The Big Question: Was Byron a 19th-century giant – or just an early exponent of celebrity hype?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

A new collection of writings and artefacts relating to the poet opened yesterday at the John Rylands Library in the University of Manchester. It is billed as the first cross-disciplinary attempt to assess Byron's impact on European literature, music, art and politics. Its director, Dr Alan Rawes, made some extraordinary claims at the opening.

The man who has been vilified as an over-sexed Regency dandy was in fact, with the possible exception of Napoleon, "the most important European in the first half of the 19th century". He was, Rawes said, "bigger than Shakespeare".

If that sounds like a man with a vested interest talking he makes a good case. "There are statues of Byron all over Europe and he was a formative influence on Pushkin, Nietzsche, Berlioz, Liszt, Bismarck and Mazzini. As Bertrand Russell put it, on the continent Byron's way of feeling and outlook became factors in great events."

What was his reputation before?

A mixed one. "One of the most significant poets of the Romantic era". "The greatest English-language writer after Shakespeare". (What about Milton?). He and Burke were the two greatest Englishmen alive at the end of the 18th century, said G K Chesteron, who cast his deciding vote for Byron. But from the start Byron had his detractors. Keats thought his poetry slavish and unoriginal, calling one of his most famous works, Don Juan, a "flash" poem. Wordsworth, upset at Byron's popularity, said he was "greatly overrated" and that his proper rank among the poets was "not a very distinguished one". Miaow.

To prudish Victorian Britons, says Rawes, Byron's great achievements were overshadowed by his sexual activities – an extravagant catalogue of scandals involving broken love affairs, divorces, incest and pederasty. "It's only in recent times that scholars and readers have been willing to separate man and the myth."

Was he really 'mad, bad and dangerousto know'?

So one lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, described him. (She was the wife of the man who became prime minister as Lord Melbourne). Byron came from what one detractror called "a long line of philanderers & idiots". His dad was Captain "Mad Jack" Byron. His was a tempestuous aristocratic family prone to melancholy, debauchery and wild impulses. The charismatic Byron was variously described as flamboyant, mercurial and given to extremes of temper.

But then, as Chesterton put it, "if you are a prophet of resurrection and revolution, of the future and of the dawn, your sepulchre is likely to be pelted and defaced". That's why it was only in 1969, 145 years after his death, a memorial to him was finally placed in Westminster Abbey

Was his sex life the problem?

In part. It's all salacious stuff. He was forced to wear dresses as a boy. He had a love affair with a choirboy at university. His Grand Tour of the classical sites of the Mediterranean was a homosexual predation, though popular in his epic Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which describes the progress of world-weary young man seeking distraction in foreign lands.

Byron was bisexual. In addition to the scandalous affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, he is thought to have had a child in an incestuous union with his half-sister Augusta. There were rumours of marital violence, adultery with actresses, and Byron's own claim to have bedded 162 or more married women in Venice.

Or was it his politics?

Byron spoke in the House of Lords against the death penalty for Luddites and in defence of the rights of Roman Catholics. That set the Establishment against him. "He was halfway to being a supporter of Napoleon which never went down well," says Drummond Bone, editor of the magisterial Cambridge Companion to Byron. But Byron was most active abroad, joining Italian and Greek revolutionaries in their struggles against the Austrian and Ottoman empires, spending £4,000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet. He "speaks of the revolutionary or at least stands for the underdog," says Alan Rawes, "things that ages previously weren't quite so happy to discuss".

Or was it just his verse?

Byron's poetry defies easy categorisation. Though he is routinely called a Romantic poet he also revered the 18th-century Augustan poets, particularly Alexander Pope. Their indebtedness to the classical tradition is clear in Byron's own poetry. He abhorred the rejection of the Augustans by the Romantic poets and saw Keats as ill-educated and over-indulgent in his extravagant sensuousness. "Byron"s best work is comic, satiric, ironic, some might say cynical," says Drummond Bone. It does not have the high seriousness of Romantic or modernist poetry. "So it doesn"t work in academe."

So what should we read, those of us whose knowledge of Byron is restricted to the movie Lady Caroline Lamb or learning "So we"ll go no more a roving" at school? "Read 'Beppo'," Bone says. "It's a wonderful poem about Venice, full of politics and sex. It"s funny and it's not that long."

Or was it his early death?

Byron died from a violent fever in Messolonghi in 1824, while training Greek soldiers. He was 36. His death sent shockwaves across Europe. Many in England saw it as his just deserts, but the Greeks mourned him so deeply that he became a national hero; the Greek form of "Byron" is still a popular boy's name in Greece. His early death, like those of modern rock stars, only consolidated his reputation.

The term "Byronic hero" entered the lexicon. To be Byronic was to be an outsider, with a disregard for rank, privilege and social institutions. It was to have a nature characterised by paradox: idealised but flawed, passionate but arrogant, cruel but kind; devoted but unfaithful, talented yet never contented, always seeking out new sensations in an ultimately self-destructive manner. The modern anti-hero.

Why has he not been reappraised earlier?

You might think that Byron would have become a hero in the post-Sixties era, with its celebration of personal fulfilment, sexual licence, political activism. But Drummond Bone explains that "people find comedy difficult to take seriously. You might have thought the deconstructionists would have gone for him but they thought he was not political enough, though the politics is there in the satire." Alan Rawes's conviction is that the complex interaction between Byron's art and his politics, beliefs and sexuality will speak to the 21st century in ways which will enable him to be properly appreciated in Britain for the first time. Maybe, at last, Byron's time has come.

Should we have more respect for Byron's literary works?

Yes...

* He was a formative influence on some of the greatest European artists and thinkers, including Nietzsche, Berlioz and Liszt

* His literary talents have been overshadowed by his colourful sexual activities

* It took 145 years after his death for a memorial to him to appear in Westminster Abbey

No...

* Both Keats and Wordsworth were doubtful about Byron's poetic talents

* Some experts suggest that describing him as the greatest European of the 19th century is overstating the case

* His sexual exploits surely exceed his political or literary ones – he claimed to have bedded 162 married women while in Venice

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