Lord Byron Was Hard to Pin Down. That’s What Made Him Great.

This week is the 200th anniversary of Lord Byron’s death. The most famous poet of his age (an odd phrase now) died fighting for Greek independence in the marshes of Missolonghi. “Who would write, who had anything better to do?” he once said. There was a strange contest over his body and memory: The lungs and larynx remained in Greece but friends carried the rest back to England, where huge crowds followed the funeral procession. A month after his death, his former editor burned his memoirs, worried they would damage the reputation of a superstar read around the world.

Does anyone read Byron now? He’s one of those unusual figures who have become better known for the lives they led than the books they wrote. Even some of his fans admire the letters more than the poems. It isn’t totally clear what it means to say that Byron is your favorite poet. Of the so-called Big Six Romantics, he’s the hardest to place. The hikers and the introverts read Wordsworth, the hippies love Blake, Keats is for the purists, Shelley for the political dreamers … and Byron? In spite of his fame, he lacks brand recognition. That’s partly because, halfway through his career, he decided to change the brand. “If I am sincere with myself,” he once wrote, “(but I fear one lies more to one’s self than to any one else), every page should confute, refute and utterly abjure its predecessor.”

All of which makes him a complicated sell. Academics trying to revive his reputation sometimes claim him as the anti-Romantic, a satirist who made fun of the movement’s clichés. Which is true. But he also wrote wonderful love poems, including two of his best-known lyrics, “She Walks in Beauty” and “So We’ll Go No More a Roving.” Both are cleareyed about their own sentimentality, but more sad than satirical.

There are other ways of reclaiming him: as the first celebrity writer, as an early adopter of autofiction, for his sexual fluidity. He fell in love with both men and women, and slept with almost everybody, including his half sister, Augusta — which explains why his old editor, John Murray, decided to burn the memoirs.

Writers usually get famous because they touch a chord, and then keep playing it. And even if, as their work matures, they find ways to deepen the tone, it’s still recognizable; readers know what to expect from the product. And Byron touched a chord very young. His breakthrough poem — another odd phrase — was published when he was 24. “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” about a moody young nobleman who travels through war-torn Europe chased by some secret sorrow, made him a household name. Fan mail flowed in; women offered themselves in assignations. (Philip Roth joked in “The Ghost Writer” that for an author to get laid in New York you need only publish a couplet.) “Childe Harold” eventually stretched to four volumes.

Movie versions of Byron’s life tend to take the Childe Harold angle, presenting him as the beautiful young nobleman and exaggerating his Gothic or camp tendencies. He’s been played by Rupert Everett and Hugh Grant. You can find those elements in his writing, too, especially in the early verse, but then a few things changed. He got married, and the marriage went badly; he left England in 1816 and didn’t return; his fame hardened, and as it hardened, he began to realize that it didn’t really fit him.

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