The Byronic hero is a variant of the Romantic hero as a type of character, named after the English Romantic poet Lord Byron. Both Byron's life and writings have been considered in different ways to exemplify the type. The Byronic hero first appears in Byron's semi-autobiographical epic narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812–1818), and was described by the historian and critic Lord Macaulay as "a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection". Byron described Conrad, the pirate hero of his The Corsair (1814) as follows:
That man of loneliness and mystery,
Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh— (I, VIII)
He knew himself a villain—but he deem'd
The rest no better than the thing he seem'd;
And scorn'd the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath'd him, crouch'd and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt: (I, XI)
The initial version of the type in Byron's work, Childe Harold, draws on a variety of earlier literary characters including Hamlet and Goethe's Werther (1774); he was also noticeably similar to René, the hero of Chateaubriand's novella of 1802, although Byron may not have read this. After Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, the Byronic hero made an appearance in many of Byron's other works, including his series of poems on Oriental themes: The Giaour (1813), The Corsair (1814) and Lara (1814); and his closet play Manfred (1817). The Oriental works show more "swashbuckling" and decisive versions of the type; later Byron was to attempt such a turn in his own life when he joined the Greek War of Independence, with fatal results. The actual circumstances of his death from disease in Greece were unglamourous in the extreme, but back in Europe these details were ignored in the many works promoting his myth. In his period as the talk of London, Byron was characterised by Lady Caroline Lamb, later a lover of his, as being "mad, bad, and dangerous to know".
Byron's influence is manifest in many authors and artists of the Romantic movement and writers of Gothic fiction during the 19th century. Lord Byron was the model for the title character of Glenarvon (1816) by Byron's erstwhile lover Lady Caroline Lamb; and for Lord Ruthven in The Vampyre (1819) by Byron's personal physician, Polidori. Claude Frollo from Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Edmond Dantes from Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), Heathcliff from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), and Rochester from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) are other later 19th-century examples of Byronic heroes.
Scholars have also drawn parallels between the Byronic hero and the solipsist heroes of Russian literature. In particular, Alexander Pushkin's famed character Eugene Onegin echoes many of the attributes seen in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, particularly, Onegin's solitary brooding and disrespect for traditional privilege. The first stages of Pushkin's poetic novel Eugene Onegin appeared twelve years after Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, and Byron was of obvious influence (Vladimir Nabokov argued in his Commentary to Eugene Onegin that Pushkin had read Byron during his years in exile just prior to composing Eugene Onegin). The same character themes continued to influence Russian literature, particularly after Mikhail Lermontov invigorated the Byronic hero through the character Pechorin in his 1839 novel A Hero of Our Time.
The Byronic hero is also featured in many contemporary novels, and it is clear that Byron's work continues to influence modern literature as the precursor of a commonly encountered type of antihero. Erik, the Phantom from Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera (1909–1910) is another well-known example from the early twentieth century.
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The Byronic hero typically exhibits several of the following traits:
- Cunning and able to adapt
- Disrespectful of rank and privilege
- Emotionally conflicted, bipolar, or moody
- Having a distaste for social institutions and norms
- Having a troubled past or suffering from an unnamed crime
- Intelligent and perceptive
- Jaded, world-weary
- Mysterious, magnetic, and charismatic
- Seductive and sexually attractive
- Self-critical and introspective
- Socially and sexually dominant
- Sophisticated and educated
- Struggling with integrity
- Treated as an exile, outcast, or outlaw
- Christiansen, 201
- Christiansen, 203; sections VIII-XI of Canto I contain an extended account of Conrad's character, see Wikisource text
- Christiansen, 201-203
- Christiansen, 202
- Christiansen, 202, 213
- Jonathan David Gross (2001). Byron: The Erotic Liberal. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 148. ISBN 0-7425-1162-6.
- Alexandre Dumas (1844). The Count of Monte Cristo. Wordsworth Classics. p. 247. ISBN 978-1-85326-733-8.
- Christiansen, 218-222
- Christiansen, 220, note
- Christiansen, Rupert, Romantic Affinities: Portraits From an Age, 1780–1830, 1989, Cardinal, ISBN 0-7474-0404-6
- Norton topics online, "The Satanic and Byronic Hero"
- Immortals and Vampires and Ghosts, Oh My!: Byronic Heroes in Popular Culture