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Byron, Lord

Entry updated 29 November 2021. Tagged: Author.

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Working name and title of UK poet George Gordon Noel Byron (1788-1824), the central figure – along with Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats (1795-1821) – in the second generation of English Romantic poets; father of Ada Lovelace. At least as directly as did Shelley in Prometheus Unbound (1820), and perhaps more accessibly, he expressed throughout his career a volatile but persistent sense that the world – one may in his case go so far as to say the planet (see below) – was both fragile and governed by incessant change.

Byron appears, often with an ambivalent effect, in various contemporary works, most better thought of as Fantastika than sf proper. Amanda Prantera's Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years After His Lordship's Death (1987), in which an AI is programmed with the poet's personality of circa 1807, has little to say about the Byron of sf interest; Tom Holland's The Vampyre: Being the True Pilgrimage of George Gordon, Sixth Lord Byron (1995) is a Vampire tale; his Mysterious-Stranger incursion into the life of the protagonist of David Liss's The Twelfth Enchantment (2011) augurs an ominously transformed nineteenth century Britain; the thinly disguised Ron Lord in Jeanette Winterson's Frankissstein (2016) is a creature who would be inclined to sexually maltreat a vulnerable Monster. But John Crowley's Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land (2005) more engagingly incorporates an imagined Gothic novel by Byron, dating its composition to the period before he began to work on Don Juan (written between 1818 and 1823; 1819; 1821; 1823; 1824 1vol each); Crowley's guess is enlivening, though it may be his speculative text more resembles the early work of the passionately Byronic Benjamin Disraeli than it does late Byron; there has been much speculation as to the kind of work he might have embarked upon had he not died in mid-career, but if the unrelenting deconstructive thrust of Don Juan be taken on board, then it is far more likely that had Byron lived and written fiction (as he wished to do), that fiction might well have been speculative in nature: which is to say, sf.

Though he had earlier touched on supernatural topics – a vampire appears, for instance, in The Giaour, a Fragment of a Turkish Tale (1813 chap) – Byron's actual (as opposed to speculated) influence on the literatures of the fantastic in general, and upon sf in particular, is due almost entirely to the Year of No Summer, specifically June/July 1816, when he resided at the Villa Diodati near Geneva, for much of the time with an entourage that included John Polidori and his near neighbours Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley. Two events can be isolated, the first of which has been central in establishing Byron's importance as an Icon for the field. In June 1816, he participated in an evening gathering of the entourage at Villa Diodati, where his friends and lovers had been trapped by one of the almost incessant bouts of apocalyptic weather that cast such gloom over that summer. For entertainment the four intimates read aloud to each other from the French translation of a horror collection told within a Club Story frame: Das Gespensterbuch ["The Ghost Book"] (coll 1811-1815 5vols; first two vols trans Jean Baptise Benoit Eyries into French with cuts as Fantasmagoriana 1812) by Johann August Apel (1771-1816) and Friedrich August Schulze (1770-1849) writing as Friedrich Laun. Though Eyries's redaction of Eyries and Apel had soon appeared, translated by Sarah Elizabeth Utterson with further cuts and one added story as Tales of the Dead: Principally Translated from the French (1813), it is understood that Byron and the others used the French version. These tales were in the mode of the Schauerroman, dark and violent stories with doubles and Doppelgangers whose example shaped Shelley's early horror novel, Zastrozzi: A Romance (1810), and one of which, "Portraits de Famille" (trans as "The Family Portraits"), specifically instructs a group of trapped people to gather together and tell each other ghost stories. Much affected by the evening, Byron suggested that he and the other participants write similar stories of their own, which they would then read aloud to one another.

Mary Shelley's tale of course eventually became Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), a central example of Gothic SF. Byron's story, "A Fragment" (in Mazeppa, a Poem, coll 1819 chap), remained incomplete, and there is no real evidence that John Polidori did indeed accurately transform what would have been the whole story – if Bryon had finished it – in his own Villa Diodati contribution, The Vampyre: A Tale (April 1819 New Monthly Magazine; 1819 chap) as by the Right Honourable Lord Byron; Byron's name was affixed to the tale by its publisher, for commercial reasons; he always denied authorship. There is no doubt, however that Byron's romantic intensity as a person and as the already famous author of the first cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812 and 1816) – as well as the culture-defying, highly transgressive sexual relations for which he had become notorious by 1816 – were transfigured by Polidori into the figure of Lord Ruthven, the central model for the topos of the tormented Byronic Vampire that dominated the nineteenth century, and on which Charles Nodier based his highly successful Le Vampire (1820) (see also Alexandre Dumas; Bram Stoker). [For full entries on Vampire Movies and on Vampires in the fantasy context, see also The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below.] Films about or referring directly to the Villa Diodati events include The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Gothic (1986) directed by Ken Russell, Haunted Summer (1988) directed by Ivan Passer (1933-    ) and Remando al viento ["Rowing with the Wind"] (1988) directed by Gonzalo Suárez (1934-    ).

The second creative event involving Byron at Villa Diodati may be of even greater importance, though its impact has not been as widely noticed. The bleakness of the early summer of 1816 did not abate – the Year without Summer, primarily caused by an enormous volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on Sumbawa Island (Dutch East Indies) in 1815, had had a planetary effect, darkening and chilling the entire globe – and in July Byron composed "Darkness" (written late July 1816; in The Prisoner of Chillon, and Other Poems, coll 1816 chap), a long narrative visionary poem (90 lines of blank verse) whose gloom is presciently planetary, for it is the planet itself being described, in language that is primarily non-metaphorical: in the lines "The bright sun was extinguish'd; ... / and the icy earth / Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air", heavenly bodies are typically replaced by the actual Sun, earth, Moon. Safely after Byron's death the minor Scottish poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) claimed in an open letter (24 March 1825 The Times) that in conversation he had given Byron the entire gist of "Darkness", and that Byron had plagiarized him; Campbell's own poem on vaguely similar lines, "The Last Man" (1823 New Monthly Magazine 8), which sedulously supplicates God in jouncingly balladic verse, bears little resemblance to the underlying burden of the earlier poem. There has more recently been some rearguard critical focus on likenesses between the Biblical book of Revelations and Byron's poem; but such an angle scumbles over the difference between Byron's language – which is in fact entirely au courant with the rapidly advancing state in the early nineteenth century of sciences like Astronomy and geology – and earlier iterations of the Sublime (see also Poetry). The Year Without Summer was itself already being perceived as a "weather" event affecting the entire planet: a vision premonitory (though not predictive) of current understandings of Climate Change. When Byron states that

The palaces of crowned kings – the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes ...

he depicts (without using a single figure of speech) a vision of Ruins and Futurity in which the End of the World is stripped down to a real and local habitation: the Disaster visited on the planet around the corner of the day after tomorrow:

The world was void,
The populous and the powerful – was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless –
A lump of death – a chaos of hard clay.

In "Darkness" a literal Last Man figure can only be surmised, through the reasonable assumption that Byron's "dream, which was not at all a dream", registers the vison of an invisible (but somehow embedded) observer; but even without a tangible human focus, the poem is a genuine Proto SF narrative. It is a near ancestor of the Scientific Romance. [JC]

George Gordon Noel Byron, Baron Byron

born London: 22 January 1788

died Missolonghi, Greece: 19 April 1824

works (highly selected)

about the author

The critical literature on Byron is enormous, but as it only occasionally addresses the aspects of his career focused on here, we list almost nothing.

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