Two well-known poets are Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Both were poets and major figures in the English Romantic movement of the early 19th Century. However, while they had similarities, they also had marked contrasts to each other. This includes how they were viewed as individuals. Lord Byron was known as a scandalous man with a dark past. While Shelley was also no stranger to controversy and scandal, he appeared in a more ethereal nature. Byron created a figure known as the Byronic hero, a dark, brooding man with a scandalous history. Shelley, however, appears in his works as fragile and unworldly. In addition, the worldviews they espoused within their works clearly viewed humanity in much different methods.
Both Byron and Shelley were major figures in the English Romantic movement. The movement occurred in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. They were actually friends who famously summered together at Lake Geneva, Switzerland in 1816. Byron had fled from England amidst scandal. Byron was considered rather dangerous as an individual; he managed to destroy his reputation and the reputation of many women. He was notorious for his affairs. One of these affairs was with his half-sister, Augusta. He essentially was forced from England under the weight of his own dangerous reputation. He was exiled from his homeland. In addition, proper society would not receive him (Perrottet 2011).
Like Byron, Shelley also fled from England due to his scandalous behavior. When he arrived in Lake Geneva, he was travelling with his young mistress, Mary Godwin. Mary Godwin later married Shelley and became Mary Shelley. They were also traveling with Mary’s step-sister, Claire Claremont. Claremont had been one of Byron’s lovers in England. She was also Shelley’s lover. Claremont did give birth to Byron’s child; Byron questioned if the child was Shelley’s. The arrival of Byron, Shelley, Godwin and Claremont in Switzerland created much drama and scandal for the locals and the world (Perrottet 2011).
However, while they both engaged in scandalous behavior, Byron had the far darker image. Byron’s poetry and his life combined to create a figure known as the “Byronic hero.” The Byronic hero clearly evolved from both Byron’s behavior and the behavior he described in his works. The Byronic hero is a dark, brooding young man. The Byronic hero appeared in Byron’s autobiographical poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. He is haunted by his past and previous scandals. He is arrogant and cynical. He is rather disrespectful to social hierarchy. The character is also self-destructive; this often appears in his sexual conquests. The character may have a physical impairment; Byron had a club foot. The character is also exiled from the proper social atmosphere. The character does not view society in its best manner; rather, he views society with cynicism and disgust. Many of these images have been associated with Byron as both a poet and an individual (The Byronic Hero, n.d.).
In contrast to Byron’s world-weary views, Shelley presented an ethereal image, both in person and in his poems. Shelly “was at once a quintessential missionary utopian, a remarkable poet and intellectual, hypersensitive, idealizing, loving [and] self-pitying” (Sunstein 66). While Byron was cynical and distrustful of the motives of others, Shelley believed in a utopian society. His utopian ideals appear in his poems. Just as Byron showed a world-weary young in his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Shelley expressed the virtuous ideals of individuals in his poem, Queen Mab. Shelley believed that the evils of society could disappear with the right social structure. Byron would never agree with this viewpoint. Queen Mab is a fairy-tale, both in its structure and its goals. There is little hope Shelley’s image for the world would ever occur. Byron’s poems, however, offer little hope that humans can develop any virtues in the society as it existed at the time. They may have been similar and age and both Romantics, but both believed vastly different ideals about humans and society.
One area where they were remarkably alike, however, was in their challenging of authority. Shelley was kicked out of Oxford University due to his publication against the church. Shelley was an atheist and believed in his ideals strongly. The publication of his pamphlet created scandal at Oxford and resulted in his expulsion. Byron, however, attended Cambridge University. Byron had a great love of dogs. However, Cambridge University did not allow dogs to be kept as pets. In classic Byronic format, Byron obeyed and also challenged the authority. In one of the most famous stories about Lord Byron, rather than keeping a pet dog, he kept another pet. Byron kept a tame bear in his rooms at Cambridge. Since the University’s regulations clearly said nothing about keeping a pet bear, Byron could not be challenged. However, in this manner, Byron showed his intelligence and his questioning of authority (Denham 2013).
Byron and Shelley lived in the same era. Both were and are well-known poets and figures of the English Romantic movement. They both engaged in scandalous behavior. In addition, both liked to challenge the authorities at social institutions, such as universities. They also shared at least one lover. However, their images and their works clearly represent two vastly different world-views. While Byron was cynical, harsh and world-weary, Shelley believed that a utopian society could actually be achieved. Shelley believed that the faults of individuals could be overcome with influence by nature. Byron believed that humans were hopelessly flawed. Byron also was not trusting of others. Shelley had a very trusting nature. However, despite their differences, they were friends and admirers of the other.