On This Day: 19th April 1824 – Lord Byron dies in Missolonghi, Greece

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Byron died far from home, in Missolonghi, Greece, where he played his role (most often as mediator or financier) in the Greek struggle for independence. He did not die in battle, but rather on a bed of sickness after convulsions, a fever, and a programme of bleeding which, of course, weakened rather than revived him.

Portrait by Thomas Phillips, c. 1813 (c) Newstead Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Byron died when he was 36 years old after an eventful life, full, almost to the brim, of words. Thousands of letters and thousands of verses. And yet, in the last months of his life, words slowly, almost imperceptibly left him, until, with his death, his living, active, irrepressible, sometimes infuriating, voice fell into silence.

He continued to speak and write, of course, in those months: letters of business and pleasure, memoranda, reflections on ‘the present state of Greece’. However, his journals cease on February 15th (written February 17th), where he reports that

‘I had a strong shock of a Convulsive description but whether Epileptic – Paralytic – or Apoplectic is not yet decided by the two medical men who attend me.’ [1]

The fit puzzled the doctors and Byron, who stressed it was his first experience of such convulsions and that such attacks did not run in the family. He puzzled through a number of possible causes, including overwork and overexertion, but there is also though a curious reticence, even in the relative privacy of his journals, when he suggests that a primary cause may be the fact that he has been ‘violently agitated with more than one passion recently’. [2] A dangling fragment of revelation.

As was so often the case with Byron, his poetry is more forthcoming about matters of the heart than his prose. It reveals more about the passions so ‘violently agitating’ him. But during his last few months, his poetic output was minimal. Pietro Gamba recounts how Byron presented them all with one of his last poems, ‘On this day I complete my thirty-sixth year’, with the words, ‘You were complaining, the other day, that I never write any poetry now.’ [3]

On this Day I Complete my Thirty-Sixth Year

‘Tis time this heart should be unmoved,

       Since others it hath ceased to move:

Yet though I cannot be beloved,

                                    Still let me love!

   My days are in the yellow leaf;

       The flowers and fruits of Love are gone;

The worm—the canker, and the grief

                                    Are mine alone!

   The fire that on my bosom preys

       Is lone as some Volcanic Isle;

No torch is kindled at its blaze

                                    A funeral pile.

   The hope, the fear, the jealous care,

       The exalted portion of the pain

And power of Love I cannot share,

                                    But wear the chain.

   But ’tis not thus—and ’tis not here

       Such thoughts should shake my Soul, nor now,

Where Glory decks the hero’s bier,

                                    Or binds his brow.

   The Sword, the Banner, and the Field,

       Glory and Greece around us see!

The Spartan borne upon his shield

                                    Was not more free.

   Awake (not Greece—she is awake!)

       Awake, my Spirit! Think through whom

Thy life-blood tracks its parent lake

                                    And then strike home!

   Tread those reviving passions down

       Unworthy Manhood—unto thee

Indifferent should the smile or frown

                                    Of beauty be.

   If thou regret’st thy Youth, why live?

       The land of honourable Death

Is here:—up to the Field, and give

                                    Away thy breath!

   Seek out—less often sought than found—

       A Soldier’s Grave, for thee the best;

Then look around, and choose thy Ground,

                                    And take thy rest.

The poem speaks of an unrequited love, silenced in part by the indifference of the recipient, but also because of who the object of Byron’s passion was – his page, Loukas Chalandritsanos. There is a note of bravado in which he throws this poem at his friends, calling forth commendations from more than one that it is some of his finest poetry, which half reveals what some of them, at least, would most like to have hidden. Much of Byron’s final poetry focuses on this desperate unrequited passion, and is an exercise in revelation and obfuscation, of sound and silence; much is hinted and little said, though the meaning of his lines would be hard to ignore for those familiar with the situation. Such techniques – the removal of names and blurring of specificity, the obscuration of object, the desperate act of self-revelation only half-fulfilled – are found in most of his poetry of queer love and grief, like that found in his ‘Thyrza’ poems. These trace his grief at the death of John Edleston, who he had loved at Cambridge, and use changed pronouns and pseudonyms to suggest a female love interest. The poems reveal and conceal in turn. ‘On my thirty-sixth birthday’ also reveals, half in shadows, a Byron more conflicted and divided than he could publicly admit. A Byron who needs to chivvy himself into the right frame of mind because he is preoccupied by an unrequited desire for a much younger man: ‘Awake (not Greece – she is awake!)/Awake my Spirit!’ A Byron who welcomes death before victory.

Byron’s silence grows more literal in the week leading up to his death, as he suffers increasingly from delirium. In a terrible irony, the great wordsmith, whose verse had enchanted (or enraged) so many, found himself unable to communicate. William Fletcher records some of his last words: mentions of his sister, wife, child, and some of his servants and friends, but Byron’s wishes remain unclear. Slipping in and out of consciousness, no-one can understand what he’s saying. Fletcher’s relates the following exchange:

“Now I have told you all which I hope you will attend to – ” I answered my Lord I am very sorry, but I have not understood one word, which I hope you will now tell me over again – My Lord – in great agitation said, “then if you have not understood me it is now too late.” [4]

Joseph Denis OdevaereLord Byron on his Death-bed (1826)

‘If you have not understood me it is now too late’ offers a broader summary of Byron’s life and end. A man of contradictions, whose words are slippery, whose changing self is revealed in letters and verses which sometimes illuminate and sometimes contradict each other. Conflicted, divided, complex, self-contradictory, elusive. We’ve been arguing about him for centuries. And he remains resolutely uncommunicative. That is, of course, unless you believe Henry Horn’s claims in Strange Visitors (1869) to have contacted Byron through a medium, an encounter through which he gifted us some truly execrable poetry about how he definitely, absolutely didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t sleep with his sister.

Byron’s final slip into silence comes after his death. An active silence. An aggressive one. It is not a partial self-concealment or a failure of words. It is a silence that declares itself not only as an absence but as an intrusive presence. A tantalising absence that can promise anything to our imaginations, more, probably, than it could ever have offered. 

His friends, his sister and publisher decide to burn his memoirs. And Byron’s voice dwindles into silence. It has nothing left to say.

We are left with millions of words. Byron’s voice continues to enchant and enrage. It continues to control the narratives of so many of those who lived around him, known to most only through their relation to him. It continues to speak to us across years and miles. 

But it’s just echoes. 

19th April 1824, Byron died and his living, loving, hating, weeping, mocking, roistering, mourning, engaging, seductive, repulsive, provocative, cynical, reactive, evocative, astute, naïve, engaged and engaging voice fell into silence for the last time.

Sam Hirst

Dr Sam Hirst is a post-doctoral Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Nottingham working with Newstead Abbey on the bicentenary of Byron’s death. Their monograph Theology in the Early British and Irish Gothic, 1764 – 1834 was published in 2023 by Anthem Press.

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[1] Byron’s journal, February 15th 2024, collected by Pete Cochran https://petercochran.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/16-greece-1823-18248.pdf

[2] Byron’s journal, February 15th 2024, collected by Pete Cochran https://petercochran.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/16-greece-1823-18248.pdf

[3] Pietro Gamba, A Narrative of Lord Byron’s Last Journey to Greece, first published in Morning Chronicle, October 29, 1824

[4]  William Fletcher to Augusta Leigh, 212 from Missolonghi, April 20th 1824