American Culture

A hero for our time…

Today is the birthday of our original scholar rogue, George Gordon Byron, sixth earl of Newstead Abbey.

I have been thinking a lot about Byron in the last week, partly because it used to be a ritual of my misspent youth to celebrate his birthday each year by engaging in as much debauchery as my financial and physical health could stand, partly because I wasted four hours of my life last week watching the mini series Byron on Ovation Television even after I’d realized that the narrative construct focused almost entirely on Byron’s scandalous love life. (There were passing references to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan, and I think The Corsair was mentioned, too, in relation to Edward Trelawny who makes a cameo near the end of the program, but perhaps I mis-remember).

This Byron – Byron the scandalous celebrity – is the Byron the media believes the public wants.So influential has his lordship been on popular culture that the term “Byronic” is a common term used among educated persons to refer to males who adopt a pose of mysterious (and often manipulative) aloofness. And a new and celebrated biography ascribes Byron’s lasting importance as much to his creation as a celebrity as to his poetic canon.

But the other Byron – the progressive who spoke against the death penalty for Luddites for breaking factory equipment and the admirer of the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire who died at Missolonghi while training freedom fighters – is largely forgotten – or ignored – today.

But what we should remember, especially today on his 222nd birthday – is that Lord Byron used his wealth and position and celebrity to speak – and act – for the displaced, downtrodden, and despairing.

Perhaps Arthur Dixon, my undergraduate Romantic poetry professor, put it best in response to my complaint that we read too much Wordsworth and not enough Byron: “This is a literature class, more specifically a poetry class” he said. “And Wordsworth is a great poet. A greater poet than Byron.”

“But Byron is a great poet,” I protested.

“You misunderstand,” said Professor Dixon. “I did not say Byron was not a great poet.”

He paused.

“Think of it this way,” he continued.  “We remember Wordsworth because he was a great poet. We remember Byron because he was a great man.”

Happy Birthday, your lordship….

4 replies »

  1. What remarkable timing Byron has, with his birthday falling just a day after five members of the Supreme Court took a dull set of pinking shears to the balls of democracy.

    As it turns out, I touched on Byron’s unusually pro-worker politics in my dissertation. At the time I was doing my research, I had no idea about his sympathies for the Luddites, so I’m guessing that not many other people know, either. Here’s the relevant section:

    [Byron’s] maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1812 compassionately argued against a bill proposing, among other repressive measures, to make frame-breaking punishable by death. “Are you not near the Luddites?” he wrote from Venice to Thomas Moore. “By the Lord! if there’s a row, but I’ll be among ye! How go on the weavers – the breakers of frames – the Lutherans of politics – the reformers?” He includes an “amiable chanson,” which proves to be a Luddite hymn so inflammatory that it wasn’t published until after the poet’s death. The letter is dated December 1816: Byron had spent the summer previous in Switzerland, cooped up for a while in the Villa Diodati with the Shelleys, watching the rain come down, while they all told each other ghost stories. By that December, as it happened, Mary Shelley was working on Chapter Four of her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (Pynchon, Thomas. “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” New York Times Book Review October 28 1984: 1, 40-41.).

    On the off chance that anybody is so bored that reading a doctoral dissertation sounds exciting, the full text is now available here. The section quoted is on p.192.

    It’s instructive that a hereditary noble, a landed earl from a rigidly class-stratified society, would be so much more sympathetic to the good of the people than the actual officials elected by the goddamned people in the world’s allegedly premier democracy, huh?

  2. Two great things about Byron:

    1. His quote “Down with all kings but King Ludd;” and
    2. The fact that Tim Powers was able to spin his life in Italy into such a great fantasy work: The Stress of Her Regard. A wonderful book

  3. Sam: For god’s sake, don’t sully Byron’s memory by plugging your dissertation – you may plug your poetry all you like, but since you did not keep either a bear nor dancing girls in your rooms while at university (well, no bear, anyway), no diss plugging….

    Wufnik: Will find The Stress of Her Regard asap….Thanks for the heads up….

    Russ: I knew there was empirical data for why I’ve always liked you…. 🙂