George Gordon, Lord Byron, 1788-1824 was known by Lady Caroline Lamb as “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Lady Caroline pronounced that before becoming his lover. Matthew Arnold exclaimed, “Splendid and imperishable excellence of sincerity and strength.” The fascination with Lord Byron’s personality made him the archetypal Romantic. Lord Byron was the son of Captain John “Mad Jack Byron.” Lord Byron’s mother was Catherine Gordon, a Scots heiress. The Captain spent his wife’s money, and departed. In 1789, Lord Byron and his mother moved to Aberdeen. Lord Byron was born with a clubfoot, and was tended to by a Calvinist nurse, who Lord Byron claims awakened his sexuality. In 1798, Lord Byron’s great-uncle the fifth Baron Byron, “The wicked Lord,” died childless, and Lord Byron inherited his title.
Lord Byron and his mother moved into Newstead Abbey, near Nottingham. The estate was presented to the Byrons by Henry VIII. The Gothic hall of Newstead Abbey Lord Byron felt embodied his family heritage. In 1801, Lord Byron was schooled at Harrow. That same year he met his half-sister Augusta. In 1805, Lord Byron started at Trinity College in Cambridge. In 1807, Lord Byron published “Hours of Idleness.” In 1809, Lord Byron took his seat in the House of Lords. Lord Byron took a Napoleonic war shaped tour of Europe. Lord Byron sailed to Lisbon, crossed Spain, and proceeded to Greece and Albania. In 1810, Lord Byron sailed for Constantinople, visited the site of Troy and swam the Hellespont in imitation of mythical Greek lover, Leander. In the East, Lord Byron found a place where the love of an older aristocrat for a beautiful boy was acceptable, but also developed an identity as the Western hero for the liberation of Greece from the Turk.
In 1811, Lord Byron returned to London. However, Lord Byron’s mother had already passed away. In 1812, Lord Byron makes his first speech in the House of Lords. In the speech, Lord Byron denounces the death penalty proposed for weavers who smashed the machines they felt were the cause for their loss of work. Lord Byron was suspended from the parliament after the first two cantos of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” were printed, and he “woke to find himself famous.”
In 1814, Lord Byron followed his success with a series of “Eastern” tales, entitled “The Corsair.” Lord Byron wrote that piece in ten days, and it sold ten thousand copies on the first day of its publication. In 1815, Lord Byron published the “Hebrew Melodies,” which contains his most famous lyrics, “She Walks in Beauty.” Lord Byron gave away his copyrights because aristocrats do not write for money.
Lord Byron was lionized in Whig society. He has liaisons with Lady Caroline Lamb and the “autumnal” Lady Oxford, all of which magnified his notoriety. However, it was Lord Byron’s relationship with his half-sister Augustu, while she was married. In 1814, Augustu bore Lord Byron’s daughter Medora. Medora is the name of the heroine of “The Corsair.” In 1815, Lord Byron was riddled with debt and sought refuge in a wealthy heiress Annabella Milbanke. Lord Byron and Annabella produced a daughter, Augusta Ada. However, a few weeks after Annabella bore the child she left Byron to live with her parents. The reason Annabelle gave was rumors of insanity, incest, and sodomy. Similar to the supposed “Sex tapes” of our stars, pirated editions of Byron’s poems regarding the separation made marital discord into a real life public tabloid scandal.
In 1816, Lord Byron left England, and settled in Geneva, near Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin. The party was joined by Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, with whom Lord Byron had resumed an affair he had previously begun in England. Byron reported that Shelley “dosed him with Wordsworth physic even to nausea.” Lord Byron published the third canto of “Childe Harold.” In 1817, Lord Byron wrote “The Prisoner of Chillon” and began the closet-drama “Manfred.” At the end of the summer the Shelley party returned to England, where Claire gave birth to Lord Byron’s daughter Allegra. Meanwhile, Lord Byron left for Venice, and rented a palazzo on the Grand Canal.
Lord Byron entreated himself on a ceaseless round of sexual activity. Lord Byron studied Armenian, completed “Manfred,” and visited Rome. In 1818, Lord Byron produced the fourth canto of “Childe Harold.” This canto was his longest and most sublime work. In this piece, he won Lord Byron popularity as a revolutionary for its invocation of Freedom’s torn banner streaming “against the wind.” In 1818, Lord Byron wished to “repel charges of monotony and mannerism” so he wrote “Beppo,” a comic verse tale of a Venetial ménage-a-trois.
In 1819, Lord Byron published his most brilliant poem, “Don Juan.” “Don Juan” is a fictional autobiographical, picaresque narrative, literary burlesque, and exposure of social, sexual, and religious hypocrisies. When Lord Byron published the first two cantos, to elude charges of blasphemy, he circulated them without his name as the author or the name of the publisher. However, the authorship was known. This work includes “a filthy and impious” attack on his wife, and a shipwreck with cannibalism. The poem sold well in increasingly cheap edition.
Lord Byron had his last fling with Countess Teresa Gamba Guiccioli, a mere nineteen years old, who was married to a man three times her age. While writing “Don Juan,” Lord Byron also wrote “Marino Faliero,” “Sardanapalus,” and “The Two Foscari.” Later, Lord Byron reunites with Percey Shelley in Pisa, where he planned a radical journal, “The Liberal.”
Lord Byron continued his relationship with Teresa, and agreed to act as agent of a London committee aiding the Greek struggle for independence. Lord Byron devoted his fortune to the cause of independence for Greece. In 1824, Lord Byron fell ill, and he was given the usual remedy of bleeding, which weakened him; then he contracted a fever, and they bled him further, from which he died on April 19 at the age of thirty-six. Lord Byron became a Greek national hero, and his name became synonymous with Romanticism.
“The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Fourth Edition,” Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar, General Editors, Volume 2A, “The Romantics and their Contemporaries,” Wolfson, Susan and Peter Manning, Long Man, New York, New York, 2010.