Sunday, 23 August 2009
George Gordon Byron, later Noel, 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale FRS (22 January 1788 - 19 April 1824) was a British poet and a leading figure in Romanticism. Amongst Byron's best-known works are the brief poems She Walks in Beauty, When We Two Parted, and So, we'll go no more a roving, in addition to the narrative poems Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan. He is regarded as one of the greatest British poets and remains widely read and influential, both in the English-speaking world and beyond.
Byron's notability rests not only on his writings but also in his life, which featured upper-class living. He was notably described by Lady Caroline Lamb as "mad, bad and dangerous to know." Byron served as a regional leader of Italy's revolutionary organization, the Carbonari, in its struggle against Austria. He later travelled to fight against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence, for which Greeks revere him as a national hero. He died from a fever contracted while in Messolonghi in Greece.
Byron was born in a house on Hollis Street in London. He was the son of Captain John 'Mad Jack' Byron and his second wife the former Catherine Gordon, heiress of Gight in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He 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.
At the age of 10, upon the death of his great uncle, Byron became the 6th Baron Byron, and inherited both title and estate, Newstead Abbey in Nottingham, England. In August 1799, Byron entered the school of William Glennie, an Aberdonian in Dulwich.Byron claimed around this time his governess, Mary Gray, would come to bed with him at night and 'play tricks with his person'. Gray was dismissed for allegedly beating Byron when he was 11.
After attending Aberdeen Grammar School, in 1801, he was sent to Harrow where he remained until 1805. He represented Harrow during the very first Eton v Harrow cricket match at Lords in 1805. After school he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge.
While not at school or college, Byron lived with his mother at Burgage Manor in Southwell Nottinghamshire (pictured below). During this time Byron wrote his first volumes of poetry Fugitive Pieces was printed by Ridge of Newark, containing poems written by Byron when he 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. After this, Pieces on Various Occasions, a "miraculously chaste" revision according to Byron, was published. Hours of Idleness, which collected many of the previous poems, along with more recent compositions, was the culminating book. His first major satire followed, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), so upset, some critics challenged Byron to a duel, over time , in subsequent editions, it became a mark of prestige to be the target of Byron's pen.
Byron's first loves included Mary Duff and Margaret Parker, his distant cousins, and Mary Chaworth, the latter being portrayed as his first object of his adult sexual feelings. Whilst at Harrow he formed a circle of emotional involvements with other Harrow boys, he later described these involvements more as passions. As a young man Byron racked up numerous debts, due to what his mother termed a "reckless disregard for money". She lived at Newstead during this time, in fear of her sons creditors.
From 1809 to 1811, Byron went on a Grand Tour, then customary for a young nobleman. Due to the Napoleonic Wars in Europe he turned to the Mediterranean, ending up in Athens.
In 1812 Byron embarked on a well-publicized affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb that shocked the British public. Lamb continued to pursue Byron even after he ended their relationship. She even called at his home dressed as a page boy, an act which at that time could have ruined both of them socially.
Eventually, in 1815, Byron married Lady Caroline's cousin Anne Isabella Milbanke. The marriage was unhappy. He treated her poorly and showed disappointment at the birth of their daughter after wishing for a son. The marriage ended amidst rumour of marital violence, adultery with actresses, and incest with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Following the break-up of his marriage Byron travelled first to Switzerland, before moving to Venice, where 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 eventually left her husband and moved 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 in the Venetian canal.
The first five cantos of Don Juan were written between 1818 and 1820, during which time he met the young Countess Guiccioli, who found her first love in Byron, who in turn asked her to elope with him. From 1821 to 1822 he finished Cantos 6-12 of Don Juan at Pisa.
His last Italian home was Genoa, where he was still accompanied by the Countess Guiccioli. 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 independance from the Ottoman Empire. On 15 July, Byron left Genoa on the Hercules, arriving at Kefalonia in the Ionian Islands on 4 August. He spent £4000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet, then sailed to Messolonghi in western Greece. Here he joined Alexandros Mavrokordatos, a Greek politician with military power. During this time Byron pursued his Greek page, Lukas Chalandritsanos, but the affection went unrequited.
Mavrokordatos and Byron planned to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto. 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. Before the expedition could sail,on 15 February 1824, Byron fell ill. He made a partial recovery, before catching a violent cold which therapeutic bleeding, insisted on by his doctors, may have caused him to develop sepsis. He developed a violent fever, and died on 19 April. It is said if Byron had lived, he might have been declared King of Greece.