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Lord Byron: literary and political radical

Title page of Childe Harold’s pilgrimage. Canto the thirdTitle page of Childe Harold’s pilgrimage. Canto the thirdLord Byron (1788-1824) was one of the most renowned British poets of the 19th century, and a key figure of the Romantic movement. Byron was associated with radical reform throughout his life.

As a young man he aspired to a career in parliament, and as a member of the House of Lords defended the Luddite movement. He was viewed as a radical by some, and his political career did not take off. He turned to poetry instead, writing short politically radical poems, often anonymously, and gradually incorporating politics into works published under his name.

In 1816 Byron left England for the Continent in self-imposed exile, due to public scandals. During his travels he wrote the third canto of Childe Harold’s pilgrimage. The title page reproduced here is from a first edition of the work. In this poem, Byron controversially denounces the Battle of Waterloo, which he viewed as a disaster, and accuses it of ‘reviving Thraldom’ through its restoration of the monarchy in France.

Portrait of Lord ByronPortrait of Lord ByronThis view was in opposition to that of the majority of his countrymen, including other eminent poets such as William Wordsworth and Robert Southey, who viewed Waterloo as a great victory.

During his time on the Continent Byron became politically involved with independence movements in Italy and Greece. In Italy Byron wrote for the radical British publication The liberal and joined a secret society of Italian nationalists. In Greece, Byron wrote little, and instead focused on action that could further the Greek cause.

In the short four months he was in Missolonghi he raised a large amount of money for the independence movement, worked on a new economic policy for the country and commanded a brigade of Souliot soldiers.

Greece eventually attained independence at the Battle of Navarino in 1832; Byron, however, did not live to see this, dying of fever in 1824. Byron’s contribution to the cause aided the ultimate victory of the nationalists, which achieved his aim ‘that Greece might still be free’.

In this exhibition

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