George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824) was a British poet and a leading figure in Romanticism. Among Lord Byron's best-known works are the narrative poems Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan. The latter remained incomplete on his death. He was regarded as one of the greatest European poets and remains widely read.
Lord Byron's fame rests not only on his writings but also on his life, which featured extravagant living, numerous love affairs, debts, separation, and allegations of incest and sodomy. He was famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Byron served as a regional leader of Italy's revolutionary organization the Carbonari in its struggle against Austria, and later travelled to fight against the Turks in the Greek War of Independence, for which the Greeks consider him a national hero. He died from fever in Missolonghi.
His daughter Ada Lovelace, notable in her own right, collaborated with Charles Babbage on the analytical engine, a predecessor to modern computers.
Byron had two last names (in addition to his title) but only one at any given time. He was christened George Gordon Byron in London. Gordon was a baptismal name, not a surname, to honour his maternal grandfather. In order to claim his wife's estate in Scotland, Byron's father took the surname Gordon. Byron was registered at school in Aberdeen as George Byron Gordon. At age 10, he inherited the English family title, becoming George Gordon Byron, Baron Byron of Rochdale. When his mother-in-law died, her will required that he change his surname to Noel in order to inherit half her estate. He was thereafter George Gordon Noel Byron, Lord Byron. He then signed himself "Noel Byron". Wentworth was Lady Byron's eventual title, her surname before marriage had been Milbanke. The Noels had inherited it from the Wentworths in 1745.
Byron was born in London, the son of Captain John "Mad Jack" Byron and his second wife, the former Catherine Gordon, heiress of Gight in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. His paternal grandfather was Vice-Admiral John "Foulweather Jack" Byron, who had circumnavigated the globe, who was the younger brother of the 5th Baron Byron, known as "the Wicked Lord". He is one of the descendants of King Edward III of England.
From birth, Byron suffered from talipes of the right foot, causing a limp, which resulted in lifelong misery for him, aggravated by the suspicion that with proper care it might have been cured. He was christened George Gordon at St Marylebone Parish Church, after his maternal grandfather, George Gordon of Gight, a descendant of King 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. Catherine moved back to Scotland shortly afterwards, where she raised her son in Aberdeen. On 21 May 1798, the death of his great-uncle made him the 6th Baron Byron, inheriting Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, England. Byron only lived there infrequently as the Abbey was rented to Lord Grey de Ruthyn among others during Byron's adolescence.
He received his early 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. While not at school or college, he lived, in some antagonism, with his mother at Burgage Manor in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. While there, he cultivated several important early friendships with Elizabeth Pigot and her brother, John, with whom he staged two plays for the delight of the community. During this time, with the help of Elizabeth Pigot, who copied many of his rough drafts, he was encouraged to write his first volumes of poetry. "Fugitive Pieces" was the first, printed by Ridge of Newark, which contained poems written when Byron was only fourteen. However, it was promptly recalled and burned on the advice of his friend, the Reverend Thomas Becher, on account of its more amorous verses, particularly the poem "To Mary". "Pieces on Various Occasions", a "miraculously chaste" revision according to Byron, was published after this. "Hours of Idleness", which collected many of the previous poems, along with more recent compositions, was the culminating book. The savage criticism this received at the hands of Henry P. Brougham of "The Edinburgh Review" prompted his first major satire, "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers". While at Trinity, 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." Later, 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.
Travels to the East
From 1809 to 1811, Byron went on the Grand Tour then customary for a young nobleman. The Napoleonic Wars forced him to avoid most of Europe, and he instead turned to the Mediterranean. Correspondence among his circle of Cambridge friends also makes clear that a key motive was the hope of homosexual experience. He travelled from England over Spain to Albania and spent time there and in Athens. While 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, though some of the more risqué passages, such as those touching on pederasty, were suppressed before publication.
Beginning of poetic career
As previously mentioned, some early verses which he had published in 1806 were suppressed. He followed those in 1807 with Hours of Idleness, which the Edinburgh Review, a Whig periodical, savagely attacked. In reply, Byron sent forth English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), which created considerable stir and shortly went through five editions. While some authors resented being satirized in its first edition, over time in subsequent editions it became a mark of prestige to be the target of Byron's cool pen.
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 the poem's last two cantos, as well as 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 27 February 1812. A strong advocate of social reform, he received particular praise as one of the few Parliamentary defenders of the Luddites. He also spoke in defence of the rights of Roman Catholics. These experiences inspired Byron 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). Note, "The Landlords' Interest" will not be found in any Byron anthology, it is Canto XIV of "The Age Of Bronze" (1823).
Affairs and scandals
Ultimately he was to live abroad to escape the censure of British society, where men could be forgiven for sexual misbehaviour 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. Byron eventually broke off the relationship, and Lamb never entirely recovered.
As a child, Byron had seen little of his half-sister Augusta Leigh; in adulthood, he formed a close relationship with her that has widely been interpreted as incestuous. Augusta had been separated from her husband since 1811 when she gave birth on 15 April 1814 to a daughter, Elizabeth Medora Leigh. The extent of Byron's joy over the birth has been construed as evidence that he was Medora's father, a theory reinforced by the many passionate poems he wrote to Augusta.
Eventually Byron began to court Lady Caroline's cousin Anne Isabella Milbanke ("Annabella"), who refused his first proposal of marriage but later relented. They married at Seaham Hall, County Durham, on 2 January 1815. The marriage proved unhappy. He treated her poorly and showed disappointment at the birth of a daughter (Augusta Ada), rather than a son. On 16 January 1816, Lady Byron left him, taking Ada with her. On 21 April, Byron signed the Deed of Separation. Rumours of marital violence, adultery with actresses, incest with Augusta, and sodomy were circulated, assisted by a jealous Lady Caroline. In a letter, Augusta quoted him as saying: "Even to have such a thing said is utter destruction & ruin to a man from which he can never recover."
After 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.
At 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 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, but in 1817 he journeyed to Rome, whence returning to Venice he wrote the fourth canto of Childe Harold. About 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, who soon separated from 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 and the Armenians
In 1816 Byron visited Saint Lazarus Island in Venice where he acquainted himself with Armenian culture by the Mekhitarist Order. He learned the Armenian language from Fr. H. Avgerian and attended many seminars about language and history. He wrote "English grammar and the Armenian" in 1817, and "Armenian grammar and the English" (1819) in which he quoted samples from classical and modern Armenian. He participated in the compilation of "English Armenian dictionary" (1821) and wrote the preface where he explained the relationship of the Armenians with and the oppression of the Turkish "pashas" and the Persian satraps, and their struggle of liberation. His two main translations are the "Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians", several chapters of Khorenatsi's "Armenian History" and sections of Lambronatsi's "Orations". When in Polis he discovered discrepancies in the Armenian vs the English version of the Bible and translated some passages that were either missing or deficient in the English version. His fascination was so great that he even considered a replacement of Cain story of the Bible with that of the legend of Armenian patriarch Haik. He may be credited with the birth of Armenology and its propagation. His profound lyricism and ideological courage has inspired many Armenian poets, the likes of Fr. Ghevond Alishan, Smbat Shahaziz, Hovhannes Tumanyan, Ruben Vorberian and others.
Byron in Italy and Greece
In 1821-22 he finished cantos 6-12 of Don Juan at Pisa, and in the same year he joined with Leigh Hunt and Percy Bysshe Shelley in starting a short-lived newspaper, The Liberal, in the first number of which appeared
. 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. 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 16 July, Byron left Genoa on the Hercules, arriving at Kefalonia in the Ionian Islands on 4 August. He spent £4000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet, then sailed for Messolonghi in western Greece, arriving on 29 December to join Alexandros Mavrokordatos, Greek politician with military power.
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 15 February 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 19 April.
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, 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, 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.
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 and lifestyle.
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 great talent
- exhibiting great passion
- having a distaste for society and social institutions
- expressing a lack of respect for rank and privilege
- thwarted in love by social constraint or death
- suffering exile
- hiding an unsavoury past
- ultimately, acting in a self-destructive manner
Another reason Greeks hold Lord Byron in such a high esteem is that he has always been one of the proponents for the return of the Parthenon marbles to Greece. He even wrote the poem "The curse of Minerva" to denounce Lord Elgin's actions.
'Scaped from the ravage of the Turk and Goth,
Thy country sends a spoiler worse than both.
What more I owe let gratitude attest--
Know, Alaric and Elgin did the rest.
That all may learn from whence the plunderer came,
The insulted wall sustains his hated name.
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. He was given to extremes of temper. 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, reading in part:
Near this SpotByron also 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 crocodile, a falcon, peacocks, guinea hens, an Egyptian crane, a badger, geese, and a heron.
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
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 in Newfoundland May 1803,
and died at Newstead Nov.r 18th, 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 Britain or America, although not as high as in his time.
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 bisexuality. (The Guardian, November 9, 2002)
Byron is the main character of the film "Byron" by the Greek film maker Nikos Koundouros.
Byron's spirit is one of the title characters of the "Ghosts of Albion" books by Amber Benson and Christopher Golden, published by Del Rey in 2005 and 2006.
Byron is an immortal still alive in modern times in the hit television show Highlander: The Series in the 5th season episode The Modern Prometheus, living as a decadent rock star.
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 plagiarised) by a man who purports to be a descendant of the poet.
In the 1995 novel Lord Of The Dead, Tom Holland romantically describes how Lord Byron became a vampire during his first visit to Greece - a fictional transformation that explains a lot of his subsequent behaviour towards family and friends, and finds support in quotes from Byron poems and the diaries of John Cam Hobhouse. The Byron as vampire character returns in the sequel Slave of My Thirst...
Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia revolves around a modern researcher's attempts to find out what made Byron leave the country.
Symphonic metal band Bal-Sagoth's vocalist Byron Roberts goes by the moniker Lord Byron. Whether this has relation to Lord Byron himself is unknown, but given Bal-Sagoth's lyrical style, Roberts was probably aware of Lord Byron, and took his moniker from there.
Blackened Gothic Metal band Cradle of Filth have a song on their album Thornography entitled "The Byronic Man", which is based on the life of Lord Byron.
Television portrayals include a major 2003 BBC drama on Byron's life, and minor appearances in Highlander: The Series (as well as the Shelleys), Blackadder the Third, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, and episode 60 "The Darkling" on Star Trek: Voyager.
He makes an appearance in the alternative history novel The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. In a Britain powered by the massive, steam-driven, mechanical computers invented by Charles Babbage, he is leader of the 'Industrial Radical party', eventually becoming Prime Minister.
The events featuring the Shelley's and Lord Byron's relationship at the house beside Lake Geneva in 1816 have been fictionalized in film, at least three times.
(1) A 1986 British production, Gothic, directed by Ken Russell, and starring Gabriel Byrne as Byron.
(2) A 1988 Spanish production, Rowing with the Wind (Remando al viento), starring Hugh Grant as Byron.
(3) A 1988 U.S.A. production 'Haunted Summer.' Adapted by Lewis John Carlino from the speculative novel by Anne Edwards, staring Philip Anglim as Lord Byron.
In the 2006 book The History of Lucy's Love Life in 10 ½ Chapters by Deborah Wright, the main character, Lucy, has an obsession with Byron. She eventually meets her hero - portrayed as a cruel but attractive man - when she takes a time machine from her boss.
If you haven't yet visited Missolonghi, this holy place where Byron died you should very soon. Once you travel to this place you will feel the spirit of the Lord to be close to all of you. He lived like a true man full of passion and he has been credited more than anyone. He gained immortality through his deeds, through his poetry. He was a true man of action. He didn't hesitate to live the life that was given to him despite all its difficulties. May his spirit be with us!