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|The Right Honourable|
The Lord Byron
Portrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips
|Born||George Gordon Byron|
22 January 1788
London, England, Great Britain
|Died||19 April 1824 (aged 36)|
Missolonghi, Aetolia-Acarnania, Ottoman Empire (now Greece)
|Spouse(s)||Anne Isabella Byron, Baroness Byron|
|The Right Honourable|
The Lord Byron
Portrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips
|Born||George Gordon Byron|
22 January 1788
London, England, Great Britain
|Died||19 April 1824 (aged 36)|
Missolonghi, Aetolia-Acarnania, Ottoman Empire (now Greece)
|Spouse(s)||Anne Isabella Byron, Baroness Byron|
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, later George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron, FRS (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824), commonly known simply as Lord Byron, was an English poet and a leading figure in the Romantic movement. Among Byron's best-known works are the lengthy narrative poems Don Juan and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and the short lyric She Walks in Beauty. He is regarded as one of the greatest British poets and remains widely read and influential.
He travelled all over Europe especially in Italy where he lived for seven years and then joined the Greek War of Independence fighting the Ottoman Empire, for which Greeks revere him as a national hero. He died one year later at age 36 from a fever contracted while in Missolonghi in Greece.
Often described as the most flamboyant and notorious of the major Romantics, Byron was celebrated in life for aristocratic excesses, including huge debts, numerous love affairs with both sexes, rumours of a scandalous incestuous liaison with his half-sister, and self-imposed exile.
Mayne states that George Gordon Byron was born 22 January 1788 in a house on 24 Holles Street in London. However, R.C. Dallas in his Recollections states that Byron was born in Dover. He was the son of Captain John "Mad Jack" Byron and his second wife, the former Catherine Gordon (d. 1811), a descendant of Cardinal Beaton and heiress of the Gight estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Byron's father had previously seduced the married Marchioness of Caermarthen and, after she divorced her husband, he married her. His treatment of her was described as "brutal and vicious", and she died after having given birth to two daughters, only one of whom survived: Byron's half-sister, Augusta. In order to claim his second wife's estate in Scotland, Byron's father took the additional surname "Gordon", becoming "John Byron Gordon", and he was occasionally styled "John Byron Gordon of Gight". 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 of Rochdale, becoming "Lord Byron", and eventually dropped the double surname.
Byron's paternal grandparents were Vice-Admiral the Hon. 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".
He was christened, at St Marylebone Parish Church, "George Gordon Byron" after his maternal grandfather George Gordon of Gight, a descendant of James I of Scotland, who had committed suicide in 1779.
"Mad Jack" Byron married his second wife for the same reason that he married his first: her fortune. Byron's mother had to sell her land and title to pay her new husband's debts, and in the space of two years the large estate, worth some £23,500, had been squandered, leaving the former heiress with an annual income in trust of only £150. In a move to avoid his creditors, Catherine accompanied her profligate husband to France in 1786, but returned to England at the end of 1787 in order to give birth to her son on English soil. He was born on 22 January in lodgings at Holles Street in London.
Catherine moved back to Aberdeenshire in 1790, where Byron spent his childhood. His father soon joined them in their lodgings in Queen Street, but the couple quickly separated. Catherine regularly experienced mood swings and bouts of melancholy, which could be partly explained by her husband's continuing to borrow money from her. As a result, she fell even further into debt to support his demands. It was one of these importunate loans that allowed him to travel to Valenciennes, France, where he died in 1791.
When Byron's great-uncle, the "wicked" Lord Byron, died on 21 May 1798, the 10-year-old boy became the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale and inherited the ancestral home, Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire. His mother proudly took him to England, but the Abbey was in an embarrassing state of disrepair and, rather than live there, decided to lease it to Lord Grey de Ruthyn, among others, during Byron's adolescence.
Described as "a woman without judgment or self-command", Catherine either spoiled and indulged her son or aggravated him with her capricious stubbornness. Her drinking disgusted him, and he often mocked her for being short and corpulent, which made it difficult for her to catch him to discipline him. She once retaliated and, in a fit of temper, referred to him as "a lame brat".
Upon the death of Byron's mother-in-law Judith Noel, the Hon. Lady Milbanke, in 1822, her will required that he change his surname to "Noel" in order for him to inherit half of her estate. He obtained a Royal Warrant allowing him to "take and use the surname of Noel only". 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"). It is speculated that this was so that his initials would read "N.B.", mimicking those of his hero, Napoleon Bonaparte. He 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".
Byron received his early formal education at Aberdeen Grammar School, and in August 1799 entered the school of Dr. William Glennie, in Dulwich. Placed under the care of a Dr. Bailey, he was encouraged to exercise in moderation but could not restrain himself from "violent" bouts in an attempt to overcompensate for his deformed foot. His mother interfered with his studies, often withdrawing him from school, with the result that he lacked discipline and his classical studies were neglected.
In 1801 he was sent to Harrow, where he remained until July 1805. An undistinguished student and an unskilled cricketer, he did represent the school during the very first Eton v Harrow cricket match at Lord's in 1805.
His lack of moderation was not just restricted to physical exercise. Byron fell in love with Mary Chaworth, whom he met while at school, and she was the reason he refused to return to Harrow in September 1803. 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 Byron's later memoirs, "Mary Chaworth is portrayed as the first object of his adult sexual feelings."
Byron finally returned in January 1804, to a more settled period which saw the formation of a circle of emotional involvements with other Harrow boys, which he recalled with great vividness: "My school friendships were with me passions (for I was always violent)." The most enduring of those was with John FitzGibbon, 2nd Earl of Clare — four years Byron's junior — whom he was to meet unexpectedly many years later in Italy (1821). His nostalgic poems about his Harrow friendships, Childish Recollections (1806), express 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.
The following autumn he attended Trinity College, Cambridge, where he met and formed a close friendship with the younger John Edleston. About his "protégé" he wrote, "He has been my almost constant associate since October, 1805, when I entered Trinity College. His voice first attracted my attention, his countenance fixed it, and his manners attached me to him for ever." In his memory Byron composed Thyrza, a series of elegies.
In later years he described the affair as "a violent, though pure love and passion". This statement, however, needs to be read in the context of hardening public attitudes toward homosexuality in England, and the severe sanctions (including public hanging) against convicted or even 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. Also while at Cambridge he formed lifelong friendships with men such as John Cam Hobhouse and Francis Hodgson, a Fellow at King's College, with whom he corresponded on literary and other matters until the end of his life.
While not at school or college, Byron lived with his mother in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, in some antagonism.[clarification needed] While there, he cultivated friendships with Elizabeth Pigot and her brother, John, with whom he staged two plays for the entertainment 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 first volumes of poetry. Fugitive Pieces was printed by Ridge of Newark, which contained poems written when Byron was only 14. However, it was promptly recalled and burned on the advice of his friend, the Reverend Thomas Beecher, on account of its more amorous verses, particularly the poem To Mary.
Hours of Idleness, which collected many of the previous poems, along with more recent compositions, was the culminating book. The savage, anonymous criticism this received (now known to be the work of Henry Peter Brougham) in the Edinburgh Review prompted his first major satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). It was put into the hands of his relation, R. C. Dallas, requesting him to "...get it published without his name". Alexander Dallas gives a large series of changes and alterations, as well as the reasoning for some of them. He also states that Byron had originally intended to prefix an argument to this poem, and Dallas quotes it. Although the work was published anonymously, by April, Dallas is writing that "you are already pretty generally known to be the author." The work so upset some of his critics they challenged Byron to a duel; over time, in subsequent editions, it became a mark of prestige to be the target of Byron's pen.
After his return from his travels, he again entrusted Dallas as his literary agent to publish his poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which Byron thought of little account. The first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage were published in 1812, and were received with acclaim. In his own words, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous". He followed up his success with the poem's last two cantos, as well as four equally celebrated "Oriental Tales": The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair and Lara. About the same time, he began his intimacy with his future biographer, Thomas Moore.
Byron racked up numerous debts as a young man, owing to what his mother termed a "reckless disregard for money". She lived at Newstead during this time, in fear of her son's creditors. He had planned to spend early 1808 cruising with his cousin George Bettesworth, who was captain of the 32-gun frigate HMS Tartar. Bettesworth's unfortunate death at the Battle of Alvøen in May 1808 made that impossible.
From 1809 to 1811, 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 a married woman, Mary Chaworth, 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").
Attraction to the Levant was probably a motive in itself; he had read about the Ottoman and Persian lands as a child, was attracted to Islam (especially Sufi mysticism), and later wrote, “With these countries, and events connected with them, all my really poetical feelings begin and end." He travelled from England over Portugal, Spain and the Mediterranean to Albania and spent time at the court of Ali Pasha of Ioannina, and in Athens. For most of the trip, he had a travelling companion in his friend John Cam Hobhouse. Many of these letters are referred to with details in Recollections of the Life of Lord Byron.
Byron began his trip in Portugal from where he wrote a letter to his friend Mr. Hodgson in which he describes his mastery of the Portuguese language, consisting mainly of swearing and insults. Byron particularly enjoyed his stay in Sintra that is described in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage as "glorious Eden". From Lisbon he travelled overland to Seville, Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz, Gibraltar and from there by sea on to Malta and Greece.
While in Athens, Byron met 14-year-old Nicolò Giraud, who became quite close and taught him Italian. It has been suggested that the two had an intimate relationship involving a sexual affair. Byron sent Giraud to school at a monastery in Malta and bequeathed him a sizeable sum of seven thousand pounds sterling. The will, however, was later cancelled. In 1810 in Athens Byron wrote Maid of Athens, ere we part for a 12-year-old girl, Teresa Makri [1798–1875], and reportedly offered £500 for her. The offer was not accepted.
Byron made his way to Smyrna, where he and Hobhouse cadged a ride to Constantinople on HMS Salsette. While Salsette was anchored awaiting Ottoman permission to dock at the city, on 3 May 1810 Byron and Lieutenant Ekenhead, of Salsette's Marines, swam the Hellespont. Byron commemorated this feat in the second canto of Don Juan. He returned to England from Malta in June 1813 aboard HMS Volage.
After this break-up of his domestic life, Byron again left England, and, as it turned out, it was forever (until he returned after his death, despite his dying wishes). He 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, the young, brilliant, and handsome John William Polidori. There Byron befriended the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Shelley's future wife Mary Godwin. He was also joined by Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, with whom he had had an affair in London.
Kept indoors at the Villa Diodati by the "incessant rain" of "that wet, ungenial summer" over three days in June, the five 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 Byron's, Fragment of a Novel, to produce The Vampyre, the progenitor of the romantic vampire genre.
Byron's story fragment was published as a postscript to Mazeppa; he also wrote the third canto of Childe Harold. 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. Cogni could not read or write, and she left her husband to move into Byron's Venice house. Their fighting often caused Byron to spend the night in his gondola; when he asked her to leave the house, she threw herself into the Venetian canal.
Ultimately, Byron resolved to escape the censure of British society (due to allegations of sodomy and incest) by living abroad, thereby freeing himself of the need to conceal his sexual interests. Byron left England in 1816 and did not return for the last eight years of his life.
In 1816, Byron visited San Lazzaro degli Armeni in Venice, where he acquainted himself with Armenian culture with the help of the abbots belonging to the Mechitarist Order. With the help of Father H. Avgerian, he learned the Armenian language, and attended many seminars about language and history. He wrote English Grammar and Armenian (Kerakanutyun angğiakan yev hayeren) in 1817, and Armenian Grammar and English (Kerakanutyun hayeren yev angğiakan) in 1819, where he included quotations from classical and modern Armenian.
Intrigued by the language and its efficacy as a spoken tongue, Byron affirmed in his memoirs that "God spoke to the world in Armenian." Byron also participated in the compilation of the English Armenian dictionary (Barraran angghieren yev hayeren, 1821) and wrote the preface in which he explained the relationship of the Armenians with and the oppression of the Turkish "pashas" and the Persian satraps, and their struggle of liberation. His two main translations are the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, two chapters of Movses Khorenatsi's History of Armenia and sections of Nerses of Lambron's Orations.
His fascination was so great that he even considered a replacement of the Cain story of the Bible with that of the legend of Armenian patriarch Haik. He may be credited with the birth of Armenology and its propagation. His profound lyricism and ideological courage has inspired many Armenian poets, the likes of Ghevond Alishan, Smbat Shahaziz, Hovhannes Tumanyan, Ruben Vorberian and others.
In 1817, he journeyed to Rome. On returning to Venice, he wrote the fourth canto of Childe Harold. About the same time, he sold Newstead and published Manfred, Cain and The Deformed Transformed. The first five 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 Byron, who in turn asked her to elope with him.
Led by the love for this local aristocratic and married young Teresa Guiccioli, Lord Byron lived in Ravenna between 1819 and 1821. Here he continued the Don Juan and wrote the Ravenna Diary, My Dictionary and Recollections. It was about this time that he received a visit from Thomas Moore, to whom he confided his autobiography or "life and adventures", which Moore, Hobhouse, and Byron's publisher, John Murray, burned in 1824, a month after Byron's death.
From 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. For the first time since his arrival in Italy, Byron found himself tempted to give dinner parties; his guests included the Shelleys, Edward Ellerker Williams, Thomas Medwin, John Taaffe and Edward John Trelawney; and "never", as Shelley said, "did he display himself to more advantage than on these occasions; being at once polite and cordial, full of social hilarity and the most perfect good humour; never diverging into ungraceful merriment, and yet keeping up the spirit of liveliness throughout the evening."
Shelley and Williams rented a house on the coast and had a schooner built. Byron decided to have his own yacht, and engaged Trelawny's friend, Captain Daniel Roberts, to design and construct the boat. Named the Bolivar, it was later sold to Charles John Gardiner, 1st Earl of Blessington, and Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, when Byron left for Greece in 1823.
Byron attended the funeral of Shelley, which was orchestrated by Trelawny after Williams and Shelley drowned in a boating accident on 8 July 1822. His last Italian home was Genoa, where he was still accompanied by the Countess Guiccioli, and the Blessingtons, providing the material for Lady Blessington's work: Conversations with Lord Byron, an important text in the reception of Byron in the period immediately after his death.
Byron was living in Genoa when, in 1823, while growing bored with his life there, he accepted overtures for his support from representatives of the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. With the assistance of his banker and Captain Daniel Roberts, Byron chartered the Brig Hercules to take him to Greece. On 16 July, Byron left Genoa arriving at Kefalonia in the Ionian Islands on 4 August. His voyage is covered in detail in Sailing with Byron from Genoa to Cephalonia.
Byron historian Donald Prell, wrote of a coincidence in Byron's chartering the Hercules. The vessel was launched only a few miles south of Seaham Hall, where in 1815 Byron married Annabella Milbanke. Between 1815 and 1823 the vessel was in service between England and Canada. Suddenly in 1823, the ship's Captain decided to sail to Genoa and offer the Hercules for charter.
After taking Byron to Greece, the ship returned to England, never again to venture into the Mediterranean. "The Hercules was age 37 when on 21 September 1852, her life ended when she went aground near Hartlepool, only 25 miles south of Sunderland, where in 1815, her keel was laid; Byron's keel was laid nine months before his official birth date, 22 January 1788; therefore in ship-years, he was age 37, when he died in Missolonghi."
Byron spent £4000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet, then sailed for Missolonghi in western Greece, arriving on 29 December, to join Alexandros Mavrokordatos, a Greek politician with military power. During this time, Byron pursued his Greek page, Lukas Chalandritsanos, but the affections went unrequited. When the famous Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen heard about Byron's heroics in Greece, he voluntarily resculpted his earlier bust of Byron in Greek marble.
Mavrokordatos and Byron planned to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. Byron employed a fire-master to prepare artillery and took part of the rebel army under his own command, despite his lack of military experience, but before the expedition could sail, on 15 February 1824, he fell ill, and the usual remedy of bloodletting weakened him further. He made a partial recovery, but in early April he caught a violent cold which therapeutic bleeding, insisted on by his doctors, aggravated. It is suspected this treatment, carried out with unsterilised medical instrumentation, may have caused him to develop sepsis. He developed a violent fever, and died on 19 April.
His physician at the time, Julius van Millingen, son of Dutch-English archaeologist James Millingen, was unable to prevent his death. It has been said that if Byron had lived and had gone on to defeat the Ottomans, he might have been declared King of Greece. However, contemporary scholars have found such an outcome unlikely.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson would later recall the shocked reaction in Britain when word was received of 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 the 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.
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 Missolonghi. His 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 two days in London. He is buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.
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 Byron's grave. Byron's friends raised the sum of 1,000 pounds to commission a statue of the writer; Thorvaldsen offered to sculpt it for that amount. However, for ten years after the statue was completed in 1834, most British institutions turned it down, and it remained in storage. The statue was refused by the British Museum, St. Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the National Gallery. Trinity College, Cambridge, finally placed the statue of Byron in its library.
In 1969, 145 years after 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 Byron is not a thing of which England should be ashamed ... a bust or a tablet might be put in the Poets' Corner and England be relieved of ingratitude toward one of her really great sons."
Robert Ripley had drawn a picture of Boatswain's grave with the caption "Lord Byron's dog has a magnificent tomb while Lord Byron himself has none". This came as a shock to the English, particularly schoolchildren, who, Ripley said, raised funds of their own accord to provide the poet with a suitable memorial. (Source: Ripley's Believe It or Not!, 3rd Series, 1950; p. xvi.)
On a very central area of Athens, Greece, outside the National Garden, is a statue depicting Greece in the form of a woman crowning Byron. The statue was made by the French Henri-Michel Chapu and Alexandre Falguière.
Upon his death, the barony passed to Byron's cousin George Anson Byron, a career naval officer.
Jane Elizabeth Scott "Lady Oxford"
Byron described his first intense feelings at age eight for his distant cousin, Mary Duff:
My mother used always to rally me about this childish amour, and at last, many years after, when I was sixteen, she told me one day, 'O Byron, I have had a letter from Edinburgh, and your old sweetheart, Mary Duff, is married to Mr. C***.' And what was my answer? I really cannot explain or account for my feelings at that moment, but they nearly threw me into convulsions...How the deuce did all this occur so early? Where could it originate? I certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; and yet my misery, my love for that girl were so violent, that I sometimes doubt if I have ever been really attached since. Be that as it may, hearing of her marriage several years after was like a thunder-stroke — it nearly choked me — to the horror of my mother and the astonishment and almost incredulity of every body. And it is a phenomenon in my existence (for I was not eight years old) which has puzzled, and will puzzle me to the latest hour of it; and lately, I know not why, the recollection (not the attachment) has recurred as forcibly as ever...But, the more I reflect, the more I am bewildered to assign any cause for this precocity of affection.
Byron also became attached to Margaret Parker, another distant cousin. While his recollection of his love for Mary Duff is that he was ignorant of adult sexuality during this time, and was bewildered as to the source of the intensity of his feelings, he would later confess that:
My passions were developed very early — so early, that few would believe me — if I were to state the period — and the facts which accompanied it. Perhaps this was one of the reasons that caused the anticipated melancholy of my thoughts — having anticipated life.
This is the only reference Byron himself makes to the event, and he is ambiguous as to how old he was when it occurred. After his death, his lawyer wrote to a mutual friend telling him a "singular fact" about Byron's life which was "scarcely fit for narration". But he disclosed it nonetheless, thinking it might explain Byron's sexual "propensities":
Gray later used this sexual abuse as a means of ensuring his silence if he were to be tempted to disclose the "low company" she kept during drinking binges. She was later dismissed, supposedly for beating Byron when he was 11.
A few years later, while he was still a child, Lord Grey (unrelated to May Gray), a suitor of his mother's, also made sexual advances on him. Byron's personality has been characterised as exceptionally proud and sensitive, especially when it came to his deformity. And although Byron was a very self-centred individual, it is probable that like most children, he would have been deeply disturbed by these sexual advances. His extreme reaction to seeing his mother flirting outrageously with Lord Grey after the incident suggests this; he did not tell her of Grey's conduct toward him, he simply refused to speak to him again and ignored his mother's commands to be reconciled. Leslie Marchand, one of Byron's biographers, theorises that Lord Grey's advances prompted Byron's later sexual liaisons with young men at Harrow and Cambridge.
Scholars acknowledge a more or less important bisexual component in Byron's very complex sentimental and sexual life. Bernhard Jackson asserts that, "Byron's sexual orientation has long been a difficult, not to say contentious, topic, and anyone who seeks to discuss it must to some degree speculate, since the evidence is nebulous, contradictory and scanty... it is not so simple to define Byron as homosexual of heterosexual : he seems rather to have been both, and either. " Crompton states: "What was not understood in Byron's own century (except by a tiny circle of his associates) was that Byron was bisexual". Another biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, has posited that Byron's true sexual yearnings were for adolescent males. Byron notably used a code by which he communicated his homosexual Greek adventures to John Hobhouse in England : Bernhard Jackson recalls that "Byron's early code for sex with a boy" was "Plen(um). and optabil(em). -Coit(um)"
In 1812, Byron embarked on a well-publicised affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb that shocked the British public. She had spurned the attention of the poet on their first meeting, subsequently giving Byron what became his lasting epitaph when she famously described him as "mad, bad and dangerous to know". This did not prevent him from pursuing her.
Byron eventually broke off the relationship and moved swiftly on to others (such as that with Lady Oxford), but Lamb never entirely recovered, pursuing him even after he tired of her. She was emotionally disturbed, and lost so much weight that Byron sarcastically commented to her mother-in-law, his friend Lady Melbourne, that he was "haunted by a skeleton". She began to call on him at home, sometimes dressed in disguise as a pageboy, 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, Byron wrote a poem entitled Remember Thee! Remember Thee! which concludes with the line "Thou false to him, thou fiend to me".
As a child, 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 (who was married) gave birth on 15 April 1814 to her third daughter, Elizabeth Medora Leigh, rumored by some to be Byron's.
Eventually Byron began to court Lady Caroline's cousin Anne Isabella Milbanke ("Annabella"), who refused his first proposal of marriage but later accepted him. Milbanke was a highly moral woman, intelligent and mathematically gifted; she was also an heiress. They married at Seaham Hall, County Durham, on 2 January 1815.
The marriage proved unhappy. He treated her poorly. They had a daughter (Augusta Ada). On 16 January 1816, Lady Byron left him, taking Ada with her. On 21 April, 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 and ruin to a man from which he can never recover." That same year Lady Caroline published her popular novel Glenarvon wherein Lord Byron was portrayed as the seedy character Lord Ruthven.
He enjoyed adventure, especially relating to the sea.
The first recorded notable example of open water swimming took place on 3 May 1810 when Lord Byron swam from Europe to Asia across the Hellespont Strait. This is often seen as the birth of the sport and pastime, and to commemorate it, the event is recreated every year as an open water swimming event.
Byron had a great love of animals, most notably for a Newfoundland dog named Boatswain. When the animal contracted rabies, Byron nursed him, albeit unsuccessfully, without any thought or fear of becoming bitten and infected.
Although deep in debt at the time, Byron commissioned an impressive marble funerary monument for Boatswain at Newstead Abbey, larger than his own, and the only building work which he ever carried out on his estate. In his 1811 will, Byron requested that he be buried with him. The 26‐line poem Epitaph to a Dog has become one of his best-known works, but a draft of an 1830 letter by Hobhouse shows him to be the author, and that Byron decided to use Hobhouse's lengthy epitaph instead of his own, which read: "To mark a friend's remains these stones arise/I never knew but one — and here he lies."
Byron also kept a tame bear while he was a student at Trinity, out of resentment for rules forbidding pet dogs like his beloved Boatswain. There being no mention of bears in their statutes, the college authorities had no legal basis for complaining: Byron even suggested that he would apply for a college fellowship for the bear.
During his lifetime, in addition to numerous dogs and horses, Byron kept a fox, four monkeys, a parrot, five cats, an eagle, a crow, a crocodile, a falcon, five peacocks, two guinea hens, an Egyptian crane, a badger, three geese, a heron, a honey badger, and a goat with a broken leg. Except for the horses, they all resided indoors at his homes in England, Switzerland, Italy and Greece.
I am such a strange mélangé of good and evil that it would be difficult to describe me.
As a boy, Byron's character is described as a "mixture of affectionate sweetness and playfulness, by which it was impossible not to be attached", although he also exhibited "silent rages, moody sullenness and revenge" with a precocious bent for attachment and obsession.
While he desired to be seen as sophisticated and invincible, he actually cared deeply what people thought of him. He believed his tendency to melancholy and 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." He later earned a reputation as being extravagant, courageous, unconventional, eccentric, flamboyant and controversial. He was independent and given to extremes of temper; on at least one trip his travelling companions were so puzzled by his mood swings they thought he was mentally ill.
From birth, Byron suffered from a deformity of his right foot. Generally referred to as a "club foot", some modern medical experts maintain that it was a consequence of infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis), and others that it was a dysplasia, a failure of the bones to form properly. Whatever the cause, he was afflicted with a limp that caused him lifelong psychological and physical misery, aggravated by painful and pointless "medical treatment" in his childhood and the nagging suspicion that with proper care it might have been cured.
He was extremely self-conscious about this from a young age, nicknaming himself le diable boiteux (French for "the limping devil", after the nickname given to Asmodeus by Alain-René Lesage in his 1707 novel of the same name). Although he often wore specially-made shoes in an attempt to hide the deformed foot, he refused to wear any type of brace that might improve the limp.
Scottish novelist John Galt felt his oversensitivity to the "innocent fault in his foot was unmanly and excessive" because the limp was "not greatly conspicuous". He first met Byron on a voyage to Sardinia and didn't realise he had any deficiency for several days, and still could not tell at first if the lameness was a temporary injury or not. But by the time he met Byron he was an adult and had worked to develop "a mode of walking across a room by which it was scarcely at all perceptible". The motion of the ship at sea may also have helped to create a favourable first impression and hide any deficiencies in his gait, but Galt's biography is also described as being "rather well-meant than well-written", so Galt may be guilty of minimising a defect that was actually still noticeable.
Byron's adult height was 5 feet 8.5 inches (1.74 m), his weight fluctuating between 9.5 stone (133 lb; 60 kg) and 14 stone (200 lb; 89 kg). He was renowned for his personal beauty, which he enhanced by wearing curl-papers in his hair at night. He was athletic, being a competent boxer and horse-rider and an excellent swimmer. He attended pugilistic tuition at the Bond Street rooms of former prizefighting champion John ‘Gentleman’ Jackson, and recorded these sparring sessions, with the man he called ‘the Emperor of Pugilism’, in his letters and journals.
Byron and other writers, such as his friend Hobhouse, described his eating habits in detail. At the time he entered Cambridge, he went on a strict diet to control his weight. He 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. Although he is described by Galt and others as having a predilection for "violent" exercise, Hobhouse makes the excuse that the pain in his deformed foot made physical activity difficult, and his weight problem was the result.
Byron first took his seat in the House of Lords 13 March 1809, but left London on 11 June 1809 for the Continent. 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. His first 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. He said later that he "spoke very violent sentences with a sort of modest impudence", and thought he came across as "a bit theatrical". The full text of the speech, which he had previously written out, was presented to Dallas in manuscript form and he quotes it in his work.
In another Parliamentary speech he expressed opposition to the established religion because it was unfair to people of other faiths. These experiences inspired Byron to write political poems such as Song for the Luddites (1816) and The Landlords' Interest, Canto XIV of The Age of Bronze. 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).
Byron wrote prolifically. In 1832 his publisher, John Murray, released the complete works in 14 duodecimo volumes, including a life by Thomas Moore. Subsequent editions were released in 17 volumes, first published a year later, in 1833.
Byron's magnum opus, Don Juan, a poem spanning 17 cantos, ranks as one of the most important long poems published in England since John 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.
Byron published the first two 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 seven 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 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.
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, during which he saw the missing friezes and metopes. He penned a poem, The Curse of Minerva, to denounce Elgin's actions.
Byron is considered to be the first modern-style celebrity. His image as the personification of the Byronic hero fascinated the public, and his wife Annabella coined the term "Byromania" to refer to the commotion surrounding him. His 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 Byron first welcomed fame, he later turned from it by going into voluntary exile from Britain.
The re-founding of the Byron Society in 1971 reflected the fascination that many people had for Byron and his work. This society became very active, publishing an annual journal. 36 Byron Societies function throughout the world, and an International Conference takes place annually.
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. Byron has inspired works by Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Giuseppe Verdi.
The figure of the Byronic hero pervades much of his work, and Byron himself is considered to epitomise many of the characteristics 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 Byron's influence during the 19th century and beyond, including Charlotte and Emily Brontë.
The Byronic hero presents an idealised, but flawed character whose attributes include: great talent; great passion; a distaste for society and social institutions; a lack of respect for rank and privilege (although possessing both); being thwarted in love by social constraint or death; rebellion; exile; an unsavory secret past; arrogance; overconfidence or lack of foresight; and, ultimately, a self-destructive manner. These types of characters have since become ubiquitous in literature and politics.
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