Biography of Lord Byron (1788 – 1824)
The most notorious Romantic poet and satirist. Byron was famous in his lifetime for his love affairs with women and Mediterranean boys. He created his own cult of personality, the concept of the ‘Byronic hero’ – a defiant, melancholy young man, brooding on some mysterious, unforgivable in his past. Byron’s influence on European poetry, music, novel, opera, and painting has been immense, although the poet was widely condemned on moral grounds by his contemporaries.
George Gordon, Lord Byron, was the son of Captain John Byron, and Catherine Gordon of Gight, a self-indulgent, somewhat hysterical woman, who was his second wife. He was born with a club-foot and became extreme sensitivity about his lameness. In his works short and stout Byron glorified proud heroes, who overcome hardships. The poet himself was only 5 feet 8 1/2 inches tall and his widely varying weight ranged from 137 to 202 pounds – he once said that everything he swallowed was instantly converted to tallow and deposited on his ribs. One of his friends noted that at the age of about 30 he looked 40 and “the knuckles of his hands were lost in fat.” Byron spent his early childhood years in poor surroundings in Aberdeen, where he was educated until he was ten. His father died in 1791, and the fifth baron’s grandson was killed in 1794. After he inherited the title and property of his great-uncle in 1798, he went on to Dulwich, Harrow, and Cambridge, where he piled up depths and aroused alarm with bisexual love affairs. Staying at Newstead in 1802, he probably first met his half-sister, Augusta Leigh.
In 1807 appeared Byron’s first collection of poetry, HOURS OF IDLENESS. It received bad reviews. The poet answered his critics with satire ENGLISH BARDS AND SCOTCH REVIEWS in 1808. Next year he took his seat in the House of Lords, and set out on his grand tour, visiting Spain, Malta, Albania, Greece, and the Aegean.
Success came in 1812 when Byron published the first two cantos of CHILDE HAROLD’S PILGRIMAGE (1812-1818). He became an adored character of London society, he spoke in the House of Lords effectively on liberal themes, and had a hectic love-affair with Lady Caroline Lamb. “Mad – bad – and dangerous to know,” she wrote in her journal on the evening she first saw him. During the summer of 1813 Byron apparently entered into a more than brotherly relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. In 1814 Augusta gave birth to a daughter, who was generally supposed to be Byron’s. In the same year he wrote ‘Lara,’ a poem about a mystical hero, aloof and alien, whose identity is gradually revealed and who dies after a feud in the arms of his page. THE CORSAIR (1814), sold 10,000 copies on the first day of publication. Byron married Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1815, and their daughter Ada was born in the same year. The marriage was unhappy, and they obtained legal separation next year.
When the rumors started to rise of his incest and debts were accumulating, Byron left England in 1816, never to return. “The only virtue they honor in England is hypocrisy,” he once wrote a friend. Shortly before leaving England he hired J. W. Polidori as his traveling physician. Polidori was only 20; three patients died under his care, and he committed suicide the age of 26. Byron settled in Geneva with Mary Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont, who became his mistress. There he wrote the two cantos of Childe Harold and THE PRISONER OF CHILLON. At the end of the summer Byron continued his travels, spending two years in Italy. Observing Byron in an opera box at La Scala in 1816, the French writer Stendhal later recalled: “I was struck by his eyes… I have never in my life seen anything more beautiful or more expressive.” While staying in Venice Byron proudly claimed he had different woman on 200 consecutive evenings. His daughter Alegra was born in January 1817 in England – she died in 1822. In an 1819 letter to his publisher John Murray, Byron wrote: “I am sure my bones would not rest in an English grave, or my clay mix with earth of that country. I believe the thought would drive me mad on my deathbed, could I suppose that any of my friends would be base enough to convey my carcass back to your soil.”
During the years in Italy, Byron wrote LAMENT OF TASSO, inspired by his visit in Tasso’s cell in Rome, MAZEPPA, THE PROPHECY OF DANTE, and started DON JUAN, his satiric masterpiece. “And for the future – (but I write this reeling, / Having got drunk exceedingly to-day, / So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling) / I say – the future is a serious matter – / And so – for God’s sake – hock and soda water!” (from ‘Don Juan’) Byron lived with Teresa, Countess Guiccioli, in Venice, and followed her household to Ravenna. Teresa left her husband for Byron, and Shelley rented houses in Pisa both for Byron and for the Gambas, Teresa’s family. While in Ravenna and Pisa, Byron became deeply interested in drama, and wrote among others THE TWO FOSCARI, SARDANAPALUS, CAIN, and the unfinished HEAVEN AND EARTH.
With the Gambas, Byron left Pisa for Leghorn, where the journalist and editor Leigh Hunt joined them. He cooperated with Hunt in the production of The Liberal magazine. After a long creative period, Byron had come to feel that action was more important than poetry. With good wishes from Goethe, Byron armed a brig, the Hercules, and sailed to Greece to aid the Greek’s, who had risen against their Ottoman overlords. He worked ceaselessly and joined Alexander Mavrocordato on the north shore of the Gulf of Patras. However, before Byron saw any serious military action, he contracted the fever from which he died in Missolonghi on 19 April 1824. Memorial services were held all over the land. The Greeks wished to bury him in Athens, but only his heart stayed in the country. Part of his skull and his internal organs had been removed for souvenirs. Byron’s body was returned to England but refused by the deans of both Westminister and St Paul’s. Finally Byron’s coffin was placed in the family vault at Hucknall Torkard, near Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire.
Biography By: Petri Liukkonen