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The New Yorker on the Sensibility of Lord Byron

Lord Byron Was More Than Just Byronic

Two centuries after his death, the works of the great Romantic poet reveal a sensibility whose restless meld of humor and melancholy feels thoroughly contemporary.

By Anthony Lane

It is almost two hundred years since the death of Lord Byron. He succumbed to a fever on April 19, 1824, in the town of Missolonghi, on the west coast of Greece, at the age of thirty-six. As was far from unusual at the time, medical professionals did much to hasten the end that they were supposed to prevent. In Byron’s words, “There are many more die of the lancet than the lance.” Leeches, enemas, and blistering—the deliberate raising of blisters on the skin—were part of the treatment. Byron was reluctant to be bled by his physicians, whom he slighted as “a damned set of butchers,” but eventually surrendered to their efforts. One modern expert has estimated that, in his final days, they drained at least two and a half litres of his blood. It is surprising that the patient lasted as long as he did.

Byron had come to Greece the previous year, sailing from Italy, where he had been living since 1816. He was a British peer, and his poems have lodged him in the canon of English verse, yet the last eight years of his life were spent in exile. His liberal sympathies had always been fierily provocative, and his hope, on arrival in Greece, had been that he might lend his name, his title, his legendary lustre, and his considerable wealth to the cause of Greek independence in the fight against Ottoman rule. A naval officer, Captain Edward Blaquiere, had assured him that “your presence will operate as a Talisman—and the field is too glorious,—too closely associated with all you hold dear, to be any longer abandoned.” Yet here was Byron, expiring not in glory but in delirium, with an unavailing gaggle of doctors and servants, amid a Babel of English, Italian, and Greek, and, outside, the shout of a thunderstorm. “Half smiling,” one onlooker reported, the dying man said, “Questa è una bella scena.” Or, “What a beautiful scene.” Read the full piece at the New Yorker.

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