Monday 26 February 2024

Lord Byron - 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know'?

The very Romantic Lord Byron

I read somewhere this morning that in April, it will be 200 years since the death of Lord Byron at the age of thirty six. I was immediately reminded of a very beautiful collection of Byron's poems which I have had for a very, very long time: since, in fact, 1970.

I was about to head off to Durham University to begin an English degree. My sister and I were the first in our family to go to university, and I had little idea of what to expect. I'd applied to Durham on the basis of a newspaper article I'd read: it looked like a very pretty place, and I wanted to live somewhere nice. Luckily, I got in. 

The course was taught in two separate departments, English Language and English Literature (which, it turned out, were often at daggers drawn). English Language was mainly about Anglo-Saxon. The literature department aimed to cover everything from Chaucer to 1900; the older professors were pretty sniffy about anything after 1900, though a few revolutionary young things dared to offer optional courses in things like American Studies, and some 20th century stuff sneaked into the Drama course.

Anyway, the central course was on a rolling programme, and the year I started, it had reached the late eighteenth century. So in the first term we were to cover the Romantic Poets, plus Jane Austen, and were accordingly sent a reading list. 

So off I went to see what I could find in Derby.

Isn't it splendid?

Now, you must remember, there was no Amazon then, and no Waterstones. Derby wasn't a university town, so there were no academic bookshops. There must surely have been other bookshops, but I don't remember them. Even so, I somehow got hold of the collected works of Shelley, Wordsworth and Keats: but for some reason - probably to keep the cost down - I went to a second-hand stall on Derby market to find Byron - and I did. It cost fifteen shillings - 75p - and it had gold-sprayed pages, beautiful illustrations, and apparently every poem that Byron ever wrote. (The illustrators were Kenny Meadows, Birket Foster, Hablot K Browne, Gustave Janet and Edward Morin. Marvellous names, aren't they?)

We must have had two or three lectures on his lordship, but I never wrote an essay. I took notes, and I did try to read the poems referred to, but in all honesty, they were heavy going. And most of them were long - really, really long. All the others - yes, I could see why they were such big names, and at least some of their poems spoke to me, and still do. But Byron? No, not so much.

But the thing about Byron, it seems to me, wasn't really his poetry. It was his life. One of his lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, famously described him as 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know', and that seems about right. Mind you, if you look up his life on Wikipedia, you'll soon see where he got it from him: his father was an absolute bounder, and his mother found young George really too much to cope with. He spent a lot of his rather short life rampaging over Europe, having affairs with both sexes, breaking up marriages, abandonning lovers - and writing masses of poetry in between. 

The Waltz. I do like this illustration.

His break-out work was a lengthy poem called Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, with the publication of which he became an overnight sensation, and was much-feted until he had a scandalous affair with his half-sister, Augusta, which resulted in an illegitimate baby: even for Regency London, this was too much to stomach, especially as his affair (and others) continued even after his marriage. It was at this point that he fled London for Europe, never to return; at one point he met up with Shelley and co, and was there when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and when Shelley himself tragically died in a boating accident.

Byron himself died in Greece - not in battle, but from illness - where he had gone to help the Greeks fight for their freedom from the Ottoman Empire: he poured money into the cause, selling his estates in England, and is still revered as a hero in Greece to this day. I wonder if anyone will have thought of making a TV series about him, to be released in this anniversary year? If not, a trick has been missed.

The only lines of his that echo in my memory are these below, from a collection called Hebrew Melodies. No doubt there must be other good stuff, but I confess I've never taken the trouble to track it down. Yet still, I treasure the book. It really is very lovely.

'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...'


The Wessex Reiver said...

It is interesting how names, famous names flow down through time and remain large in collective society when others don't. Why do the likes of Byron, Coleridge and Austen endure when others like Samuel Richardson, Maria Edgeworth or even Mary Wollstonecraft recede into the shadows? Do more people attempt to read Byron simply because he is mentioned repeatedly. As a teenager I bought the collective works of Robert Herrick having seen his name in a magazine. I struggled with those lines, only now appreciating his words, and the Victorian bound book is lovely. It could make for an interesting discussion to reflect on influence in choice down through the centuries

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes, it is interesting, isn't it? The more I glanced through Byron's poetry when writing this post, the less I understood why his name is up there among 'the greats'. (Probably unfair, I admit, as I haven't devoted much time to it, but there you go!) And one does wonder, as you imply, how many excellent writers have simply been forgotten.

dihofneyr said...

When I first moved to London about 27 years ago, I live in a rented flat above one of those gated squares in South Kensington. My elderly neighbour, a gentleman well into his 80's, a bit of an eccentric, who lived in a rent controlled flat above me with newspapers taped to his windows, said he always knew I was home as he felt the heat coming up from our heating system. I believed him to be totally impoverished but when he invited me up one evening, I discovered he had been a specialist on Byron at Christies. He opened some old mamilla envelopes and when the paperwork spilled out, there was an original minature painting of Byron that I'm sure was worth a fortune. I'm sorry I didn't find out more from him as very soon after this, he died. I'm not even sure he had relatives, and where all that paperwork ended up. But what a missed opportunity on my part to discover more about Byron from an expert!

Sue Purkiss said...

Goodness - what a story!