• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On Lord Byron

“Lord Byron is to be regarded as a man, as an Englishman, and as a great genius. He is a great talent, a born talent, and I never saw the true poetical power greater in any man than in him”


-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Like Alexander Pope before him, who ascended the stage of life exactly a century prior, George Gordon Byron, born in 1788, arrived on this earthly scene without the advantage of full health. Like Pope, he was denied that benefit of a good, uncomplicated birth upon which a person’s future happiness is so vitally dependent. Pope, of course, suffered from the defect of a contorted and gnarled spine, a terrible scoliosis for which the medical science of his age simply hadn’t yet developed an answer. So distorted was his curved physique and shrunken his stature, that, by the time he reached adulthood, he failed to surpass a paltry five feet in height. Yet, despite the peculiarity of his reduced and twisted posture, Pope created some of the supplest poems, strongest couplets, and most erect pieces of literature ever to impress themselves upon the mind of man.


Byron, mercifully, was less cripplingly misshapen; by the time he attained to adulthood, he was able to soar to an aristocratic height of five-feet, nine inches (a full foot taller than Pope). That said, he was impeded by a physical deformity from which, throughout the entirety of his life, he was never fully able to find relief. Like that of Pope, his issue was the consequence of a difficult birth, and, sadly, of a mother inattentive to the infant needs of a hobbled child.


As was evident from the moment of his descent from the womb, Byron was born with a right foot that was inverted at the sole, and tensed at the heel. A daily regimen of stretching might’ve rectified the congenital oddity for which, in our own day, a simple course of physical therapy might be prescribed, but his mother had neither the patience to see to her son’s improvement, nor the will to endure his daily writhing.


In time, this ill-formed foot proved incapable of accepting bipedal weight. Specialized shoes were ordered and crafted for the limping lord, but they were of little use. Until his final days, Byron walked with a halting and disjointed gait. It was an inelegant, awkward pattern for so handsome a frame, a staggering anomaly at which his polished, aristocratic upbringing could do nothing but blush. As any person ailed by a similar impediment can attest, it was a personal quirk of which he wasn’t particularly proud, and which he couldn’t easily conceal. Perhaps it motivated him all the more to pursue and gain mastery over more sedentary arts—among which he favored poetry and whoring, writing and lusting, composing and coition.


Thankfully for us, this gnarled foot never stopped him from skipping along couplets, leaping about allusions, and dancing across rhymes and metaphors as not even a Russian ballerina could. And as for that very ballerina, whose flawless feet catapulted her through the air as though made of elastic sinew and rubberized bone, she would, upon landing, be susceptible to Byron’s winning charm. She, and all like her, would sooner fall prey to his lion-like advances, to his animal, sexual pursuit, and bear her ivory-smooth neck, if only to be tasted by so voracious a hunter. As it turns out, it wasn’t Byron’s inflexible foot, but another rigid organ with which he’d pursue his cherished dames, and to which, predictably, they’d always yield.


Byron was a man of countless loves and unfathomable passions, of indiscriminate amour and a hunger for scandal. The most notorious of his relations was with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Five years his elder, she had that one, arousing attribute before which the boyish Byron was forever helpless: a prior matrimonial commitment. In other words, she was married (to her first cousin: who says that incest can’t run in one’s family?) with three children of her own. In the prurient opinion of Byron, however, this was no obstacle to his desire; he pursued her as if she were a maiden of no discernable relation. He was a man, after all, whose aversion to bourgeois morality was absolute, and whose disdain for religious prohibitions of such things was as genuine as a feeling could be.


It wasn’t long before the unspeakable specifics of his relationship with Augusta became public knowledge. Indeed, never one to repress an emotion or ignore a slight, Byron eventually unbosomed himself of the terrible sin by which all of England was now officially scandalized; he admitted to the affair openly in print. He again made reference to it in one of his later dramas (see Manfred, below). Of course, in gentlemanly fashion, he did so only after finalizing his separation from his estranged wife, Annabella, and departing from his beloved home, England. From that time until his death, he was never to return to Albion’s cliff-encrusted shores, to those jagged, milky walls of Dover behind which his family was seated, and his history buried.


Invigorated by his newfound liberty, and numb to the accusations that chased him from his home, he sought his refuge in the forests of Switzerland. Can a man so sensitive to the allurements of nature be blamed for this choice of location? What writer of feeling hasn’t done the same? What poet of sentiment hasn’t been drawn to the chilled comfort of this wintry, free, and mountainous place? It was there that a famous trinity, perhaps the greatest of all literary unions was formed. It comprised, in descending order of brilliance, Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft—with whom the young Percy had recently fallen in love. Enmeshed in the games of reciprocal genius, they decided to challenge one another to produce ghost stories. After some days spent on the eldritch project, only a third of the group was up to the task. Though it haunts us still, we can’t but savor the fruit of her morbid imagination, to which we affix the frightening name, Frankenstein.


Perhaps Byron’s temperament wasn’t suited to the genre upon which the young group of writers had set out. The best he could do (which turned out to be not at all insignificant) was offer some faint suggestions to his personal physician, John William Polidori, by whom a short work entitled, The Vampyre was written. Eventually, the “y” would be replaced by an “i”, and the pallid, blood-sucking, garlic-hating monster would become an integral member of that haunted genre. Byron, it might be said, made an early and important contribution to the vampire’s conception, but he was, before all else, a sensitive and an autobiographical poet uninterested with such themes. Notions of the resurrected and undead surely put into a state of unease his thoroughly human, and already turbulent spirit.


His first great work, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, was as deeply intimate a poem as one could be. Serialized in four parts, it was published between the years 1812-1818, upon the completion of his grand European tour (the later installments were added during his self-imposed exile from England, and his brief re-settlement in the northern part of Italy). Of course, given the age in which he was living, and the political turmoil in which the continent was submerged, his grand tour fell rather short of its promising title; its scope was necessarily abridged by the exigencies of the age, and the horrible violence in which his restive neighbors—at the instigation of Napoleon—were now thoroughly engaged.


Napoleon Bonaparte, not yet rebuffed by Moscow and exiled to Elba, was the undisputed lord of western Europe. England, the land of Byron’s birth, was engaged with the conquering Corsican in a costly war, and the freedom of movement between their peoples was, to put it mildly, restricted. Thus, Byron found much of France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and his beloved Italy inaccessible to his curious peregrinations and his innocent jaunt. As a consequence, he spent the first leg of his trip in the recently subdued peninsula of Iberia, and then, for the majority of the next two years, in Albania, Turkey, and Greece. It was there, along this bridge between the Orient and the Occident, this stormy area out of which the first buds of philosophy and poetry sprang, that his literary acumen was sharpened, his limits of conception were broadened, and his political beliefs were forged.


Byron prefaced Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage with an open disclaimer by which, despite the apparent sincerity of his message, most of his readers remained unconvinced: “It has been suggested to me by friends, on whose opinions I set a high value, that in this fictitious character, ‘Childe Harold’, I may incur the suspicion off having intended some real personage: this I beg leave, once for all, to disclaim—Harold is the child of imagination”. We mustn’t take too seriously Byron’s loud profession of detachment, or of his unwillingness to claim paternity over a work that bears, like a distinctive fingerprint passed from a father to his son, the unmistakable pattern of his soul. I think we’d all agree that Harold’s parentage is, despite Byron’s valiant attempt to convince us otherwise, at best, somewhat in dispute.


Superficially, Byron might’ve advertised Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage as a kind of impersonal travelogue to which his own, real-life wanderings were, if we were to believe him, clearly dissimilar. He might’ve tried to persuade us that it was nothing more than a fictional, imaginative tale of eastern adventure, a fantasy of strange events in which, in reality, he never actually participated. His English readers soon discovered, however, that it was nothing of the type, and, as a result, his attempts to disown poor Harold were ultimately vain. From its beginning until its end, the work is wholly interiorized; Harold is but a reflection of the author in whose image he was formed. Indeed, the reader begins to question whether he’s meandering about the Mediterranean with Byron as his guide, or charting the frontiers of that suffering author’s soul. So distinctively intimate is the piece, that it becomes impossible to distinguish from a psychological drama. It feels, for better or worse, as though it were an introspective epic, one narrated from a troubled man’s unbosomed point of view.


Despite (or, perhaps, because of) his failure to deceive his audience, the work was an immediate success. So quickly did it sell, and so completely did it delight, that its exuberant author proclaimed that he “awoke one morning and found (himself) famous”. Such is the recognition to which, at some point or another, we all quietly hope to awaken. The difference is, most of us are far less deserving of fame than a master like Byron and so, in our stifled desire for celebrity, we return to bed, pull up our blankets, and continue to bathe ourselves in this dream. For the precocious Lord, however, it allowed him to retire the uncomfortable position as a member of that aristocratic House to which his title privileged him, and to fill his time with activities more congenial to his amorous, youthful spirit: namely, literature and lust.


He proceeded to produce a few other works of slightly lesser quality but, given the establishment of his reputation, his penchant for controversy, his undeniable genius, and his facility with words, the public was eager to consume every last one. They feigned not greatness, but they sold remarkably well. These “potboiler” works, upon which posterity hasn’t hesitated to stamp an “inferior” label, included The Giaour, The Corsair, and Lara. They borrowed from Byron’s oriental imaginings, and echoed previously perfected themes.


An interlude of shorter works consumed his life in the wake of the aforementioned three. Prometheus, for example, was a powerful work—concise and moving, elevating and somber, written in three verses by which the reader is trebly shaken. The mistreated Titan and benefactor of mankind was an ongoing subject of Romantic fascination. Indeed, as I’m sure you know, the alternative title for Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Frankenstein, is The Modern Prometheus, and her extraordinary husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, produced a play entitled, Prometheus Unbound—drawing an ennobling inspiration from the ancient master, Aeschylus.


Byron’s contribution to the fallen Titan’s memory is both eloquent, and poignant, and markedly shorter than those of the other two. He shows his gratitude to the fallen god for his unprecedented effort to improve the dark, benighted plight of man. And exactly what, Byron asks, “was thy pity’s recompense? A silent suffering, and intense”.


For the crime of attempting to enlighten man, Prometheus was chained to the dread Caucasian rock, a barren crag to which no mortal being would dare journey. Yet it wasn’t, as Prometheus soon learned, a stone completely unvisited by other, less amiable forms of life. As it turned out, it was an inviting crag upon which, with inextinguishable hunger, the Jovian eagle would daily alight. Insatiable and, more importantly, under the direction of a divine mandate, the bird—with beak imbrued with Titanic blood—would devour the fettered god’s defenseless organ meat. In the end, Byron acknowledges a quiet union between the eviscerated god and his own species—an equally abused and emptied man. “Like thee”, says Byron, “Man is in part divine, a troubled stream from a pure source”.


It was at this time, having only recently departed England with a commitment never to return, that he wrote his morbid play, Manfred. An influence of the supernatural, perhaps transferred to him by the ghostly imagination of Mary Shelley, permeates the work. The eponymous character is very noticeably a Faustian figure, a brilliant but suffering man with whom, likely through a translation of Goethe, Byron had only recently become familiar.


While endowed with limitless intellect (as we all wish ourselves to be), and immersed in a world of ineffable beauty, Manfred wants nothing better than to forget. He yearns for a vacuity of memory, for a purging of those contents of the mind by which he’s been so relentlessly vexed. Immediately, within the play’s first few lines, Manfred exclaims that “Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most must mourn the deepest”. They do so, sadly, “over the fatal truth—the Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life”. This is a theme, that of the pains of knowledge in contrast to the pleasures of life, to which Byron repeatedly returns (see his later work, Cain).


Manfred is desperate to be relieved of the burden of a troubled mind. As he makes clear, he’s haunted by an unspoken crime, a horrible moral infraction of which, judging by his willingness to resort to otherworldly means for help, he’s doubtless guilty. Most readers well-acquainted with the author’s real-life sins concluded that Byron was using the mouth of Manfred to confess his own incestuous behavior. We must, on this occasion, defer to the insight of his contemporaries, who were probably right. As a remedy to his troubles, Manfred seeks the uninterrupted, tranquil quietude of death. He attempts to gain it by leaping off a mountain cliff, but a friendly, guileless hiker intervenes. Unable to attain death by his own or nature’s hand, he’s left with no other choice than to evoke the assistance of seven spirits and a witch.


As one might expect, Manfred was yet another source of scandal back home in England. Despite the coolness with which it was received, however, nothing seemed capable of extinguishing the growth of Byron’s flame. Neither the critic nor the cleric—one exceedingly merciless, the other unbendingly moral—proved sufficiently powerful to dampen his literary heat. And so, Byron’s fire grew bolder, as his fame waxed luminous in what was, to its literary merit, an increasingly star-covered sky.


His next work, and that for which he’s appropriately most renowned, was Don Juan. This classic of world literature, this jewel in the diadem of the Romantic genre, was, frankly, not intended to be great. This may shock those of you unaffiliated with the peculiarities of its creation, but it’s true. In a candid letter to John Murray, an advisor and friend with whom Byron maintained a healthy and amicable correspondence, he said the following: “You ask me for the plan of Donny Johnny—I have no plan, I had no plan”. He had but a few fragments and “materials”, nothing more.


No plan, eh? We’re all the more astonished, given the frankness of this confession, that Don Juan ascended to the place of prominence that it enjoys today. Seldom does a work so myopic in conception, and apparently desultory in execution, achieve such lofty heights. And those heights, so far as anyone’s yet taken the time to measure them, are unutterably high. So far as I can tell, as one climbs the hierarchy of English epics, Don Juan is almost unsurpassed. The only work to which it can’t help but being inferior is John Milton’s Paradise Lost—which is very much in a class of its own. Indeed, on occasion, I think that Dante deigns to it, and Homer winces, tucks his tail and hastens, at the steady threat of the Puritan’s approach.


The work, one must concede, is slightly tarnished by the harsh tone of its unfriendly dedication. Byron, an unassuageable enemy of the haughty Lake Poets (so named for their residence in the Lake District of Northern England) took an opportunity in his prologue to attack, by name, Robert Southey. Robert or “Bob” Southey (as Byron derisively called him) was the distinguished leader of that celebrated school. Its other members included William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, fellow geniuses upon whom, in various publicized works, Byron unhesitatingly emptied his scorn. Byron criticized the former for his unconcealed cant, and the latter for his cloudy metaphysics. Mostly, he disliked them for their conservative leanings, and the reactionary sobriety that accompanied their advancing age.


The greatness of the work itself, however, is enough to acquit Byron on all charges of dedicatory pettiness. Shall we discuss it, if only briefly? The titular character, Don Juan, though unoriginal, is made—under the vitalizing influence of Byron’s mind—refreshingly new. Such is the effect of Byron’s brilliant stewardship. In accordance with the author’s design, Don Juan is made to be unlike the many libertines of whom, as we gaze back at the examples offered by Italy and Spain, he’s a much more appealing iteration.


The original Don Juan (or, in the mouth of an Italian, or on the music sheet of a Viennese composer, Don Giovanni) is an incorrigible womanizer. He actively seeks every avenue by which he might satisfy his unslakable lust. Doubtless, he’s not the type of virile, lecherous hero by whom one’s sympathy is easily aroused. Yet Byron, with the help of his muse, succeeds in altering Juan’s unwholesome reputation, into something much more agreeable, virtuous, and pure. Instead of being a young man forever attempting to seduce beautiful women, Byron’s Don Juan is a guileless lad, an unblemished boy innocently seduced by women. He can’t help that he’s pretty, and he has no intention of mobilizing his natural charms for the sake of feminine conquest.


Yet, everywhere he goes, he takes ownership of a woman’s heart. As in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Don Juan begins his adventure in Spain, from which he’s soon banished for having indulged an unlawful liaison. For having been seduced by a voluptuous but married woman, (and in order to prevent the recidivism of what was, for our susceptible hero, a most tempting sin), Don Juan is exiled by way of a ship bound for the east. A tempest interrupts the oriental voyage, and many of the crew are swallowed by dark waves now empurpled with blood. His surviving fellow travelers, suddenly famished and forlorn, decide first to eat Don Juan’s precious dog. Then, with stomachs unsatisfied by their canine entrée, they turn on Don’s poor tutor, the innocent Pedrillo, into whom, like cannibals, they savagely sink their teeth.


After bouncing around the Cyclades, Don Juan—now within reach of a hospitable shore—disembarks his battered raft. He finds himself in the sweet embrace of a slaver’s daughter, Haidée, with whom, despite the impediment of a mutually intelligible language, he quickly falls in love. She speaks Greek, he speaks Spanish, but love, as you know, isn’t always dependent on the shared fluency of a common tongue. More often than not, it communicates in words unspoken, and expresses in a sigh that which fails to be articulated in the finest aubade or lengthiest sonnet.


In her angelic presence, he’s found bliss, but—as it was in the life of Byron—happiness mustn’t strive to be anything more than an ephemeral feeling. Alas, Haidée’s father, Lambro, soon returns from his barbaric business, and discovers in Don Juan not a son-in-law to-be, but a potential source of profit. In keeping with his odious but lucrative trade, he arrests him, enslaves him, and, mirroring the fate of many white Europeans (beyond whom modern history, obsessed with African slavery in the Americas, has taken the occasion to look), sells him to a wealthy buyer in Constantinople.


There, in that Byzantine capital, that ancient bridge by which East was linked to West, Don Juan is coerced into transvestitism. He’s compelled, against his feeble wishes, to adopt a feminine garb, and to join a well-attended seraglio from which, due to his boyish beauty, and peculiarly radiant mien, he immediately stands out. Even amongst this swarm of swarthy beauties, this gorgeous gaggle of daughters liberally kissed by the Turkish sun, Don Juan is counted prettier than most, if not the comeliest of all.


At this point, he departs Constantinople, only to experience Russia, war, and Catherine the Great. Indeed, not even history’s most venerated monarch could resist Juan’s ineffable charm. No empress, no matter how strong and enlightened, could possibly ignore his pulchritudinous looks, his enticing depth, his unvitiated innocence, and a mysterious backstory into which all wanted to delve. With every regal inducement, she tries to make of him a lover, but the climate of the empire over which she reigns is uncongenial to his own. Stunted by a frigid Muscovite breeze, and chilled by that region’s snowy, Baltic breath, Don Juan is sent to the more temperate land of England, whither he goes, and where the story prematurely ends.


It’s at this point, having been introduced to the distinctive flavor of his work, that we can speak with some confidence on the topic of the “Byronic hero”. There is, among his many dramatic productions, no single work from which this unique character is entirely absent. He appears, more or less conspicuously, in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cain, Manfred, Don Juan, and many of his shorter poetic works—if in shaded or variegated hues.


The defining features of the Byronic hero, I think, aren’t difficult to perceive. Not only are they stamped on the brow, but they’re ingrained on every part of the character’s being. Beginning on the surface of the skin, they permeate his every tissue, encircle his fibrous sinew, and plunge to the very depth of his soul. The Byronic hero, like Byron himself, is, fundamentally, an attractive but unharmonious figure. He feels himself out of time with his age, and out of touch with his fellow man. For companionship, he seeks only himself; in his opinion, one could find no better confidante, and no more faithful a friend. Solitude, at once inviolable and quiet, is always to be preferred to the empty chatter and constant noise of the loud but thoughtless society into which he’s had the misfortune to be born.


Indeed, on occasion, he flirts with misanthropy, and isn’t ashamed to prefer the eloquent silence of nature to the vulgar cacophony of his neighbor. This might lead him, time and again, to rhapsodize about the world’s terrifying terrain, to glorify an environment untouched by man, and to seek an intimacy with nature to which none but he is privy. Unmoved by the plight of his fellow being, and callous to the cries of the hoi polloi, his heart will leap at the sight of an Alpine pass or a boundless sea. His heart will mourn the loss of a trampled flower, and his tears will bedew the soil into which it now withers. His chest, for once, will experience a palpable, invigorating flutter the closer it moves to such grand and awe-inspiring scenes, and his emotions will stir at the approach of such painful examples of beauty.


The rest of the time, he’s rather subdued. His passion is bottled up internally, and he shares his disquiet with few. On the outside, he’s handsome, brooding, distant, introspective, and idealistic—though he’s often frustrated by the world’s inability to join him in recognizing his heroic ideals. Thus, does he become cynical, melancholy, and jaded. He accepts as indisputable his superiority above all other men, but can think of no way of elevating them to his level. For this reason, his bonds of affection with them weaken further still, and he accepts his isolation as a fate imposed by some unrevealed deity, a faceless god by whom his troubles were, for him alone, it seems, deliberately conceived.


As I said, the Byronic hero, and Byron the man, are indistinguishable; to view the one is to view the other. Not only does the hero’s shadow cast itself upon the man, they almost perfectly overlap. The former is but a useful literary term to explain the inexplicable—the latter. Yet, importantly, the hero didn’t die with the man. The Byronic hero has survived in such characters as Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Marvel’s Wolverine, DC’s Batman, and Disney’s Jack Sparrow. Indeed, we hardly pass a day without encountering the Byronic hero—the most enduring part of the author’s bequest.


Enough about his hero, though; we must return, if only briefly, to the man himself. We left our beloved author in the famous hills of Switzerland, those snow-capped Alps around which his wing-strapped imagination had the opportunity to fly.


Slowly, Byron departed the land of William Tell and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of Goethe’s dreams and of Voltaire’s exile, and continued south to Italy—to be one amongst the spirits of Ariosto and Dante, of Boccaccio and Petrarch. With them did he mingle, as he did a fawning train of young Italian girls. Yet neither of these stimuli had much of an effect on him. After a life of so many carnal pleasures and so much literary distinction, his senses had become blunted to the tickling loveliness of their touch. He had sunk into a state of philosophic ennui and hampered arousal. He began to reflect on his brief life and, as is the tendency of all unsatisfied men, to overlook his accomplishments and fixate on his shortcomings. “A man”, he now felt, “ought to do something more for mankind than write verses”.


If all he did for us was write verses, it would’ve been enough. Our gratitude, offered two centuries hence, wouldn’t yet begin to compensate him for the invaluable output with which he left us. Byron, however, was deaf to the silent thanks of a distant posterity, to a legion of readers as unapplauding as unborn. He needed in his life—to complete his life—one final, heroic action with which to be sent off. Greece, in her ageless struggle for liberty, and in need of a figure around whom she might rally, offered just the opportunity. Byron leapt on the chance.


Since the middle of the fifteenth century, but a decade after the conversion of Hagia Sophia from an Orthodox church to an unsmiling mosque, Greece had slumbered under the dominion of Turkish rule. The loud echoes of the ghosts of Themistocles and Leonidas, of Pericles and Brasidas had grown, in the interim of those four-hundred years, utterly silent. Asia’s conquest of the country (first rebuffed, so many years ago, at both Marathon and Salamis) was now complete. It wasn’t until 1821 that her simmering frustration reached a boil. She issued a plea for assistance from all the nations of Europe, a vast continent to which, as though a mother, she bequeathed all the treasures of her inheritance. Sadly, most were reluctant to join her cause.


Byron, on the other hand, was not only eager, but positively ready to act.


The rest of his days were dedicated to the cause of Greek liberation. He took all his remaining funds and invested them in the hope that this great and storied nation—this place that was home to democracy and freedom, philosophy and feeling, drama and life—might be returned to its ancient glory. Intoxicated by the images of that country’s mythical heroes, he thought nothing of joining them in their Pantheon of renown. With his help, he was convinced, the land of the Hellenes, that sturdy pillar of the West, might be restored to its forgotten splendor, and built to withstand an eastern affront.


“I have a presentiment”, Byron wrote to a female friend from whom, at this point, he expected nothing more than Platonic affection, “that I shall die in Greece. I hope it may be in action, for that would be a good finish to a very trite existence”.


One should never doubt the foreboding of an artist—a man so sensitive that he grasps not only himself and his era, but the wider universe and its fate. As it turns out, though, only half of his startling premonition came true; he was correct in predicting that “I shall die in Greece”. That he would do so “in action”, failed to play itself out. In 1824, only months into his noble campaign, he suddenly fell ill. He hadn’t yet entered himself into the murderous fray, and wasn’t yet subject to the threat of a Turkish bullet, or a missile sanctified by the inspiration of Allah. Yet, for some unknown reason, he grew disconcertingly pale. Soon, thereafter, he acquired a fever. Depleted of his life after multiple rounds of bleeding, and unable to tap into a reserve of strength that his years of excess now denied him, he died.


It was, for so artistic and uncommon a figure, a rather disappointing and anticlimactic end. Alas, the manner in which we die, be it memorable or mundane, is seldom ours to choose. The autopsy, if it’s to be believed, identified uremia as his cause of death, a silent pollution of the blood to which, ordinarily, none but an older man (plagued, perhaps, by an apathetic prostate) might succumb. Truly, though, one might’ve expected better from the youthful, indomitable Byron than an inability to discharge through proper channels an obscure but poisonous metabolite. One would’ve thought him more resilient to the internal ravages of twin kidneys on strike, or more skillful in fighting a couple of organs awash, every hour of the day, in that unholiest of fluids—urine.


Alas, he wasn’t so strong; uremia blighted his blood, drained his vigor, and sealed his fate. To the relief of innumerable past lovers, however, and to the surprise of countless critics, syphilis was undetected in the stagnant fluids of his corpse. That he escaped life unscathed by the “French disease” was, frankly, something of a medical marvel. Perhaps we can attribute the success of his evasion of this disease to the quickness of his brain—the higher, rather than the lower one. And as for that brain, it was a thing to behold. That mighty grey organ, once unsheathed from the great skull by which it was so tightly encompassed, weighed an unprecedented seven-hundred and ten grams above the uppermost range for men. His genius, in other words, was quite literally overflowing his head.


The world’s reaction to his death was mixed. In the opinion of the Greeks, to whom he devoted not only his vast resources, but his final breath, he was deemed nothing short of a saint. In death, for this pious and grateful people, his canonization was a conclusion foregone. As for his fellow Brits, their memories of him were far less exalted. There, in England, doubts about Byron’s morality hadn’t yet been put to rest, and many felt him undeserving of a hero’s interment. Thus, he was refused burial in Westminster Abbey’s famed Poets’ Corner, that eloquent crevice beneath which, to this day, the country’s finest wordsmiths all gather to sleep. It wasn’t until 1969, one-hundred and forty-five years after his death, that a memorial to Byron was included in that corner.


Such were the reactions of his contemporaries—but what of ours? Do we still think, centuries hence, that Byron’s head remains undeserving of the laureate wreathe with which so many lesser men were capped? In this, an age utterly unaccustomed to art, do we dare refuse him the distinction to which he has every posthumous claim? Are we, like his prudish countrymen before us, to continue to deny him the poetic crown by which his ebony curls ought to be adorned, and by which his limitless mind ought to be spangled?


Were we to do so, it would be a terrible mistake. It would be a rejection of beauty, and an insult to genius. It would be an affront, plain and simple, to the very essence of art. Having scrutinized his dizzying life, and having savored his many works, I admit to complete conformity with Goethe’s point of view: I never saw the true poetical power greater in any man than in him. And so, with that, we acknowledge him his due.

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