According to Wikipedia1, the character Childe Harold in Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (published between 1812 and 1818), is the first example of what came to be known as the “Byronic Hero”. The Byronic hero is very intelligent and sophisticated, but passionate, moody, arrogant, and solitary.
According to Wikipedia2, the Byronic hero typically exhibits several of these characteristics:
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
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
A Byronic hero is hypersensitive — to himself, not to others. He is isolated from society (literally or figuratively), often by his own act, or feelings. In some cases, this isolation is self-imposed because of his distaste for society and its conventions. His emotions and intelligence tend to be “larger than life”. Because of this, he is arrogant, conceited, self-conscious, egoistic, and assertive. He is a man of titanic passions, and is often very passionate about one particular subject. He often has a dark past, with a hidden curse or some kind of past crime or misconduct — thus his general gloomy temperament, brooding, and moodiness. He rebels against authority and his society’s value system (sometimes because of his past) and is unimpressed by rank, though he himself may possess it. These characteristics combined give him a general air of mysteriousness, which those around him often find attractive — a sort of fascination combined with a certain fear.
The poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is the fictional account of the travels of the world-weary, disillusioned character Childe Harold. Byron created several more “Byronic heroes” after Childe Harold, and the type has been used in novels and plays, &c. ever since, and is considered the forerunner of the “anti-hero”.
If the description of the Byronic hero makes you think of Charlotte Brontë’s Rochester (Jane Eyre), or Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights), you’re right on track — the description fits them perfectly. The Brontës were very influenced by Byron’s writings.3 Other examples of the Byronic hero listed on Wikipedia4 are James Steerforth in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (from the poem of the same title), Dorian Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and, oddly enough, Jane Austen’s Captain Wentworth (from Persuasion).
I wouldn’t classify Captain Wentworth as a Byronic hero. He is perhaps somewhat arrogant, or, at least, proud, and quite intelligent, though not abnormally so, but he is not cynical, disrespectful, world-weary, self-destructive, or unsocial, nor does he have any secret crime or indiscretion in his past (I don’t think that his engagement to Anne Elliot would apply), being essentially an honourable man. That he is not a rebel against authority is shown by his being in the navy — he works his way up to being a captain. He is not unsocial. He has strong camaraderie with his naval companions (think of Harville and Benwick), and is close to his sister and brother. He is very social with the Musgroves. Nothing shows him to be other than a social man — he does not shun society, nor is he moody or uncomfortable in it. He does express contempt for those who hold rank in high regard, but he is not the only character in Persuasion possessed of similar feelings.
Trivia: Timothy Dalton plays Heathcliff in the 1970 version of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Rochester in the 1983 version of ‘Jane Eyre’. Ciarán Hinds plays Rochester in the 1997 version of ‘Jane Eyre’ and Captain Wentworth in the 1995 version of ‘Persuasion’.