King's College London
Online Exhibitions
Byron & politics: ‘born for opposition’

Introduction

‘The Consequence is, being of no party,
I shall offend all parties: – never mind!’
Don Juan ix.26

Photograph of exhibition case 1 showing books and manuscripts.Case 1George Gordon, sixth Lord Byron (1788-1824), was, like his own Don Juan, ‘born for opposition’ (Don Juan xv.22). In his relatively humble childhood in Scotland we can perhaps trace the beginnings of his association with radical reform and the rights of the disadvantaged and oppressed, whether Nottinghamshire textile workers or Italian and Greek patriots. Byron’s elevation to the British peerage in 1798 complicated his political outlook, however, as it brought with it the right to sit in the House of Lords. Byron was initially earnest in pursuing a parliamentary career, but although he detested the ruling Tory party he was unable or unwilling to find political harmony with the opposing Whigs. A scathing review of his early poetry in the Whig-orientated Edinburgh Review certainly did not help to strengthen his party allegiance.

The growing success of his poetry offered him an alternative to Parliament and party as an outlet for political expression. Although his early and politically radical short poems were often published anonymously, he increasingly incorporated political themes and issues openly into his later and larger works, published under his name or known to be by him.

Byron’s youthful travels in the Mediterranean between 1809 and 1811 laid the foundation for his interest in national and patriotic causes, which were agitated all over Europe by the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. Byron’s later Napoleonic verses worked out his disappointment at the fall of the era’s greatest political reformer and, when he left Britain in 1816, one of his first continental destinations was the battlefield of Waterloo, where he again reflected on his hero’s downfall.

Travel liberated and enlivened Byron in many ways, including politically. He became involved in patriotic movements in Italy and subsequently in Greece, and the difficulties and frustrations of enacting political change are reflected in his letters, journals and poetry. Despite a growing pragmatism, however, he retained an optimism and passion for political causes right up to his death in Missolonghi in western Greece, whilst supporting the Greek struggle for independence.

In this exhibition


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