George Noel Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, was born 22 January 1788 in London and died 19 April 1824 in Missolonghi, Greece. He was among the most famous of the English ‘Romantic’ poets; his contemporaries included Percy Shelley and John Keats. He was also a satirist whose poetry and personality captured the imagination of Europe. His major works include Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-18) and Don Juan (1819-24). He died of fever and exposure while engaged in the Greek struggle for independence.
As a child he was known simply as George Noel Gordon. Born with a clubfoot, he was taken by his mother, Catherine Gordon, to Aberdeen, Scotland, where they lived in lodgings on a meager income. He attended the grammar school there. He was extremely sensitive of his lameness; its effect upon his character was obvious enough . It was rumored that his nurse, May Gray, made physical advances to him when he was only nine. This experience and his idealized love for his distant cousins Mary Duff and Margaret Parker shaped his paradoxical attitudes toward women.
At the age of 10, George inherited the title and estates of his great-uncle, the “wicked” Lord Byron. His mother proudly took him to England. The boy fell in love with the ghostly halls and spacious grounds of Newstead Abbey, which had been presented to the Byron family by the infamous King Henry VIII, and he and his mother lived in its ruins for a while. He was privately tutored in Nottingham and his clubfoot was doctored by a quack named Lavender. John Hanson, Mrs. Byron’s attorney, rescued him from the pernicious influence of May Gray, the tortures of Lavender, and the increasingly uneven temper of his mother. He took him to London, where a reputable doctor prescribed a special brace, and in the autumn of 1799 Hanson sent him to a school in Dulwich.
In 1801 Byron went to Harrow, where his friendships with younger boys fostered a romantic attachment to the school. It is possible that these friendships gave the first impetus to his sexual ambivalence, which became more pronounced at Cambridge and later in Greece. He spent the summer of 1803 with his mother at Southwell, near Nottingham, but soon escaped to Newstead and stayed with his tenant, Lord Grey, and courted his distant cousin Mary Chaworth. When she grew tired of “that lame boy,” he indulged his grief by writing melancholy poetry and Mary became the symbol of idealized and unattainable love. Later, when he had achieved fame and become the darling of London society, she came to regret her rejection.
After a term at Trinity College, Byron indulged in dissipation and undue generosity in London that put him deeply into debt. He returned in the summer of 1806 to Southwell, where he gathered his early poems in a volume privately printed in November with the title Fugitive Pieces. The following June his first published poems, Hours of Idleness, appeared. When he returned to Trinity he formed a close friendship with John Cam Hobhouse, who stirred his interest in liberal Whiggism. At the beginning of 1808, he entered into “an abyss of sensuality” in London that threatened to undermine his health. On reaching his majority in January 1809, he took his seat in the House of Lords, published an anonymous satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, and embarked with Hobhouse on a grand tour.
The sailed on the Lisbon packet, which inspired one of Byron’s funniest poems, crossed Spain, and proceeded by Gibraltar to Malta. There Byron fell in love with a married woman and almost fought a duel on her account. Byron and Hobhouse next landed at Preveza, Greece, and made an inland voyage to Janina and later to Tepelene in Albania to visit Ali Pasa. On there return Byron began at Janina an autobiographical poem, Childe Harold, which he continued during the journey to Athens. They lodged with a widow, whose daughter, Theresa Macri, Byron celebrated as The Maid of Athens. In March 1810 he sailed with Hobhouse for Constantinople by way of Smyrna, and, while becalmed at the mouth of the Hellespont, Byron visited the site of Troy and swam the channel in imitation of Leander. Byron’s sojourn in Greece made a lasting impression on his mind and character – he delighted in the sunshine and moral tolerance of the people. After leaving, he often spoke longingly of his visit – and his desire to return.
Byron arrived in London on 14 July 1811, and his mother died on August 1 before he could reach her at Newstead. On 27 February 1812, he made his first speech in the House of Lords, and at the beginning of March, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage published by John Murray and took the town by storm. Besides furnishing a poetic travelogue of picturesque lands, it gave vents to the moods of melancholy and disillusionment of the post-Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. And the poem conveyed the disparity between the romantic ideal and the world of reality, a unique achievement in 19th century verse. Byron was lionized in Whig society and the handsome poet with the clubfoot was swept into affairs with the passionate Lady Caroline Lamb, the “autumnal” Lady Oxford, Lady Frances Webster, and – possibly – his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. The agitation of these affairs and the sense of mingled guilt and exultation they aroused in his mind are reflected in the Oriental tales he wrote during the period.
Seeking escape in marriage, in September 1814, he proposed to Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke. The marriage took place on 2 January 1815. After a honeymoon “not all sunshine,” the Byrons, in March, settled in London. Delays in negotiations to sell Newstead left them financially embarrassed and before long bailiffs were in the house demanding payment of debts. Byron escaped to the house of John Murray, his publisher. Meanwhile, his sister Augusta Leigh had come for a visit, and Byron, exasperated by debts, irritated by his wife, and intoxicated with drink, talked wildly and hinted at past sins.
Lady Byron gave birth to a daughter, Augusta Ada, on 10 December, and in January she left with the child for a visit to her parents and let him know that she was not moving back. The reasons for her decision were never given and rumors began to fly, most of them centering on Byron’s relations with Augusta Leigh. When the rumors grew, Byron signed the legal separation papers and went abroad, never returning to England. He was now the most famous exile in Europe.
After visiting the battlefield of Waterloo, Byron journeyed to Switzerland. At the Villa Diodati, near Geneva, he was on friendly terms with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his entourage, which included William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary, who was Shelley’s wife, and Godwin’s stepdaughter by a second marriage, Claire Clairmont, who had begun an affair with Byron before he left England. A boat trip to the head of the lake with Shelley gave Byron material for his Prisoner of Chillon, and he completed a third canto of Childe Harold at Diodati (my personal favorite.) At the end of the summer the Shelley party left for England, Claire carrying Byron’s illegitimate daughter (born 12 January 1817, and named Alba by Claire and Allegra by Byron.) A tour of the Bernese Oberland with Hobhouse provided the scenery for Manfred, a Faustian poetic drama that reflected Byron’s brooding sense of guilt and remorse and the wider frustrations of the romantic spirit doomed by the reflection that man is “half dust, half deity, alike unfit to sink or soar.”
On 5 October, Byron and Hobhouse left for Italy. Byron took lodgings in the house of a Venetian draper, with whose beautiful wife, Marianna Segati, he proceeded to fall in love. He studied Armenian at the monastery of San Lazzaro and occasionally attended local literary gatherings. In May he joined Hobhouse in Rome and rode over the ruins, gathering impressions that he recorded in a fourth canto of Childe Harold. At a summer villa at La Mira on the Brentat River, he also wrote Beppo, a rollicking satire on Italian manners. There he met Margarita Cogni, wife of a baker, who followed him to Venice and eventually replaced Marianna Segati in his affections. During the summer of 1818, he completed the first canto of Don Juan, a picaresque verse satire, with pointed references to his own experiences. Claire had sent his illegitimate daughter Allegra (Alba) for him to raise and was continually annoying him with admonitions.
The sale of Newstead Abbey finally cleared most of his debts and left him with a small income which supported him in Italy. But money did not solve any of his problems, notably his dissatisfaction and restlessness. Shelley and other visitors, in 1818, had found Byron grown fat, with hair long and turning gray, looking older than his years, and sunk in promiscuity. But a chance meeting with the Countess Teresa Guicciolo in April 1819 Lord Byronchanged the course of his life. In a few days he fell completely in love with Teresa, 19 years old and married to man nearly three times her age. Byron followed her to Ravenna, and, later in the summer, she accompanied him back to Venice and stayed until her husband called for her. Byron returned to Ravenna in January 1820, as Teresa’s accepted gentleman-in-waiting. He won the friendship of her father and brother who initiated him into the secret revolutionary society of the Carbonari. In Ravenna he was brought into closer touch with the life of the Italian people than he had ever been. He gave arms to the Carbonari and alms to the poor. It was one of the happiest and most productive periods of his life. He wrote The Prophecy of Dante; three cantos for Don Juan; the poetic dramas Marino Faliero, Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari, and Cain (all published in 1821); and his satire on the poet Robert Southey, The Vision of Judgment. When Teresa’s father and brother were exiled for the part in an abortive uprising and she, now separated from her husband, was forced to follow them, Byron reluctantly removed to Pisa, where Shelley had rented the Casa Lanfranchi on the Arno River for him. He arrived on 1 November 1 1821, having left his daughter Allegra in a convent near Ravenna where he had sent her to be educated. She died on 20 April of the following year.
Byron paid daily visits to Teresa, whose father and brother had found temporary asylum in Pisa, until early summer when then all went to Leghorn, where Byron had leased a villa near Shelley’s house on the Bay of Lerici. There the poet Leigh Hunt found him on 1 July, when he arrived from England to join with Shelley and Byron in the editing of a new periodical. Hunt and his family were installed in the lower floor of Byron’s house in Pisa, where Byron and Teresa returned after her father and brother were expelled from Tuscany. The drowning of Shelley on 8 July left Hunt entirely dependent on Byron, who had already “loaned” him money for his passage and the apartment. Byron found Hunt an agreeable companion, but their relations were somewhat strained by Mrs. Hunt’s moral condescension and by the demands of her six children. Byron contributed his Vision of Judgment to the first number of the new periodical, The Liberal, which was published in London by Hunt’s brother John on 15 October 1822. At the end of September he moved his entire household to a suburb of Genoa, where Teresa’s family had found asylum and had taken a large house for him. Mary Shelley leased another house nearby for herself and the Hunts.
Byron’s interest in the periodical had waned, but he continued to support Hunt and to give manuscripts to The Liberal. After a quarrel with his publisher, John Murray, Byron gave all his later work – including cantos VI to XVI of Don Juan, The Age of Bronze, and The Island – to John Hunt. But soon enough, Byron’s old restlessness returned and the domesticity of his life with Teresa gave no satisfaction. He also longed for the opportunity for some noble action that would vindicate him in the eyes of his countrymen. Accordingly, when the London Greek Committee contacted him in April 1823 to act as its agent in aiding the Greek war for independence from the Turks, Byron immediately accepted the offer. All of his legendary enthusiasm, energy, and imagination were now at the service of the Greek army.
On 16 July, Byron left Genoa on a chartered ship, arriving at the Ionian island of Cephalonia on 2 August; he settled in Metaxata. He sent 4000 pounds of his own money to prepare the Greek fleet for sea service and then sailed for Missolonghi on 29 December to join Prince Alexandros Mavrokordatos, leader of the forces in western Greece. With tremendous passion he entered into the plans to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto. He employed a fire master to prepare artillery and took under his own command and pay the Souliot soldiers, reputedly the bravest of the Greeks. In addition he made dedicated but ultimately fruitless efforts to unite eastern and western Greece. On 15 February 1824 he fell ill (he possibly had two epileptic fits in a fortnight) and the usual remedy of bleeding weakened him at the same time that an insurrection of the Souliots opened his eyes to their cupidity. Though his enthusiasm for the Greek cause was undiminished, he now possessed a more realistic view of the obstacles facing the army. He was also suffering from the emotional strain of his friendship with Loukas Chalandritsanos, a Greek boy, whom he had brought as a page from Cephalonia and to whom he addressed his final poems.
The spring of 1824 was wet and miserable, and it unfortunately caught Byron while he was still weak from the convulsive fits of mid-February. He continued to carry out his duties and seemed on the path to certain recovery. But in early April he was caught outdoors in a rainstorm; though drenched and chilled, he did not hurry home. Unfortunately, he caught a violent cold which was soon aggravated by the bleeding insisted on by the doctors. Though he briefly rallied, the cold grew worse; he eventually slipped into a coma. Around six o’clock in the evening of 19 April 1824, he passed away.
Deeply mourned by the Greeks, he became a hero throughout their land. His body was embalmed; the heart was removed and buried in Missolonghi. His remains were then sent to England and, refused burial in Westminster Abbey, placed in the vault of his ancestors near Newstead. Ironically, 145 years after his death, in 1969, a memorial to Byron was finally placed on the floor of the Abbey. Here is a contemporary newspaper account of the decision:
At Last Lord Byron Gets Place in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey
by Anthony Lewis, London correspondent for the NY Times
London, May 6 – A century and a half after his death, Lord Byron has at last become spiritually acceptable in his homeland. He is to have a plaque in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.
This quiet revolution has been carried out by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Rev. Eric Abbott. After private approaches, he approved a petition by the Poetry Society for a Byron memorial in the Abbey.
Three similar requests had been turned down. The last attempt was in 1924, when the Dean of the day, Bishop Herbert E. Ryle wrote:
“Byron, partly by his own openly dissolute life and partly by the influence of licentious verse, earned a worldwide reputation for immorality among English-speaking people. A man who outraged the laws of our Divine Lord, and whose treatment of women violated the Christian principles of purity and honor, should not be commemorated in Westminster Abbey.”
An answering letter in Byron’s behalf was sent to The Times of London by a group including Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and three former Prime Ministers – Balfour, Asquith, and Lloyd George. But the established church was unmoved.
A Change in Standards? No official reason was given for the present dean’s attitude, but no one would consider Byron’s poetry licentious by contemporary standards, and perhaps the Church of England is more charitable now towards eccentric behavior.
The life of Byron has been the source of endless anecdotes, from his own time to ours. His character, wit, and charm were impressed upon virtually everyone who met him. Beyond the opinions of others, however, one can know Byron on a personal level – through the letters and journals which chronicle every aspect of his life in his own words. These personal writings possess all the immediate force and vitality of his poetry.
There is a selection of journal entries and letters at my site. And luckily for internet users, Jeffrey Hoeper has collected and scanned most of Byron’s letters and journals at his site. This is a wonderful resource for students and Byron enthusiasts. You can also read EH Coleridge’s lengthy 1905 biography of Byron at the site.
If you are interested in reading a print biography of Byron, please visit the Bibliography page to view a selection.
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