In the fragmentary last canto of Don Juan, abandoned in 1823 when Byron left Italy to sacrifice his life (as it turned out) in the Greek War of Independence, he reflected mockingly upon what he recognized as the instability and contradictions of his own nature:
Temperate I am, yet never had a temper;
Modest I am, yet with some slight assurance;
Changeable too, yet somehow idem semper;
Patient, but not enamoured of endurance;
Cheerful, but sometimes rather apt to whimper;
Mild, but at times a sort of Hercules furens;
So that I almost think that the same skin
For one without has two or three within.
[Canto XVII, stanza 11]
This volatility, remarked upon by virtually everyone who knew him, was part of what made Byron so fascinating to his contemporaries. Earlier in Don Juan, when bestowing the descriptive noun “mobility” upon Lady Adeline, one of the poem’s heroines, he defined it in a note as “an extreme susceptibility of immediate impressions—at the same time without losing the past.” However brilliant in its manifestations, “mobility,” he went on ruefully to say, was for its possessor “a most painful and unhappy attribute.”
Yet there were important permanencies in Byron’s character. Although Lady Blessington, who encountered him in Genoa early in 1823, pronounced him, in her Con-versations of Lord Byron (1834), “a perfect chameleon, possessing the fabulous qualities attributed to that animal, of taking the colour of whatever touches him,” she also recorded the poet’s insistence that there were “two sentiments to which I am constant—a strong love of liberty, and a detestation of cant, and neither is calculated to gain me friends.” This statement was one that the Countess Guiccioli, the mistress who loved and knew him best during the final years in Italy, underlined approvingly in her copy of Blessington’s book. Byron’s old friend, the Irish poet Thomas Moore, author of the first important biography, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron with Notices of his Life (1830), said much the same thing. Despite a natural tendency to yield to every chance impression, “on certain great subjects” Byron preserved a general line of consistency throughout his life.
It was more than could be said for many of his English contemporaries when confronted with the posthumous phenomenon of Byron. A period of reaction, after the immediate respects have been paid, often follows the deaths of writers celebrated in their lifetime—to be replaced some years later by a more judicious and positive assessment. Byron’s case, however, was and remains unique. The news that he had died, aged thirty-six, on April 19, 1824, at Missolonghi, initially sent shock waves through England and across the continent. For Carlyle, at the time, it was “the noblest spirit in Europe” who had perished, to be mourned “as if I had lost a Brother.” The fifteen-year-old Tennyson ran grief-stricken into the woods near Somersby Rectory, where he scrawled on a stone the terrible words, “Byron is dead.” “The whole …