X Close

Why chicks still dig Byronic heroes The poet's heirs have none of his wit


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.
questingvole

Join the discussion


Rejoignez des lecteurs partageant les mĂȘmes idĂ©es qui soutiennent notre journalisme en devenant abonnĂ©s payants.

Subscribe

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

43 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
3 months ago

Byron’s poetry was his life, not his poetry.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
3 months ago

Seriously, try the poetry.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago
Reply to  Anthony Roe

Little read and underrated, especially the unfunny parts.

David Morley
David Morley
3 months ago

The life was simply off the rails, but looks poetic to people who grew up on 70s rock gods. When you turn to the poetry, it’s a surprise. And massively enjoyable.

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 months ago

I was struck by the jaunty, devil-may-care tone of this essay, as if written by a man who’d just dodged a bullet. Then I noticed the author is literary editor at The Spectator.

Matt M
Matt M
3 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

He always gets such a hard time in the comments at The Spectator that I feel sorry for him (it is when he writes about politics – generally posh lefty stuff – not when he writes about books). Perhaps that is why he is so breezy here – he doesn’t have to trawl through so many mean comments.

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

My comment was my rather clumsy allusion to the likely failure of the Saudis to buy The Telegraph and The Spectator (apparently that acquisition would instantly kill independent journalism).

FacRecte NilTime
FacRecte NilTime
3 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Emiratis

peter lucey
peter lucey
3 months ago

Entertaining! I liked the “(checks notes)” aside.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 months ago

Any man who can write this can do little wrong in my eyes.”-
“But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Masters own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone”*

(*A snippet from Byron’s ‘Epitaph for a Dog’, in this case Boatswain, a Landseer/Newfoundland.)

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago

Very nice. Your fondness for your dogs and reciprocal loyalty to them is to your credit.
Here is a rather less dog-fond side of young Byron, versifying his departure from England at age 21:
And now I’m in the world alone,
Upon the wide, wide sea;
But why should I for others groan,
When none will sigh for me?
Perchance my dog will whine in vain
Till fed by stranger hands;
But long ere I come back again
He’d tear me where he stands.
With thee, my bark, I’ll swiftly go
Athwart the foaming brine;
Nor care what land thou bear’st me to,
So not again to mine.
Welcome, welcome, ye dark blue waves!
And when you fail my sight,
Welcome, ye deserts, and ye caves!
My Native Land—Good Night!
Childe Harold (the ballad-meter song between numbers 13 and 14)

Sisyphus Jones
Sisyphus Jones
3 months ago

Seek not the counsel of one who detests dogs and seek not the counsel of one who worships them.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 months ago
Reply to  Sisyphus Jones

Diogenes of Sinope thought differently.

Sisyphus Jones
Sisyphus Jones
3 months ago

Diogenes is still waiting.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago

Aren’t today’s Byronic heroes of the kind seen in Saltburn? Harry Styles with all his queerbating is Byronic. Russell Brand who always played up the camp cockney character (and was until recently a woke darling) is Byronic.
A kind of feminine-tamed masculinity is the essence of Byron and Byronicism. A man who can has that innate masculine drive our evolutionary vestiges crave but with a soft sociability on top that can appreciate a wildflower meadow and will respect boundaries.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Well-expressed and true enough. The thin veneer of refinement and restraint that protects men and their potential targets–not only in an “amorous” sense– tends to get shredded in all-male environments like (historically) jail and the military, or in places where disrespect for femininity runs rampant.
Feminine-tamed need not mean effete. Hope all blokes from the butchest to the meekest can still appreciate wildflowers and respect boundaries

David Morley
David Morley
3 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

But look at the amount of knowledge that Byron deploys in his poetry. He was well read, even bookish (he famously read at breakfast). And the rest of course. Russel Brand? Good god!

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

I used to listen to Brand’s act sometimes, both in recorded public performances and on his podcast. Would say he’s at least unevenly well-read, with a certainly literary flair. Intellect isn’t his key deficit.
Was reading at breakfast rare in the early-19th century?

David Morley
David Morley
3 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I think Byron was trying to explain how he managed to read so much. He read at times other people didn’t.

I find Brand both unfunny and not particularly intelligent. I really can’t see the appeal.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

I sensed that was your take. I found him witty and often funny–past tense for me, at least for the foreseeable future–though I’d agree he’s not particularly intelligent, nor erudite. And he’s always had the impish rogue side too, even before he became a half-pious crusader or had his “predatory escapades” exposed. A bit deeper than Johnny Depp though, yes? An admittedly low bar.
Byron was not a strong student as a youth, nor considered learned in his day (at least according to a Life of Byron by J.W. Lake, prefixed to an 1837 volume of his poems I was re-reading earlier today). Neither was Shakespeare.
Even so, I don’t think UnHerd Reader #unknown or I asserted any connection between Russell Brand and rare genius, or to the poetic gift of Byron.
Are there present-day “celebrities” you do find notably brilliant and funny?

David Morley
David Morley
3 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Are there present-day “celebrities” you do find notably brilliant and funny?

Leaving aside those who are unintentionally funny. Ricky Gervais, Bill Burr, Chris Rock. Curb your enthusiasm is good. Dave Chapelle. Almost forgot: Tim Minchin – talented, dripping intelligence, and seems to be a really nice guy. Amanda Palmer and Regina Spector, very talented song writers.

Lots more I’m sure, but they tend to be a bit off the radar.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

I share much of your list, especially Burr, Minchin, and Chappelle. Respect Palmer but some of her work is inTENSE. Cheers.

Nick Duffy
Nick Duffy
3 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

It’s always worked for me. Despite constant penury, striking rather than handsome features, and being a shortarse, I’ve found that giving the impression you can hold your own in a bar fight AND knock out a sonnet means you never sleep alone unless you want to.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
3 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Russell Brand – respect boundaries?
Have you been away for a while?

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
3 months ago

Ann Millbank (Byron’s wife) was so horrified by Byron’s behaviour, she had their daughter Ada (later Lovelace) tutored in maths and science in the hope she would grow up to be nothing like her father. Ada never attended school or university but nonetheless collaborated with Charles Babbage and other leading mathematicians of the time. The first computer program is attributed to her. Ada possessed the creativity of her father but applied it differently (mostly). She recognised the power and potential of Babbage’s analytical engine: the precursor to the computer.

David Morley
David Morley
3 months ago

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.

Don Juan isn’t just funny, parts of it are laugh out loud hysterical. And the amazing thing is the sheer amount he wrote – stanza after stanza. Our own Byronic heroes might manage a few weak pop songs, but that’s your lot.

If reading him is a bit daunting, get an audio book.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

In full agreement here. Except to insist that next to no one (over)uses “Byronic” to suggest a strong connection to Byron’s poetic gift or body of work. Granted, his undeservedly low present-day readership means that few know much about that gift.
Didn’t you find getting through Don Juan a bit daunting? I skimmed part of the middle but plan to make amends. An audiobook is actually an excellent suggestion for rhyming verse, and for those of us with diminished eyesight. Alternately, read the best stanzas aloud to yourself, pets, neighbors, etc.

David Morley
David Morley
3 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I went for the audiobook, and listened to it several times through. For me, way better than trying to read it. And the drama comes across far better. Goethe rated Byron as a superior poet to himself! Wrong, I would say, but still should not have fallen into neglect the way he has.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Unqualified agreement. I’Il leave you be after this: Was your version read by Jonathan Keeble?

David Morley
David Morley
3 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

It was indeed. Very good. Years ago I remember hearing the first part read by Montgomery Clift of all people.

David Morley
David Morley
3 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Some interesting stuff on slavery in the Ottoman Empire tucked in there too. If I remember correctly Byron describes the lines of black and white slaves in the slave market as looking like a backgammon board. A big surprise for anyone who assumes slavery was only of black people and only by Europeans.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
3 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

I agree about the humour; I laughed out loud at some of it too. It is long of course, but I found you could read it at quite a good lick without losing the sense of what he was saying; it even helped by stopping you getting bogged down and losing sight of the overall meaning.

David Morley
David Morley
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

The piece where Don Alphonso breaks in on Donna Julia looking for her lover is a piece of extended comic genius. It’s hard not to imagine Byron laughing as he wrote it.

David Morley
David Morley
3 months ago

In general, Byronic means: like Byron, minus the humour, minus the melancholy, minus the world weariness, minus the erudition and minus the talent. But generally with better feet.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Well said.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
3 months ago

My favorite poem by Byron is “The Prisoner of Chillon”, but, based on the “Stop, traveler, and piss” quote above, I will definitely read Castlereagh!

Georgivs Novicianvs
Georgivs Novicianvs
3 months ago

BTW, this line is a reference to the classic Latin phrase: Sta, viator! Byron was well read, indeed.

Ernesto Candelabra
Ernesto Candelabra
3 months ago

What is “queering” and why exactly is it a “plus”?

David Morley
David Morley
3 months ago

On the academic left anything which moves things away from what is considered “normal” is good. Queering is that applied to the sex, gender space. So if you imagine a white, cis, heterosexual, middle class western male, with ordinary sexual habits – the further you get from that the better.

Its not so stupid if it means just opening our minds to things we are not familiar with, but it has become obsessive, taking on a moral and aesthetic tone – as in “it’s just art by dead, cis, heterosexual white men” or “pale, male and stale” and therefore both bad (aesthetically and morally” and suspect.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

To use a great Briticism that is catching on in the States: spot on.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
3 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Its depressing, but you are right.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
3 months ago

I’m surprised the author didn’t bring up Andrew Tate, also on the lam in Eastern Europe.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
3 months ago

The present Lord Byron, the 13th Lord Byron, used as a maritime solicitor to receive a favourable reception from Greek ship-owning clients as a result of the continuing high regard the Greeks have for his ancestor despite not being particularly “Byronic” himself.

It is worth choosing your ancestors wisely.