Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

Contemporary heroes such as Bruce Wayne from Batman and Edward Cullen from Twilight, as well as more classic romantic leads such as Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, or Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre, each owe many of their features and their popularity to George Gordon Byron.

Lord Byron [1788-1824], was an English poet, well known within the Romantic movement. It was he who created or rather popularised the features of an anti-hero which became known as The Byronic Hero.

Byron 2

An early taste of Rebel Without a Cause, the Byronic hero epitomised the man who stood outside of society unapologetically, expressing the wild and free impulses of masculinity, otherwise caged and buttoned within civilisation.

Byron      episode-from-the-corsair-by-lord-byron-1831(1)

Of course, moody heroes existed earlier, including Hamlet by Shakespeare and Werther by Goethe. This character however, was shaped and styled by Byron’s hand to emerge,

…a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.

byronic hero

Byron’s first truly famous work, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage [1812], was a striking portrayal of the Byronic hero.  He later wrote of it, 

…I awoke one morning and found myself famous.

Commentators conclude the popularity of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, was that the Byronic hero expressed some of the melancholy and disillusionment felt by a generation weary of the wars of the post-Revolution and Napoleonic eras.

Childe Harold

He achieved notoriety within his own life time for embodying many of the characteristics of his own rebellious hero.

Himself a descendent of Captain John “mad Jack” Byron, Lord Byron described Conrad, the pirate hero of his work The Corsair [1814] thus:

He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt: (I, XI)

There is somewhat an interesting dislocation between the popularity of the Byronic hero, and the interest that followed Byron throughout his lifetime, with the coincident repsonses of critics.

Rumours of his multiple affairs, including an incestuous relationship with his sister Augusta, and a legal separation from his wife made him an outcast who fled England in 1816.

When Don Juan was first published in 1819, the poem was criticised for its “immoral content”, though it was also immensely popular.

Don Juan

Perhaps contradictions follow the Byronic hero just as suffering, independence and rebellion do. Albert Camus wrote in The Stranger [1942],

The Byronic Hero, incapable of love, or capable only of an impossible love, suffers endlessly. He solitary, languid, his condition exhausts him. If he wants to feel alive, it must be in terrible exaltation of a brief and destructive action.

Why do we love to hate or rather, hate and yet love the bad boy?

Loved and loathed himself, Lord Byron was famously described by his lover, Lady Mary Lamb as…

… mad, bad and dangerous to know.

 

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