Gordon (Noel) Byron, 6th Baron Byron (January 22, 1788–April
19, 1824) was an Anglo-Scottish poet and leading figure in Romanticism.
Among his best-known works are the narrative poems Childe Harold's
Pilgrimage and Don Juan. The latter remained incomplete on his death.
fame rests not only on his writings, but also on his life, which
featured extravagant living, numerous love affairs, debts, separation,
allegations of incest and sodomy and an eventual death from fever
after he travelled to fight on the Greek side in the Greek War
of Independence. He was famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb
as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know."
was also the father of Ada Lovelace.
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. He was also the grand-nephew of William Byron, 5th
Baron Byron, known as "the Wicked Lord". From his 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.
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 and, after squandering it, deserted
her. 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, rented
to Henry Edward Yelverton, 19th Baron Grey de Ruthyn during Byron's
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. There he met and shortly
fell deeply in love with a fifteen year old choirboy by the name
of John Edleston. About his "protégé"
he wrote, " He has been my almost constant associate since
October, 1805, when I entered Trinity College. His voice first
attracted my attention, his countenance fixed it, and his manners
attached me to him for ever."
upon learning of his friend's death, he wrote, "I have heard
of a death the other day that shocked me more than any, of one
whom I loved more than any, of one whom I loved more than I ever
loved a living thing, and one who, I believe, loved me to the
last." In his memory Byron composed Thyrza, a series of elegies,
in which he changed the pronouns from masculine to feminine so
as not to offend sensibilities.
to the East
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 evade most of Europe and instead turned to the Orient, which
had fascinated him from a young age anyways. He travelled from
England over Spain to Albania and spend a lot of time there and
in Athens he had a torrid love affair with Nicolò Giraud,
a boy of fifteen or sixteen who taught him Italian. In gratitude
for the boy's love Byron sent him to school at a monastery in
Malta and bequeathed him seven thousand pounds sterling –
almost double what he was later to spend refitting the Greek fleet.
For most of the trip, he had a travelling companion in his friend
John Cam Hobhouse. On this tour, the first two cantos of his epic
poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage were written.
of poetic career
Some early verses which he had published in 1806 were suppressed.
They were followed in 1807 by Hours of Idleness, which was savagely
attacked in the Calvinist Edinburgh Review. In reply he sent forth
English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), which created considerable
stir and shortly went through 5 editions.
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. About the same time began
his intimacy 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. 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). Examples of poems where he attacked his political opponents
include "Wellington: The Best of the Cut-Throats" (1819)
and "The Intellectual Eunuch Castlereagh" (1818).
Lord Byron cut a sexual swath that still astonishes by its sheer
brazenness and multiplicity - he once bragged that he had sex
with 250 women in Venice over the course of a single year. He
was all-inclusive - boys, siblings, women of all classes. Ultimately
he was to live abroad to escape the censure of British society,
where men could be forgiven for sexual misbehavior only up to
a point, one which Byron far surpassed. In
an early scandal, Byron embarked in 1812 on a well-publicised
affair with Lady Caroline Lamb.
his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, he wrote many passionate poems.
She had been separated from her husband since 1811 when she gave
birth on April 15, 1814 to a daughter, Medora. Byron's joy over
the birth seems to substantiate the rumors of an incestuous relationship.
Byron married Anne Isabella Milbanke ("Annabella"),
a cousin of the Lady Caroline, who had refused him in the previous
year. They married at Seaham Hall, County Durham on January 2,
when Annabella's mother died, her will stipulated that her beneficiaries
must take her family name in order to inherit. Lord Byron added
it and became George Gordon Noel Byron in 1822. The marriage proved
unhappy. He treated her poorly and showed disappointment at the
birth of a daughter (Augusta Ada), 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.
this break-up of his domestic life, Byron again left England,
as it turned out, forever. Byron passed through Belgium and up
the Rhine; in the summer of 1816 Lord Byron and his personal physician,
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. He was also joined
by Mary's step-sister, 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.
the Villa Diodati, kept indoors by the "incessant rain"
of that "wet, ungenial summer", over three days in June
the five turned to reading fantastical stories, including "Fantasmagoriana"
(in the French edition), and then devising their own tales. Mary
Shelley produced what would become Frankenstein, or The Modern
Prometheus and Polidori was inspired by a fragmentary story of
Byron's to produce The Vampyre, the progenitor of the romantic
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, the daughter
of William Godwin's second wife. In 1817 he was in Rome, whence
returning to Venice he wrote the fourth canto of Childe Harold.
the same time he sold Newstead and published Manfred, Cain, and
The Deformed Transformed. The first five cantos of Don Juan were
written between 1818 and 1820, during which period he made the
acquaintance of the Countess Guiccioli, whom he persuaded to leave
her husband. It was about this time that he received a visit from
Moore, to whom he confided his autobiography, which Moore, in
the exercise of the discretion left to him, burned in 1824.
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 much, chiefly dramas,
including Marino Faliero. 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 the first
number of which appeared The Vision of Judgment. His last Italian
home was Genoa, where he was still accompanied by the Countess,
and where he lived until 1823, when he offered himself as an ally
to the Greek insurgents.
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 £4000 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. In Kefalonia he met a Greek boy, Loukas
Khalandritsanos, whom he employed as a page and with whom he developed
an emotional, and possibly a sexual, relationship.
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 which the bleeding -- insisted on by his doctors -- aggravated.
The cold became a violent fever, and he died on April 19.
The Greeks mourned Lord Byron deeply, and he became a national
hero. Viron, the Greek form of "Byron", continues in
popularity as a masculine name in Greece, and a suburb of Athens
is called Vironas in his honour. 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,
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. Upon his death,
the barony passed to a cousin, George Anson Byron (1789–1868),
a career military officer and Byron's polar opposite in temperament
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 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 19th century and beyond. The Byronic hero
presents an idealised but flawed character whose attributes include:
having a distaste for society and social institutions
expressing a lack of respect for rank and privilege
having great talent
hiding an unsavoury past
exhibiting great passion
ultimately, acting in a self-destructive manner
unsuccessful in love, usually the beloved is dead
Lord Byron, by all accounts, had a particularly magnetic personality
– one may say astonishingly so. He obtained a reputation
as being unconventional, eccentric, flamboyant and controversial.
Many attribute some of Byron's extraordinary abilities to his
affliction with 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:
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.
also notably kept a bear while he was a student at Trinity College,
Cambridge (reputedly out of resentment of Trinity rules forbidding
pet dogs - he later suggested that the bear apply for a college
fellowship). At other times in his life, Byron kept a fox, monkeys,
a parrot, cats, an eagle, a crow, a falcon, peacocks, guinea hens,
an Egyptian crane, a badger, geese, and a heron.
Lord Byron as portrayed by Jonny Lee Miller in a 2003 BBC dramaThe
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.
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
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 plagiarised) by a man who purports
to be a descendant of the poet.
portrayals include a major 2003 BBC drama on Byron's life, and
minor appearances such as in an episode of Highlander: The Series
and The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy.