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80’s Post-Punk And The Byronic Hero

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When the British poet Lord Byron published the first two cantos of his narrative poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, in 1812, he arguably became the world’s first celebrity. The poem, which chronicled the European and Middle Eastern travels of a weary and melancholic young man, was an instant sensation in London. A cult of celebrity soon formed around Byron, and readers began tracing his every step, seeking any form of personal contact with the man whom Lady Caroline Lamb called, “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

Byron self-consciously constructed and played up to Lamb’s description in his poetry, forging a semi-autobiographical body of work – including most famously Childe Harold, Manfred, Don Juan, “She Walks in Beauty,” and “The Dream” – in which he fashioned a persona that became a literary archetype: the Byronic Hero.

The Byronic Hero is physically beautiful and sexually irresistible, his eyes and hair dark, his body thin and tall, his skin pale, and his lips large, red, and full. He is androgynous and most likely bisexual. He is charming, highly intelligent, and prone to mood swings that can send him into the deepest despair, which leads to unrivaled depths of perception and melancholy. He is an exile from his homeland and wanders the world as an outcast, a rebel against the conventional morality of his day and the sufferer of childhood trauma. He is Cain. He is Satan. He is “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”


Byron’s popularity and ubiquity made the Byronic Hero one of the most influential characters in the 19th and early 20th centuries, inspiring writers from Pushkin to Joyce. But, to my knowledge, the Byronic Hero’s influence on four of the most important English rock bands of the past 30 years hasn’t been dealt with in detail and in one place. In this essay, I’d like to provide a point of departure for such a study.

For example, any fan of The Smiths knows that Morrissey’s favorite poet is Byron – so much so that fans lobbed volumes of the poet’s work on the stage during the band’s performances.

But Morrissey, whose lyrics almost uncannily reproduce the comedic and melancholic tone of poems like Don Juan, is more than a Byron admirer. From his physical appearance and intelligence to his self-proclaimed androgyny and melancholy, he fits the bill of the Byronic Hero – and his lyrics say so.


“Reel Around the Fountain” – the first song on The Smiths’ first album – is the sad tale of a young boy who suffered the trauma of sexual abuse. “Half a Person” begins with the line, “Call me morbid, call me pale.” “Cemetery Gates,” with its literary references and wordplay, demonstrates an intelligence and tone that make Morrissey the songwriting rival of the author of Don Juan. And the profound introspection and mournfulness of “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side,” “Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me,” and “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” – just to name a few songs – put Morrissey in Byron’s despondent camp.


It goes without saying that Morrissey, like Byron, has a cult of intense followers. The same goes for Joy Division front man Ian Curtis, who, like Byron, died at a very young age. Curtis’ physical appearance was similar to that of the Byronic Hero, but his manifestation of the trope was different to Morrissey’s.

For example, Curtis’ lyrics never displayed the strange brew of melancholy and comedy that Morrissey’s did. No, Curtis’ words showed more of an affinity with Byron’s shorter lyrics, such as “She Walks in Beauty” and “The Dream.”

Atmospheric and dark, “The Dream” considers the tragedy of two lovers who are doomed to be apart. Curtis, of course, wrote about a similar subject in Joy Division’s biggest hit, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”


This is all to say that Byron and Curtis meet at a subject that fascinated them both: the problem of human suffering. Many of Byron’s poems – sometimes ambiguously and sometimes overtly – refer to the suffering wrought by the sexual abuse that he suffered as a child, of being exiled from a country that considered homosexual acts a crime, of being separated from his daughter and the love of his life, his half-sister Augusta.

Curtis’ epilepsy made him an exile within his own country. It allowed him to write lyrics that expressed his deep empathy for those who suffer. “She’s Lost Control” imagines the life of an epileptic girl (Curtis actually wrote the lyric before he was diagnosed with the illness), and “The Eternal” imagines the suffering of a mentally challenged boy. And it goes without saying that songs like “Twenty Four Hours,” “Insight,” “Dead Souls,” and “Heart and Soul” indicate Curtis’ gut-wrenching awareness of his own despair.


Despair is an appropriate word to describe the work of The Cure’s Robert Smith, another front man who presents as a Byronic Hero. Smith fills early albums like Faith and Pornography with songs of a Byronic consciousness of the meaninglessness of life. Take the song “Faith,” which begins with the lines, “Catch me if I fall, I’m losing hold / Can’t just carry on this way,” and ends with the line, “Nothing left but faith.” Combined with the forlorn music and vocal melody, Smith’s lyrics transform faith into a futile proposition for the eternally dejected. And, lest we forget, the opening cut on Pornography – “One Hundred Years” – starts off with the lyric, “It doesn’t matter that we all die.”


In effect, Smith’s early work rebels against forms of conventional morality in the forms of religious faith and the sanctity of life. It follows Byron’s poetry in this, as does Smith’s greatest work, Disintegration. Much like Byron in the poems in which he refers to the hopelessness of losing Augusta, Smith on Disintegration uses conventional subject matter – the “boy-loses-girl” motif – to explore the disintegration of the human psyche into a state of eternal despair. From “Plainsong” – which opens the record with two lovers parting – to the closing track, “Untitled,” Smith chronicles the downward spiral of an individual into Romantic agony. Indeed, “Untitled” includes the word “never” in the context of communication, knowledge, and belief so much that it eliminates the prospect of, as Smith says in the title track, “ever feel[ing] whole again.”


Ian McCulloch and Echo & The Bunnymen concocted perhaps the most Byronic album of all with Ocean Rain. He and songwriting partner Will Sergeant wrote tracks like “The Killing Moon,” “Silver,” and “Thorn of Crowns,” which show the same fascination with Middle Eastern culture that Byron demonstrates in Childe Harold, Don Juan, and many of his other narrative poems. Just listen to Sergeant’s guitar playing.


But what makes Ocean Rain Byronic – and Ian McCulloch a Byronic Hero – are the lyrics and vocals, both of which owe a lot to British Romanticism. The title track shows how this works. The Middle Eastern-tinged music fuses with McCulloch’s Romantic voice and words, creating a hybrid song that parallels Byron’s hybrid narrative poems. Throughout the song, McCulloch restates the same chorus and verse over and over again, only changing his pronouns and articles to build and make the song more personal, more internal. “All at sea again” becomes “I’m at sea again.” “Screaming from beneath the waves” becomes “Screaming from beneath your waves.” But what remains the same is McCulloch’s likening himself to a ship with a “tender frame.” By the time McCulloch switches “your waves” back to “the waves” as he sings the high notes at the song’s climax, his Byronic feeling of hopelessness and homelessness has become universal – singer and listener are joined in a union of suffering.


Many people have argued that Byron was not just the world’s first celebrity but also the world’s first rock star. In their appearance, lyrics, and lives, Morrissey, Ian Curtis, Robert Smith, and Ian McCulloch are real rock stars that follow in Byron’s tradition. And the music of The Smiths, Joy Division, The Cure, and Echo & The Bunnymen continue a legacy that began when shortly after the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were published in 1812, a 24 year-old poet “awoke to find himself famous.”

Portrait of Lord Byron by Richard Westall.