Lord Byron and Mythology

by Naji B. Oueijan (Author)
©2020 Monographs XVI, 162 Pages


Ever since his childhood and adolescence and before he became a legendary poet, George Gordon Noel, sixth Baron Byron, felt the sense of escaping from the anxieties of his traumatic present to the glorious worlds of Eastern history and mythology. In Eastern mythology, which he read and loved, Byron approached his own utopia and dystopia without distancing himself from current world affairs. He heard the voice of mythology in various forms: in Nature and its animate and inanimate elements, in nightingales, eagles, roses, trees, bushes, mountains, plains, oceans, stones, and rocks, and in ancient relics, among others. Nature and the ruins of the past spoke to him more truth about God, Man, and Nature than religion and history books. His immediate impressions while being on-the-spot, his mobility, his standing on the borderlines of fact and fiction, and his extensive references to Eastern mythology in his works, created a Byronic myth and enhanced the mythical quality of his works, especially Don Juan, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II, and his Oriental Tales—The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, and The Siege of Corinth. Lord Byron became an archetype of a legendary celebrity, and his works and some of his characters, especially his Byronic Heroes and Heroines, became universal mythical characters. Among several questions, the book answers two major ones: First, how does Byron use Eastern mythology, including Greek, Persian, and Arabian in the above-mentioned works to render his own poetry mythological? And second, how do his personal affairs and mythological works contribute to the generation of the still living Byronic myth?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword by Peter Graham
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • 1 Introduction
  • Mythology Ancient and Modern
  • Formation of the Byron Myth
  • 2 Romanticism and Myth-Making
  • 3 Lord Byron’s Mobility and Myth-Making
  • 4 Lord Byron’s Mapping of Eastern Mythology
  • Greek Mythology
  • Persian and Arabian Mythology
  • 5 Nature and Mythology: The Politics of Man and Nature
  • 6 Antiquity and Mythology
  • 7 Eroticism and Mythology
  • 8 Madness and Mythology
  • 9 The Mythical Voice
  • 10 Conclusion
  • References
  • Index

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Lord Byron was a self-professed believer in what is real or has been. As he famously puts it in Don Juan, “Besides, my Muse by no means deals in fiction:/She gathers a repertory of facts,/Of course with some reserve and slight restriction,/But mostly sings of human things and acts.” (Don Juan, Canto XIV, Stanza 13, ll. 98–100) The hedging qualifiers of the last two lines quoted tone down the absolute assertion of the first two, but even so the preference for reality over imagination is accurately expressed and entirely characteristic of Byron. Throughout his career as author, or at any rate from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage days’ onward, getting details right was important to Byron. One way to do that was by reading widely and retentively. Another was being on the spot.

But fact is not the only kind of truth, and Byron enduringly believed that too. Like many ruling-class British people of his time, especially the men who had attended such public schools as Harrow and Eton and the ancient universities of Cambridge and Oxford, where education centred on the translation and literary imitation of classical Greek and Latin texts, Byron found examples drawn from Greco-Roman myth and history a semi-instinctive way to understand human behaviour. He felt the truth of classical mythology even when supporting facts were thin or non-existent. And he lived—or sometimes ←ix | x→deliberately ordered—his own life with conscious awareness of analogues from the classical tradition and frequent explicit allusion to them. I’ve argued elsewhere that perhaps the three classical myths most important to Byron were the stories of Leander, Orpheus, and Prometheus.

The first of these inspired Byron’s famous swimming of the Hellespont, shortly after visiting the Trojan plain where he “venerated the grand original as the truth of history and of place.” Repeatedly reporting his natatory re-enactment in letters and in verse alike, Byron revealed how the important re-enact of Leander’s success as a swimmer and lover could be to a 22-year-old Mediterranean traveller, who might need lifelong reassurance that bodily imperfection, such as a club foot, need not keep him from excelling in manly pursuits, whether athletics or romance. Orpheus the [legendary] poet proved a yet more enduring mythic model in Byron’s life. His name figures perhaps most crucially in the stanzas just following “The Isles of Greece!”, inscribed in Don Juan and sung by an opportunistic but eloquent itinerant bard, who temporarily alters reality through his poetic practice. If charming, changeable Orphic poets are liars with lyres, what might a man who combined Orpheus’s poetic talent with unchanging, uncompromising political or moral vision be? He’d be something of a Prometheus, the fire-giving, Zeus-defying titan philanthropist whose various myths figured forth different aspects of the indomitable human spirit for the English Romantics, notable among them the Byron-Shelley circle, and other liberal thinkers of their age. As creator who fashions mankind from mud animated through Olympian fire, as benefactor who makes human civilization possible thanks to the stolen gift of fire, and as noble, defiant altruist enduring chains and torture as a result of defying tyrannical Zeus, Prometheus appealed to (or shaped) Byron’s ethos in various ways. Politically, the titan prefigured the early Napoleon, also a quasi-mythic figure for Byron, who saw himself and the Frenchman as existential twins of a sort—but unlike Prometheus, who was steadfast in his resistance to authority and his support for liberty, Napoleon himself became a tyrant. Byron, channelling the titan’s philanthropy, was a lifelong friend of the people if not one of the people himself, from his early days in Whig politics to his support of the revolutionary Carbonari movement in Italy and of the Greek fight for freedom from the Ottoman Empire. But Promethean fire, in Byron’s mythos, meant more than anti-authoritarian resistance, support for liberty, and philanthropy. It was the spark of poetry, a spark often kindled by suffering. As Byron says in “The Prophecy of Dante,” “For what is poesy but to create/←x | xi→From overwhelming good or ill; and aim/At an external life beyond our fate,/And be a new Prometheus of new men.”

Naji Oueijan’s Lord Byron and Mythology pays considerable attention to classical topoi such as those just mentioned as perennial inspirations to Byron, but it goes far beyond them. Eclectic and thorough in ranging through Byron’s works and life and in drawing upon, quoting, and alluding to scholars of Byron and the other Romantics, critical theorists, intellectual historians, and such twentieth and twenty first century popular writers as Kahlil Gibran and Neil Stephenson, this study might more justly be termed a “polygraph” than a monograph if the former term hadn’t come to mean “lie detector.” Oueijan’s introduction lays out the importance of myth as he understands it, not merely a received canon but a continuously appropriated and revised storehouse of thematic material shaped by its appropriators: “the direct nature of the genealogies of all myth-making, ancient and modern, rests on the realities and the creative powers of the myth makers.” If mythic lexicons change, he argues, the human concerns embodied in myths do not. By dint of a long career devoted to studying Byron, Oueijan has equipped himself to discuss Byron’s understanding and use of various mythic traditions, Western and Eastern—and examine Byron himself as a figure of myth for ensuing ages. He begins with Romanticism and myth, discussing how all the British Romantics, in their different ways, valued and used the classical tradition before moving to Byron’s mobility and myth-making, his characteristic need to mythologize fact.

Oueijan arguably deploys his distinctive scholarly background to finest effect as he traces Byron’s mapping of Eastern mythology. The study’s close readings explain and contextualize Byron’s borrowing from myths in Persian and Arabic for his Eastern tales. Ensuing chapters take on the topics of “Nature and Mythology”—an optimistic Schelling-based reading that pays particular attention to the seldom studied “Prayer of Nature” and to Byron’s quasi-Wordsworthian “I love not man the less but Nature more” mood in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto III. Returning to Eastern Mediterranean, Oueijan takes on the topics of “Antiquity and Mythology,” where he discusses Byron as a poet of relics, and “Eroticism and Mythology,” Byron’s connection of the exotic and the erotic, a proclivity that as Oueijan sees it more generally explains the sexualization of the East from the Western perspective. “Madness and Mythology” juxtaposes Byron’s work with Gibran’s The Prophet and The Madman and alludes to Stephenson’s Snow Crash before a final chapter on ←xi | xii→“The Mythical Voice” concludes that Byron and his heroes and heroines constitute archetypes rising to the level of mythology.

Joseph Cambell aptly titled his magisterial treatment of comparative mythology A Hero with a Thousand Faces. If the mythic hero has a thousand faces, mythology itself is a multifaceted phenomenon. In Byron and Mythology, Naji Oueijan sheds light on many of them.

Peter Graham
September 10, 2019

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I am grateful to the Department of English and Translation, Faculty of Humanities, at Notre Dame University (NDU), Louaize, Lebanon, and especially to Professor Kamal Abouchedid, Professor Paul Jahshan and Dr. George Abdenour for their support and encouragement. I am grateful to Professor Elie Bdr, Vice President for Academic Affair at NDU, for his continuous support and encouragement. I am ever indebted to Professor Clement Goode, Professor John Clubbe and Professor Byron Raizis for introducing me to Byronism, and for supporting me in all my scholarly endeavours. I sincerely thank Professor Peter Graham for his valuable comments and advice, and for writing the forward of my volume. I truly appreciate the friendship and encouragements of Professor Jonathan Gross, Professor Christoph Bode and Dr. Stephen Minta. My gratitude is due to Ms. Ghina Awdi, for carefully editing my work, and to Ms. Maria Sfeir, my Graduate Research Assistant, for her great assistance. I also thank all officers and members of the International Association of Byron Societies (IABS). And to all members of my family, and especially to Nawal, my wife, I am forever indebted for their understanding and standing by me at all times.


XVI, 162
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (August)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XVI, 162 pp.

Biographical notes

Naji B. Oueijan (Author)

Naji B. Oueijan, a graduate of Baylor University, Waco, Texas, USA, is Full Professor of English Literature at Notre Dame University, Lebanon. He is Joint President of the International Association of Byron Societies (IABS) and member of several national and international literary societies. Professor Oueijan published in international scholarly journals and periodicals on Orientalism, Byronism, Lebanese-American writers, and cross-cultural themes. He edited, translated, and authored thirteen books, four of which are on Lord Byron and Orientalism.


Title: Lord Byron and Mythology