George Gordon Noel Byron, 6th Baron Byron (January 22, 1788 – April 19, 1824) was an English poet of the Romantic school, who was easily the most popular and controversial poet of his time. He was famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” That sums up Byron’s life and popularity. He was a “bad boy” celebrity in a time before celebrity became commonplace. Byron’s bad behavior had its unintended victims. The obvious ones are the women he seduced and left. A less obvious one is ironically the genius of Byron’s work as a poet, which has been obscured by an endless stream of gossip over his personal life.
As a poet, Byron is most closely linked to Percy Bysshe Shelley with whom he became a close friend; and who, like him, was a rebel and iconoclast. Their poetry would share some of the same interests, though Byron would generally be more well-known as an author of ironic verse where as Shelley’s poems tended towards the gloomy and the grandiose. Outside of this one significant connection it is somewhat difficult to place Byron in relation to the other poets of his time; though he has been labeled as a Romantic due to his radical views of politics and morality, his verse does not share the nature-obsession and fascination with the supernatural that more generally characterizes poets of the Romantic school. Byron was a character unto himself, an oddity in his own time and in any time, and because of this he remains enduringly popular and continually provocative.
Byron was born in London, the son of Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron and of John’s second wife Lady Catherine Gordon, heiress of Gight, Aberdeenshire. His paternal grandfather was Vice-Admiral John “Foulweather Jack” Byron, who had circumnavigated the globe, and was the younger brother of William Byron, 5th Baron Byron, known as “the Wicked Lord.”
From Byron’s birth he suffered from a malformation of the right foot, causing a slight lameness, which was a cause of lifelong misery to him, aggravated by the knowledge that with proper care it might have been cured. He was christened George Gordon after his maternal grandfather, George Gordon, 12th Laird of Gight, a descendant of James I. This grandfather committed suicide in 1779. Byron’s mother Catherine had to sell her land and title to pay her father’s debts. John Byron may have married Catherine for her money. After squandering it, he deserted her, and Byron’s parents separated before his birth. Lady Catherine moved back to Scotland shortly afterwards, where she raised her son in Aberdeen until May 21, 1798, when the death of his great-uncle made him the sixth Baron Byron, inheriting Newstead Abbey.
He received his formal education at Aberdeen Grammar School. In 1801 he was sent to Harrow, where he remained until 1805, when he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge. Byron was an unremarkable student; the most memorable episode of his time at Cambridge was when he took up a pet bear to protest the college’s ban on owning pet dogs. The bear was reportedly well-behaved.
From 1809 to 1811, Byron went on the “Grand Tour” then customary for a young nobleman. Because of the Napoleonic Wars, he was forced to avoid most of Europe and instead turned to the Orient, which had fascinated him from a young age. He traveled from England over Spain to Albania, spending a lot of time both there and Athens. On this tour, the first two cantos of his epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were written.
Beginning of poetic career
Some early verses published in 1806 were suppressed. They were followed in 1807 by Hours of Idleness, which was savagely attacked in the Calvinist Edinburgh Review. He responded with the satirical poem English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), which created considerable stir and shortly went through five editions.
After his return from his travels, the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were published in 1812, and were received with acclamation. In his own words, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” He followed up his success with four equally celebrated Oriental Tales, The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, and Lara, which established the Byronic hero (see below.) About the same time he began a close relationship with his future biographer, Thomas Moore.
Byron eventually took his seat at the House of Lords in 1811 shortly after his return from the Levant, and made his first speech there on February 27, 1812. He was a strong advocate of social reform, and was particularly noted as one of the few Parliamentary defenders of the Luddites, a band of farmers who had staged an anti-industrialization uprising. He was also a defender of Roman Catholics. Byron was inspired to write political poems such as “Song for the Luddites” (1816) and “The Landlords’ Interest” (1823), displaying Byron’s libertarian politics (before there were libertarians.) His belief in personal freedom from the State, Church, and any other institution was unusual for a man of the nineteenth century.
Scandal and Exile
Byron embarked in 1812 on a well-publicized affair with Lady Caroline Lamb. Byron eventually broke off the relationship, and Lamb never entirely recovered, especially after Byron began immediately to court Caroline Lamb’s cousin, Anne Isabella Milbanke (“Annabella”), who refused his first proposal of marriage but later relented. They married at Seaham Hall, County Durham on January 2, 1815. The marriage proved unhappy. He treated her poorly, showing disappointment at the birth of a daughter, rather than a son. On January 16, 1816, Lady Byron left George, taking Ada with her. On April 21, Byron signed the Deed of Separation. Rumors of marital violence, adultery with actresses, incest, and other sexual misdeeds were circulated, assisted by a jealous Lady Caroline.
After the end of his marriage to Anabella, Byron again left England, never to return. Byron passed through Belgium and up the Rhine; in the summer of 1816 Lord Byron and his personal physician, a bizarre man named John William Polidori, settled in Switzerland, at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva.
There he became friends with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Shelley’s wife-to-be Mary Godwin Shelley. He was also joined by Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, with whom he had had an affair in London. Byron initially refused to have anything to do with Claire, and would only agree to remain in her presence with the Shelleys, who eventually persuaded Byron to accept and provide for Allegra, the child she bore him in January 1817.
At the Villa Diodati, forced indoors by the “incessant rain” of that “wet, ungenial summer,” the five turned to reading fantastical stories over three days in June, including “Fantasmagoriana” (in the French edition), and then devising their own tales. Mary Shelley produced what would become Frankenstein and Polidori was inspired by a fragmentary story of Byron’s to produce The Vampyre, the progenitor of the romantic vampire genre. Byron’s story fragment was published as a postscript to Mazeppa; he also wrote the third canto of Childe Harold. Byron wintered in Venice, where he formed a connection with Jane Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s half-sister. In 1817 he returned from Rome to Venice where he wrote the fourth canto of Childe Harold. The first five cantos of Don Juan were written between 1818 and 1820, during which period he made the acquaintance of numerous Italian women with whom he found himself ensnared in scandal.
Byron in Italy and Greece
While living in Venice he helped to compile an Armenian grammar textbook and translated two of St. Paul’s epistles into English. His next move was to Ravenna, where he wrote extensively, chiefly dramas, including Marino Faliero.
When Annabella’s mother died, her will stipulated that her beneficiaries must take her family name in order to receive their inheritance. Although the couple had long since separated, Lord Byron added it and became “George Gordon Noel Byron” in late 1821, thereby happily inheriting his estranged wife’s wealth.
In 1821-22 he finished cantos 6-12 of Don Juan at Pisa, and in the same year he joined with Leigh Hunt in starting a short-lived newspaper, The Liberal, in which appeared The Vision of Judgment. By 1823 Byron had grown bored with his life in Genoa and with his mistress, the Contessa Guiccioli. When the representatives of the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire contacted him to ask for his support, he accepted. On July 16, Byron left Genoa on the Hercules, arriving at Kefalonia in the Ionian Islands on August 2. He spent £4,000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet, then sailed for Messolonghi in western Greece, arriving on December 29 to join Prince Alexandros Mavrokordatos, leader of the Greek rebel forces.
Mavrokordatos and Byron planned to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. Byron employed a fire-master to prepare artillery and took part of the rebel army under his own command and pay, despite his lack of military experience; but before the expedition could sail, on February 15, 1824, he fell ill, and the usual remedy of bleeding weakened him further. He made a partial recovery, but in early April he caught a violent cold that was aggravated by the bleeding insisted on by his doctors. The cold became a violent fever, and he died on April 19.
The Greeks mourned Lord Byron deeply, and he became a national hero. Βύρων (Viron), the Greek form of “Byron,” continues in popularity as a masculine name in Greece, with a suburb of Athens named Vironas in his honor. His body was embalmed and his heart buried under a tree in Messolonghi. His remains were sent to England for burial in Westminster Abbey, but the Abbey refused. He is buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham. At her request, Ada, the child he never knew, was buried next to him. In later years, the Abbey allowed a duplicate of a marble slab given by the King of Greece, which is laid directly above Byron’s grave. In 1969, 145 years after Byron’s death, a memorial to him was finally placed in Westminster Abbey.
Byron wrote prolifically. In 1833 his publisher, John Murray, released the complete works in 17 octavo volumes, including a life by Thomas Moore. His magnum opus, Don Juan, a poem spanning 17 cantos, ranks as one of the most important long poems published in England since John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Don Juan, Byron’s masterpiece, often called the epic of its time, has roots deep in literary tradition and, although regarded by early Victorians as somewhat shocking, equally involves itself with its own contemporary world at all levels—social, political, literary and ideological.
The Byronic hero pervades much of Byron’s work. Scholars have traced the literary history of the Byronic hero from Milton, and many authors and artists of the Romantic movement show Byron’s influence—during the nineteenth century and beyond. The Byronic hero presents an idealized but flawed character whose attributes include:
- having a distaste for society and social institutions
- suffering exile
- expressing a lack of respect for rank and privilege
- having great talent but affecting a pose of boredom with life
- hiding an unsavory past
- exhibiting great passion
- ultimately acting in a self-destructive manner
- unsuccessful in love, usually the beloved is dead
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is a lengthy narrative poem describing the travels and reflections of a world-weary young man who, disillusioned with a life of pleasure and revelry, looks for distraction in foreign lands; in a wider sense, it is an expression of the melancholy and disillusionment felt by a generation weary of the wars of the post-Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, and it is most likely for these reasons that it became such an smashing success upon its publication, catapulting Byron into superstardom.
The poem is quite autobiographical, as Byron freely admitted, and is based upon his travels through the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea between 1809 and 1811. Despite the fact that Byron did not think the poem was very good, feeling it revealed too much of himself, it was an instant sensation when published by John Murray, and made Byron famous in England practically overnight. Women, especially, swooned over the poem, fascinated by the character of Childe Harold, his foreboding, and his nameless vices. Lord Byron quickly became the darling of the influential female aristocrats of the day; they recognized bits of Childe Harold in him, and he felt compelled to live up to this reputation.
It has four cantos written in Spenserian stanzas, which consist of eight iambic pentameter lines followed by a one alexandrine (a twelve syllable iambic line), and rhyme pattern ABABBCBCC.
The poem itself is not particularly innovative, either in technique or tenor, but it remains an enduringly popular work of the Romantic era. Moreover, it foreshadowed what was to come in the immediate future of Byron’s career, the great comic epic Don Juan.
Don Juan is Byron’s masterpiece, based on the Spanish legend of Don Juan, the story of a libertine who seduces a young girl and kills her father, only to be haunted by the father’s ghost and taken to hell. Byron’s retelling of the legend is considerably less grim. It is a variation on the epic form; Byron undermines the neoclassical obsession with epic poetry by playing with a number of the conventions. Unlike the more tortured early romantic works by Byron, exemplified by Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Don Juan has a more humorous, satirical bent. Modern critics generally consider it to be Byron’s masterpiece. The poem was never completed.
An example of the poem’s humor is the recurring joke that most of the Spanish words and names are rhymed in a way which indicates that the names are being pronounced incorrectly. For example:
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
I’ll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan
In the above passage, “Juan” is rhymed with “true one,” as if the word were being read according to the phonetic rules of the English language. The correct pronunciation of Juan is similar to the English word wan.
In stanza 190 of the first canto, Byron rhymes “ladies” with “Cádiz,” the city in Spain.
And then, by the advice of some old ladies, / She sent her son to be embark’d at Cadiz.
The true pronunciation is with an open ‘a’ as in “track.” This is most certainly done for comedic effect.
The Shorter Poetry
Although Byron cemented his fame and scholarly reputation with the two epics Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan, his greatest poetry, critics agree, consisted of his short lyrics, many of which were written as occasional poems to friends, scribbled hastily in letters, or even (in some instances) sung aloud by Byron to seduce yet another hapless maiden. These brief, beautifully constructed lyric poems, are some of the most heart-rendingly beautiful poems in the language, and stand alongside the love poems of Andrew Marvell and the sonnets of William Shakespeare as some of the greatest achivements in the shorter forms of English verse. Consider the following poem, “So We’ll Go No More A-Roving,” which many poets, both in Byron’s time and in the twentieth century, consider to be his best:
So we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night
Though the heart be still as loving
And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears the sheath
And the soul wears out the breast
And the heart must pause to breathe
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving
And the day returns too soon
Still, we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.
A complete picture of Byron’s character has only been possible in recent years with the freeing up of the archive of Murray, Byron’s original publishers, who had formerly withheld compromising letters and instructed at least one major biographer (Leslie Marchard) to censor details of his life. (The Guardian, November 9, 2002) Lord Byron, by all accounts, had a particularly magnetic personality. He acquired a reputation as being unconventional, eccentric, flamboyant and controversial. He was given to extremes of temper, which have often been taken by later commentators as evidence of bipolar disorder, commonly known as manic depression. Byron had a great fondness for animals, most famously for a Newfoundland dog named Boatswain; when Boatswain contracted rabies, Byron reportedly nursed him without any fear of becoming bitten and infected. Boatswain lies buried at Newstead Abbey and has a monument larger than his master’s. The inscription, Byron’s “Epitaph to a dog,” has become one of his best-known works:
NEAR this spot
Are deposited the Remains
Who possessed Beauty
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the Virtues of Man
Without his Vices.
This Praise, which would be unmeaning flattery
If inscribed over Human Ashes,
Is but a just tribute to the Memory of
“Boatswain,” a Dog
Who was born at Newfoundland,
And died at Newstead Abbey
Nov. 18, 1808.
The re-founding of the Byron Society in 1971 reflects the fascination that many people have for Byron and his work. This society has become very active, publishing a learned annual journal. Today, some 36 International Byron Societies function throughout the world, and an International Conference takes place annually. Hardly a year passes without a new book about the poet appearing. In the last 20 years two new feature films about him have screened, and a television play has been broadcast.
Byron exercised a marked influence on Continental literature and art, and his reputation as poet is higher in many European countries than in England or America, although not as high as in his time. He has also appeared as a character in popular fiction, a testament to his influence. John Crowley’s novel Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land (2005) involves the rediscovery of a lost manuscript by Lord Byron, as does Frederick Prokosch’s The Missolonghi Manuscript (1968). Byron appears as a character in Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard (1989) and Walter Jon Williams’ novella Wall, Stone Craft (1994), as also in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004). The Black Drama by Manly Wade Wellman (Weird Tales, 1938; Fearful Rock and Other Precarious Locales, 2001) involves the rediscovery and production of a lost play by Byron (from which Polidori’s The Vampyre was plagiarized) by a man who purports to be a descendant of the poet.