“They never fail who die in a great cause.” – George Gordon, Lord Byron
Today is Lord Byron’s 229th birthday.
Much of what is written about Byron focuses on his career as a poet and his life as a celebrity in Regency England. Part of the reason for that focus is that the life Byron led by both the standards of his own time and our own contemporary standards, scandalous.
His hedonistic lifestyle eventually made him such a social pariah in his homeland that he left England, as he claimed, forever. He probably did not think at the time that he would never return; he was only 28 years old. But in less than a decade he was dead, having achieved two things: he’d written his greatest poem, the brilliant epic satire Don Juan, and he’d joined the forces fighting for Greek independence from the Ottoman empire where he met his death from fever aided by incompetent doctors who likely gave him sepsis by bleeding him with non-sterile instruments.
The question, often debated, never resolved is, why did Byron risk – and lose – his life?
It’s quite possible that the reason for Byron’s decision to go to Greece is that he was bored. He was living in in Genoa with a beautiful mistress, working on Don Juan, living the life of a wealthy, aristocratic expatriate, holding and attending elegant soirees. Approached by various factions of the Greek independence movement, eventually Byron decided to enter the Greek war for independence as another of his adventures.
Once there, however, he became an active supporter of the cause and spent vast amounts of money (even selling his Scottish estate which brought him millions, millions which he directed his bankers to advance to the cause he had embraced). He outfitted a unit of his own and paid the salaries of many other troops. Then just as he was about to sail to Lepanto with troops under his own command to participate in the siege of an Ottoman fortress, Byron fell ill, likely with some form of swamp fever. Weakened by the primitive treatment mentioned above, Byron later caught cold and died, likely of pneumonia compounded by sepsis. He was 36.
Byron is a national hero in Greece and, along with the statue of him erected at Missolonghi, his heart is buried somewhere in the city. The King of Greece provided a marble slab that lies over Byron’s grave in Nottinghamshire. Eventually even his own country honored him with a memorial in Westminster Abbey, nearly 150 years after his death, part of the impetus for that lobbying by both Greek and English politicians demanding that Byron be honored for being, as one member of Parliament put it, “one of her [England’s] greatest sons.”
But none of this really explains why Byron took himself from his comfortable life in Italy.
The explanation for that lies, perhaps, in his poetry:
Yet, Freedom! yet, thy banner, torn, but flying, streams like the thunderstorm against the wind.
Those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves.
Why I came here, I know not; where I shall go it is useless to inquire – in the midst of myriads of the living and the dead worlds, stars, systems, infinity, why should I be anxious about an atom?
Tyranny is far the worst of treasons. Dost thou deem none rebels except subjects? The prince who neglects or violates his trust is more a brigand than the robber-chief.