George Gordon Byron, later Noel, 6th Baron Byron FRS was born on 22 January 1788 and died on 19 April 1824. George Gordon Byron was an English poet and a leading figure in Romanticism.
Amongst George Gordon Byron’s best-known works are the brief poems “She walks in beauty,” and “So, we’ll go no more a-roving,” and the narrative poems Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan. George Gordon Byron is regarded as one of the greatest European poets and remains widely read and influential, both in the English-speaking world and beyond.
George Gordon Byron’s fame rests not only on his writings but also on his life, which featured extravagant living, numerous love affairs, debts, separation, and marital exploits. George Gordon Byron was famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
George Gordon Byron served as a regional leader of Italy’s revolutionary organisation the Carbonari in its struggle against Austria. George Gordon Byron later travelled to fight against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence, for which Greeks revere him as a national hero. George Gordon Byron died from a fever in Messolonghi in Greece.
The mountain Lochnagar is the subject of one of George Gordon Byron’s poems, in which he reminsces about his childhood. George Gordon Byron was born in a house on Hollis Street in London, the son of Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron and his 2nd wife, the former Catherine Gordon, heiress of Gight in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. George Gordon Byron’s paternal grandparents were Vice-Admiral 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.”
George Gordon Byron was christened George Gordon at St Marylebone Parish Church, after his maternal grandfather, George Gordon of Gight, a descendant of King James I. This grandfather committed suicide in 1779. George Gordon Byron’s mother Catherine had to sell her land and title to pay her husband’s debts. John Byron may have married Catherine for her money and, after squandering it, deserted her. Catherine regularly experienced mood swings and bouts of melancholy.
Catherine moved back to Scotland shortly afterward, where she raised her son in Aberdeen. On 21 May 1798, the death of George Gordon Byron’s great-uncle, the “wicked” Lord Byron, made the 10-year-old the 6th Baron Byron, inheriting the title and estate, Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, England. George Gordon Byron’s mother proudly took him to England. George Gordon Byron only lived at his estate infrequently as the Abbey was rented to Lord Grey de Ruthyn, among others, during George Gordon Byron’s adolescence.
In August 1799, George Gordon Byron entered the school of William Glennie, an Aberdonian in Dulwich. George Gordon Byron would later say that around this time and beginning when he still lived in Scotland, his governess, May Gray, would come to bed with him at night and “play tricks with his person.” According to George Gordon Byron, this “caused the anticipated melancholy of my thoughts–having anticipated life.” Mary Gray was dismissed for allegedly beating George Gordon Byron when he was 11.
George Gordon Byron received his early formal education at Aberdeen Grammar School. In 1801 he was sent to Harrow, where he remained until July 1805. George Gordon Byron represented Harrow during the very 1st Eton v Harrow cricket match at Lord’s in 1805. After school he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge.
George Gordon Byron’s names changed throughout his life. George Gordon Byron was christened George Gordon Byron in London. “Gordon” was a baptismal name, not a surname, honouring his maternal grandfather. In order to claim his wife’s estate in Scotland, George Gordon Byron’s father took the additional surname Gordon, becoming John Byron Gordon, and he was occasionally styled John Byron Gordon of Gight. George Gordon 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 George Gordon 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”. Very unusually, 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”). George Gordon Byron 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, George Gordon Byron lived with his mother at Burgage Manor in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, in some antagonism. While there, he cultivated friendships with Elizabeth Pigot and her brother, John, with whom he staged 2 plays for the delight 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 1st volumes of poetry. Fugitive Pieces was the 1st, printed by Ridge of Newark, which contained poems written when George Gordon Byron was only 14. However, it was promptly recalled and burned on the advice of his friend, the Reverend Thomas Becher, on account of its more amorous verses, particularly the poem “To Mary”. Pieces on Various Occasions, a “miraculously chaste” revision according to George Gordon 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 criticism this received— anonymously, but now known to be the work of Henry Peter Brougham— in the Edinburgh Review prompted his 1st major satire, “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers”. The work so upset some of these critics they challenged George Gordon Byron to a duel.
Some early verses which George Gordon Byron had published in 1806 were suppressed. George Gordon Byron followed those in 1807 with Hours of Idleness, which the Edinburgh Review, a Whig periodical, savagely attacked. In reply, George Gordon Byron sent 4th English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), which created considerable stir and shortly went through 5 editions. While some authors resented being satirized in its 1st edition, over time in subsequent editions it became a mark of prestige to be the target of George Gordon Byron’s pen.
After his return from his travels, the 1st 2 cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were published in 1812, and were received with acclaim, making George Gordon Byron famous overnight. In his own words, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” George Gordon Byron followed up his success with the poem’s last 2 cantos, as well as 4 equally celebrated Oriental Tales, The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, and Lara, which established the Byronic hero. About the same time, he began his intimacy with his future biographer, Thomas Moore.
A more complete picture of George Gordon Byron’s personal life has only been possible in recent years with the freeing up of the archive of John Murray, George Gordon Byron’s original publishers, which had formerly withheld compromising letters and instructed at least 1 major biographer (Leslie A. Marchand, 1957) to censor details of his bisexuality.
George Gordon Byron’s 1st loves included Mary Duff and Margaret Parker, his distant cousins, and Mary Chaworth, whom he met while at Harrow. George Gordon Byron later wrote that his passion for Mary Duff began when he was “not [yet] 8 years old” and was still unforgettable in 1813. George Gordon Byron refused to return to Harrow in September 1803 due to his love for Mary 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.” In George Gordon Byron’s later memoirs, “Mary Chaworth is portrayed as the 1st object of his adult sexual feelings”
George Gordon Byron 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 recalled with great vividness: ‘My School friendships were with me passions (for I was always violent).’ The most enduring of those was with the young Earl of Clare – 4years George Gordon Byron’s junior – whom he was to meet unexpectedly many years later in Italy (1821), to great intensity of feeling. George Gordon Byron’s nostalgic poems about his Harrow friendships, ‘Childish Recollections’ (1806), express a sense of melancholy at the passing of youthful freedoms, even a prescient ‘consciousness of sexual differences that may in the end make England untenable to him.’
“Ah! Sure some stronger impulse vibrates here,
Which whispers friendship will be doubly dear
To one, who thus for kindred hearts must roam,
And seek abroad, the love denied at home.”
While at Trinity, he met and formed a close friendship with a 15 year old choirboy by the name of John Edleston. About his “protégé” he wrote, “He has been my almost constant associate since October, 1805, when I entered Trinity College. George Gordon Byron’s voice 1st attracted my attention, his countenance fixed it, and his manners attached me to him for ever.” In his memory George Gordon Byron composed Thyrza, a series of elegies. George Gordon Byron wore a ring of Edleston’s for the 13years 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 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.
In an early scandal, George Gordon Byron embarked in 1812 on a well-publicised affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb that shocked the British public. George Gordon Byron eventually broke off the relationship, but Lady Caroline Lamb never entirely recovered, pursuing him even after he tired of her. Lady Caroline Lamb was emotionally disturbed and lost so much weight that George Gordon Byron cruelly commented to her mother-in-law, his friend Lady Melbourne, that he was “haunted by a skeleton.” Lady Caroline Lamb 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, George Gordon Byron wrote a poem beginning: “Remember thee!” and ending “Thou false to him, thou fiend to me.” Lady Caroline Lamb famously said George Gordon Byron was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
As a child, George Gordon 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. Augusta Leigh gave birth on 15 April 1814 to a daughter, Elizabeth Medora Leigh.
Eventually George Gordon Byron began to court Lady Caroline’s cousin Anne Isabella Milbanke (“Annabella”), who refused his 1st proposal of marriage but later accepted. They married at Seaham Hall, County Durham, on 2 January 1815. The marriage proved unhappy. George Gordon Byron treated her poorly and showed disappointment at the birth of daughter (Augusta Ada), rather than a son. On 16 January 1816, Lady Byron left him, taking Ada with her. On 21 April, George Gordon 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 & ruin to a man from which he can never recover.”
George Gordon Byron racked up numerous debts as a young adult due to what his mother termed a reckless disregard for money. George Gordon Byron’s mother Catherine lived at Newstead during this time, in fear of her son’s creditors.
From 1809 to 1811, George Gordon 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. Correspondence among his circle of Cambridge friends also suggests that a key motive was the hope of homosexual experience, and other theories saying that he was worried about a possible dalliance with the married Mary Chatsworth, his former love (the subject of his poem from this time, “To a Lady: On Being Asked My Reason for Quitting England in the Spring.”)George Gordon Byron 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.
While in Athens, George Gordon Byron had a torrid love affair with Nicolò Giraud, a boy of 15 or 16 who was teaching him Italian. George Gordon Byron sent Giraud to school at a monastery in Malta and bequeathed him £7,000 sterling – almost double what he was later to spend refitting the Greek fleet. The will, however, was later cancelled.
After this break-up of his domestic life George Gordon Byron again left England, forever as it turned out. George Gordon Byron 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, John William Polidori. There George Gordon Byron befriended the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s future wife Mary Godwin. George Gordon Byron was also joined by Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, with whom he had had an affair in London. George Gordon Byron initially refused to have anything to do with Claire Clairmont, and would only agree to remain in her presence with the Shelleys, who eventually persuaded George Gordon 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 3 days in June, the 5 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 George Gordon Byron’s to produce The Vampyre, the progenitor of the romantic vampire genre. George Gordon Byron’s story fragment was published as a postscript to Mazeppa; he also wrote the 3rd canto of Childe Harold. George Gordon 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. Margarita Cogni could not read or write, and she left her husband to move into George Gordon Byron’s Venice house. Their fighting often caused George Gordon 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 4th canto of Childe Harold. About the same time, he sold Newstead and published Manfred, Cain, and The Deformed Transformed. The 1st 5 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 George Gordon 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 Thomas Moore, Hobhouse and George Gordon Byron’s publisher, John Murray, burned in 1824, a month after George Gordon Byron’s death.
George Gordon Byron had a child with Anne Isabella Milbanke (“Annabella”), who was Augusta Ada Byron, Lady Byron, later Lady Wentworth:
The Hon. Ada Augusta Byron (10 December 1815-29 November 1852), later Countess of Lovelace
Ada Lovelace, notable in her own right, collaborated with Charles Babbage on the analytical engine, a predecessor to modern computers.
George Gordon Byron also had 1 illegitimate child with Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Shelley and stepdaughter of Political Justice and Caleb Williams writer, William Godwin:
Clara Allegra Noel-Byron (12 January 1817-20 April 1822).
Allegra is not entitled to the style “The Hon.” as is usually given to the daughter of barons since she was illegitimate. Born in Switzerland in 1817, Allegra lived with George Gordon Byron for a few months in Venice; he refused to allow an Englishwoman caring for the girl to adopt her, nor for her to be raised in the Shelleys’ household. George Gordon Byron wished for her to be brought up Catholic and not marry an Englishman. George Gordon Byron made arrangements for her to inherit 5,000 lira upon marriage or reaching age 21, provided she did not marry a native of Britain. However, the girl died at 5 years old of a fever in Bagna Cavallo, Italy while George Gordon Byron was in Pisa; he was deeply upset by the news. George Gordon Byron had Allegra’s body sent back to England to be buried at his old school, Harrow, because Protestants could not be buried in consecrated ground in Catholic countries. At one time he himself had wanted to be buried at Harrow. George Gordon Byron was indifferent towards Allegra’s mother, Claire Clairmont.
George Gordon Byron eventually took his seat in the House of Lords in 1811, shortly after his return from the Levant, and made his 1st 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. George Gordon Byron’s 1st 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. George Gordon Byron 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 George Gordon Byron to write political poems such as “Song for the Luddites” (1816) and “The Landlords’ Interest” (1823). 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).
Ultimately, George Gordon Byron resolved to escape the censure of British society (due to his perceived sodomy and allegations of incest) by living abroad, thereby freeing himself of the need to conceal his sexual interests. George Gordon Byron left England in 1816 and did not return for the last 8 years of his life, even to bury his daughter.
In 1816, George Gordon Byron visited Saint Lazarus Island in Venice where he acquainted himself with Armenian culture through the Mekhitarist Order. George Gordon Byron learned the Armenian language from Fr. H. Avgerian and attended many seminars about language and history. George Gordon Byron wrote “English grammar and the Armenian” in 1817, and “Armenian grammar and the English” (1819) in which he quoted samples from classical and modern Armenian. George Gordon Byron participated in the compilation of “English Armenian dictionary” (1821) and wrote the preface where he explained the relationship of the Armenians with and the oppression of the Turkish “pashas” and the Persian satraps, and their struggle of liberation. George Gordon Byron’s 2 main translations are the “Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians”, several chapters of Khorenatsi’s “Armenian History” and sections of Lambronatsi’s “Orations”. When in Polis he discovered discrepancies in the Armenian vs. the English version of the Bible and translated some passages that were either missing or deficient in the English version. George Gordon Byron’s fascination was so great that he even considered a replacement of Cain story of the Bible with that of the legend of Armenian patriarch Haik. George Gordon Byron may be credited with the birth of Armenology and its propagation. George Gordon Byron’s profound lyricism and ideological courage has inspired many Armenian poets, the likes of Fr. Ghevond Alishan, Smbat Shahaziz, Hovhannes Tumanyan, Ruben Vorberian and others.
George Gordon Byron had a bust sculpted of him by Bertel Thorvaldsen at this time.
In 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.” George Gordon Byron’s 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 George Gordon Byron in the period immediately after his death.
George Gordon Byron lived in Genoa until 1823 when— growing bored with his life there and with the Countess — he accepted overtures for his support from representatives of the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. On 16July, George Gordon Byron left Genoa on the Hercules, arriving at Kefalonia in the Ionian Islands on 4 August. George Gordon Byron spent £4000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet, then sailed for Messolonghi in western Greece, arriving on 29December to join Alexandros Mavrokordatos, a Greek politician with military power. During this time, George Gordon Byron pursued his Greek page, Lukas Chalandritsanos, but the affections went unrequited. When the famous Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen heard about George Gordon Byron’s heroics in Greece, he voluntarily resculpted his earlier bust of George Gordon Byron in Greek marble.
Alexandros Mavrokordatos and George Gordon Byron planned to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. George Gordon 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 15 February 1824, he fell ill, and the usual remedy of bleeding weakened him further. George Gordon Byron 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 19 April. It has been said that had George Gordon Byron lived, he might have been declared King of Greece.
Lord Byron on his deathbed as depicted by Joseph-Denis Odevaere c.1826 Oil on canvas, 166 × 234.5 cm Groeninge Museum, Bruges. Note the sheet covering his misshapen right foot.Alfred, Lord Tennyson would later recall the shocked reaction in Britain when word was received of Lord 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 his unexpected loss, named “To the Death of Lord Byron.” Βύρων (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.
Lord 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. Lord Byron’s 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 2 days in London. Lord Byron 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 Lord Byron’s grave. Lord Byron’s friends raised the sum of £1,000 to commission a statue of the writer; Thorvaldsen offered to sculpt it for that amount. However, when the statue was completed in 1834, most British institutions it was offered to turned it down for more than 10 years as it remained in storage– the British Museum, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the National Gallery in turn. Trinity College, Cambridge finally placed the statue of Lord Byron in its library.
In 1969, 145 years after Lord 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 Lord Byron is not a thing of which England should be ashamed… a bust or a tablet might 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 a cousin, George Anson Byron, a career military officer and George Gordon Byron’s polar opposite in temperament and lifestyle.
In 1833 his publisher, John Murray, released the complete works in 17 duodecimo volumes, including a life by Thomas Moore.
Although George Gordon Byron falls chronologically into the period most commonly associated with Romantic poetry, much of his work looks back to the satiric tradition of Alexander Pope and John Dryden. The most striking thing about George Gordon Byron’s poetry is its strength and masculinity. Trenchantly witty, he used unflowery and colloquial language in many poems, such as “Written after Swimming from Sestos to Abydos.” George Gordon Byron’s talent for drama was expressed in the vibrantly galloping rhythms of “The Destruction of Sennacherib.” However, poems such as “When We Two Parted” and “So We’ll Go No More A-Roving” express strong feelings in simple and touching language. George Gordon Byron made little use of imagery and did not aspire to write of things beyond this world; the Victorian critic John Ruskin wrote of him that he “spoke only of what he had seen and known; and spoke without exaggeration, without mystery, without enmity, and without mercy.”
George Gordon Byron’s attitude towards writing poetry is summed up well in a letter to Thomas Moore on 5th July 1821:
I can never get people to understand that poetry is the expression of excited passion, and that there is no such thing as a life of passion any more than a continuous earthquake, or an eternal fever. Besides, who would ever shave themselves in such a state?
George Gordon Byron’s 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. The 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.
George Gordon Byron published the 1st 2 cantos anonymously in 1819 after disputes with his regular publisher over the shocking nature of the poetry; by this time, he had been a famous poet for 7 years and when he self-published the beginning cantos, they were well-received in some quarters. It was then released volume by volume through his regular publishing house. By 1822, cautious acceptance by the public had turned to outrage, and George Gordon Byron’s publisher refused to continue to publish the works. In Canto III of “Don Juan,” Byron expresses his detestation for poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The figure of the Byronic hero pervades much of his work, and George Gordon Byron himself is considered to epitomize many of the characterestics 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 George Gordon Byron’s influence during the 19th century and beyond, including Charlotte and Emily Bronte. The Byronic hero presents an idealised but flawed character whose attributes include: having great talent, exhibiting great passion, having a distaste for society and social institutions, expressing a lack of respect for rank and privilege, thwarted in love by social constraint or death, rebelling, suffering exile, hiding an unsavoury past, arrogance, overconfidence or lack of foresight, and ultimately, acting in a self-destructive manner.
George Gordon Byron was a bitter opponent of Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles from Greece, and “reacted with fury” when Elgin’s agent gave him a tour of the Parthenon in which he saw the missing friezes and metopes. George Gordon Byron penned a poem, “The Curse of Minerva,” to denounce Elgin’s actions.
Lord Byron, by all accounts, had a magnetic personality. Lord Byron obtained a reputation as being extravagant, melancholy, courageous, unconventional, eccentric, flamboyant and controversial. Lord Byron was independent and given to extremes of temper; on at least 1 trip, his traveling companions were so puzzled by his mood swings they thought he was mentally ill. Lord Byron enjoyed adventure, especially relating to the sea.
Lord Byron believed his depression was inherited, and he wrote in 1821, “I am not sure that long life is desirable for one of my temper & constitutional depression of Spirits.”
Lord Byron was noted even during his time for the extreme loyalty he inspired in his friends. Cam Hobhouse said, “No man lived who had such devoted friends.”
George Gordon Byron’s adult height was about 5’10”, his weight fluctuating between 9 1/2 to 14 stone (133–196 pounds). George Gordon Byron was renowned for his personal beauty, which he enhanced by wearing curl-papers in his hair at night. George Gordon Byron was athletic, being competent at boxing and an excellent swimmer. At Harrow, he played cricket despite his lameness.
From birth, George Gordon Byron suffered from an unknown deformity of his right foot, causing a limp that resulted in lifelong misery for him, aggravated by the suspicion that with proper care it might have been cured. 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.
Lord Byron and other writers such as his friend John Cam Hobhouse left detailed descriptions of his eating habits. From the time that he entered Cambridge he went on a strict diet to control his weight. Lord Byron 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. George Gordon Byron’s friend Cam Hobhouse claimed that when he became overweight, the pain of his deformed foot made it difficult for him to exercise.
George Gordon Byron is considered to be the 1st modern-style celebrity. George Gordon Byron’s image as his own Byronic hero personified fascinated the public, and his wife Annabella coined the term “Byromania” to refer to the mania surrounding him. George Gordon Byron’s self-awareness and personal promotion are seen as a beginning to what would become the modern rock star; he would instruct artists painting portraits of him not to paint him with pen or book in hand, but as a “man of action.”
While George Gordon Byron first welcomed fame, he later turned away from it by going into voluntary exile from Britain.
George Gordon Byron had a great fondness for animals, most famously for a Newfoundland dog named Boatswain; when Boatswain contracted rabies, George Gordon 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. George Gordon Byron at one point expressed interest in being buried next to Boatswain. The inscription, Byron’s “Epitaph to a Dog,” has become one of his best-known works, reading in part:
Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
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 in Newfoundland May 1803,
and died at Newstead Nov.r 18th, 1808.
George Gordon Byron also 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, George Gordon Byron kept a fox, monkeys, a parrot, cats, an eagle, a crow, a crocodile, a falcon, peacocks, guinea hens, an Egyptian crane, a badger, geese, and a heron.
The re-founding of the Byron Society in 1971 reflects the fascination that many people have for George Gordon 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.
George Gordon Byron exercised a marked influence on Continental literature and art, and his reputation as a poet is higher in many European countries than in Britain or America, although not as high as in his time, when he was widely thought to be the greatest poet in the world. George Gordon Byron has inspired the works of Franz Liszt and Giuseppe Verdi.
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