By Lori Chambers
A classic cigar box, a strand of chestnut hair, a book that graced the library of Queen Victoria. Picture what such a miscellany might teach us about the iconic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824). Nearly 5,000 items that Byron touched—or that touched his many admirers—are housed at Drew for the erudition of scholars, students and all lovers of Byron. The Byron Society Collection, founded by scholars Marsha M. Manns and the late Leslie A. Marchand, comprises a cache of treasures donated to the Byron Society of America. Deeded to Drew in 2010, these objects capture the romance of the ultimate Romantic.
Byron the Writer
“But there is that within me which shall tire Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire.”
Words—Byron had a sense that his would transcend time and place. In both his vast poetical works and his voluminous letters and journals, Byron speaks across two centuries with a sensibility as frank and self-revelatory as that of the modern-day blogger. Surely his disdain for convention and his embrace of radical freedoms—sexual, social and political—fit our era more comfortably than his own. (“Satanic spirit” and “unconcerned fiend” were just two of the zingers slung at Byron by buttoned-up contemporaries.) Across all his writings—love lyrics, exotic verse tales, satiric epic poems—the wit and exuberance of Byron’s words continue to resonate with both the scholars who dissect them and the readers who revere them.
Byron the Rake
“Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, Sermons and soda water the day after.”
The third time was not a charm for the notorious Lord Byron. Yet another request to install a memorial plaque in Poets’ Corner—this one in 1924—met with a stern rebuff, the dean of Westminster Abbey sniffing that Byron’s “open dissolute life” and “licentious verse” could not be forgiven even 100 years after his death. What today might be called a playboy streak—debt, dissipation and debauchery—drove Byron into exile during his lifetime and has distracted from his poetical and political genius ever since. (After all, charges of sodomy and incest are as sensational in our day as his.) Only in death would he receive forgiveness: In 1969 Westminster Abbey finally bestowed a stone tablet memorializing England’s greatest Romantic poet.
Byron the Hero
“Lone, wild and strange, he stood alike exempt. From all affection and from all contempt.”
“I want a hero,” Byron declares in the opening line of Don Juan. And so he creates one—passionate, imperfect and doomed. Like Byron himself? Naturally. Bored with the idealized and conventional Romantic hero, the poet penned a defiant antihero who leapt from verse as the melancholy Childe Harold and the tortured Count Manfred, among other incarnations. And he is with us still, from Mr. Rochester to Mr. Darcy, from the Count of Monte Cristo to the Phantom of the Opera, from Batman to Han Solo. And the archetype’s creator? He cemented his own Byronic bona fides as a martyr to the struggle for Greek independence, his heroic death in the swamps of Missolonghi ensuring a poetic immortality.
Byron on Display
April 9–May 29
A special exhibit featuring items from the collection’s holdings is on display in Rose Memorial Library and the Methodist Center through May 29. Scholars and readers gathered in Mead Hall April 11–13 to discuss themes of collecting and recollecting in the study of Byron’s life and works. The conference was presented by Drew and the Byron Society of America.