George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (1788 – 1824), commonly known as just Lord Byron, was a British poet. He was one of the leading figures of the Romantic Movement in early 19th century England. Byron first achieved fame with the publication of the first two cantos of his narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812 and his reputation further enhanced with his four highly successful poems referred to as the “Oriental Tales”. Lord Byron is often described as the most flamboyant and notorious of the major Romantics due to his indulgent life and numerous love affairs. Many of his poems are autobiographic in nature and much of his work is pervaded by the Byronic hero, an idealised but flawed character capable of great passion and talent but rebellious, arrogant and self-destructive. Lord Byron is regarded as one of the greatest English poets ever and he continues to be influential and widely read. Here are his 10 most famous poems including The Corsair, Don Juan and She Walks in Beauty.
Ivan Mazepa was an influential gentleman in Ukraine in late 17th and early 18th century. This poem relates a legend from his early life according to which he had a love affair with Countess Theresa while serving as a page at the court of King John II Casimir Vasa. The Count, on discovering the affair, punishes Mazeppa by tying him naked to a wild horse and setting the horse loose. Byron mostly describes the traumatic journey of Mazeppa while being tied to the horse. The poem is acclaimed by critics for its “vigour of style and its sharp realization of the feelings of suffering and endurance”. Lord Byron is most renowned for his long narrative poems and Mazeppa is among his most well known works in the genre.
They bound me on, that menial throng,
Upon his back with many a thong;
They loosed him with a sudden lash–
Away!–away!–and on we dash!–
Torrents less rapid and less rash.
#9 The Destruction of Sennacherib
Sennacherib was a powerful king of Assyria who laid siege on Jerusalem in 701 BC but failed to capture it. Lord Byron’s poem describes the Biblical account of Sennacherib’s attempted siege according to which the Assyrian were initially successful in the siege but the Angel of the Lord killed them in their sleep thus protecting the holy city. Among the prominent themes of the poem are death and power of the lord. The Destruction of Sennacherib was extremely popular in Victorian England and it remains one of the most famous short poems by Lord Byron.
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
#8 The Giaour
“Giaour” is an offensive Turkish word for infidel or non-believer. Byron’s narrative poem tells a fragment of a Turkish tale through three narrators with different points of view. The titular character, the giaour, loved a woman named Leila. However, her master Hassan has her drowned after learning that she has been unfaithful to him with his enemy. The giaour is filled with anger and kills Hassan in an act of vengeance. He is then remorseful and enters a monastery. The poem is known for contrasting Christian and Muslim perceptions of love, sex, death and the afterlife through its use of three narrators. It is also noted for being one of the first works to mention vampires. The oriental narrator predicts that the giaour, due to his crime, is condemned to become a vampire after his death and kill his own dear ones by drinking their blood. Byron came to know about vampires during his travels. The Giaour was a great success when it was first published in 1813 and it remains one of Byron’s most popular poems.
For freedom’s battle, once begun,
Bequeath’d by bleeding sire to son,
Though baffled oft, is ever won.
#7 So We’ll Go No More A-Roving
One of the shortest compositions of Lord Byron, this poem consists of three stanzas, each of four lines. It was written by Byron at the age of 29 and included in a letter to his friend Thomas Moore. The poem was published in 1830, six years after the death of Byron. Lord Byron was notorious for living his life indulgently with numerous love affairs and aristocratic excesses. So We’ll Go No More A-Roving is interpreted as a poem in which he describes his tiredness from his indulgent lifestyle despite its attraction and his nature. It talks about the speaker’s age conquering his youth making it difficult for him to indulge in the tempting activity of going “a-roving” at night. The chorus of the poem is inspired from a Scottish song “The Jolly Beggar.”
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.
#6 The Corsair
A corsair is an authorized pirate. Byron’s poem tells the tale of the corsair Conrad who decides to raid the riches of the Sultan Seyd but gets caught while trying to rescue the women in the Sultan’s harem. Gulnare, the Sultan’s favourite slave, tries to trick Syed into releasing Conrad but her plan fails. Unable to convince Conrad to kill the Sultan, she kills him herself and they successfully escape. When Gulnare and Conrad return to his home, Conrad finds that his wife Medora has died from grief, having believed him dead. Along with The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos and Lara; The Corsair is one of the four celebrated “Oriental Tales” of Lord Byron. It sold over 10,000 copies on its first day of sale and was extremely popular and influential in its time.
O’er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free,
Far as the breeze can bear, the billows foam,
Survey our empire, and behold our home!
These are our realms, no limit to their sway,—
Our flag the sceptre all who meet obey.
#5 When We Two Parted
Lord Byron had a flirtation with Lady Frances Caroline Annesley, but later she was scandalously linked with Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. Byron is said to have written this poem on his split with Lady Frances. When We Two Parted is a short lyric of four eight-line stanzas in which the speaker mourns the loss of a romantic relationship. The prominent theme of the poem is betrayal. It is ironic that Byron himself had numerous love affairs in his life and could well have inspired such a lyric. When We Two Parted is known for the strong feelings it is able to convey and, being a poem about a vastly relatable topic of lost love, it continues to be highly popular.
In secret we met–
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?–
With silence and tears.
The eruption of Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora in 1815 is considered one of the greatest natural disasters ever to befall mankind. The following year, in which this poem was written, saw darkness and record-cold temperatures across Europe; and is known as “the year without a summer”. Byron’s poem, inspired by the then inexplicable darkness caused due to this eruption, uses the hellish biblical language of the apocalypse to convey to his readers the real possibility of the occurrence of the events described in the holy text. Previously read as an apocalyptic story of the last man on earth, Darkness is now regarded by many critics to be anti-biblical despite its many references to the Bible. It remains one of Byron’s most analysed poems.
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
#3 Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
Year: 1812 – 1818
This is a long narrative poem in four cantos with the first two published in 1812; the third in 1816, and the fourth in 1818. It is a loosely autobiographical account of Byron’s two year long tour of Europe from 1809 to 1811. “Childe” is a title from medieval times, designating a young noble who is not yet knighted. The poem describes the travels and reflections of a world-weary young man and is renowned for depicting, with unprecedented frankness, the disparity between romantic ideals and the realities of the world. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is also noted for being the first work to depict the Byronic hero, one of the most potent and relevant character archetypes in western literature. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is one of the most famous works of Lord Byron and it was on publication of its first two cantos that Byron first gained public attention and acclaim.
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.
#2 She Walks in Beauty
The most famous short poem of Lord Byron, She Walks in Beauty consists of three stanzas of six lines. The poem celebrates the external appearance as well as inner beauty of a woman by whom the poet is captivated. The speaker starts by admiring the harmony of the woman’s external appearance before he suggests that her perfect looks are a reflection of her inner goodness. It is said that Byron was inspired to write She Walks in Beauty after meeting his cousin by marriage, Mrs. Anne Beatrix Wilmot, who was in mourning and wearing a black dress. Byron was struck by her unusual beauty and wrote the poem the next morning.
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow’d to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
#1 Don Juan
Year: 1819 – 1824
Don Juan is a legendary fictional character known for being devoid of most moral or sexual restraints. His name is a common metaphor for a “womanizer”. Based on the legend of Don Juan, Byron’s poem reverses his traditional portrayal and instead shows him as not a womaniser but as someone easily seduced by women. The poem consists of 16 cantos with the 17th being unfinished at the time of Byron’s death in 1824. Byron is credited with inventing the expression ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’ in this poem. Don Juan is considered as the masterpiece of Lord Byron and ranks as one of the most important English long poems since John Milton’s renowned work Paradise Lost. It is a variation of the epic form and Byron himself called it an “Epic Satire”. Lord Byron is so highly regarded among scholars mostly due to the satiric realism of Don Juan.
Tis strange,-but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction: if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!
How differently the world would men behold!