The poetry of Lord Byron is varied, but it tends to address a few major themes. Byron looked upon love as free but unattainable in the ideal, an idea springing from his own multitude of affairs and ultimate lack of happiness in any of them. His characters and themes are highly autobiographical; most every poem by Byron finds as its inspiration some real person or place Byron had encountered. And although Bryon was a Romantic poet, much of his poetry follows traditional forms.
“She Walks in Beauty” was written by Byron about Mrs. Wilmot, his cousin Robert Wilmot’s wife. It develops the conceit of a speaker’s awe upon seeing a woman walking in her own aura of beauty. Among Byron’s most famous verse, it is a surprisingly chaste poem from so debaucherous an author.
“When We Two Parted” (1816) conveys the author’s sorrow at the loss of his beloved. Many scholars believe Byron falsely attributed its writing to 1808 in order to protect the identity of its subject, Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, who was linked to the Duke of Wellington in a scandalous relationship. The poem is highly autobiographical in that it recounts Byron’s emotional state following the end of his secret affair with Lady Frances and his frustration at her unfaithfulness to him with the Duke.
Byron wrote “Darkness” in July-August 1816. The poem is at least partially influenced by the mass hysteria of the time brought about by an Italian astronomer’s prediction that the sun would burn itself out on July 18th, thus destroying the world. The prophecy gained adherents due to the increase in sunspot activity at the time and the so-called “year without a summer” of 1816—an ongoing overcast sky which was a result (unknown at the time) of the eruption of Mount Tambora, an Indonesian volcano, in 1815. During this gloomy time, the sun was pale and the sky clouded and hazy. Temperatures dropped, and thunderstorms dominated the weather. During the solar eclipse of June 9th-10th, the sun actually seemed to vanish from the sky.
Byron published “The Prisoner of Chillon” in 1816 in the volume The Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems. He was inspired to write the poem by his visit, with Percy Shelley, to the Chateau de Chillon on Lake Lemand in Switzerland. There Byron learned the story of Francois de Bonnivard, a sixteenth-century patriot imprisoned for his defense of the freedom of Geneva. This poem marks the first time Byron chooses to tell the story of a real historical figure with attention to historical, rather than fantastic, detail.
Don Juan is a mock epic in that its protagonist—while often heroic (as in the battle of Ismail in Canto VIII)—is in fact naïve, his adventures in love almost entirely the result of accidents. Byron accentuates its comic tone with playful rhymes and, in particular, incisive homonyms. Byron makes his satire of the classical epics clear in Canto I, where he notes that “Most epic poets plunge ‘in medias res’” (in the middle of the story) (1.6.41), but then states, “That is the usual method, but not mine” (1.7.49), thus telling the tale of Don Juan from the very beginning: his birth.
Byron wrote the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage during his travels to Europe in 1809-1811. He revised and published them in March 1812. Byron envisioned Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage as a poetic travelogue of his experiences in Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Albania, areas of Europe not under Napoleon Bonaparte’s direct control. As a record of his journey through lands in which war was an ever-present specter, it is not surprising that much of the work meditates upon war, conquest, and violence in the name of one cause or another. The poem also reflects Byron’s political views, particularly his support for Greek independence from Turkey (a cause for which he would eventually fight and die) and the very close-to-home incident of the Convention of Cintra (stanzas 24-26), in which the English politicians allowed enemy French soldiers captured in battle to return to France with their loot intact. Besides his politics, Byron also includes his love for the East in his celebration of the peoples and places he encounters.
The third and fourth cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were added and published in 1816 and 1818 respectively. The third canto continues the travelogue framework of the first two cantos. This time, Childe Harold’s journey is from Dover to Waterloo, then following the Rhine River into Switzerland. The visit to Waterloo evokes a meditation upon Napoleon, which becomes a wider meditation upon the nature of human genius. Similarly, the Switzerland scenes lead Byron to a contemplation of political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another “genius” misunderstood by his contemporaries.
The fourth canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage continues the journey of the earlier cantos, this time having the narrator travel from Venice to Arqua, Ferrara, Florence, and finally Rome. The visit to Rome makes up half the canto. Again the narrator laments the fall of older civilizations, and this time the subject is Venice. The city is depicted as a cultural ghost town, peopled by the “mighty shadows” of literary giants such as William Shakespeare.