Lord Byron Biography
He was infamously described as:
"Mad, bad and dangerous to know". Women found him irresistible. Some men did too. His name was Lord Byron. Famed as a poet, respected as a peer and notorious as a philanderer. His carefully crafted persona morphed into what became known as the Byronic hero.
It all started in 1812. First it was reviews. Then came the fan mail which was an unheard of quirk in Byron's era. This was the dawn of the cult of celebrity. Lord Byron was its first literary luminary.
At 24 he became an overnight success. His third book "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" had just been published and it was the literary sensation of 1812. Byron had written a poetic account of his continental tour and readers became enamoured with his literary style and the protagonists persona which despite his denials was loosely based on himself.
The brooding defiance of Harold added a depth of complexity to a seemingly affectionate character who wallowed in a world-weary misery of disillusionment. The character, the locations and the ego combined in a poem to give an imaginative visualisation that gripped the mind quite unexpectedly.
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage was not the best poem of the romantic era. It adopted an engaging narrative that was very different. The fascination was more in the character than the verse. The image of Lord Byron was the attraction and he painstakingly cultivated this image in the ensuing years.
An unexpected consequence of his fame was a bulging mailbox. Lord Byron revelled in the risque content of his fan mail. There were amorous proposals for night time trysts in London's Green Park. Ladies spoke of
"trembling" when gazing at his portrait and being overcome with an
"enthusiastic fire" when thinking of him.
Lord Byron was in his element. He became quite the tease as he responded to many letters in intimate verse. Quite how many of his anonymous admirers he actually had affairs with is unknown. If Byron's high profile affairs were a barometer of his willingness to engage in amours of intimate relations with strangers then it does not stretch the imagination to speculate how far the seed of the poet was spread.
1812 was also the year of his most infamous affair. The subject of this liaison was the married aristocrat Lady Caroline Lamb. During their first meeting she spurned his advances. Privately she was smitten. Lady Caroline knew she could not resist the temptation of the man she labelled:
"Mad, bad and dangerous to know". Their affair lasted for six months until Byron ended it in August 1812. Lady Caroline was devastated. She continued to pursue Byron despite his rejection. She never got over this affair and her obsession haunted her to her grave.
Hot on the heels of his affair with Lady Caroline, Byron embarked on another affair with a married woman of nobility. The next notch on the Byron bedpost was Jane Elizabeth Harley (Lady Oxford), who just happened to be an intimate friend of Lady Caroline.
When Lord Byron finally tried to settle down it was with Anne Isabella Milbanke whose title was Baroness Wentworth. The Baroness also happened to be the cousin of William Lamb, who was the husband of Lady Caroline. It seemed Lady Caroline was constantly devoured by reminders of Lord Byron. It was little wonder it affected her mental well being.
The marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke saw her adopt the title Lady Byron. The union was not a happy one and lasted just over one year although the couple were blessed with a daughter, Ada the Countess Of Lovelace. Their one year of wedlock had convinced Lady Byron that her husband was both bad and mad. He was having an affair with a Drury Lane Theatre actress called Susan Boyce. The combination of Lord Byron's mood swings and affairs were putting the marriage under strain so Lady Byron moved back to her parents house.
Lady Byron, through her lawyer, applied for a legal separation. Lord Byron refused. Lady Byron then upped the stakes. She accused Lord Byron of participating in homosexual affairs and made a clear assertion he was having an incestuous affair with his half sister, Augusta Leigh. She also claimed that she had been sodomised by Lord Byron throughout their marriage, all acts which were illegal in Regency England.
If these "accusations" were to become public knowledge it would be a scandal that would consume the poet. Lord Byron balked at the ramifications and conceded to Lady Byron's demands. He had worked too hard building his celebrity. Survival meant sacrifice, so he lived to fight another day.
The carefully nurtured persona had kept Byron in the limelight. He was so protective of his personal image that he destroyed any engravings of himself that he felt did not portray him in a positive all action light. This was a meticulous man who knew how to manage his personality.
Image was only part of the equation. Byron had to feed the literary demand for his now in-vogue style of narrative poems set in exotic locations. After the success of "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" he quickly followed up with a series of slick verse: "The Bride of Abydos" (1813), "The Giaour" (1813), "The Corsair" (1814), and "Lara" (1815).
His follow up poetry was good but it did not set the world on fire. Initially Byron enjoyed the gratifying effect of fame. It was addictive. It was also combustible as he found out when bright light of fame started to burn Byron. He had courted controversy for too long. It was only a matter of time before it would come back to haunt him.
The tattling tongues of ridicule were already working overtime and Lord Byron was becoming tired of the constant speculation about his torrid love life. Vultures were circling. They were feeding off the scraps of gutter gossip. Rumours of homosexuality, marital abuse, incest and sodomy were as rife as the denials issued by Lord Byron.
In 1816 Lord Byron had enough. He said goodbye to England. Little did he know the next time he would be back on ole Blighty's shores he would be encased in his own coffin. There was still time for plenty of adventures and Switzerland was his initial destination.
Lord Byron spent the summer in the company of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley. Byron also continued his amour with Claire Clairmont whom he met and, unbeknown to Byron, impregnated before he left London for Switzerland.
That summer spent on the shores of Lake Geneva, produced conversations of deep intensity giving rise to literary inspiration that saw Mary Shelley write the manuscript to "Frankenstein", Byron began work on the third canto of "Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage" and Percy wrote "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty". More importantly for Byron, he was encouraged to write an epic poem by Percy Shelley. The seeds were sown in the mind of Byron. The result would turn out to be Byron's only masterpiece, "Don Juan".
In 1817 Claire Clairmont gave birth to a baby girl named Allegra. Clairmont was back in England and writing desperate letters to Byron asking for support. Lord Byron had grew tired of Claire. He viewed her as a foolish young girl.
In a letter to Douglas Kinnaird in January 1817 Byron shared his feelings about Claire Clairmont:
"I never loved her nor pretended to love her - but a man is a man - & if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night - there is but one way - the suite of all this is that she was with child - & returned to England to assist in peopling that desolate island... This comes of "putting it about" (as Jackson calls it) & be dammed to it - and thus people come into the world".
Claire knew she could never provide for Allegra like Byron could. She requested Byron to raise the child and give her a good life. Byron agreed providing Clairmont promised not to interfere. She reluctantly agreed and Allegra was handed into the care of Lord Byron who was now living in Venice. Byron used a succession of foster families to raise Allegra. By 1821 Byron had placed Allegra in a Roman Catholic convent. By 1822 Allegra was dead. She contracted a fever (typhus or malaria) and died. Claire Clairmont blamed Byron for the death and she never forgave him for the rest of her life.
Lord Byron was inspired by Italy. He also fell for the charms of an Italian aristocrat called Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli. His poetic output thrived in this environment. The passionate pen of Byron began to flow. The outcome was epic. The poem was Don Juan. The year was 1818, although it's first two cantos would not be published until 1819.
He continued writing Don Juan up until his death in 1824. There were sixteen completed cantos with the seventeenth unfinished. Don Juan was a masterpiece that would define Lord Byron as a poet of the finest literary standing.
Sir Walter Scott said that Don Juan:
"embraced every topic of human life, and sounded every string of the divine harp". Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was impressed to call it:
"a work of boundless genius". Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to say:
"Every word has the stamp of immortality. ... It fulfils, in a certain degree, what I have long preached of producing—something wholly new and relative to the age, and yet surpassingly beautiful".
Lord Byron stayed in Italy from 1816 until 1823 when he decided to sponsor the Greek liberation from the Ottoman empire. Having spent large sums overhauling Greek naval vessels and buying various mercenaries services he was to lead an attack on the Turkish held fortress of Lepanto. However it was not to be as he fell ill and died before he could implement his voyage to death or glory in the field of battle.
Byron is still remembered with respect and reverence in Greece today. The anniversary of his death, 19th April 1824 is now called "Byron Day" in his honour. Apart from his dream to see Greece as a free country he is also remembered for his furious stance against Lord Elgin's controversial removal of the Parthenon marbles which were given to the British Museum.
He may have led a flamboyant and notorious life but Lord Byron came from an equally colourful family. His father, called Captain Mad Jack John Byron, abandoned his mother after he squandered all her money on drink and debauchery. He had a great uncle called the wicked Lord William Byron who after killing a friend in a duel at a London tavern escaped the gallows to only pay a small fine for his adversaries death. The wicked Lord William was also less affectionately known as the Devil Byron who shot his own coachman after a minor disagreement. There were other colourful characters, but these two were the pick of his bad-boy ancestors.
The man, the masquerade and the mystique of Lord Byron is a tale for the ages. He was a poet of lustrous line and vibrant verse who was no stranger to controversy. He was a satirical genius, but was he really mad or bad? Even Lord Byron could not answer that question as he so illustriously put it:
"I am such a strange mélange of good and evil, that it would be difficult to describe me". Indeed it would, maybe he should have asked some of his romantic conquests? I'm sure they could have assisted with a delightful description.
Quotes About Lord Byron
The artist John Constable was not a fan:
"The world is rid of Lord Byron, but the deadly slime of his touch still remains"
John Keats compared their poetic inspiration:
"You speak of Lord Byron and me - there is this great difference between us. He describes what he sees - I describe what I imagine"
The novelist Mary Shelley explained captivation of his character:
"Our Lord Byron - the fascinating - faulty - childish - philosophical being - daring the world - docile to a private circle - impetuous and indolent - gloomy and yet more gay than any other"
Upon crossing paths with Byron while in Rome Lady Liddell warned her daughter:
"Don't look at him, he is dangerous to look at"
The Scottish writer Jane Welsh Carlyle was stunned at the news of his demise:
"If they had said that the sun or the moon had gone out of the heavens, it could not have struck me with the idea of a more awful and dreary blank in creation than the words: 'Byron is dead!'"
Percy Bysshe Shelley gave this observation:
"My dear Lord Byron. Many thanks for Don Juan. … Nothing has ever been written like it in English, nor if I may venture to prophecy, will there ever be"
The poet John Clare shared this observation: "The common people felt his merits and his power and the common people of a country are the best feelings of a prophesy of futurity"
Germaine Greer rated him highly:
"Don Juan is by far the greatest comic poem in English"
The historian and poet Sir Walter Scott was impressed to say:
"Lord Byron arose neither from depravity of heart nor from feelings dead to the admiration of virtue. He was totally free from the curse and degradation of literature - its jealousies, and its envy. But his wonderful genius was of a nature which disdained restraint, even when restraint was most wholesome. As an author, he refused to plead at the bar of criticism - as a man, he would not submit to be morally amenable to the tribunal of public opinion"
George Bernard Shaw opined on Byron's legacy:
"Byron was as little of a philosopher as Peter the Great: both were instances of that rare and useful, but unedifying variation, an energetic genius born without the prejudices or superstitions of his contemporaries. The resultant unscrupulous freedom of thought made Byron a greater poet than Wordsworth just as it made Peter a greater king than George III"