere is that clearer than in this throwaway stanza from Don Juan:

I would to heaven that I were so much clay,
As I am blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling—
Because at least the past were pass’d away—
And for the future—(but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly to-day,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say—the future is a serious matter—
And so—for God’s sake—hock and soda water!

Here’s to his lordship….

9 replies »

  1. Good stuff, Jim! Today is also the 447th birthday of Sir Francis Bacon, the 77th birthday of Sam Cooke, the 55th birthday of Jim Jarmusch, and the 40th birthday of yours truly.

    Also, it’s the 1,758th birthday/feast day of Vincent of Saragossa, patron saint of vintners.

  2. Mike,

    Belated Happy Birthday wishes! Hope it was a great one.

    I’ll keep Sam Cooke in mind for a future rumination… 🙂

    Francis Bacon maybe for his odd demise…. 😉

  3. As current Rector of the Church where Byron is buried, I have to dispute the comment that his heart is buried in Greece. It is in the church, in the family vault, although in a separate casket from his body.

    • Ah, thank you for that clarification, Kathryn. I have just done a little research from reliable sources (or at least as reliable as we have) and you have corrected a misapprehension many of us have labored under. Romantic though it is to think so, it seems all of his lordship’s remains are in Hucknall – though Greece would gladly give any a place of honor, one suspects…

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