Lord Byron

Byron Was a Bad, Bad Boy

Lord Byron
Portrait by Richard Westall

Byron seems to be cropping up on my radar a lot lately. Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time recently recorded a discussion of his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. I subscribe to the podcast in iTunes and listened to it during my work commute last week. My favorite part:

Melvyn Bragg: Then he left [England] in 1816, as it happens never to return, but he left notorious—he was hissed in theatres, he was hissed in the House of Lords. He was more than a scandal; he was an outrage. They wanted him out—out of the country, off the island. What had happened?

Emily Bernhard Jackson: Well, he had had an affair with his half-sister, um, of some duration, uh—

Melvyn Bragg: And that got out.

Emily Bernhard Jackson: That got out. Although, interestingly, what seems to have caused more problems were the rumours that he had practised homosexuality in the East, that he had attempted to perform sodomy with his wife and with Lady Caroline Lamb, both. Um, these were all rumours. There was a—when the Byrons separated, Lady Byron mounted a kind of campaign to make sure that she would come out well, a very modern campaign, and part of that was spreading these rumours. Um—

Melvyn Bragg: What credence do you give them?

Emily Bernhard Jackson: I would say he certainly had an affair with his sister. I would stay that’s beyond question, although he didn’t announce it to the world. I give full credence to all of them.

I think it says something kind of weird about me that I laughed when Professor Jackson said that last sentence, mainly because she set it up to sound like a smear campaign headed by Lady Byron, Annabella Milbanke, but a true one.

Annabella Byron, 1812
Annabella Byron, 1812 via Wikipedia

Caroline Lamb famously described Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” and Melvyn Bragg and his guests hypothesized that Byron’s bad-boy reputation helped move copies of his books off the shelves. The Corsair sold 10,000 copies on its first day, apparently.

Byron will also be a character in the book I’m currently enjoying immensely: Passion by Jude Morgan—the story of the Romantic poets Byron, Shelley, and Keats as told through the voices of the women who loved them.

I have to admit that when I teach Byron, I can be somewhat irreverent, and it is my hope that Byron, wherever he is (I’m sure many folks would say hell), enjoys it a little. I think he liked being famous. One of my favorite ways to describe Byron’s death is that he was bored, so he decided to sail for Messolonghi and fight for Greek independence because that’s what you do.

He sounds like he would have been one of those guys who was fascinating to have as an acquaintance, but maddening to have as a close friend or lover. Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist, expert on bipolar disorder, and author of Touched with Fire and The Unquiet Mind, speculates that Byron was bipolar, which would explain a lot about some of the choices he made in life. It also explains much of his behavior—by turns magnetic and charismatic, then frightening and cruel. Certainly he describes suffering from melancholy.

“My Soul is Dark”

My soul is dark—Oh! quickly string
The harp I yet can brook to hear;
And let thy gentle fingers fling
Its melting murmurs o’er mine ear.
If in this heart a hope be dear,
That sound should charm it forth again:
If in these eyes there lurk a tear,
‘Twill flow, and cease to burn my brain.

But bid the strain be wild and deep,
Nor let thy notes of joy be first:
I tell thee, minstrel, I must weep,
Or else this heavy heart will burst;
For it hath been by sorrow nursed,
And ached in sleepless silence long;
And now ’tis doom’d to know the worst,
And break at once—or yield to song.

When I read this poem, which seems to discuss Byron’s emotions on hearing music, I can’t help but notice the title seems to infer it’s really about his own turbulent feelings—the frustration he felt over being emotionally damaged or deranged in some way. His poetry must have been one of the few outlets he had for making himself feel better—his heart would “break at once—or yield to song.” And yet, he’s not without a sense of dark humor about himself. Thomas Medwin reports in The Angler in Wales, Or Days and Nights of Sportsmen, Vol. 2 that in discussion of an upcoming attack on the Castle of Lepanto in which he would act as commander-in-chief,

“I do not know how it will end,” said his Lordship, gaily, “but one thing is certain, there is no fear of my running,” at the same time glancing at his lame foot. (214)

I leave you with some audio of one of Byron’s most famous poems, “She Walks in Beauty,” set to music by Isaac Nathan. Nathan’s melodies for Byron’s poems (Hebrew Melodies) have largely been forgotten, but Byron’s poetry remains. This audio is from Romantic Era Songs.

She Walks in Beauty

The Adventure of English

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a LanguageMelvyn Bragg’s book The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language is a companion to the documentary series of the same name. It explores the twists and turns in the development and spread of English from its beginnings to the present day. I found it to be an entertaining read, and I certainly learned some interesting things about language that I will use in my American and British literature curricula next year. In many ways, it does seem astonishing that English has managed to become as important as it has given some of the close calls over the years: Alfred the Great’s defeat of the Danes (it was close) and 1066 just to name two. I did wish that Bragg had provided some footnotes and explained some of the etymologies he described. I can’t think of an example now that I’m reviewing, but I do recall as I read that at times I didn’t think his etymology agreed with what I read or learned elsewhere. It’s clearly in the camp of pop-history rather than scholarly writing, so perhaps readers should not expect a dissertation on the development of English going in, but it is highly readable. I did find myself lagging through the late middle of the book until I came to the section on Australian English, which I found much more intriguing than I thought I would.

It might just be me, but I found long lists of words difficult. For instance, when Bragg is describing a list of words from Old English that still appear in everyday conversation on p. 6, he chooses to list them separated by commas. It may be grammatically correct to do so, but I quickly became lost and would have preferred a chart or table. Another quibble: Bragg refers to Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf several times, and while I love Heaney’s translation, Bragg obscures the fact that it’s a translation or interpretation. The first word of Beowulf in Old English is Hwæt, which Heaney translates as “So.” It has been variously translated as “Lo,” “Listen,” “What,” “Now,” and “Indeed,” among others. I really can’t explain why it bothered me that Bragg said hwæt translated as “so” without providing it within the context of a Heaney translation until the following paragraph (pp. 13-14).

The book was a mostly enjoyable diversion. I think anyone interested in the development of the English language will find it interesting. I do plan to view the companion DVD series, which we have at my school.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Summer Reading

Summer is rapidly approaching. I have one more week of teaching, one more week of finals, and a couple of days of post-planning, after which my teaching responsibilities for 2009-2010 will have ended. Of course, before you tell me how lucky I am to have two months off (it’s not actually three), don’t forget I am actually not paid for that time. Most teachers are paid for ten months, but have their pay divided among twelve. Also, no teacher—let me rephrase that—no good teacher I know really takes that time off. Most of us usually spend that time planning for the next year, doing professional reading, and taking professional development courses or college courses. I’ll be doing all three. However, more time will also mean more time for reading. Here are the books on my radar (subject to change) for summer reading.

The Story of BritainThe Adventure of English: The Biography of a LanguageMedieval Lives

Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of England and Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language are on tap as I plan my British Literature and Composition courses. I have also checked out the DVD companion for Bragg’s book from my school library. Both books should help me plan my courses. Terry Jones’s Medieval Lives should add some dimension to studies of Chaucer next year.

In terms of professional reading, I plan to finish some books I’ve started, specifically:

Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do  About It The Grammar Plan Book: A Guide to Smart Teaching

Even if I am not teaching 9th grade next year, which is the grade level at which our grammar instruction is focused, I still think a solid foundation in how to teach grammar in a way that will stick and will make a difference in student writing is a good idea. In addition, I would like to try to read this book:


In this day of easy cut and paste, plagiarism is much easier, and I believe, more tempting than ever before.

Finally, for pleasure reading, I plan to select from the following:

I thoroughly enjoyed Syrie James’s second novel, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, and as a fan of Jane Austen, I look forward to The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. I originally purchased both The Forgotten Garden and The Meaning of Night for potential reading for the last R.I.P. Reading Challenge. My husband is thoroughly enjoying The Meaning of Night, and he highly recommends it.

These first two books will indulge my interest in the Romantic poets. The first book, Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, explores the story of Byron’s own contribution to the famous writing challenge that produced Frankenstein and the first vampire novel. Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets explores the lives of Byron, the Shelleys, and Keats. As a child, I was extremely interested in dinosaurs and paleontology. Of course I want to read Remarkable Creatures, the first novel I know of written about Mary Anning, who discovered the fossil of an ichthyosaur and two plesiosaurs near her home at Lyme Regis.

The Little Stranger comes highly recommended from our art teacher. Emily’s Ghost promises to be an interesting novel about Emily Brontë: most of the novels about the Brontës either focus on Charlotte or broaden the focus on the Brontës in general. The Dream of Perpetual Motion will be my first steampunk novel.