Who Was “The Meanest of the Mean?”

It was somewhere around 1809 that revered poet Lord Byron described a newspaper reporter – with extra emphasis for a columnist, retired or active – as: “A would-be satirist, a hired buffoon/A monthly scribbler of some low lampoon,/ Condemned to drudge, the meanest of the mean,/And furnish falsehoods for a magazine.”

No hint as to why he was upset but it can be assumed that someone had published something Byron didn’t like. The observant will note that  Byron was writing about “a monthly scribbler”, a writer for a monthly magazine, not the hard working daily reporters of truth and justice who have been known to tap out stories disguised as facts and caring little about the damage  careless words may cause. Others will quickly point out that Byron who, according to biographers and historians, lived a life full of “aristocratic excesses, huge debts, (and) numerous love affairs with more than one gender” (Wikipedia), had little cause for complaint whatever the news sheets said.

Byron was 36 when he died on April 19, 1824 – that’s next Sunday, a day when lovers of beautiful writing will remember Byron for his tender ’’She walks in beauty like the night”, the hinted bawdiness of “So we’ll go no more a roving” and the sadness of “Fare thee well”. And they will possibly respond in angry dismay when this “scribbler” reminds them Byron was far from a loyal lover or friend and cared little for whose lives his selfish arrogance ruined.

It is written that he contracted a fever while being treated by what was then the standard procedure of bloodletting. Some authorities suggest the use of unsterilized instruments used in the process led to sepsis and his death. When the news reached England the reaction was traumatic. A national hero in the UK – and revered in Greece where he had gone to join that nation in its war with the Ottoman Empire – his body was embalmed and returned to England. Some sources say his heart was removed before that final journey. The people of Greece wanted some part of their hero to remain with them.

In England his body lay in state for two days and news reports of the day record “huge crowds” lining the streets to pay their respects before he was interred in Westminster Abbey. But the Abbey balked at the request from supporters of a man they felt of “questionable morality” and denied the request. Undeterred Byron’s friends – and they were many – launched a successful fund raising drive to commission a statue. That work by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen was completed in 1834. It stayed in storage for 10-years while the country debated where to place it. The British Museum declined to display it. So did St. Pauls Cathedral, the National Gallery – and holding fast to its original refusal, Westminster Abbey. Trinity College, Cambridge, finally found a quiet corner for the statue.

In 1907 a lively debate calling for some sort of recognition for Byron was supported by the New York Times. In a column signed “Galbraith” the NYT suggested England should be proud to honor Byron not ashamed of him. The writer admitted “neither Byron’s writing nor his mode of life are such as to appeal to the straitlaced, this seems to be no excuse for refusing the great poet proper recognition.

1969 – 145 years after his death – a modest memorial was finally placed in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner. It is a replica of one the King of Greece donated to mark Byron’s grave at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.

And it all leaves me to wonder how the play would end if replayed today. Would the easily frenzied media be in high dudgeon concentrating only on “the drudge?” Would the Twittering class be breaking viral records regurgitating the latest Byronic sexual romps –usually with titled Ladies of title but not always. He was generous with his sexual favours hetero or homo.

All of which leaves one last question. Should there be a spot in Westminster Abbey for such a betrayer of the love his poems professed to honour?

Just asking.

(As usual Google will lead the way to a wealth of detail and Wikipedia provides scholarly background)

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