Lord Byron's Poems

Lord Byron's Poems Themes


Several of Byron’s poems, particularly those based on his travels, raise the problem of oppression throughout Europe and defend the necessity of human liberty. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage often digresses into long tirades against oppressors. These poetic reflections bear witness to Byron' experience with battlefields of old, such as Waterloo, and present struggles such as the Greek struggle against Ottoman/Turkish occupation. Perhaps his most powerful statement against oppression is found in “The Prisoner of Chillon,” in which he traces the eventual mental oppression of a patriot who stood against the oppression of his people. To Byron, liberty is a right of all human beings, while the denial of liberty is one of mankind’s greatest failings.

The power of Nature

To Byron, Nature was a powerful complement to human emotion and civilization. Unlike Wordsworth, who idealized Nature and essentially deified it, Byron saw Nature more as a companion to humanity. Certainly, natural beauty was often preferable to human evil and the problems attendant upon civilization, but Byron also recognized Nature’s dangerous and harsh elements. “The Prisoner of Chillon” connects Nature to freedom, while at the same time showing Nature’s potentially deadly aspects in the harsh waves that seem to threaten to flood the dungeon. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage looks to Nature as a refuge from human conflict, but sees there, amid the avalanches and volcanoes, the seething fury of the natural world.

The folly of "love"

Throughout his life, Byron sought the perfect object of his affections, which paradoxically made him a fickle and unstable lover to many women (and men). His poetry reflects this tension, although usually with the weight being on the side of capricious love. He idealizes women he knows in his opening stanzas to the first three cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, turning them into muses who inspire their respective narratives. However, the fact that each canto has a different woman as its muse points to infidelity on the part of Byron’s creative genius. “She Walks in Beauty,” perhaps his most famous poem dedicated to an individual woman, extols the virtues of a woman with whom Byron was never romantically involved. This theme recurs throughout Byron’s poetry: the ideal love is that which is unattainable. Finally, in Don Juan Byron mocks the ideal of love even as his hapless protagonist falls into various women’s beds.

The value of classical culture

Byron was a staunch friend of the classical world who grieved what seemed to him the desecration of its cultural achievements and traditions. His journey through Greece showed him the dilapidated state of famous ruins, some of which had been turned to more mundane uses in the recent past. He also vilified Lord Elgin of England as the chief despoiler of ancient treasures due to Lord Elgin’s procurement of several marble statues from Greece to be displayed in England. Elgin became Byron’s primary target and a symbol of cultural oppression, just as Napoleon and Turkey became symbols for political oppression.

Realism in literature

Although he was a Romantic poet, Byron saw much of his best work as descriptions of reality as it exists, not how it is imagined. Thus, the subjects of many of his poems come from history and personal experience. “The Prisoner of Chillon” was inspired by the real-life imprisonment of Francois de Bonnivard, while Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is more biographical travelogue than adventure tale. Even the apocalyptic “Darkness” was written to reflect the mass hysteria that arose out of superstitious prophetic interpretations related to the natural disaster of a volcano’s eruption.

The enduring power of art

Even as he bewailed the loss of classical culture through the despoiling of Greek ruins, Byron saw permanence in the art created by these cultures and by his own contemporaries. In the fourth canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron notes that even the greatest civilizations decline, yet their art and literature remain. He also contrasted the destructive power of oppressive nations (such as Napoleon’s France) with the creative power of the artist to bring into being that which had not, until that point, existed. In keeping with this theme, Byron used his poetry to demonstrate the ephemeral nature of human civilization while creating works of art that would survive long after any empire of his own day.

A day of reckoning

While Byron was by no means the prophet of apocalypse that his fellow Romantic poet William Blake was, Byron’s poetry nonetheless returns time and again to a “day of reckoning.” The most obvious example of this theme is “Darkness,” a vision of a future earth nearly devoid of life and populated by creatures no longer human. More subtly, Byron insisted that the leaders of oppressive civilizations and the men who would destroy the works of the past would face their own days of judgment. This day would be hastened by Byron, who cast aspersions upon their characters in his writings, such as he did with Lord Elgin and Napoleon.