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.”
“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….