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Lord Byron (1788-1824) - Byron (of Rochdale), George (Gordon), 6th Baron

 

The most notorious Romantic poet and satirist. Byron was famous in his lifetime for his affairs with society women, Mediterranean boys, and prostitutes. He created his own cult of personality, the concept of the 'Byronic hero'  – a defiant, melancholy young man, brooding on some mysterious, unforgivable in his past. "There's not a joy the world can give that it takes away / When the glow of early thought declines in feeling's dull decay, / 'Tis not on youth's smooth cheek the blush alone, which fades so fast, / But the tender bloom of heart is gone, ere youth itself be past." Byron's influence on European poetry, music, novel, opera, and painting has been immense, although the poet was widely condemned on moral grounds by his contemporaries.

Polygamy may well be held in dread,
Not only as a sin, but as a bore.

George Gordon, Lord Byron, was the son of Captain John Byron, and Catherine Gordon of Gight, a self-indulgent, somewhat hysterical woman, who was his second wife. He was born with a club-foot and became extreme sensitivity about his lameness. His life did not become easier when he received painful treatments for his foot by a quack practitioner in 1799. Eventually he got a corrective boot.

At home Byron's alcoholic governess made sexual advances when he was nine. She was later sacked not because of playing "tricks with his person" but for beating him. According to some sources, Byron was also seduced by the lord who rented his mansion before he inherited it.

In his works short and stout Byron glorified proud heroes, who overcome hardships. The poet himself was only 5 feet 8 1/2 inches tall and his widely varying weight ranged from 137 to 202 pounds – he once said that everything he swallowed was instantly converted to tallow and deposited on his ribs. One of his friends noted that at the age of about 30 he looked 40 and "the knuckles of his hands were lost in fat." Byron spent his early childhood years in poor surroundings in Aberdeen, where he was educated until he was ten.

Byron's father died in 1791, leaving his son nothing except debts, and the fifth baron's grandson was killed in 1794. After he inherited the title and property of his great-uncle William in 1798 (the "Wicked Lord"), he went on to Dulwich, Harrow, where he excelled in swimming, and Cambridge, where he piled up depths and aroused alarm with bisexual love affairs. Staying at Newstead in 1802, he probably first met his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. At the age of fifteen he fell in love with Mary Chaworth, his distant cousin, whom he wrote the poem 'To Emma'.

Byron claimed that by the age of fifteen, he had read 4,000 novels. His first collection of poetry, Hours of Idleness  (1807) received bad reviews. The poet answered his critics with satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers in 1808. Next year he took his seat in the House of Lords, and set out on his grand tour, visiting Spain, Albania, Greece, and the Aegean. In Malta, where he stayed for a brief period, he recieved treatments for gonorrhea. While in Albania, he visited the cout of Ali Pasha, a cruel tyrant, who was fascinated by Byron's youthfulness and prowess. In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818) he wrote: "Land of Albania! let me bend mine eyes / On thee, thou rugged nurse of savage men!" On his way to Constantinople Byron swam  across the Hellespont in an hour and 10 minutes.

Success came in 1812 when John Murray published Byron's first two cantos of  Childe Harold's Pilgrimage; Harold was Byron's alter ego. "I awoke one morning and found myself famous," he later said. He became an adored character of London society, he spoke in the House of Lords effectively on liberal themes, and had a hectic love-affair with Lady Caroline Lamb. ''Mad – bad – and dangerous to know,'' she wrote in her journal on the evening she first saw him. But the love of Byron's life was according to Fiona MacCarthy (see Byron: Life and Legend, 2002) an impoverished choirboy named John Edleston.

During the summer of 1813 Byron apparently entered into a more than brotherly relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, who was a mother of three daughters. In 1814 Augusta gave birth to Elizabeth Medora, who was generally supposed to be Byron's. In the same year he wrote 'Lara,' a poem about a mystical hero, aloof and alien, whose identity is gradually revealed and who dies after a feud in the arms of his page. The Corsair (1814), sold 10,000 copies on the first day of publication. Byron married in 1815 Anne Isabella Milbanke. Byron refused to kiss her during the service. At Seaham, Hall, near Durham, where they spent several weeks honeymooning, Byron consummated the marriage on the drawing-room couch. The house was freezing cold.

Their daughter Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-52), was born in the same year. The marriage was unhappy, and they obtained legal separation next year. Ada Lovelace had exceptional gifts as a mathematician. It has been claimed that she had a brief affair with Charles Dickens and later in life she fell for John Crosse, a professional gambler. In 1835 she married William King. Despite her duties as a wife and mother of three children, Lovelace found time to translate Charles t Babbage's lecture of his Analytical Engine, a steam-driven calculator. The result was three times the lenght of the original text and an instant a best-seller. Lovelace saw the potential in Babbage's machine, but it was never built. She is widely credited with being the first computer programmer. Lovelace died of uterine cancer at the age of thirty-six. She was buried next to her father.

When the rumors started to rise of his incest and debts were accumulating, Byron left England in 1816, never to return. ''The only virtue they honor in England is hypocrisy,'' he once wrote a friend. Shortly before leaving England he hired J. W. Polidori as his traveling physician. Polidori was only 20; three patients died under his care, and he committed suicide the age of 26. Byron settled in Geneva with Mary Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont, who became his mistress. There he wrote the two cantos of Childe Harold and The Prisoner of Chillon, about the 16th century freedom fighter François de Bonivard: "Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind! / Brightest in dungeons, Liberty! thou art, / For there in thy habitation is the heart – ".

At the end of the summer Byron continued his travels, spending two years in Italy. Observing Byron in an opera box at La Scala in 1816, the French writer Stendhal later recalled: "I was struck by his eyes... I have never in my life seen anything more beautiful or more expressive." While staying in Venice Byron proudly claimed he had different woman on 200 consecutive evenings. His daughter Clara Allegra was born to Claire in January 1817 in England – Byron abandoned Allegra and placed her in a convent near Ravenna; she died in 1822 of typhus fever. In 1819 Byron wrote in a letter to his publisher John Murray: "I am sure my bones would not rest in an English grave, or my clay mix with earth of that country. I believe the thought would drive me mad on my deathbed, could I suppose that any of my friends would be base enough to convey my carcass back to your soil."

The dramatic poem Manfred, published in 1817, was inspired by the scenery of the Alps. Goethe described  it as a derivate of his own Faust. Manfred is a outcast from society, a tortured soul. Haunted by memories of forbidden love, he calls up spirits to his aid, but they cannot offer him comfort. The poem inspired Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, completed in September 1885 and performed in Moscow the following March. Tchaikovsky first described it as his best symphonic work, but a few years later he called it "an abominable piece." For the composer, who was homosexual, the figure of the outsider was something he could relate to intimately.

During the years in Italy, Byron wrote The Lament of Tasso, inspired by his visit in Tasso's cell in Rome, Mazeppa, The Prophecy Of Dante, and started Don Juan, his satiric masterpiece. "And for the future  – (but I write this reeling, / Having got drunk exceedingly to-day, / So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling) / I say – the future is a serious matter – / And so – for God's sake – hock and soda water!" (in 'Don Juan') Byron lived with Teresa, Countess Guiccioli, in Venice, and followed her household to Ravenna. Teresa left her husband for Byron, and Shelley rented houses in Pisa both for Byron and for the Gambas, Teresa's family. While in Ravenna and Pisa, Byron became deeply interested in drama, and wrote among others  Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari, Cain, and the unfinished Heaven And Earth. After Byron started to support the Italian insurrectionist Carbonari movement against Austrian rule, the Austrian secret police started to follow his movements. On January 21, 1821, the day before his 33rd birthday, Byron wrote in his diary:

Through life's road, so dim and dirty,
I have dragg'd to three and thirty.
What have these years left to me?
Nothing – except, thirty-three.

With the Gambas, Byron left Pisa for Leghorn, where the journalist and editor Leigh Hunt joined them. He cooperated with Hunt in the production of The Liberal magazine. After a long creative period, Byron had come to feel that action was more important than poetry. With good wishes from Goethe, Byron armed a brig, the Hercules, and sailed to Greece to aid the Greek's, who had risen against their Ottoman overlords. He worked ceaselessly and joined Alexander Mavrocordato on the north shore of the Gulf of Patras. However, before Byron saw any serious military action, he contracted the fever from which he died in Missolonghi on 19 April 1824. Before his death he had suffered a seizure, and his condition was worsened by a leeching procedure. Memorial services were held all over the land. The Greeks wished to bury him in Athens, but only his heart stayed in the country. Part of his skull and his internal organs had been removed for souvenirs. Byron's body was returned to England but refused by the deans of both Westminister and St Paul's. Finally Byron's coffin was placed in the family vault at Hucknall Torkard, near Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire.

SO WE'LL GO NO MORE A ROVING

So we'll go no more a roving
so late into the night
Though the heart be still as loving
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears the sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And Love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.

Lord Byron's Memoirs were destroyd by his publisher, executor and biographer (John Murray, Thomas Moore and John Cam Hobhouse). The critic William Gifford said that they were "fit only for the brothel and would have damned Lord Byron to everlasting infamy". However, Byron had written to Murray: "The Life is not Confessions. I have left out all my loves (except in a general way) and many other of the most important things (because I must not compromise other people) so that it is like the play of Hamlet - 'the part of Hamlet omitted by particular desire'." A forgerer, who claimed to be an illegitimate son of Byron and called himself Major George Gordon de Luña Byron, swindled Mary Shelley and published The Inedited Works of Lord Byron (1849). 

For further reading: The Life, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron by Thomas Moore (1920); The Dramas of Lord Byron: A Critical Study by Samuel Claggett Chew (1970); Lord Byron by Paul Graham Trueblood (1977); Lord Byron and His Contemporaries by Charles E. Robinson (1982); La Vie De Lord Byron En Italie: Romantic Reassessment by Teresa Guiccioli (1983); My Recollections of Lord Byron by Countess Guiccoli (1989); Life of Lord Byron by Roden B. Noel (1990); Critical Essays on Lord Byron, ed. by Robert F. Gleckner (1991); Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron's Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer, ed. by Betty A. Toole (1992); Lord Byron by Peter W. Graham (1998); New Essays on Lord Byron ed.by William D. Brewer (1999); Byron: Child of Passion by Benita Eisler (2000); The Kindness of Sisters by David Crane (2001); Byron: Life and Legend by Fiona McCarthy (2002) -- a three-volume biography by Leslie A. Marchand was published in 1958, Marchand also edited Byron's Letters and Journals (12 volumes, published by John Murray). Note: The high-level universal computer programming language, ADA, was named after Byron's daughter Countess Augusta Ada Lovelace (1815-52), a writer, mathematician, and gambler, a friend of computer pioneer Charles Babbage (1791-1871).  For further information: Byronmania - See also: Aleksandr Pushkin, Harriet Beecher Stowe

Selected works:

  • Hours of Idleness, 1807
  • English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, 1809
  • Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, 1812-18
  • The Giaour, 1813
  • The Bride of Abydos, 1813
  • The Corsair, 1814
  • Lara, A Tale, 1814
  • Hebrew Melodies, 1815
  • The Prisoner of Chillon, 1816
    - Kolme runokertoelmaa: Korinton piiritys - Mazeppa - Chillonin vanki (suom. O. A. Kallio, 1922)
  • The Siege of Corinth, 1816
    - Kolme runokertoelmaa: Korinton piiritys - Mazeppa - Chillonin vanki (suom. O. A. Kallio, 1922)
  • Prometheus, 1816
  • The Dream, 1816
  • Darkness, 1816
  • Manfred, 1817
  • Beppo, 1818
  • Mazeppa, 1818
    - Kolme runokertoelmaa: Korinton piiritys - Mazeppa - Chillonin vanki (suom. O. A. Kallio, 1922)
  • Don Juan, 1819-24
  • Marino Faliero, 1821
  • The Prophecy of Dante, 1821
  • The Two Foscari, 1821
  • Sardanapalus, 1821
  • Cain, 1821
  • Heaven and Earth, 1821
  • The Vision of Judgment, 1822
  • The Age of Bronze, 1823
  • The Island, 1823
  • The Deformed Transformed, 1824
  • The Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, 1830 (see Thomas Moore)
  • The Siege of Corinth, The Prisoner of Chillon, and Mazeppa, 1884 (illustrated by Frederick Gilbert)
  • The Works of Lord Byron, 1898-1904 (7 vols., ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge )
  • The Complete Poetical Works of Lord Byron, 1905 (ed. Paul Elmer More)
  • Lord Byron's Correspondence, 1922 (2 vols. ed. John Murray)
  • Lord Byron: Byron's Letters and Journals, 1973-82 (12 vols., ed.  Leslie A. Marchand)
  • The Complete Poetical Works, 1980-81 (3 vols., ed. L.A. Marchand)
  • Lord Byron: The complete Poetical Works, 1980-93 (ed. Jerome J. McGann)
  • Lord Byron: The Complete Miscellaneous Prose, 1991

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