George Gordon, Lord Byron was born on 22 January 1788. His mother Catherine came from the lawless line of Scottish Gordons, and his father, John Byron, of even worse reputation, had run through his wife's fortune and was hiding in France. Byron's father died in 1791, and on the death of his great-uncle in 1798, Byron inherited the title, the ancestral home of Newstead, and a complicated financial situation.

As Newstead was by then uninhabitable, he and his mother lived in Nottingham, but Byron paid visits to the property, where he fell in love a neighbor and cousin, an infatuation not returned. Byron was small for his age and suffered a deformity of the foot, causing him to limp, and to be bullied at school: Dulwich and then Harrow. He enrolled at Cambridge, did little work, kept a bear in his rooms, and ran up more debts.

In June 1809, Byron, with friends John Cam Hobhouse and William Fletcher, set off on the customary grand tour, which included Europe and some parts of the middle east. He had already published verse, and the latest adventures provided material for Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which he worked on for next eight years. On his homecoming Byron found his mother had died and his half-sister Augusta unhappily married. But in 1812 he was persuaded to publish the first two Cantos of Childe Harold, and became an overnight sensation.

Women flocked to him, and Byron embarked on a string of affairs, probably with Augusta too. Eventually, in 1815, he married Annabella Milbanke, but the marriage soon broke down, and London society turned against him. Once again, Byron set off for Europe, where he met Shelley and ended up in Venice. There his open affair with Countess Guicioli caused more scandal, not helped by Byron's involvement with republican politics. Shelley drowned in 1822 and Byron took up the cause of Greek Independence, sailing for Greece the following year. Byron took charge of the movement, financing a Greek navy, but his health was now poor. In 1824 he suffered an epileptic seizure, and two months later caught a severe chill. He died on 19 April 1824, unaware that the tide had turned in England, and that he was again a celebrated figure.

Byron's first poems appeared in 1806, Fugitive Pieces: pleasant enough but attacked for the writer's affectations. Byron counter-attacked with some effective satire: English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, but wrote little more until his return from Europe. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, a discursive travelogue in Spenserian stanzas, made his name. Byron eventually finished the poem in Venice, where he also wrote Manfred, The Prisoner Of Chillon, Lament Of Tasso, Beppo, Mazeppa, several slight but well-loved lyrics (So we'll go no more a-roving, She walks in beauty, like the night, When we two parted), and started on Don Juan. The last, worked on in fits and starts, and unfinished at his death, is Byron's epitaph, the greatest satire/mock epic in the English language, looser in form and technique that Pope's verse (which Byron greatly admired) but with wonderful brio and boisterous fun. Its quotable lines would make a small book. The book was published in installments and anonymously in London, where its politics, amorality and outspokenness caused much trouble. Yet Don Juan also contained passages of great beauty, a deeply sensitive portrayal of women, and unvarnished realism.

Byron's frankness was not welcome to the Victorians, and his colloquial language held little interest to the Modernists (Auden excepted). But Byron had lived the life he describes, and that honesty and fearless republicanism made him immensely influential on the continent, where his portrayal of the troubled Romantic hero still accords him a place among the greatest of English poets.

The English Romantics, who broke with the tight forms and propriety of Augustan verse, were a varied lot. As men of action (Byron), solitude (Wordsworth), high flown imagination (Coleridge), impractical dreams (Shelley), visionary illumination (Blake) and much more besides, the Romantics had sensitive if unstable personalities alive to the currents of the age. Most were republican, sympathetic to the better aims of the French Revolution, and to periodic struggles for freedom in Europe. Return to nature meant not barbarism but simplicity. Sensibility was not a product of cultivation but an intense expression of man's passionate nature. The unique, individual and spontaneous were more valuable than that which conformed to any intellectualized canon of taste. The sense of the dark and hidden, the feeling of dependence and awe, and a worshipful acceptance of the fullness of being, are the attitudes which put religious man in touch with the Divine. The Romantics therefore took more interest in nature and her moods, in far-off places and primitive peoples, imagination, spontaneity, natural religion and individual talent.

Byron's adventurous life — his love affairs, travels, advocacy of Greek Independence — make an entertaining entry into early nineteenth century life: the freebooting ways of the English aristocracy before Victorian morals took hold, the Napoleonic wars, Venice in the last years of her splendour, rebellion in the decaying Ottoman Empire, the frequent struggles for freedom in Europe, Russia and Latin America. A fascinating period is packed with larger-than-life characters. Even poets caught some of the fervour: Wordsworth's affair with Annette Vallon, Shelley's utopian outpourings, Keat's tragic life, Blake's visions.

Good books include L. Marchand's Byron's Poetry: A Critical Introduction (1965), M.K. Joseph's Byron the Poet (1964), E.F. Boyd's Byron's Don Juan: A Critical Study (1945), R. Escarpit's Lord Byron, Un Tempérament Littéraire (1957), W.H. Marshall's The Structure of Byron's Major Poems (1962), P.G. Thorslev's The Byronic Hero (1962), J.R. Jackson's Poetry of the Romantic Period (1980), S. Curran's Poetic Form and British Romanticism (1986) and H. Fischer's Romantic Verse Narrative (1991).

SuggeOur suggestion: Byron the Poet. M.K. Joseph. Gollancz. 1966.

An old study, but still the best for understanding Byron's poetry as poetry. Search Abebooks or Alibris if Amazon can't oblige.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.