Lord Byron: Early modern celebrity and spoiled child of fame

17 August 2011

While modern poets such as Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath and Derek Walcott have large international followings, it would be almost impossible for a modern poet to find an audience as large and as passionate as the 19th century one that was mesmerised by Lord Byron.

On 17 August Associate Professor Will Christie, Chair of the Department of English at the University of Sydney, will give a Sydney Ideas talk on The Spoiled Child of Fame: Lord Byron, Poetry and Celebrity.

When in 1824 George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron, died from fever while fighting for the liberation of Greece from the Ottoman Empire, he was universally mourned and to this day remains a national hero to the Greeks. For Byron's contemporary, the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon, the poet's death was "a great loss to the Literature of the Age".

"He kept it always in excitement," wrote Haydon of the ardour the charismatic Byron inspired in his public, "with all the prerogatives of a man of genius - what is he about? - what has he done? - what is he going to do, were always the accompanying questions of those who did not know him privately, and when he was a subject of conversation."

One morning 12 years earlier, with the publication of his poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Byron had woken to find himself famous, Professor Christie explains. "Byron's poetry shared an immediacy, a sensationalism, and a momentousness with the events of its period. It stimulated a craving analogous to that for news and opinion - the latest thing - first in an English, then in a European reading public."

Byron was so popular that scholars have never known quite where to place him but, Professor Christie believes, no account of his own age or of the period after his death can afford to ignore the phenomenon of the Byronic.

"I will be examining the confusion of life and work that lay behind and gave a special charge to Byron's celebrity", says Associate Professor Christie, "the hints of precocious sexual activity and of incest - much of it deliberately managed by the poet himself, some of it by his publisher, John Murray. Byron's avatars - the film and rock stars, the aristocracy at play - haunt the fascinated and voyeuristic imaginations of a mass public. During his own time Byron would turn the public's interest in sexuality (his and theirs) into the chiaroscuro mock-heroic masterpiece of Don Juan."

Associate Professor Christie is the President of the Romantic Studies Association of Australasia.

This talk is part of the Sydney Ideas Key Thinkers series, which sees University of Sydney academics shine a light on the scholars who influenced their work. The program, which is run by Sydney Ideas from August to October, includes talks on Joseph Priestley and Hannah Arendt.

Event details

What: The Spoiled Child of Fame: Lord Byron, Poetry and Celebrity

When: 6 to 7.30pm, Wednesday 17 August

Where: Foyer, New Law Building, Camperdown Campus. See map and directions

Cost: This series is free and open to all, with no ticket or booking required. Entry is on a first come, first served basis.

Contact: Verity Leatherdale

Phone: 02 9351 4312

Email: 004a1d5f3f2e654302584c07233d5c34203d185c1a4b05312e66355034633546