Lord George Byron
(1788 - 1824)
Birth and early circumstances
George Gordon, Lord Byron was born at Holles Street in London, the son of a Guards Officer, Captain John Byron. Abandoned by her husband, his mother, Catherine Gordon, took him in 1790 (2) to Aberdeen, where they lived in considerable poverty, and where Byron attended the local school, learning early how to deal with the taunts of his fellow schoolboys concerning his physical deformity, a deformed foot and lower leg foot. His father died in 1791 (3) in France.
In 1798 (10) he inherited the estates of his great uncle, Lord Byron, and moved with his mother first to the ruinous Newstead Abbey, then to nearby Nottingham.
He published Fugitive Pieces in 1806 (18), revising and enlarging it in 1808 (20), at which point it received scathing criticism in the Edinburgh Review, prompting his reply English Bards and Scots Reviewers (1809, 21), which comprised over a thousand lines of rebuttal, invective and justification.
Grand tour and Childe Harold
Hobhouse accompanied him on a grand tour beginning in 1809 (21), during which they visited Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar, Malta, Albania and Greece, meeting among others the colourful but ruthless Albanian tyrant Ali Pasha. In Greece he dined with Andreas Londos, the governor of Vistitza (now Aigion), who gave him a passionate rendering of Arise you Sons of Greece, and opened his eyes to the longing of the Greek people to be free from their Turkish masters. It was during this tour that he began his autobiographical poem Childe Harold. In Athens the two men lodged with a widow, one of whose daughters is celebrated in the poem Maid of Athens. In March 1810 (22) he sailed for Constantinople by way of Smyrna, visiting what was then considered to be the site of the ancient city of Troy, and swimming the Hellespont in imitation of Leander. He returned to England in 1811 (23), but was not in time to see his mother before she died in August. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, an exotic travelogue spiced with romantic disillusionment, was published in March 1812 (24). It was an instant success, the first edition selling out in three days.
He began to be lionised by Whig society, and capitalised on his success with a series of verse narratives : The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair and The Prisoner of Chillon.
He was married to Annabella Millbanke in January 1815 (27), and she gave birth to a daughter in December, but left him in January 1816 (28), and never returned. 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. Byron signed the separation papers, and left England in April of that year (28), never to return.
He visited the battlefield at Waterloo, then Switzerland, staying at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, where he composed the third canto of Childe Harold, and where Percy Shelley, his wife Mary Shelley and her half-sister Claire Clairmont visited him during the summer.
Birth of daughter
On her return to England, Claire Clairmont gave birth to his daughter, Allegra.
In the autumn of the same year (1816, 28) he left for Venice, where he embarked on a career of debauchery with numerous local women and girls, at times negotiating for their favours with their parents, and committing acts which, according to Shelley, either had no name or were unheard of in England.
In the summer of 1818 (30) he completed the first canto of Don Juan, sending it to Hobhouse in England, who reacted by saying it would be impossible to publish. But Byron resisted the advice of his friends and of his publisher, Murray, to take out the ‘indelicacies’.
Countess Guicciolo and the Carbonari
In April 1819 (31) he met Countess Teresa Guicciolo, then 19 years old and married to a man three times her age. He followed her to Ravenna, and won the friendship of her father and brother, who initiated him into the revolutionary society of the Carbonari, a group involved in fighting for freedom from Austrian rule.
Further poetry and plays
Here he wrote The Prophecy of Dante, a further three cantos of Don Juan, and the poetic dramas Marino Faliero, Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari, and Cain, which were all published in 1821 (33).
Pisa and the Bay of Lerici
When Teresa’s father and brother were exiled for their part in an abortive plot, they moved with Byron to Pisa, then Leghorn (Livorno), where he leased a house close to Shelley’s villa on the Bay of Lerici.
The London Greek Committee
In April 1823 (35) the London Greek Committee contacted him with a view to acting as its agent in helping the Greeks with their War of Independence from the Turks. Byron immediately accepted the role. On 16th July of the same year (35) he left Genoa, arriving in Cephalonia, an island off the mainland of Greece, in August. Here 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.
Death and burial
But in February he had a fit, for which he was bled with leeches applied to his temples. By the 23rd he was well enough again to arrange the release of 29 Turkish prisoners, men, women and children, repatriating them at his own expense. But in April he fell ill again, and on April 19, 1824 (36) 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.