Lord Byron

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Lord Byron on a Greek commemorative stamp

George Gordon (Noel) Byron, 6th Baron Byron (January 22, 1788April 19, 1824) was an English poet and leading figure in Romanticism. Among his best-known works are the narrative poems Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan. The latter remained incomplete on his death.

Byron's fame rests not only on his writings, but also on his life, which featured extravagant living, numerous love affairs, debts, separation, allegations of incest and bisexuality and an eventual death from fever after he travelled to fight on the Greek side in the Greek War of Independence. He was famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know."

Byron was also the father of Ada Lovelace.

Life

Byron was born in London, the son of Captain John "Mad Jack" Byron and of John's second wife Lady Catherine Gordon, heiress of Gight, Aberdeenshire. His paternal grandfather was Vice-Admiral John "Foulweather Jack" Byron, who had circumnavigated the globe. He was also the grand-nephew of William Byron, 5th Baron Byron, known as "the Wicked Lord". From his birth he suffered from a malformation of the feet, causing a slight lameness, which was a cause of lifelong misery to him, aggravated by the knowledge that with proper care it might have been cured. He was christened George Gordon after his maternal grandfather, George Gordon, 12th Laird of Gight, a descendant of 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. Byron's parents separated before his birth. Lady Catherine moved back to Scotland shortly afterwards, where she raised her son in Aberdeen until May 21, 1798, when the death of his great-uncle made him the sixth Baron Byron, inheriting Newstead Abbey, rented to Henry Edward Yelverton, 19th Baron Grey de Ruthyn during Byron's adolescence. He received his formal education at the Grammar School in Aberdeen. In 1801 he was sent to Harrow, where he remained until 1805, when he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge.

Some early verses which he had published in 1806 were suppressed. They were followed in 1807 by Hours of Idleness, which was savagely attacked in the Edinburgh Review. In reply he sent forth English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), which created considerable stir and shortly went through 5 editions. In 1809 he left England, and passing through Spain, went to Greece. During his absence, which extended over two years, he wrote the first two cantos of Childe Harold, which were published after his return 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 some short poems, The Corsair, Lara, etc. About the same time began his intimacy with his future biographer, Thomas Moore.

He eventually took his seat at the House of Lords in 1811, and made his first speech there on February 27, 1812. He was a strong advocate of social reform, and was particularly noted as one of the few Parliamentary defenders of the Luddites. He was also a defender of Roman Catholics. Byron was inspired 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).

In 1812, Byron embarked on a well-publicised affair with Lady Caroline Lamb.

Rumors suggest around this period he also fell in love with a choir boy, though scholars dispute the veracity and relevance of this. For his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, he wrote many passionate poems. She had been separated from her husband since 1811 when she gave birth on April 15, 1814 to a daughter, Medora. Byron's joy over the birth seems to substantiate the rumors of an incestuous relationship. Byron married Anne Isabella Milbanke ("Annabella"), a cousin of the Lady Caroline, who had refused him in the previous year. They married at Seaham Hall, County Durham on January 2, 1815. Later, when Annabella's mother died, her will stipulated that her beneficiaries must take her family name in order to inherit. Lord Byron added it and became George Gordon Noel Byron in 1822. The marriage proved unhappy. He treated her poorly and showed disappointment at the birth of a daughter (Augusta Ada), rather than a son. On January 16, 1816, Lady Byron left George, taking Ada with her. On April 21, Byron signed the Deed of Separation. After this break-up of his domestic life, Byron again left England, as it turned out, for ever. 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, where he formed a connection with Jane Clairmont, the daughter of William Godwin's second wife. In 1817 he was in 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, whom he persuaded to leave her husband. It was about this time that he received a visit from Moore, to whom he confided his MS. autobiography, which Moore, in the exercise of the discretion left to him, burned in 1824.


While living in Venice helped to compile an Armenian grammar textbook and translated two of St. Paul's epistles into English. His next move was to Ravenna, where he wrote much, chiefly dramas, including Marino Faliero. In 1821-22 he finished cantos 6-12 of Don Juan at Pisa, and in the same year he joined with Leigh Hunt in starting a short-lived newspaper, The Liberal, in the first number of which appeared The Vision of Judgment. 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 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 July 16, Byron left Genoa on the Hercules, arriving at Kefalonia in the Ionian Islands on August 2. He spent £4000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet, then sailed for Messolonghi in western Greece, arriving on December 29 to join Prince Alexandros Mavrokordatos, leader of the Greek rebel forces. In Kefalonia he met a Greek boy, Loukas Chalandritsanos, whom he employed as a page and with whom he developed an emotional relationship.

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 February 15 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 April 19. The Greeks mourned Lord Byron deeply, and he became a national hero. Vyron, 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 baronage passed to a cousin, George Anson Byron (1789-1868), a career military officer and Byron's polar opposite in temperament and lifestyle. Lord Byron, by all accounts, had a particularly attractive personality – one may say astonishingly so. He obtained a reputation as being unconventional, eccentric, flamboyant and controversial. Many attribute some of Byron's extraordinary abilities to his affliction with bipolar disorder, commonly known as manic depression. 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:

NEAR this spot
Are deposited the Remains
of one
Who possessed Beauty
Without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
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 at Newfoundland,
May, 1803,
And died at Newstead Abbey
Nov. 18, 1808.

Byron also notably 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 falcon, peacocks, guinea hens, an Egyptian crane, a badger, geese, and a heron.

Career

Byron wrote prolifically.[1] 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:

  • rebelling
  • having a distaste for society and social institutions
  • suffering exile
  • expressing a lack of respect for rank and privilege
  • having great talent
  • hiding an unsavoury past
  • exhibiting great passion
  • ultimately, acting in a self-destructive manner
  • unsuccessful in love, usually the beloved is dead

Byron After Death

The re-founding of the Byron Society [2] 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 England or America, although not as high as in his time. He has also appeared as a character in poular fiction, a testament to his influence. 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 1997, Jonathan Firth, brother of famous actor Colin Firth, played Lord Byron in an episode of Highlander: The Series titled "The Modern Prometheus".

Bibliography

See also

External links