The best poems by Byron selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) wrote a great deal of poetry before his early death, in his mid-thirties, while fighting in Greece. But what are Byron’s best poems? Here we’ve selected some of his best-known and best-loved poems, spanning narrative verse, love poetry, simple lyrics, and longer comic works.
Don Juan. Despite the Spanish name of Byron’s hero (or antihero?), many readers and critics Anglicise the title of this, perhaps Byron’s most representative work and his greatest achievement, as ‘Don Joo-an’. A vast comic poem that is almost novelistic in its length and range, it follows the protagonist, a lothario, as he has affairs and adventures – Don Juan is partly a portrait of Byron himself (with his eventful private life), but is also a modern take on the figure who appears elsewhere in literature and culture, perhaps most famously in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Byron wrote of the poem in 1819, ‘it may be profligate – but is it not life, and is it not the thing? Could any man have written it – who has not lived in the world?’
‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’. Byron once said that he awoke one morning to find himself famous, and it was the success of this long narrative poem which made his name. As with Don Juan, this poem has autobiographical elements: the protagonist is a young nobleman who, disillusioned with the world around him, takes off to exotic parts of the globe in search of adventure. This poem is the origin of the ‘Byronic hero’: a dashing, charming, attractive, and brooding protagonist who would become a staple of nineteenth-century poetry and fiction.
‘When We Two Parted’. How might two lovers part? In silence and tears, as this popular Byron poem has it. Possibly written about a real-life affair between the poet and Lady Frances Webster – who was also involved with the Duke of Wellington – this is a classic Romantic (and romantic) expression of parting as not-so-sweet sorrow.
‘She Walks in Beauty’. Perhaps Byron’s best-loved and most widely anthologised lyric poem, ‘She Walks in Beauty’ is quoted in Dead Poets Society as an attempt to seduce a young woman, and it epitomises the Romantic poem idolising (and idealising) a woman’s beauty, as the first line makes clear.
‘So, we’ll go no more a-roving’. Byron sent this poem to his friend Thomas Moore in a letter of 1817. Byron prefaced the poem with a few words: ‘At present, I am on the invalid regimen myself. The Carnival – that is, the latter part of it, and sitting up late o’ nights – had knocked me up a little. But it is over – and it is now Lent, with all its abstinence and sacred music… Though I did not dissipate much upon the whole, yet I find “the sword wearing out the scabbard,” though I have but just turned the corner of twenty nine.’ Like ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, it is a poem about world-weariness and disillusionment: a quintessential theme of Byron’s poetry, and something which arguably sets him apart from much of the work of his contemporaries John Keats and Percy Shelley.
‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’. This poem centres on the biblical story of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, who – we are told in the Second Book of Kings – tried to capture Jerusalem, but was destroyed by God’s Angel of Death, along with his Assyrian army. In 1878, when the Australian cricket team toured England for the first time, Punch magazine published a poem mocking W. G. Grace and the English team when they were roundly defeated by the Australian side: ‘The Australians came down like a wolf on the fold, / The Marylebone cracks for a trifle were bowled; / Our Grace before dinner was very soon done, / And Grace after dinner did not get a run.’
‘Darkness’. This poem was inspired by a curious incident: the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which drastically altered the weather conditions across the world and led to 1816 being branded ‘the Year without a Summer’. The same event also led to Byron’s trip to Lake Geneva and his ghost-story writing competition, which produced Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein. For Byron, the extermination of the sun seemed like a dream, yet it was ‘no dream’ but a strange and almost sublimely terrifying reality.
‘Beppo’. This poem from 1817 was a sort of dry run for the more famous Don Juan: it uses the same Italian metre (ottava rima) and focuses on a man, Giuseppe (‘Beppo’), who has been lost at sea, taken captive and enslaved, and then freed by some pirates, and returns to reclaim his wife from the Cavalier Servente with whom she has become involved. Byron uses the poem to criticise the hypocrisy of English moral attitudes to adultery.
‘The Isles of Greece’. Byron famously died of a fever in 1824, while fighting alongside the Greeks in their struggle for independence. This poem shows Byron’s love-affair with the country, and although it’s technically part of Don Juan, that poem is so long that it earns the right to be included here as a separate poem-within-a-poem. Harking back to Sappho from the island of Lesbos and the progenitor of all lyric poetry, Byron praises the land of ‘Samian wine’.
‘Stanzas for Music’. Another short lyric, as the title suggests, this poem is slight compared with others on this list, but it shows Byron’s talent for lyric verse and love poetry: ‘There be none of Beauty’s daughters / With a magic like thee; / And like music on the waters / Is thy sweet voice to me…’
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.