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. If you would like to read more of his work, we highly recommend Lord Byron – The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics).
1. 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’:
I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
I’ll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan—
We all have seen him, in the pantomime,
Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.
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?’
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:
Childe Harold was he hight:—but whence his name
And lineage long, it suits me not to say;
Suffice it, that perchance they were of fame,
And had been glorious in another day:
But one sad losel soils a name for aye,
However mighty in the olden time;
Nor all that heralds rake from coffined clay,
Nor florid prose, nor honeyed lines of rhyme,
Can blazon evil deeds, or consecrate a crime.
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.
3. ‘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:
When we two parted
In silence and tears,
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this …
‘When We Two Parted’ is a typical Romantic poem, reflecting the personal emotions and thoughts of the poet himself and focusing on his own feelings about the end of the affair. It’s a different kind of Romantic poet from Wordsworth frolicking among the daffodils, but it is characteristic of Byron’s themes and subject matter.
4. ‘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:
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 mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies …
Byron sent this poem to his friend Thomas Moore in a letter of 1817:
So, we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright …
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 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.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown …
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.’
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.
’Tis known, at least it should be, that throughout
All countries of the Catholic persuasion,
Some weeks before Shrove Tuesday comes about,
The people take their fill of recreation,
And buy repentance, ere they grow devout,
However high their rank, or low their station,
With fiddling, feasting, dancing, drinking, masking,
And other things which may be had for asking …
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.
9. ‘The Isles of Greece’.
The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set …
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’.
10. ‘Stanzas for Music’.
There be none of Beauty’s daughters
With a magic like thee;
And like music on the waters
Is thy sweet voice to me:
When, as if its sound were causing
The charmed ocean’s pausing,
The waves lie still and gleaming,
And the lull’d winds seem dreaming …
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.
About Lord Byron
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) was one of the most famous English poets of second-generation Romanticism, and thanks to his colourful private life, he was certainly the most controversial. He attained considerable fame in 1812 while a young man in his twenties with his poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’: Byron famously commented that he ‘awoke one morning and found I was famous’.
He had been educated at Cambridge (where he is rumoured to have kept a pet bear in his college rooms, on the grounds that keeping pet dogs was banned), and after he graduated he travelled widely, wrote poems, and ramped up eye-watering amounts of debt, thanks to his extravagant lifestyle. He courted controversy through his various affairs, the breakup of his marriage, and rumours that he was involved with his own half-sister.
He fled to the Continent in 1816, and it was at Byron’s villa that the famous ghost-story competition took place which resulted in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Byron could command vast sums of money for new instalments to his long comic picaresque narrative poem Don Juan (whose title character, a lothario and adventurer, is a thinly disguised version of Byron himself), and this helped him out of debt, but eventually his dissolute lifestyle caught up with him. Seeking to make up for a life of scandal and profligacy, Byron travelled to Greece to fight for Greek independence, but he contracted a fever and died, aged thirty-six, in 1824.
Discover more classic poetry with our pick of the best nature poems and these great comic poems. For a good edition of Byron’s poetry, we recommend Lord Byron – The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics).
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.