Lord Byron ( 1788-1824)
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron FRS , known as Lord Byron, was an English nobleman, writer, poet, liberal activist in the cause of Greek independence and leading figure in the Romantic movement. He is considered as one of the greatest British poets and was hugely influential in his time, not least due to his scandalous and indulgent private life. Out of a total of 34 major works his best-known are the lengthy narrative poems ‘Don Juan’ and ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ as well as the short lyric poem ‘She Walks in Beauty’.
Byron is considered to be the first modern-style celebrity. He lived and created the image of the Byronic hero which fascinated the public and was even entitled ‘Byromania’.
Often described as the most flamboyant and notorious of the major ‘Romantics’, he instructed his portrait painters to paint him as a man of action. Byron was both celebrated and castigated in his life for his aristocratic excesses, including huge debts, numerous love affairs with both men and women, as well as rumours of a scandalous liaison with his half-sister.
George Gordon Byron was born on 22 January 1788, in London, the son of the fortune seeking Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron and his second wife, the former Catherine Gordon heiress of the Gight estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, where Byron spent his childhood. His father soon left home but continued to squander the family money until died in 1791 in France.
From birth, Byron suffered from a deformity of his right foot. Whatever the cause, he was afflicted with a limp that caused him lifelong psychological and physical misery.
Byron received his early formal education at Aberdeen Grammar School and developed a love for reading history , the Bible and a fascination with the Calvinist doctrines of innate evil and predestined salvation.
When Byron’s great-uncle, the ‘wicked’ Lord Byron, died in 1798, the 10-year-old boy became the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale and inherited the ancestral home, Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire.
Byron’s relationship with his mother was very ambivalent. She was described as ‘a woman without judgment or self-command’ and either spoiled and indulged him or vexed him with her capricious stubbornness. However, at heart, she was a staunch supporter of her son and sacrificed her own precarious finances to keep him in luxury at Harrow and Cambridge.
While not at school or college, Byron lived with his mother in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, where he wrote his first volumes of poetry.
In 1799 Byron joined the school of Dr. William Glennie, in Dulwich. He was encouraged to exercise in moderation, but could not restrain himself from ‘violent’ bouts in an attempt to overcompensate for his deformed foot.
In 1801, he was sent to Harrow School where Byron fell in love with Mary Chaworth, as well as forming a circle of emotional involvements with other Harrow boys.
1806 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he met and formed another close friendship with the younger John Edleston.
Byron spent three years at Trinity College, engaging in sexual escapades, boxing, horse riding and gambling as well as forming lifelong friendships with men such as John Cam Hobhouse, who initiated him into the liberal Cambridge Whig Club.
In March 1809, two months after attaining his majority, he took his seat in the House of Lords attending seven sessions of Parliament.
In 1808 , his first published work ‘Hours of Idleness’, which collected many of his previous poems, along with more recent compositions, was savaged by anonymous criticism and prompted his first major satire, ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers’ in response.
From 1809 to1811, Byron went on the Grand Tour, then customary for a young nobleman, but also to escape a love affair and his creditors. He travelled with his friend John Hobhouse, but the Napoleonic Wars forced them to avoid most of Europe and begin in Portugal then travelling through to Malta and arriving in Athens in 1810.
Once in Greece, Byron and Hobhouse travelled by boat and horseback into unexplored Albania where Byron bought several magnificent native costumes, in one of which Thomas Phillips painted him in 1814 . Anxious to record the extraordinary experiences of the trip, Byron began an autobiographical poem which eventually resulted in ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ and eventually they returned to Athens on Christmas night 1809.
Before returning home he famously swam the Hellespont, a feat which Byron commemorated in the second canto of ‘Don Juan’.
Byron had criticised Lord Elgin for ‘rescuing’ many of the abandoned classical marbles of ancient Greece and he was increasingly filled with sorrow over the despoilation of the country’s treasures and the enslavement of Greece by the Turks
In 1812, after his return from his two years of travels, he published the first two cantos of his poem ‘Childe Harold’sPilgrimage’ which were received with acclaim. In his own words, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” He followed up his success with the poem’s last two cantos, as well as four equally celebrated oriental tales, ‘The Giaour’, ‘The Bride of Abydos’, ‘The Corsair ‘and ‘Lara’.
Byron now rapidly became the most brilliant star in the dazzling world of Regency London, sought after at every society venue, but his private life was reckless. He became involved in an affair with Lady Caroline Lamb (who called him “mad, bad and dangerous to know”) and with other lovers. In 1813 he met for the first time in four years, his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Rumours of incest very soon surrounded the pair.
During this period in England he produced many new works including ‘Parisina’ and ‘The Siege of Corinth’.
To escape from growing debts and scandalous rumours, in 1815 Byron married Annabella Millbanke, a beautiful and rich heiress. Their daughter, Ada, was born in December of that year. However Byron’s continuing obsession with Augusta and his continuing sexual escapades with actresses and others made their marital life a misery and forced a separation. The resulting scandal, the rumours about Augusta and ever-increasing debts forced Byron to leave England in April 1816, never to return.
In the summer of 1816 he settled by Lake Geneva, Switzerland. There Byron befriended the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and Shelley’s future wife Mary who produced what would become ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’.
Byron wintered in Venice and had affairs with two married women as well as studying the history of Armenia and learning the language. He also wrote the fourth canto of ‘Childe Harold’, published ‘Manfred’, ‘Cain’ and ‘The Deformed Transformed’ and fell madly in love with the 18 year old, married, Countess Guiccioli and asked her to elope with him.
Byron’s magnum opus, ‘Don Juan’, a poem spanning 17 cantos, ranks as one of the most important long poems published in England . Often called the epic of its time, Byron published the first two cantos in 1819, anonymously due to the ‘shocking nature’ of the poetry. By this time, he had been famous for seven years, but subsequent volumes created public outrage because of its biting satire in which it depicts all levels of the contemporary world, social, political, literary and ideological.
Byron lived in Ravenna between 1819 and 1821 with his mistress CountessTeresa Guiccioli, entertaining guests and continuing to write ‘Don Juan ‘ as well as the ‘Ravenna Diary’ and ‘My Dictionary and Recollections’.
In 1823, Byron was living in Genoa when, growing bored with his life there, he decided to actively support the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. In July, Byron arrived at Kefalonia in the Ionian Islands , which was under British rule where as a rich, English Mi’lord he was besieged by rival Greek factions, all of whom wanted to recruit Byron to their own cause. Byron then spent £4,000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet.
Journeying on to the Greek mainland, Byron reached Missolonghi on 5 January 1824, but he found that he was unable to reconcile the deep divisions between the different Greek factions and their endless demands for money dismayed him.
To help raise more money, Byron sold his estate in Scotland, but he was still besieged by Greeks and foreigners demanding more money. By the end of March 1824, the so-called “Byron brigade” of 30 philhellene officers and about 200 men had been formed, paid for entirely by Byron.
During this time Byron fell madly in love again – but with his Greek page. His affections went unrequited despite his spoiling the boy outrageously.
Byron had planned to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto and took part of the rebel army under his own command, despite his lack of military experience. Before the expedition could sail, on 15 February 1824, he fell ill, made a partial recovery and then caught a violent cold, which some inept therapeutic bleeding, aggravated. He developed sepsis, followed by a violent fever and died in Missolonghi on 19 April 1824.
When word was received of Byron’s death in Britain, the public reacted with complete shock and despite their internal divisions, the Greeks mourned Lord Byron deeply and he became a national hero.
Byron’s body was embalmed, but the Greeks wanted some part of their hero to stay with them so according to some sources, his heart remained at Missolonghi. His other remains were refused burial in Westminster Abbey for reason of his ‘questionable morality’, but huge crowds viewed his coffin as he lay in state for two days in London. He is buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. A marble slab given by the King of Greece is laid directly above Byron’s grave. His daughter, Ada Lovelace, was later buried beside him.
In 1969, 145 years after Byron’s death, a memorial to him was finally placed in Westminster Abbey.
Byron’s adult height was 5 feet 8.5 inches (1.74 m), his weight fluctuating between 9.5 stone (133 lb; 60 kg) and 14 stone (200 lb; 89 kg). He was renowned for his personal beauty, which he enhanced by wearing curling-papers in his hair at night. He was athletic, being a competent boxer and horse-rider and an excellent swimmer.
Byron had a great love of animals, most notably for a Newfoundland dog named Boatswain who has impressive marble funerary monument at Newstead Abbey. During his lifetime, in addition to numerous cats, dogs, and horses, Byron kept a fox, monkeys, an eagle, a crow, a falcon, peacocks, guinea hens, an Egyptian crane, a badger, geese, a heron, and a goat. Except for the horses, they all resided indoors at his homes in England, Switzerland, Italy, and Greece.
In 1832 Byron’s publisher released his complete works in 14 duodecimo volumes.
The Manfred Symphony in B minor, Op. 58, is a programmatic symphony composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in1885. It is based on the poem ‘Manfred’ written by Lord Byron in 1817.