March 14, 2024   4 mins

Two centuries after his death, Byron is still — like Madonna, Napoleon and Chewbacca — a member of the one-name-only club, even if he’s forced to share it with a hamburger chain. At the time, his death at the age of 36 was huge news. He was one of the most famous men in Europe: bestseller, heart-throb, scandal-magnet, and a mega-celebrity before mega-celebrities (leaving aside kings, popes and warlords) really existed as we think of them now. But the Byron we remember today stands at a bit of a remove from the Byron that his contemporaries knew, admired and were scandalised by.

It would be nice to think that Byron’s legacy to the world had been his poetry. But though Keats, Coleridge, Shelley and Wordsworth all have anthology pieces that the reasonably educated man in the street can quote, Byron does not. I have a very soft spot for his epigram on the death of Castlereagh (“Posterity shall ne’er survey a nobler grave than this;/ here lie the bones of Castlereagh. Stop, traveller, and piss.”), but few would place it at the centre of his literary achievement. Don Juan’s title has passed into common parlance (pronounce it like a retirement home for ruminants, rather than the waiter who banged your mum on that Spanish holiday in the Eighties) but the poem is now little read outside the academy, and that goes double for his breakthrough autofiction Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. As for (checks notes) Sardanapalus and The Two Foscari, ‘nuff said.

Admittedly, Suede pinched the first line of “She walks in beauty” for an album track on Dog Man Star (Brett absolutely thinks of himself as Byronic), but it’s not exactly what Byron will have envisioned when he lay awake dreaming of literary immortality. Nerdy old Robert Browning, whom Byron would absolutely have bullied had the chronology allowed, is a hundred times cooler and more quotable these days. Byron did, admittedly, give us the phrase “stranger than fiction”, but the quote most associated with his name — “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” — was said of him rather than by him.

There’s the nub of it. Nobody wants to read Lord Byron, in other words, but they absolutely want to read about him. They are interested in his foxy way with women, but not in the least interested in what was interesting about him, which was his foxy way with a feminine rhyme. The biographies continue to pour off the presses even though — as one of the authors of those biographies, Alexander Larman, recently had the good grace to observe — there’s no great likelihood any of them will improve on Fiona MacCarthy’s definitive 2002 Byron: Life and Legend.

MacCarthy wouldn’t have been so vulgar as to use it in that sense, but “legend” has become ever more le mot juste. Byron is now “a legend” in the way drunk lads use the term of even drunker lads in the pub. He kept a pet bear as an undergraduate! He swam the Hellespont! He went on the lam in Europe! He committed a ton of adultery and may or may not have done the nasty with his cousins and his half-sister! He fought (or was, at least, fighting-adjacent) in the Greek War of Independence! He died young and left a good-looking corpse! What a ledge!

The most enduring legacy of Byron, which I don’t imagine he’d have much minded, being a raging egomaniac, is the idea of Byron, as incarnated above all in the adjective “Byronic”. Google Ngrams, which tracks the frequency of a keyword’s usage in Google’s vast corpus of digitised books, tells us that epithet is still going strong and getting stronger. The graph is a mountain range — rising dramatically in popularity through the 20th century and at a historic peak in the last decade. The examples usually given of Byronic heroes — those who aspire to Byronism, and those who have Byronism thrust upon them — are characters such as Heathcliff, Mr Rochester, Mr De Winter or Johnny Depp. Pete Doherty was a Byronic hero before he dried out, got chubby and stopped being such an arsehole.

“You’ll never catch a Byronic hero suffering from athlete’s foot.”

But “Byronic”, be it noted, is a term that is never used anything other than positively. It goes with “hero” like “horse” goes with “carriage”. To be Byronic is to be willful, ardent, brooding, superhumanly attractive, and to have a thrilling disregard for bourgeois convention. It is to be an existential hero. It is, admittedly, usually to have a flaw — but the flaw is of the ennobling, Tragic Flaw sort, like being too tempestuous and passionate. The flaw in a Byronic hero is the sort of humblebraggy flaw that makes him (it’s always him) more interesting. You’ll never catch a Byronic hero having the sort of flaws the rest of us deal with, such as being a bit thick or suffering from athlete’s foot. Byronic heroes may be cruel and self-involved, but chicks dig them.

Archetypal Byronic heroes are super-heterosexual, which Byron wasn’t, and super sexually aggressive. You don’t catch a Byronic hero sitting patiently through a consent workshop or learning to be emotionally intelligent and hold space for women’s voices. It’s bizarre that “Byronic”, as a praise-word, has survived #MeToo — which might be #problematic when you consider that, as Ben Markovits, who wrote a trilogy of novels about him, put it, he was “by our own modern standards […] probably a paedophile and certainly a rapist, at least of the statutory kind”.

In the plus column, the real-life Byron’s flamboyant bisexuality could be seen as a pioneering queering of the Romantic hero figure; but it should be added onto the other side of the ledger that when he popped his clogs in Greece it wasn’t just the noble cause of Hellenic independence he was pursuing, but Hellenic jailbait. He spent the last months of his life ardently chasing a 15-year-old Greek lad who wasn’t interested in him in the slightest.

Sex aside, it’s odder still that what the word Byronic never seems to connote — which is a bit odd given Byron is above all a comic poet — is humour. The one thing Mr Rochester and Heathcliff did not do — not now, not never, not once — was make a funny joke. Byronic heroes are pompous old souls, even though the man himself made his very reputation through his wit. The fizz and paradox in Byron’s verse is absent from his eponym. If you’re “Wildean”, you’re witty. If you’re “Byronic”, you’re just a shagger who really, really needs to get over himself.

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.