Article abstract: Not only did Byron write satirical and lyrical poetry of the highest order, but also his life seemed, to many of his contemporaries, to be the embodiment of the revolutionary spirit of Romanticism. His figure of the “Byronic hero” became vastly influential in nineteenth century European culture.
George Gordon was born in London on January 22, 1788. He had an aristocratic heritage on both sides of the family. On his father’s side, the Byrons had long been known for their eccentricity, and Byron’s father, Captain John Byron, led a wild and reckless life, squandering the family wealth. He died when the poet was three, having separated from his wife the previous year. The poet’s mother, Catherine Gordon of Gight, was descended from one of the most notable families in Scotland.
Until 1798, the young Byron lived with his mother in Aberdeen, Scotland, but on the death of his great uncle, the notorious “Wicked Lord,” he became the sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale, and he and his mother moved to Newstead Abbey in England, the traditional family seat. Byron was schooled at Harrow and Cambridge, where the personality which would entrance so many soon became apparent: generous and openhearted, ambitious and idealistic, self-willed, but with an almost feminine quality of softness and sentimentality.
Byron also had the advantage of being strikingly handsome; his fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge remarked, “so beautiful a countenance I scarcely ever saw . . . his eyes the open portals of the sun—things of light, and for light.” Byron’s classic, almost Grecian beauty was flawed only by a deformed right foot, which embarrassed him throughout his life, and a tendency to become overweight, which he combated by strict dieting and exercise.
His literary career was launched when, after privately printing two volumes of verse anonymously, he published Hours of Idleness (1807) and a highly successful satire about contemporary writers, English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers (1809), which went through four editions in three years. In 1809, he took his seat in the House of Lords, and for a number of years he anticipated a career as a statesman.
In spite of Byron’s early success, however, his restless spirit was seeking to escape from the increasingly dissolute life he was living in London. He always sought new experiences and felt strongly the lure of foreign climes. In July, 1809, he embarked on a tour of Europe with his lifelong friend John Cam Hobhouse. They visited Portugal, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Albania, and Greece, which was then under Turkish rule, and later traveled to Ephesus and Constantinople. Athens in particular made a deep impression on Byron, and his two years of traveling gave him a cosmopolitan outlook which shaped his future life and attitudes. He always preferred the spontaneity and freedom of life in the Mediterranean lands to what he saw as the restraint and hypocrisy of English upper-class society. His travels also gave him a virtually inexhaustible supply of literary material. It was from his experiences on this first European tour that he wrote the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and it was the publication of this work in 1812 which first brought him widespread fame.
With the overwhelming success of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron became celebrated in the social circles of fashionable upper-class London. Women in particular were fascinated by the handsome, sensitive, and apparently melancholy poet of noble birth; his romantic wanderings in Greece made him mysteriously attractive. For his part, Byron was always ready to cultivate women friends and lovers. He could not, he said, exist without some object of attachment, and he always felt more at ease in the company of women. In particular, he became involved with the impulsive and unstable Lady Caroline Lamb, and for several months during 1812 they carried on an indiscreet, passionate, and tempestuous affair.
Byron’s fame, popularity, and literary reputation continued to grow between the years of 1812 and 1815, following the publication of his “Oriental” verse tales: The Giaour (1813), The Bride of Abydos (1813), The Corsair (1814), which sold an unprecedented ten thousand copies on the day of publication, and Lara (1814). Each of these romances contained the famous figure of the “Byronic hero,” a restless and moody wanderer, an outcast from society, who possessed a lofty disdain for conventional values and for the common run of mankind.
Byron’s personal life during this period remained tempestuous. In part to free himself from the now unwelcome and frequently absurd and vindictive attentions of Caroline Lamb, he entered into a marriage with Annabella Millbanke, an intelligent, serious-minded young woman who was in every way the opposite of Caroline. The marriage, however, proved short-lived and disastrous. Byron, worried by financial difficulties, drank heavily and went into wild rages. Annabella, pregnant with their child, could not cope with his erratic behavior and was also deeply shocked by her discovery of Byron’s incestuous relationship with Augusta, his half sister. The brother and sister had been brought up separately but had spent time together during 1813, and Byron always felt at ease in Augusta’s supportive and undemanding company. Annabella convinced herself that Byron was insane, and they separated in January, 1816, exactly one year...