Wicked Lord Byron’s Wonderful Poetry

George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824).
painted by Thomas Philipps, 1824

On January 22, 1788, George Gordon Noel Byron, 6. Baron Byron of Rochdale, commonly known simply as Lord Byron, English poet and a leading figure in the Romantic movement was born. I remember to have learned about Lord Byron back at school with his lengthy narrative poems like Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage or the shorter and much more beautiful poem “She Walks in Beauty“. Anyway, Byron is considered one of the greatest British poets and remains widely read and influential today.

Byron was the son of Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron and his second wife, the former Catherine Gordon. Byron’s father had previously seduced the married Marchioness of Caermarthen and, after she divorced her husband, he married her. His treatment of her was described as “brutal and vicious”, and she died after having given birth to two daughters, only one of whom survived: Byron’s half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Byron suffered from a deformity of his right foot. He was extremely self-conscious about this from a young age, nicknaming himself le diable boiteux (French for “the limping devil”). He spent his early childhood years in poor surroundings in Aberdeen, where he was educated until he was ten. When Byron’s great-uncle, the “wicked” Lord Byron, died on 21 May 1798, the 10-year-old boy became the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale and inherited the ancestral home, Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, and went on to Cambridge, where he piled up debts and aroused alarm with bisexual love affairs. Staying at Newstead in 1802, he probably first met his half-sister, Augusta with whom he was later suspected of having an incestuous relationship.

In 1807 Byron’s first collection of poetry, Hours Of Idleness appeared. The poems were savagely attacked by Henry Brougham in the Edinburgh Review. Byron replied with the publication of his satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers in 1809. In 1809 he took his seat in the House of Lords, and set out on his grand tour, where he visited Spain, Malta, Albania and Greece. His poetical account of this grand tour, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), an exotic travelogue spiced with romantic disillusionment, earned Byron instant glory and established him as one of England’s leading poets. The first edition was sold out in three days only. Byron was renowned for his personal beauty, which he enhanced by wearing curl-papers in his hair at night. He was athletic, being a competent boxer and horse-rider and an excellent swimmer. While his fame was spreading,Byron was busy shocking London high society by starting an affair with Lady Caroline Lamb and was ostracized when he was suspected of having a sexual relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, who gave birth to an illegitimate daughter.

In 1814, Byron’s The Corsair, sold incredible 10,000 copies on the first day of publication. He was married to Annabella Millbanke in January 1815, and she gave birth to their daughter Ada in December, but left him in January 1816, obtaining legal separation. Rumours concerning the cause of their separation centred around Byron’s relations with his half sister Augusta Leigh, though it seems clear that the proximate cause was Annabella’s revelation to her nursery governess that Byron had practised sodomy on her. After the separation, Byron went abroad, never returning to England again. 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 Shelley’s wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Claire Clairmont, who had begun an affair with Byron before he left England. At the end of the summer the Shelley party left for England, Claire carrying Byron’s illegitimate daughter. 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.

In April 1823 the London Greek Committee contacted Byron with a view to acting as its agent in helping the Greeks with their War of Independence from the Ottomans, which Byron immediately accepted. Arriving in Greece, he used £4000 (about £200,000 in modern terms) of his own funds to enable part of the Greek fleet to relieve Missolonghi, which was in a state of blockade, then sailed for Missolonghi himself in December, joining enthusiastically in the plans to attack the Turkish held fort at Lepanto. But in February he had a fit and on April 19, 1824 he died. His body was embalmed. The heart was removed and buried in Missolonghi, and his remains were then sent to England, and buried near Newstead Abbey, having been refused burial in Westminster Abbey.

At yovisto you may enjoy the two part video lecture by Tim McGee talking about Lord Byron and English Romanticism in general.

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