LONDON -- Lovers of Lord Byron's verse braved wind, rain and sleet yesterday as they celebrated the 200th birthday of the great English romantic poet.
About 20 members of the Byron Society assembled at 8 a.m. for the anniversary ceremony beside his statue at London's Hyde Park Corner.
A little fancy footwork was in order, though, as the celebrants were forced to dash about catching wreaths whipped away by the wind.
"I feel there was never anybody quite like Byron, before or since -- his romantic life lends a lot to his writing," said the Hon. Robert Byron, 37, who will eventually become the 13th Lord Byron in line from his famous ancestor, who was the sixth baron.
Later yesterday there was a service in Westminster Abbey and a dinner in Parliament, with speeches by Arts Minister Richard Luce and Michael Foot, former leader of the opposition Labor Party.
At a breakfast gathering Foot defended Byron -- the scandal of his age because of his love affairs -- against a woman reporter who said the poet treated women badly.
"Byron treated some women very well and few complained, except his wife," said Foot.
"Goodness me!" Foot added. "What an idea that people shouldn't read Byron because of his private life -- if that were so, we'd have to suppress all the poets."
John Murray VI, a publisher of Byron's works, like his great-great-grandfather, John Murray II, who was Byron's friend, also laid a wreath on the poet's statue, as he always does on his birthday.
From the same building off Piccadilly where the verses of George Gordon Byron were first put into print five generations ago, Murray labors to keep the words of the poet alive.
Lord Byron belongs to the daily life of Murray, who carries on the work of his ancestor to publish Byron's poems, letters and journals.
"You can't get away from him," says the 78-year-old Murray, Byron's legal executor. The John Murray publishing firm owns the poet's copyright material.
The eccentric aristocrat, lover and rebel is also a hobby for Murray, whose tall-windowed office at 50 Albemarle St. is steeped in Byron memorabilia.
Portraits of Byron, Sir Walter Scott and other Murray writers fill the walls of Murray's office.
Opposite his desk, Byron's white wedding waistcoat and gloves lie in a glass case. Behind the desk, a cushion embroidered with the bold letter "B" contains the pillow on which Byron died of fever at Missolonghi, where he had gone to help the Greeks in their war of liberation from the Turks.
Byron left England for the last time in 1816 after being rejected by London society for his love affairs and denunciations of public figures in searing verse and prose.
He is admired in Greece because he went there to help in the struggle against the Turks. He died in 1824 before he saw action.
"Forward, forward, courage. Follow my example, don't be afraid," he was said to have cried out as he lay dying.
The Church of England refused him burial in Westminster Abbey because of his private life, not relenting until 1968, when a tablet was laid there in Poet's Corner.
His body, brought back from Greece, rests in his family vault at Hucknall, near Nottingham.
The Abbey tablet was inscribed with lines from his epic poem "Childe Harold": "But there is that within me which shall tire torture and time and breathe when I expire."
"Many Greeks regard him as a national hero and it was King George I of Greece who founded the Byron Society in 1876," said Elma Dangerfield, society secretary.
Murray, who said there has been a flood of requests for material on the poet, said Byron is so popular because all his poetry rhymes and he seems extraordinarily contemporary.
"There's no nonsense, no hypocrisy, and that's rather exciting. And in his letters, his generosity comes through."
One day more than a decade ago, Murray was visited by Leslie A. Marchand, a professor of English at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who wanted to write a biography of Byron.
"He was surprised by what we had, a strongroom of letters to Byron, and his manuscripts," the publisher said. "The biography ran to three volumes.
"When Marchand was getting to the end, I said to him, 'It's his letters that are the thing -- that's where Byron's character comes through.'
"Marchand said he kept a file of all the Byron letters he had heard of in the United States and I said I had a file of all his letters I knew about, and if we put our lists together, the job might be done."
And so it was.
Marchand produced the biography and then compiled the letters -- 2,900 in all -- that fill 12 volumes issued between 1973 and 1982.
"We didn't have a selection problem because Byron never wrote a dull letter," Murray said.
"Now 48 more letters have turned up," he added. "What shall we do with them? I'll need some more if there's to be a 13th volume. I shall rely on Byron -- he is inexhaustible, even beyond the grave."