"[A]ll I have yet written has been for women-kind," the poet Lord Byron told some friends one day as the men were out riding. "You must wait until I am forty, their influence will then die a natural death, and I will show the men what I can do."2
Byron never made it to forty - he died of fever in Greece at the age of 36. But his comment is classic Byron: the arrogance about his talent, his preoccupation with love and sex, the natural flippancy that made it sound as though his poetry was an afterthought, when in fact it was his soul. Like comedians whose jokes hint at a personal pain underneath, Byron's practiced sense of carelessness covered up an intelligent and tortured soul. "[W]ere I to point out the prominent defect of Lord Byron," an acquaintance named Lady Blessington wrote, "I should say it was flippancy, and a total want of that natural self-possession and dignity which ought to characterize a man of birth and education."3
Byron came into nobility unexpectedly, with the death of a baron great-uncle when he was ten years old. A bullied and lonely kid, he seemed to spend his life acting the part of one of his Byronic heroes. He pretended not to care about poetry, but mulled over many of his subjects for years; he pretended to be unfazed by his many romantic conquests and yet his poetry shows that he was deeply affected. As the biographer Edna O'Brien put it, "For all his swagger and bravura, Byron's real theme was love."4 Whatever the personal circumstances of the poet, there is no denying that Byron's poetry remains among the most lyrical and the most moving in the English language.