I have read [Byron’s] The Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do.”
Jane Austen to Cassandra
March 5, 1814
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, later George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron, FRS (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824), commonly known simply as Lord Byron, was a British poet and a leading figure in Romanticism. Amongst Byron’s best-known works are the brief poems She Walks in Beauty, When We Two Parted, and So, we’ll go no more a Roving, in addition to the narrative poems Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan. He is regarded as one of the greatest British poets and remains widely read and influential, both in the English-speaking world and beyond.
Byron’s notability rests not only on his writings but also on his life, which featured aristocratic excesses, huge debts, numerous love affairs, and self-imposed exile. He was famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. Byron served as a regional leader of Italy’s revolutionary organization, the Carbonari, in its struggle against Austria. He later travelled to fight against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence, for which Greeks revere him as a national hero. He died from a fever contracted while in Messolonghi in Greece.
Early Life and Works
Byron was born in a house on Holles Street in London. He was the son of Captain John ‘Mad Jack’ Byron and his second wife, the former Catherine Gordon, heiress of Gight in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Byron’s paternal grandparents were Vice-Admiral The Hon. John ‘Foulweather Jack’ Byron and Sophia Trevanion. Vice Admiral John Byron had circumnavigated the globe, and was the younger brother of the 5th Baron Byron, known as “the Wicked Lord”.
He was christened George Gordon at St Marylebone Parish Church after his maternal grandfather, George Gordon of Gight, a descendant of King James I. Catherine moved back to Scotland shortly afterwards, where she raised her son in Aberdeen. On May 21, 1798, the death of Byron’s great-uncle, the “wicked” Lord Byron, made the 10-year-old the 6th Baron Byron, and the young man then inherited both title and estate, Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, England. At this point, his mother proudly returnedthe young Baron to England. Byron lived at his estate infrequently, as the Abbey was rented to Lord Grey de Ruthyn, among others, during Byron’s adolescence.
In August 1799, Byron entered the school of William Glennie, an Aberdonian in Dulwich. In 1801 he was sent to Harrow, where he remained until July 1805. He represented Harrow during the very first Eton v Harrow cricket match at Lord’s in 1805. After school he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge.
Byron’s names changed throughout his life. He was christened “George Gordon Byron” in London. “Gordon” was a baptismal name, not a surname, after his maternal grandfather. In order to claim his wife’s estate in Scotland, Byron’s father took the additional surname “Gordon”, becoming “John Byron Gordon”, and he was occasionally styled “John Byron Gordon of Gight”. Byron himself used this surname for a time and was registered at school in Aberdeen as “George Byron Gordon”. At the age of 10, he inherited the English Barony of Byron, becoming “Lord Byron”, and eventually dropped the double surname (though after this point his surname was hidden by his peerage in any event).
When Byron’s mother-in-law died, her will required that he change his surname to “Noel” in order to inherit half her estate, and so he obtained a Royal Warrant allowing him to “take and use the surname of Noel only”. The Royal Warrant also allowed him to “subscribe the said surname of Noel before all titles of honour”, and from that point he signed himself “Noel Byron” (the usual signature of a peer being merely the peerage, in this case simply “Byron”). This was, it was said, so that his signature would become “N.B.” which were the initials of one of his heroes, Napoleon Bonaparte. He was also sometimes referred to as “Lord Noel Byron”, as if “Noel” were part of his title, and likewise his wife was sometimes called “Lady Noel Byron”. Lady Byron eventually succeeded to the Barony of Wentworth, becoming “Lady Wentworth”; her surname before marriage had been “Milbanke”.
While not at school or college, Byron lived with his mother at Burgaage Manor in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, in some antagonism. While there, he cultivated friendships with Elizabeth Pigot and her brother, John, with whom he staged two plays for the entertainment of the community. During this time, with the help of Elizabeth Pigot, who copied many of his rough drafts, he was encouraged to write his first volumes of poetry. Fugitive Pieces was printed by Ridge of Newark, which contained poems written when Byron was only 14. However, it was promptly recalled and burned on the advice of his friend, the Reverend Thomas Beecher, on account of its more amorous verses, particularly the poem To Mary. Pieces on Various Occasions, a “miraculously chaste” revision according to Byron, was published after this.
Hours of Idleness, which collected many of the previous poems, along with more recent compositions, was the culminating book. The savage, anonymous criticism this received (now known to be the work of Henry Peter Brougham) in the Edinburgh Review prompted his first major satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). The work so upset some of these critics they challenged Byron to a duel; over time, in subsequent editions, it became a mark of prestige to be the target of Byron’s pen.
After his return from his travels, the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were published in 1812, and were received with acclaim. In his own words, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous”. He followed up his success with the poem’s last two cantos, as well as four equally celebrated Oriental Tales, The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, and Lara, which established a type of protagonist that came to be known as the Byronic hero.
The figure of the Byronic hero pervades much of his work, and Byron himself is considered to epitomize many of the characteristics of this literary figure. Scholars have traced the literary history of the Byronic hero from John Milton, and many authors and artists of the Romantic movement show Byron’s influence during the 19th century and beyond, including Charlotte and Emily Brontë. The Byronic hero presents an idealised, but flawed character whose attributes include: great talent; great passion; a distaste for society and social institutions; a lack of respect for rank and privilege; being thwarted in love by social constraint or death; rebellion; exile; an unsavory secret past; arrogance; overconfidence or lack of foresight; and, ultimately, a self-destructive manner.
Byron’s first loves included Mary Duff and Margaret Parker, his distant cousins, and Mary Chaworth, whom he met while at Harrow. Byron later wrote that his passion for Duff began when he was “not [yet] eight years old,” and was still remembered in 1813. Byron refused to return to Harrow in September 1803 because of his love for Chaworth; his mother wrote, “He has no indisposition that I know of but love, desperate love, the worst of all maladies in my opinion. In short, the boy is distractedly in love with Miss Chaworth.”
Byron finally returned to Harrow in January 1804, to a more settled period which saw the formation of a circle of emotional involvements with other Harrow boys, which he recalled with great vividness: ‘My School friendships were with me passions (for I was always violent).’ The most enduring of those was with the John FitzGibbon, 2nd Earl of Clare — four years Byron’s junior — whom he was to meet unexpectedly many years later in Italy (1821).
While at Trinity, Byron met and formed a close friendship with the younger John Edleston. About his “protégé” he wrote, “He has been my almost constant associate since October, 1805, when I entered Trinity College. His voice first attracted my attention, his countenance fixed it, and his manners attached me to him for ever.” In his memory Byron composed Thyrza, a series of elegies. Byron wore a ring of Edleston’s for the 13 years until he died. In later years he described the affair as ‘a violent, though pure love and passion’. This however has to be read in the context of hardening public attitudes to homosexuality in England, and the severe sanctions (including public hanging) against convicted or even suspected offenders. The liaison, on the other hand, may well have been ‘pure’ out of respect for Edleston’s innocence, in contrast to the (probably) more sexually overt relations experienced at Harrow School.
Also while at Cambridge he formed lifelong friendships with men such as John Cam Hobhouse and Francis Hodgson, a Fellow at King’s College, with whom he corresponded on literary and other matters until the end of his life (including one of the frankest admissions of his earlier feelings for John Edleston, upon Edleston’s death in 1811).
Byron’s adult height was about 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m), his weight fluctuating between 9.5 stone (133 lb; 60 kg) and 14 stone (200 lb; 89 kg). He 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. At Harrow, he played cricket, although he was unskillful.
From birth, Byron suffered from an unknown deformity of his right foot (generally referred to as a “clubfoot” at the time), causing a limp that resulted in lifelong misery for him, aggravated by the suspicion that with proper care it might have been cured. He was extremely self-conscious about this from a young age. However, he refused to wear any type of mechanical device that could improve the limp, although he often wore specially made shoes that would hide the deformed foot.
Byron and other writers such as his friend John Cam Hobhouse left detailed descriptions of his eating habits. At the time he entered Cambridge, he went on a strict diet to control his weight. He also exercised a great deal, and at that time wore a great number of clothes to cause himself to perspire. For most of his life he was a vegetarian, and often lived for days on dry biscuits and white wine. Occasionally he would eat large helpings of meat and desserts, after which he would purge himself. His friend Hobhouse claimed that his weight problem was caused by the pain of his deformed foot which made it difficult for him to exercise.
Later Life and Fame
Byron racked up numerous debts as a young man, due to what his mother termed a “reckless disregard for money”. She lived at Newstead during this time, in fear of her son’s creditors.
He had planned to spend early 1808 cruising with his cousin George Bettesworth, who was captain of the 32-gun frigate HMS Tartar. Bettesworth’s unfortunate death at the Battle of Alvøen in May 1808 made that impossible.
From 1809 to 1811, Byron went on the Grand Tour, then customary for a young nobleman. The Napoleonic Wars forced him to avoid most of Europe, and he instead turned to the Mediterranean. He travelled from England over Spain to Albania and spent time at the court of Ali Pasha of Ioannina, and in Athens. For most of the trip, he had a traveling companion in his friend John Cam Hobhouse.
Byron began his trip in Portugal from where he wrote a letter to his friend Mr. Hodgson in which he describes his mastery of the Portuguese language, consisting mainly of swearing and insults. Byron particularly enjoyed his stay in Sintra that is described in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage as “glorious Eden”.
While in Athens, Byron met Nicolò Giraud, who became quite close and taught him Italian. Byron sent Giraud to school at a monastery in Malta and bequeathed him a sizable sum of seven thousand pounds sterling. The will, however, was later cancelled. In 1810 in Athens Byron wrote Maid of Athens, ere we part for a 12-year-old girl, Teresa Makri [1798-1875], and reportedly offered £500 for her.
In 1812, Byron embarked on a well-publicized affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb that shocked the British public. Byron eventually broke off the relationship, but Lamb never entirely recovered, pursuing him even after he tired of her. She was emotionally disturbed, and lost so much weight that Byron cruelly commented to her mother-in-law, his friend Lady Melbourne, that he was “haunted by a skeleton”. She began to call on him at home, sometimes dressed in disguise as a page boy, at a time when such an act could ruin both of them socially. One day, during such a visit, she wrote on a book at his desk, “Remember me!” As a retort, Byron wrote a poem entitled Remember Thee! Remember Thee! which concludes with the line “Thou false to him, thou fiend to me”.
Byron eventually took his seat in the House of Lords in 1811, shortly after his return from the Levant, and made his maiden speech there on 27 February 1812. A strong advocate of social reform, he received particular praise as one of the few Parliamentary defenders of the Luddites: specifically, he was against a death penalty for Luddite “frame breakers” in Nottinghamshire, who destroyed textile machines that were putting them out of work. His first speech before the Lords was loaded with sarcastic references to the “benefits” of automation, which he saw as producing inferior material as well as putting people out of work. He said later that he “spoke very violent sentences with a sort of modest impudence”, and thought he came across as “a bit theatrical”. In another Parliamentary speech he expressed opposition to the established religion because it was unfair to people of other faiths.These experiences inspired Byron to write political poems such as Song for the Luddites (1816) and The Landlords’ Interest, Canto XIV of The Age of Bronze. Examples of poems in which he attacked his political opponents include Wellington: The Best of the Cut-Throats (1819); and The Intellectual Eunuch Castlereagh (1818).
As a child, Byron had seen little of his half-sister Augusta Leigh; in adulthood, he formed a close relationship with her that has been interpreted by some as incestuous and by others as innocent. Eventually Byron began to court Lady Caroline’s cousin Anne Isabella Milbanke (“Annabella”), who refused his first proposal of marriage but later accepted him. They married at Seaham Hall, County Durham, on 2 January 1815. The marriage proved unhappy. He treated her poorly and showed disappointment at the birth of a daughter (Augusta Ada) rather than a son. On 16 January 1816, Lady Byron left him, taking Ada with her. On 21 April, Byron signed the Deed of Separation. Rumours of marital violence, adultery with actresses, incest with Augusta Leigh, and sodomy were circulated, assisted by a jealous Lady Caroline. In a letter, Augusta quoted him as saying: “Even to have such a thing said is utter destruction and ruin to a man from which he can never recover.”
Self-Imposed Exile and Death
After this break-up of his domestic life, Byron again left England, but it was forever, as it turned out. He passed through Belgium and continued up the Rhine River. In the summer of 1816 he settled at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, Switzerland, with his personal physician, the young, brilliant, and handsome John William Polidori. There Byron befriended the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Shelley’s future wife Mary Godwin. He was also joined by Mary’s stepsister, 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
Kept indoors at the Villa Diodati by the “incessant rain” of “that wet, ungenial summer” over three days in June, the five turned to reading fantastical stories, including Fantasmagoriana, 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, pausing his travels when he fell in love with Marianna Segati, in whose Venice house he was lodging, and who was soon replaced by 22-year-old Margarita Cogni; both women were married. Cogni could not read or write, and she left her husband to move into Byron’s Venice house. Their fighting often caused Byron to spend the night in his gondola; when he asked her to leave the house, she threw herself into the Venetian canal.
In 1817, he journeyed to Rome. On 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 young Countess Guiccioli, who found her first love in Byron, who in turn asked her to elope with him. It was about this time that he received a visit from Thomas Moore, to whom he confided his autobiography or “life and adventures”, which Moore, Hobhouse, and Byron’s publisher, John Murray, burned in 1824, a month after Byron’s death.
From 1821 to 1822, he finished Cantos 6–12 of Don Juan at Pisa, and in the same year he joined with Leigh Hunt and Percy Bysshe Shelley 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 Guiccioli, and where he met Charles John Gardiner, 1st Earl of Blessington, and Marguerite, Countess of Blessington and provided the material for her work Conversations with Lord Byron, an important text in the reception of Byron in the period immediately after his death.
Byron lived in Genoa until 1823, when, growing bored with his life there he accepted overtures for his support from representatives of the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. On 16 July, Byron left Genoa on the Hercules, arriving at Kefalonia in the Ionian Islands on 4 August. He spent £4000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet, then sailed for Messolonghi in western Greece, arriving on 29 December to join Alexandros Mavrokordatos, a Greek politician with military power. During this time, Byron pursued his Greek page, Lukas Chalandritsanos, but the affections went unrequited. When the famous Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen heard about Byron’s heroics in Greece, he voluntarily resculpted his earlier bust of Byron in Greek marble.
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, despite his lack of military experience. Before the expedition could sail, on 15 February 1824, he fell ill; the usual remedy of bleeding weakened him further. He made a partial recovery, but in early April he caught a violent cold which therapeutic bleeding, insisted on by his doctors, aggravated. It is suspected this treatment, carried out with unsterilized medical instrumentation, may have caused him to develop sepsis. He developed a violent fever, and died on 19 April. It has been said that had Byron lived, he might have been declared King of Greece.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson would later recall the shocked reaction in Britain when word was received of Byron’s death. The Greeks mourned Lord Byron deeply, and he became a hero. The national poet of Greece, Dionysios Solomos, wrote a poem about the unexpected loss, named To the Death of Lord Byron. (“Vyron”), the Greek form of “Byron”, continues in popularity as a masculine name in Greece, and a suburb of Athens is called Vyronas in his honour.
Byron’s body was embalmed, but the Greeks wanted some part of their hero to stay with them. According to some sources, his heart remained at Messolonghi. According to others, it was his lungs, which were placed in an urn that was later lost when the city was sacked. His other remains were sent to England for burial in Westminster Abbey, but the Abbey refused for reason of “questionable morality”. Huge crowds viewed his body as he lay in state for two days in London. He is buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham.
At her request, Ada Lovelace, 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. Byron’s friends raised the sum of 1,000 pounds to commission a statue of the writer; Thorvaldsen offered to sculpt it for that amount. However, for ten years after the statue was completed in 1834, most British institutions turned it down, and it remained in storage. The statue was refused by the British Museum, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the National Gallery. Trinity College, Cambridge, finally placed the statue of Byron in its library.
In 1969, 145 years after Byron’s death, a memorial to him was finally placed in Westminster Abbey. The memorial had been lobbied for since 1907; The New York Times wrote, “People are beginning to ask whether this ignoring of Byron is not a thing of which England should be ashamed … a bust or a tablet might be put in the Poets’ Corner and England be relieved of ingratitude toward one of her really great sons.”
Upon his death, the barony passed to Byron’s cousin George Anson Byron, a career military officer and his polar opposite in temperament and lifestyle.